Saturday, May 25, 2013
They apparently publish weekly, and have 70 back comics, so they've been around for a little over a year. I read through the entire set, and laughed, chortled, and grimaced. The art isn't very sophisticated, but the humor is biting.
The ad I clicked on was at Day by Day, which also knows what libertarianism is, and is often sympathetic. If you are wary of nudity, this one won't be for you. DBD comes out daily, and often reacts to the previous day's news. I often click on the ads at DBD, though not many of the comics stick in my daily reading list.
Sunday, March 17, 2013
Monday, February 18, 2013
Iain M. Banks's Surface Detail is an exploration of hell on a couple of different levels. The main conflict in the story is between civilizations that believe in using hell as a real threat to keep sinners in line, and those that are opposed to the practice. According to the story, there are enough societies with a hell in their religion to have made it a common practice, once "people" started moving into simulations, that many created "hell" simulations and sentenced people to spend time there as a judicial punishment.
Most species and societies have a creation myth. The idea of a soul is also common, even if advanced civilizations mostly outgrow belief in it. Once you add in virtual reality, and then the ability to copy minds and host them in a simulation, the idea that virtual afterlives should resemble the cultural traditions' ideas of either heaven of hell seems obvious. The problem is that as people (sophonts of whatever stripe) grow more sophisticated (see Pinker's book on violence) many stop believing that perpetual hell could be a reasonable punishment.
The Culture took a fairly active stance (unusual for them) against the hells, and after some galactic period of time, there was a relative stalemate, in which two factions had very strong opinions that the other side was wrong. "Eventually, though, a war was agreed on as the best way to settle the whole dispute". A virtual war, of course, with both sides agreeing that the outcome on the virtual battlefield would determine the victor in the real world. There's a sub-plot for the virtual battles and another for the political and logistical maneuvering that leaks into the real world.
There's another sub-plot that takes place in one of the simulated hells. Banks does a really good job of envisioning what it would take to make a truly scary hell. In a civilizations that does have hell simulations, but which tries to keep their existence from being generally known [I think hells are like Dr. Strangelove's Doomsday device: "the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost, if you *keep* it a *secret*!"] there are some muckraking journalists who want to convince everyone that the stories are true, so they volunteer to infiltrate. Things don't turn out well for them, and this gives Banks the opportunity to really turn the screws and come up with more and more unbearable tortures.
The major plot involves an evil industrialist who kept a defeated rival's daughter as a slave, and eventually killed her. She gets a chance to come back and try to take revenge. The "coming back" requires a trip across the galaxy with a culture Abominator class ship the "Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints". FOTNMC is a real personality, and seems pretty unstoppable in a battle of wits or an actual battle.
I really like Banks' Culture stories, and even though this one is filled with plausible and explicit hells and some truly evil and some powerful and amoral characters, I thought it was both fun and had philosophical depth. The proprietor of hell has to deal with someone who can't be satisfactorily tortured because she has really given up all hope, so he comes up with a way to give her just enough hope to allow her to suffer again. Truly nasty.
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow was much better than I expected it to be. Not that I wasn't expecting it to be well written or interesting, just that I expected that since Kahneman's results and views have been covered in great depth in a lot of other works I've read, I didn't expect much to be new. Even if you're fairly familiar with Kahneman's results and ideas, the book presents them well, and gives good advice on how to take advantage of your brain's predilections and work around its shortcomings.
Kahneman is well known as the progenitor (with Amos Tversky) of the Heuristics and Biases literature. You will find references to their research and results in lots of popular presentations on how people think, and the various ways in which people are prone to mistaken beliefs and sub-optimal actions. In Thinking Fast and Slow, he presents a unified discussion of this work, along with some solid suggestions for integrating the conclusions into your approach to life so that you can get more of what you want and be happier.
The basic theory is that we have two main approaches to problem solving with divergent benefits. The fast thinking part ("System One") is ready to make snap judgements on any subject at any time. It is fast, but it takes lots of shortcuts, and doesn't even bother to choose an optimal shortcut. Whatever answer first presents itself to this part of our minds is latched onto, because the evolutionary benefit was in having some answer quickly in case our ancestors needed to react immediately. The other approach is slow and deliberate, and involves evaluating lots of alternatives and consciously weighing benefits as well as the appropriateness of each approach to the current problem. The problem with System Two is that it's expensive, and for good evolutionary reasons your instincts always offer a quick and dirty response before there's time to consider more carefully.
