Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Horse race


For some reason, I threw together a page that gives an overview of the Iowa Electronic Markets relevant to the 2008 presidential election. It's fun to see so many Republican shares in steep decline, a happiness offset by the knowledge that others will necessarily rise in their place.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The social construction of Santa Claus

I was preparing some deep soul-searching post about god and atheism and how the concept of god is real even if god isn't, but then found this much more thorough exploration of essentially the same issue (h/t LG&M):
The first thing to point out is that a social constructionist would not necessarily consider the existence of Santa Claus to be the same thing as the existence of a man in a red suit who flies around the world in one evening in a sleigh pulled by eight or nine flying reindeer and delivers toys to all of the good children of the world. Perhaps physicists are so literal when it comes to social actors, but we social constructionists tend to have a broader view on the subject. Indeed, for us, an actor exists inasmuch as and insofar as action is legitimately performed in its name. It is the massive set of activities carried out in the name of the state -- invoking state authority, done on the state's behalf -- that provides the evidence for the state's existence, as well as concretely instantiating the actor "the state" from moment to moment. Contra some IR constructivists (like Alex Wendt), it's not like there's some essential stateness lying around somewhere from which state acts emanate; rather, there are a series of actions performed in the state's name, actions that -- if successfully legitimated -- give rise to the effect of a solid object called "the state". It's not center first, action second; it's action first, appearance of a center second.
So, Santa is at least as real as the State. Merry Fucking Christmas.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Where are the blogs of yesteryear?

My favority brilliant lefty blogs have a habit of dying sudden deaths:
  • Fafblog, surrealistic snark. Ceased being updated a year and a half ago.

  • Whisky Bar, mordant, trenchant, informed analysis. Site pulled down abruptly,
    but lives on in the Internet Archive, and has an ongoing fan site Moon of Alabama.

  • The Poor Man, general mockery of wingnuttery. Seems to have died recently, would normally be managing the Golden Winger awards for 2007. Also lives on in archives.

This keeps happening. I predict Who is IOZ? will be the next to go. It has the same level of acidic, incendiary brilliance that leads to sudden flare-out.

Fortunately, there is really no shortage of good, biting material on the left -- the Bush administration has spawned a cottage industry. But I still miss the above trio.

TGGP notes a similar phenomenon in his rather different corner of the blogiverse.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Academic Units with Mildly Amusing Names, #3 in a Series

The Greater Good Science Center, UC Berkeley. This is in bold counterpoint to the rest of science, which is well-known to be mostly either evil or mad or both.
The Greater Good Science Center is an interdisciplinary research center devoted to the scientific understanding of happy and compassionate individuals, strong social bonds, and altruistic behavior. While serving the traditional tasks of a UC Berkeley research center—fostering groundbreaking scientific discoveries—the GGSC is unique in its commitment to helping people apply scientific research to their lives.
This place sounds like it's taking on potentially interesting and important questions and presenting them in the most treacly and insufferable way imaginable. Makes me want to sign up as a neocameralist.

Found via LinkBack from this interesting talk by Steve Pinker, who claims that humanity is, in fact, getting gooder, or at least less prone to murderous violence.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Gay cooties

Gregory Cochran specializes in putting forward controversial hypotheses that relate to human genetics. He's recently released a paper (with John Hawks and others) that shows that human evolution is accelerating. That's very interesting but not especially as obviously controversial as his stuff on the genetics of Askenazi intelligence and the pathogenic origin theory of male homosexuality are where you want to look for stuff like that. The latter is my subject here. [edited for clarity]

The idea is that a genetic theory of homosexuality makes no sense at all, since a genetic mutation that was so counter-productive to reproduction would be rapidly eliminated by natural selection. There are a few alternative explanations, such as that this deliterious mutation is linked to some other beneficial function (which explains the genetic survival of disorders like sickle-cell anemia). But Cochran's preferred explanation is non-genetic -- instead he hypothesizes that some infectious agent affects brain development.

I don't really have much of a stake in the politics of homosexuality. Cochran's science seems solid if speculative (and identified as such); his ideology is hidden although he has some associations to the rather suspect crew of Steve Sailer's Human Biodiversity Group. I find issues where science and politics intersect rather fascinating from an epistemolgical point of view. Presumably there is an objective fact-of-the matter about things like the origins of homosexuality, global warming, race/intelligence connections, etc. But it is almost impossible to investigate these issues objectively. Everyone involved, including scientists, seems to be quite agenda-driven. My personal strategy is to try to not associate with either side and find a neutral middle ground, but that is often difficult and unrewarding.

The name is somewhat biasing. If homosexuality is caused by an external organism, it is not necessarily pathogenic, at least from an individual's point of view. It is pathogenic from the standpoint of natural selection, because it reduces the rate of reproduction, but people do many things that are good for them but bad for their genes. So our hypothetical gay infection could be considered a symbiote rather than a pathogen. It is quite certain that a large percentage of the infected would prefer not to be "cured", and a different percentage would leap at the chance. In actuality, it is unlikely that there would be a cure since the action of this hypothetical pathogen probably takes place during early development. So no individual cures, but possibly parents could decide to take some inoculation that would be designed to knock the pathogen out of comission before they get pregnant.

Obviously those with a stake in homosexuality as a lifestyle or subculture get incensed at this prospect, and I can't say they are wrong to do so. Megan McArdle makes an analogy to the case of deaf culture, which is not happy that deaf children can be given cochlear implants and cured, removing them from the deaf culture and community. And deafness is much more clearly a pathology than homosexuality.

But I wonder if wiping out the homosexual pathogen/symbiote would be a calamity for humanity as a whole, let alone the gay subculture. It is unquestionably the case that homosexuals, like Jews, have made contributions to the mainstream culture far out of proportion to their numbers. You may not care for Broadway shows or the Village People, but

... there's no part of the cultural landscape without a gay element. Even if gays constitute as much as fifteen percent of the population, the gay contribution to Western art, architecture, music, and literature far exceeds what it should be statistically. If you accept the right-wing claim that only one in a hundred people is gay, then the gay contribution is truly extraordinary. Think about it: A group comprising one percent of the population producing Erasmus, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Marlowe, Bacon, Hölderlin, Hans Christian Andersen, Tchaikovsky, Proust ... the list goes on and on to include three of the four major nineteenth-century American novelists, one (perhaps both) of the two great nineteenth-century American poets, and two of the three most noted mid-twentieth-century American dramatists.
Not to mention Alan Turing, John Maynard Keynes, etc...

So, let's suppose the pathogen theory turns out to be true, and that medical research comes up with some sort of vaccine or other technique that interferes with it. The result could be that we plunge our culture into a dark age. Certainly we'd eliminate a lot of valuable diversity. The net benefit to humanity seems very likely to be negative.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Tortured logic

Here's a question that's circulating in the blogosphere: is Bush uniquely horrible for (among other things) being the first president to make torture an explicitly acknowledged instrument of policy? Or, since the US has practiced torture in the past, is he just more of the same? Two of my favorite poltical bloggers, tristero and IOZ, have been having some back and forth over this:
What sets the Bush Administration apart is only that it has been unabashed where others have been circumspect. This has made it easy for partisans like Tristero to fulminate against abuses that they would have otherwise been happy to ignore.
Underlying this question is the deeper one of what is the appropriate political attitude when you are temperamentally opposed to state power in all of its forms? Should you just say to hell with the lot of them, with all politicians, all government, and become a withdrawn anarchist? Or should you pick and choose and do your part to try to ensure that the less-horrible party gets control?

I vacillate on this. In the 2000 election, I voted for Nader because the two parties seemed about equally corrupt to me, although if I hadn't been in a safely Democratic state I would have voted for Gore. I regret that now. Gore, whatever his faults, would have been an infinitely better President than Bush.

