Friday, December 24, 2010

The Price of Everything: Russ Roberts

Russ Roberts' The Price of Everything is an engaging story written by an economics professor in an attempt to show how prices help us direct our efforts so they will provide the most benefit to others we will never meet. In the story Ruth Lieber, a strikingly insightful Stanford professor leads Ramon Fernandez, a charismatic student athlete, to an appreciation for the unseen consequences of prices after he leads a protest of a local big box store for raising prices after an earthquake.

Ruth sometimes explains, but more often hints so Ramon will investigate for himself, how higher prices or the expectation of a higher return cause suppliers, inventors and others to provide more useful goods and services so they're available when people want them.

The prose is vivid and the characters are interesting. Most of the story is reasonably believable, though there are enough hints at the purpose of the exposition that no one should be surprised at the occasional speech. Roberts does a good job of keeping that to a minimum, but he does have some points to make. Ramon isn't initially interested in economics, but he's smart enough to look into the details when Ruth points out inconsistencies between how he expects people to act and the ways they actually do. Ruth (and Russ) rely on common experiences so Ruth's objections will strike home to readers who are reasonably honest about how events actually turn out, even if their prejudices align more with Ramon's.

I think this would be a reasonable book to give to someone who wants a gentle introduction to the economic way of thinking. It can be read as an interesting story, or for the insights it provides.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

That Hideous Strength: C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength has been a perennial nominee for the Libertarian Futurists Society's Hall of Fame award. Seeking to give it a fair shot, I waited to read it until after reading the first two works in the series: Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandria. Neither of those books impressed me, and this book doesn't significantly rely on the connection to them. Unfortunately, this book didn't impress me either. I think part of it is the style of the writing, which seems vague, foggy, and long-winded to me. I also didn't care much for the characters, didn't find the plot interesting, and had trouble seeing what the conflict was about.

Lewis sets up two clear factions, clearly struggling over something, but we appear to only watching the activities of people who are a few steps removed from those who are aware of the strategy and aims of each side. Instead of watching maneuvering about the great struggle that is going on, we watch the minor characters as they maneuver through office politics, attempting to ensure that they have a seat at the table, while those characters remain ignorant about what the goals of those at the table are whom they wish to join.

Eventually, we see more of the high level action, but the sides are painted so starkly--the bad guys are depraved, manipulating, torturers, while the good guys refrain from acting--that it's hard to imagine how Lewis will turn the struggle into a fair fight. In the end, it was hard to see that it was a fair fight; the bad guys laid waste to the countryside in an attempt to take control over everything, while the good guys recruited a top wizard who eventually makes the bad guys stop.

I couldn't see it as a struggle of ideas, because I couldn't tell what the ideas might have been. One side was full of people who were scrambling for power, and most of their efforts seemed to be the minor squabbles of factional politics. The other side acted in a more genteel fashion, and didn't seem aware that their opponents were preparing a rapacious campaign. In the end, the only part of the struggle that mattered was over who would recruit the master wizard, and this didn't seem to be about who he agreed with as much as who could bridge the language gap with him effectively or who could isolate him better. So the good guys won, but the territory was spoiled in the process, and neither we nor the characters learned much in the process.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Live Free or Die: John Ringo

John Ringo's Live Free or Die is quite a fun read in the genre of space entrepreneurship. The protagonist, Tyler Vernon, is practically a superman of business, who can create innovative new deals out of thin air with anyone who is amenable to trading. In this case, his objective is to save us all from the Horvath invaders who have set up a warship orbiting the earth and are extracting heavy "protection fees" from all humanity. Other space faring societies are willing to trade, but not in military goods, so Vernon has to figure out what non-military goods he can bend to his purposes without triggering the proscriptions.

For a writer who seems to have a reasonable insight into how business people set up deals so they benefit all parties, it's surprising that Ringo leaves the story as a one-man show. Vernon gains an immense amount of wealth early in the story by figuring out what earth-produced good will be of value to the friendly aliens, and then locking up supplies before anyone else knows that it will be valuable. But the approach he uses to make his discovery should be able to be repeated several times, so it's a surprise that Vernon is the only entrepreneur in contact with the aliens. But in the story, that works out fine, because Vernon is a tireless workaholic who really wants to ensure that we find a way to get the Horvath out of our hair.

There's not much more depth to the story than that, but there are enough twists and turns in the plot that I don't want to describe the story in any more detail. Live Free or Die is a nominee for the Prometheus award, and I'd guess that it will make it as a finalist as well. I'm hoping for something with more depth, but I haven't seen it yet, though it's still early.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Fantastic Voyage: Ray Kurzweil & Terry Grossman

Ray Kurzweil and Terry Grossman's Fantastic Voyage is a guide to (as the subtitle says) how to "Live Long enough to Live Forever." The premise is that medical science and technology are on an accelerating growth path like that of digital technologies in general, though it may be a shallower exponential.

In my view, longer lifespans are definitely coming, and it seems likely that we'll be able to extend maximum spans beyond the 120 years or so that are currently possible. In addition, we're coming to an understanding of the causes of aging sufficient to be able to repair or reverse some of the damage. We don't yet know how to apply what we know, but the time isn't far off if current trends continue. The question is how long would you have to live and how healthy will you have to be in order to make use of the technology when it becomes available.

The saddest outcome would be to live to see introduction of technologies for rejuvenation, but be too frail for them to be of much use. This book is Kurzweil and Grossman's summary of what they believe you should do if you agree with them that surviving healthy is of paramount importance now that these technologies appear to be on the near horizon and drawing quickly closer.

Much of their advice is standard current health care wisdom: maintain a good weight, don't eat too much, don't smoke, get a variety of exercise, and so on. They put their advice in perspective a couple of times, pointing out that following the rest of their advice won't matter much if you don't have these basics right.

Given Kurzweil's background, it's not surprising that the book includes an explanation of how the exponential trends and what we can see of the development of the technology provide convincing evidence that we can look forward to enhanced longevity, and some reasonable bounds on how soon and how good.

A lot of the presentation is colored by Kurzweil's family history and past battles with weight control and the concomitant consequences of metabolic syndrome: diabetes and heart disease. When the authors are recommending supplements, it's a chore to distinguish between recommendations that apply to everyone and those that are focused on the majority of Americans who are susceptible to the same problems. Its possible, but you have to concentrate and take careful notes. Some of the discussion of what each supplement is good for is presented separately from the recommendations of what nearly everyone should take, and you have to cross-correlate the two to see what matters if you aren't troubled by this common syndrome.

