Monday, December 29, 2014

Links for December

Many people (myself included) tend to do charitable giving at the end of the year.  If you're ever wondered "Gosh, I want do to as much good as possible with my money but how do I figure out which cause gives the best result?" then I have some good news for you. The good folks at Givewell have recently re-analyzed this very topic with a good amount of rigor and I'll be going with their recommendations this year.  Except I'm trying to be a bit more clever tax-wise this year so I'll be donating January 1st and December 31st of 2015, then those same dates on 2017, etc.  That should interact better with the US tax system since there's a standard deduction and I don't have a mortgage or anything like that.  Oh, and I took the Giving What We Can pledge to donate 10% of my income to charity each year.  You could too!

Scott Alexander wrote a very good post on why outrage feeds on itself so well in online discussions.  Earlier this year I was pretty optimistic about criminal justice reform (see this Givewell report) but given how divisive the politics around it have turned recently I wouldn't expect much to happen besides a much faster deployment of police body cameras.  I suppose my theory of political protest has been that they burn popular support to produce political salience and that seems to have happened here.

Serious things out of the way, Ra is a story that's been coming out chapter by chapter online for a while now and it just finished.  Well worth reading.

Someone made a nifty program to automatically generate Earth-like planets.

35 years ago this month, on December 9th 1979, we figured out that we'd eradicated smallpox.  I think I agree with the idea of celebrating it as a holiday.

Remember how a little while ago I said we had to come up with a better way of regulating drones?  Well NASA is on the case and (unsurprisingly) has a more workable system than mine.

We found interesting concentrations of methane on Mars!  What does it actually mean?  I have no idea but it seems to contradict our current assumptions so there's gotta be something out there that we haven't guessed yet.

It's been a while since Deep Blue triumphed in the chess world but computer have had a much harder time of it in Go due to that game's high branching factor.  Some people have tried creating Go programs that use more pattern recognition and less searching and this seems to be working well for them.

Newspapers and magazines have to issue corrections from time to time and sometimes they're pretty amusing.  Here are the best from this year.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Drones and licence plates

It occurred to a little while ago that a lot of the problems some people have with drones would more or less go away if drones were less anonymous.  Like perhaps the FAA wouldn't be so restrictive if it were easier to determine who the owner or operator of a drone was.  It's hard to imagine how our traffic systems would work if it weren't for licence plates.  I'm not sure, as a practical matter, what form identification for drones would take.  A drone already has to have a wireless connection to it's operator so some sort of challenge/response could be workable if there were some way to direct the request easily.  Nothing says that a drone would necessarily answer, but nothing says that a car has to have a licence plate either.

Is this really practical?  I can't say but it seems like drones are going to be accepted more slowly if it isn't.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Links for November

Here is a really nice article about someone's project putting some smarts on a model plane.  The author explains things well and does the whole multi-media thing very well.

This is one scary chemical reaction.

For a while Hong Kong had a block that was essentially a lawless zone backed full of people regardless of any sort of zoning.  Here's an awesome cross section someone put together of it.

The roundworm c. elegans is remarkable for being the creature with the world's most studied nervous system.  Which was relatively easy since it only has a few hundred neurons.  Well, some scientists simulated those neurons and put them in a robot body.  Uploading here we come!

Boston is apparently in the running for the 2024 Olympics.  I hope we don't end up hosting it.

Many people have complained that Indian Jones isn't a very good archeologist but Max Gladstone weighs in to support him.

Apparently humans and dolphins can hunt fish together!

Our CTO's solar van.

For a long time I've been a sort of semi-pesca-pollotarian, which is to say that I try not to eat the meat of my fellow mammals when it's easy to do so.  Someone has done the math on how many animals it takes to supply the meat you eat and my takeaway is that I should probably eat more turkey.

