Saturday, September 24, 2011

optimism list

I'm a sucker for memes and Tyler Cowen started another good one: the optimism list.
  1. I'm optimistic that information technology and sheer density of humanity will make it very hard to maintain walls. I'm optimistic about patent/copyright law and therefore innovation, immigration, the demise of dictatorships, information censorship, a decrease in war, etc. [Conversely, I'm pessimistic about mob mentality, the political culture, epidemics, and other well-known downsides to density...]
  2. Similarly, I'm optimistic that with increasing wealth and widespread English literacy will come increasing international mobility, and that with increasing mobility will come increasing competition between national governments, and that with this comes better policy. So long as no one has any more bright Eurozone++ meganational ideas...
  3. I'm optimistic that crazy and/or rich people will continue to do wonderful things even if governments do their best to disincentivize them and even  if it becomes difficult to enforce property rights in a way that incentivizes them. You only need one person to be convinced of the profitability of exploring Mars to get humans to Mars; you also only need one eccentric billionaire with an interest in Mars to get humans to Mars. [Conversely...well you can imagine.]
  4. I'm optimistic that there will be more and more rich (in money OR time) people doing wonderful things just because they want to and can (and because among 7 billion people, a tiny percentage goes a long way). I'm optimistic about economic growth and the developing world in general.
  5. I'm optimistic about the scarce resources that we depend on. The world isn't going to end when we deplete our oil reserves or the easily-accessible fresh water. Prices will adjust and innovation will occur. Likewise, I'm (less so, but more so than most...) optimistic about climate change, pollution, overpopulation, etc. [But, I'm very pessimistic about scarce resources that are considered by most to be expendable, or that have clear but indirect and uncapturable value, and that won't recur or be fixable once we realize what we've done. Save our national parks; protect biodiversity.]
  6. I'm pessimistic about mental health and the general adjustment to a modern lifestyle that is very foreign to our evolutionary roots. We will make ourselves crazy and miserable continuing to live in cubicles and sit at keyboards a majority of our waking hours, but the immediate incentives never lead away from this. I'm pessimistic that the long-term accepted solution is going to be pharmacological, in an inevitably flawed attempt to change human nature rather than our environment.
  7. I'm pessimistic about human nature and our mental limitations encountering a world that operates with many cognitive prerequisites, but optimistic about our ability to work around those limitations. (I'm also quite optimistic about the increasing level of self-knowledge, both as individuals and as a species, but pessimistic that even on its best day, self-knowledge can't trump self.)
  8. I'm pessimistic that, in a world run by the extroverted mafia majority, the transition away from [work-on-site / perpetual meetings and real-time collaboration / verbal, in-person communication / etc] workplace norms, as facilitated by information technology, will be slowed enough that my own career options will remain severely limited by an extreme aversion to these things...
  9. I'm optimistic that, as bad as things might get, there will still be rainbows, kittens and LaTeX.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

waste, more generally speaking

...than just politics or advertising in particular. I meant to link to this article yesterday when I stole a wording from it, but it's worth it's own post anyhow. Go read.

(Ignore the "Darwin vs. Adam Smith" thing - the phenomenon in discussion is of course well-known, and in more general terms than to biologists I suspect, to economists. The phenomenon itself and the analogy between how it plays out in the ecosystem and the market is what is interesting.)

(Also, I would strongly disagree with the following claim about modern liberals, aside from that tragically small subset of liberals, or conservatives for that matter, who actually understand markets...: "Like modern liberals, [Smith] saw market failure as rooted in insufficient competition.")

Anyway, enough asides. The point is, if individual competitive interests diverge from the common interest, this can* lead to waste, such as 40-pound antlers or billions of dollars spent on advertising.

(And then he talks about consumption taxes, which is interesting - and nice to see; consumption taxes are left out of the tax policy discussion despite being a great idea...- but I think more than an essay is needed to link that discussion to the earlier one robustly.)

*emphasis on can. The author claims will.**

**Now how is that for a blog post consisting entirely of asides and footnotes?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Politics leads to waste as each side tries to out-shout the other with progressively louder commercials. I suggested that there is a way to divert most of this wasteful spending in a way that preserves the competitive impact of the foregone campaign donation. Unfortunately, this doesn't work in advertising, since individuals don't pay for it.