In the end the recommendations that seem most likely to change my behavior are a few of the nutritional suggestions: eat more soy & tofu, and a further slight movement toward more fruit and vegetable and less meat. I will probably also add more supplements to my regimen. The hard part of evaluating their suggestions is deciding how much time to spend evaluating the suggestions and the science behind them. They recommend supplements for mitochondrial health and to reduce cellular cross-linking. I've read Aubrey de Grey's work on senescence and the role of these factors, and believe his arguments that these are fundamental in aging. The harder question is how anyone is measuring the direct effects in the body, and what evidence there is for actual consequences in the body beyond the theoretical. I may be reduced to accepting that quite a few very sophisticated scientists who are interested in longevity are saying the same things. I attended the recent conference on Personalized Life Extension. The organizer, Chris Peterson of the Foresight Institute, and several of the researchers are very well regarded, and they all seemed to be saying the same things about the same supplements.

The authors provide a reasonable amount of justification for all of their advice, and the technical details to convince a moderate skeptic that they know what the biological pathways are and which ones need to be reinforced. I found the presentation reasonably convincing, though it requires further research and correlation with other sophisticated researchers in order for me to have sufficient confidence to take action.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Understanding Institutional Diversity: Elinor Ostrom

Elinor Ostrom's Understanding Institutional Diversity presents some of the work that led to her Nobel prize last year. Ostrom has developed new frameworks for analyzing the way people organize to manage shared use of common resources. She seems particularly interested in the interaction between spontaneous orders (whether or not relying on markets) and government systems at different scales. The core of the analysis is a robust grammar for describing how an institution is organized and enforces the rules it intends to impose on participants. The grammar lays out 5 elements to be described in relatively standardized language, which results in descriptions that make it possible to compare disparate institutions. Systematically cataloging their relevant features makes it easier to compare institutions to find out what common features lead to their relative levels of success.

Few of the institutions Ostrom studies are government mandated; most have been around longer than the local government. This means the mechanism they use to enforce adherence to traditions, and adjudicate disputes must rely on something other than the rule of law and police power for its effectiveness. Ostrom shows that there are a variety of approaches, and there's a systematic relationship between membership forms and workable enforcement mechanisms.

The grammar Ostrom presents has five elements: the attributes that qualify someone as a participant in the system; whether actions are permitted, required, or forbidden (may, must, must not); the covered actions; the conditions under which the rules apply; and the consequences of not following the rule. These components can be used to describe rules, norms and shared strategies. Rules have all 5 components, norms specify all but the consequences, and shared strategies are statements that only contain the first three components. When using this framework, you have to be aware that most rules can be rephrased between prohibitions and compulsions without changing their sense. When comparing two institutions, a little care is usually enough to penetrate this surface distinction. For example "Actor X is forbidden to take action Y" could be written as "X must perform a non-Y action" or "X does not have the option of doing Y".

Writing descriptions of a variety of institutions using this consistent format has allowed researchers to catalog the kinds of attributes that are used by long surviving non-governmental institutions and contrast those with the kinds of attributes that governments often rely on. The successful private institutions tend to depend on attributes that reinforce a sense of community and mutual obligation (residence in a locality, paying dues or working in a local organization) rather than ones that are easier to administer in a consistent way and have a surface appearance of fairness (paying for a license, passing a test).

The book is organized in three parts. Part I provides background of the context in which Ostrom writes, and introduces vocabulary and some canonical problems. Much of this content is pulled from earlier papers and doesn't flow seamlessly. Other parts are reviews of now well-known examples and experiments and can be skipped or skimmed if the material seems repetitious. Part II explains the grammar's framework, gives some justification, and shows how it has been applied (by Ostrom and others). This is the meat of the book and rewards careful attention. I thought the presentation was clear and the contents quite valuable. In Part III, Ostrom talks about the implications of the theory and the approach for designing and repairing real world institutions.

This was the first place I got a feel for her own attitudes, and I was pleasantly surprised. Since most of her work has been in the context of common pool resources, and she studies communal or voluntary solutions, I expected her to argue that emergent systems somehow "naturally" resolve the issues. Instead she argues that markets have a crucial role, and that it's important that there be multiple institutions at various aggregation levels so rules and meta-rules can be handled through institutions with different incentives and varying feedback systems.

She seems most averse to solutions imposed by central authorities, since they seldom know enough about local conditions to be able to design systems of reciprocity that will fit with the ways that people interact in different locales. In order for a common pool resource institution to succeed over the long term, the participants have to feel ownership of the resource and of the reward and punishment system so that they'll both follow and enforce the rules. If someone else is responsible for enforcement, then the people with the most knowledge of local activities won't be watching one another carefully, and they'll find ways to shirk when times get tough. If they're watching one another, they'll assume they're being watched, and will be much more likely to follow the rules.

I've read other books that talk about how people solve problems in the absence of law and government, but this is the first to present a framework for analyzing existing approaches. The framework doesn't give the answers, but Ostrom's work has allowed her to look at many different approaches that have been taken around the world, and to systematically compare them to see what works and what doesn't. Her conclusions should be studied widely.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What Intelligence Tests Miss, Keith Stanovich

Keith Stanovich's What Intelligence Tests Miss does a reasonable job of arguing that we have a couple of different things in mind when we talk about how "smart" a person is, and that some of the important aspects are very different from what IQ tests measure. His goal seems to be to convince us that the other parts are important and we would do better if we either found good ways to measure them (though there are caveats there) or reduce the societal importance of IQ tests and their ilk.

Most of the areas that Stanovich is interested in could loosely be called rationality skills. He starts out the book with the example of George Bush, whose apparent IQ (estimated from various of his tests results that are on the record) is about 120, but who is agreed to not have conventional smarts, or be a thorough, consistent, or deep thinker. The main point here is talking about how people are surprised, but shouldn't be, that IQ is separate from what we call smart. The book is mainly a riff on Kahneman and Tversky's work on human decision making, and all the kinds of rationality traps that we fall for.

Apparently, Stanovich's own research is in how the various layers of processing—the Autonomous mind, the Algorithmic mine, and the Reflective mind— interact and override one another in order to determine the kinds of processing we do. We spend most of our time in autonomous mode, with occasional incidents propelling us into slower Algorithmic thinking, and only rarely do we have a reason to actually think about what we're doing reflectively. Stanovich has a detailed model showing the interactions, and pointing to the Reflective mind as the director that gives the signal for when to invoke the Algorithmic level. His argument seems to be that people who don't "act smart" fail to engage their Reflective layer, and so end up on auto-pilot most of the time.

The rest of the book is mainly a rehash of the literature on rationality errors, and a plea for approaches like Thaler and Sunstein's Libertarian Paternalism, which are intended to provide support for people so they can get smarter results without having to reason more clearly.