I've always had mixed feelings about the Affordable Care Act.  On one hand it looks like an improvement in various areas and it ought to help get more people medical care.  On the other hand, it's very complicated and looked like it was deliberately obfuscated to conceal how much it was going to cost.  Well, apparently it's main architect went and said that yes, this was why it was written that way.  I appreciate that he felt that what he did was necessary but I still don't approve of those tactics.  This also doesn't reflect well on our journalists.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

On not tying revenue to expenditure

As longtime readers will know (all three of them) one of the things I worry about regarding government is complexity.  There are a lot of ways that government can be more complex than it has to be with various sorts of detriments to democracy's ability to control that government but one that annoys me out of proportion is taking some new tax or other revenue stream and saying that it has to be used for some particular purpose.

There was actually a ballot measure in Massachusetts that did this by dedicating the unclaimed deposits on cans and bottles to conservation; as well as increasing the variety of containers subject to deposits.

Why not just put any money that comes in into the same general fund and then take all expenses out of that fund?  Well, it seems that while voters generally think the money the government spends is wasted in general, they also think that for things the government spends money on it's doing a good job.  That means that taxes tied to specific spending increases will tend to be more popular than the alternative, and hence the temptation to tie new sources of income to specific purposes.

Now, if people are more adverse to taxes than they should be then having new taxes be encumbered might be a good thing if it gets them up to where they should be.  But I don't think I have clear enough evidence that taxes are too low to endorse this as a way of getting around the problem.  And even if the evidence was more clear then I don't see any reason why politicians couldn't just package tax increases with spending increases in the same bill without dedicating the revenue to that particular purpose.

And I should say that there are concrete harms caused by the ways we dedicate revenues to certain expenses beyond just concerns about how wieldy our government is.  There was a segment on Last Week Tonight recently on state lotteries.  Collecting money through a lottery might seem like a sort of taxation that falls disproportionately on people who are less well educated but they get more support than they deserve because the money is dedicated to education.

People are also sometimes fooled by revenue dedication into thinking that a given tax must fund all of the expenses of the cause it goes toward.  If I were to say that "The gas tax is used to pay for roads" then that's perfectly true, but it's hardly all the tax money that goes towards roads.  I know I've run into several people who've been against using general tax money for public transportation because they thought it was unfair that transit should get money from the general fund when (they thought) drivers paid for all their roads themselves.

How do we avoid having these dedications when they're so tempting?  Well, it would be fairly straightforward to pass some law preventing the practice in general.  If everybody recognized that these were bad in general but tempting in specific then the law would be a nice Schelling point keeping things in order.  There are a lot of things to dislike about California's Proposition 13 but one of the things it did was require "special taxes" dedicated to specific purposes to have 2/3 of the vote in order to pass.  So maybe that one provision is the way forward.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Links from October

Fantasy style map of Boston.

I've always sort of thought it was odd that the one place in the galaxy that Kryptonians were least adapted to was their home planet.  Julian Sanchez comes up with some interesting explanations, which I hope some story uses.

So we've all heard the phrase "To gird one's loins" right?  I once had no idea what that meant, but now I do.

If Nigeria can successfully contain an Ebola outbreak I'm pretty sure the US doesn't have much to worry about.  Better to panic about the flu becoming deadly instead.

The Metamorphosis cast with a robot.

When bad things happen to good robots.

Raccoons are getting smarter.

So recently the ESA launched a probe to investigate a comet.  And it's been taking some really cool pictures.

There's been this Gamer Gate furor going on recently.  I was going to write a post about it, but Ken at Popehat wrote almost everything I wanted to say.   Except this, a lot of people of all genders and political stripes have a tendency to come down harder on female politicians and pundits who they disagree with than equivalent men and it's good to try to be aware of that and avoid it.  There are women who are stupid, selfish, and evil just as there are men who are those things but try to keep your outrage proportional.

Technical stuff

How semiconductor densities have been changing.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Links from September

I'm going to be starting to collect links and post them every month.  I've only been collecting these for a couple of weeks, so there'll probably be more next month.

Calvin and Muad'Dib, quotes from Dune as illustrated by Calvin and Hobbs.  It's pretty hilarious.

