Saturday, September 5, 2009

What Sustains Cultural and Ethnic Aggression?

I've been thinking about what I said in my last article about cultural and ethnic aggression. I claimed it was not a "root cause" for social turbulence. In some way I hate the term "root cause". It's a very deterministic notion. It seems to presume that everything can be neatly explained with great mathematical certainty. I don't dismiss that there are events that are clearly initiated by other events (i.e. that cause exists as a phenomenon). I'd be silly if I didn't believe that! Some aspects of our world are phenomenally predictable. But I'm convinced the universe is at its lowest level inherently random, including the "laws" by which events link into a chain. Root cause is about tracing a chain of events to a point where potentials approach a maximal uncertainty of 50/50. But most events don't have one single cause but many causes. You can't neatly lay everything out into a linear series of unfortunate events, as Lemony Snicket might put it. A tragedy is more like Kuala Lumpur, a muddy confluence of rivers. Cultural and ethnic aggression is sustained by prejudice. It's irrelevant what "caused" the prejudice. What is relevant is what sustains it. And I think the mechanisms that sustains prejudice can all be explained in terms of cultural membranes.

Think of society as an living organism. At the lowest level we have the family unit, a cell surrounded by protective membranes. The membranes regulate what comes into and out of the family. Above the family we have a complex overlapping structure of organizations that have their own protective membranes: religious groups, social clubs, corporations, national governments, etc. Every social unit has two types of cultural membranes: material and informational. The material membranes regulate what physical resources flow between units. The informational membranes regulate the information that flows.

The world, from the micro- to the macro-scopic, is filled with resources and consumers. In a perfectly balanced eco-system there are enough resources for every consumer. And if there's an overabundance of resources, consumers will eventually evolve. An imbalanced system is where the right resources cannot flow to the right consumers. The consumers start to starve (metaphorically speaking) and the resources begin to decay (though such decay may at the macro-level sometimes be measured in billions of years). Eventually, with a sufficient amount of death and decay, an equilibrium is established again (their are sufficient consumers for the given resources).

It's important to note that everything is a potential resource, including all consumers. It's simple food-cycle structures: the grass consumes the minerals, the rabbit the grass, the hawk the rabbit, the hawk's corpse the bacteria, and so on. A healthy balance is not about maintaining stasis. It's about maintaining a healthy flow. And these flows are regulated by simple physics, chemistry and organic membranes. At the societal level, the organic membranes become more and more abstract. They are, unlike our skin, no longer tangible entities. But they are just as real. They are the laws of our governments, the protocols of our corporations, the morals of our society.

Thinking about it, I realize that there's distinction between informational and material aspects of a membrane even in the microscopic world. A cell membrane contains protein transport channels (which exchange materials) as well as receptors (to which signaling molecules such as hormones attach). When a signaling molecule attaches to a receptor, it "informs" the cell about a condition in the surrounding world and triggers a response from the cell. The response may be to begin a "material exchange" through its protein co-transport channels. How a cell behaves is obviously determined by what types of receptors and transport channels it has. The same is true for our society. How we respond will depend on what "antennas" we have and what our overall infrastructures are like. If I don't understand what is signalled to me, how can I react to it? But even if I can understand the signals, it doesn't mean that I have the means to react appropriately.

People talk about breaking down cultural barriers. But I think it's unhelpful to use the term barrier, since it implies a blocking. What separates us are not barriers, but complex, sometimes useful membranes. In my view, cultural and ethnic aggression is caused by diseased membranes that cannot appropriately control the flow of information and materials to maintain a peaceful balance. In fact, perfect impenetrable barriers would be preferable. If nothing can pass between two entities, it's as if they did not exist to each other! The problem is that there are no perfect barriers. However high we build our walls, some information will always slip through the cracks. And if the information tells us that there's an imbalance in material resources on the two sides of the wall, we will want to tear down those walls (because of one of the fundamental aspects of nature regarding resources and consumers).

The most fundamental informational membrane is, of course, human language itself. I spent quite a bit of my child hood in countries where I didn't first speak the language. It was difficult to understand the cultural quirks of these foreign places without knowing the locution of the people around me. My exchange with my environment was limited to the bare surface of human exchange. Misunderstandings were frequent. And it took learning the language of the region to not only overcome pre-conceived and often incorrect notions about the locals, but also to make my emotional and physical needs known so that they could be fulfilled through mutually beneficial interchange.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Technology, Social Turbulence and the Fundamental Polarity of Politics

Politics have a fundamental dichotomy that centers on the split between progression and conservation. We cannot agree amongst us wether we should evolve or preserve. I believe that it is self-evident that no species can preserve itself if it does not evolve. Nor can it for equally self-evident reasons, evolve without preserving. However, rightful trepidation about that which we don't know and confidence with that which we do know and have mastered tempts us to be conservative. But curiosity and hope for a better condition continuously agitates us to be more progressive. On a social, at times even personal scale, we have a hard time reconciling the two.