In the end, I guess I'd say that there are some interesting ideas here, but not enough to make the book worthwhile.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

No Justice, No Peace

Matt Welch's Editor's column in the June issue of Reason includes this paragraph on a budget fight in Montgomery County, Maryland:

The housing bubble, with its tax-generating wealth, was already bursting in 2007. Yet as recently as 2009, Montgomery County, Maryland, decided to make "phantom" cost-of-living increases to the pensions of government workers, linking contributions to salary increases that did not occur. This sweetheart deal, which added more than $7 million to the county's annual budget (according to The Washington Post), tasted rather bitter at a time when the county's revenue was falling short of projections by more than $24 million. Yet after one Montgomery County Council member proposed eliminating this sop to the public-sector unions, four of his colleagues joined a rally on the rooftop of the council's parking garage, leading a crowd of 400 government employees in chants of "We've had enough!" and "No justice, no peace."

I boggled at the audacity of re-using the "No justice, no peace" chant in a context like this. Normally, when the left uses this chant at a rally, it's in support of a group that isn't getting fair treatment on housing or employment rights. The unstated thinking behind the chant is that societies that don't protect people's rights will find that the underprivileged are more restive. But in the mouths of public safety workers threatening to strike because outrageous privileges might be taken away, it sounds more like a threat, which I would paraphrase as "If we don't get what we want, we'll make your life hell!"

A little digging assured me that Montgomery County did rescind the pension increases eventually. Some the county council members are running on their record for having imposed fiscal austerity measures, even though they were in place for the initial largesse as well.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Different Universe: Robert B. Laughlin

Robert B. Laughlin's A Different Universe is full of interesting ideas without being a coherent narrative on a single theme. In the preface Laughlin explains that the book is an attempt to address the inherent tensions between reductionism and emergence. In particular, he (not very coherently) tries to argue that it's sometimes more useful to think of physical law as emerging from the interactions of particles rather than causing them. And he constantly interrupts his discussions of physics at various levels in order to tell anecdotes. Sometimes he seems to have chosen the topics in order to be able to either drop names (unusual for a Nobel laureate) or impugn the motives of people he's worked with.

Still, there are several fascinating examples of scientific phenomena that are well established, but for which there aren't good explanations that are integrated into the main texture of our understanding of physical law. I suspect that several good reputations could be made by physics grad students by latching onto one of Laughlin's stray thoughts and developing an explanation that fits the effect into the mainstream. One example is the phonon effect:

Suppose, for example, a sound transducer is attached to a solid and turned on, thus beaming sound into the solid, and then reduced in intensity to make the amount of sound small. A sound receiver on the other side of the solid detects not a faint tone but sharp pulses of energy arriving at random times. This quantized transmission of pulses evolves into the more familiar transmission of tone when the intensity is increased—an everyday example of the emergence of Newtonian reality out of quantum mechanics, But at low intensities this emergence does not occur, and the conclusion becomes inescapable that particles of sound exist, even though they do not exist when the solid is disassembled into atoms.

Laughlin calls this "The closest thing to real magic I know."

His discussion of symmetry (pp 124-5), and why it makes more sense to think of it as caused by the interactions between particles at various scales rather than as a set of rules that enforces their behavior is similarly tantalizing and brief.

He points out ways in which the physics mainstream is sweeping some problems under the rug, but doesn't truly resolve the issue. "If Einstein were alive today, he would be horrified at this state of affairs. He would upbraid the profession for allowing this mess to develop and fly into a blind rage over the transformation of his beautiful creations into ideologies and the resulting proliferation of logical inconsistencies. Einstein was an artist and a scholar but above all a revolutionary."

In chapter 13, "Principles of Life", near the end of the book, Laughlin spends several pages explaining that life is a mass phenomenon, and that collections of large numbers of parts act differently than you'd predict by analyzing the parts themselves. Rigidity, for example, is an important aspect of explaining how molecules get together to build living creatures, and it is only a coherent concept once you get into realms where the behavior of individual particles doesn't matter in detail. Similarly, proteins are enormous structures if you're trying to figure out how the behavior of atoms contribute to their effects, but if you deal with the atoms statistically, and as a mass, you can make more headway. Early in the book he had pointed out that "The only way one can start out from wrong principals and get the right answer is if the property one is calculating is robustly insensitive to details, i.e. is emergent. Thus the lesson from superconductivity is actually not that quantum field theory is a superior computational technology but that quantum fields can themselves emerge."

I'll end with Laughlin's summary of the (wine-fueled) conclusions of an interdisciplinary workshop on emergence:

Emergence means complex organizational structure growing out of simple rules. Emergence mans stable inevitability in the way certain things are. Emergence means unpredictability, in the sense of small events causing great and qualitative changes in larger ones. Emergence means the fundamental impossibility of control.

He manages to tie emergence in with some complex effects but leaves us with nothing more than a recognition that we don't understand what's going on yet.

Monday, August 09, 2010

A Mirror for Observers: Edgar Pangborn

I recently re-read Edgar Pangborn's A Mirror for Observers, and wanted to like it. (It's been nominated for a Prometheus Hall of Fame Award a couple of times.) The story is narrated by Elmis, a visitor from Mars, who has been living among humans for thousands of years as a passive observer. He believes that humans are managing their affairs and their progress quite nicely on their own. His main goal is to prevent Namir, a dissident Martian, from encouraging evil of various sorts from arising among the humans.

The good guy in this story is very good--Elmis values taste and style and life, and wants to ensure that they survive on this planet. But the people he's trying to protect do very little to help their cause. They spend most of their time ignorant of the battle that centers on them, and even spend some of their time collaborating with their apparent enemies. If it weren't for the assistance of the extraterrestrial agent, they wouldn't stand a chance. And in the end, they lose the most important battle, even with his help.

So the underlying message is that the good is worth working for, but it is incapable of defending itself, and even with powerful and intelligent allies on its side, those working to undermine it may come out ahead.

If you read the book, you'll admire the characters, and enjoy their taste and sophistication, but you'll be disappointed in the end by their impotence.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Impro, Keith Johnstone

Keith Johstone's Impro purports to explain how to teach people how to do theatrical improvisation. The author has apparently had a fairly significant effect on the way that actors think about improvisation, but while there's some loose theorizing here, Johnstone presents nothing but personal experience to back it up. It works for him, and that ought to be good enough for you.

Johnstone's main claim is that the appearance of versimilitude that theater needs is mostly a matter of controlling the appearance of status distinctions between characters. He teaches his students via a variety of games and exercises in which they learn to carefully control status both by verbal responses and minor postural tweaks. Part of the trick (he claims) to getting the aspiring thespians to understand what they're trying to achieve is to be able to appear either slightly above or slightly below (on command) another character. Getting the audience to believe that one character is significantly more highly placed than another is easy, but there's no tension in that. In order to get both the appearance of reality, and dynamic intensity, Johnstone wants status distinctions to be slight, and constantly varying.

