Hormesis is redundancy

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Photo source: Cartoon Work

 

Nature is the master statistician and probabilist. It follows a certain logic based on layers of redundancies, as a central risk-management approach. Nature builds with extra spare parts (two kidneys), and extra capacity in many, many things (say lungs, neural system, arterial apparatus, etc.), while design by humans tend to be spare, overoptimized, and have the opposite attribute of redundancy, that is, leverage—we have a historical track record of engaging in debt, which is the reverse of redundancy (fifty thousand in extra cash in the bank or, better, under the mattress, is redundancy; owing the bank an equivalent amount is debt).

Now, remarkably, the mechanism called hormesis is a form of redundancy and statistically sophisticated in ways human science (so far) has failed us.

Hormesis is when a bit of a harmful substance, or stressor, in the right dose or with the right intensity, stimulates the organism and makes it better, stronger, healthier, and prepared for a stronger dose the next exposure. That’s the reason we go to the gym, engage in intermittent fasting, or caloric deprivation, or overcompensate for challenges by getting tougher. Hormesis lost some scientific respect, interest and practice after the 1930s partly because some people mistakenly associated it with the practice of homeopathy. The association was unfairly done as the mechanisms are extremely different. Homeopathy relies on other principles, such as the one that minute, highly diluted parts of the agents of a disease (so small they can hardly be perceptible, hence cannot cause hormesis) could help medicate against the disease itself. It has shown little empirical backing and belongs today to alternative medicine, while hormesis, as an effect, has shown ample scientific evidence.

Now it turns out that the logics of redundancy and overcompensation are the same—as if nature had a simple elegant and uniform style in doing things. If I ingest, say, fifteen milligrams of a poisonous substance, my body will get stronger, preparing for twenty, or more. Stressing my bones (karate practice or carrying water on my head) will cause them to prepare for greater stress, by getting denser and tougher. A system that overcompensates is necessarily in overshooting mode, building extra capacity and strength, in anticipation for the possibility of a worse outcome, in response to information about the possibility of a hazard. This is a very sophisticated form of discovering probabilities via stressors. And of course such extra capacity or strength becomes useful—in itself—as opportunistic as it can be used to some benefit even in the absence of the hazard. Redundancy is an aggressive, not a defensive approach to life.

Alas, our institutional risk management methods are vastly different. Current practice is to look in the past for worst-case scenario, called “stress test” and adjust accordingly, never imagining that, just as the past experienced a large deviation that did not have a predecessor, that such deviation might be insufficient. For instance, current systems take the worst historical recession, the worst war, the worst historical move in interest rates, the worst point in unemployment, etc., as an anchor for the worst future outcome. Many of us have been frustrated—very frustrated—by the method of stress testing in which people never go beyond what has happened before and even had to face the usual expression of naive empiricism, “do you have evidence?” when suggesting that we need to consider worse.

And, of course, these systems don’t do the recursive exercise in their mind to see the obvious, that the worst past event itself did not have a predecessor of equal magnitude, and that someone using the past worst case in Europe before the Great War would have been surprised. I’ve called it the Lucretius underestimation, after the Latin poetic philosopher who wrote that the fool believes that the tallest mountain there is should be equal to tallest one he has observed. Danny Kahneman’s wrote, using as backup the works of Howard Kunreuther, that “protective actions, whether by individuals or by governments, are usually designed to be adequate to the worst disaster actually experienced (…) Images of even worse disaster do not come easily to mind.” For instance, in Pharaonic Egypt, scribes have tracked the high-water mark of the Nile and used it as worst-case scenario. No economist had tested the obvious: do extreme events fall according to the past? Alas, backtesting says: no, sorry.

The same dangerous recklessness can be seen in the methodology used for the Fukushima nuclear reactor, built to the worst past outcome, and not imagining and extrapolating to much worse. Well, nature, unlike risk engineers, prepares for what has not happened before, assuming worse harm is possible.

So if humans fight the last war, nature fights the next war. Of course, there is a biological limit to our overcompensation.

This form of redundancy remains vastly more extrapolative than our minds that are intrapolative.

The great Benoit Mandelbrot, now gone for a year, saw the same fractal self-similarity in nature and in probabilities of historical and economic events. It is thrilling to see how the two domains unite under the notion of fractal-based redundancy.

 

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

 

Source: Edge

How Taleb defines ‘stable’

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Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a financial analyst-turned-philosopher shares his ubiquitously ‘anti-mainstream’ thoughts about what it means to be ‘stable’. Having experienced life in tumultuous and tranquil places (he spent his childhood in war-ravaged Lebanon, and adulthood in Wall Street), he expresses his viewpoints in Epiphanies, a sub-section about idea-shower from the world’s leading thinkers, by Foreign Policy magazine.

