Sunday, November 19, 2017

Expertise, the president versus congress

Since writing a post way back about the way complexity is a problem for Congress I've been happy to discover that the ideas in those aren't at all original and that these are the sort of things people write papers on.  Here's a good article on one recent paper.  I suppose I should have seen that coming.  Possibly I got the idea from somewhere initially then forgot about reading it.

But anyways, figuring out what you need to know to write legislation is hard.  It would be cool if Congress had a big budget to hire outside experts but they have to make do listening to what lobbyists tell them and trying to decide which to believe.  Of course there is on part of government that has a huge budget to hire people with specialist knowledge and which has tons of them on staff.  That is, the executive branch.

That's an angle on this whole situation I'd completely overlooked.  A president proposing legislation can use the Department of Education to draft school reform bills, use the EPA and Department of Energy to draft climate control legislation, etc.  People talk about the imperial presidency.  I expect that this is a pretty big factor in how we got that.

There's also some cause for hope here.  We got the Congressional Budget Office from Congress wanting to push back at having to rely on the White House when budgeting.  To quote Wikipedia:
Congress wanted to protect its power of the purse from the executive. The CBO was created "within the legislative branch to bolster Congress’s budgetary understanding and ability to act. Lawmakers' aim was both technical and political: Generate a source of budgetary expertise to aid in writing annual budgets and lessen the legislature’s reliance on the president's Office of Management and Budget.
 What got me thinking about this power dynamic was watching the recent floundering of Congress on their health care plans and other matters.  Partially this is an issue of leadership but part of the problem also seems to be that the executive is just not interested in the matter.  Or possibly that so many political appointments haven't been completed he's not able to.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Rockets VII: Staging

See also parts I, IIIIIIVV, and VI.

Space is sort of hard to get to.  You've got one of the Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs), which are really efficient rockets which'll give you a vof 4.4 km/s in vacuum.  That's pretty efficient for burning stuff and about as well as we can do for a rocket that can take off from Earth.  But lets say we do want to take off from Earth.  Well, plugging that into the rocket equation we see that you need a mass ratio of  8.5 to 1 to get the 9.4 km/s you need to reach orbit.  Especially when the big tank you need to hold the hydrogen for your rocket probably has a mass ratio of 10 to 1 before you add in the engines or the shuttle and payload.  Thankfully the shuttle also had its boosters which finished burning early then the big casings that contained all that solid fuel were dropped into the ocean where they couldn't slow the rest of the shuttle down.

Being able to drop heavy pieces of your rocket when you're part way to orbit has been a part of rocketry since the beginning.  Here's how it works in theory.  Lets say you have a rocket that's easy to build and which can carry 1/5 of it's weight as payload.  But lets say it only has a delta-v of 5 km/s.  Well that doesn't make it to orbit.  Ah, but we can make another one that's 5 times bigger and can carry the smaller rocket.   We launch the big one, get it up to 5 km/s and it releases the small one which gets its payload up to 10 km/s for a nice high orbit.  Our overall mass ratio is 25 to 1.  In theory if you just made a single rocket stage with a mass ratio of 25 to 1 that would be just as good - but that's impossible.  The tanks you need for fuel limit you to 20 to 1.  Add in rocket engines powerful enough to lift the rocket against Earth's gravity and your mass ratio goes down further.  You need some sort of staging to get a chemical rocket to Earth orbit.

Early on people couldn't do that sort of theoretical, one rocket carried by another, staging.  When you start a rocket on the ground there's gravity pushing the fuel into the engine.  When you start a rocket on the ground and the engine just doesn't start you can just fix whatever's wrong and try again.  Neither of those is true for upper stages and to start with people didn't know how to deal with that.

What the Soviets and US did was like what the Space Shuttle did.  They lit all their engines on the ground and had some high thrust bits that dropped off early while the rest of the rocket made it to orbit.  The Soviets with the Sputnik had essentially five identical rocket engines.   Four were attached to small tanks and one was attached to a big tank.  Under the combined thrust of the five the rocket would be boosted up into the upper atmosphere quickly then four of the engines would burn through their fuel quickly and then just fall away while the last part had a big enough tank in relation to everything else that it eventually produced enough speed to get into orbit.