The split between so-called conservatives and so-called liberals does not neatly fit into the dichotomy progression/conservation. This can be evidenced by the repeated use in the last two decades of the term "neo" which is used for those that defy a neat classification ("neo-conservative" versus "neo-liberal"). Sometimes those deemed liberals are in fact struggling for preservation (especially within the context of the "environment") and sometimes those deemed conservatives are fighting for progression (such as globally spreading democratic values through the use of military and economic power).

Importantly, any time a group advocates in the abstract for social change, there is almost always a reciprocal force advocating for preservation. Until some drastic event with widespread repercussions forces nearly everyone to realize that the current conditions are untenable. There is a sudden moment of instability where uncertainty approaches its maximal 50/50 position. Conservation is no longer an option. Even to restore a pre-existing condition, we must now go through a period of active change (as opposed to "maintenance").

In the short term, there is another option: doing nothing ("laissez faire"). But this option only remains viable if signs of a tolerable stability are quick to appear. Of course, what is tolerable is sometimes a subjective matter. But the availability of decent food and shelter is an objective and commonly shared measurement. More importantly, the state that existed prior to the phase of instability can be used a baseline for what is acceptable to most. The strategy of doing nothing and await less turbulence quickly wears thin.

It could be claimed that trying to restore what once was is not progression. Progression is to some extent subjective. Whether we are progressing depends on the what we have set out to achieve. But in a state of near maximal uncertainty, restoration can be considered a widely acceptable short-term measure for progress. When we have temporarily restored stability, both sides along the political spectrum begin to brainstorm what changes are required to either conserve or improve our future condition. Society opens itself up to transformation on all fronts. This is when the progressive agenda has its greatest potential to alter what is considered a desirable state of affairs (to set new measures). This opportunity is short-lived since the longer we have stability, the less prone people are to risk change. Conservative agendas have most traction in times of stability.

I see two main reasons for sudden social turbulence: natural disasters and technological advances. The former disrupts by removing existing opportunities whereas the later disrupts by creating new opportunities. Any stable society is replete with opportunities for most: the opportunity to work, the opportunity to eat well and afford good shelter, the opportunity to learn, and so on. A natural disaster eliminates these possibilities by destroying the infrastructure by which we realize our potentials. Technological advances, on the other hand, create new ways of exponentiating both our potentials and the speed by which we can fulfill them. However, the consequences of these hitherto unknown potentials and the rapidity with which we can achieve them, are not predicable. Any major technological advance always initiates a period of social experimentation.

As well understood and practiced ways of going things are replaced with novel approaches, a turbulent trial-and-error period is almost inevitable. I myself experienced this during the late 90's as an emerging architect of Internet-based software. We had social visions but only marginally understood the new systems at our disposition. And the systems kept changing based on our newly acquired experiences with deploying these systems in real contexts. We could only loosely predict side-effects of any proposed designs since we lacked any factual data. It's not just that excessive exuberance lead to a financial bubble. We are still today dealing with how to remedy problems that Internet technologies have introduced: spam, Nigerian scams, phising, copyright issues, the ease with which people can encroach on our privacy, only to mention a few.

The reasons that I mention for sudden social turbulence don't include cultural and ethnic aggression. I think such aggression is a consequence of removing or creating new potentials, not a random act of bigotry or a sense of moral agency. Most people just want to live a comfortable life in the context of there immediate social sphere. The Alexanders and Hitlers of the the world are an aberration. Warmongering by leaders becomes possible when natural disasters destroy potentials or technology creates new potentials. War then results in further human induced destruction and possibly mass exodus, which further destabilizes and perpetuates aggression. Sometimes a self-sustaining vortex of suffering results. But the root causes of such turbulence remains natural disasters and technological advances.

The solution to control turbulence caused by natural disasters is technology. If we can predict a volcanic explosion, we can avoid untold deaths. And if we have the means to quickly move old and build new infrastructures, those displaced by an event like Krakatau can quickly return to normalcy. As another clear example, famine has been largely (but not entirely) controlled in the world through more disease resistant crops, better transportation and improved irrigation techniques and fertilization. However, the fight against famine illustrates the problem with technology and its unforeseen consequences. An excessive amount of synthetically produced nitrogen fertilizer now threaten the biodiversity of our oceans by causing toxic algal blooms and thereby negatively impacting our fishing industries.