In 2008 I might have the choice between Hillary Clinton, who I do not like very much due to her support of torture, her willingness to cave on Iraq, and a zillion other reasons, and Giulani, who appears to be fucking insane, a Bush with more intelligence and less charm. Yech. Well, I'll vote for Clinton, because the real consequences a Giulani presidency trumps whatever moral satisfaction I'd get by abstaining, or voting for the Democratic Socialist candidate, or whatever. The recent failure of Democrats to hold Mukasey's feet to the fire over the torture issue proves they are almost totally useless -- but "almost" is key. There are differences.

Back to torture -- I really do believe that torture practiced openly is worse than torture practiced in a strictly underground, black-ops fashion. Hypocrisy is better than outright, flagrant immorality. Torture as a dirty secret is one thing, torture as something openly practiced and defended at the highet levels of government is something else. It moves the Overton window -- if torture is a recognized and acknowledged instrument of government, what even worse things will sprout up in the shadows?

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Caplan a Communist?

So I've been dipping into Bryan Caplan's Myth of the Rational Voter. It probably represents the state-of-the-art in marketeer thinking, and addresses voting which is an issue I've messed around with here before. It's a well reasoned and written book as far as it goes, but it's breathtakingly biased itself -- in favor of economists and against humans. Underlying it is an assumption that economics is an actual science, with objective results that have the same epistemological status as the findings of physics or biology. I've got news for Caplan -- the economics Noble is a fake Nobel, and economics, while certainly a valuable field of study, is not science, and people may disagree with its findings without being ignorant, stupid, or crazy.

Here's a synopsis of Caplan's argument:

- voters are astonishingly misinformed (this, unfortunately, is true)

- BUT, that might not be a problem if voters ignorance expresses itself randomly. In that case, aggregation will result in the ignorance averaging out and the small fraction of well-informed voters will end up determining the result (YAY).

- BUT, voters are not randomly ignorant, they are systematically ignorant or biased (BOO)

- the evidence for that bias is that they disagree in surveys with the views of Ph.D. economists (WHA?)

See what happened in that last point? Somehow, reality is what the academic field of economics says it is, and if you disagree with them, you are wrong.

The breathtaking smugness and arrogance of this position is really quite something, especially when it gets expressed about specific issues, such as protectionism and downsizing. Downsizing, to the marketeer, is an unalloyed good -- the corporation is performing its function while cutting costs, thus increasing profits and efficiency, la di da. "Every time we figure out how to accomplish a goal using fewer workers, it enriches society, because labor is a valuable resource". This is true from the bird's eye view of society, from the systems perspective, from a global perspective. Markets reward and encourage efficiency, downsizing is result of this process. OK. But nowhere does Caplan even deign to acknowledge the rather fundamental fact that individuals do not take the global view. Individuals are concerned with their own well-being, and so might not take as cheery a view of downsizing as a tenured economist or a Wall Street analyst. And this is perfectly rational. To the ordinary laboring shlub, someone Caplan has apparently never met and never thinks about, the gains in market efficiency are distant and theoretical while the loss from downsizing is immediate and devastating.

Here's what's weird -- I thought economics was all about individuals pursuing their own selfish ends, and through the magic of the market weaving those myriad local, selfish goal-seekers into collective wealth generation. So why is there an assumption that when someone goes into the voting booth, they should forget about their own interests and only be interested in some abstract, global concept of economic efficiency? I find this really weird. Caplan believes that when voters stroll into a voting booth, they should vote against protectionism because that is what's good for the abstract entity called "the economy", not because it's in their own particular self-interest. Somehow this quasi-libertarian marketeer has become almost communist in his assumption that people should be putting the good of society over their personal self-interest.

Maybe I'm missing something, since I haven't read the whole book in detail. But nowhere in the first few chapters do I see any acknowledgment that individuals might have a perfectly rational interest in policies that diverge from maximizing the global efficiency of the market.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Theory and Practice of Netarchy

[warning -- way too long]

Netarchy is a word I came up with to describe an imaginaged system of governance that relies, not on top-down hierarchies of power, nor on the supposedly bottom-up collective decision-making of markets, but on power distributed, transmitted, and exercised through social networks.

There are two different versions of netarchy. There's the purely descriptive version, which is just taking note of the very common observation that in the real existing world, individuals exercise influence by means of their social networks. Having spent some small time with high-powered business types, I have observed that their Rolodex is their most important asset and tool. The same is true in government, journalism, academia, and just about any other field of human endeavor. It's not a particularly original observation, of course. Everybody and there brother is trying to get social networks online or otherwise cash in on them. However, nobody seems to have quite nailed down in words the fact that these networks rule the world. So, perhaps the word netarchy can be of some service in foregrounding that fact.

The second version of netarchy is more interesting -- it's the idea that we can craft systems of governance that make these networks explicit and bring more people into them, and replace traditional party structures with something more dynamic and flexible.

A political party or organization is essentially a network or coalition that connects the leadership with the rank-and-file, along with various middlemen (organizers, consultants, etc). Parties interface with various interest groups (businesses, labor, lobbying groups like the AARP) via contributions and socia connections. The goal of a party is to build a coalition that can take and hold power.

A party or coalition should ideally express the common values and goals of its members. The US 2-party system is rather poor at this, since it requires widely disparate groups and values to be lumped together. The Republican party, for example, has to hold together religious fundamentalists, business interests, quasi-libertarian anti-government types, and hawkish neoconservatives. There is no particular reason that all these factions should be pulling in the same direction.

Parliamentary systems have greater latitude for forming coherent coalitions. Typically countries with such systems have a 2-4 major parties and a host of smaller ones. The parties themselves come together in coalitions to form governments, but the existence of the separate parties serves to coalesce group values in a way the US system doesn't.

Direct democracy

All the parliamentary systems were designed for eras before electronic communication and certainly before the internet. In that era, it was necessary for elections to be infrequent, for representatives to debate and decide things on behalf of the larger populace. While that might still be desireable, it is no longer necessary. It would be perfectly possible nowadays to have direct democracy, where debate and voting is handled over the web. The web has in fact evolved numerous debating societies, but has no real power. It's slowly replacing journalism, but not actual government.

Of course, most people don't have the time or inclination to participate directly in government. Nor should they have to. On the other hand, pretty much everybody hates the political system and the very few choices it presents. So, can we design a system that works better? Let's not worry about the fact that changing the fundamental political system, or even modifying it slightly, is next to impossible. Maybe the coming global-warming-induced collapse of society will create an opportunity for new systems to arise.

Ultraparlamentarianism

Here's my loose proposal for how a fully networked governance should work.

Anybody anywhere can start an interest group, with roughly the same effort it takes to start a blog.

Interest groups can have members, and this process is recursive -- that is, an interest group can join another, larger interest group. This is the coalition/party forming mechanism.

Groups can form their own internal governance mechanisms to make decisions (like which larger groups to join). There will be standardized models available.

Groups that are big enough get to be part of the government. "Big enough" is defined by some threshold of membership, or by taking the biggest n, or something like that.

Assume there's an issue to be voted on. The vote is called, and all the organizations that are part of the government get to express their vote. Every group has a certain amount of voting power. How is this power determined?

Here's where it gets a little bit interesting. This general structure can support a number of different schemes, separately or together. In the simplest model, ever person is allowed to join a single group, and a group's voting power is determined by the (recursive) sum of their membership. The vote of a group is determined in a winner-take-all vote. Issues that come up for a vote flow down the tree, and votes travel back up.

If we let all votes flow up the tree without a winner-take-all step, the result is equivalent to direct democracy, with one imporant difference, which is that belonging to a group absolves individuals of the need to actually vote on every issue. That is, if you belong to a group (say, the equivalent in this new world of Planned Parenthood), and a vote comes up on an antiabortion measure, you have the option of transmitting your vote through the organization, or you can just trust them to exercise a vote for you.

Group membership could be changed at any time, although some groups might try to get longer-term commitments from their members, which would increase their barganing strength. Presumably the large-scale groups would have to engage in the kind of poltical bargaining that goes on now, where one faction trades votes with another -- this is hard to do if the coalitions are too dynamic, so it might be desireable to build some friction into the system.