The US, with the Atlas rocket, did something similar.  But instead of having different tanks all three engines were attached to a single fairly efficient tank.  The three engines were lit on the ground and loft the rocket up to a high altitude where it would take a long time to come down.  Then the two booster engines would fall away and the remaining small and efficient sustainer engine would take its sweet time accelerating the rocket to orbit.

The US and Soviets started figuring out how to make true stages after that.  The Soviets put a second stage on top of the rocket with an open cage connecting it to the rest of the rocket.  Before the first stage burned out while the acceleration was still forcing the fuel down into the engine they lit it off.  The US just used solid rockets where the fuel doesn't need any force to keep it in place and there aren't any turbines to spin up.

Eventually both learned to use further techniques like having little ullage motors produce just enough force to settle the fuel while a new stage was being lighted letting them both use liquid rocket stages that were entirely sequential.  Upper stages can use engines that are designed to operate in vacuum with the larger engine bells that let you direct your propellant better but which would cause problems if they had to fight against atmospheric pressure.  People talk about taking a single stage to orbit.  Elon Musk says that the first stage of his Falcon 9 could just barely make it to orbit if it didn't have to carry other stages or a payload.  But there's no reason to go to space unless you're taking something there.  Until we develop high efficiency rockets that also produce high thrust we'll have to continue to use staging to make it to space.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Adoption curves are often steeper than you think

When I was younger there were a lot of wondrous devices that were predicted in some science fiction books I read that I thought I might never get to use.  For instance when I was reading some Tom Clancy book or other in high school some government servant pulled out his pocket device that combined a cell phone, a GPS, and a PDA.  This was of course a super expensive device that was only available to top government officials and the very wealthy.  It was, of course, basically an iPhone but with less features.  There was another novel I read in college, Snow Crash, where the protagonist managed to get access to a piece of software normally reserved for the rich and powerful.  It was a 3D model of the Earth overlaid with satellite imagery that you could manipulate and zoom in on any location smoothly plus a lot of extra information.  It was basically Google Earth except with a few more features.

Every technology has an adoption curve.  Once indoor plumbing was for the rich only but now it's illegal for even the poorest of us to try to save money by building a house without it, for valid public health reasons.  Once TVs, refrigerators, and all sorts of other things were available to the few but eventually ended up with mass adoption.  Here's a nice chart courtesy of The Atlantic:


It's not all smooth or even a constant march forward but the trend is clear.  Are the slopes steeper more recently?  Maybe or maybe that's just an artifact of what technologies the chart maker was aware of.

Whenever I'm in a discussion about some new technology someone always points out that it'll be just for the rich.  Often that's true at first.  But sometimes, as with the iPhone it only makes sense to build it when a large swath of the moderately well off population can buy it.  And sometimes, as with Google Earth, it doesn't make sense to restrict who can use it.  But even if it does start off just for the rich even the poor will get to use it eventually.  If the materials involved are cheap but the design of it is costly then it'll probably be adopted quickly.  Vice versa and maybe the opposite will be true.  But it will probably reach wider use eventually and we should only talk about the period where it is the preserve of the wealthy rather than assume that will be the whole of the future.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Book review: The Righteous Mind

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt is a book about morality.  It's about the ways in which people form moral opinions and the underlying basis for human morality.

The book begins with a description of how the author's views have changed over time and how the conventional view of how children develop morality has changed over time.  To oversimplify, at one point people viewed children as inherently immoral and needing to be taught about morality.  Then children were viewed as being inherently moral and only needing to be protected from forces that would stunt there inherent goodness.  Then Lawrence Kohlberg re-invented morality as a rational way of rationally reconciling one's own desires with the desires of others.  And finally he came to the conclusion that people have inborn moral intuitions that we use to construct our theories of morality.  That won't be any surprise to readers of The Secret of Our Success but of course this book actually came out before that one, even though I read them in the opposite order.