The last section of the book covers exercises with the actors wearing masks. Johnstone seems to believe that hiding behind a mask has almost mystical properties. This section was very unconvincing to me. The rest was only moderately interesting.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


My two month hiatus probably deserves an explanation, and enough has been going on in my life that it's worth bringing those of you who haven't heard about it up-to-date. For the last several years I've been primarily consulting on Zocalo, my open source prediction market software. In December, my two clients both let me know that their grants had run out, and they couldn't continue to pay me, so I started looking for a job. That occupied a lot of my time for the next few months, though I was able to keep writing reviews.

Then in early April, my father, Richard Tudor Hibbert, passed away. I spent a fair amount of time over the next week preparing to display some of his art that I had started organizing over the last year or so. At the service I ran a continuous loop of more than 100 of his paintings, watercolors, pastels, and sketches. I spoke briefly at the services (as did my brother Mike and my father's brother Robert).

Once I was back in California after the services, I continued interviewing, and got a job offer from Google shortly thereafter. I've been hard at work at Google since the beginning of May (when the hiatus began), and have been setting up a blog for my father's art, (the name was his personalized license plate for many years, and is a play on his initials and his earth-covered home) and preparing posts for it every other day or so. That's what I've been up to. If you like the art I've posted there so far, I encourage you to keep tracking it, because there's much more coming. I'm hopeful that my time is more in control by now, and that my writing for will return to its normal (irregular) pace.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Microcosmos: Lynn Margulis and Dorian Sagan

Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan's Microcosmosis a recapitulation of the history of evolution of microbes and how it affects us. The work that Margulis & Sagan report on also led to an article at that produced a quote I've been using as one of my email signatures.

All sensory cells [in all animals] have in common the presence of ... cilia [with a constant] structure. It provides a strong argument for common ancestry. The common ancestor ... was a spirochete bacterium.

The copyright date is 1986. A lot has been learned about evolution and microbes since then. Even so, this book is a good introduction to the subject; it's very readable and has lots of detail that is still accepted. The story starts with the very beginnings of life on earth, and is always connected to its affect on how our biology works now:

As we examine ourselves as products of symbiosis over billions of yeaaar, the supporting evidence of our multimicrobe ancestry becomes overwhelming. Our bodies contain a veritable history of life on Earth. Our cells maintain an environment that is carbon- and hydrogen-rich, like that of the Earth when life began. They live in a medium of water and salts like the composition of the early seas.

The presentation is ordered chronologically, starting with the formation of stars and planets, proceeding through the cooling of the earth and the formation of the first entities that could reproduce reliably, the invention of sex and the alternative means of exchanging genetic information, and the change in composition of Earth's atmosphere to something that supported oxygen breathers and was toxic to their precursors. That takes us through the first 3.5 Billion years of the history of the earth, and all of the evolution of macroscopic life occupies the most recent 500 Million years. The emergence of cells, multi-cellular life, and then plants and animals follows, but the microbes are still around and still affecting both metabolism and evolution.

Margulis & Sagan provide a very readable introduction to modern microbiology and modern thinking about evolution. There are certainly more recent books that cover the details of the modern understanding in more detail, but this is a good overview and doesn't miss much that's important.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Prisoner, Carlos J. Cortes

Carlos J. Cortes's The Prisoner has a very dark mood (partly because a lot of it takes places in sewers and other underground places) but has a freedom-oriented atmosphere. The government has exploited the development of a technology that allows suspended animation to convert prisons to cost-effective body warehouses. Some of the highest officials in the prison bureaucracy have taken advantage of the system to get rid of enemies, or to make money hiding people for the world's crime syndicates.

Someone with inside information and an axe to grind with Odelle Marino, the chief bureaucrat, puts together a team and a plan to spirit out one particular prisoner with the best chance of embarassing Ms. Marino. The plan would be appropriate for a Mission Impossible script, and the sewers that the team escapes through would make great cinema. The novel describes the stench and the slime, while a movie would have to leave the odors to our imagination. This would be an improvement, as the book revels in the ick factor. It also portrays the bad guys (particularly Marino) as caricatures, but since they're not the center of the story, this isn't a huge problem.

The good guys come from all levels of society, from a powerful Senator (willing to abuse his power for the right ends) to homeless vets living in abandoned subway tunnels. They know why they fight against the entrenched bureaucracy, but the novel focuses more on the action and intrigue than on the politics. The climax has a bit too much deus ex machina for my tastes--it wouldn't have been too hard to convincingly portray a General who takes the side of the schemers as anti-establishment, or chafing at some of the abuses, but his motivation remains unstated.

The main weakness of the story, from a libertarian viewpoint, is that the characters are only concerned with obvious abuses of power, and not with the inherent abuse that come with vast centralized power. The government in this future has enormous power over network communication, travel, and employment, and the protagonists spend their time trying to reduce corruption and abuses of that power, without more than annoyance directed at the impositions it provides.

Overall, I'd say this was an fun near future adventure story with a weak message against abusive government. The Prisoner was nominated for the Prometheus award, but wasn't selected as a finalist.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Create Your Own Economy, Tyler Cowen

Tyler Cowen's Create Your Own Economy argues that Asperger's syndrome and Autism are more common than most people realize, and that part of the reason is that people like Cowen gain more advantages than disadvantages from their condition. The overall point of the book is that we should treat neuro-diversity as an asset, both to society, and (for the neuro-diverse) to themselves.

The advantages that come with aspergers are a greater ability to focus, and to creatively find order in data, while the concomitant weakness is a lower ability to see the big picture. The condition is sometimes referred to as the autism spectrum, because there is such a variety of symptoms, but Cowen points out that both the strengths and weaknesses have a large and largely independent range. One of his repeated refrains is that finding ways to see the strengths has two beneficial effects--it both enables us to take better advantage of our personality quirks once we recognize them, and it encourages others to find the strengths hidden within the ways they see the world and develop them. So overall society benefits from people who think of themselves as differently-enabled rather than differently-disabled, and find ways to contribute and earn, rather than ways to get support and assistance from others.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Makers, Cory Doctorow

I really enjoyed Cory Doctorow's Makers, which is a Prometheus award finalist for this year even though it doesn't reach very far into the science fiction realm. I think many of the other judges, not living in Silicon Valley, don't see the same kind of ongoing inventiveness as I do, and don't see makers as an unrelenting force in the world.

The story follows the activities of a pair of makers (the modern, more popular term for the good kind of hacker), who invent a continuing stream of disruptive technologies, start a couple of movements which grow and crash serially casting fame and angst in all directions though wealth is sparser. The characters are prototypical hackers, with varying social skills, but always with the ability to adapt to new circumstances. From time to time, they each need to take on more managerial or other non-technical roles, which they sometimes do well, and other times pass on to others more suited for the role, and are always pining to get back to being creative.

The characters were completely plausible, and their inventions were eminently reasonable. Many people might blanch at their universal constructors, but everything they build is macro-scale, no nanotech required. Their diet interventions were more fantastic, allowing people to eat unlimited quantities, while burning all the calories wastefully, and therefore losing weight. The drawbacks and work-arounds were also plausible.