Guardians of the Galaxy as a short tabletop campaign.  I just discovered Max Gladstone's blog (thanks Brian) and I've been enjoying it.  He also wrote a book that was very good.  Oh, and apparently Gostbusters is the best comedy ever made about the limits of the Lovecraftian worldview.

I've always thought that augmented reality is a much cooler idea than virtual reality, and it looks like people are continuing to work on making the dream a reality.

India's Mar's mission arrived and is in a stable orbit.  This was impressive both because they managed to succeed on the first try unlike certain other space agencies and also because it cost of the movie Gravity.  I thought the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle used to launch it was pretty nifty too.  For those of you who dont' play Kerbal Space Program, solid rockets are cheap and effective but once you light them they stay on at full power until they run out of fuel.  Liquid fuel rockets are trickier and more expensive, but you can throttle them and turn them off early.  Most space missions have used several liquid stages with maybe a few solid rocket boosters at the very beginning to get things going.  What the PSLV did, however, was to alternate solid and liquid stages, doing a lot of work with solid stages but still having the control of liquid stages in between to correct any problems with the trajectory that came up while they couldn't control the throttle.  A pretty clever idea.

They're making a Tetris movie?  And no, I don't mean the entertaining youtube Soviet history to the tune of Tetris.

Horribly Technical Links

Hopefully you already heard about this but there was a pretty bad bug in bash.  UNIX is very old and there's a lot of very impressive software that's been made for it, but this sort of thing makes you wonder if it would be better to just start over from scratch every few decades.

The Mill folks have new video out on their approach to pipelining loops.  It's very clever, as all their stuff is.

And speaking of computer architecture, here's pretty interesting paper on an idea for multipass execution as an alternative to the more expensive out of order execution we do nowadays to keep our computers running fast despite the continual risk they run of trying to grab some particular piece of memory and finding that they have to wait to fetch it all the way from RAM.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Red Plenty then a digression on motivation

I'd sort of been meaning to write about Red Plenty at some point, a book about the dream and reality of the Soviet economic planning system.  It was very well done and actually made me more sympathetic to the people who believed in Communism back in the day.   Well, it looks like Scott at Slate Star Codex has put together an excellent review that said everything I was going to say and more so just go read that.

One of the things I reconsidered after having read the book was the precise role of incentives in explaining the later problems with Soviet planning.

 In certain cases, Russians were very well-incentivized by things like “We will kill you unless you meet the production target”. Later, when the state became less murder-happy, the threat of death faded to threats of demotions, ruined careers, and transfer to backwater provinces. And there were equal incentives, in the form of promotion or transfer to a desirable location such as Moscow, for overperformance.

It wasn't that workers, managers, etc didn't have strong incentives to do their jobs - the problems were where those incentives were pointing.  If you want to know the details, well, you should go read Scott's review shouldn't you?

There's a certain danger economists sometimes fall prey too where they think of incentives purely in monetary terms.  There's a good reason for that, since many of the things they look at are more or less like that.  But there are circumstances where only looking at monetary incentives works and there are circumstances where it will leave you blind.

Everybody knows about Adam Smith's book The Wealth of Nations, but he also wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and if he believed that "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner," he certainly recognized that it is from the benevolence of our parents that we ate as children.  Forces more complex than exchange govern our relationships with our friends, our family, and to an extent our co-workers.

Few people would choose to do exactly the jobs they have if money wasn't a concern.  But given a job, a lot of what we do from day to day is governed by wanting to get along well with our coworkers and bosses rather than directly from threats of firing or such.  At least that's what life is like in engineering and my experience of the service industry; perhaps if I worked as a laborer where the boss didn't think of me as his equal and could see how many watzits I was stacking things would be different.

Arranging equivalent exchanges is challenging since everything has to be explicit and discovering what equivalent means in each circumstance can be taxing.  So when you're dealing with a small group it makes more sense and is maybe more satisfying to work together communally.  But as groups get bigger, organization by consensus gets harder and you need new methods.  As was once said on twitter "Market exchange is a pathetically inadequate substitute for love, but it scales better."

