The flatmate conjecture

In the summer of 2015, I had the wonderful opportunity to do research on algorithms that could automatically analyse C. Elegans locomotion. I found a short-term lease for a flat in the Marchmont area of Edinburgh and the whole experience promised to be amazing except for the fact that I didn’t know who I was going to be living with in Marchmont.

Previous flats I’d lived in started fine but flat duties weren’t clearly defined so common goods like the Hallway or Kitchen were eventually neglected. From my conversations with other students, zero flat management is the default option and this inevitably leads to frictions among flat members. For this reason, I wanted to make sure that this time would be different.

Within a couple days I got to meet the three other tenants. Unlike me, they were all PhD students doing research in the areas of Geophysics, Sociology and Philosophy respectively. At first, their relative seniority made the proposals I had in mind seem less likely to succeed. Nevertheless, I offered to make dinner on Thursday night so we could get to know each other better. At this they all agreed.

Everything went well on Thursday evening. I learned that two of the PhD students were trained at ENS and had a French background like myself. The other was a Briton doing research in Philosophy and that evening we had a great time talking about a variety of topics ranging from Mergers and Acquisitions to melting glaciers in the Himalayas.

Now, when dinner was over I explained that we should probably work together to make sure that the flat stayed in good condition. I brought up the subject of a cleaning rota, a flat treasury and the importance of maintaining regular communication in order to avoid frictions which could be achieved by a dinner rota. It wasn’t rocket science but the important part was to make it clear that this system was designed with our common interests in mind. This was followed by a brief discussion of dietary requirements but on the whole everybody agreed that my proposal was a good idea.

Over the weekend I shared my plan with other friends who were in Edinburgh that summer and received interesting responses. Some said it was a bit radical to impose something so rigid on other people and that I shouldn’t expect society to conform to my mathematical frame of mind. Others said that it was a good idea but they doubted it would last more than one week. However, when I pressed them to tell me whether they have actually tried to implement such a simple system none gave me a positive response. I believe this is a very important point. Many people who tell you that X will fail actually have zero experience implementing X.

On the whole, this flat system actually worked out very well. Barring two occasions, every Thursday a different flat member would cook dinner. There was never a problem with deciding who had to buy a basic necessity because our simple treasury system meant that there was always 20 pounds at the beginning of each month to buy light bulbs, sponges…etc. and we never had any problems coordinating what had to be cleaned. This flat experience was without precedent and it meant that each flat member could focus on doing research without dealing with unnecessary frictions.

Now, it’s my final year of university and I can say that I haven’t had a negative flat experience since then. More importantly this experience taught me that social problems can have precise solutions if we are willing to think about them precisely.

The world we understand

A regular problem I encounter is that people create false dichotomies and use this to guide their reasoning as well as influence the reasoning of others. The problem is that we live in an increasingly complex world with lots of tuneable parameters. Some of them are known, most of them are unknown and almost all of them behave in a highly non-linear manner. 

If a project is ineffective that doesn’t mean that the original idea was inherently bad nor does it mean that the particular implementation of that idea wasn’t carefully thought out. It could have failed for any number of reasons. My guess is that many of us reason in a simplistic manner in order to maintain the belief that we live in a world we understand. 

Let me give some examples of nonsense I often hear:

  1. “curiosity-driven education doesn’t work
  2. “foreign aid is a terrible idea”
  3. “renewables are the future and always will be”
  4. “Mars-bound rockets can’t be built by a company”

In every case the educated person in question will point me to a list of experimental or empirical studies and then try to convince me that the particular idea is lousy. However, what many don’t seem to realise is that in many cases it’s difficult to separate the conclusion of a study and its design. Moreover, what is particularly pernicious about this sloppy method of reasoning is that it often targets unconventional ideas. 

In many cases enterprising ideas aren’t inherently more risky than conventional methods. Very often the unusual idea is more carefully thought out whereas the conventional approach merely relies on tradition for justification. If you should take an unusual path there’s less social support in the event of failure and that’s an important reason why many people judge that it’s safer to fit in. There might be a greater chance of succeeding with approach X but if people are guaranteed to say “I told you so” in the event of failure you wouldn’t be irrational to choose conventional methods.  

This might seem like a fuzzy cultural problem but I think that this is one of the most important problems facing our society today. We may not be one technology away from utopia but if our society doesn’t become more adaptive I don’t see how we’ll collectively overcome the biggest problems facing us in the 21st century. Tradition should not be the default answer. 

However, modern society’s collective desire to be accepted means that even the truth surrounding historically important innovators gets distorted. Paul Graham touches this topic very succinctly in his essay, The Risk of Discovery:

Biographies of Newton, for example, understandably focus more on physics than alchemy or theology. The impression we get is that his unerring judgment led him straight to truths no one else had noticed. How to explain all the time he spent on alchemy and theology?

In Newton’s day the three problems seemed roughly equally promising. No one knew yet what the payoff would be for inventing what we now call physics; if they had, more people would have been working on it.

Now, among those people who are aware that Newton spent a considerable amount of time on things other than physics almost all tend to interpret it by saying that he was a bit crazy like all geniuses. This is simply a careful attempt to recast an important innovator to someone more conventional so we can maintain an illusion that comforts us rather than rationalise unusual and possibly risky projects. 

In reality we aren’t safer by collectively walking off the side of a cliff. We need important innovation in the areas of energy, education and government. For this to happen we need to encourage people that take calculated risks and if they should fail instead of saying “I told you so” we should say “It was worth a try”.