Carving at the Joints

The author looked at the response people gave when asked about moral questions and came up with Moral Foundation Theory which is that all our moral intuitions around grounded in one of five foundations.

  • Care, wanting others to have healthy and happy.
  • Fairness, wanting people to interact justly.
  • Loyalty, wanting members of your group to act in the group's best interest.
  • Authority, the wanting people to respect legitimate authority.
  • Sanctity, wanting pure things not to be polluted.
Haidt further argues that we arrive at most moral conclusions intuitively and only come up with rational explanations for our intuitions afterwards in an ad hoc manner.  He also argues that modern liberals are morally stunted because they rely only on the first two foundations and ignore the other three.  I'll come back to that in a bit but first I want to talk about the five foundations he came up with.

Being an "armchair scientist" who comes up with "just so stories" is something that scientists usually look down on.  Haidt mentions this directly at one point.  But it's an important criticism nonetheless and good scientists should always be looking for ways to test their hypothesis.  This isn't to say that there's no place for armchair theorizing in science.  Einstein essentially came up with his theory of relatively in his armchair working from a bit of evidence and an intuition for what sort of solution would be the most mathematically beautiful.  But because of that we consider Einstein a remarkable genius and most people who concoct theories and stories in their armchairs get it wrong.

When Haidt started laying out his moral foundations my thoughts immediately turned to the various theories of personality that people have come up with over the years.  Hippocrates had his four humors theory of personality.  More recently Myers and Briggs have their theory of personality which has become popular.  But seeing that it was hard to agree on how to divide human personality a number of scientists got together and tried, though several iterations, to look at hundreds of traits and see if they naturally correlated with each other and formed clusters.  They did and so the Big Five personality schema came to be.  There might be some flaw in it but it's a lot better than you could come up with just sitting in your armchair and thinking about how the people you know are different.

Earlier theories weren't entirely wrong.  Pretty much every theory of personality had a measure of introversion/extroversion and the Big Five does as well.  But to the extent that other measures of personality are predictive and consistent for a person over time it's mostly only to the extent that they agree with the Big Five measures.

So when Haidt talked with a few fellow researchers about the survey responses he got and tried to sort them into categories it's almost a certainty that he failed to carve nature at the joints.  Care and Sanctity do seem like natural categories to me that are maybe as clear as extroversion is but I wasn't at all convinced that Fairness, Loyalty, and Authority were natural categories and in particular Fairness seemed to be covering a lot of complexity.

Sure enough, after Haidt does some experiments, gets some pushback, and adds a sixth foundation of Liberty which is broken our of Fairness.  But without some sort of factor analysis I'm not at all sure that the six factors in Haidt's new moral matrix actually correspond naturally to the foundations of individual morality.   Still, I think the notion that there are foundations to our sense of morality is a useful one.

Reasons for Reasons

Part of the start of Haidt's moral foundations theory was noticing that when he gave a story, say about a man engaging in sexual congress with a dead animal, to a western college student they would feel it was wrong but when they tried to persuade the ostensibly skeptical interviewer that it was wrong they would try to point to or make up concrete harms caused the act.  By contrast people from other cultures or with less education would often feel more comfortable saying that it's just wrong without any recourse to specific harms.  

Haidt points to this as an example of the Sanctity moral foundation which seems more or less true since I think he probably got that foundation right.  But he also presents the college student's inability to articulate that it's just wrong as them being out of touch with all the foundations of morality.  I'm not sure that's right.  When you're arguing about harm you can be sure that anybody with an intact sense of empathy will have a fairly similar sense of harm to what you have even if they might not have seen some chain of connections whereby an act might cause a harm.  But people's notions of purity are very culturally based and whether a pig, a snake, a menstruating woman, etc are intrinsically impure is going to be wrapped up with their culture in a way that you can't be sure of persuading them no matter how clearly you lay out the facts.  So trying to frame immorality in terms of harm might be a proper response to living in a cosmopolitan society regardless of how in touch one is with one's moral foundations.