Advertising is just like politics in the sense that individual firm interests (to sell more Dr. Rootsicola brand liquid sugar) diverge from public interests (to have access to, and be aware of, the highest quality-for-the-price liquid sugar) in such a way that leads to massive wasteful expenditures by Dr. Rootsicola as they try to stomp out their possibly superior, but underfunded, competitor. In the process, we get bombarded by a thousand times more advertising than we want or need for informational purposes and have to pay higher prices for the privilege of funding this war. Unfortunately, the war is indeed successful at planting certain brands in our brains; otherwise it would be a viable strategy to spend just enough on ads to inform the public of the superiority of an alternate, and charge less for it.

Other than sparking a cultural tideshift that makes advertising repugnant (New, all natural low-fat low-sugar low-ad water!™) I don't see a way to a effect change actively. But yet I'm not pessimistic. Two trends are shifting the advertising industry into a value-creator:

  1. The internet. We're all familiar by now with how advertising supports an economy of free things that are valuable but nearly impossible to make money off of directly as a result of being non-concrete/zero-marginal-cost and imitable/piratable. I like this symbiosis.
  2. Groupon et al. It's not yet clear how short-lived this fad will be, but deep-discount coupon sites are popping up faster than wackamoles. I suspect there's going to be a substantial backlash / redesign for awhile as people learn how bad they are at remembering to use coupons they've already paid for, and businesses figure out how to design the best offers in a given context, but I don't think they're disappearing. Last week one afternoon I had a free smoothie, ice cream sandwich, falafels, and deep-fried oreos. Now I know how good those smoothies and falafels and sandwiches are (...and not to ever eat deep-fried candy again if I want to avoid a mid-motorcycle-commute heart attack.) Instead of strapping me to a chair and forcing me to watch a video spot they spend thousands of dollars to create, they fed me and informed me, and I'll be going back. Everyone wins. I don't know how the cost-benefit comparison* works out, but I have an inkling: I can't name a single n-dozen-times repeated hulu commercial at the moment, but I know exactly where to go for good falafel.
*Yeah, it completely depends on the context. A multinational automobile firm advertises differently than the local ice cream shop. Still...

Monday, September 19, 2011


Civilization is a mild torture mechanism, a Harrison Bergeron-style device constantly preventing us from fully experiencing moments like the moments we were evolved to thrive in. We become so accustomed to this subtle soul-upsetting buzz that we embrace it as the new normal; until, when an unexpected reprieve grants us the time to float back to equilibrium, we fleetingly glimpse how much energy we've been expending just to tread the water of our day to day lives.

In Golden Gate park is a particular tree. In the middle of millions of people you can reclaim a piece of your peace of mind, by only climbing sixty feet or so above the hobos and traffic and power suits and jogging ipods. Leave behind the torture device, lay out on the branches, and listen to the wind gradually drown out the bustle below.

This is what it's supposed to feel like to breathe.

It's an imperfect fix, and far too short of a break, but any opportunity to set foot on solid ground, for however long, is a valuable relief. And when it's over, carry with you that reminder of what is really important. You'll know which one I'm talking about.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

best. distraction. ever.

...for cartophiles, anyway:

(thank you Gautam!)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

intervening in suicide

Freakonomics mentions suicide; specifically asking the question, would you stop someone from committing suicide? This was motivated by an anecdote told by a taxi driver who picked up a passenger who said he wanted to be taken to the Golden Gate bridge so he could jump off of it. The taxi driver didn't object, so the passenger said "you're not going to stop me?" and the driver said "No, why should I?" It's a free country after all.

Two things:

1. It's a very bizarre line of argument to invoke our `free country' in a discussion about interactions between individuals. Yes, it's a free country, and the government should butt it's big head out of our decisions about when and how to end life, or any other victimless action. But also, it's a free country, and if someone I care about is suicidal, I damn well am going to try to talk them out of it or intervene in more direct ways and get them help. If they want to kill themselves so bad, being stopped one time by trying it within my sphere of influence is a minor setback.

2. This is a strategic interaction, not a one-sided decision to interfere. The taxi driver didn't magically come across information about this guy's intentions; that guy told him outright. That itself was a strategic decision:

On that Freakonomics post, they also have a poll asking if you would intervene. Predictably, a vast majority of people say they would, at least in certain circumstances. I'm not the least bit surprised by this, and I'm sure the taxi passenger was also aware that most people would react in that way (as evidenced by his surprise at the driver's reaction...) When he made the decision to state his intentions, therefore, he expected to be interfered with. To me, it sounds like he was looking for the universe to provide any sign of unambivalence, and the taxi driver cruelly didn't provide it.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

social security is a Ponzi scheme

(Well I just posted something an hour ago but this'll probably be old news by tomorrow...)

