Mathematicians Predict the Future With Data From the Past


I wrote for Wired:

In Issac Asimov’s classic science fiction saga Foundation, mathematics professor Hari Seldon predicts the future using what he calls psychohistory. Drawing on mathematical models that describe what happened in the past, he anticipates what will happen next, including the fall of the Galactic Empire.

That may seem like fanciful stuff. But Peter Turchin is turning himself into a real-life Hari Seldon — and he’s not alone.

Turchin — a professor at the University of Connecticut — is the driving force behind a field called “cliodynamics,” where scientists and mathematicians analyze history in the hopes of finding patterns they can then use to predict the future. It’s named after Clio, the Greek muse of history.

These academics have the same goals as other historians — “We start with questions that historians have asked for all of history,” Turchin says. “For example: Why do civilizations collapse?” — but they seek to answer these questions quite differently. They use math rather than mere language, and according to Turchin, the prognosis isn’t that far removed from the empire-crushing predictions laid down by Hari Seldon in the Foundation saga. Unless something changes, he says, we’re due for a wave of widespread violence in about 2020, including riots and terrorism. [...]

There are competing theories as well. A group of researchers at the New England Complex Systems Institute — who practice a discipline called econophysics — have built their own model of political violence and concluded that one simple variable is sufficient to predict instability: food prices. In a paper titled “The Food Crises and Political Instability in North Africa and the Middle East,” they explain that although many other grievances may be aired once the violence begins, the cost of food is the primary trigger. They make a similarly grim prediction: large-scale riots over food, beginning around October of this year.

Full Story: Wired Enterprise: Mathematicians Predict the Future With Data From the Past

I’d actually recommend reading journal articles I cite before reading my article:

Dynamics of political instability in the United States, 1780–2010 by Peter Turchin

The Food Crises and Political Instability in North Africa and the Middle East by Marco Lagi, Karla Z. Bertrand and Yaneer Bar-Yam.

Also check out Turchin’s blog.


Revolution – history and praxis. Technoccult interviews Johnny Brainwash

The Rise of Predictive Policing: Police Using Statistics to Predict Crime

Are We On the Verge of the Next Psychedelic Explosion?

The Corporation Who Would Be King

Some design fiction from Tim Maly, who wrote that thing about corporations being bad AI:

“…if a firm, partnership, company, or corporation owns real property within the municipality, the president, vice president, secretary, or other designee of the entity is eligible to vote in a municipal election…”
-Montana Bill Would Give Corporations The Right To Vote by Ian Millhiser for Thinkprogress

A broader version of this law passes, leading to an explosion of algorithmic corporations owning nominal fractions of land to meet the real property requirement.

Eventually, the corporate hordes overrun their human voter counterparts. A ballot measure is introduced allowing corporations to stand for election. It passes. Now, their dark work begins.

Full Story: Quiet Babylon: The Corporation Who Would be King

Corporations Are “Bad AI”

Tim Maly writes:

One of my favourite recurring tropes of AI speculation/singulatarian deep time thinking is mediations on how an evil AI or similar might destroy us. [...]

And all I can think is: we already have one of those. It is pretty clear to anyone who’s paying attention that 1. a marketplace regime of firms dedicated to maximizing profit has—broadly speaking—added a lot of value to the world 2. there are a lot of important cases where corporate profit maximization causes harm to humans 3. corporations are—broadly speaking—really good at ensuring that their needs are met.

I don’t think that it’s all that far fetched to suggest that maybe they’re getting better and better at ensuring their needs are met. Pretty much the only thing that the left and right in America can agree on is that moneyed influence has corrupted American politics and yet neither side seems able to do much of anything about it.

Full Story: Quiet Babylon: The Singularity Already Happened; We Got Corporations

See also: Yes, There is a Sub-Reddit Dedicated to Preventing SkyNet

Some Bees Are “Thrill Seekers” – Does That Mean Insects Have Personalities?

From Wired UK:

The researchers found that thrill-seeking is not limited to humans and other vertebrates. The brains of honeybees that were more likely than others to seek adventure exhibited distinct patterns of gene activity in molecular pathways known to be associated with thrill-seeking in humans.

The findings present a new perspective on honeybee communities, which were thought to be highly-regimented and comprised of a colony of interchangeable workers taking on a few specific roles to serve their queen. [...]

Robinson and his team studies two behaviors that looked like novelty seeking: scouting for new nest sites and scouting for food. When a colony outgrows its living quarters, the swarm must hunt for a new home. Around five percent of the swarm goes hunting for new lodgings. These “nest scouts” are around 3.4 times more likely than their peers to also become food scouts, researchers discovered.

“There is a gold standard for personality research and that is if you show the same tendency in different contexts, then that can be called a personality trait,” Robinson said.

Wired Science: Honeybees May Have Personality

(via James Governor)

Photo by Gilles San Martin

Nassim Nicholas Taleb: End Bonuses for Bankers

it’s time for a fundamental reform: Any person who works for a company that, regardless of its current financial health, would require a taxpayer-financed bailout if it failed should not get a bonus, ever. In fact, all pay at systemically important financial institutions — big banks, but also some insurance companies and even huge hedge funds — should be strictly regulated.

Critics like the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators decry the bonus system for its lack of fairness and its contribution to widening inequality. But the greater problem is that it provides an incentive to take risks. The asymmetric nature of the bonus (an incentive for success without a corresponding disincentive for failure) causes hidden risks to accumulate in the financial system and become a catalyst for disaster. This violates the fundamental rules of capitalism; Adam Smith himself was wary of the effect of limiting liability, a bedrock principle of the modern corporation.

