Meditations on Momentum

Cross-posted and lightly-ed­ited from The Deep Dish.

Epistemic sta­tus: de­scribing a gen­eral phe­nomenon; may not be cor­rect on ev­ery spe­cific point. may have used sci­en­tific terms in an an­noy­ing metaphor­i­cal fash­ion. el­e­ments of point­ing out the bleed­ing ob­vi­ous, hope­fully framed in a novel way.

tl;dr: pos­i­tive feed­back loops are a thing, think­ing in sys­tems/​ex­po­nen­tially is hard, in­ter­sec­tion­al­ity is un­der­rated.


“For to ev­ery­one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abun­dance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
—MATTHEW 25:29


In 2013, un­known au­thor Robert Galbraith pub­lished his de­but novel… to crick­ets.

The first print run of The Cuckoo’s Cal­ling was 1500 copies. It’s not clear how many ac­tu­ally sold. The book oc­cu­pied 4709th place on Ama­zon’s best­sel­ler charts.

And there, per­haps it would have stayed, if the cuckoo in the nest had re­mained undis­cov­ered. The se­cret un­rav­el­led af­ter a few months: ex-mil­i­tary se­cu­rity con­trac­tor Galbraith was a pseudonym for J.K. Rowl­ing. As soon as the news broke, The Cuckoo’s Cal­ling soared to the num­ber one spot on Ama­zon. Sales in­creased by 150,000 per cent overnight. Copies from that first ne­glected print run are now worth thou­sands of dol­lars.

What’s the differ­ence be­tween Robert Galbraith and J.K. Rowl­ing? Clearly, be­ing a tal­ented writer is nec­es­sary, but not suffi­cient. Rowl­ing has mo­men­tum on her side. At this point, she could pub­lish the con­tents of a bowl of alpha­bet soup, and it would still sell bet­ter than 99 per cent of nov­els by hope­ful first-time au­thors.

This is a ‘no duh’ ex­am­ple, de­signed to get you nod­ding your head along. But mo­men­tum is ev­ery­where, and it’s rarely in plain sight. Without be­ing con­sciously aware of do­ing so, I’ve writ­ten about it in four do­mains:

1. Popularity

Pop­u­lar things of­ten get their start through what amounts to good luck. The rapid as­cent is driven by some­thing even more pow­er­ful than rocket fuel: so­cial con­ta­gion. Our opinions and prefer­ences cluster to­gether, but it’s not be­cause we’ve care­fully eval­u­ated them on their mer­its. We just want to feel close to our fel­low so­cial apes, and have some­thing to gos­sip about around the wa­ter cooler.
In other words, pop­u­lar­ity is a lot like her­pes. After catch­ing a lucky ini­tial break, it man­ages to spread to a few hosts, then rides the ex­po­nen­tial growth curve un­til it has planted its gen­tle, blistery kiss on 60 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion.

The Mad­ness of Crowds: Why It Pays to Go Where the Tourists Aren’t

2. Wealth

With enough time on his side, [Fry’s] 93 cents trans­forms into $4.3 billion. If your gut in­stincts are scream­ing that this is stag­ger­ingly, ridicu­lously, wrong—well, you’re not alone.
As Mark Zucker­berg put it: “Hu­mans don’t un­der­stand ex­po­nen­tial growth. If you fold a pa­per 50 times, it goes to the moon and back.”
This is a deli­cious ex­am­ple, not only be­cause the imagery is so jar­ring—whoa, a tiny sheet of pa­per can do that?—but be­cause the Zuck him­self got it wrong. If you fold a piece of pa­per 50 times over, it doesn’t make a paltry re­turn trip to the moon—it goes all the way to the freakin’ sun. Hu­mans don’t un­der­stand ex­po­nen­tial growth, in­deed.

Fu­tu­rama Taught Me Every­thing I Know About Com­pound Interest

3. Entrepreneurship

Some­thing idea-based can be sold over and over again with al­most no ex­tra time or effort. It’s in­finitely scal­able. Your de­but album might sell 10 copies (three of which your mum bought) or 10 mil­lion, but the amount of work that went into record­ing it was the same.
Scal­able ca­reers don’t fol­low a nor­mal dis­tri­bu­tion, with a clear re­la­tion­ship be­tween effort and re­ward. In­stead, they pro­duce grotesque in­equal­ities. It doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mat­ter how good you are, or how hard you work: a se­lect few peo­ple cap­ture al­most all the re­wards, while ev­ery­one else gets next to noth­ing.