The fun part of it is that you get to see hackers spinning out new ideas, and new businesses growing up in all directions. The two primary characters are followed around by a reporter who decides they're the most interesting thing going on, and blogs their activities non-stop. While this means they have few secrets, it's also a source of unending publicity for them. Many of their inventions help other people move up from the bottom rung of the economic ladder, and keep lawyers and business managers continuously busy.

The battles over ownership and control of the technology were priceless, as well as the corporate intrigue and underhanded shenanigans to keep them from destroying other company's (mostly Disney, a perennial bad guy in Doctorow's stories) plans.

As a Prometheus nominee, there must be a libertarian connection, right? Well, open source production, entrepreneurial drive, and undercutting the normal order of things will have to suffice, since the characters pretty much ignore the government except when someone is suing someone else.

BTW, Locus Magazine had a great April Fools announcement that Ayn Rand's estate had picked Doctorow and Charlie Stross (both Prometheus winners, as Locus pointed out) to write a sequel to Atlas Shrugged. Meanwhile, Stross' own site announced that due to the sorry state of the SFF market, he'd be coming out with a line of sparkly unicorn-themed novels aimed at the teen market.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Liberating Atlantis, by Harry Turtledove

Harry Turtledove's Liberating Atlantis is the final book of the trilogy, which covers the successful rebellion that ends slavery slightly earlier than in our own timeline. The protagonist is Frederick Radcliff, a slave and descendent of Victor Radcliff, himself a major character in both the previous books. Frederick Radcliff is the grandson of a slave woman "lent" to Victor between the battles in United States of Atlantis. Victor suffers a fair amount of angst in that story over the existance of a slave-born son when he has no surviving children with his wife.

Frederick is a smart and competent house slave who trips over a loose floorboard at an inopportune time and is given "5 lashes, well laid on" as direct punishment, and demoted to be a field slave. It doesn't take him long to be fed up with his new circumstances and luck soon feeds him an opportunity which he grabs and takes advantage of. A squad of soldiers are ferrying weapons and ammunition when they are hit with yellow fever; they stop to recover at the plantation where Frederick lives and toils. After the fever takes a few soldiers and their sentries get a little lax, Frederick leads a small band of slaves to grab the munitions and kill the soldiers along with their owners.

From there, the rebellion spreads, and Frederick proves an able leader. They find enough supplies on the nearby plantations and intercept supplies intended for the army that comes to suppress the rebellion. The army underestimates their abilities often enough that they are successful, and eventually negotiate terms with the national government.

Turtledove does a good job of presenting freedom-oriented ideas but in this book, they're in extremely non-controversial areas (everyone has an equal right to be free, governing is hard). His characters are all mixes of good and bad aspects, with even the southerners getting good points in occasionally, and not being any more consistently stupid than their opponents.

One of the ideas Turtledove explored in the series is the workings of the Roman consul system in which the power of the federal executive is checked by electing pairs of chief executives who serve in alternating periods and can veto each others' actions. The system worked alright for Rome for a long time, but as Turtledove portrays it, it falls apart in contentious times. In particular, the system calls for the consuls to serve in times of war as field generals alternating duties daily. The two consuls in this novel eventually figure out how to work together to make some progress, even when they disagree about their aims. It is more entertaining and instructive to see wild ideas demonstrated in fiction to argue that they might work, rather than to show that they don't work any better than we'd expect.

On the whole, a good read. Worthy of being a Prometheus finalist, and the first time, I think, that an author has had two finalists the same year. A few authors, most recently Charles Stross, had two novels nominated the same year.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Hidden Empire by Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card's Hidden Empire picks up where his previous (prometheus nominated) Empire left off.

A new virus has just made the jump from monkeys to humans in Africa and Averell Torrent, the new U.S. President, knows how to take advantage of the situation in order to cement his power and make the world a better place. The story flows more smoothly than in the previous book; the action is intense, and the characters are engaging and sympathetic. There are very affective depictions of loyalty and heroism. Card knows how to propel the story through the characters' actions, and without needing editorial explanations to clarify his point.

But in the end, it's an apology for strong-man politics. The underlying message is if the right (visionary, ruthless) man can get control of the levers of power at the right time, and he has the right motives, he can make everything better. Card is careful (through the characters' actions) to warn us that it's crucial to a free society that the strong man be watched carefully to ensure he isn't pursuing nefarious ends, but in the end, Card says, if he is pure of heart and has the right goals, then he should be allowed to proceed.

If Hidden Empire becomes a finalist for the Prometheus this year, I would read it more as an indication of a weak year for well-written libertarian novels than an endorsement of the political principals displayed here. Of the eleven novels nominated so far (of which I've finished only 7), I can only recommend The Unincorporated Man as both libertarian and well-written. Makers by Cory Doctorow is a wonderful story (review coming shortly) but not libertarian enough to qualify. The United States of Atlantis is nearly as good, but also weak on libertarianism. The Iron Web is stridently libertarian, but with cardboard characters and weak writing.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Daniel Kennefick: Travelling at the Speed of Thought

Daniel Kennefick's Traveling at the Speed of Thought tries to untangle the current state of science with respect to gravitational waves. The approach is mostly historical, with a focus on what Einstein thought at various times, and how others reacted to his analyses. The book is also fairly recent (2007) and doesn't seem to have been eclipsed by new discoveries yet. (There are active experiments looking for physical evidence of gravity waves. The effect is expected to be minuscule, so proponents are bothered by lack of success so far.)

A lot of the story is driven by a referee's report on a paper Einstein and Rosen submitted to Physical Review in 1936. Einstein was apparently used to European deference to authority on submitted papers, and was so upset that an anonymous referee had been consulted that he sent it to an obscure journal. By the time it was published there, Einstein had changed his mind about the primary conclusions.

The primary question seems to be whether gravitational waves carry energy with them as they propagate. If they do, then their sources (black holes, for instance) ought to lose mass over time. If they don't carry energy, then we don't have a sufficient theory of what could be propagating.

Another question that has to be answered is how fast gravity travels, and what it is that moves. In waves in water, individual water molecules only move locally, while the wave can travel great distances. With electromagnetism, actual photons move from place to place, carrying the influence. Which kind of thing is gravity? In one case, we should try to identify the medium in which the disturbance propagates, in the other, we should be able to find the particles themselves.

I may be over-simplifying, but the skeptical viewpoint seems to be that symmetrical motion or ballistic motion of any isolated mass wouldn't radiate energy, since changes in trajectory are required to produce gravity waves. If the present crop of detectors fails to find anything, this may be the best interpretation. It's hard to reconcile this suggestion with the presence of supernovas and binary star collapses. Those seem like dynamic enough changes that they should result in a change in the gravitational field that would have to propagate at some finite velocity.