So technology is both the antidote to and cause of social upheaval. The question then is how do we eliminate the turbulence caused by technological advances? We can't just become ultra conservative and stop the progress of science and engineering (note that I include in these fields the science and engineering of the social organisms that make up human society). To some extent we have to accept that a certain degree of risk is involved in any evolutionary process. But excessive risk, given our increasing ability to affect our environment, could spell the end of humanity and its descendants as such.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Single-payer System, Classic Socialism

Regardless of what you may think of a single-payer universal health care system, one thing aught to be clear: it's straight up socialism. Socialism is the concept of centralizing the administration of our means of production to achieve a more efficient and egalitarian outcome. If we make the government the sole provider of basic health insurance, we have centralized the control of who gets compensated for what medical services. However, presuming we allow additional private insurance for services not compensated by the government, the system will not be strictly socialist. Nonetheless, having centralized the process of getting compensatory authorization for the majority of all medical procedures, I don't know what else to call it but... socialist.

The unfortunate thing is that in many circles the term socialism has acquired such a derogatory connotation that once the term is used it shuts down all meaningful conversation. Now, I happen to believe that the best economic systems are neither socialist nor completely "free". As a federalist I believe in subsidiarity and the Rule of Law. It's appropriate for the government to impose rules about what CANNOT be done in specific markets. Without clear rules, organizations will inevitably use whatever means that afford them an upper hand, regardless of whether such means demonstrate prowess, ingenuity and service excellence in their specific field.

Though I believe it's necessary for the government to impose basic (sometimes strict) rules, it's hardly ever good for the government to actually administrate the means of production. The temptation is to think that centralization inevitably leads to optimization by the removal of unnecessary redundancies. But redundancies are not necessarily wasteful since they stabilize the overall system by making the system more resilient to failure. The best systems in my view are those that balance centralization and localization as well as conciseness and redundancy. I have no doubt that we need universal health care. But I'm wary of single-payer systems because I don't think they strike the aforementioned balance. A so-called "public option" seems far more attractive though I have yet to reflect on whether, as claimed, it would ultimately destroy the private industry, and thereby in the end institute a de-facto single-payer system.

One thing is for sure: it's unfortunate that the term socialist has acquired such an accusatory tone. Though I strongly disagree with some of the core tenets of the socialist movement, socialism is a useful term for describing the concept of centralization in our economy. And, let's face it, Americans have been employing and benefiting from clearly socialist structures since 1930's. It's neither knew nor un-American. But the fact that socialism isn't "un-American" doesn't mean that socialism is good either. Only the most banal use the words good and American interchangeably. We need to move beyond superficial phrases like "a single-payer system is bad because it's socialist". Yes it is socialist. But so what? Why is socialism bad? Ah, now, where getting there. Socialism is bad because...

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


This is an absolute must if, like me, you've got kids who are interested in science and engineering: Howtoons.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Last 5,000 Days of the Web

Take a few minutes and listen to Kevin Kelly talk about the last 5,000 days and the coming One.

Very interesting indeed. I have been so subsumed by helping construct elements of the Web in the last 5,000 days that I rarely step back and contemplate the NOW and the BEFORE. Well, occasionally, I do make a remark to my Pokemon googling, Mathematica simulating, SketchUping kids. Something along the line "When I was a kid, I had to walk 5 miles to the library, through sleet and snow!"

As for the next 5,000 days? I'm looking forward. Just wanted to point you to Kevin Kelly's highly interesting musings. Now let me go back and work on some of those AI components...

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Redesigning our Economy, Part 1

In the early part of the last century, nations began to abandon the gold standard in favor of fiat money. The possibility to redeem money in specie was finally given its global death blow in 1971 when the United States terminated its obligations under the Bretton Woods Agreement. Today, the government in theory controls our money supply by pure fiat. But unfortunately it's not that simple since new value is also created out of thin air as private entities create and trade options and securities. The only portion of the supply that a central bank controls is how much so called printed money is in circulation (whether such printing is physical or by lowering requirements on electronically held banking reserves is irrelevant). However, even the supply through the generation of private securities is not beyond the control of the government since the private sector can be regulated through legislative acts combined with judicial enforcement. Ultimately, we are in the position to decide how our monetary influx is to be controlled in order to prevent extreme fluctuations in our economy.

Although the government should not due to organic principles be considered one and the same as We the People, the government aught not to be needlessly vilified and equated with totalitarianism as soon as it exerts any form of centralized control. I won't argue this point here in any great length since it deserves a well thought through post in its own right. Suffice to say that I would claim that a stable society, in fact any system per se, perfectly balances centralized and local control. A perfect government allows We the People to regulate the government through occasional intervention (such as elections), potentially overthrowing the established order without reverting to violent revolt.

