Moontower #16


IQ is a fuzzy topic. Extreme values of it fit that old trope about pornography. You know it when you see it. There are some people I meet (including several people on this list) where I just wanna cry foul. Not fair. Too much horsepower in one person. At the opposite end of the brain lottery, there are unfortunate cases of outright impairment. For the bulk of us, we reside somewhere in the middle. If you got tested, depending on how you fared, you either believe those tests are pseudoscience or perfectly calibrated thermometers. While everyday experience hints at its wide range, a precise definition of intelligence and its measurement will remain a bloodless debate.

One thing scientists appear to agree on is that whatever notion of IQ you settle on, it probably follows a bell curve. Let’s say the average IQ is 100. Some lazy googling puts the standard deviation at 15 points.

  • Normal distribution math would estimate that 15% of people are more than 1 standard deviation above the mean or an IQ greater than 115. About 5 people in a classroom of 30.
  • The odds of having an IQ above 130 is 2.5%. That’s the smartest person in the class.
  • The chance of having an IQ of 145 (3 standard devs) is about 1/200. Otherwise known as the smartest person in your HS graduating class. As Gladwell would probably remind you, this is unlikely to have been your valedictorian. No offense to valedictorians (again, many of you on this list).
  • Symmetrically, the bell curve implies that 15% of people have IQs that are 1 standard deviation below the mean. In an interview with Tyler Cowen, Jordan Peterson noted that the military has studied this group and found them unable to satisfy basic life tasks and subsequently ineligible for even simple roles.
  • Food for thought once you accept that aptitude, even flexibly defined, is not evenly distributed.
    •  If our IQ is largely inherited, this seems to imply the need for compassion and aid for swaths of disenfranchised people. There are 5 babies in every hospital nursery (out of 30) who are going to struggle stringing to together chains of tasks which lead to decent lives.
    • On the bright side, if we define a genius as a 3 standard deviation IQ, then there are about 6 million geniuses in Africa, most of which are undiscovered. More locally, the Hidden Genius project in Oakland reminds us that the search for hope is far from exhausted.

We are used to seeing bell curves everywhere. Height, test scores, the roll of a pair of dice, shoe size. These quantities are well behaved. No single value from the population is going to have a large impact on the average if your sample size is sufficiently large. Our generic impulse is to estimate quantities according to such a benign distribution.

A less intuitive type of curve is the pareto distribution or power law curve. It shows that the bulk of an outcome can be driven by just a few or even a single observation. If you are an hourly wage earner in an Amazon distribution center and Jeff Bezos walks in the room, the average person in the room’s wealth is now that of a “one-percenter”. This computed average, of course, is meaningless to describe how an actual worker in this room is actually living. Wealth is distributed according to pareto curves, not bell curves.

Recognizing when this distribution is governing a situation as easily as we notice bell curves is an invaluable life skill. Pareto distributions dictate strategies that would seem insane or wasteful to somebody who is incorrectly thinking in bell curves. Taleb calls power law dynamics “extremistan” and bell-curve domains “mediocristan”. When deciding a course of action it is critical to know which world you are operating in. It’s the difference between ownership and hourly wages. Being a partner in a law firm has leverage. If the business grows you make more income as a pro-rata owner but you don’t work more hours. If you are an associate, you sell your time for money. Your average hourly wage is fixed. The grunt’s wage per last hour of work is constant. The owner’s average hourly wage can vary widely based on the total business the firm brings in. Or if the firm is acquired. To speak of the owner’s hourly wage is to misunderstand what drives his income and in turn what strategies will maximize it.

Life should display a #DIV/0! error when you try to apply averages to a power law decision.

It would be nice if there were power law X-ray vision glasses that helped you see when the bell-curve is not in charge. The closest thing I have found is Taylor Pearson’s essay about luck. This has been my go-to article on the 80/20 rule since people I share it with have felt the way the concepts are communicated with specific examples and charts made them stick.

Some of my favorite examples of power laws are city populations and the relative frequency of words we use in the English language.

If you want to dive deeper into power law math using venture capital returns as a case study, investor and professor Jerry Neumann has written a fairly accessible treatment.

Climb Higher

“Albion’s Seed argues that this is basically the process that formed several early US states.”

If you liked how Guns, Germs, and Steel used geographic and migratory trends to explain the modern day then don’t miss Slatestar’s epic review of Albion’s Seed. My highlights only here.

Last Call

Last week I asked if there were other species confused about their diets. My sister, Lauren, a vet came over the top::

“Cows have a syndrome literally called hardware disease because they will eat metal – you treat it by feeding them a large magnet to attract the metal in their stomach.  Last week we saw a bearded dragon at work (named Drogon if you are into GOT) – he ate a marble found on the floor, needed surgery to remove it (we thought he was dead for about 1.5 hours before he started breathing again post anesthesia, still alive today but with some issues).  Cats/dogs eat all kinds of things they shouldn’t that I either need to do surgery to remove or induce vomiting to get out – both food materials and non-food.  So many species (humans included) are opportunistic eaters or omnivores – not sure if that makes them confused but certainly indiscriminate.  Goats. Even animals classified as strict herbivores (cows) will eat other things or obligate carnivores (cats) will eat outside their classification.”

I asked if artificial environments that domestic animals occupy confuse them into unnatural food choices. She replied:

“No, I think wild animals have a shorter life span partly because they eat things they aren’t supposed to.  When necropsies are done on wild animals – goats, sharks, whales – they still find abnormal/inedible things in their stomachs. Those might be incidental findings and not cause of death but I’m certain foreign bodies or toxins kill wildlife too.  Think of the sea animals that die by being strangled by the plastic rings from 6 packs.  Curiosity killed the seal.”

  • We are 6 months removed from New Year’s resolutions in the throes of summer fun time. If you feel like telling the self-help “gurus” to kill themselves you will probably like this thread.
  • Just a reminder that whenever you order from Amazon use their SMILE site. They donate .50% of eligible purchases to the charity of your choice.

From my actual life 

I’m in Radiator —  I mean Palm —  Springs with my family this week. We are a group of 11 this time with 4 boys between 3 and 5 years old. This is the second year in a row (Scottsdale last year) we chose the southwest for our traditional 4th of July vacation gathering. It’s a bit bizarre to see clusters of parked cars at Albertsons favoring shady parking spots over proximity to the entrance but it seems like 110-degree temps is a phase shift for parking preferences. It’s low tourism season in the southwest so it’s not crowded, accommodations are seasonally cheap, and there is a lot of family-friendly activities to break up poolside beverages and barbecues. We are headed to Joshua Tree early tomorrow targetting some hikes that will have us out of the heat by noon. If you have any first-hand recs, please share.

Have a fun Fourth of July and don’t forget headphones for your dogs during firework hour!

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