March 22, 2023

In a Slack community I frequent someone posted a link on Exponential growth is messing with our minds - Kevin Drum, including an example of filling Lake Michigan with double the number of drops every day.

I wrote:
There's this chestnut:
In a pond, there is a growth of algae. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 23 days for the growth to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the algae to cover half of the lake?
and the surprising answer is "22 days" (the riddle phrasing does a good job of redirection)

But I think things like that are artificial thought experiments. Sort of like how square- and cube-laws means all creatures can't readily grown into much larger (and often seemingly evolutionary advantageous) sizes. I am not a biologist but I suspect algae patch growth is constrained by the linear 'surface area' of where the edge of the patch has non-covered water to grow into (In the Lake Michigan example, a 70 year lake filling project is actually half done on Tuesday and then done on Wednesday and that is clearly not a plausible volume of water to move in in a day)

We don't know what the constraints on tech growth are. I do know my phone in 2023 is much less different than my phone in 2013 then my 2013 was to 2003. Ditto my laptop and gaming system- but then again I remember frustrating years in the 90s where my PC would absolutely need a refresh every year or two in order to play recent games. And we might be well closer to that "90s PC" part of the curve for some of our AI techniques, and disruption will result.

Lately I've been thinking there's roughly similar shenanigans with a lot of thought experiments, specifically the trolley problem (and then that one where saying of course you'd jump into a pond to save a kid even if it ruined your nice shoes, but since we all haven't turned our personal finances into charity foundations we're hypocrites.) Like, the trolley problem says "if you take action, these people will die, if you don't take action this greater number of people will die" but I think it blows through one of the defining aspects of the real world - the certain uncertainty we face all the time. You so rarely face examples so crisply defined "1 person will die, 5 people will die". Instead it's like "if I wear a mask, I'm a certain amount less likely to catch COVID, and if enough people don't, this many hundred thousands of seniors will die, but some of them would have died anyway" etc etc etc

So many aspects of cultural norms that seem bizarre when you think about them too much (like human's intense tribalism) make sense when you realize they are examples of iterated behavior over time in a world that always carries a lot of unknowns.

an ok joke but what a picture!
Do ladies love stupid men or do they just love men who don't exhaust every opportunity to feel smart [...] "I used to think that melancholy was a vegetable" that's incredible, let's hang out more

I hope seeing Trump naked was not for nothing.