Kahneman spends the bulk of the book giving lots of examples of particular, named, classes of mistakes we make ("Availability Heuristic", "Illusion of Validity", "Endowment effect", etc). It's probably useful to be aware of these classes if you want to reason more clearly, but I see the main value of Kahneman's approach to be in making us aware that our snap judgements are suspect. There are good reasons for each bias, which explains why evolution selected for that particular outcome, but whenever you're not in a life-and-death race to escape a lion, it pays to be attentive to your innate biases and consider your options more carefully. Having names for a catalog of short-sighted trade-offs you are likely to have gravitated to makes it easier to see which first guesses to re-think.
The final section of the book follows another perspective, also first identified by Kahneman and Tversky. This is the idea that our "Experiencing Self" and our "Remembering Self" have different evaluations when comparing things we do, which can lead to strange trade-offs when choosing what to do. The author argues that our memories systematically underweight pain we experience and consistently get some things wrong about enjoyable times, leading us to guess incorrectly about what kinds of situations we'd prefer in the future.
Experimental evidence shows that peoples' memories of painful episodes (dentist visits, for example) are dominated by the experience of the final moments of the experience, neglecting how painful earlier parts were. This means that adding 5 minutes of sligtly painful procedures to the end of a very-painful 15 minute procedure actually makes people remember the whole incident as having been less painful. Many people argue that it's clearly wrong to choose 20 minutes of pain over 15 minutes of pain, but this is not obvious to me. The 15 minute session should also carry the burden of all the subsequent time when the patient had to remember the more painful portions more clearly. The 20 minute session may have included more pain while in the chair, but the experiments show that the patients were less upset long afterward, partly because they had less gripping memories subsequently. So, as I see it, it's less of a contradiction than Kahneman believes.
On the other side, our recollections of enjoyable situations are also skewed. We tend to neglect long periods of time spent in pleasurable avocations (Kahneman calls it "duration neglect"), and when asked to choose how to spend our time or money, people often opt for the choice with a more easily recalled high point, regardless of the duration or enjoyability of the entire experience. Kahneman recommends that when planning vacations, or choosing other ways to spend our time, we focus more on the ongoing experience rather than the extremes. He's pretty convinced that we'll get more out of life that way. The counter is that when recalling our lives we'll be subject to just these biases, and regardless of how much joy there was in the small moments, we'll focus on the highs and lows when remembering our story or telling it to other people. It's food for thought in either case.
Monday, January 07, 2013
Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of our Nature argues that violence has been declining over the last several centuries, and continues to decline, even though the common wisdom seems to say the opposite. Pinker marshalls an enormous quantity of data to buttress his story, and fills in with enough explanation to make a very convincing case. At the end, he tries to explain this long term trend, and comes up with several mechanisms, but since this section is less data driven, it's less convincing than the fact that the change is broad, pervasive, and has continued for a very long time.
Pinker starts out with wars, genocide, and other large scale killings. He amasses a dataset of all known mass killings before the modern age. The data is spotty, so it's hard to draw many conclusions, but it is clear that the distant past included its share of conflicts resulting in lots of deaths, and the twentieth century's war are memorable more for their recency than their scale. In addition, there's a pretty clear trend that the great power conflicts of the early twentieth have disappeared. At the end of his chapter on the Long Peace, Pinker points out that since the end of WWII there have been zero:
- nuclear weapons used
- battlefield fights between great powers
- armies crossing the Rhine (longest interval since 200 BCE)
- wars between european states
- wars between developed countries anywhere in the world
- territorial expansions by conquest for a developed country
From large-scale conflicts, Pinker moves on to socially-approved violence, and then to individual violence. Socially-approved violence includes things like slavery and wide-spread repression as of jews and gays as well as public execution and public torture and punishment. All these have gone from common to unacceptable over the long term. Pinker shows that, in parallel with granting rights to more and more groups the statistics on personal violence in a very broad range of contexts have been declining. Historic attitudes toward blacks, women, gays, ethnic groups, children, and animals have all changed dramatically.
