September 10, 2004 6:30 PM

Anti-Bush sentiments from around the net

Doug Bandow of Cato on Why conservatives must not vote for Bush.
William Saletan in Slate on why the worst defense is a bad offense.
The Financial Times Editorial Board say that it is time to consider withdrawal from Iraq.

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September 10, 2004 12:49 PM

Dreams vs. Reality

Often, people propose that the government "do something" about a particular problem. They describe some sort of plan, and they claim that, properly executed, the plan will produce the results that they want.

What they ignore, however, is that it is rarely the case that a plan can be executed precisely as envisioned.

Chess players and computer security professionals learn a hard lesson early in their careers: you must assume that your adversary will behave intelligently, not that he will behave stupidly. You must judge your plans not against what your wildest dreams, but against what will happen if a smart opponent attempts to thwart your actions.

Similarly, when judging the proposal that the government undertake some action, one must consider what will happen if real-world bureaucrats, not saintly geniuses, execute the plan, and what will happen if an array of real world forces interfere with it.

For example, consider the dream a number of neo-conservatives had when they dreamed up the idea that a strong U.S. should re-shape the Middle East by invading selected countries and imposing democracy by force majeur. (This isn't a conspiracy theory — the idea was written about in public even before the 2000 elections.)

Now, it is all fine and well to daydream about our military might sweeping aside dictatorships without loss of life, and of crowds of cheering people, freed of decades of tyranny, greeting us with bouquets of flowers in the streets, and immediately setting up Western style democracies.

However, in the real world, we have a military that is not run or staffed exclusively by saintly geniuses. Opponents are also unlikely to cooperate with our plans — they will seek the most effective possible means to thwart us, and sometimes, they'll be able to find such strategies.

We must therefore not judge plans against our hopes and dreams, but against what is likely to happen in the real world. Indeed, the prudent planner judges a plan not only against the best case scenario but against a worst case scenario, because sometimes the worst case, not the best case, is what happens.

When examining a proposed government action, we must be especially skeptical, since there is no mechanism that will act as a check on poor performance. In the free market, companies that fail to meet their customer's needs go bankrupt, but governments are funded by taxation and have no such limitation. A CEO can claim in public all he likes that he was not responsible for "unforeseen circumstances" but pleading will not save his company from dissolution. If, however, a military commander's mistakes result in massive deaths, or if a bureaucrat's mistakes result in vast waste and the failure of a program, it is unlikely that they will be punished or that their work will be terminated. Instead, if they argue well, they might even get additional resources committed. In the commercial world, the best run organizations get more resources with time, and the worst run disappear. In government, the most politically astute organizations get more resources with time, and often especially if they have failed at their missions, while the best run organizations have no particular mechanism that rewards them or increases their scope.

This is the reason that you rarely wait for long on line at the supermarket, and it usually has what you want in stock. This is also the reason that you can wait interminably at the DMV or a similar government office, only to be told that you have to come back with additional forms the next day.

The next time someone says to you "wouldn't it be great if the government enacted my pet idea...", ask yourself what would happen in the real world if the government attempted to execute "the perfect plan", and not what would happen in the word of one's fondest dreams. In the end, the government will not do you want; it will instead do what the political process permits.

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September 09, 2004 11:56 PM

Mises Blog Entry on Liberty and War

The Mises Economics Blog has a great post on the subject of war and liberty. It is a series of extended quotations from an essay on the subject by F.A. Harper, the founder of IHS. It is long, but I recommend giving it a read.

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September 09, 2004 5:55 PM

Michael Crichton Talks Sense

I had generally assumed that Michael Crichton was just the author of some sensationalist novels (including a recent one called "Prey" that does for nanotechnology a bit of what "Little Shop of Horrors" did for dentistry). It turns out, though, that he's got some interesting opinions:

There is no Eden. There never was. What was that Eden of the wonderful mythic past? Is it the time when infant mortality was 80%, when four children in five died of disease before the age of five? When one woman in six died in childbirth? When the average lifespan was 40, as it was in America a century ago. When plagues swept across the planet, killing millions in a stroke. Was it when millions starved to death? Is that when it was Eden?

I suggest reading the whole speech, which is about the environmental movement. I can't agree with all of it, and I spotted some factual errors, but overall, I found it refreshing.