The Bar­bell Strat­egy: Don’t Be a Starv­ing Artist

4. Health

What’s life like for a mod­er­ately fit and mus­cu­lar per­son? Well, ev­ery­thing works in your fa­vor. The wind is at your back. You’ve got mo­men­tum.
The fit­ter you are, the bet­ter your hor­monal and metabolic health, the lower your body­fat, the more re­laxed you can be with your diet, the more fun life is, the more mo­ti­va­tion you have to train, the cooler feats you can perform, the deeper the habit is in­grained, and so on, in an end­less pos­i­tive feed­back loop.
In fact, it’s even bet­ter than that. Al­most all these fac­tors are mu­tu­ally re­in­forc­ing. If you do screw up, and drunk­enly de­vour an en­tire box of ce­real, or take a week off from the gym to clock a new video game, it’s no big­gie. Any one link can seize up for a while, and the cy­cle will keep on turn­ing with­out it.

Fat Peo­ple Are Heroes

…and a few more ex­am­ples I’ve col­lected, but haven’t writ­ten about:

5. Academia

So­ciol­o­gist Robert Mer­ton coined the term ‘The Matthew Effect’, af­ter the parable of the tal­ents line quoted up top.

Mer­ton no­ticed that fa­mous sci­en­tists of­ten get cred­ited for dis­cov­er­ies made by lesser-known re­searchers or grad stu­dents toiling in ob­scu­rity. Similarly, the suc­cess of any given pa­per of­ten de­pends on the promi­nence of the au­thor, and how many early cita­tions it hap­pens to re­ceive:

So great is this prob­lem that we are tempted to turn again to the Scrip­tures to des­ig­nate the sta­tus-en­hance­ment and sta­tus-sup­pres­sion com­po­nents of the Matthew effect. We can de­scribe it as the Ec­cle­si­as­ti­cus com­po­nent, from the fa­mil­iar in­junc­tion ‘Let us now praise fa­mous men’.

The Matthew Effect in Science, Robert K. Merton

6. Reading

Psy­chol­o­gists have dis­cov­ered the same effect in ed­u­ca­tion. The longer it takes kids to learn how to read, the slower the de­vel­op­ment of their other cog­ni­tive skills and perfor­mance:

The longer this de­vel­op­men­tal se­quence is al­lowed to con­tinue, the more gen­er­al­ized the defic­its will be­come, seep­ing into more and more ar­eas of cog­ni­tion and be­hav­ior. Or to put it more sim­ply – and sadly – in the words of a tear­ful nine-year-old, already fal­ling frus­trat­ingly be­hind his peers in read­ing progress, “Read­ing af­fects ev­ery­thing you do.”

Progress in Un­der­stand­ing Read­ing, Keith Stanovich

7. Mar­ket prices

For most in­tents and pur­poses, the effi­cient mar­kets hy­poth­e­sis is cor­rect. But even the No­bel prize-win­ning EMH cre­ator, Eu­gene Fama, has ad­mit­ted there is one ma­jor anomaly: mo­men­tum, which he de­scribes as the “biggest em­bar­rass­ment to the the­ory”.

Here’s Fama’s old ad­vi­sor, Benoit Man­delbrot, on the long mem­ory of mar­ket pric­ing:

What a com­pany does to­day—a merger, a spin-off, a crit­i­cal product launch—shapes what the com­pany will look like a decade hence; in the same way, its stock-price move­ments to­day will in­fluence move­ments to­mor­row.
…a bot­tom line emerges. Stock prices are not in­de­pen­dent. To­day’s ac­tion can, at least slightly, af­fect to­mor­row’s ac­tion. The stan­dard model is, again, wrong.

Benoit Man­delbrot, The (Mis)be­hav­ior of Markets

Had enough?