I can certainly see wanting to replace the impersonal forces of the market with something better.  Back in the day if you didn't like how your tribe was run you could just leave, and tribes were run by consensus without the hierarchy or impersonal forces of the modern world.  Wanting to get to that sort of communism in the modern world makes perfect sense to me as a goal even if I would despair of ever accomplishing it.

But in the end, Soviet communism needed hierarchical impersonal forces to organize everything just as capitalism does.  Their system just wasn't as good at it.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Duck and cover, not so useless

I recently heard someone talk on Facebook about the old "duck and cover" drills that school children used to do in the cold war and how obviously that wouldn't protect you from a nuclear bomb.  I've actually heard that same thing several times, so I thought it would be good to chime in in support of the civil defense planners of yesteryear.  Duck and cover was actually a pretty reasonable way to reduce one's risk of dying in the event of a nuclear explosion.

To simplify a bit, there are basically four ways an atomic bomb can kill you.  When it goes off there's a flash of heat and light that can cause burns and fires.  There's a shock wave that can crush you directly, or which can collapse buildings and throw things into you.  There's a wave of ionizing radiation that can kill you through radiation poisoning.  And then there's any radioactive fallout that might kill you much later.

Someone who is standing directly under a big atomic explosion when it goes off is, obviously, going to be very dead.  But only the big ones.  Back in the day when Air Force was trying to convince people that nuclear anti-aircraft missiles were a good idea a group of five Air Force officer let them test one of those missiles directly over their heads.  It was just a relatively small 2 kiloton nuke, 1/8 the yield of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and pretty far above them so they didn't suffer anything worse than tinnitus.  According to Nukemap 2 kilotons means that the thermal effects were deadly out to .72 kilometers, the radiation out to .86 kilometers, and the blastwave could knock over buildings out to .89 kilometers, so since it exploded 5.6 kilometers over their heads they were relatively safe (provided nothing went wrong).

You can see that for the nuke those Air Force people survived the radiation killed at about the same distance as the thermals and shockwave did.  But that isn't true for all bombs.  For big bombs the range at which the immediate radiation is dangerous is tiny compared to the range at which you would be incinerated.  You can't really do anything to protect yourself from the radiation, so that's bad.  But for larger nukes the range of the shockwave grows much more quickly than the range of the radiation.  And unlike radiation, the blastwave only travels at the speed of sound so you have some time to take cover.  And there are actually useful ways you can take cover from an explosion.

Now, if you should survive the initial blast you still have to worry about the fallout.  Unlike a basic atomic bomb of the sort that was dropped on Japan or a hypothetical pure fusion weapon the Teller-Ulam devices that the US and Soviets were putting on their missiles release a lot of fallout.  Back when kids were being taught to duck and cover, however, the nuclear arsenals of the world hadn't risen to civilization destroying quantities yet.  Every sort of radioactive substance has a rate at which it decays, a half-life.  The shorter the half-life the more able that substance is to kill you by having lots of decay events that deliver lots of ionizing radiation to your body.  But the shorter the half-life the faster the radioactive substances go away.

Right after thermonuclear bomb goes off you do Not Want to be outside a fallout shelter.  But as the days or weeks pass the really nasty substances will go away, leaving merely the things with long half-lives which will drastically increase your chances of getting cancer but would you rather have a decade knocked off your lifespan or die right now?

So in summary, the idea that you should duck and cover after a nuclear attack wasn't crazy, at least when those videos were being made.  Nuclear war?  Totally crazy.  Duck and cove?  Not so much.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

I understand China less well than I thought I did

China has been urbanizing quite a bit, and one important reason that this hasn't happened even faster is the internal passport system that restricts who can move to the city.  Usually when you have some poorish country undergoing urbanization and industrialization you find that people in the cities are being paid about twice as much as they would earn in the countryside, since that tends to be what's required for young people to leave the only life they've ever known in large numbers.  This is still a pitiful amount by Western standards, though, the masses still living out in the countryside who are willing to move to the city at that price prevent wages from getting any higher until urbanization has run it's course.  And of course rural wages tend to start increasing at the tail end of this because the amount of land in the countryside available per person goes up.