The money supply, being one of the non-localized pillars of a stable society aught to be under maximized central control by the government. I will even go one step further, claiming that our money supply aught to be maintained by automatic so called homeostatic mechanisms. However, how money is borrowed and lent should remain a purely localized (i.e. private) matter. To be more accurate about my claims, it's not that the government's authority to use the money supply as a control mechanism should be enhanced. To the contrary, that authority should actually be removed from both the government and the private sector as much as possible. The only responsibility the government should have is to execute the homeostatic mechanism required to maintain a steady cost of money.

Some have naively advocated a return to the gold standard. Note that this in effect returns money supply into the private sector by making mining companies responsible for establishing a influx of specie (unless, of course, gold mining is nationalized). And even if this were to be considered acceptable, there just isn't enough gold to guarantee redemption as our global society expands and intensifies its activities. We need to peg money to something more fundamentally intrinsic than material goods: human labor, or to use a more modern term, services (since labor has become equated with physical rather than mental work).

The flaw of any specie-backed currency is that no specie has in-and-of-itself intrinsic value. On the surface it may seem as if some raw materials, such as gold, have lasting value. This is simply not true. All materials are only as valuable as that for which they are used. It's only by putting them into the context of a service that they are of any importance to us. Gold or iridium cannot be eaten or drunk. None of the elements of the periodic table are on their own sufficient to support biological functions. And a thing can only be said to approach an intrinsic value if it serves our most basic biological needs. Only a few abundant combinations of naturally occurring elements come close to sustaining life as such (e.g. water and air).

Gold only seems valuable in-and-of-itself because of its imperishable and non-toxic nature. Perhaps it also seems to have constant value due to a human propensity to being attracted to all things that glitter. But copper has been a specie to back currencies as well, so its less the superficial value of the bright color of gold than something else that caused it to have such importance to our money supply until 1971. It was the durability combined with the relative rarity and difficulty of extracting gold that caused it to be used as the predominant basis for money. Though it may seem ridiculous, imagine for a moment that water (which can be said to have some form of "intrinsic" long lasting value) were to be used as specie. That would mean anyone could introduce new money into our economy by simply draining a lake.

Gold and all other materials from oil to uranium are worthless to us unless we put them to good use. And all other useful materials, such as livestock and grain, are perishable which makes them particularly unsuitable for backing any currency. So what are we left with to back the value of our money? Nothing except humans. Humans may be perishable, but their brains, their capacity to store information and and their inherent will to apply themselves makes them invaluable to other humans. This may sound obvious, even silly. It can be argued that humans are sort of useless unless they know how to perform some particular service. And although it is true that a neurosurgeon is not born from the womb, almost all humans have the natural capacity to learn.

Recorded intellectual property is perhaps the only thing beyond our brains which is intrinsically valuable to us. It's only in the context of intellectual property that iridium, oil, coffee beans or horses are of any importance to us whatsoever. But again, intellectual property is less than useful without the knowledge and experience in how to apply it. All real value circles back to human labor per se. And even if a lawyer is paid more than an orange picker, there is a lowest common denominator that renders any sentient human useful. Hold this, do that, suction here. Not like that, like this. What a few instructions and just a little training almost any human (except those whose brains have been severely compromised) can be put to good use.

Therefore, all currency is ultimately backed only by human labor, regardless of whether it is redeemable in some given specie or not. Fiat money is simply a gradually heightened awareness that the only ones who can ultimately redeem money is those who can, under extreme circumstances, require human labor through obligatory civil and military services. The only institution that has and should have that authority is our government (i.e. that which governs us). Only a pure anarchist would claim that the government should have absolutely no capacity to control human labor (and it can be argued that a truly anarchist society cannot exist by virtue of the very meaning of society).

It is not wrong for the government to demand certain actions as long as it respects a set of fundamental human rights that are constitutionally enshrined. Without the authority to demand labor, government could not exist. There would be no ability to rapidly expand our military and civil structures when under a foreign threat. In the U.S. and some other countries there would be no juries of peers. There would be no judicial sentencing beyond forced imprisonment (i.e. no one could be required to redeem themselves through community services). Such authority should not be equated with slavery. Slavery is an abomination because it places the capacity to enforce labor in private hands and suspends our most basic civil rights.