There’s also the height of trees, the colour, bright­ness, and life­time of stars, the pro­lifer­a­tion of species, the halo and horns effect, af­fec­tive death spirals, and the ex­is­tence of life it­self.

The prin­ci­ple of cu­mu­la­tive ad­van­tage spans physics, biol­ogy, psy­chol­ogy, eco­nomics, and cul­ture. It al­most seems like some un­der­ly­ing fea­ture of the uni­verse. Here’s Man­delbrot again:

“Can you se­ri­ously com­pare the wind to a fi­nan­cial mar­ket, a gale to a rally, a hur­ri­cane to a crash? In terms of the un­der­ly­ing causes, cer­tainly not. But math­e­mat­i­cally, yes. It is an ex­traor­di­nary fea­ture of sci­ence that the most di­verse, seem­ingly un­re­lated, phe­nom­ena can be de­scribed with the same math­e­mat­i­cal tools.”

On the macro scale of the uni­verse—the birth of stars, com­plex life boot­strapped from mud—mo­men­tum is kind of mirac­u­lous. For a brief can­dle-flicker, we get to re­sist the re­lentless march of en­tropy; cre­ate defi­ant bas­tions of or­der and beauty amongst the chaos.

On the micro scale of in­di­vi­d­ual hu­man af­fairs—wealth, waistlines, pop­u­lar­ity, power—mo­men­tum is kind of ter­rify­ing. It makes us, and it breaks us. The 1 per cent con­trol al­most half of the world’s wealth, a small num­ber of star­tups suc­ceed as­tro­nom­i­cally, most books are sold by the J.K Rowl­ings of the world.

Mo­men­tum leaves be­hind a dis­tinc­tive call­ing card, which looks some­thing like this:

If this graph was drawn to scale, the tail would ex­tend sev­eral kilo­me­tres off your com­puter screen. For self-pub­lished ebooks, it’s worse: the me­dian num­ber of sales is zero.

You will know these var­i­ous pat­terns as the ‘80/​20 rule’, power laws, long-tails, and Pareto dis­tri­bu­tions. The economist Vilfredo Pareto de­voted years to the pat­tern which now bears his name. Surely he has some kind words to say about his curvy wife?

At the bot­tom of the [curve], men and women starve and chil­dren die young. In the broad mid­dle of the curve all is tur­moil and mo­tion: peo­ple ris­ing and fal­ling, climb­ing by tal­ent or luck and fal­ling by al­co­holism, tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and other kinds of un­fit­ness. At the very top sit the elite of the elite, who con­trol wealth and power for a time — un­til they are un­seated through rev­olu­tion or up­heaval by a new aris­to­cratic class.

Yikes!

If each in­stance of the Matthew effect stayed in its own lane, that would be un­fair enough. But as Pareto points out, they’re all hope­lessly en­tan­gled. Each of these do­mains – money, op­por­tu­nity, health, ed­u­ca­tion, tal­ent, pres­tige – not only com­pounds on it­self; but spills over into the other buck­ets too. Some in­ter­ac­tions are ob­vi­ous: a suc­cess­ful au­thor will al­most by defi­ni­tion make more money. Others are less so: a fit and healthy per­son might get pro­moted over an equally-qual­ified over­weight per­son, for no good rea­son at all.

And that’s the pos­i­tive side of the ledger…

The Down­ward Spiral

My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go any­where you must run twice as fast as that.
—Lewis Carroll

Mo­men­tum also works in re­verse.

Imag­ine your part­ner breaks up with you. You start drink­ing more. The drink­ing af­fects your work. You be­come iso­lated from friends and fam­ily. You stop ex­er­cis­ing and look­ing af­ter your­self. Even­tu­ally, you lose your job. Now you have money prob­lems, on top of your de­clin­ing phys­i­cal and men­tal health, and to­tal lack of sup­port net­work. Things don’t tend to de­te­ri­o­rate in a lin­ear fash­ion: you spiral down­wards faster and faster, un­til you fall off a cliff.

The fur­ther down you slip, the harder it is to re­gain lost ground.

