Category: Dunning-Kruger

Dragons and wealth inequality

I’m sure this must have been discussed before but I’m too lazy to look on a cold morning.

Dragons of the Smaug-Tolkien variety must have some interesting economic impacts. Smaug hoards gold and jewels in vast quantities. Notably, Smaug (and presumably other gold obsessed dragons) know specifically what they have hoarded. When Bilbo steals one of Smaug’s treasures, the dragon notices that it is gone. So Smaug’s lair isn’t like Scrooge McDuck’s vault full of coins – the dragon is hoarding possessions rather than coinage or more abstract tokens of wealth. That’s not to say some of a dragon’s gold isn’t in the form of coins but clearly, the dragon wants the coins for their own sake and not as a unit of currency. Each piece of the dragon’s hoard is uninterchangeable. Furthermore, a dragon has nothing to spend his wealth on – there aren’t dragon shops and the dragon’s interaction with other species is one of eating them or burning them to a crisp.

So when a dragon hoards gold, the gold is removed from the economy. The dragon doesn’t spend any of it and hobbits-with-rings-of-power aside, none of its gold is removed. Assuming gold and silver are important units of exchange in fake-medieval fantasy worlds, this hoarding by dragons would have a deflationary impact. The dragon’s hoard is a reduction in the money supply and the value of gold increases as a result. An increase in the value of gold amounts to a reduction in the relative value of, say, beetroot. That is bad news for farmers who also have to contend with their livestock being eaten by the dragon.

According to this website, the total above-ground stocks of gold by the end of 2017 was 190,040,000 kilograms. The density of gold is 0.01932 kilograms per cubic centimetre which gives 9,836,438,923.395445134575569 cubic centimetres of gold. That sounds like a lot but it is just under 10 thousand cubic metres, which still sounds like a lot but 10 thousand cubic metres is basically a cube 21.5 metres along each dimension. About 300 shipping containers would carry the lot (assuming they can take the weight).

Here’s Tolkien’s picture of Smaug with his hoard:


Now, I don’t know how densely packed that pile of gold is. I assume there’s a lot of jewels in there and gold cups, vases or boxes that would take up some extra volume. Even so, that is a LOT of gold. Say…about 10 shipping containers full? Let’s say, all those goblets and jewels etc fluff up the pile to twice the size they would be if it was pure gold and call it 5 shipping containers of gold and presumably there’s even more gold we can’t see in the picture.

The point being, when I say a dragon’s hoard would have an economic impact, it would be a significant economic impact. Smaug’s hoard would be a significant chunk of the current world’s gold reserves.

When a dragon dies (courtesy of heroes equipped with a black arrow and advice from birds or from natural causes like a bad case of dragon-flu) the economy would be flooded with gold. Massive inflation would result as the price of gold plummets relative to the price of beetroots.

Now let’s say you are a monarch. If you are a feudal monarch then a decrease in the value of your gold due to a dead dragon would not be good but the price of the beets (turnips, mangel-wurzels etc) grown by your serfs would increase so maybe it would all balance out. If your kingdom is mainly independent farmers (as depicted in the Shire) then your wealth declines sharply as it is mainly gold and property. Property values are also decreasing as more land becomes safe to inhabit without a dragon flying by occasionally and burning everybody to death. So the monarch’s wealth declines relative to that of the free peasantry.

The Shire’s post-feudal class structure would have a similar dynamic. The wealthier hobbit families would have some of their wealth in the form of gold coinage. Poorer farmers would have few savings and their fortunes would be tied to each year’s crops. The flood of gold post a dragon’s death would make the value of crops increase as the value of gold decreased – reducing wealth inequality in the Shire (at least for a period of time).

Kill enough dragons and a dragon-slaying hero would seriously destabilise the economy but in the direction of reduced wealth inequality. Put another way, dragon-slaying would be a revolutionary act.