The whole notion of moral persuasion struck me as something like a gaping hole in the center of the book.  The author says that we use reasoned argument to persuade but also says that reason is nearly useless in terms of morality.  Ok, but then why do we use reason to persuade other people.  If I'm trying to persuade someone that something is wrong I don't just think of what moral foundation it violates then repeat "Authority, authority, authority" to make my case.  Nor do I rely solely peer pressure though that's related too.  I make reasoned arguments that somehow seem to have an effect on people's moral intuitions going forward.  Occasionally I even make a moral argument to myself that changes my own intuitions though I'll grant to the author that that isn't very frequent.

Reflective Equilibrium

The problem with being guided solely be one's intuitions is that they're inconsistent.  I might feel in my gut that that if someone makes a mistake calculating the change from a purchase and I get an extra dollar that's entirely fair.  I might also feel that if they make a mistake and I lose a dollar that's intrinsically unfair.  And I might feel that hypocrisy is and even being ashamed at my own hypocrisy.   So how should I act?

 Let's say that my friend says something really offensive so I raise my sword and strike him down.  Then the next day when I'm calmer I feel very sorry about it.  Was I acting morally when I struck?  Was I even acting in accordance with my morality when I struck though I felt full of a righteous certainty at the time?

Defining terms is a tricky business.  People might argue for hours about whether a tree falling in the woods makes a sound.  If I define sound as sensing the world with my ears or as vibrations in the air then I've got a workable definition.  But if you choose to define sound as sensing the world about you with your eyes then you'll be running counter to other people's understanding of what sound is and you'll fail to communicate with them.  Likewise if you talk about morality only in terms of what people find intuitive without regard to what they find persuasive then you're not really talking about what everybody else means when they discuss morality.

Haidt discusses research that shows that even young children can have moral intuitions the same as adults can.  But I still think that most of us would agree that there are ways in which young children are less moral than adults and that efforts to teach them to share, for instance, are meaningful moral instruction.  I don't want to say how much instruction versus experience versus reason promotes the growth of morality because I don't know.  But I am sure that each makes some sort of contribution.

Darwin and Society

Haidt spends a lot of the book arguing that liberals should embrace a broader conception of morality.   He says that using just Care and Fairness is like cooking with only salt and sugar and that you need more flavors to make a tasty dish.  He describes how many of the moral philosophers who constructed theories based on just a single foundation were autistic.  He says that the reason that the Democrats never win elections is that they only pay attention to those two foundations and that to win they'll have to embrace all five.  But then he somehow claims he "has been entirely descriptive until now" and launches into his real argument.

He outlines how societies that stick together have certain advantages over societies that suffer from people defecting from common norms all the time.  There's some data about how, for instance, religious people give more to charity and some anecdotes about orthodox Jewish diamond merchants.  And there's a lot of woolly speculation on gene and culture evolving together and so forth.  And finally, because Europe has a birth rate below replacement, we have to stop being so individualistic and embrace more collectivism.

I think it's true that social cohesion is underappreciated as a force by liberals but I have two responses to that line of argument in general.

First, while it's true that more collectivist countries like, e.g., Pakistan have populations that are increasing faster than Germany's there are exceptions.  China is also very collectivist generally but also has a declining population.  The US is generally more individualistic than Europe but has an increasing population.  It looks like birth rate has more to do with a country's wealth than with its social cohesion. But if we're imagining a world of Darwinistic competition between groups wealth brings power and being less powerful is surely a dangerous strategy even if it lets you have more babies.  It looks like despite all the advantages conformity can bring individualism bring advantages too in the realm of wealth and science and we can't just evaluate the benefits of one without taking account of the benefits of the other.