Finally, Pinker tries to figure out what's been driving this change. He starts out by describing some broad trends: The Long Peace, and The Rights Revolution, but he admits they're just names, not a description of causes. From there he looks for factors that could have caused these trends. Empathy may have been increased because of the spread of literacy and mass entertainment that give us more access to other points of view. Self control, likewise may have been improved by the promulgation of personal habits that enable people to make their short-term desires subservient to their longer-range goals. He considers biological evolution, but concludes that while it would have been capable of producing a change, we don't have any evidence for the hypothesis. Next Pinker discusses whether humanity's moral sense or rationality has improved in some way to produce the improvement. He accepts that people are getting smarter (i.e. "the Flynn effect") and argues that once we reach a certain level, we can use reason to see that cooperation is more in our interest than violence, first at the personal level, and gradually at broader levels on interaction.
Finally, Pinker presents a framework for thinking about how various changes have impacted people's incentive structures, and what consequences they have for interactions. It's all based on the basic prisoner's dilemma payoff matrix, showing the options two parties face when they can make independent choices as they interact. The first version is called the Pacifist's dilemma, and shows that wars and fights are costly, but it's better to be the aggressor than the defeated. A second shows that "Leviathan" (a government) can change everyone's incentives by penalizing agression. Next is a chart showing that trade ("Gentle Commerce") improves things for everyone by improving the payoffs as long as agression is avoided. His final chart assumes that empathy and reason are added in, and everyone feels not only their own gains and losses, but those of the other party as well. At that point only positive sum outcomes make sense, since each player gains no advantage by imposing costs that are felt by both sides.
This model is plausible, but not compelling. Something like this might be going on, but it's hard to say that he's actually found the mechanism driving things. An interesting postscript is provided by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who argues that Pinker doesn't understand the statistics of the fat tail that Taleb has been writing about for a while. If the proper curve is not a normal distribution, but instead a fat-tailed curve with most of the weight in the extremes, then the stats demonstrating that there is an effect to be explained are worthless. Taleb gives a bunch of (not well-explained) possible mechanisms for supposing that Pinker might have missed something, but he doesn't analyze whether the historical data looks more like a normal distribution or a fat-tail distribution. I suspect that the near-constant level of violence in the past makes Pinker's position more believable that violence has in fact gone down. It's possible that large-scale conflicts will occasionally arise with enormous body counts, but the drop in violence on all lesser scales doesn't seem likely to be reversed, and that doesn't seem consistent with Taleb's models of financial system variability.
Overall, the book provides good news, and more fodder I can use to try to convince people that what appears in the news is exceptions rather than trends.
Tuesday, December 11, 2012
I recently realized that while I haven't been posting here much recently, I have been posting on Google Plus. Most of what I post there would be reasonable to post here, so I'll start cross-posting more of it here. I also have a couple of reviews I'm going to try to get to before Christmas. No promises.
Wednesday, December 05, 2012
Sunday, May 20, 2012
David Deutsch's The Beginning of infinity was a fun and surprising read. Deutsch is well known as a theoretical physicist (having pioneered the idea of quantum computing), and has written very readable papers and books and given good talks at TED and elsewhere. In this book, he talks about a wide variety of systems that allow unlimited expression, growth, and progress. His goal is to show how DNA is a universal language for describing how to build varieties of living things in the same way that a Turing machine can express different kinds of computation. He talks about how the discovery of the scientific method put us on a path to learning an ever-growing set of facts about how the world works.
He comes across as very libertarian, (which Wikipedia presents matter-of-factly), though he's not strident about it at all.
His explanation of explanation is that good explanations capture details about something of interest in a way that is hard to vary; if you change any of the parts of a good explanation, you get a story that doesn't stick together, or that makes predictions that don't hold up. Bad explanations can be just-so stories, or "because the gods wanted it that way". Why did the gods want it that way? What if they change their mind or disagree? And a really good explanation adds details about facets of reality other than its primary aim.
