A tale of two storms

Sep 24, JDN 2458021

There were two severe storm events this past week; one you probably heard a great deal about, the other, probably not. The first was Hurricane Irma, which hit the United States and did most of its damage in Florida; the second was Typhoon Doksuri, which hit Southeast Asia and did most of its damage in Vietnam.

You might expect that this post is going to give you more bad news. Well, I have a surprise for you: The news is actually mostly good.

The death tolls from both storms were astonishingly small. The hurricane is estimated to have killed at least 84 people, while the typhoon has killed at least 26. This result is nothing less than heroism. The valiant efforts of thousands of meteorologists and emergency responders around the world has saved thousands of lives, and did so both in the wealthy United States and in impoverished Vietnam.

When I started this post, I had expected to see that the emergency response in Vietnam would be much worse, and fatalities would be far higher; I am delighted to report that nothing of the sort was the case, and Vietnam, despite their per-capita GDP PPP of under $6,000, has made emergency response a sufficiently high priority that they saved their people just about as well as Florida did.

To get a sense of what might have happened without them, consider that 1.5 million homes in Florida were leveled by the hurricane, and over 100,000 homes were damaged by the typhoon. Vietnam is a country of 94 million people. Florida has a population of 20 million. (The reason Florida determines so many elections is that it is by far the most populous swing state.) Without weather forecasting and emergency response, these death figures would have been in the tens of thousands, not the dozens.

Indeed, if you know statistics and demographics well, these figures become even more astonishing: These death rates were almost indistinguishable from statistical noise.

Vietnam’s baseline death rate is about 5.9 per 1,000, meaning that they experience about 560,000 deaths in any given year. This means that over 1500 people die in Vietnam on a normal day.

Florida’s baseline death rate is about 6.6 per 1,000, actually a bit higher than Vietnam’s, because Florida’s population skews so much toward the elderly. Therefore Florida experiences about 130,000 deaths per year, or 360 deaths on a normal day.

In both Vietnam and Florida, this makes the daily death probability for any given person about 0.0017%. A random process with a fixed probability of 0.0017% over a population of n people will result in an average of 0.0017n events, but with some variation around that number. The standard deviation is actually sqrt(p(1-p)n) = 0.004 sqrt(n). When n = 20,000,000 (Florida), this results in a standard deviation of 18. When n = 94,000,000 (Vietnam), this results in a standard deviation of 40.

This means that the 26 additional deaths in Vietnam were within one standard deviation of average! They basically are indistinguishable from statistical noise. There have been over a hundred days in Vietnam where an extra 26 people happened to die, just in the past year. Weather forecasting took what could have been a historic disaster and turned it into just another bad day.

The 84 additional deaths in Florida are over four standard deviations away from average, so they are definitely distinguishable from statistical noise—but this still means that Florida’s total death rate for the year will only tick up by 0.6%.

It is common in such tragedies to point out in grave tones that “one death is too many”, but I maintain that this is not actually moral wisdom but empty platitude. No conceivable policy is ever going to reduce death rates to zero, and the people who died of heart attacks or brain aneurysms are every bit as dead as the people who died from hurricanes or terrorist attacks. Instead of focusing on the handful of people who died because they didn’t heed warnings or simply got extraordinarily unlucky, I think we should be focusing on the thousands of people who survived because our weather forecasters and emergency responders did their jobs so exceptionally well. Of course if we can reduce the numbers even further, we should; but from where I’m sitting, our emergency response system has a lot to be proud of.

Of course, the economic damage of the storms was substantially greater. The losses in destroyed housing and infrastructure in Florida are projected at over $80 billion. Vietnam is much poorer, so there simply isn’t as much infrastructure to destroy; total damage is unlikely to exceed $10 billion. Florida’s GDP is $926 billion, so they are losing 8.6%; while Vietnam’s GDP is $220 billion, so they are still losing 4.5%. And of course the damage isn’t evenly spread across everyone; those hardest hit will lose perhaps their entire net wealth, while others will feel absolutely nothing.

But economic damage is fleeting. Indeed, if we spend the government money we should be, and take the opportunity to rebuild this infrastructure better than it was before, the long-run economic impact could be positive. Even 8.6% of GDP is less than five years of normal economic growth—and there were years in the 1950s where we did it in a single year. The 4.6% that Vietnam lost, they should make back within a year of their current economic growth.