Matt Yglesias gets it wrong; Alex Tabarrok refutes him, but not very clearly, mostly by appealing to authority. Judging from the comments, no one seems to know what a Ponzi scheme IS, just that some bad guy got caught running a big one two years ago so it must be bad.

Let's get this straight. In a typical investment vehicle, like a mutual fund or a 401k plan or the stock market or whatever, you put money in, that money is transferred to people who are using it to build more wealth through their business, and that growing pile of wealth is shared with the investors, who thus end up withdrawing more than they put in.

In a Ponzi scheme, some number of people originally invest in it, the guy running it takes their money, and then finds more people to join, using their money to pay back the original investors with some attractive rate of return. Eventually, he fails to find enough new investors to keep paying back his old investors, and the scheme goes bust with lots of people losing everything they put in. No wealth is created in this process.

Social security is a Ponzi scheme, at least partially. The current young pay for the current retirees, with the first generation of covered retirees getting a free ride. Social security doesn't collapse because there are always more young people to join, and the government has the power to force them to.

Whatever is paid into the system that isn't immediately distributed is invested, and yes, this is not part of the definition of a Ponzi scheme. But, just because a Ponzi scheme uses investment as a side tool doesn't make it not fundamentally a Ponzi scheme.

I'm not sure how this is even a controversial statement. It wouldn't be, if Rick Perry hadn't said it, and if the terms 'Ponzi scheme' and 'social security' didn't translate immediately to 'bad' and 'good' for most people, and if those who don't like Rick Perry didn't reinforce the confusion for political purposes. Did I mention I hate politics?

science is compensation for smallness

The same essay I was just talking about also has this great paragraph stuck in towards the end, fairly separate from the rest of it:
Indeed, one could define science as reason’s attempt to compensate for our inability to perceive big numbers. If we could run at 280,000,000 meters per second, there’d be no need for a special theory of relativity: it’d be obvious to everyone that the faster we go, the heavier and squatter we get, and the faster time elapses in the rest of the world. If we could live for 70,000,000 years, there’d be no theory of evolution, and certainly no creationism: we could watch speciation and adaptation with our eyes, instead of painstakingly reconstructing events from fossils and DNA. If we could bake bread at 20,000,000 degrees Kelvin, nuclear fusion would be not the esoteric domain of physicists but ordinary household knowledge. But we can’t do any of these things, and so we have science, to deduce about the gargantuan what we, with our infinitesimal faculties, will never sense. If people fear big numbers, is it any wonder that they fear science as well and turn for solace to the comforting smallness of mysticism?
Isn't that great? The same thing applies in the social sciences, even though these by definition study things that are on human scales. If we could live for millennia and hold terabytes of information in our minds easily, we could simply see the phenomena we hope to deduce through the social scientific method. Just like we don't need studies to tell us that smiling at people makes them happy, or paying more on rent than you earn will land you broke, we wouldn't need studies or statistics to sort out the subtle interactions between education and social norms and property rights and social preferences (to take a random example...)

Although, I think it'd be a stretch to describe mathematics or engineering in this way. Mathematics doesn't concretely exist in the world; we invent or choose axioms and then discover what truths they imply, and those truths frequently tell us something about the real world, but they don't exist to be observed until after they're created/discovered by mathematicians. Likewise, engineering. When I say engineering I don't mean studying the world with the aim of using that knowledge to build things (that's just science, and the above applies), but building things and studying what we build. Then, once again, the object of study doesn't exist until we create it (whether it's the effect of nuclear waste disposal or of the design of government institutions) and we can't, with large enough brains and enough time, just look at the world and know the answers.

Science vs. anthroposcience? Science vs. quantitative 'art'? I'm not sure how to define that latter category exactly. But you see what I mean.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