[ETA: On Twitter, Chris Neill pointed me to this article that covers much of the same ground by Frances Woolley ]


Loved Books: Sacred Mathematics – Japanese Temple Geometry

I don’t own books that you could call coffee table books (also I prefer coffee in cups rather than tables) but this one has the glossiest paper and a cover that looks like it has been gift wrapped.

This is a book about Sangaku ( – a topic about which I knew nothing. Reading about it briefly for the first time, I had one of those ‘how did I not already know about this!’ moments. I also, coincidentally, had money to spend on books! So I bought this as a present to myself.

The concept is/was that geometry problems or solutions to problems as a temple offering. How delightful is that! It’s symbolic but also requires personal effort, so it has many aspects of a kind of ritual sacrifice or penance (to cast in Western religious terms) but also very meaningful in other ways.

The idea of mathematics as belonging primarily with the sciences and materialist domains is a relatively new one. Sangaku is just one example of how mathematics often intersects with spiritual aspect of human inquiry as well as aesthetic ones.

Reading Peterson 11 – Notes & Facts & Hypothesis

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12,…

There’s no shortage of notes in Jordan B Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life but that doesn’t mean every assertion related to facts is referenced. Also, when references are used they aren’t always tightly associated with the argument. Take this for example from chapter 2:

“This is perhaps because the primary hierarchical structure of human society is masculine, as it is among most animals, including the chimpanzees who are our closest genetic and, arguably, behavioural match. It is because men are and throughout history have been the builders of towns and cities, the engineers, stonemasons, bricklayers, and lumberjacks, the operators of heavy machinery.” – Peterson, Jordan B.. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (p. 40). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Now there is a lot wrong with that statement factually but the right reference here, if this was an academic essay, would be to a source discussing historical patterns of employment. Peterson instead links to some modern labour statistics here The tables do use the term ‘traditional occupations’ and ‘non-traditional’ based on proportions of women involves but this is ‘traditional’ in a very loose sense and includes “Meeting, convention, and event planners”. My point here isn’t that the table is wrong of even questioning gendered-roles in employment – just that a lot of references are weak in this fashion. It is vaguely related but not neatly tied to Peterson’s argument.

(This is quite long – so more after the fold)

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The Right Really Doesn’t Like William of Ockham

No, no, not a piece on how the right’s current tendency towards consipracy theories or misplaced explanations. The Right (or at least the tiny section of the right who knows who he was) don’t like the actual William of Ockham 1285-1347. William, an English Fransciscan monk is an important figure in the philosophy of epistmology and reasoning. Also, there’s a weird coda at the end…

So why don’t the right like him? In the review I did of conservative philosopher Edward Feser’s book on how Thomas Aquinas somehow disproved atheism (spoiler: he didn’t) I pointed out how William of Ockham and Duns Scotus are seen as the villains of the middle-ages by the new advocates of Thomism. Feser’s main beef with William O was his fideism – the notion that faith is the only or primary route to theological truth. While that principle sounds very devout, it eliminates the possibility of their being logical or rational ways of learning theological truths i.e. if you adopt fideism you give up trying to prove the existence of god. So while William of Ockham is devout he is seen as creating a kind of back door in Western thought for atheism.

I cam across another piece on William of Ockham at that weird conservative site Intellectual Takeout – the place that had that odd piece on Hannah Arendt. This time the piece is called William of Ockham: The Man Who Started the Decline of the West. The title shouldn’t be surprising by now – we’ve seen enough figures on the right and the alt-right hankering for a return to the middle-ages to no this isn’t a parody of modern conservatism.

The writer, Danile Lattiter, points on Ockham’s nominalism as the issue:

“Prior to Ockham, the dominant Western understanding held that individual things (“particulars”) have common natures (“universals”) which dictate the purpose of each thing, and which can be known by man. Thus, for instance, if an individual was referred to as “human,” it was because he really possessed a human nature that was ordered toward flourishing through a life of virtue (as Aristotle says) or participation in the divine life (as Christian revelation says).