Except that in China, the government has slowed the rate at which people leave the countryside for the city, making wages for people in the cities go up faster than you would normally expect given how much of the population is still in the countryside.  I'd mostly been thinking of this in terms of the political calculations the CCP might be making.  It always struck me that the internal passport was a great tool for making urban workers leery of democracy.  After all, if everybody from the country-side could just flood in that would mean that would mean that some of the wage gains that urban workers had earned would be erased.  Since the internal passport hurts the rural majority, and since it seems to have been a plant of Chinese democracy activists, urban workers would have an incentive to support the current system.  And since CCP headquarters tend to be in cities and since it's much easier to coordinate marches inside cities, it's ok for the CCP to alienate the farmers if it means better support from the urban workers.

So that was my theory, but it seems that China is about to ease the passport system.  So all of the above analysis is probably flawed in some way.  Maybe the whole point was only slow down the potentially disruptive transition to an urbanized society.  Maybe they've urbanized enough that things would be slowing down naturally and it's not making a big difference anymore.  Maybe it's something else entirely.  I'll just say that I'm glad the change is happening.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Thoughts on bitcoin

Cutting edge blogger that I am, I'd like to share some thoughts I've been having on the hot new thing that everyone was talking about last December when the price peaked and then crashed: bitcoin.  There have been a lot of people talking about bitcoin taking over from regular currencies or simply failing horribly.  I do think that failure is a possibility, but it seems to me that if bitcoin or some other crypto-currency does end up succeeding it will be beside conventional state-backed currencies instead of replacing them.

Money is something we all use, and for several different purposes.  You can break out money's main functions as being a medium of exchange, being a unit of account, and being a store of value.  A medium of exchange is something that passes value from person to person, whatever you use to pay someone for something or settle a debt.  A unit of account is what we use to measure prices.  You can imagine a world where everyone expressed prices in dollars but people only carried quarters around.  The store sign says that the book is $2, so you hand the clerk 8 quarters to buy it.  In this case the dollar is the medium of account but the quarter is the medium of exchange.  I think a "store of value" is pretty self explanatory, so I'll just point out that while we mostly only use currency as a unit of account, and only use currency or currency-like thing such as credit cards as mediums of exchange we tend to use a lot of different things as stores of value.

So how does bitcoin shake up in all of this?  Well, it does pretty well as a medium of exchange as far as I can tell.  Digital like a credit card number, but anonymous, unrevocable, and decentralized like cash.  In terms of it's use as a store of value, well, it's generally made money for people who've invested in it but there's an awful lot of risk there.  And as a unit of account it's absolutely horrible.

Bitcoin is designed to be deflationary, and deflation is bad stuff.  People are notoriously loss averse, and sellers become reluctant when the goods that they could sell for BTC 6 yesterday are only moving at BTC 5 today.  And people especially don't like to see their paychecks shrink.

So if bitcoin is ever successful, I expect it to be used as a means of facilitating transactions denominated in currencies without these problems.  People will have a wallet with only as many bitcoins as they need at the moment and use them in transactions denominated in dollars or better yet Australian dollars.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

My Summer Vacation Reading

My parents have a boat and for basically my entire life I've spent at least a week each summer on it with them, sailing along the coast of Maine.  But this post isn't about that, it's about all the books I managed to read when I wasn't steering, fiddling with sails, putting down anchors or so on.

The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross.  I think this book is now my favorite from the laundry series, and it nails the interplay of office politics and supernatural danger.  I also thought it did a very good job of playing with expectations in one place.

Bad Little Girls Die Horrible Deaths by Harry Conolly.  A short story collection I got access to by backing his Kickstarter.  Fairly entertaining, but read his excellent Twenty Palaces trilogy first.

Technology in World Civilization by Arnold Pacey.  An interesting book on comparative technological development and the transfer of technologies back in the old days.