Kennefick's book provides a good, general introduction to the area, without getting too technical. If you're interested in the history it would make sense to read it. If you're looking for more details on what is know, how the math works, or how to interpret the results from the detectors, you should probably look elsewhere.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Harry Turtledove: The United States of Atlantis

Harry Turtledove's The United States of Atlantis is the second book of his series of a mythical extra continent in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, and how its history progresses parallel to the real North America. The story starts up a decade or two after the close of Opening Atlantis, so the main characters from the end of that book are the focus characters throughout this one. In this book, the British tighten up on taxes and import restrictions until the settlers say enough and start a revolution parallel to the American one. Victor Radcliff, who was pursuing a retirement career as a farmer after the previous novel, is chosen by the rebel Atlantean Assembly as their General. He has to recruit and arm an army, manage his political overseers, and run a campaign against a force that is better armed, better trained, has control of the seas, and is far from home. Of course, Radcliff has all the advantage of knowing the territory, protecting his home, and having the support of (most of) the populace.

The focus follows the military action almost exclusively. The campaigns are reasonably realistic and well told, with each side winning their share, but the eventual outcome is predictable, so it's never a surprise when Radcliff's setbacks are followed by bigger triumphs. The surprising thing to me was there was no attention paid to the events among the Assembly which was attempting to form a government. It seems to me that the possibilities for alternate history in the area of politics are far richer in this time of intellectual and political ferment than for alternate military history. As it was, freedom-related themes are mostly subliminal. We know that the characters are fighting for the independence of their home, and they occasionally talk about their feelings for the British Crown, but they don't talk about liberty, or how to organize or regulate a free society.

Alternate military history, on the other hand, is pretty simple, particularly when the geography and forces aren't constrained to mimic another battle or campaign closely. It's an interesting sequence of fights, and the strategems and tactics employed are interesting, but they don't reflect much on any particular previous war.

This book was nominated for the Prometheus award, and in a weak year it may win. There are hints that the third book in the series (Liberating Atlantis, released in November, so it could be eligible for 2009 or 2010) might be much stronger. Of the nominees that I've read, The Unincorporated Man is the only one that I like more for the Prometheus award.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Steven-Elliot Altman and Diane DeKelb-Rittenhouse: The Killswitch Review

Steven-Elliot Altman and Diane DeKelb-Rittenhouse's The Killswitch Review is a heavy-handed diatribe against government control of death and dying. In the year 2156, stem cell therapy and other advances make it technically feasible to extend lifespans indefinitely. But a malthusian economy makes it necessary to restrict the technology to Conscientious Citizens, and to control access to suicide at the same time.

The Killswitch of the title is a technology introduced by the government to allow a painless suicide, and record the context to ensure that nothing nefarious is involved. Jason Haggerty works for the agency that reviews the records. Anyone over thirty can request a Killswitch--access is forbidden to minors. (And as usual, they want access as a sign of their maturity.)

The society is so depressing that people who could live indefinitely do kill themselves, and people with no hope want to do the same. For some reason, the authorities want to prevent the latter, while society suffers from overpopulation and many forms of ecological catastrophe.

The story follows Jason as he and his sidekick android track a public suicide that may not have been what it seemed. They find conspiracies, speakeasy torture parlors, freedom fighters toiling in the wilderness, and of course, the richest man in the world is responsible for the plot.

For me, the story never overcame the premise. A future in which people are a burden, only the well-connected have access to longevity treatments, but they aren't sure they want them, and masses of young people who are unemployed, bored, and forbidden access to anything that might give them a way out. Bleah.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Kwedit: payment for virtual goods

The most interesting new E-Commerce play that I've heard of in at least 15 years is Last fall, a friend was sounding me out about a consulting opportunity, and told me what his company was up to. My reaction was "I'll do it if you pay me at least half in equity." We weren't able to work out terms before they found a different way to solve the problem I might have helped them with, but I haven't been able to talk about the company and what they're doing until now. They're building a payment system based on credit for virtual goods. That combination lets them tell the publishers that there's no need to eliminate fraud--as long as customers have enough incentive to pay that it leads to incremental revenue, you can stop worrying about the customers who don't pay. People who run up their "kwedit" account in a virtual world building up a character aren't going to want to abandon their character, and in order to continue using it, they'll have to settle the bill. The other amazing thing Kwedit has done is to figure out lots of ways to let people pay. By making it straightforward for people without credit cards or checking accounts to pay, they'll be tapping into a vast, under-served market. Their biggest coup to date is that they have 7-11 signed on as a major partner. You can take your outstanding kwedit balance, print out a bar code (or maybe download it to your smart phone) and take that to a 7-11 store, where you'll be able to pay for it, just like it was an item on their shelves. Users can also send cash or a check in a business reply envelope they print themselves or have a friend or parent pay the bill using a credit card. With this payment mechanism, Kwedit doesn't need any strong identity guarantees for their customers. You can create a pseudonymous account, and as long as your kwedit account keeps getting paid off, no one else has to know who you are. They went live on Wednesday, and have had some favorable press. I think they've got a better chance of making this work than anyone else in the payments space. It's a sub-market, but I think it's one that no one else is targeting.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

J. Storrs Hall: Beyond AI

J. Storrs Hall (JoSH)'s Beyond AI provides a good and thorough introduction to the issues surrounding AI. I had expected JoSH to try to explain how to build an AI, and to fail at that, because no one really knows what the necessary breakthroughs will be. I expected that because I've known him long enough to know that he's a smart, ambitious guy who's thoroughly familiar with AI, who doesn't seem to have been drawn into the debates and discussion about "friendly AI". But he surprised me by writing a very readable, very useful book that doesn't say much that is new, but organizes it in a way that lays out the important issues in context and gives a road map for how we can learn to deal with the changes that development of smarter than human AI will bring to our world.

After a brief dip into dreams from antiquity of creating artificial creatures and how they were expected to change the world, JoSH starts the technical history with feedback theory and cybernetics, and shows how those evolved into control theory, information theory, and neural networks. He then shows where his roots are with a section titled "The Golden Age" that talks about work on symbolic AI through the 60s and 70s. This led to what looked like rapid progress and solutions to a number of problems: competence in various microworlds, rudimentary ability to generate understandable language, ability to understand constrained language, and promising representations for abstract knowledge. This is followed by a chapter that shows how the pioneers became disillusioned with their approaches by the end of the 1970s, as they harnessed their tools to solve a wider variety of problems, but discovered that they weren't solving harder problems, or finding any approaches that were leading to general mastery.