However, Ockham denied the real existence of universal natures. In Ockham’s view, the universe is inhabited by a number of individual things that have no necessary connection with each other. We can call human beings “human” based on their sharing a certain resemblance with each other, but we can’t infer anything about them based on their common name. We can know that one thing can cause another thing to happen only based on repeated experience, not on some abstract knowledge of a thing’s nature (thus laying the groundwork for modern science). Anything theological—such as the existence of God or his attributes—can be known by faith alone (thus, apparently, laying the groundwork for the Reformation).”

Lattiter cast the article as him reporting the views of others rather than his own views but he doesn’t put much of a counter case. Personally I doubt William of Ockham personaly set this train of ideas in motion – the flaws in reasoning he was exposing become manifest the more people engage with the world as it is. The Platonic/Aristotlean-Thomistic approach was not going to last and if it had we wouldn’t have just had philosophical stagnation but technological and social stagnation in Europe as well. There isn’t a plausible alternate universe in which Western thought stuck with Aquinas AND developed the technology it did.

Anyway, not the worst article I’ve seen there but not great.

Looking at the articles the author wrote though, I found this piece of nonsense:

It’s pretty much a classic conservative lament: things are all different and changing and wasn’t it great when things were how they used to be. It isn’t good and the ideas are confused.

The weird coda is finding Sarah Hoyt laying into the same article at Mad Genius Club:

Hoyt’s attempted fisking of the piece isn’t great either but what’s funny is somewhere along the way Hoyt and the commenters assume the piece is by a leftist. So they set up various strawmen positions that the writer didn’t espouse and knock those down.

Here’s our old pal Phantom commenting on an article he presumably didn’t read:

“One more Leftist screaming SHUT UP!!!11! in a futile attempt to shove the Internet genie back in the bottle.

This is my favorite part: “We need to identify the key texts that should act as the foundation of our shared cultural and interpersonal knowledge.”

This guy wants to make -me- stop writing. By which I mean, me personally. Because I assure you, my work does not support his notion of “shared cultural knowledge.” Quite the reverse, I hope.

Come and get me, hipster twinkies. Molon labe.”

Nope – it is a rightist implying people should shut up in a futile attempt to shove the societal change genie back in the bottle. I doubt they want Phantom to stop writing as such but then hey probably haven’t read what he writes…




Undergraduate Career Advice!

Yeah, but seriously if you are planning your post-school studies, seek proper professional advice and not this blog post.

Via numerous Twittery things, the question of what degree a young person intent on Higher Education should study has been doing the rounds in various ways. One source was a snarky comment about English degrees from a successful writer, a second one I ended up Tweeting about was somebody claiming that STEM students can cope with Arts/Humanities degrees better than vice-versa. I’ll get to the specific question of writing & the humanities v STEM in a bit but I want to look at things more generally first.

More after the fold – as this goes on for awhile.

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Reason Hell: The Dunning Kruger effect

A short Reason Hell this week. The Dunning-Kruger effect has had a lot of publicity bu one of the things I really like about it is that one of the papers by Justin Kruger and David Dunning is just so readable. It also has one of the best anecdotes ever used in a serious and influential paper:

In 1995, McArthur Wheeler walked into two Pittsburgh banks and robbed them in broad daylight, with no visible attempt at disguise. He was arrested later that night, less than an hour after videotapes of him taken from surveillance cameras were broadcast on the 11 o-clock news. When police later showed him the surveillance tapes, Mr. Wheeler stared in incredulity. “But I wore the juice,” he mumbled. Apparently, Mr. Wheller was under the impression that rubbing one’s face with lemon juice rendered it invisible to videotape cameras
Originally sourced from: Fuocco 1996 M A 1996 March 21 Pittsburg Post-Gazette Trial and error: They had larceny in their hearts but little in their heads

There is a copy of the whole paper here