 

Excerpt:

 

The most stable country in the history of mankind, and probably the most boring, by the way, is Switzerland. It’s not even a city-state environment; it’s a municipal state. Most decisions are made at the local level, which allows for distributed errors that don’t adversely affect the wider system. Meanwhile, people want a united Europe, more alignment, and look at the problems. The solution is right in the middle of Europe — Switzerland. It’s not united! It doesn’t have a Brussels! It doesn’t need one.

I just came back from Lebanon, which I feel is the most stable place in the whole area. Every risk is visible to the naked eye there; you can’t be harmed by something like that. The homicide rate is much lower than that in the United States. The media says it’s chaos — but it’s not. In the end, it’s stable because Hezbollah and the Shiites know that they have to live with the Sunnis and the Christians. It can’t fall apart because it’s a perfectly controlled mess.

What the shootings teach me about America

 

“And till now you won’t change your destination, will you?”

Destination. That flowery word motivators like to convey the most. My mom, in a slight satirical tone, told me as we were watching the recent news of shootings in Connecticut, in a seemingly tranquil and seldom heard-of town named Newtown, in which 28 persons (most of whom were children and toddlers, which President Obama implied emotionally in his speech, waiting for such sacrosanct celebration like Christmas) succumbed to the so-called ‘mad genius’ Adam Lanza’s bullets. She believes – altogether my dad – that America becomes increasingly a ‘mad nation’, having been troubled with what sounds like history-repeat-itself mass shootings (the prior deadliest one went to James Holmes), plagued with what resonates like ‘The-House-of-The-Dead’ syndrome (the latest one being a Florida man who bit off an old loiterer’s face to torn pieces of badly damaged tissues), imbued with what people here call ‘morality crisis’ (they dislike seeing at Obama legalizing gay-and-lesbian marriage), and marred by the country’s murky economic prospects (up to 10 million productive-age Americans face severe unemployment, homelessness, and chronic starvation). Pretty sounds like a series of zombie apocalypses, from economic to gory matters, were ready to shatter United States to ruins.

 

 

As a matter of confession, I always have those guts about moving myself to the United States (until the numismatics reminds me of the limits). Perhaps VOA plays it much in influencing what I call it myself ‘a dream’, but ‘a castle in the sky’ by my parents instead. VOA, through its programs in Metro TV, frequently broadcast the daily lives of Americans, particularly migrants, living throughout the country. There are successful Indonesians, having set up lucrative small-and-medium businesses, become artists, contributed to the advances of science, studied in Ivy League, and spoken American English like the natives do. There are cool guys and pretty gals, smart and sociable, brilliant and community-conscious, helping out other Americans. There are volunteers, young and old, willing to assist migrants, regardless of their origins. Also to encounter are medical practitioners and software engineers who hail from India – many of them Sikhs, science students from China, hip-hop artists from Latin America, Muslim nurses, professors from Russia or Eastern Europe, mixed-blood Filipinos, refugees from war-ravaged nations ranging from Sudan to Myanmar, these are merely a handful of examples that illustrate the true diversity of this country. So colorful that I can’t describe further here.

 

 

In addition, I also frequently heard ‘America’ through talks of mouth, either pro or contra. My Mandarin tuition teacher, Miss Jennifer, proudfully recounts her eldest son (now studying in Colorado), and of how he showcases his self-initiating skills, particularly in the volunteering field. He helps providing food and clothes to old Taiwanese migrants (who barely speak English at all) in Salt Lake City, and teaches them basic English words. He also now serves as, unless I’m mistaken, one of the assistants working for a US senator. On the other hand, there was also a narration of devastation. My dad’s friend once shared his unfortunate experiences with him, regarding his eldest son. Having been sent to a college there, in no more than a couple of years, he had turned out himself into a drug addict, and, more conservatively speaking, a punk (his ears were way pierced so often, making me imagine those of Jean-Paul Gaultier, and his hair was like that of a ‘half-baked’ emo). Back again, like a longitudinal wave, up and down, positive and negative, I listened to another tale of encouragement (don’t get me into another Tony Robbins stuff). I realized that one of my school’s English teachers (also once my class tutor), Miss Tan Tjin Tjin, had her two sons study there. More deliberately, thanks to their achievements, they always took turns in receiving scholarships. One of them had even gained Master’s degree. Back then to another recitation of pessimism. My dad’s another friend was deported by the Immigration Department, even though he had gained a job, quite low-paid, there. As a matter of fact, just like him, 12 million Americans place – and are stilll placing – their high hopes on Obama, one who previously had paradoxically reversed his immigration reform promises by deporting more illegal immigrants than Bush’ 2-term administration had ever done only in 4 years. Statistics prove: 1.4 million migrants were forced to go home from 2008 to 2012, compared to slightly 1 million in Bush’ era from 2000 to 2008.