Thank goodness.

Building a wider tent, revisited

Sep 17, JDN 2458014

At a reader’s suggestion, I am expanding upon the argument I made a few weeks ago that political coalitions are strongest when they are willing to accept some disagreement. I made that argument with numbers, which is likely to convince someone like me; but I know that many other people don’t really think that way, so it may help to provide some visuals as well.

60% of this rectangle is filled in red.


This represents the proportion of the population that agrees with you on some issue. For concreteness but to avoid making this any more political than it already is, I’m going to pick silly issues. So let’s have this first issue be about which side of the road we should drive on. Let’s say your view is that we should drive on the right. 60% of people agree that we should drive on the right. The other 40% think we should drive on the left.

Now let’s consider another issue. Let’s say this one is about putting pineapples on pizza. You, and 60% of people, agree that pineapples should not be put on pizza. The other 40% think we should put pineapples on pizza.

For now, let’s assume those two issues are independent, that someone’s opinions on driving and pizza are unrelated. Then we can fill 60% of the rectangle in blue, but it should be a perpendicular portion because the two issues aren’t related:


Those who agree with you on driving but not pizza (that would include me, by the way) are in red, those who agree with you on pizza but not driving are in blue, those who agree with you on both are in purple, and those who disagree with you on both are in white. You should already be able to see that less than half the population agrees with you on both issues, even though more than half agrees on each.

Let’s add a third issue, which we will color in green. This one can be the question of whether Star Trek is better than Star Wars. Let’s say that 60% of the population agrees with you that Star Trek is better, while 40% think that Star Wars is better. Let’s also assume that this is independent of opinions on both driving and pizza.


This is already starting to get unwieldy; there are now eight distinct regions. The white region (8) is comprised of people who disagree with you on everything. The red (6), blue (4), and green (7) regions each have people agree with you on exactly one issue. The blue-green (3), purple (2), and brown (5) regions have people agree with you on two issues. Only those in the dark-green region (1) agree with you on everything.

As you can see, the proportion of people who agree with you on all issues is fairly small, even though the majority of the population agrees with you on any given issue.

If we keep adding issues, this effect gets even stronger. I’m going to change the color-coding now to simplify things. Now, blue will indicate the people who agree with you on all issues, green the people who agree on all but one issue, yellow the people who agree on all but two issues, and red the people who disagree with you on three or more issues.

For three issues, that looks like this, which you can compare to the previous diagram:


Now let’s add a fourth issue. Let’s say 60% of people agree with you that socks should not be worn with sandals, but 40% think that socks should be worn with sandals. The blue region gets smaller:


How about a fifth issue? Let’s say 60% of people agree with you that cats are better than dogs, while 40% think that dogs are better than cats. The blue region continues to shrink:


How about a sixth issue?


And finally, a seventh issue?


Now the majority of the space is covered by red, meaning that most of the population disagrees with you on at least three issues.

To recap:

By the time there were two issues, the majority of the population disagreed with you on at least one issue.

By the time there were four issues, the majority of the population disagreed with you on at least two issues.

By the time there were seven issues, the majority of the population disagreed with you on at least three issues.

This despite the fact that the majority of the population always agrees with you on any given issue!

If you only welcomed people into your coalition who agree on every single issue (the blue region), you wouldn’t win election if there were even two issues. If you only welcomed those who disagree on at most one (blue or green), you’d stop winning if there were at least four issues. And if there were at least seven issues, you couldn’t even win by allowing those who disagree on at most two issues (blue, green, yellow).

Now, this argument very much does rely upon the different opinions being independent, which in real politics is not the case. So let’s introduce some correlations and see how this changes the result.

Suppose that once someone agrees with you about driving on the right side of the road, they are 90% likely to agree on pizza, Star Trek, sandals, and cats.

That makes things look a lot better for you; by including one level of disagreement, you could dominate every election. But notice that even in this case, if you exclude all disagreement, you will continue to lose elections.