Interestingly, a debt to the government is indirectly a transfer of its authority to demand labor to a private party. When you buy a treasury bond (or obligation as it is known outside the U.S.), the government ensures in good faith that it will redeem that bond at a future point of time (it is obligated to do so). The way the government ensures its ability to repay you is through taxation, by selling further bonds or printing more money. The latter two are of illusory means of paying back since the first is just a crazy Ponzi scheme and the latter is just creating empty value. Printing money causes the value of all the money currently in circulation to decrease, thereby artificially eliminating the government's debt. It is no more than defaulting on an obligation. If we are lucky, it's a temporary band-aid for the economy. In the worst case, it's the Weimar Republic and hyperinflation, followed by a collapse of government as such. As I just said, it is the same as an institution defaulting on its obligations. And seriously, who except marginal extremists wants the government go belly up?

Taxation is what is of real interest. What is taxation? Taxation is nothing more than the government making you work for its benefit. It's the mayor means by which the government can legitimately redeem its debts, with other words back its obligations through human labor. Even if unlike obligatory civil and military services the government does not enforce you to work, the government enforces you to share the fruits of your labor through taxation. Since no one can really stop working and survive without someone else picking up the slack (i.e. providing charity), the government is guaranteed an income. It may not be outright controlling your activities, but taxation guarantees that you are in part laboring for the government whether you want it or not. Which is probably why many of us feel all grumpy about it. Very few of us like to be forced to do anything.

Public debt requires the government to transfer the benefit of your labor to some specific private entity (or foreign government). It's not slavery per se since it does not enforce specific activities that can potentially violate human rights. But it's akin to slavery because it enforces us to be in the servitude of someone who lent us money without any recourse to defaulting. Many try to wave this to the side by claiming public debt is just a debt to ourselves. Incorrect. Public debt is a debt we have to a specific entity. Yes, we (through our elected officials) chose to acquire that debt. And if there was no obligation to honor a debt, who would lend anyone money? But under private lending circumstances, an entity has a mechanism by which it can nullify its debts. We the People have no such recourse. Let me remind you that debtors prison was eliminated a long time ago with good reason.

Public debt is transferred from one generation to the next. The conventional opinion is even that if a government is overthrown, its successor government inherits the debt of its predecessor. Something is clearly wrong. How does a generation escape the sins and profligacy of its parents? I've read crazy claims such as the one that most spending is for the benefit of the next generation anyway. I simply do not buy that argument. I believe most debt is created to adjust for our mistakes, not because we are so fantastically generous to our children. Otherwise all of our spending would be directed to education and never to rescuing distressed financial organizations. Yes, there is such a thing as raising money to improve infrastructure. But is it really for our children that we do this? When we as a society spend money on a bridge or a scientific project, we do it with the hope that it will benefit us and not some distant future generation. The benefit for our descendants is a happy byproduct. Unfortunately, continuously deferred public debt (issuing bonds to pay for matured bonds) not only enforces our yet to be conceived grandchildren and great-grandchildren to pay for the benefit of our smarts. They will also have to pay in a very direct way for our grievous mistakes.

Obviously we cannot introduce a means by which the government is allowed to renege on its obligations. That's not my point. The government is not an entity like any other entity. If the government has a legal commitment it must be obligated to live up to that commitment under all circumstances. My point is that the government aught not to have such obligations in the first place! Some of you are going to sarcastically snark at such a suggestion. A government without public debt? How will the government save us from the brink of an economic meltdown or social catastrophe without being able to run a deficit? Well, there aught not to be the potential for sudden economic meltdowns. And social catastrophes should not be handled by borrowing money from war profiters, but by obligating private entities to directly serve the good of their commonwealth and by paying higher taxes.

Well, hunky dory and pinky roses. Perhaps we don't live in a perfect world and economic meltdowns are inevitable. Just like famines were inevitable in most countries before modern agricultural practices. We are not at the end of history! To accept extreme fluctuations in the economy as a natural part of human society is defeatist. Yes, all systems sway from higher to lower activity. But they don't teeter at the edge of extinction every 50th year (unless, of course, they're a human society that thinks its reached the end of history). Regardless of whether or not you reject Ricardian equivalence, you must answer to what extent offsetting the costs for solving a current crisis to the next generation is acceptable.

Obviously, if the future of humanity as such is at stake, maximizing labor efforts at any cost, even to future generations, is in order. But even if you are the most ardent Keynesian, do you really believe that bonds represent so more powerful a tool than taxes that it always trumps taxation when we are under economic duress? If public deficits are acceptable, then at least they aught to be temporary measures to overcome a temporary hump, not as it is and has been in the U.S. since Andrew Jackson, a permanent fixture of our economic structures.