The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama.  A big ideas book on how modern states happened.  I found the book tremendously interesting and would probably put it up there with, say, Guns, Germs, and Steel in the world making more sense after having read it.  As an example, I'd been confused by the Ottoman's success in state building and the piece I'd been missing was that when they took in their levy of non-Muslim boys to be made into Jannisaries they tested them and diverted those who seemed to have the most aptitude into the administration, in a sort of parallel to  the Chinese examination system.

A Madness of Angles by Kate Griffin.  A decent urban fantasy book.  I think I might actually have a hard time calling any other series "urban fantasy" now, since this book took the idea of the magic of cities and ran with it in a way that makes it the urban-fantasiest of urban fantasies.

A Case for Climate Engineering by David Keith.  A book about various ways people might use technology to directly offset increases in global warming, their difficulties and consequences, and why they're a good idea even if they're not a panacea.

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis.  A humorous book involving time traveling academics, which I haven't actually finished yet but I'm most of the way through.  I was having trouble enjoying it early on because the theory of time travel involved doesn't actually make much sense.  Thankfully, I soon realized that everything that happened was perfectly consistent with the Harry Potter/Twelve Monkeys/acausal theory of time travel.  So I just assumed that was how the world worked but that the protagonists were mistaken about it as they were entertainingly mistaken about so many other things and continued chuckling my way through the book.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Scary extra-solar planets, are the stars right?

So, for a long time I didn't really get H.P.Lovecraft, the author of a bunch of books and short stories set in a mythos that has been used by many authors since.  Even if you've never read anything by him, I hope you've at least heard the name Cthulhu at some point.  The problem is that the sense of cosmic dread that he sought to convey in his works didn't really work with me.  I've grown up knowing of the vast voids between the stars.  I've always, for as long as I've known about history, known that history began long before mankind was around and that the time between the first campfire and the present day is just a small slice of all the time that came before.  All this familiarity means that I can't really appreciate his works the way that maybe people at the time could, familiarity breeds contempt.

The first time I really got a taste of real cosmic dread was when I ran into the concept of Boltzman brain's.  To explain it simply, if the universe goes into a heat death then across the infinite future all the consciousnesses that arise through random interactions of matter will drastically outnumber the consciousnesses that arise due to things like evolving in a sane environment.  There's a lot of reasoning behind this, and I could go into it but not until I've done some posts about understanding entropy.  Thankfully the last I heard the consensus was that the universe will end in some other way so we don't have to worry about Boltzman brains.

The other thing that has given me cosmic shivers, though, is the idea of the Great Filter.  A long time ago Dr. Frank Drake tried to figure out how many alien civilizations we should expect to find in our galaxy, and developed an equation to help him do that.  You just multiply the number of stars being created each year, by the number of potentially life supporting planets per star, by what fraction of those actually develop life, by the faction of those that get intelligent life, by the fraction of those who ever develop the technology to broadcast signals into space, by the length of time they're broadcasting before stopping or being destroyed somehow.

We don't have a good idea of the exact values for many of those, estimates vary by orders of magnitudes.  But we do know that there are lots and lost of stars in our galaxy, and we know that we haven't seen a single signal that looks like an alien.  It might just be phenomenal bad luck in our timing, but that tends to suggest that the end result of the equation is at least less than one, which means that some of those intermediate terms are very small.

But which of those terms is the small one?  If very few stars have planets or few of those planets are of the sort that can support life then fine, we're special and unique snowflakes and we can go confidently into the empty universe and do fun things with it.  But it might also be that the really small term is the last one, and most civilizations quickly have nuclear wars or out of control nano-replicators or lose control of an artificial black hole or something.  That would be Very Bad for either ourselves or our descendants.

This is why the recent discovery of lots and lots of extra-solar planets fills me with a sort of cosmic horror, in addition to excitement at all the potential cool new places to visit.  Wikipedia's list of potentially habitable extra-solar planets keeps getting longer and the longer it gets the better we know that the first few potential hurdles Drake saw can't be all that high.  Maybe another of the hurdles we've already passed, developing intelligent life for instance, is the tough one, but maybe it's one in front of us as well.