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September 09, 2004 12:46 PM

Aliens Redux

A while back, I posted an entry called "Statistics and Aliens" where I claimed that the Drake Equation, a famous way of estimating the number of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy, may be wrong because it assumes statistical independence. I also noted that the possibility that we would be able to intercept the internal communications of other civilizations seems remote to me because information theory dictates that the better the technology, the more noise-like a communication will seem.

I've now found an article in New Scientist from a few weeks ago in which Frank Drake himself notes that our own technologies are making us harder and harder for aliens to hear (and thus presumably their technologies might make it hard for us to hear them), though the article doesn't mention the same information theoretic grounds that I do.

Also, so far as I know, I've seen no one else who questions the assumption of statistical independence in the Drake equation, which seems strange. Is anyone aware of another source that mentions that problem?

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September 09, 2004 12:10 PM

N.H. has Highest Income, Lowest Poverty Rate

A newspaper article pointed out to me by my old friend Harry Hawk notes that New Hampshire has the highest median income and lowest poverty rate in the nation.

New Hampshire also has no income tax or state sales tax. This web page shows that it has a lower state tax burden than any other state in the country other than Alaska (and Alaska largely funds its state government by taxing oil production).


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September 09, 2004 11:04 AM

28th Anniversary of Mao's Death

On September 9, 1976, 28 years ago today, one of the most vicious mass murderers in human history, Mao Zedong, died of natural causes. He was responsible for the deaths of as many as 65 million of his countrymen — a number that makes Adolf Hitler look like an amateur.

For details on the crimes of Mao and other 20th century Communist leaders, see "The Black Book of Communism", available at Amazon.

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September 08, 2004 11:37 PM

Bruce Sterling on The Singularity

Some years ago, Vernor Vinge came up with an interesting observation.

At some point in the next few decades, we're going to be able to build artificial intelligences that are comparable to human beings in intellectual power. Moore's Law being what it is, soon thereafter, we'll be able to build AIs that are smarter than people, and pretty soon after that, those AIs will be building yet further AIs that are far smarter than people, and so forth.

It is possible that before we learn how to build AIs, we'll first learn how to perform "intelligence amplification" or "IA", augmenting human brains with electronics or other mechanisms to produce intelligences that are better than human. Such amplified humans would be able to work on improving the amplification technologies, which may also lead to massively superhuman intelligences.

It is possible that the first superhuman intelligences will merely be faster versions of human intelligence implemented by simulating the human brain on a very fast hardware platform. Vinge calls this "weak" superhumanity, but it is still potentially quite impressive. K. Eric Drexler in his fantastic (but somewhat dated) book "Engines of Creation" (also available online), presents a mechanism for simulating a human brain, using a conservative nanotechnological design, that would run about a million times faster than a human brain. Such a being could perform a century's worth of engineering work in less than an hour. Presumably such minds might improve their own hardware designs with breathtaking speed. Drexler's design is a pure gedankenexperiment — no one is likely to ever build the precise construct he describes, but since it there is solid evidence that it could be built, it tells us that at least such a construct is possible, even if far better could be made.

Vinge notes that once there are intelligences that are substantially smarter than people, and which rapidly become smarter still, the world will rapidly change beyond all human comprehension. The limits of human intelligence will no longer be limit the speed of technological progress, and humans will no longer be the apex of our civilization.

Vinge wrote a famous essay some years ago on this topic, coining the term "The Singularity" for it. Once superhuman intelligence appears, our models of the future and our ability to predict what lies ahead get irreparably ruptured. No dog, however clever, will ever understand integral calculus, and it is equally unlikely that humans would understand the science and technologies of beings far smarter than we are. (Vinge's essay is very well written — I encourage people to give it a read.)

Vinge notes in his essay (as of 1993) that he would be surprised if such changes happened before 2005 or much later than 2030, but the dates are immaterial in my opinion. Whether such events happen in ten years or in a hundred years, the impact will be the same, and thirty years or a century are both a blink of an eye in the context of the whole of human history.

Do I believe Vinge? Very much so. Human intelligence is the result of physical processes taking place in the brain, and we will thus someday be able to simulate those processes with machines. We will likely also design machines that produce the same effect by different means, much as cars are not like horses but also provide transportation. To claim that we could never gain such abilities is to claim that human intelligence arises from a supernatural "soul" of some sort, and I see such overwhelming evidence against that claim that I cannot give it even passing credence. That which arises from a physical process we can eventually simulate and understand, and that which we can simulate and understand we can improve. Whether we enter the post-human era today, tomorrow or in two centuries is immaterial — it will happen eventually if we don't kill ourselves off first.