Any particular problem area could apparently be analyzed and reduced to a mechanical solution, but that solution didn't seem to help with the next one. JoSH attributes the stumble to the fact that the early approaches relied on programmers explicitly coding specific knowledge about each domain into an architecture organized around a formal model of the domain. This works for a constrained area, but leaves no room for fuzzy boundary cases. People are good at interpreting definitions and instructions loosely and knowing when to do so, but a program that can diagram sentences and summarize a typical daily newspaper would be useless if you wanted to translate the user's manual for a consumer appliance, or generate route instructions for a navigation application.

The next part of the book addresses the nature of mind: what general intelligence is, and what it would take to build something that could understand itself well enough to enhance its own functioning. JoSH draws together evolution (in E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology), with advances in computing and philosophy. Researchers in the 90s were explaining how the mind is made of separate modules that we can analyze in isolation, and whose distinct failures can be seen in identifiable mental disorders. When artificial minds are contemplated from that point of view, the problem of building one to suit appears more tractable, and the idea of recursive self improvement becomes more manageable. In our own brains, it's clear that there are distinct modules with separate responsibilities, that when one part becomes damaged, other brain regions can provide substitutes for the functionality at a reduced efficiency, and that the modules communicate with one another in some flexible way rather than relying on formal, precise interfaces. That makes it easier to believe that an artificial mind, built modularly, could use its understanding to upgrade and improve itself.

One way to resolve the issue that symbolic AI faced, that their representations were only useful in the verbal domain, and not in the physical has been addressed by the modern embodied approach. There has been a lot more focus recently on building robots that interact with the world to build up their model of their environment. This is a start on figuring out how learning works, and one of the discoveries is that agents interacting with the physical world can often get by with much less internal representation that earlier generations expected. The physical world provides a local representation of itself which, if you can interpret it, can answer many of the questions that arise when you need them. This simplifies the learning and doesn't require as much one-on-one training as building a formal model. It also seems to have been particularly robust, where the formal approaches were brittle. These embodied agents have also provided a more situated environment for re-exploring earlier lessons on reasoning and Bayesian inference. If the robot has to be able to adapt to a variety of different locations, then you're better off giving it the ability to become familiar with wherever it ends up than if it can't do anything until someone explains where the doors are and which outlets its supposed to use.

JoSH spends a chapter outlining an approach based on reasoning by analogy with its own history. It reminds me of Jeff Hawkins' description of how the brain works in his book On Intelligence, but he doesn't go into much detail. It's one part of what will be needed, but the situated AI work will provide many more pertinent clues.

The last third of Beyond AI focuses on social consequences. First: what, who, where and, when, then the questions of free will, what morality should apply and whether it will be friendly to us, and finally whether there will be a singularity, and if so, which one. JoSH identifies four approaches that might lead to different WHAT answers: direct synthesis of AI software, emulation of the human brain at the neural or at some higher level, or building a learning machine that grows up to be a full AI. As far as WHO will win the race, JoSH identifies the military, university and industrial labs, and start-ups and the open source community as contenders, without giving any of them an edge. When he addresses WHERE the breakthrough is likely to take place, he tips his hand as to the shape he expects it to take.

Given the international nature of both the scientific community and the Internet, however, [...] The answer is most likely, everywhere.

As to WHEN, his slow projection is for everything except human-level flexibility and creativity by 2025, and 2035 for general human equivalence. With a few key breakthroughs, he thinks that general human equivalence could arrive in the 2020s.

JoSH does an unusually good job of explaining why free will isn't a problem. First of all, I want to point out that he laid the groundwork earlier by talking about how we understand gravity in order to be able to forestall a crucial objection in the middle without requiring a long aside. The whole book seems to have been constructed this way, with explanations early on that help reduce confusions later without seeming out of place when they occur. As he presents it, the problem is that we have a strong intuition that there's some contradiction between the deterministic nature of the universe and our ability to make choices that change the way things will turn out. JoSH points out that in order to make predictions about how our behavior will affect things, we have to have a mental model that includes a deterministic world which we inhabit, but that our model of ourselves has to be one that shows us making choices. We have to think of ourselves as considering alternatives and evaluating them and then making a choice. (When we're sophisticated, the models show that other people are also making choices) Given that the mental model allows us to make decisions, it has to have those two parts. Even if everything is deterministic, the self-model has to consider different possibilities before choosing actions. That part can't feel deterministic if it is to succeed as a model. That's all free will is.

The conclusions reached in Beyond AI about the ultimate shape of the future are remarkable similar to my own. Change will be large, but will arrive gradually, and there won't be any dominating breakthroughs. Many people will develop many different systems that advance the state of the art along a broad front. The groups best able to take advantage of other people's work will be working in the open and sharing their results. In this kind of environment, the best way to exploit your advancement is to bring it into the market place. AIs that emerge in this kind of context will see that cooperation with others and competition to best serve customers and provide value is the best way to get ahead. This kind of morality will serve them, and will lead them to be friendly in the important sense. Just as Adam Smith explained in his Invisible Hand metaphor, they'll help us (their customers) because that's the best way to advance their own interests.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Sandy Pentland: Honest Signals

Sandy Pentland's Honest Signals talks about subliminal cues we all emit and makes a case that they provide reliable clues about all kinds of social outcomes. It's a quick read (100 pages of text, 50 pages of Social Science appendices, 30 pages of notes, bibliography and index) and makes a reasonably compelling case that our unwitting signals accurately foretell outcomes in many situations. (negotiation, sales, poker and dating were all studied.) The cues themselves are described in the appendices, along with a discussion of the gropus who have learned to read them (salespeople, poker players). Pentland says it will soon be possible to produce portable devices to make the signals evident. Some of the experiments he reports on were done using prototype portable units, others were done in the lab with earlier versions.

Several important questions aren't covered in the book: Why do we signal this way but not notice it consciously?, How could we effectively learn to detect these signals?, Can people learn to change the signals they produce (either to conceal their motivations, or to steer situations to more desirable outcomes)?

Pentland does show that there's reasonable evidence that the signals occur early in a conversation, that they are reliable, and that most participants don't notice the signals, even though they usually realize how things went for them by the end of a meeting. He tries to argue that we can use the predictions made about job satisfaction and organizational stress to optimize the way work groups are managed, but there is little indication that the tools can be used for steering. When the metrics show that information isn't flowing freely across a geographical boundary within a group, there are obvious things to do to change that, but is there an obvious response if they indicate that one person has more influence than others? Maybe making diagnostic information about the form of the interactions visibly shared within a group would make it possible for someone to intervene, but we're a long way away at this point from knowing how to optimally intervene in group politics or communication.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin: The Unincorporated Man

Dani Kollin & Eytan Kollin's The Unincorporated Manis a wonderful exploration of an economic idea, in the vein of Barry B. Longyear's Circus World series. Circus World looked at what might happen if a society tried to base all interpersonal actions on buying and selling. The citizens of that society were descended from a crashed circus spaceship, and they paid one another for everything: unsolicited advice, pulling out a chair, telling a story around a campfire. If the benefits weren't obvious, you might have to pay people to listen to your spiel, which is the position of the protagonist in that story. Building a story around the exploration of an outlandish idea is a common approach in science fiction, and this story is a great addition to that genre.