I suspect most believe in a happy medium between bonds and taxes. But in my opinion, long term bonds always smell of deceit specifically because the Ricardian equivalence does not entirely hold. Everyone's awareness is tremendously heightened when tax issues are under discussion. And the reality of taxation presents itself directly as we file our returns, pay our gas and buy our clothes. But how many are continuously tracking at what level securities are issued by the government and to whom? To support the legitimacy of bonds is like objecting to elections because people are to dumb to vote. We are so jaded by our national debt that despite some occasional ruckus in the bowls of our national debate, we have become impervious to it. Perhaps it is irrelevant, a giant Ponzi scheme that doesn't really affect anyone because no one is willing to call our governments bluff (our own self delusion, so to say).

Unfortunately, in our global economy equating national debt with a debt to ourselves is no longer even remotely accurate. We are no longer playing a Ponzi scheme with ourselves and our grandchildren. We are now a bunch of strangers fueling each others excesive expansion and consumption, hoping, praying that the other ones won't get cold feet. I'm not trying to argue that incuring debt is fundamentally wrong. People and businesses need to be able to borrow money to further their (and thereby society's) progress. What I am arguing is that it's wrong for governments to incure debt when their is a more direct and transparent way for them to raise money for communal needs such as education, public transportation, law enforcement and basic health care. The government is the only entity in society that can legitamtely levy cumpolsory taxes. It does not need to borrow money if it has none.

Here it's certainly necessary to distinguish nations with emerging economies from nations with well established economies that are politically integrated into higher structures. The State of New York can receive adequate tax funds from both its own population as well as the entire tax base of the U.S. Federal Government. Burundi, on the other hand, is hard pressed to lift itself out of its own poverty. It depends on external funds for its progress. Creating incentives for such investments is important. I'm more focused on countries like the U.S.. But that said, I believe that even in the case of Burundi, intergovernmental lending and borrowing may not be the answer. Such lending does not seem to have had a great track record for equalizing the wealth discrepancy between nations. The answer I suspect is in local micro-funding at the private level, thereby generating a healthy private sector that the government can levy its taxes against.

The argument for issuing bonds often focuses on the effectiveness of offsetting costs to a time when a project is completed and capable of generating a benefit (or revenue) for its constituency. Seen from this perspective, even a transfer of cost to another generation can seem legitimate. Why should I have to pay now for something I will not immediately benefit from? The problem with such intergenerational arguments is that it assumes our capability to know what will be of any benefit. Every project is associated with a risk which burden only those who decide to be involved with the project should carry. When we engage intergenerational projects, who should shoulder the risk? Those who decide to engage in the project or those who those who engage in the project believe will benefit from it?

Imagine if I took out a loan to send my two young sons to an extremely expensive elementary school and put the loan in their name. I keep paying only the interest on the loan until they graduate from high school. At that point the full principle becomes due. But since its in my boys name, I wash my hands and leave it up to them. Okay, maybe I'm a little more generous and I extend the maturity to a point when I think they might be able to pay for it, say age 30. Would that be fair? They are, after all, the primary beneficiaries of their elementary school education. The glaringly obvious problem, of course, is that they did not have the capacity to consent! I chose their elementary school based on my belief of what their future aught to entail.

To me, this metaphor clearly illustrates that issuing any government bonds with a maturity beyond 15 years is unacceptable. I say 15 because that seems to be the rate at which culture switches from one generational view to the other. And 15 years is the average age it takes for a person reach maturity (even if you're really not truely matured untill you hit 50). One could argue that the longest maturity should be half of a lifespan. which (ignoring population growth) is roughly when those when those who could consent start becoming the minority. At some point I will hopefully have a little more time available to mathematically model what the maximum acceptable length of time for a bond to mature aught to be.

The problem is that the ability to issue bonds always creates the temptation to defer the debt by issuing yet another bond to pay for bonds that are about to mature. I'm leaning towards finding bonds an all together unacceptable means to raise government funds. If bonds are to be issued at all, they should always be issued only with a direct consent from a strong majority of the entire electorate (through referendums). And at their date of maturity, the should definitively be paid back through additional taxation specifically marked as a repayment for that specific public debt. This would  make the whole electorate fully aware about their previous profligacies (and thereby to some extent establish Ricardian equivalence) without the need for a complete economic meltdown.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Complete Determinacy, The End of Life?

Here's another, obviously purely hypothetical, little thought experiment: what would happen if we could determine every reaction of every action?