This brings us to the topic of Bruce Sterling.

Sterling has recently made vague attacks on Vinge's arguments in two public fora. One such attack was a speech he gave to the Long Now Foundation (available here). Today, I was pointed at an opinion piece in Wired with much the same content.

Here's an excerpt from the Wired essay:

A singularity looks great in special f/x, but is there any substance in the idea? When Vinge first posed the problem, he was concerned that the imminent eruption in artificial intelligence would lead to ubermenschen of unfathomable mental agility. More than a decade later, we still can't say with any precision what intelligence is, much less how to build it. If you fail to define your terms, it is easy to divide by zero and predict infinite exponential evolution. Sure, computers might someday awaken into something resembling human consciousness, but we have no metrics to describe that awakening and thus no objective way to recognize it if it happens. How would you test a claim like that?

Sterling misrepresents Vinge's essay on the singularity completely. Vinge made no claims to understand intelligence, but his argument does not require that we understand it precisely. Vinge never claimed that such breakthroughs would have happened by now, and his argument in no way requires a particular timetable. He made no claims about "infinite exponential evolution", either.

"Consciousness" is also a red herring. Asking "how would you test a claim like that" is clearly the wrong question to ask — Vinge's claim is not about "consciousness" and there is no need to test the "consciousness" of the superhuman intelligences. We will know if they are more intelligent than us by their actions, such as building constructs we cannot understand, and whether they are "conscious" or not is immaterial to the argument.

Sterling's tone throughout is laden with indirection. He doesn't ever come out and say "I think the Singularity is implausible for the following reasons" — much like astrologers or the Oracle of Delphi, he avoids making specific claims and thus can't be found to be obviously wrong.

The comments he does make, though, seem stunningly off the mark:

Even if machines remain inert and dumb, we still might provoke a singularity by giving humans a superboost. This notion is catnip for the techno-intelligentsia: "Wow, if we brainy geeks were even more like we already are, we'd be godlike!" Check out the biographies of real-life geniuses, though - Newton, Goethe, da Vinci, Einstein - and you find vulnerable mortals who have difficulty maintaining focus. If the world were full of da Vincis, we'd all be quarrelsome, gay, left-handed Italians who couldn't finish a painting.

Glib, but I hardly see what it has to do with Vinge's argument at all. Either minds are a physical phenomenon, and gedankenexperiments such as Drexler's point to ways that we might produce faster (and possibly "better") minds than our own, or they aren't physical phenomena and cannot be understood or simulated. Perhaps Sterling claims the mind does not arise from a physical phenomenon, though that would seem to be solidly contradicted by the science of our day. Perhaps he believes artificial intelligence research is forever doomed to fail even if the mind arises from physical phenomena, though I see little reason to assume that either. Perhaps he truly believes that all superhuman intelligences would be crippled by Attention Deficit Disorder, but that is a pretty implausible claim, and he certainly gives no evidence for it. Perhaps he finds the idea of people exploring this avenue of research distasteful or perhaps he hates smart people (the "brainy geeks" comment seemed a bit anti-intellectual), but any such distaste doesn't appear to have any relevance to whether Vinge is right or not.

Unfortunately, Sterling makes no arguments in any of these directions. He merely insinuates. Since he's fairly non-specific about what it is that he's claiming, one can't be completely sure of what it is that he believes.

What Sterling lacks in specificity, however, he makes up for in irrelevant and fairly bizarre side commentary, such as this:

More likely yet, we live in a dull, self-satisfied, squalid eddy in history, blundering around with no concept of progress and no sense of direction. We have no idea what we really want from our own lives or from society. And no Moore's law rising majestically on any 2-D graph is ever going make us magnificent or spiritual when we lack the will, vision, and appetite for spiritual magnificence.

None of this, of course, in any way intersects with Vinge's arguments in the slightest. It is a complete non-sequitur.

In spite of the fact that Sterling's final paragraphs are in no way relevant to his claims about the ides of the Singularity, I still must take issue with them. I don't see our society making "no progress" or being particularly "squalid". Frankly, it is amazing how much we've done even in the last couple of decades to reduce poverty, disease and other human ills. Virtually any objective measure one chooses to pick, from life expectancy among the poorest 20% of the population to the number of people living without indoor plumbing, will show that pretty clearly.