When talking about the foundations for reasoning about morality, Deutsch demolishes the old maxim that "you can't derive an ought from an is" as a basis for rejecting facts as evidence in discussions of morality. He points out that while it's literally true, it's also the case that you don't derive physical laws from single facts. Instead facts fuel intuitions that lead to proposals for theories, and can count as evidence against particular proposed theories. If a theory runs counter to an observed fact, the theory loses. Similarly, "observed facts can be useful in criticizing moral explanations." In order to persuade people of a moral theory, proponents have to offer explanations, and when those explanations are refuted by observation, the listeners will often be skeptical.
I found this passage, on the evolutionary origins of DNA as a universal language to be incisive enough that I posted it to Google+:
Initially, the genetic code and the mechanism that interpreted it were both evolving along with everything else in the organisms. But there came a moment when the code stopped evolving yet the organisms continued to do so. At that moment the system was coding for nothing more complex than primitive, single celled creatures. Yet virtually all subsequent organisms on Earth, to this day, have not only been based on DNA replicators but have used exactly the same alpahabet of bases, grouped into three-base 'words', with only small variations in the meanings of those 'words'.
That means that, considered as a language for specifying organisms, the genetic code has displayed phenomenal reach. It evolved only to specify organisms with no nervous systems, no ability to move or exert forces, no internal organs and no sense organs, whose lifestyle consisted of little more than synthesizing their own structural constituents and then dividing in two. An yet the same language today specifies the hardware and software for countless multicellular behaviours that had no close analogue in those organisms, such as running and flying and breathing and mating and recognizing predators and prey. It also specifies engineering structures such as wings and teeth, and nanotechnology such as immune systems, and even a brain that is capable of explaining quasars, designing other organisms from scratch, and wondering why it exists.
In discussing the nature of representative democracy, Deutsch reveals his libertarianism. He starts with a very clear explanation of Arrow's impossibility theorem, (which shows that there are no possible voting systems that satisfy four simple, obvious criteriaf). Deutsch shows how that applies not only to individuals voting, but also to parliaments and legislatures, how it shows that simple math makes it irrational for voting to solve our problems. He sides with Popper in saying htat we'd be better off looking for possible consistent systems that do a good job of getting rid of bad policies and bad governments without requiring violence. He doesn't hope to find a system that wouldn't occasionally make mistakes; instead he wants a system that is willing to identify errors after the fact and backtrack.
The essence of democratic decision-making is not the choice made by the system at elections, but the ideas created between elections.
What we should be looking for is ways of organizing society that keep options open, allow invention and discovery, and are willing to backtrack. What we have now is a system that institutionalizes stasis, and makes it hard to revisit choices once made. We'd be better off with a system that allowed exploration of many alternatives to compare them, and only made binding choices once it became clear that one approach produces better outcomes in a variety of situations over the long term.
Deutsch also comes out strongly against compromise. He doesn't like proportional representation and parliamentary systems, since they enforce compromise. This has the consequence that no one's ideas are tried out in the way they intended, so everyone can continue to maintain that things would have worked out better if they hadn't had to compromise. In the long term, world was able to learn something from the failed socialist experiments in the Soviet Union, China, and several smaller countries. While some people continue to promote those ideas, most others can see that when they are tried on a large scale, they lead to bad outcomes.
Overall, I found it an engrossing, enjoyable read. Deutsch had some great explanations for some important phenomena, and pulled together commonalities between some widely disparate ideas.
Sunday, April 29, 2012
Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court was a joyous discovery for me. I have long been aware of the story, but didn't have any expectations about it beyond what's obvious from the title. When I started reading it, I discovered that Twain used a simple scenario to explore problems of government and to illustrate freedom's benefits over coercion. Twain's penchant for stories celebrating individual endeavor drives this story.
The Connecticut Yankee is Hank Morgan, a blacksmith and horse doctor, who gets knocked out in a fight and awakens in King Arthur's England. Morgan quickly realizes that with his "modern" knowledge, he can do things the people around him won't understand, and he can use this to gain power that he can use to accelerate progress and bring about an early renaissance. Morgan's concerns are education, sanitation, and preparing the people for democracy. It doesn't take him long to figure out that they aren't ready, but he maintains his confidence that it's only a matter of time and education. He is convinced that once they come to see that the nobles are people, too that they'll be willing and able to govern themselves. In the end, he decides that it isn't the people who are the obstacle, but the hereditary aristocracy who can't learn that they aren't different. I suspect Twain was insinuating that the government of his day was composed of people who thought they were naturally suited to manage other people's lives.