Complicating things

The above assumes that each individual is a member of exactly one low-level group, which is then bundled up into coalitions. But in reality, people might want to join multiple groups that express their values in different areas. For instance, say I'm an anti-choice environmentalist. Under the current system I'm stuck, since my values don't place me solidly in either party. In netarchy 1.0, above, I'm also stuck. But suppose you can join multiple groups and somehow split your individual voting power between them?

There's a number of different ways this could work. One obvious way is to split your single vote up into fractional powers that get distributed to different groups, but that's not very satisfactory, since it means the more things you care about the less pull you have with each. A more elaborate scheme would be to create a series of rules or filters, that basically assigns a different group to each vote depending on the content of the bill (if bill contains "abortion", count me with The Catholic League, if it contains "environment", count me with the Sierra Club, otherwise, count me with the Libertarian Party).

The computational and network mechanisms to accompish all this remain to be designed. They may not be practical -- after all, designing systems to support our ordinary, simpleminded voting system has many nontrivial security issues to deal with.

What this looks like

Changing the focus to user experience -- what does this mean in terms of web media? I think the idea is that we transform the current sprawl of online forums, blogs, and chatter into a network of debating societies, but debating societies that can actually make decisions and send their collective wisdom upstream. Like any group, there will be more and less active members, leaders and followers -- groups might have internal governance structures with elected officers -- but anybody is free at any time to start their own group. It's still pretty hierarchical, but that's basically a requirement of any system that collects votes and funnels them up to a decision point. If it's a hierarchy, it's at least one that can be dynamically reconfigured at any time, on any level, if the participants feel like it.

Essentially we are replacing the legislature with a more dynamic networked structure for collecting and conveying people's opinions and votes.

Well, this will never happen, barring a major revolution. Still, it's interesting to imagine what could happen if our 225-year old structures of governance could be given a modern technological makeover.

Hm, on reflection, what I think is more likely to happen is the government devolving and getting slowly replaced by networked organizations that are more efficient and responsive. Maybe they'll work as described above. Maybe, as they start small and grow and interconnect to form something bigger that can actually manage the planet, or what's left of it.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Double plusgood, in fact

Here's a radical notion: Government is Good! I have to admire the courage of this website and its proprietor, to take such a forthright and deeply unpopular stance in the face of the general braindead libertarianism of the Intertubes.

Note: it is the official philosophy of this blog that government is in itself neither good nor bad, it is just an inescapable fact of human existence, and given that, there are certainly differentially good and bad forms of it. And, we have some obligation to join in the social process of sorting through those forms, ie politics, no matter how distasteful it may seem (if it sounds like I'm trying to convince myself, that's because I am).

h/t: a braindead libertarian, who goes on at great length proving that government is (can you guess) not so good. I can't resist quoting:

Before the New Deal, people took jobs that they preferred, and quit if the jobs did not pay sufficiently to compensate for the hazards and environment.
Whereas after the New Deal, as we all know, workers were rounded up into forced labor camps and shot if they tried to quit.

Here is a picture of some workers exercising their free economic choice in the paradisical, pre-New Deal world of unrestrained capitalism:



Damn you, FDR, for interfering with these children's voluntary exercise of their economic freedom.


Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Blogging is so over

Wow, the State Department has a blog (h/t Yglesias). As does the US government as a whole. And Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security secretary, and a random assortment of other government agencies.

If blogging ever meant anything, it was a chance for individual voices to reach a wide audience without instiutional mediation. Somewhere along the line they became marketing tools, and now big companies and big government are using them as a friendlier form of press release. I can't tell if this is fraudulent or represents a real opening up. It sounds promising:


With Dipnote we are going to take you behind the scenes at the State Department and bring you closer to the personalities of the Department. We are going to try and break through some of the jargon and talk about how we operate around the world.


I wonder how many people have to approve a posting to one of these blogs before its allowed to go public. I also am not sure who is going to read the State Department blog other than people already involved in government dealings in some way.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Death by mammoth poop

Oh joy, a new global warming positive feedback loop involving mammoth dung.

Ah, here's the original article:
Science 16 June 2006:
Vol. 312. no. 5780, pp. 1612 - 1613
DOI: 10.1126/science.1128908

Permafrost and the Global Carbon Budget

Sergey A. Zimov1, Edward A. G. Schuur2, F. Stuart Chapin III3

The carbon content of Earth's atmosphere has increased from ~360 gigatons (Gt)--mainly as CO2--during the last glacial maximum to ~560 Gt during preindustrial times and ~730 Gt today. These changes reflect redistributions among the main global carbon reservoirs. The largest such reservoir is the ocean (40,000 Gt, of which 2500 Gt is organic carbon), followed by soils (1500 Gt) and vegetation (650 Gt). There is also a large geological reservoir, from which ~6.5 Gt of carbon are released annually to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels.

Permafrost (permanently frozen ground) is an additional large carbon reservoir that is rarely incorporated into analyses of changes in global carbon reservoirs. Here we illustrate the importance of permafrost carbon in the global carbon budget by describing the past and potential future dynamics of frozen loess (windblown dust, termed yedoma in Siberia) that was deposited during the glacial age, covering more than 1 million km2 of the north plains of Siberia and Central Alaska to an average depth of ~25 m.

The frozen yedoma represents relict soils of the mammoth steppe-tundra ecosystem that occupied this territory during glacial times (1). ...we estimate the carbon reservoir in frozen yedoma to be ~500 Gt (2). Another ~400 Gt of carbon are contained in nonyedoma permafrost (excluding peatlands) (3), and 50 to 70 Gt reside in the peatbogs of western Siberia (4). These preliminary estimates indicate that permafrost is a large carbon reservoir, intermediate in size between those of vegetation and soils....

In response to climate warming, permafrost sediments have already begun to thaw (6), with extreme projections that almost all yedoma will thaw by the end of the 21st century (7).


In other extinct megafauna news, disgraced stem-cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk apparently was fraudulently channeling research money into an attempt to clone a mammoth.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

We're still here, thanks to...

Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov, a Lieutenant Colonel of the USSR who decided to trust his own judgment over standing orders and did not unleash a nuclear holocaust when, in 1983, it appeared as if the US had launched a missile attack.

It's nice to know that (a) there was room human judgment in the system, and (b) the human involved made the right choice. Are we lucky or what? Things like this make me wonder about the anthropic principle. Perhaps in most universes we were incinerated and its just the happy few that had an intelligent and brave officer in charge at the right time that there are people around to celebrate.

Impressive futurism; misleading book titles

Pretty good call:

In 1883 [Charles Ammi] Cutter wrote a futuristic essay entitled "The Buffalo Public Library in 1983". imagining what a library might look like in 100 years, he envisioned readers sitting at desks equipped with "a little keyboard" through which they could connect with a central electronic catalog, ordering books form the stacks by punching in a call nmber. He even foresaw networks of libraries connected by a "fonographic foil" that would enable them to communicate telegraphically, accessing each others' collections so readily that "all the libraries in the country...are practically one library".

From Glut, by Alex Wright. Cutter was the inventor of the Library of Congress cataloging system. The practically one library bit is here.

On the whole I was disappointed by this book, which I was hoping would have some insight into the nature of thinking under conditions of infoglut. What it turned out to be is a history of information classification systems through the ages, from Sumerians to the web. Given that, it was pretty interesting. The author has a degree in library science and it shows. The treatment of Ted Nelson, which is the part of this history that I know best, is reasonably informed and fair, and he had some interesting things to say about the historical tensions between hierarchical and bottom-up organization.

Actually, this is an excellent book except for the title, which is misleading.