I also have to admit that I have no particular desire in my life for the "spiritual". If by "spiritual" he means religion, I have no belief in the supernatural, and no desire to see society waste more of its time on such flim-flam. If by "spiritual" he means not enough people share his particular tastes for art or architecture, well, a person who truly appreciates human freedom does not deny others the right to their own taste.

Of course, as I've noted, since Sterling is extremely vague, it is hard to know what he means with any precision. What I can say, though, is that he appears to have failed to make a coherent case against the idea of the Singularity.

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September 07, 2004 3:00 PM

Aging and Reliability Theory

Allan Schiffman's blog also has an entry describing a very interesting article in IEEE spectrum about aging. The article analyzes the aging process in terms of the discipline of reliability engineering, which is an interesting new approach. See Allan's blog or the article itself for details. A more detailed paper is available here.

I'm pleased to see that the problem of preventing aging is finally beginning to get serious attention from a variety of researchers, and that it is even being discussed in mainstream technical and scientific publications.

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September 07, 2004 2:27 PM

Is Iraq like Vietnam?

Allan Schiffman asks, in a very short but well written piece, if Iraq isn't Vietnam all over again.

In other news, CNN Reports:

There have been 1,126 coalition deaths, 999 Americans, 65 Britons, six Bulgarians, one Dane, two Dutch, one Estonian, one Hungarian, 19 Italians, one Latvian, 10 Poles, one Salvadoran, three Slovaks, 11 Spaniards, two Thai and eight Ukrainians, in the war in Iraq as of September 7, 2004

That means that very soon, some lucky bastard will be the 1,000th U.S. soldier killed in combat in Iraq. This is likely to happen within the next 24 hours.

Will the media notice?

[NB: The link to CNN above is updated periodically with the casualty count, so it may have higher numbers than the ones mentioned by the time you click on it.]

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September 07, 2004 1:52 PM

Is the Placebo Effect a Myth?

The Gene Expression blog recently reminded me of a study done a few years ago that debunks the placebo effect. I'm pretty surprised that it hasn't gotten more attention, especially since it has a lot of implications for the question of whether the mind can have significant impacts on the health of the body. I similarly note a study announced a couple of months ago that debunks the notion that elderly people can delay their own deaths until after major holidays.

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September 07, 2004 1:22 PM

The Machinery of Freedom

Many years ago, I loaned my copy of "The Machinery of Freedom" by David Friedman to a friend who never returned it. Recently, I re-purchased it, and over this past weekend, while I was vacationing in the countryside, I re-read it for the first time in about 15 years.

I had forgotten how wonderful it is. It is one of the most important texts on libertarianism out there.

"The Machinery of Freedom" is structured as a series of short essays, all discussing a small part of the overall picture. Each is a small jewel. The essays are not academically rigorous — Friedman claims that such a style tends to interfere with coherent presentation of an argument, and I think he's correct. What the essays lack in academic depth, however, they make up for in clear argumentation and grand vision.

As I re-read each essay, I was stunned by how closely the ideas corresponded to my own world view. I kept wondering if I had held these opinions before reading the book, or if I had so thoroughly assimilated them years ago that I could no longer distinguish their origin. I suspect the latter. Although I was a libertarian before reading "The Machinery of Freedom", it is obvious that it profoundly effected my thinking. My belief that the state is likely superfluous certainly originated with Friedman's arguments.

Although David Friedman professes to feel that libertarianism is superior morally as well as pragmatically, he takes a pragmatic/utilitarian approach throughout on the basis that such arguments are more convincing than moral arguments. The result may have been a stronger one than he had intended — many of his disciples, such as myself, have long since ceased to make the argument for libertarianism on any sort of moral terms at all. Perhaps someday Friedman will write a book on moral philosophy and reverse the unintentional effect he has had on so many of us.

I've started reading Friedman's newer book "Law's Order", a text on the economic analysis of law. I may review it here in the next few weeks.

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September 01, 2004 10:28 PM

R.A.W. doings

A couple of my friends have recently re-discovered the brilliantly surreal Illuminatus Trilogy, co-written by Discordian Robert Anton Wilson. One of them even wore a Sacred Chao shirt to last Sunday's anti-Bush march in New York City.

This lead me to poke around on the net a bit after R.A.W.'s latest doings.