New York Times: End Bonuses for Bankers

Punk Mathematics Author Tom Henderson to Keynote EsoZone Portland 2011

Tom Henderson, author of the forthcoming book Punk Mathematics, will keynote EsoZone Portland 2011 on November 18th at p:ear. Admission is free. Tom’s talk is tentatively titled “Time, Space, and the Self are Illusions – So Do ‘You’ Wanna Go ‘Out’ with ‘Me’ ‘Tonight’?” He’ll cover:

    • Mining your history for strategy
    • Virtual paranoia
    • Your eigenself and “you”
    • Using the howling void beyond your epsilon of consciousness for a good time

Tom has a masters in mathematics from Portland State University. According to the Kickstarter page for his book:

Punk Mathematics will be a series of mathematical stories. It is written for readers who are interested in having their minds expanded by the strange metaphors and implications of mathematics, even if they’re not always on friendly terms with equations. Better living through probability; the fractal dimension of cities and cancers; using orders of magnitude to detect bullshit; free will and quantum economics; and the mathematics of cooperation in a networked world on the brink of a No Future collapse.

For more on Tom, you can follow him on Twitter, read the Technoccult interview with him or listen to this interview on the Acme Science podcast Strongly Connected Components.

EsoZone Portland 2011 will take place over the course of November 18th and 19th. It will include a few pre-scheduled presentations, workshops and performances along with ample free space for ad-hoc “unconference” sessions in the style of BarCamp or Bird of a Feather.

Watch this space for more announcements.

Using Swarm Intelligence to Build Targeted Anti-Cancer Nano-Drugs

Nanoparticles and insect swarms

The results of Geoffrey von Maltzahn et al. in their Nature Materials publication reveal that nanoparticles that communicate with each other can deliver more than 40-fold higher doses of chemotherapeutics (anti-cancer drugs) to tumors than nanoparticles that do not communicate can deliver. These results show the potential for nanoparticle communication to amplify drug delivery over that achievable by nanoparticles that work alone, similar to how insect swarms perform better as a group than the individual insects do on their own.

Scientific American: Learning from Insect Swarms: Smart Cancer Targeting

(via Social Physicist)

How Tibetan Singing Bowls Work

How Tibetan Singing Bowls Work

Ceremonial Tibetan “singing bowls” are beginning to give up their secrets.

The water-filled bowls, when rubbed with a leather-wrapped mallet, exhibit a lively dance of water droplets as they emit a haunting sound.

Now slow-motion video has unveiled just what occurs in the bowls; droplets can actually bounce on the water’s surface.

A report in the journal Nonlinearity mathematically analyses the effect and could shed light on other fluid processes, such as fuel injection.

BBC: Tibetan singing bowls give up their chaotic secrets

(via Edward Borasky)

Nassim Taleb Interview on His New Book Anti-Fragility

Nassim Taleb

Great new interview with Nassim Taleb by one of his former teachers at Wharton:

Taleb: The events in the Middle East are not black swans. They were predictable to those who know the region well. At most, they were gray swans or perhaps white swans. One of the lessons of “Wild vs. Mild Randomness,” my chapter with Benoit Mandelbrot in your book, is what happens before you go into a period of wild randomness. You will find a long quiet period that is punctuated with absolute total turmoil…. In The Black Swan, I discussed Saudi Arabia as a prime case of the calm before the storm and the Great Moderation [the perceived end of economic volatility due to the creation of 20th century banking laws] in the same breath. I was comparing Italy with Saudi Arabia. Italy is an example of mild randomness in comparison with Saudi Arabia and Syria, which are examples of wild randomness. Italy has had 60 changes in regime in the post-war era, but they are inconsequential…. It is a prime example of noise. It’s very Italian and so it’s elegant noise, but it’s noise nonetheless. In contrast, Saudi Arabia and Syria have had the same regime in place for 40 some years. You may think it is stability, but it’s not. Once you remove the lid, the thing explodes.

The same kind of thing happens in finance. Take the portfolio of banks. The environment seemed very placid — the Great Moderation — and then the thing explodes.

Herring: I would agree that people knew the Middle East was very vulnerable to turmoil because of the demographics, a very young population, and widespread unemployment, the dissatisfaction with the distribution of income and with regimes that were getting geriatric. But knowing how it would unfold and knowing that somebody immolating themselves in a market in Tunisia would lead to this widespread discontent — and we still don’t know how it will end — is a really remarkable occurrence that I think would be very difficult to predict in any way.

Taleb: Definitely, and it actually taught us to try not to predict the catalyst, which is the most foolish thing in the world, but to try to identify areas of vulnerability. [It's] like saying a bridge is fragile. I can’t predict which truck is going to break it, so I have to look at it more in a structural form — what physicists call the percolation approach. You study the terrain. You don’t study the components. You see in finance, we study the random walk. Physicists study percolation. They study the terrain — not a drunk person walking around — but the evolution of the terrain itself. Everything is dynamic. That is percolation.

And then you learn not to try to predict which truck is going to break that bridge. But you just look at bridges and say, “Oh, this bridge doesn’t have a great foundation. This other one does. And this one needs to be reinforced.” We can do a lot with the notion of robustness.

Wharton: Nassim Taleb on Living with Black Swans

(via Chris Arkenberg)

Otomata – Flash-based Cellular Automata Music Sequencer


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