With enough issues, even with very strong correlations you can get the same effect. Suppose there are 20 issues, and if you agree on the first one, there is a 99% chance you’ll agree on each of the others. You are still only getting about half the electorate if you don’t allow any disagreement! Due to the very high correlation, if someone disagrees with you on a few things, they usually disagree with you on many things; yet you’re still better off including some disagreement in your coalition.


Obviously, you shouldn’t include people in your coalition who actively oppose its core mission. Even if they aren’t actively trying to undermine you, at some point, the disagreement becomes so large that you’ve got to cut them loose. But in a pluralistic democracy, ideological purism is a surefire recipe for electoral failure. You need to allow at least some disagreement.

This isn’t even getting into the possibility that you might be wrong about some issues, and by including those who disagree with you, you may broaden your horizons and correct your mistakes. I’ve thus far assumed you are completely correct and in the majority on every single issue, and yet you still can’t win elections with complex policy mixes unless you include people who disagree with you.

Doug Julius, in memoriam

Sep 10, JDN 2458007

Douglas Patrick Julius

April 15, 1954 to August 31, 2017

My father died suddenly and unexpectedly from a ruptured intracranial aneurysm. I received a call that he was in the hospital Wednesday morning at 11:30 AM PDT, took the first flight to Michigan I could find, and arrived around 10:30 PM EDT. By the time I got there, my father was already unconscious and under intensive care. I stayed up all night in the hospital. My father never regained consciousness. He was declared dead at 8:30 AM on Thursday morning.

In lieu of a proper blog post this week, I decided to post the eulogy I gave at my father’s funeral this past Sunday. It follows below.

What is a soul? What is it made of? Most people imagine a soul as something immaterial, something somehow “beyond” this physical world. But at its core, a soul is simply what makes us who we are. Today we have cognitive science, and now understand the human soul better than it was understood by all the billions of people in all the thousands of years of human civilization before us. Thanks to cognitive science, we now know what the soul is made of: It is made of information.

My father wasn’t made of some mysterious substance “beyond” our physical world, but nor was hejust the molecules of his body you see here. My father was made of hopes and dreams, laughter and tears, words and ideas. He was made of James Joyce novels and Catullus poems, Spider-Man comics and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, road trips across America, gazes over the Grand Canyon, spelunking in Carlsbad Caverns, walks on the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific, warm hugs, gentle smiles, sophisticated puns, obsessive organizing, and reading literally thousands of books, on everything from Celtic literature to quantum physics. (I think he knew the former a lot better than the latter, while for me, it is the reverse.)

And coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.

Most of what my father was is now gone, and I don’t think we should try to deny that. I don’t think it’s healthy—or even effective—to tell ourselves that he isn’t really gone or that he’s in some better place. Deep down we all know the loss we feel. We know the regrets we have of all the things we thought we’d get to do together, but now we know we never will. There are three that are especially painful for me: My father will never get to see my PhD diploma, never know me as “Doctor Patrick Neal Russell Julius.” My father will never get to see my wedding. And above all, my father will never get to meet his grandchildren. If I had known, I could have tried to make these things happen sooner, so that my father would get to share them with me. I thought that I had 20 years left to do all these things with my father beside me—but the reality turned out differently. And one of the best definitions of reality is this: Reality, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. We grieve this loss for a reason. It hurts so much to lose my father because we know how much joy he once brought to our lives, and how much he would have if he’d been allowed to go on living. A friend of mine offered me this aphorism: Grief is the price we pay for love.

But my father is not completely gone, either. Our souls are made of information too, and there are little fragments of my father’s soul in every one of us. Every memory we have of him, every time he touched our lives, a fragment of him was downloaded into each of us, and as long as we remember him, he will not be entirely gone.

There are a few memories in particular I’d like to share with you all know—back them up in the cloud if you will—so that the essence of who my father was will live on awhile longer. Human long-term memory is stored in the form of narrative, so I thought it best if I told a few stories.

The first story is about gentleness. We were driving through New Mexico. I had moved recently to Long Beach to study for my master’s degree at CSU; after coming back to Ann Arbor for a visit, Dad had driven with me in my little Smart car all the way across the country. We planned our route to pass the Very Large Array, a gigantic assembly of radio telescopes probably best known for being featured in the film Contact, one of my favorites, based on a Carl Sagan novel I love even more. I had wanted to see it for a long time, so Dad added a few hours to our trip so we could go past it.