It's funny because I recently read another excellent book on a completely different topic: Defying Hitler, by Sebastian Haffner, and had the same reaction. It was an frighteningly insightful memoir of Hitler's rise to power and how the educated, well-intentioned classes in Germany were totally paralyzed. The title in no way reflects the contents -- it should have been called Capitulating to Hitler.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Swords into plowshares

Surprising fact of the day:
Anderson said that 10% of US electricity currently comes from recycled Soviet nuclear warheads.
From a Long Now talk about nuclear energy. Which is apparently the least bad of options to supply the predicted doubling of energy demand by 2050. There's a bunch of questionable assumptions hidden in the argument as presented, some of which are addressed by the commenters. A huge nuclear infrastructure sounds enormously dangerous -- but then, so does burning a lot more fossil fuels.

I wonder what ever happened to space-based solar power generation? That was something I was interested in a few decades ago, but you don't hear much about it lately.

If I start getting into futurist mode I get very depressed. The world is going to go through some drastic changes in the next few decades. The biggest variable (which is not often discussed) is how fast things are going to go. If oil prices and climate change ramp up slowly, there will be time to adjust. If things go quickly, the result will be massive catastrophe. People and markets can adapt to anything, but it takes time. New technologies might help, but the cycle for developing and deploying a new technology is decades...and we've wasted the last couple twiddling our thumbs.

Oh well, this was going to be a happy post...it's certainly nice that we are turning old nuclear warheads into useful energy.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Voting as ritual

If voting could change the system it would be against the law, I used to say in my cynical anarchist days. But now I'm a good citizen, and anti-voting sentiment strikes me as puerile. I tried to respond to TGGP in-place and ran into some kind of bug (or moderation), so am replying here as well.
The libertarian distaste for politics and voting guarantees that they will remain without influence -- a good thing from my point of view, but probably not yours.

Here are some of my thoughts on voting from a couple of years ago, see especially the link to the Valdis Krebs paper.

The Landsberg piece you link to is a typically autistic piece of economist crapola. The Freakonomics boys made the same argument and I answered them there (first comment).
Voting is a ritual of social participation. The point of voting is not (as Landsberg stupidly holds) that it is only worth doing if you stand a chance of casting the single vote that tips the balance past 50/50. The point is that you are joining in with other members of your community to make a collective decision. The act of voting is a humbling and equalizing one -- in voting you (briefly) set aside your personal identity and personal power and act as just another equal citizen among others, willing to take the economic hit for the benefit of playing their small part in the collective political ritual.

I think there's an interesting comparison to be made between voting as a ritual and religious rituals, in fact. The point of religious rituals is in their collective enactment. They don't "do" anything except foster a sense of solidarity amongst their participants. But this is not at all trivial. Voting may play the same role, with the endpoint decision being less important than the ritual, and the jealously fought-for rights to participate in it.

Libertarians have a problem with this. Either they can't understand it at all, or they equate it with North Korea's mass rallies. Or they feel threatened by it. I suspect that what's going on in many libertarians is that their sense of individual identity is so weak that it feels existentially threatened by acknowledging the social nature of human existence. The Ayn Randroids are the most notable in this regard.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Everything you know is wrong

If by "you", I mean "science", and by "everything", I mean "most things":
In PLoS Medicine, John Ioannidis says:
There is increasing concern that in modern research, false findings may be the majority or even the vast majority of published research claims. However, this should not be surprising. It can be proven that most claimed research findings are false.
This paper is written in an opaque style, but Alex Tabarrok clears up the murk. Bayes rules!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Marketeer Movies

I watched the first fifteen minutes of the Gary Cooper movie version of The Fountainhead, and it truly did suck as much as I had heard.

The following, however, rocks, in some weird sense of that word:

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Free-floating authoritarianism

While answering another blogger's apparent misinterpretation of a remark I made on yet another blog, I said this:
I'm not a conservative (except in comparison to Mencius Moldbug's plans to replace the entire sociopolitical system with something he's designing from first principles) so I'm not sure why you are directing your flames at me. In fact, if there are any actual conservatives in the Burke or William Buckley mode in American politics they are almost invisible. What we have instead in the Republican party is a sort of free-floating authoritarianism, with no tradition to appeal to.
which struck me as insightful, if I do say so myself. Why does neoconservatism seem so unconservative? The modern Republican party seems composed of equal parts imperialist maniacs and religious yahoos. Neither of these factions seem very conservative, in the sense of a respect for traditional authority. But that's not surprising, since there are no strong traditions in America to adhere to. The essence of classical conservatism is a more or less irrational cleaving to tradition and traditional authority. What traditional authorities do we have here in America? The old WASP power structure, which was the closest we had, is mostly gone. Conservatism minus tradition becomes, in my new pet phrase, free-floating authoritarianism. Pity the poor conservatively-minded citizen with no reliable ruling class to show fealty to! He's liable to latch onto all sorts of ridiculous authority substitutes, such as TV preachers or George Bush or the Rudy Giulani.

A related issue comes up again in this Reason article, where libertarians are confused by how conservatives claim to oppose a strong executive while simultaneously doing everything they can to strengthen it. The answer is, conservatism was never in principle about limiting executive power. The fact that they adopted that meme at all in the post-WWII years was just a reaction to Roosevelt and the New Deal, when the executive power was wielded for the benefit of the wrong kind of people. Now they are reverting to type, while still posing as somehow opposed to government. Conservatism craves strong government, preferably in the form of a daddy figure (check out the idiotic gushing over Fred Thompson's manly aromas for a window into this kind of thinking, which entirely eludes me).

The mystery is not their internal contradictions but that they can keep up the counterfactual marketing for this long, and how ostensible "libertarians" could play along with such authoritarian elements. But nobody every went broke underestimating the political acuity of the American public.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The obvious vs. the oblivious

I am an admitted economic idiot, which is probably part of my fascination with marketeers -- I can't help feeling that they must be privy to some secret knowledge that I can't quite grasp. But, despite that, I apparently am a more astute economist than Alan Greenspan:
Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan acknowledges he failed to recognize early on that an explosion of mortgages to people with questionable credit histories could pose a danger to the economy.

In an interview, Greenspan said he was aware of "subprime" lending practices where homebuyers got very low initial rates only to see them jacked up later, causing severe payment shock. But he said he didn't initially realize the harm they could do.
It's too bad I wasn't running the Fed for the last six years, or some randomly chosed grocery clerk or waitress, since anybody with half a brain could have figured out that something like this would happen.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Shock the Monkey

Having just started covering the free-market-torturer beat, I was nonplussed to find that Naomi Klein has beaten me to the punch with a book and movie:



I have to say that I really hated the above movie. It's composed of equal parts self-righteousness and cheap emotional appeals, and drowns whatever valid things it is trying to say in questionable sludge. It's this sort of thing that has driven Mencius Moldbug to the dark side.

But it did remind me that Milton Friedman, hero of freedom-lovers everywhere, was hand-in-glove with the Chilean torture regime. So this peculiar association between "freedom" and authoritarianism is not a new story by any means.

[update: Oddly, marketeer Tyler Cowen likes the book while despising its contents..."Yes there is a senseless conflation of torture, Iraq, and the Coase Theorem." Sounds like I may have to read it after all.]

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Libertarian miscellany

Much funnier people than I make fun of "glibertarian" Megan McArdle and Professor Instaputz.

And I rather belatedly learn that just about every center of respectable libertarian thought (Cato, Reason, GMU, etc) is heavily funded by the Koch Family Foundations. If not for the smiling beneficence of David and Charles Koch, libertarianism would be still be confined to the rantings of cheeto-dust-encrusted Ayn Rand fanboys. Here's some more. There's remarkably little written material on these guys that doesn't smell of conspiracy theorist, but the conspiracy theorists may have it right this time. Essentially, everything you read from the more respectable libertarians at the above institutions should be labeled "bought and paid for by the oil and gas industries".