Of course, you shouldn't worry all that much.  Maybe the first civilization that evolves ends up colonizing the galaxy and no intelligent life evolves naturally after that.  All of this rests on anthropic reasoning and as far as I can tell everyone is really bad at doing that sensibly.

A New Machine Arrises

Way back in 2011 I wrote a fairly optomistic blog post about the prospects of resistive RAM (RRAM), a new storage technology that could end up replacing both the RAM and main hard drives in computers.  Well, things haven't progressed as fast since then as I might have hoped they would, but there has been one interesting development lately.  Apparently HP (who owns most of the patents for the most promising take on RRAM) has been poring a huge amount of resources into building a machine to take advantage of it, as well as exploring a few other interesting technologies.

The news reports I've seen have tended to exaggerate how radical this is a bit, and it's also been an interesting illustration of Paul Graham's essay on how corporate PR works.  But it looks like HP is doing serious systems level research into how new technologies can change computing.  As far as I can tell there hasn't been a lot of work done by people looking at changing both hardware and software systems at the same time for the last coupe of decades, it went out of fashion with the incredible dominance of the PC.

I was sort of hoping that HP would be giving a presentation on their work so far at the 2014 Hot Chips conference but now that the schedule is out it looks like they won't.  Oh well, I'm hoping they'll be putting out some papers or presentations on what they've been doing at some point.

In the mean time I'll be feeling happy about having spotted the need to do operating system level work to incorporate this new technology but also chagrin at having fallen into the classic trap of overestimating progress in the short term.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Anarchy in History

I was talking with someone a while ago about political anarchy, the idea of people living without any government.  There are certainly anarchists around, though my sense is that the heyday of political Anarchism was in the late 19th and early 20th century, being just as much a specter as Communism in the US's First Red Scare.  Societies without government aren't anything we expect to see anywhere in the developed world or in recent history, possibly barring Somalia, but over the course of human history it might very well be the case that societies we'd call anarchic outnumber societies with a government.

A government is basically an organization that can force you to do things through the threat of violence.  This is practical with settled farmers, but it's a much more difficult thing to implement in a Band Society of hunter gatherers.  If you and your friends don't like what you're told to do, you can just go off and hunt elsewhere.  And if some person who fancies themselves chief doesn't like that there aren't any soldiers to send after the dissidents.  Political exit is easy enough that ordering people around just isn't practical.

And societies that settle and start farming don't necessarily develop governments automatically, but they do allow them.

In fact, a lack of formal government among many of the tribes of Native Americans and the misunderstanding of this by Europeans was a major source of conflict.  There were some tribes, such as the Powhatans that had governments but many others didn't.  Negotiators would try to make binding treaties despite the fact that the chieftains they were negotiating with could only try to use persuasion to get their tribes to abide by the terms they were agreeing to.  If a chief promised to abandon certain hunting ranges and a group of people from his tribe still wanted to hunt there, then they'd choose a new chief to follow who was amenable to their plan.

There is, perhaps, something to be said for governments being a tool for large groups of diverse people to find ways to live beside each other.   But in the case of the West the US government had such a poor record of living up to it's own promises that it's unlikely it made any difference in this case.  European settlers ignored the terms of treaties to seize off limits land.  The Bureau of Indian Affairs was notoriously corrupt and often it's agents just pocketed the goods they were supposed to deliver.  And popular prejudice often led to the election of politicians who would just rip up existing treaties.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Newcomb's Problem, Professionalism, and Class

In decision theory there's a thought experiment called Newcomb's Problem or Newcomb's Paradox that goes something like this.  Some entity with very good judgement is offering a deal.  It has two boxes, and you are free to take both or either.  One box is transparent, and you can see that it contains $1,000.  The other box can't be seen into, and the entity might or might not have put $1,000,000 into that box. It's figured out what you are going to do and as put the million dollars in the box only if you are going to take the opaque box of unknown value and leave the transparent thousand dollar box alone.