In this novel, the Kollin brothers explore an idea that might have been invented by Robert Shiller: fund education and other personal development by allowing investors to take a share of a person's future income. In the society presented here, everyone is incorporated, and the government, parents, higher education, and others own shares in a person to compensate them for the work they've done raising that individual. Most people start out with a minor stake in their own net worth, and many of their options in life are controlled by the investors. Those who do well can use some of their earnings to buy back shares and try to gain control. Getting to "majority" is a big deal, but it's not enough to be in control of your own destiny. You have to get to 70% or so in order to protect yourself from minor setbacks and lawsuits from investors who can claim that you aren't doing all that you owe for the shareholders' value.

There are obviously lots of potential drawbacks with this kind of system, and the events in the book illustrate them well. But there are also many ways that this could work out, and many people who might be better off if someone else would benefit from ensuring that they got all the training and support that would help them to provide the best value to the economy. Since everyone in the society takes the system for granted, they provide arguments and illustrations for how well it works, and how the system enabled them to reach their present position, even as they struggle to gain control of their destiny.

Into this society (a little more than 300 years in our future) steps a man from our present. Justin Cord was a successful industrialist, a powerful, ethical, individual achiever who built a business empire before having himself cryonically frozen in the face of a cancer diagnosis. Cord didn't trust the standard cryonics providers, guessing that they would be attractive targets in the time between his deanimation and revival. He is proven correct--many others were frozen, but all the known preserved remains were destroyed in the riots after the great collapse. Cord has a contemporary outlook, with a strong pro-freedom bias, and doesn't accept the idea that anyone else should own his shares. This causes numerous problems, which gives the Kollins many opportunities to explore the implications. Cord's struggles to remain free make him the target of the world's dominant company, which has some good reasons and some bad reasons for not wanting any exceptions to the world's economic set-up.

The characters are very well drawn; even the bad guys have a mix of noble and ignoble motives, and are smart enough to be worthy opponents. Cord himself has strengths and weaknesses, so his actions don't have an air of inevitable success (other than his ability to survive amazing attempts on his life.)

The story does a very good job of showing both pluses and minuses for each side of the debate. The story is rich, and the characters constantly interesting. I think this book deserves to be a Prometheus award finalist. It takes a strong position that liberty is important and worth fighting for, and the characters spend their time pushing for different conceptions of what freedom is. I'll have to read a few more of the nominees before I decide whether it's my favorite.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

James Case: Competition

James Case's Competition is a disappointing book. It starts out strong, covering competition in nature and game theory, and moving on to markets. But it's clear that Case doesn't actually like markets, and uses controversies about how trade and monopolies works as opportunities to attack markets and mainstream economics in general. One of his biggest weaknesses in his analysis and policy prescriptions is that he doesn't understand or believe in the possibility of progress. In the chapter on Policy implications, Case suggests that farm problems be solved by fining farmers for overproduction, so the "farm sector could [...] earn more money by producing less, as other oligopolies routinely do. A similar plan worked for many years in the oil industry." This might be beneficial for current farmers, but at the cost of their producing less food for the rest of us at higher prices. If you think of the market as a competition between different producers that should be made both fair and remunerative for them, you end up with a situation where they are taking advantage of their customers rather than serving them. The beauty of the market is that producers compete to satisfy their customers. Each of them has an incentive to undercut the others in order to better serve the customers. This does have the effect of driving the least efficient out of business. Everyone (all consumers, and we're all consumers) gets more over time, but everyone has to remain nimble. The alternative is that some people are comfortable in their inherited position, but then you've undermined not just the incentives for progress and improvement, but also destroyed the mechanism that makes it possible.

Case's review of the literature on competition is quite readable and thorough. He covers the theory of games between 2 players, many players, the effects of incentives in auctions, how game theory was approached historically, and the progress that has been made in the field. His antipathy toward markets may be tied in with his lack of an intuitive grasp of zero sum and non-zero sum games. In the preface, he argues that analysis of non-zero sum games and many player games is nearly intractable.

Whenever many-player games such as Scrabble and Monopoly are contested at the tournament level, the rules are altered to transform them into two-player zero-sum games. Many player and non-zero sum games are simply too confusing for tournament play. With three or more players, there would be no end of complaints from alleged victims of collusion.

For a book published in 2007, it's pretty surprising that he didn't consider tournament poker. People like it because of its complexity and the psychological analysis required for good tournament play. And formal analysis may be intractible, but there are very competitive programs winning real money from serious human players.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Katherine Burdekine: Swastika Night

Katharine Burdekin's Swastika Night is an alternate history published in 1937. It projects a bizarre descendant of naziism 700 years into the future. If the author hadn't been female, I'd have called the book misogynistic; as it is I guess I'll have to say the society she depicts is misogynistic. Men have ruled the world since the death of Hitler, and they have suppressed women to the point that they're barely rational. Men visit women conjugally, but have little other contact with them.

Considering how early in Hitler's reign she wrote, the story show a remarkable prescience about Hitler's influence on the world--Burdekin describes an upper class that has nearly total control over the people toiling under them. Many of her reactions and projections are quite consistent with modern conceptions of Hitler's goals and methods. The women are isolated in camps, and Jews and Gypsies have been eradicated in Europe, and Christians are repressed in Britain. And the Japanese control most of the world outside Europe.

The story follows the interactions among Hermann (a devout Nazi of rather ordinary intelligence), Alfred, whom Hermann had met while doing his military training in England, and the Knight, the powerful local German noble who harbors secrets about the history of the current regime. Burdekin makes a point of showing lots of little ways in which history has been lost and misremembered. The Knight has inherited from his father and his paternal line going back 700 years a document showing something of how men and women lived and interacted in Hitler's times. Since these explicitly contradict the official doctrine of the Nazi church, he must keep it a secret, but for some reason he decides Alfred is worth trusting. Alfred takes the book back to England, where he hopes to use it to foment rebellion, but other than passing it on to his sons, he has little success in the face of the repressive government he faces.

It's hard to recommend this book. The action is slow, and other than Alfred, the characters are caricatures. Burdekin does a good job of showing that this society is dysfunctional and dystopic, but it's too hard to see how Naziism could have led here, and even if it had, the misunderstandings that everyone has of their antecedents softens any consequent blame for Hitler or the Nazis. Given the disparity between Burdekin's nightmare and what the world was actually like 70 years ago, that society could have as easily evolved from any other authoritarian beginnings. Yes, it's an idictment of authoritarianism, but the particulars of Naziism aren't really implicated. The resulting society maintained the style of Hitler's mistakes, but created their own substance.