I had a lit­tle taste of this re­cently. A se­ries of bad things came along in quick suc­ces­sion. Each of them would have been OK in iso­la­tion; to­gether, they put me into a tailspin. I pride my­self on be­ing put-to­gether, but I un­rav­el­led dis­turbingly quickly. Order begets or­der; chaos begets chaos. It was an un­com­fortable re­minder that ev­ery­one is always only a few strokes of mis­for­tune away from the abyss: there but for the grace of God go I.

Fur­ther Down the Spiral

Just to make it ex­plicit: the ti­tle of this post is an homage to Scott Alexan­der’s es­say Med­i­ta­tions on Moloch. As Scott points out in his epic close-read­ing of an Allen Gins­berg poem, there are ob­vi­ous things we could do to make the world a bet­ter place, but some in­visi­ble force stymies our efforts:

If ev­ery­one hates the cur­rent sys­tem, who per­pet­u­ates it? And Gins­berg an­swers: “Moloch”. It’s pow­er­ful not be­cause it’s cor­rect – no­body liter­ally thinks an an­cient Carthag­i­nian de­mon causes ev­ery­thing – but be­cause think­ing of the sys­tem as an agent throws into re­lief the de­gree to which the sys­tem isn’t an agent.

The same alien ‘oth­er­ness’ ap­plies to mo­men­tum. A hand­ful of A-list ac­tors are in­un­dated with roles, when tens of thou­sands of tal­ented hope­fuls would jump at the chance to eat the scraps from their table. One per cent of ev­ery­one owns half the wealth, while billions of oth­ers are des­per­ately poor.

In ev­ery area of life, the peo­ple who are least in need of fur­ther ad­van­tage are most likely to re­ceive it.

Al­most ev­ery­one is un­happy with this dis­tri­bu­tion of out­comes, but blam­ing ‘cap­i­tal­ism’ or ‘the gov­ern­ment’ or whichever tribe you hap­pen to hate might be miss­ing the point. If there is some blind force of na­ture op­er­at­ing be­hind the scenes, then the ex­act same pat­tern will con­tinue to per­sist (which might ex­plain why so­cial­ist utopias don’t tend to go ex­actly as planned).

Back to Pareto, for more cheer­ful words of en­courage­ment:

“There is no progress in hu­man his­tory. Democ­racy is a fraud. Hu­man na­ture is prim­i­tive, emo­tional, un­y­ield­ing. The smarter, abler, stronger, and shrewder take the lion’s share. The weak starve, lest so­ciety be­come de­gen­er­ate: One can com­pare the so­cial body to the hu­man body, which will promptly per­ish if pre­vented from elimi­nat­ing tox­ins.”

As­sume we are deal­ing with some kind of all-per­va­sive force of na­ture. Moloch works tire­lessly to de­stroy ev­ery­thing hu­mans hold dear. The Matthew Effect/​mo­men­tum is more like the blind, alien god of evolu­tion—re­spon­si­ble for cre­at­ing ev­ery­thing hu­mans hold dear, but in the same mind­less fash­ion, smites en­tire species into oblivion.

The uni­verse is nei­ther hos­tile nor benev­olent; it’s ut­terly in­differ­ent. What to do?

The Lord Giveth, and The Lord Taketh Away

The parable of the tal­ents says: you bet­ter use it or lose it. Get some mo­men­tum be­hind you. Start sav­ing money as early as pos­si­ble. Re­duce debt ag­gres­sively. Build be­havi­ours that com­pound, and nip bad habits in the bud as soon as pos­si­ble. Stay the hell away from the abyss.

Sav­ing that first $100,000, as Char­lie Munger put it, is a bitch. You have to be the lit­tle rocket try­ing to es­cape the Earth’s grav­i­ta­tional pull, with all your en­g­ines on full thrust. Then you can take your foot off the gas a lit­tle, but don’t get com­pla­cent. If you lose your mo­men­tum, you’ll drift back to earth, slowly at first, then faster and faster, un­til you slam into the ground at 200 kph.

You have to fight tooth and claw to get some mo­men­tum, and then stay up there just as long as you pos­si­bly can.

