Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Last Trumpet Project, Kevin MacArdry

Kevin MacArdry's The Last Trumpet Project covers the consequences of a slightly future world in which realistic virtual realities and uploading of people's consciousnesses into software are becoming commonplace. The government and organized religion are both violently opposed to these developments (for different reasons) and work together to suppress the technology and the people promoting it. Since the technology is the result of decentralized processes, rather than a single company or organization, the efforts to suppress don't do much more than slow the tide.

The story is generally well-told, with plenty of excitement, intrigue, and reasonable character development. The one place where MacArdry comes up short is in his depictions of the bad guys. They are caricatures of venal politicians and religious leaders, and may turn off (politically) mainstream readers. Their explicit drives and goals are for personal power, and they verbally admit that they don't care who gets hurt as long as they don't have to relinquish control.

MacArdry presents a plausible economic story about the development of the technology (the ability to view past events necessary for uploading dead people notwithstanding). As the fidelity of the VR improves, and there are more things to do and places to go there, more people spend more time there. The eventual consequence is that their real world activities and sources of income become harder to trace, which squeezes the tax authorities. This is the root of much of the governmental opposition. The religious opposition is stirred up based on the project to resurrect the dead into the artificial worlds.

As befits a technology that people rely on so heavily (the resurrected can't exist without it), the software has actual security (not described) that enables owners to prevent bad actors from getting access to sensitive locations. Of course the weak spot is physical access to the servers hosting the system, and the enemy forces eventually figure that out, though they have a hard time connecting particular servers to particular virtual locations.

The Last Trumpet Project is a finalist for the Prometheus Award, and it has a reasonable chance. It may not be the best written candidate of this year's finalists, but it's one of the best at presenting a clear conflict between freedom and government repression.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Simple Explanation of Prices

One of the podcasts I listen to is Russ Roberts' "Econtalk". In a recent podcast on Hayek, he was talking with Bruce Caldwell about the price mechanism and how markets adjust when circumstances change. They referred to Hayek's article "The use of knowledge in Society", a classic article I've heard of many times. This is the place where Hayek conclusively settled the Socialist Calculation Debate, which had raged for a couple of decades to that point. It's remarkably readable.

The podcast also referenced Roberts' own short article "How Markets use Knowledge". This article gives a concrete example of how markets adapt to changing circumstances, using a simple intersection of supply and demand curves. As circumstances change, suppliers and consumers adapt, by changing the amount they produce or consume, and the changing price gives each all the cues they need to choose a new course of action. Roberts shows how their adaptations respond to the context and the information they each have so different economic actors make different choices in differing circumstances. It's simple and elegant.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

War and Peace and War, Peter Turchin


Peter Turchin's War and Peace and War contains some fascinating details about a period in European history that isn't often covered in order to justify a relatively comprehensive theory about what drives the rise and fall of empires. Since I only have Turchin's view of the events, I don't feel confident in judging the theory, but it does hang together fairly well. Turchin's argument is that societies in which diverse cultures mix and which have frequent contact and conflict with very different groups, usually develop strong asabiya (social capital, Fukuyama's Trust), which leads to a strong culture and government, and historically led to empire (which he defines as a large multiethnic territorial state with a complex power structure.) The mixing which he says is crucial happens most often at the boundaries between empires, so as an empire grows the boundaries grow more distant, and the asabiya is undercut, followed by collapse and the rise of a new empire at the edges of the old.

The heart of the book is a presentation on European history before and after the Roman Empire, focusing on the interactions between the central areas and their Germanic, Frankish, Russian, and Arabian neighbors. There is a lot of detail about the various tribes and societies, and how they interacted, fought, and traded superiority over time. This was quite interesting, but since it was mostly new to me, and presented in support of Turchin's thesis, it was hard to tell how much selective bias there might have been. Turchin covers interactions between Russians and both Tatars and Mongols. The Russians apparently don't have any natural barriers to the east or south, allowing invaders to attack repeatedly. According to the thesis, northern Italy, which had more interaction with divergent neighbors than southern Italy, developed stronger social cohesiveness, which is completely consistent with the argument in Trust.

Turchin is less convincing when he talks about what drives the disintegration of social cohesion. This may be because he relies less on historical evidence and more on colloquial argument. He puts most of the weight of his argument on the "Matthew Principal" ('The Rich get Richer and the Poor get Poorer'.) He argues it's a cyclic process that occurs between and within classes. This sounds like social mobility to me, but he seems to believe that it's more accordian-like, compacting and stretching out the classes, and he argues that social capital eventually dissipates because of the disparities. In his view, the rich have advantages that allow them to amass more and more, so inequality rises, which leads to a decay of asabiya, ending in the fall of another empire. But it's clear from his description that some of the upper classes are rising and others are falling, and the same thing happens to the middle and lower classes at the same time. He even gives examples of some of the wealthy spending their money foolishly and ending up poor, and of the middle and lower classes saving their money and making it into higher strata.

In the final chapter, Turchin acknowledges that the Internet and the spread of the cell phone have changed the dynamics. He suggests a couple of possible directions that things might go, and some ways in which his theory might continue to be useful, but admits that societies don't have much of the stratification or immobiilty that drove the dynamics in prior eras.