Update: And Atlas Shrugged gets featured prominently on the latest episode of Mad Men. Yes, I know Ayn Rand didn't consider herself a libertarian and hated those who were so identified -- it's all the People's Front of Judea to me.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

An-arrgh-chy

As Talk Like a Pirate Day approaches, let's remember that pirates are the original ontological anarchists:

An-arrgh-chy: The Law and Economics of Pirate Organization
Peter T. Leeson, Department of Economics, West Virginia University
This paper investigates the internal governance institutions of violent criminal enterprise by examining the law, economics, and organization of pirates. To sectively organize their banditry, pirates required mechanisms to prevent internal predation, minimize crew conflict, and maximize piratical profit. I argue that pirates devised two institutions for this purpose. First, I analyze the system of piratical checks and balances that crews used to constrain captain predation. Second, I examine how pirates used democratic constitutions to minimize contact and create piratical law and order. Remarkably, pirates adopted both of these institutions before the United States or England. Pirate governance created sufficient order and cooperation to make pirates one of the most sophisticated and successful criminal organizations in history.
This is the kind of political economy I can get behind. From the conclusion
Second, the institutions that comprised the pirates' system of governance -- democratic checks, the separation of power, and constitutions -- are remarkably similar to those governments employ to constrain ruler predation in the legitimate world. Government does not have a monopoly on these institutions of governance any more than it has a monopoly on the ability to generate cooperation and order...organized criminals are as interested in creating order among themselves as non- criminals. They, too, have an incentive to develop solutions to obstacles that otherwise prevent them from cooperating for mutual gain. The fact that their cooperation is directed at someone els's loss does not alter this. Thus, while Captain Charles Johnson described the pirates' criminal organization as "that abominable Society," it is important to acknowledge that, however abominable, it was nevertheless a society (Johnson 1726-1728: 114).
Some anarchists/libertarians get stuck on the idea that governments are nothing more than very successful criminal gangs. There is some truth in that, but not that much. Governments dont simply deploy force, they deploy force in ways that are legitimated by various rationales in a way that makes them more or less grudgingly accepted by their citizens/subjects. A good government is one that has tamed its criminality by means of law, institutions, and cultural norms -- but this is never a complete process, as the expanding criminality of the US government demonstrates all too well.

This study comes at this issue from the opposite end, showing that not only are governments criminal gangs, but criminal gangs are governments -- and they too can occupy a spectrum of good and bad, where good means roughly that they successfully implement rules that lead to greater levels of prductive cooperation.

The naive anarchist gets the idea that governments == violence and opposes government. The post-anarchist realizes that violence and coercion are part of reality, and you have a choice of unruly, random, chaotic violence; or violence constrained by productive institutions.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Dalai Lama rocks

Stephen Jay Gould's NOMA approach to the science/religion war has been roundly derided for believing that the truce he was trying to broker -- letting science lay claim to all objective truth, with religion relegated to matters of morality and subjectivity -- would be acceptable to the religious side of the conflict. After all, most religions make some claim to be describing reality, to be more than a set of myths and rituals.

Anyway, NOMA has finally found a religious leader with the right attitude -- the Dalai Lama, who has said:
If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own world view....
Yes indeed, here's a man who understands that religion needs to play yin to science's yang. Contrast this with popular frauds like Deepak Chopra who has been making an ass of himself attacking Richard Dawkins based on the lamest arguments imaginable.

BTW I once actually met the Dalai Lama while wandering around Cambridge...he petted the standard poodle I was walking. The dog has since passed on and I am fairly certain this helped her reincarnate as a higher lifeform.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Programming as Labor



On Labor Day, it's time to reflect about the nature of technical work. It can be enormous fun, or complete sucky. It can be enormously lucrative, or lead to abysmal unemployment. Technical workers can easily be exploited by management. Dilbert-like working conditions abound. Older workers can easily be shoved aside in favor of younger workers who can be paid less and work longer hours. The globalization of work and the relative ease of outsourcing work has the technical world in a race to the bottom. Open source is a great boon for the world but it drives down programmer salaries, and the net economic effects are that programmers around the world are subsidizing big companies with free labor. Software becomes a winner-take-all industry, which is great for the winners, but not so great for the also-rans, which is inevitably going to be most of us.

That's the downside, which very rarely gets talked about. The upside of course is that technology is in fact an extremely dynamic and productive industry, with a great variety of opportunities, etc. But technology cheerleading is so prevalent and tedious, that perhaps its time to take a look at the human downside of all those wonders. Today's a day for thinking about the 50-year old laid-off software developer who can't get hired, or those who have to pay California mortgages while competing with Indian salaries, or those with medical conditions that prevent them from working or getting insured, or other victims of life vicissitudes. There is so much lionization and hero worship in the technology industry, and so little attention paid to ordinary workers.

Stock options, the dream of starting your own company, and transitions to management all serve to keep the workforce from achieving the sort of class consciousness that would permit them to organize on their own behalf. Programmers think of themselves as independent-minded, and oftebn have been infected with libertarianism. They are probably the last occupation on earth that could be unionized. Like the children of Lake Woebegon, they all think they are above average and are going to come out on top in the winner-take-all competition, and don't have much patience with those who aren't winning the race.

Here are a few (very lame) efforts at getting programmers to organize on their own behalf:

Programmers-Union: a chat site that seems dead. Here are some typical reactions from libertarianish programmers.

Cyberlodge. Sponsored by a real union, the IAMAW. Tagline: "Fight Offshoring". They actually seem to have a tiny bit of a clue, but the site hasn't been updated since April.

Programmer's Guild: somewhat more alive, this is also function mainly as to lobby for increased protectionism of domestic jobs. "The Programmers Guild advances the interests of U.S. technical and professional workers in information technology (IT) fields, and opposes the transfer of U.S. jobs, technology, and infrastructure overseas." Here they are exposing a sleazy law firm giving advice to company HR departments on how to game H1-B regulations by place fake classified ads. That's a valuable sort of interest-group advocacy work, although a long way from collective bargaining.

Update: here's another one, The Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, Communications Workers of America, Local 37083, AFL-CIO. This is the realest-looking one so far. h/t Wall Street Journal!

Would a programmer's union be a good thing, even if it was capable of getting off the ground? Probably not, at least not one that operated in the classical model. The tech industry is too distributed, entrepeneurial, and irregular to make such a thing workable. But that doesn't mean that tech workers can't start finding some common interests to organize around. Geeks are very effective when their interests are threatened, as organizations like the EFF, GNU, and Creative Commons show. But none of these address bread-and-butter economic issues, perhaps because geek culture is too young to have had to worry much about them. That will change.

[photo h/t: Happening Here]
[update: actual discussion of unions and the modern world happening here. I liked this comment:
the oft heard argument that "[name of multinational] moved its factories to China and Mexico. Therefore it is necessary to abandon unions" makes as much sense as "I had a lousy the Big Mac the other day. It is time to do away with restaurants."
]

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The unmentionable odour of death

Are we really going to attack Iran? I honestly have no idea. It's manifestly insane, but that hasn't stopped the Bush administration in the past. There have been false alarms about this in the past. In the meantime, this:
September 1, 1939
by W. H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
That's the first lines of the signature poem of our time. Composed on the eve of Hitler's invasion of Poland, it also resonated eerily with 9/11, and the matches just keep on coming, for instance, I just noticed that the closing lines seems to describe the internet:
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Waffles

If fucking Belgium can't manage to resolve its ethnic tensions, how in the world can anybody expect it to happen in Iraq, where they don't have a long tradition of chocolate, waffles, and weird paintings to stabilize the place?

See also: Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Spain (Basques), Canada, Rwanda...

There's been absolutely no mention of this in the US press as far as I can tell, but here's some reportage.

The danger of overabstraction

Robin Hanson is not a libertarian, clearly. And there's nothing explicitly market-based in the current torture proposal we are kicking around. But I classify him as a marketeer because he's supported a variety of market-based solutions (futures markets, health care, etc) in the past. There's nothing at all wrong with that! An undogmatic support for market-based systems is OK with me. Some libertarians make a fetish of the market, and those are the ones I classify as stupid, but Robin is not one of those. He's worked on and promoted some great ideas, and I have enormous respect for that (in fact, I implemented one of the things he has promoted). So it pains me to see him go in a direction that seems so obviously wrong, and doing it by means of frankly stupid arguments.