He has his own web site these days, which is a bit of a mixed bag. However, it links to the web site for his Guns and Dope Party, which among other things advocates replacement of 1/3rd of the U.S. Congress with ostriches. So far, I agree vigorously with the whole of their platform. I give them a thumbs up.

R.A.W. also has a Cafe Press shop where you can buy such wondrous swag as the "Hannibal Lecter for White House Physician" baseball hat.

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September 01, 2004 7:20 PM

Last Sunday's Protests

This entry is a description of how I spent the August 29 protest, plus a bit of an update on the protests in general. It is pretty boring if I do say so myself. Normally I avoid the "what I ate for lunch" sort of blog entry, but I thought I might want to keep a record of this.

My friends and I started out with breakfast in the East Village at 9am, after which we joined a feeder march going to the main protest at 10am. We joined the main march at about noon, at which point the streets on the West Side were already so clogged that no forward progress was possible. It is unclear how many people were part of the protest — it was certainly in the hundreds of thousands, but no one ever seems to use accurate methods of crowd counting to determine the real numbers. The claims range from 150,000 to 500,000.

The biggest problem of the day was the heat — everyone was baking in the sun, and bottled water was sweating out of people nearly as fast as they could drink it. The fact that the march was barely moving and that the only breezes were stirred by police helicopters did not help. We moved very, very slowly up Seventh Avenue to Madison Square Garden, and then turned right onto 34th street at about 3:30. My group of friends decided that we were not interested in being herded like cattle downtown, so we took the subway up to Central Park and joined the "unauthorized" protest there.

The park was great fun. It was filled with thousands of people peacefully enjoying a Sunday afternoon. The libertarians were out there (as I have noted, I met the LP Presidential candidate briefly and thanked him for running), as were lots of other groups.

The Billionaires for Bush were out in force at the park, looking incredibly well dressed as always. This has been a big week for them, including their Million Billionaires March, their Vigil for Corporate Welfare, and a Coronation Ball. I don't agree with all of their politics beyond disliking Bush — they're fairly standard Democrats — but I wholeheartedly admire their tactics. There are few groups I've seen in some time who get across a message with better humor and verve than they do. The evening wear, the shouts of "four more wars!", and the buttons (which all claim in small print to be produced with sweat shop labor) are terrific street theater. It is a great shame that libertarians rarely achieve the levels of zest and fun that folks like the Bs for B have.

My group finally left the park and got dinner on the Upper West Side around 7pm, and I got home, showered and collapsed well before 9. I was so wiped out that I slept for eleven hours.

Throughout the day's activities, we were shadowed by police helicopters and a police blimp. (Yes, a blimp, equipped with surveillance cameras with high powered lenses.) We were also surrounded by huge numbers of police at every turn. However, for the most part, everything Sunday was about as peaceful as you could imagine. There was one point where a paper Chinese Dragon was lit on fire near us, but other than that, no evidence of anything untoward.

On Friday, though, the police arrested bicycle borne protesters by the hundreds. On Sunday, they arrested a lot of the gays who held kiss-ins in front of theaters where the delegates were seeing shows — reportedly the pretext was "obstructing the sidewalks" but it seemed pretty lame as excuses go. They also arrested a lot of folks on Tuesday. The claim is that they've now well exceeded the numbers detained at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

The police have been pretty low on violence as these things go, but they haven't been overly friendly, either. They've apparently been using a considerable amount of trickery as part of their crowd control arsenal. It seems one common tactic has been to "agree" to let people march along certain routes and then to arrest them when, obeying "instructions", they violated the law. Another trick which was apparently used with cyclists on Sunday was to force them the wrong way up a one-way street and then to arrest them for riding against traffic. I suppose this is all yet more evidence for what every citizen should already know — the police can and will lie to you if it suits them.

The police have also apparently been detaining people not in the usual city jail facilities, but in a semi-converted pier on the West side. Reputedly the floor in the holding area is covered in dirt and motor oil and there aren't any places to sit or lie down. Some arrestees have been detained for periods of 24 to 36 hours before being booked and released, which is pretty unusual, especially considering that they're all being held for the most minor offenses. There is speculation that this is part of the police tactics, but of course there is no way to actually know.

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September 01, 2004 6:43 PM

Another reminder of how good things are...

There's a pretty good entry over at Cafe Hayek that points out, quite poignantly, that the division of labor has improved the material conditions we live under beyond all recognition.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Economics, Politics