 

 

Up to day, America remains in my mind, a so-called ‘land of dreams’ in context of pursuing university studies. My school frequently conducted study-in-USA seminars – you may think our headmaster is a ‘Western agent’ – inviting staff from either American consulate in Medan or directly from the embassy right in Jakarta. I did always participate, and, if I could count with my fingers, I had been there for, say, approximately 4 or 5 times. The obstacles, on the contrary, were mammoth, particularly burgeoned by my parents’ overprotective nature. I had asthma, and despite all the amenities offered by the universities (say, Student Service Center, or international student clubs), rest assured, my parents were barely convinced. Also befuddling them, in addition, was monetary consideration. A flight ticket to any single city in United States (exclude the head-scratching, aeons-old visa application process) would cost, most economically, 20 or 30 million IDR. Exclude the living costs; my parents would never grant me permits to do work-study program. Exclude all the other factors way around, like, getting acquainted with ‘morally bent’ friends (those who would laud you, in the very first moment, for taking up bongs) or bully you until the ante-penultimate that you do not ‘follow up’ their standards (say, doing sex). “America, from the beginning, has been on its own Queer street,” my parents told, “but feel free to aim your heart at whatever countries you aspire to proceed your further studies – only if you are sufficient enough to grab scholarship on the graduate program by your own.”

And there is the carnage. As though seduced in the arms of Morpheus, these psychopaths – most of whom were socially inept yet exceptionally intelligent youngsters – do the real-life Counter Strike thingy. Columbine massacre was a kick-starter, or else, if anything, a ‘tipping point’. The presidents, from Bill Clinton until Barack Obama, had repeatedly pledged ‘no other persons doing the buffalo-smash-the-china-shop incidents’, and the embryos of Columbines instead came to life. Cho Seung-hui had, in the context of sarcasm, succeeded in forcing the entire cabinet of South Korea (including the President, Roh Moo-hyun) to issue full apology and request full security protection to the entire Korean expatriates all over the world following his ‘globe-trotting’ killing spree, where 32 lives originating from 4 continents were taken off by his handguns. James Holmes initially ‘entertained’ the audience in the premiere of the Nolan’s last Batman yarn by posing as Bane, before he threw off bottles containing toxic gases, and commenced his bloodbath. Adam Lanza (you ain’t put a blame on his Asperger’s syndrome) mercilessly ended the opportunities and the dreams the kids, as Obama emotionally stated in his speech last Saturday, to ‘celebrate Christmas, to experience teenage dreams, to make friends, to have mates, to proceed to universities and develop careers’. The whole world might trigger the conclusion, believing that ‘Americans solve problems by means of weapons’.

 

 

Meanwhile, in another perspective, anti-Americans believe this is largely the karmic consequences the people have to take in tandem to what the country itself has imposed to the world. Some Facebookers complain in VOA Indonesia why ‘the US government could not express empathy as equivalent on the Palestinian children killed by Israeli Defense Forces as they had on the innocent, innocuous kids killed in Connecticut’. They even expressed that a vigil made in an Islamic boarding School in Central Java to commemorate the deceased as ‘unsentimental’, ‘unfair’, and ‘overtly exaggerated’. A sense of segregated humanity is deeply heartfelt here.

Nonetheless, millions of people, other than me, still put faith in the so-called ‘American dream’. Surveys have even forecast US population could accommodate another new 200 million people – majority of them migrants – within 4 decades, into a soaring rate of 500 million. The airs of pessimism may be high, with all the burgeoning troubles the country needs to solve. Talks of fiscal cliffs reach deadlock, shootings take place, gun-right lobbyists (the so-called ‘bad-ass’ NRA) against anti-gun activists, and still millions of dreams, added with that gusto emulated by the new-coming migrants, ignite up the optimism.

Back to that question, on the very beginning.

I answer my mom, with no pretense of being wise-ass, “There are only two types of countries in the world. One that stakes your life everyday to stay alive, and one that deadens you to a prosaic, sluggish death.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the most revered among the empiricists, called the former ‘perfectly controlled mess’ (as in case of Lebanon), and the latter just other ‘miserable’ copy-cats of Switzerland. America, just like Indonesia here, is in the Venn diagram.

Simply put, America is, as I can imply, a melting pot of constantly shifting shapes. When it shifts, frictions, like this shooting rampage, always take place. It is those that will continue shaping America in all ways possible. If you understand what I mean.