Nonetheless, I see a link between market-based thinking and the torture proposal. It's this: the idea that human suffering is some kind of tradeable commodity, that one kind can be exchanged for another based on some mythical calculus of pain. The most plausible version of the torture proposal is that we give, for example, a convicted burglar the choice of five years in jail or five weeks of torture. One of the brave writers at Overcoming Bias, who values his time, say of course they'd pick the five weeks "as long as it didn't do permanent physical or psychological damage". There are so many things wrong with this it's hard to know where to start. For one thing, until you have actually been tortured you have no way of knowing how much disutility it's worth to you. For another of course torture leaves permanent damage! The underlying assumption is that torture is like some kind of scary rollercoaster ride at Great America -- disturbing for a while, but then it's over. Try reading about actual torture victims sometime. For another, the the damage caused by torture is not limited to the victim, but includes a pervasive corruption of the entire social order.

So this proposal is entirely disconnected from reality and doesn't even work well on the abstract level. What's going wrong with people's thinking? I believe that the underlying bug is a tendency towards overabstraction. The essence of markets, and market-based thinking, is abstraction. From the overwhelming complexity of the world, we distill everything into a commodity that can be bought, sold, or exchanged for something else. This works just fine for some things -- soybeans, electronic components, etc. It doesn't work so well for other things. Market-based thinking (and maybe utilitarianism) rests on the assumption that anything of any value, positive or negative, can be quantified and equivalently replaced by something else of the same value. It should be obvious that this isn't the case, since there are many things (honor, bodily integrity) that are by definition not for sale. But it's not obvious to some, and it leads them down ridiculous and dangerous pathways. When random net flamers do it, it's just amusing. But when important thinkers with tenure do it, it's positively alarming.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Another economics professor for state-sponsored torture

Robin Hanson may not be a libertarian, but he is a marketeer, which is the name I just invented for the broader category of people who generally favor market-based solutions wherever possible. He's definitely one of the smart ones, and generally non-dogmatic, so it pains me to see that he is making incredibly idiotic arguments in favor of torture. He actually tries to imply that the difference between torture and the ordinary kind of judicial punishment is no different than the difference between the left and right hand. It's rare to see an analogy that maladroit.

What the hell is wrong with these people?

This blog has been around for about two years now (I started it as a horrified reaction to the effects of Katrina), and hasn't yet found a coherent theme other than "stuff that happens to interest me". But it may be converging on "libertarians (ok, marketeers) are wack". Too bad the niche is taken.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Red Networks

I'm getting into it with economics professor James Miller, torture advocate, at Overcoming Bias. But poking around I found this delightful piece from four years ago:
Digital Communism
Cyberspace goes red.

By James D. Miller

By legalizing Internet file-trading tools, a California court handed a major victory to communism. The Internet allows the well-wired to take copyrighted material freely. Left unchecked, rampant copyright theft may soon destroy the for-profit production of movies, music and books and may usher in an age of digital communism....

The best hope to stop copyright piracy lies in stopping the distribution of peer-to-peer networks that facilitate such theft. By holding that these networks have no liability for inappropriate use of their tools the California court has reduced the value of digital property rights...Is it necessarily bad if piracy destroys intellectual property rights? After all, when everything is free we can live out Karl Marx's dream and have everyone take according to his needs.
Well, we all know what happened, don't we? The peer-to-peer networks won, capitalism collapsed, and we're all saluting giant pictures of Shawn Fanning while standing in line waiting for our weekly ration of bandwidth.

Wonder what he thinks of Open Source?

Freedom is Slavery

For awhile, I was dividing libertarians into two kinds. The first class were those that seemed basically much stupider than me, as evidenced by their reliance on rote recitation of stale arguments, an unwillingness to question their assumptions, and (in the extreme case) devotion to the cult of Ayn Rand. Most of the random libertarian flamers on the net fell into this categeory. Then there were the others, who actually seemed pretty smart, and certainly smarter than me at least in the area of economics. This category included a number of actual professors, cryptoanarchists, visionaries, and crackpot geniuses.

Sometimes these categories blurred a bit. For instance, I'm sure Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame is smarter than I am, and has the credentials to prove it. On the other hand, on the rare occasions I read the Freakonomics blog I find the exact sort of simpleminded market reductionism I used to hear from the cheeto-stained fingers of dorky computer geek libertarians. So. Also, this classification doesn't seem very useful to other people, who may rank above or below me in the smartness scale.

So I have a new dichotomization: there are the libertarians who actually seem interested in liberty, and those who seem more interested in something else. I'm not sure what that something else is, but it seems to lead them directly from libertarianism to being a Bush cheerleader, despite the manifest unlibertarianism of the current regime, or to something altogether more surprising, namely a fondness for unabashed authoritarianism in its theoretical form.

In blogland, the first category is represented by people like Jim Henley of Unqualifed Offerings and Radley Balko. These gentlemen are concerned with fighting for freedom in the current political reality, which means generally in opposition to the Bush regime. They might well be card-carrying ACLU members despite that organization's leftist tint.

On the other hand, we have people like the odious Glenn Reynolds, most prominent political blogger around, a self-described libertarian and in actuality a cheerleader for whatever moronic, dangerous, or illegal act the Bushies are up to. We also have Mencius Moldbug, who has thoughtso far beyond the usual libertarian platitudes that he's arrived at some mix of monarchism, colonialism, and the sort of quasi-capitalist authoritarianism practiced in Singapore and China, two nations which win his approval. We've also got a free-marketeer economics prof (not sure if he's actually a libertarian, but close enough) who blandly advocates for torture as a cost-effective means of punishment. The dean of loud-mouthed stupid libertarians has been an equally loud-mouthed supporter of the criminal and criminally stupid invasion of Iraq. Apparently libertarianism is perfectly compatible with imperialism:
Witness the fact that I, a radical libertarian anarchist for more than twenty years, find myself arguing for a position not all that easy to distinguish from reactionary military expansionism.
Uh-huh. Raymond blusters over his contradictions, whereas Moldbug at least seizes the bull by the horns and honestly embraces authoritarianism.

I am, or used to be, interested in the psychology of libertarianism. It seemed to be a deeply geeky ideology, fueled by a desire to replace the complex and scary real world with a simple distributed algorithm. From that perspective, a slide from libertarianism to authoritarianism makes sense, because a strong authority is another way of making the complex conflicts of the real world go away.

[Update: oddly enough, this posting has been linked to by one of its victims, resulting in an influx of readers far past the usual single digits. If I knew that would happen, I probably would have written it more carefully. In particular, a lot of people I label "libertarians" wouldn't call themselves that. But they are market-oriented thinkers, which puts them in roughly the same basket as far as I'm concerned.]

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Hitlery

Great. On a day in which the Bush administration succeeds in convicting a man they've held incommunicado and tortured for years, on a day in which government restrictions on domestic satellite surveillance are being lifted, on a day when a group linked to the Bush administration has been found to have been promoting the idea that Bush should be named president-for-life -- what better task does a leading libertarian intellectual (Nick Szabo) have to do than to suggest that Hillary Clinton's I-care-for-you-deeply routine makes her the equivalent of Kim Jong Il?

I am continually amazed by the way in which so many libertarians combine a generally high intelligence with political acumen that would disgrace a retarded chimp. What the hell is wrong with these people?

I'm no fan of Hillary's, but every time I see one of these lame-brained attacks from the right (and in this case the libertarians are just mining the same psycho paranoia as the mainstream right) her stock goes up a notch.

[BTW, this was originally a comment on the blog post. But, in a true proprietarian libertarian fashion, Szabo hasn't seen fit to let my comment get past moderation, I am interpreting censorship as damage and routing around it.]

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Moldbug Variations


My recent fascination with the work of Mencius Moldbug has drawn me into the world of right-wing intellectuals. Not the shameless neoconservative Bush shills, but people with actual ideas, albeit scary ones. Dark thinkers, who are not afraid to dig up and poke at the weak foundations of the Enlightenment. Where they want to go with this, I'm not sure. They seem to have a fondness for The Old Days, including colonialism (much more well-ordered than the current third-world mess), monarchy, and empire. They verge close to racism and the dark proto-facism of de Maistre.