Put differently, what would happen if we could predict the future with absolute certainty? Forget anything about "uncertainty principle", "indeterminacy", "incalculable" and all that for a moment. Just imagine that our current models prove to be less than perfect. Actually, far less than perfect. It wouldn't be entirely unheard of. Ask poor Ptolemaeus! In fact, imagine this future science/math is so far superior that from the moment it became general knowledge, anyone could use its methodologies to predict anything with complete and absolute and unequivocal certainty. With other words, it would be perfect in the absolute sense of a perfect science. What would happen to us?

I will loosely conjecture that awareness requires a certain degree of freedom, meaning that without the ability to at will (i.e. randomly) shift our attention, we could not be aware. And if we were not aware, there could be no concept of existence. There would be no concepts at all! If we could internalize this amazing future scientific/mathematical process so that it was as natural as 1+1=2, then any degree of freedom we currently have would vanish.

Since there would be an awareness of every reaction to every thought, we would suddenly know what we were about to think. As a consequence, everything that was ever to happen to us would be known to us. It would be as if we had experienced everything already. In an instance of a moment, our awareness would stretch all the way to the end of our time, of time itself.

So, would we not theoretically cease to exist in that moment?

The experiment is essentially like supposing we would become an all knowing being. The consequence of our sudden annihilation depends on whether awareness actually requires any degree of freedom. If it does not, attaining such a level of awareness would be more like becoming trapped inside a paralyzed body. But what happens if you can no longer even freely redirect your thought processes? That is like living inside a paralyzed mind. Or more accurately, it is not living at all.

Again, this is obviously quite hypothetical, a somewhat entertaining but ultimately banal rumination. A perfect science will with almost complete certainty never exist. There are intrinsic limits to what we can know, even imagine. At best, this thought experiment sheds a faint light on these evasive limits.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Substituting Words, Applying New Metaphors

There are plenty of ways to describe the same fundamental phenomena. In some sense, as a friend of mine says "you can call it banana if you want, I don't care". But though in a purely formalistic frame of mind this is true, in actuality what terms you use can be crucial to your interaction with the concepts being described. Calling something a banana when your language traditionally uses the term dog, or even worse apple, will confuse not just a listener but yourself as well.  It will inhibit you from effectively juxtaposing the concepts meant to be embedded  in the chosen symbols.

In my efforts as a software engineer, when creating new systems, I consistently explore metaphors to gain a better understanding of what I'm attempting to achieve. And then I transpose those metaphors onto my virtual system by using terms related to that metaphor in my code. Literally, this means naming variables, classes and functions things like "Path", "Node", "Walk", "Disease" and "Create". Choosing the wrong words has time and again thrown me off in the wrong direction. 

I could chose such abstract symbols as A, B and C rather than any terms with implicit meaning. But this would prevent me from quickly exploring and attaining a new understanding of what I am doing through the powerful tool of metaphors. Choosing the right metaphors and terms can result in an unexpected creative explosion.

When it comes to how we comprehend the world, I could use terms like "mind" and "memory" and "physical reality". But if I did, I would be potentially trapped in the classical interpretation of such words. Sometimes I I find it more useful to shift, if not entirely replace such terms in order to better grasp  the world through new and improved metaphors. Sometimes, of course, an old perhaps quasi obsolete word is the key to understanding our lifeworld

What is for certain from my perspective is that words and symbols make a difference. If I were to use PSI instead of EPSILON for an negligible float point I would initially confuse myself on encountering my code at some future time. I would have to recalibrate, relearn my own terminology.

So, summa summarum: words matter.

Phenomena versus Things

"Real things" do not exist. Phenomena exist. It may seem merely substituting one word for the other. But it's not. Things are a subset of mental phenomena. What is the difference between a phenomenon and a thing (or object)? One is a blurb without clear boundaries and the other is a discrete phenomenon with clearly distinguishable attributes. Jean-Paul Sartre describes the instance of this realization in his book Nausea. Once we free ourselves from the preconceived notions of our mind, reality melts into hazy blurbs in constant motion, melting in and out of each other without distinct beginnings and ends.

It is the mind, or the realm of mental phenomena, in which things arise. At first, what we have before us are the confusing noise of sensory phenomena, which are transferred into our remembered world where they become mental phenomena that, through the act of making them discrete, can turn them into separate things with distinct attributes. Through the act of remembrance, we can juxtapose these things onto other sensory phenomena in our immediate world, forming a complete and meaningful lifeworld. Phenomena have no thingness in-and-of-themselves. As many optical experiments can prove, nothing in the world has "redness". Nor do they have "softness" or any of the other imaginable qualia. As for more "objective" aspects of "things", they are still relative judgments. A "knife" may be sharp against the naked skin of a human but not the shell of a tortoise. The "knife" does not in-and-of-itself have "sharpness".