Morgan starts out by gaining King Arthur's trust by recognizing the date of his scheduled execution at the court of King Arthur as the day of a lunar eclipse, and pretending to be a mighty wizard (in competition with Merlin) who can control the Sun. Once he has access to Arthur, he uses his understanding of modern science and manufacturing techniques to develop tools and processes that give him real powers to do things none around him know how to do. He then sets about reforming the country by vanquishing individual knights and setting them to tasks like promoting the use of soap that will completely remake society.
Along the way Morgan has to battle superstition, lack of critical thinking, learned helplessness, and many other obstacles. He builds a corps of youngsters who attend his secret schools and man his secret factories to turn out a long list of products that will improve people's lives.
The story is by modern standards closer to fantasy than science fiction, but Twain clearly intended to make the technology development plausible. There are times when his hero takes shortcuts that modern understanding makes obvious, but were probably less clear in Twain's time. For instance, Morgan's first miracle after calling the eclipse is to blow up Merlin's tower, for which he needs dynamite and wire. Twain assumes that making some wire could be done in a couple of weeks starting from scratch, but it without the infrastructure of a manufacturing economy even something so simple would be a lot more work.
I found this a remarkably enjoyable read, and was surprised that Twain covered so much territory. If you can get past the dated prose and Twain's conceit that a single person could manage such a vast enterprise with help only from people who have no concept of the idea of individual initiative, you'll probably enjoy it, too.
Sunday, April 15, 2012
Ernest Cline's Ready Player One takes place mostly inside a virtual reality/MMORPG, though as usual with the recent spate of books in this genre, the action bleeds back and forth with physical reality. The setting is pretty familiar: it's 2044, and the economy has bifurcated into haves and have-nots, and most people seem to spend the bulk of their time in the OASIS. James Halliday, the billionaire founder of the company that runs the OASIS has died, and has set up a contest inside the system that will determine who gets his company shares, his wealth, and control of the OASIS itself. It turns out Halliday was hugely into eighties trivia, and most of the story involves the main character, Parzival, and his on-line friends finding and devouring movie, music, video game, and science fiction trivia from that decade. If you're not averse to geeking out on this stuff, it's a fun romp.
Parzival is the first to find the Copper key, the first step on the quest that Halliday built. Others soon figure out how to backtrack on Parzival's location which gives them the clues they need to follow on his trail. This starts a race to complete the quest and beat Innovative Online Industries, a company that wants to win the contest in order to exploit OASIS's business possibilities. The action is fast-paced, the settings are widely varied, and I enjoyed the references to familiar games, movies, and bands. The character development is fairly shallow, with Parzival maintaining a close friendship with one fellow gamer and a crush on a female-named character that lasts throughout the story. He's convinced he knows that it's someone he could love in real life, and never takes seriously the idea that people can have very different personalities and appearance than their avatars.
Ready Player One is a finalist for this year's Prometheus Award, but I don't think it's a very strong contender. The major element of libertarianism is that the central struggle is over whether the game's virtual world will be under the control of the main character and his friends or the bad guys. If you think the OASIS will be all the reality that matters to most of its denizens, you might want to cast that as a struggle over governance. But the choice isn't between any kind of freedom and some kind of authoritarianism, it's between a faction that has one particular corporatist view of how things should be run, and another that has no explicit goals other than keeping the VR out of their control. No mechanism is suggested for preventing the games' owner from doing whatever he wants. Maybe that's a libertarian outcome, in that it's private property, but that's not what the story's struggle is about.
The science fiction element in this story, like a lot of this genre, is thin. The particular capabilities of the VR software are beyond what we can do today, but not very far. The economy and society depicted outside the OASIS aren't a straight-line extrapolation from today, but they bear a strong resemblance to what some mild pessimists seem to expect. It fits the criterion mostly by being the kind of story that members of the LFS would be likely to read and appreciate.
If you like that kind of thing, it's fairly well done, and worth the read.