Still, it's a fascinating world. I've learned about interesting people like Australian philosopher David Stove, who wrote a great piece demolishing most of philosophy but doesn't believe in evolution. I suppose he exemplifies, in a somewhat different way, the mixture of deep insight and utter wrongheadedness of this new world. Then the right-wing blogs of course have a way of finding and publicizing the worst of the "left", including the wonderful Stalin Society.

I'm in heaven, because at my age I don't find anything new to interest me very often.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

And I thought I had a bad reaction to libertarians

Here's Nassim Nicholas Taleb:
When I recently had drinks and cheese with Stephen Dubner (I ate 100% of the cheese), he asked me why economics bothers me so much as a discipline, to the point of causing allergic reactions when I encounter some academic economists. Indeed, my allergy can be physical: recently, on a British Airways flight place between London and Zurich, I found myself seated across the aisle from an Ivy League international economist dressed in a blue blazer and reading the Financial Times. I asked to be moved and preferred a downgrade, just to breathe the unpolluted air of economy class. My destination was a retreat in the Swiss mountains, in a setting similar to that of Mann’s Magic Mountain, and I wanted nothing to offend my sensibility.
I'll have to read the guy's book now...sounds like my kind of elitist snob.

Note: for my purposes, libertarian == "computer geek who fancies himself an amateur economist who spends his time playing World of Warcraft and posting to newsgroups". Somewhat more honorable than the blue-blazered first-class flying type, actually.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Führerprinzip

From the World's Stupidest Editorial Page comes this argument that we should all just shut up and line up behind Dear Leader:
But as someone who escaped from communist Romania--with two death sentences on his head--in order to become a citizen of this great country, I have a hard time understanding why some of our top political leaders can dare in a time of war to call our commander in chief a "liar," a "deceiver" and a "fraud."

They can because this isn't communist Romania, you pompous twit.

Unfortunately, partisans today have taken a page from the old Soviet playbook...Sowing the seeds of anti-Americanism by discrediting the American president was one of the main tasks of the Soviet-bloc intelligence community ... This same strategy is at work today, but it is regarded as bad manners to point out the Soviet parallels.

No, it's regarded as fucking moronic.
For once, the communists got it right. It is America's leader that counts. Let's return to the traditions of presidents who accepted nothing short of unconditional surrender from our deadly enemies.
So -- in time of war, we aren't allowed to criticize the president who is the veritable incarnation of America's strength. To do so is tantamount to treason. We are at war against "terror", that is, we're in a war that can never end, so basically we aren't allowed any criticism of the president ever.

Mr.
Pacepa should have stayed in Romania, he's obviously learned his lessons well there. "The communists got it right", indeed.

This is related, loosely, to the dynamics of conflict, forcing side-choosing, hardending of the boundaries. There is not a good term for this, which is a pity, since it seems to be at the root of war and many other social dynamics.

I recently had a long chat with Mencius Moldbug, an interestingly crazy libertarian whose goal is (roughly), to eliminate politics (because it leads to violence and war) and replace it with contracts, ownership, and law. I think this is largely misguided, but I'm partly sympathetic. Politics is unpleasant, it kills the mind, it forces people to conform to group norms so is hostile to the individual, it leads to violence. But I don't think you can get rid of it.

H-T, IOZ



Saturday, August 04, 2007

Scenes from Modernity

Trying to explain to an eight-year-old that his aunt is going to have twin babies, but despite the fact that she's near 45 the eggs were only 22 years old, because the doctor takes eggs from a donor mommy and puts them and the daddy's sperm in a glass dish, then puts the embryos into the mommy a few days later, so the babies will have two different mommies as well as a daddy.

Come to think of it, IVF does bypass the traditional embarrassing moment of explaining this stuff to children. Yet another benefit of advanced technology.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Birds, frogs, pasta, and the ultimate nature of reality

Things I'm reading instead of what I should be reading: Max Tegmark's new paper, The Mathematical Universe, which expands on his earlier work that I've mentioned before.
The External Reality Hypothesis: There exists an external physical realitycompletely independent of us humans.

The Mathematical Universe Hypothesis: Our external physical reality is an abstract mathematical structure.
This is one of those "so crazy it might be true" theories. And for me, it seems to talk about some of the more abstruse issues in theoretical physics from the math up, in a way that makes them almost comprehensible.
When considering such examples, we need to distinguish between two different ways of viewing the external physical reality: the outside view or bird perspective of a mathematician studying the mathematical structure and the inside view or frog perspective of an observer living in it.

...If history were a movie,the structure would therefore correspond not to a single frame of it but to the entire videotape. Consider the first example above, a world made up of classical point particles moving around in three-dimensional Euclidean space under the influence of Newtonian gravity. In the four-dimensional spacetime of the bird perspective, these particle trajectories resemble a tangle of spaghetti...To the frog, the world is described by Newton's laws of motion and gravitation. To the bird, it is described by the geometry of the pasta, obeying the mathematical relations corresponding to minimizing the Newtonian action.

[under Quantum Field Theory]...If the bird sees such deterministic frog branching, the frog perceives apparent randomness.
I like those bird and frog terms and will adopt them for my own scruffy thoughts on the nature of subjective and objective views of the universe (I may leave out the pasta though).

Science is the process whereby frogs laboriously attempt to take the perspective of birds.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

We are ruled by sociopaths

Turns out that 9/11 and the global war on terror is a good thing, because if we didn't have that we'd probably be starting up a war with China.

At the first meeting, one Republican woman on the commission said that the overwhelming threat was from China. Sooner or later the U.S. would end up in a military showdown with the Chinese Communists. There was no avoiding it, and we would only make ourselves weaker by waiting. No one else spoke up in support....

"Her name was Lynne Cheney," Hart said. "I am convinced that if it had not been for 9/11, we would be in a military showdown with China today." Not because of what China was doing, threatening, or intending, he made clear, but because of the assumptions the Administration brought with it when taking office. (My impression is that Chinese leaders know this too, which is why there are relatively few complaints from China about the Iraq war. They know that it got the U.S. off China's back!)

or to put it even more bluntly:
during the 1990s "There was actually a deliberate search for an enemy because they felt that the Republican Party didn't do as well" when foreign policy wasn't on the issue agenda.

Hearing stuff like this awakens the dormant anarchist in me. "Why should anyone be surprised at this?", he says. "Violence and conflict is what governments do, and if there's not enough violence and fear of violence to maintain their power, they'll do their best to manufacture some."

A government's ability to drum up violence is inversely proportional to the political intelligence of the populace. And Americans in particular are political idiots. We have the government we deserve.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Convergence

Re my recent departure from Telic Thoughts; I somewhat regret it because there were occasional glimmers of a synthesis emerging from the flames. Stunney (my main interlocuter) viewed God as "transcendent reason". I thought this was an interesting if flawed idea, meaning that while transcendent reason might exist in some way (in the same way mathematical objects have a transcendent, Platonic existence), it didn't have any of the anthropomorphic attributes people hang off of God -- getting angry at people having unconventional sex lives, for instance. Nonetheless I was open to a sort of convergence argument.

Let's say there is a transcendent form of reason. Let's also say that blind, grunting, material evolution somehow drives matter to achieve an imperfect approximation of this perfect rationality. This "somehow" has the nature of a convergent solution, in that while there are is a huge infinity of possible forms, there are relatively few mathematically coherent forms. Seemingly random processes converge on these coherent forms, resulting in all the patterns, life, truth, and beauty we see in the universe.

We see convergence in attempts to generate new systems of mathematics (turns out you can't design a version of the integers with three different signs, and we presume that aliens will understand the Pythagorean theorem), and convergent evolution (eyes were independently "invented" many times). So, maybe evolution converges to rational minds, and maybe the endpoint of convergence has some theological qualities. Maybe.