For my second point I'll invoke Hume who Haidt praises many times in the book.  An 'ought' cannot be derived only from an 'is'.  Even granting that having a different sense of morality would let us be more successful in terms of being more powerful or having more reproductive success it doesn't follow that that is the right thing to do.  You can value many things besides having lots of babies.  Happiness.  Military power.  Science.  Art.  Helping other groups.

Anybody who commits murder or rape in order to have more babies is a monster.  I wouldn't do that.  You wouldn't' do that either.  In some sense my genes would 'want' me to do that but I'm not obligated to care what they think.  If you're inclined to reduce all morality to a single theory then that's one you could embrace but I think that the the utilitarians and deontologists have much nicer unified theories of morality even if Haidt criticizes their reductive impulse as autistic.  They still beat social Darwinism.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Coming Interregnum after Moore's Law

An interregnum is a gap in governance, most commonly when a monarch dies without a child old enough to take over.  For decades the world has grown used to the idea that computers would get better and better year by year as engineers were able to fit more and more transistors onto a piece of silicon economically in a process described by Moore's Law.  Sadly, that law looks to be running out of steam.  So we're going to have to go through an interregnum while people discover some other substrate for computation that can be pushed further than silicon transistors could.

Transistors have come a long way since they were invented in 1926.  They couldn't be built by the people who conceived them but in 1947 Shockley et al figured out how to make a practical transistor for use various electronics such as radios and then in 1954 the first transistorized computer was developed: TRADIC.  It was an amazing device at the time because computers were usually room sized whereas TRADIC was only the size of a refrigerator.  It also consumed only 100 Watts of power instead of many kilowatts and was nearly as fast as the best computer built with the then standard vacuum tube.  Sadly transistors were still much more expensive than vacuum tubes.

Then, in 1959 people built the first silicon chip with more than one transistor on it.  People started putting more and more, smaller and smaller transistors on pieces of silicon.  In 1965 Gordon Moore noticed what was happening and predicted that by 1975 people could fit over 65,000 transistors on a single chip.  Sure enough the size of transistors continued to shrink exponentially and in 1975 people were stating to talk about "Moore's Law."

And ever since then the size of transistors has shrunk by a factor of two more or less every 18 months.  For a very long time, until 2005 or so, shrinking transistors brought faster clock speeds.  The amount that transistor leak is governed by the voltage used in them and the size of the gate and until we hit 90 nanometers in 2005 the amount that transistors leaked was tiny compared to the amount of power required to flip them from a 0 to a 1 so everybody left the voltage the same.  Ever since then we've had to worry about leakage currents much bigger than switching currents and so we've shrunk voltage at the cost of no longer increasing clock speeds.  A piece of silicon can only dissipate so much heat per square centimeter.

And now the shrinkage of the transistors themselves looks like it will begin failing.   Here's a Nature article from last year predicting in demise.  Here's Sophie Wilson, the genius behind the original ARM processor saying she doesn't think there's that much time left.  And now Intel has repeatedly delayed moving off of 14 nanometers with constantly slipping deadlines for Cannonlake, its first 10 nanometer chip.  The end is not yet but it looks like it'll certainly be here by 2025.

Thankfully there's good reason to believe that this isn't anything like the end of progress in computation.  For a long time steam engines became more efficient periodically but eventually that stopped because there's a fundamental limit to how efficient an engine can be bounded by an ideal called the Carnot cycle.  When engines got close to that bound progress slowed down.

Luckily there are firm physical limits we understand to how efficiently you can perform computation and we still have a ways to go.  Current gates in high end silicon take around an attoJoule to perform a simple 'and' or 'or' computation but Landauer's Principle says that it's possible to do it for 2.75 zeptoJoules, 500 times less.  And thankfully by reducing the ambient temperature we should be able to do better.  Regarding speed there's another limit, Bremermann's, that we're even further from.