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
I expected the usual fluffy, tongue-in-cheek material from Terry Pratchett's Snuff, but what I got instead was a serious story with profound insights about the nature of humanity, and the dangers of stereotyping. Of course, it has the usual fluff and tongue-in-cheek as well. Snuff is likely to be a finalist for the Prometheus award this year, because of its strong message of self-reliance and Sam Vimes' matter-of-fact acceptance of every person for their strengths regardless of others' prejudices. Vimes treats everyone as an individual and is incensed when he realizes that Goblins are being enslaved and that the laws don't protect them. (Maybe as a life-long cop he should have noticed earlier, but never mind that.)
The story follows Commander Sam Vines, Police Chief of Ankh-Morpork, as he attempts to take a vacation with his wife at her ancestral country home. He enjoys himself immensely, but that's because he enjoys his work. His vacation, counter to his best intentions, turns into a working vacation when he comes across evidence that a young goblin girl has been murdered in an attempt to frame Vimes himself. When he detects indications that the locals are conspiring to hide something, he goes into full detective mode.
In this case, he gets involved in unravelling a case of willful blindness, and a gap in the law's coverage. Goblins, it turns out have never been respected by the law, so it's not a crime to mistreat them them. But Vimes learns that they are thinking creatures with feelings, and their own culture. When he then learns that they are being killed, mistreated, and enslaved, he does something about it.
It turns into a rollicking adventure, with Vimes, his taciturn but well-armed manservant, and the various oddities that constitute Vimes' police department all playing parts. As Vimes has done in previous Discworld installments, he hires anyone who seems like they could be a competent cop, and turns them into a respectable member of the constabulary, regardless of their apparent handicaps social, ethnic, or species. (He has hired vampires, gargoyles, golems, and zombies. All turned into find police, with their racial predilictions exhibited as strengths.)
There's a good sub-plot woven throgh, in which Vimes attempts to teach his son, Sam, Jr., some of the wisdom he considers essential. Young Sam is oblivious and hilarious, and learns whatever he wants to learn, while uncovering embarrassing nuggets for the local ne'er-do-wells. This book, like the other Novels in Pratchett's Discworld that have been nominated for the Prometheus, hide a strong pro-freedom and pro-individualism message behind a light-hearted and fun surface story.
Friday, January 27, 2012
Ken MacLeod's The Restoration Game is yet another entry in this year's bounty of books dominated by MMORPGs and set in a near-future real world. I've read at least three and I think I have another three in progress or at the top of my stack. MacLeod's stands out for having some actual science fiction, which (though it has significant implications for the characters' interpretation of reality) doesn't actually effect the story much. Any other Macguffin would have served as well; it is only revealed at the end of the story, and other than searching for it, its exact nature didn't affect the characters' motivations.
The MMORPG in question is being developed by Lucy Stone during the course of events (which is also not unusual in this year's crop of books.) In this case, Lucy is working for a game design company building a more prosaic MMORPG, and they are contracted to build a special purpose variant that will be used to promulgate certain destabilizing ideas among the population of Krassnia, an ex-soviet bloc region that is ripe for a revolution. Lucy's mother was a spy, so Lucy is used to working undercover and making her way unnoticed in the real world. She also has a few friends who seem to be connected to shady and unscrupulous characters.
The action is exciting and the characters' need to travel around Europe and visit the ex-Soviet bloc give MacLeod plenty of opportunities to compare places and the kinds of activities going on there. Krassnia is a dingy place, but the young people there are vibrant and exploring new business ideas and ignoring their elders who have habits developed and honed behind the Iron Curtain. Lucy herself had some scary run-ins with high officials while she was growing up there. That and her mother's book on the history and folk tales of the country give her a leg up when she has to sneak in and look for the MacGuffin.
Restoration Game is, of course, nominated for the Prometheus Award. It's very well written, and has at least a modicum of science fiction (which gives it an edge over Stephenson's Reamde). The libertarian elements are subtle—There's a popular revolution going on in the background, and government agents are trying to stop Lucy's progress. Lucy isn't explicitly libertarian, but libertarians will like her; she's a strong, responsible individual, trying to make her own way. There isn't a prominent struggle with important libertarian themes, though those seem to be generally lacking in this year's nominees. It's definitely worth a read if you haven't overdone the MMORPG-influenced genre yet.