I wish Telic Thoughts was a good place to explore this quarter-baked conception, but the discourse there inevitably devolves into flaming. I'll give Uncle Aleistair the last word on this:


"It must have a 'natural' cause."
"It must have a 'supernatural' cause."
Let these two asses be set to grind corn.
Frater Perdurabo, O.T.O., "Chinese Music," The Book of Lies

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Independence Day

I've just booted myself off the silly Telic Thoughts blog where I was having endless arguments with theists and other crackpots. The trigger that allowed me to break away from what was turning into an alarming addiction was that the list owners started deleting my messages in a thread where I had argued (mildly) for neural determinism over free will. "My neurons made me delete your posts", they childishly claimed. Ha-ha. A good excuse to bow out for me.

This is a standard stupid move in discussions of free will vs. determinism -- "if there's no free will, then your postings are meaningless and so are my actions". Yawn. Obviously, the interesting paradox is that we are apparently completely determined, yet we are capable of asserting meanings and have something that appears to be freedom and independence from the web of causality in which we are embedded.

So I don't believe solely in neural determinism, as does someone like Tom Clark whose version of naturalism attempts to collapse all causation to material causation. Everything we do might be caused by our neurons, but causal explanation is not the same thing as material explanation.

I've also been reading Judea Pearl's book on Causality, which contains some interesting thoughts on the nature of causality and causal explanations. According to Pearl, nobody has yet made a very good mathematics theory of causality, a concept which doesn't fit well into physics or statistics (Pearl claims he has one). I haven't worked through the formal theory, but the informal theory seems to be roughly: while the universe is a seamless web of causal connections, when we make a causal explanation we necessarily sever out a subsystem that we are explaining from its environment, and we create a model that allows us to explore the effects of hypothetical interventions to the system.

If you subscribe to pure materialism, the world is a huge web of interdependency. The problem is, you can't do anything with such a theory. For instance, a car is influenced by the road, the fuel you put in it, the chemical composition o fthe atmosphere, and the gravitational pull of Jupiter. If the car won't start, however, only some of these factors will be invoked as causal explanations. But, why? How do we know that the absense of fuel is likely to be a cause of failure to start, while the position of Jupiter is unlikely? (of course, not everyone agrees!) Because we have a model in our heads and can imagine what would happen if there was no fuel vs what would happen if Jupiter was in a different position.

Such causal models are much more useful than, say, a pure physics model which does not permit us to think about interventions.

Where is this nonsense going? Oh yeah, it's Independence Day! Where we celebrate our severing of certain causal connections between the American colonies and Mother England. A pure fiction of course, since physically Engliand was just as causally connected to North America as before. But a fiction with power, a fiction that could rearrange the causal models of the colonists and thus lead to actual changes in the physical causal connections.

Independence is one of those necessary fictions, like free will. And maybe God is too, although the verdict is still out on that one.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Aleph and the Knowledge Worker

or, The nature of knowledge in the wired world.

[warning -- formless braindump]

Borges' story The Aleph tells of a point at which a person can view the entire state of the world, everything concentrated and simultaneous. Typically, it's a metaphysical horror story with uncanny resonances in both present reality and the future. The Aleph was published in 1949, four years after Vannevar Bush's seminal article As We May Think, which described the Memex, the postwar technocrat's version of The Aleph as a realizable device. Did Borges read Bush, or just intuit a zeitgeist that was blowing through both of them?

Bush's article is an amazing mix of insightful prophecy and some laughably wrong technical predictions (ie, that storage would involve photographic processes). But mostly he got it right. What is really startling, however, is that despite the fact that we have information systems orders of magnitude more capable than he dreamed of, the problem still remains:

There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers' conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.


He anticipated the primacy of search:

The prime action of use is selection, and here we are halting indeed. There may be millions of fine thoughts, and the account of the experience on which they are based, all encased within stone walls of acceptable architectural form; but if the scholar can get at only one a week by diligent search, his syntheses are not likely to keep up with the current scene.

Selection, in this broad sense, is a stone adze in the hands of a cabinetmaker. Yet, in a narrow sense and in other areas, something has already been done mechanically on selection. The personnel officer of a factory drops a stack of a few thousand employee cards into a selecting machine, sets a code in accordance with an established convention, and produces in a short time a list of all employees who live in Trenton and know Spanish.
And user interfaces:
One can consider rapid selection of this form, and distant projection for other purposes. To be able to key one sheet of a million before an operator in a second or two, with the possibility of then adding notes thereto, is suggestive in many ways. It might even be of use in libraries... One might, for example, speak to a microphone, in the manner described in connection with the speech controlled typewriter, and thus make his selections. It would certainly beat the usual file clerk.

And blogging and search trails and annotation (which the web has still not quite got right):


It affords an immediate step, however, to associative indexing, the basic idea of which is a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another. This is the essential feature of the memex. The process of tying two items together is the important thing.

When the user is building a trail, he names it, inserts the name in his code book, and taps it out on his keyboard. Before him are the two items to be joined, projected onto adjacent viewing positions... The user taps a single key, and the items are permanently joined..

Thereafter, at any time, when one of these items is in view, the other can be instantly recalled merely by tapping a button below the corresponding code space. Moreover, when numerous items have been thus joined together to form a trail, they can be reviewed in turn, rapidly or slowly, by deflecting a lever like that used for turning the pages of a book. It is exactly as though the physical items had been gathered together from widely separated sources and bound together to form a new book. It is more than this, for any item can be joined into numerous trails.


So. Now we are at a point where we have huge amounts of information at our fingertips, and reasonably good ways to search for it, and crude but effective ways to link it together. The combination of internet standards, high-speed access, Google and open access scientific publications has made a new world. We should be in knowledge paradise!

But that's not how it feels. The basic human problem of how to deal with information hasn't gone away, it's just been raised to the nth power. Finding documents is easy, deciding which are worth reading, and in how much detail, is as difficult as ever. Where should effort be focused, and how can one narrow down a global curiosity into a manageable subset?

Look at the typical modern knowledge worker, trying desperately to keep track of all the things they want to know, or ought to know. Maybe you aren't in this boat, but I am -- comes of too much intellectual curiosity. My RSS reader has 300 feeds! Categorized variously -- I read the politcs blogs mostly for entertainment (in that they don't generally spur me to action), the philosophic ones for ideas, the tech ones mostly out of obligation.

Even within tech, it's a lost cause. There are about five different programming languages I'm involved with right now -- do I want to keep up with current developments in them? And what about all the components and toolkits; what's going on with Prototyup or Scriptaculous? Or Lisp, Ruby, Python? Then there is the entire universe of Java language, components, and tools like Eclipse, which is a whole sub-universe unto itself.

There's no way I can be an expert in all of this stuff. Can I be an expert in finding out just the right piece of knowledge i need? Well, there's where Google comes in handy. I've had pretty good luck, the last six months or so, googling for answers to obscure or not-so-obscure tech questions. A couple of issues though:

It gives a big advantage to tools with a large user community. For instance, I've had occasion both to use Oracle and the very nice Virtuoso OpenLink, an open-source database/semantic web platform/middleware/kitchen sink. THe problem is, hardly anyone is uing Virtuoso so my stupid questions do not have a stupid answer available wit a quick Google. Instead, I need to mail the developers and maybe they get back to me in a day or so, or maybe not.

So where was I? Oh yeah, trying to think about Google and Borges and Memexes and focus and what it means to know everything...got distracted...

The point is it's impossible to know everything, and not even that useful. But what should an informational omnivore know? How to use Google effectively, sure....but there seems to be a deeper idea lurking somewhere in there.

The nature of knowing is going to be different in the future. I was trying to get at this when I coined the term "googlectual" -- as search gets incorporated into our thinking, the knowledge in the digital sphere becomes a part of what we know -- sort of. We lack good metaphors and ways for thinking about the relationship between knowledge-in-the-head and knowledge-in-the-world and the increasingly tight coupling between them.

Alright, I'll stop now.