So what could take the place of Moore's law?  Off the top of my head different substrates such as diamond or carbon nanotubes.  Computation through magnetic spin.  Computation through photons.  Quantum computers.   Ballistic electrons.  Nano-mechanical systems.  Nano-electro-mechanical systems.  Pure chemical systems like DNA computing.  There are quite a few options and all are far from being ready for commercial use.  Still, there's no reason to think that we won't be able to make one of them work eventually.  In the mean time maybe we'll face stagnation or maybe we'll have a golden age of computer architecture where we learn to do more with the transistors we have.  Only time will tell.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Freedom of contract requires the government

There's a very real sense in which any sort of free market you could have can only exist when it is created by a government.  Without government there might be no third party to prevent me from selling my goods to the person over the hill but at the same time there's nothing preventing that person from just taking my goods and not paying me if he feels that he has a greater capacity for violence.  A world without government doesn't look like the "war of all against all" that Hobbes described in Leviathan since people still have their senses of friendship and kinship but those only extend so far.  Trading without the arm of the state to preclude violence takes trust that has to be built up over long periods of time and tends to occur in very stereotyped forms.  You can't run a modern supply multi-stage supply chain or anything like it without the umbrella of a state unless, against all odds, Nozick's ideas about capitalist anarchy actually work out in practice.

But beyond protecting us and our property from violence governments do something else to enable markets which I think is commonly underappreciated.  They're willing to enforce contracts.

Not all contracts of course.  You can't sell yourself into slavery, to take just one example.  But in general if you and another person come to a formal agreement then if one of you breaks it you can go to the government and it will use all its vast power to make sure the breaker either fulfills their obligations or pays up.  That's a lot of bother on the government's part but it's proven absolutely vital in the development of commercial economies and in the end led to success for the governments which were willing to go to that trouble.

Lets say that I'm really good at making widgets.  And this guy I know knows who wants to buy widgets.  Ideally we'd go into business together and form a widget company.  But if later I could learn from our business who was buying the widgets I could just drop my partner and sell to them directly.  Knowing this that guy might never go into business with me and might have to resort to complicated and inefficient means to prevent me from knowing who the buyers are.  So the ability to create a contract between us preventing this can make us both better off.

Or look at capital.  When I was reading Medieval Machines I was struck by how many of the milling developments in the high medieval era were the result of a bunch of people pooling their money into joint ventures like damning a river to use water power to grind grain.  Without prior and enforceable agreements as to who can use what how the development of large mechanical projects in Europe might not have gotten as far as it did as quickly as it did.

That the industrial revolution happened in Europe rather than China presents a bit of a puzzle.  China in wasn't as wealthy as England with as high wages, but the Yangtze delta was and that was an area as large as England.  Markets were about as free in China on average as they were in England.  The people were as educated though you can quibble about different emphases.  Coal, coal near population centers was certainly a difference I'll grant.  But another important difference was that the English bureaucracy wasn't nearly as selective as the Chinese one.

The idea of selecting officials by written examination was introduced early in Chinese history and it worked really, amazingly well allowing China to amass a unified state far larger than its neighbors and create far greater prosperity as well.  But the very selectiveness of China's meritocracy ended up being a problem because by the early modern era France and England had been expanding their bureaucracies to have roughly ten times as many officials per capita as Russia or China did.  The quality might not have been as high as in China but greater numbers meant more attention to more things and part of that was the enforcement of commercial law between merchants.

In theory Chinese merchants could have contracts but in practice the courts were busy and couldn't be bothered.  There were stories of merchants pretending that a murder had occurred in order to get a judge to see them so they could ask the judge to adjudicate a commercial dispute.  And I wonder if that, along with China's coal deposits being far away from its developed areas, can explain why the industrial revolution happened in Europe.

In the modern day we still see that different people have different access to commercial law, though basically every country cares about it at least in theory.  Fernando de Soto wrote a book, The Mystery of Capital, on how in many third world countries capitalism exists for the rich but not for the poor who have no title to their property and no real access to the court system.  The elites have real contracts but the poor don't and as a consequence inequality is redoubled.