When we arrived at the array, we could hardly find any people around. Instead what we found were bugs—grasshoppers I think, and millions of them. Everywhere. The ground was literally covered in them; there wasn’t even any room to walk. Most people would probably have just gone ahead and walked right on top of them, crushing them as they went—but not my father. His gentleness extended even to the lowliest of creatures, and he wanted to make sure we didn’t harm any of the bugs. So he found a way for us to creep, slowly, across the desert, shooing away the bugs at each step, so that they would give us room to pass. We didn’t step on a single grasshopper that day, and I finally got the chance to touch one of the radio telescopes.

The second story is about generosity. We had just bought a baby grand piano, and my mother was learning to play it. For her birthday she had asked for a metronome. So, my father and I went out shopping to find a nice metronome. We found one that seemed perfect, but then the store offered us one that was twice the price, and as far as I can tell, not any better whatsoever. Dad asked me, “Isn’t your mother worth it?” Already a budding economist, I had to explain, “Of course, but that’s not the question. The question is, is the metronome worth it? Save the money and we’ll buy her something else too.” But that’s how Dad was: When buying things for himself, he was frugal, even miserly; several times I saw him find rare books—first editions of Joyce, folio editions of Shakespeare—that he had wanted for decades to get, then pass them up to save $100 or maybe $200. But when buying for other people, money was no object; he’d spend that same $200 buying me another video game system without a second thought. He was generous to a fault; he’d never use his credit cards all year, then max them out every Christmas. As I got older, I actually started scaling back my Christmas lists on purpose, for fear he might go broke buying me everything I had asked for. Sometimes I think I was still a little too greedy, and should have scaled them back even more. I never was able to talk him out of buying me that folding bicycle that now sits in a corner of my apartment in Irvine—at least I talked him down from the model that cost twice as much.

The third and final story is about curiosity. Dad actually taught my high school English AP class. I was originally assigned to a different class, but in that one I was completely miserable. The very first day of class was a demonstration where he asked us all to raise our hands if we expected an A. Since this was an AP class and we were all top-achieving students, most of us did. Then the teacher asked us rhetorically: “How realistic is that?” as though there were some inherent law of the universe making such an outcome impossible. I think he saw grading as a ranking, or even a race; the notion that we could all earn mastery in the subject struck him like the notion that everyone in the Indy 500 could win first place. The next day was a quiz to see how much we remembered of the summer reading. No review, no discussion, no introduction between the students and the teacher—just the quiz. It became clear that this teacher had no interest in educating us; his goal was to evaluate us. After about a week of this I asked to be transferred to a different class. They said all they had was my dad’s class, which seemed awkward to all involved, but I decided to go with that anyway.

I ended up very glad that I had. Dad’s approach to teaching was completely different: He actually wanted us to learn. He didn’t even call them “quizzes”; they were FLAIs, spelled “F-L-A-I” which stands for “Friendly Little Assessment Instrument”. The students who were used to grade-grubbing for an extra few points found his grading system aggravating, because he refused to give a precise point tally for everything (and if you asked for one, he’d make up some nonsensical number on the spot, like “52 million” or “pi”). But the rest of us found it a breath of fresh air. We could stop worrying about how many points this quiz was worth, stop cramming for the next multiple-choice scantron exam—and actually focus our efforts on reading and learning and appreciating literature. My dad didn’t use a lot of fancy gadgets or sophisticated educational techniques; a lot of the time he was just talking and writing on a chalkboard. But his unbounded intellectual curiosity was infectious. If a student showed interest in something, he’d just start talking about that for awhile, even if it didn’t seem relevant; at first students thought this meant they could waste class time by pulling him off on a tangent. But that was never really what happened; he always managed to teach us something unexpected, and usually managed to tie it back to whatever we were studying in class. Sometimes we managed to teach him something too; usually that would be something about physics from me or something about biology from Esther Alfred or Casey Boucher. My favorite class project of all time was for my dad’s class: After reading both Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, I asked if I could write my paper about Slaughterhouse-Five in the style of Pale Fire, meaning as a series of endnotes that bear some passing relevance to the text in question, but are over-interpreted to an absurd degree to the point where they end up telling a completely different story. Most teachers would probably have balked at the idea, but Dad thought it was fabulous. I don’t think he would have thought any differently if I hadn’t been his son; he simply enjoyed nurturing his student’s creativity in that way. I probably didn’t read as many books in that class as I would have in the other English AP class; but my dad’s class fanned the flames of a love of literature that the other class would have done everything it could to extinguish.