computability and big numbers

I recently realized (through finding a computer version of trivial pursuit, which provides player statistics) that I'm a little less terrible at the geography category than the science category. The resulting minor identity crisis put me on a bit of a science kick, which included reading this great essay a friend of mine sent me (thank you Kenny!) that I can't believe I've never seen before. Read the whole thing if you like numbers or computation in the least. In particular, the relation between computability and big numbers is fun. The idea goes like this:
  • Consider a computer and all the possible programs we could write for this computer (intuitively, don't think of interactive software programs, think of a program you start running, and then you wait, and then it eventually gives you an `answer'. Like a calculator.) Specifically, consider a Turing machine.
  • Computer programs can be written to compute whatever you want them to. The problem is, it's hard to know if it will finish computing that thing in finite time. It might get stuck in an infinite loop, counting all the way to infinity looking for something that doesn't exist. The halting problem is: can I examine an arbitrary program and decide whether or not it will terminate in finite time?
  • It turns out that it is not possible to write a computer program that solves the halting problem. The proof is great but repeating it would take too much length and specificity, so just read at that link.
    • But since I can't resist, it basically goes: Say h(i,j) is an algorithm that returns 1 if program i terminates on input j, 0 otherwise. Then define g(i) to be 0 if h(i,i) is 0, and to loop forever if h(i,i)=1. But then either g(g)=h(g,g)=0, or g(g) doesn't terminate and h(g,g)=1. Either way, you have a contradiction with the definition of h. As Aaronson puts it, "Like a hound that finally catches its tail and devours itself, the mythical machine vanishes in a fury of contradiction. (That’s the sort of thing you don’t say in a research paper.)" *grin*
  • Any program is defined with a certain exact number of rules. Think about all the possible programs that contain exactly N rules. There are only finitely many of these programs, since N is finite and there are only finitely many possible types of rules, so we can hypothetically make a list of all of these programs.
  • Now consider what happens when you run each of these programs. Some might terminate and some might loop forever, but among the ones that terminate, one of them takes the longest. So, you can define BB(N) to be the length of time that the longest-running program with N rules takes (that is, the Nth Busy Beaver number.)
  • Can a Turing machine compute these numbers? If it could, it could solve the halting problem by simply watching a program with N rules run for BB(N) steps, and if it hasn't finished by then, by definition of BB(N), it never will. Therefore, the BB number sequence grows too fast to be computable, because we already know that the halting problem isn't computable.
  • Even more striking, BB(N) grows faster than any computable sequence: Say there is some number sequence that is always greater than BB, D(N)>BB(N). Then if we can compute D(N), we can automatically compute BB(N), because we just run every N-rule program, and among those that stop within D steps, the longest-running one takes BB(N) steps. Therefore D doesn't exist.
    • One minor addendum to that: even if we don't know that D is greater than BB, or even if it was somehow not possible to know for sure, having computational access to D allows us to unknowingly calculate BB, which is in principle not possible.)
  • So in summary: the BB number sequence is really, really big. So big, no computer can possibly keep up when trying to calculate them. And this connection between computability theory and big numbers is cool :)
A side note about amateur interests: isn't it nice learning this stuff in bite-sized chunks instead of in five-minute flurries in math classes that are so dense with mulling-requiring ideas that you can never catch up enough to enjoy how beautiful it is? Sure, at this rate I couldn't never learn enough to be a theoretical computer scientist, but what's the point if it's not enjoyable? Not to say it's not possible to learn enough or work hard enough where that pace would be enjoyable, but I already picked a different niche specialize in, and I don't want to completely lose touch with science just because I can't devote so much time to it.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

winners and losers

Colloquially thinking, history favors the righteous. Good triumphs over evil and the moral compass of the collective world because more finely tuned as deviating groups get weeded out.

It would be implausibly coincidental if the morally righteous (in the absolute sense of the phrase; let's not worry about whether there is such a thing for the moment) side of all of these historical struggles just happened to be the more powerful, and thus victorious, side. So how to explain the colloquial thinking?

Is is that the ones who won pass on their own definition of morality, which we forget was not unambiguously true? Or similarly, do we simply prefer to adopt the morality of victors, as though their victory is evidence of the absolute goodness of it, or because we initially just fear crossing them and later generations forget that our stated beliefs were disingenuous?*

Is it that we simply selectively remember the incidents in history in which good triumphed over evil, because we are ashamed of our history as an imperfect people?**

Or is it that true morality is defined by the system that works, in the sense that it survives and perpetuates itself among the greatest number of people? And that therefore, the righteous must eventually be triumphant?***

I really believe each of those three explanations are in operation, and yet two of them imply that conventional wisdom is misguided and the third implies that it's dead on. Which one wins out, most of the time?


*see: missionaries. maybe replace 'fear' with 'bribe'. it's amazing how much more receptive people are to Gods Word when lip-service to such a thing comes with a livelihood. and amazing how deeply entrenched Christianity is in Africa and such missionary-drenched places after so short a time.

**see: public school lessons on the holocaust vs. the trail of tears.

***see: the cold war. no need for a war against communism; just sit back and watch it implode.