One heartening trend in recent year is the introduction of widespread biometrics in India.  This is still a long way from all the tools of capitalism being widely available but legal identity is the first step and is an encouraging sign.

UPDATE:  And this is the sort of thing that identity provided by biometrics could hopefully help with.  Enough people have been declared legally dead and their land seized that there's a support group for them.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Some recent books on conciousness

Recently I finished reading, well, starting three books in a row that were about consciousness.  Which, of course, it quite enough to do a blog post.

The first was Consciousness and the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene.  It was excellent.  Often when we talk about consciousness philosophically we get lost in depths of abstraction.  This was about consciousness as a scientifically observable phenomenon.  How to tell if someone is conscious of something?  Ask them if they saw it.  People are conscious of things when they notice them but not when they're asleep or not paying attention to them or in various other circumstances.  Insects can't report what they see so we'll get back to the problem of insect consciousness later.

It turns out there's a lot of investigation you can do within that framework that's still very interesting.  And all the philosophical debate about whether qualia are separable from observations is neatly sidestepped for now.

Investigations you can do start out with subliminal messages.  If you see a word or phrase for long enough you become aware of it but it has to be present for more than roughly 50 milliseconds for that to happen.  And we can look at a brain with various imaging technologies and see the difference in it's reaction between seeing a number for 40 milliseconds and 80, the difference is apparently very obvious.

The author goes on to talk about how much processing the brain can do on input before it becomes conscious, turning written words into meaning for instance but not parsing entire sentences.  And also that while subconscious cues can influence your immediate behavior their effects fall off rapidly and disappear entirely after less than 2 seconds.  This applies even to the most basic of functions like Pavlovian conditioning.  If two stimuli are present at the same time and subconscious then conditioning can occur but if the stimuli are separated in time then they have to rise to conscious awareness for conditioning to occur.  So consciousness is entirely prior to memory, something I hadn't known at all.

Next up was Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work by Steven Kotler.  This is the one I didn't manage to finish.  The idea that altered states of consciousness can be useful is one that I was interested in but the book ended up being blindly and shallowly enthusiastic about the concept in a way that I thought wasn't really teaching me anything I could rely on.  The author continued to just give examples in which altered consciousness could be cool without ever touching the limitations or potential drawbacks.  In Consciousness and the Brain for instance Dehaene talked about the power of sleeping on a problem and how your subconscious might come up with an answer for you, but also the need to think it over carefully consciously first and the need to double check the answer consciously later since intuition isn't always reliable.  Stealing Fire just talked about how subconscious processing was really cool and powerful without talking about what had to happen before and after.  It also didn't really have any clear idea of what it meant by the word consciousness and conflated altered consciousness and unconsciousness in its examples.

Finally, there was Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith.  I enjoyed that book but I wasn't blown away like I was by Consciousness and the Brain.  Octopuses and other cephelopods are cool animals which diverged evolutionarily from humans back when nervous systems were measured in the hundreds of neurons.  Yet, somehow these creatures evolved a very sophisticated intelligence entirely independently.  Much of the book was taken up by describing Octopuses, Squids, and Cuttlefishes - their physiology and psychology - and I found that bit very interesting.  The author also had some ideas about consciousness which he shared which I thought weren't very interesting, but that was a small part of the book.  The main argument was that cephelopods can't have a reflective consciousness like we do because a human can hear themselves talk but a squid can't see itself change color to communicate.  Aside from the obvious objection that congenitally deaf people seem to have reflective consciousness the author relies a lot on introspection to formulate his idea which is notoriously unreliable.  I'm sure the author is correct when he says he always thinks in words but people are different in how they think.  I know that I often go to explain an idea and get to what seems like a simple part of it that seems like it should be a single words but then as I unpack it mentally it turns into a sentence then a paragraph.  Still the way an octopus can change color to match its surrounding without being able to see color itself was very interesting and overall I'm glad I read the book.

Expertise, the president versus congress

Since writing a post way back about the way complexity is a problem for Congress I've been happy to discover that the ideas in those ar...