That’s about all I have. Thank you for listening, and taking the time to be here today. The world lost a very good man this week, and I know he will be sorely missed by all of us. No words can fully capture our sorrow, but there are a few in particular I think my father would have appreciated, said always on such occasions by one of his favorite authors:
So it goes.

I think I know what the Great Filter is now

Sep 3, JDN 2458000

One of the most plausible solutions to the Fermi Paradox of why we have not found any other intelligent life in the universe is called the Great Filter: Somewhere in the process of evolving from unicellular prokaryotes to becoming an interstellar civilization, there is some highly-probable event that breaks the process, a “filter” that screens out all but the luckiest species—or perhaps literally all of them.

I previously thought that this filter was the invention of nuclear weapons; I now realize that this theory is incomplete. Nuclear weapons by themselves are only an existential threat because they co-exist with widespread irrationality and bigotry. The Great Filter is the combination of the two.

Yet there is a deep reason why we would expect that this is precisely the combination that would emerge in most species (as it has certainly emerged in our own): The rationality of a species is not uniform. Some individuals in a species will always be more rational than others, so as a species increases its level of rationality, it does not do so all at once.

Indeed, the processes of economic development and scientific advancement that make a species more rational are unlikely to be spread evenly; some cultures will develop faster than others, and some individuals within a given culture will be further along than others. While the mean level of rationality increases, the variance will also tend to increase.

On some arbitrary and oversimplified scale where 1 is the level of rationality needed to maintain a hunter-gatherer tribe, and 20 is the level of rationality needed to invent nuclear weapons, the distribution of rationality in a population starts something like this:


Most of the population is between levels 1 and 3, which we might think of as lying between the bare minimum for a tribe to survive and the level at which one can start to make advances in knowledge and culture.

Then, as the society advances, it goes through a phase like this:


This is about where we were in Periclean Athens. Most of the population is between levels 2 and 8. Level 2 used to be the average level of rationality back when we were hunter-gatherers. Level 8 is the level of philosophers like Archimedes and Pythagoras.

Today, our society looks like this:

Most of the society is between levels 4 and 20. As I said, level 20 is the point at which it becomes feasible to develop nuclear weapons. Some of the world’s people are extremely intelligent and rational, and almost everyone is more rational than even the smartest people in hunter-gatherer times, but now there is enormous variation.

Where on this chart are racism and nationalism? Importantly, I think they are above the level of rationality that most people had in ancient times. Even Greek philosophers had attitudes toward slaves and other cultures that the modern KKK would find repulsive. I think on this scale racism is about a 10 and nationalism is about a 12.

If we had managed to uniformly increase the rationality of our society, with everyone gaining at the same rate, our distribution would instead look like this:

If that were the case, we’d be fine. The lowest level of rationality widespread in the population would be 14, which is already beyond racism and nationalism. (Maybe it’s about the level of humanities professors today? That makes them substantially below quantum physicists who are 20 by construction… but hey, still almost twice as good as the Greek philosophers they revere.) We would have our nuclear technology, but it would not endanger our future—we wouldn’t even use it for weapons, we’d use it for power generation and space travel. Indeed, this lower-variance high-rationality state seems to be about what they have the Star Trek universe.

But since we didn’t, a large chunk of our population is between 10 and 12—that is, still racist or nationalist. We have the nuclear weapons, and we have people who might actually be willing to use them.


I think this is what happens to most advanced civilizations around the galaxy. By the time they invent space travel, they have also invented nuclear weapons—but they still have their equivalent of racism and nationalism. And most of the time, the two combine into a volatile mix that results in the destruction or regression of their entire civilization.

If this is right, then we may be living at the most important moment in human history. It may be right here, right now, that we have the only chance we’ll ever get to turn the tide. We have to find a way to reduce the variance, to raise the rest of the world’s population past nationalism to a cosmopolitan morality. And we may have very little time.