This moral sounds sus­pi­ciously de­monic. But un­like Moloch’s favourite games, which are zero or nega­tive-sum, climb­ing the pyra­mid doesn’t always in­volve stamp­ing on the fingers of those be­low you.

Im­prov­ing your own health and fit­ness doesn’t make any­one else sickly. Mak­ing a con­sis­tent habit of read­ing, or learn­ing new skills, doesn’t make other peo­ple dumber. Con­trary to pop­u­lar be­lief, get­ting richer doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily make other peo­ple poorer. And of course, one of the best ways of get­ting rich in the first place is re­fus­ing to pay a pre­mium for pop­u­lar things that are pop­u­lar only be­cause they are pop­u­lar.

Ex­tend­ing a Helping Hand

If you help your­self with­out hurt­ing any­one, that’s great, but it still leaves loads of peo­ple stuck at the bot­tom of the curve.

Three en­courag­ing ob­ser­va­tions: First, even if the over­all pat­tern never changes, at least the in­di­vi­d­ual data-points can move around.

We know this hap­pens, be­cause even mighty em­pires top­ple. Gen­er­a­tional wealth doesn’t last for­ever. Celebri­ties burn out or fade away. Trees get struck by light­ning. Stars im­plode. In dy­namic so­cieties, ev­ery­one gets their turn at the top.

The sec­ond en­courag­ing ob­ser­va­tion is that mo­men­tum reaches a point of diminish­ing re­turns.

Some­times there are hard phys­i­cal limits: a red­wood can only grow so tall be­fore it takes more en­ergy to pump wa­ter up from its roots than its new nee­dles can har­vest through pho­to­syn­the­sis. After a cer­tain point, a fit per­son has to train harder and harder to eke out smaller and smaller gains, and so on.

Even where there are no phys­i­cal limits, there’s a rapid drop-off in marginal util­ity. A fa­mous per­son re­ceives more offers and op­por­tu­ni­ties than they know what to do with. The same goes for wealth. After the first cou­ple mil­lion bucks, Bill Gates tells us, it’s the same ham­burger.

If you take these two ob­ser­va­tions to­gether, it makes a lot of sense to ex­tend a helping hand up, rather than keep push­ing for smaller and smaller gains. The pat­tern per­sists, but you cre­ate a lot more mo­bil­ity up and down the curve.

Above and Beyond

Maybe Pareto was wrong.

The third en­courag­ing ob­ser­va­tion is that mo­bil­ity might be in­creas­ing, with­out a bloody rev­olu­tion. [EDIT: had an­other look, I don’t think the data ac­tu­ally sup­ports me here. damn!]

Hu­man na­ture is prim­i­tive and emo­tional, but not un­y­ield­ing. Even though we strug­gle to wrap our mon­key-minds around com­pound in­ter­est—much less so­cial con­ta­gion and non-lin­ear causal­itywe’re get­ting less bad at it.

It’s pretty cool that J.K. Rowl­ing de­liber­ately tried to play life on hard-mode again. It’s much more ex­cit­ing that more than 100 billion­aires have pledged to give away most (or all) of their for­tunes. And that thou­sands of or­di­nary peo­ple have made a life­time com­mit­ment to give at least 10 per cent of their in­come to the most effec­tive char­i­ties.

The parable of the tal­ents is pretty cut-throat. My guess is that it’s meant to be de­scrip­tive, not nor­ma­tive. And lots of peo­pleeven those at the top aren’t OK with it.

Sure, it’s the nat­u­ral or­der of things. But na­ture also gave us strych­nine, par­a­sitic wasps, and cud­dly meerkats that sys­tem­at­i­cally mur­der their in­fants. Na­ture is not to be trusted.

What’s the moral of the story? As far as I can see:

  1. work your butt off to get some mo­men­tum be­hind you,

  2. keep a watch­ful eye out for any signs of en­tropy creep­ing in,

  3. once you hit the point of diminish­ing re­turns, fo­cus your efforts on helping other peo­ple up.

John Wesley, the founder of Method­ism, de­liv­ered a fa­mous ser­mon on this topic in the 18th cen­tury. I think he summed it up more pithily:

“Hav­ing, First, gained all you can, and, Se­condly saved all you can, Then give all you can.”