So, since we are assuming the entity's judgement is perfect one of two things is going to happen.  You might grab both boxes and find the second one is empty, receiving $1,000.  Or you might just grab the one mystery box and get $1,000,000.

But the reason that people call this a paradox is that at the moment you make your choice the contents of the boxes have already been decided.  The mystery box is in fact already either empty or full of money.  So your present self has absolutely no reason not to take both boxes, it is your past self that the entity judged who you wish to have been the sort of person who would only take one box.

There's been a lot of arguing back and forth around this thought experiment over the years, from a bunch of different perspectives.

You can look at this from a game theory point of view as showing the importance of credible pre-commitment.  Or just commitment, actually, since we're assuming a situation where genuine commitment the same thing as credible commitment.

You could look at it form the perspective of having time consistent goals, since the problem looks like bargaining among your selves at different times so as to cause the million dollars to be in the second box.

You can look at this and say that the entity is unfairly biased against rational people, but I think the only people who say this are also the sort of people who would say that you should always defect in the prisoner's dilemma.

Or you can look at the various arguments around the thought experiment, and see that causality becomes complicated when there are entities making predictions about the future around.  Because the rewards are so lopsided the basic logic of the thought experiment remains the same even if the entity isn't superhuman but able to make correct judgments somewhat more often than not.

Once you back off to not requiring perfect judgement, Newcomb's problem starts looking a lot like the sort of class divisions we have right now in the US.  On the one hand you have people who don't have college degrees, who are paid an hourly rate, and who can be and are supervised fairly closely.    And on the other you have people who completed college, who are paid a salary, and who have jobs where the employer often simply can't tell how hard they're working.  This is, of course, a big simplification and it leaves out the self-employed entirely but please bear with me.

You can tell a lot of stories about why employers might want to hire people with college degrees.  People certainly learn things in college.  I learned quite  a number of things which I actually use in my job fairly frequently.  But my sense is that this is actually not typical of all college graduates, compared to people like me who got technical degrees.

You can tell a story where colleges are a sort of back door IQ test, since it's not legal for employers to use IQ tests themselves.  This is also probably true but not the whole story.

You can tell a story about how people who succeed at college are willing to defer rewards and do hard things now for a greater reward later.  This is certainly a thing that happens, but it's not clear to me that employers should value it.  If people have learned things due to delaying gratification all's well.  And certainly there are some employers who court ambitious people who might want still greater rewards even further down the line for sacrifices today.  Employers need their employees to have a certain amount of this if they want to be able to threaten employees with firing too.  But I still don't have a sense that there's a huge demand for this.

But there's another story I could tell which is less flattering than the above.  It's that employers want employees who have been pre-selected as the sort of person who does what's expected of them.  Someone who conforms.  Someone who continues to work hard at things even if their employer can't tell, when someone who is perfectly capable of deferring rewards might still be tempted to.  Just like Newcomb's entity rewards someone for being the sort who would leave the second box even if it isn't in their interest at the time, employers do their best to employ people who are the sort to work hard at things even if they aren't able to make it in the employee's best interest to do so.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


I don't really follow foreign policy as much as I could.  I mean, I think I know more about the larger world than most people and a fair amount about economics and the military, but I know that I don't really understand international diplomacy.  Thankfully there are people I know who are much better at this than I am.

When looking at the Ukraine situation, amateur that I am, my inclination was to view the matter exclusively as a contest involving the leaderships of the Ukraine, Russia, and the US.  But there are other countries nearby that might have both opinions and capabilities to express those opinions, and as Erik Fogg points out that NATO's eastern members are very interested in the matter and have their own capabilities to intervene and potentially drag the rest of NATO in.  Which presumably plays into the calculations being made in Kiev and Moscow and Washington.

We're trying to make our SARS-2 tests better than we should

Ok, that's a somewhat provocative title but I think it's basically accurate.  During this pandemic the US in particular has had a pr...