All phenomena can only be attributed specific traits in relationship to perceived angles. It does not mean humans do not have an inter-subjective realm. They have evolved to have similar viewing angles and processes for turning phenomena into specific and discrete things. But some perception is still a process of education, pushing someone to a specific desired angle. As an example I take my 4 year old youngest son Pascal. He knows, after our training, all his letters and some words. But most words and sentences are still illegible despite that knowledge. I can only imagine what they appear to him like. My guess is....blurbs just like the blurbs we see when we encounter a new problem domain.

This is not to say that sensory phenomena do not exhibit discernible behaviours, flowing in and out of each others hazy boundaries with some form of relationships. They do. Which is why we can objectify reality. But if we consider them things, we run the risk of thinking they are in-an-of-themselves anything remotely like the angle we choose to view them from.

Anything Goes, A Simple Thought Experiment

About a decade ago, I posed myself a theoretical question. My thought experiment, which at the time I called Anything Goes, was simple. It went like this: Imagine if anything was possible.

Here is a more recently written outline of the initial answer I came up with at the time:

In effect, if anything goes, it would mean there's a 50/50 chance that something would happen, which is equivalent to complete uncertainty. But it also means that, since there's a possibility anything might happen, there's a chance that the odds of some particular phenomenon occurring might increase or decrease. At the outset, there's even a 50/50 chance that nothing will ever come into being! Which is a tad of a paradox since presumably anything is possible. But, remember, even time and the consistency of logic does not yet exist at that first moment of endless possibilities. Now, if it's true that anything was possible in this, I don't know what to call it, meta state of pure potentials, then I know for sure something did in fact happen (obviously, otherwise, I wouldn't be writing this sentence). And since it is a tad paradoxical that nothing would have happened given the premise of the question, we sort of have to bracket out that possibility and compromise our "anything" a bit.

All the unviable forms of existence will eventually have amounted to naught, particularly those without awareness. They may "exist" in some sense unknown to the rational mind and open only to higher intuition. But rationally apprehending them is like trying to quench my thirst with a glass of water enclosed in a case of steel. Evolution is nothing but a simple statement about natural selection and random variation. What works will in fact work. And what doesn't work won't work! If I except that randomness exists as a fundamental phenomenon (a state of being that has no cause, or so called spontaneous being), then I must accept that evolution, and thereby the eventual dissipation of randomness, will take place. A perfect "golden age" (as it is called in the context of the anthropic principle) is inevitable.

If I don't accept the existence of real randomness, I must reject evolution as well which necessitates random variation. But, again, evolution compromises the randomess which makes it possible. In rejecting randomness, I also have to rejected my own free will. Free will is in fact a form of randomness, the capacity to "err" despite the necessity of what aught to logically follow. There must exist some balance point, which seems to be the reality in which we live.

I think it's important to realize that without awareness, which is predicated on the ability to move ones mind freely (i.e. a certain degree of randomness), existence is hollow! It's all those worlds no one was around to experience. That is, without awareness there is no existence per se, only what which might have been (i.e. potentials). And without potentials and randomness, there would have been no awareness.

As I see it, awareness is the act of making that which is possible real. Awareness does not necessarily mean "our awareness", just any old observer that can render potential phenomena into into sensory phenomena. Such observers have probably been around since, well, anything went. They must be an integral part of reality. Since anything was possible at some point, their existence is not so mysterious. In fact, they are an aspect of the residual randomness itself!

Note: The type of randomness I'm talking about is not to be confused with Kolmogorov's (and Chaitin's)concept of irreducibility. It's really a fundamental version of Russian roulette. In fact, based on the premise of the question, our observable universe could suddenly be slurped up, digested a bit and then regurgitated by a 5 headed anorexic monster. But don't worry. Thanks to evolution, it's highly unlikely...

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Illusions, The Scientific Copout

Whenever someone who thinks of themselves as scientific can't for the life of them figure out why something is the way it is, they try to convince themselves that it really only seems to be the way it actually appears. With other words: they deem a phenomenon to be an illusion. The most commonly held mystery to be labeled such an illusion is free will, that troublesome and unpredictable nuisance that constantly presents itself in our lifeworld.

The problem that many of those who engage in science have with free will is understandable. The scientific method is not an empty pursuit to just come up with neat descriptions of natural phenomena. Science has a purpose beyond mere investigation. It helps us to better understand our lifeworld so that we can make the right decisions in order to achieve a desired state. It helps us predict the outcome of our actions.

Free will is the ability to make the wrong choices. In fact, right and wrong can only exist in the context of free will. Right and wrong is not here used as a synonym for true and false. The words are used to describe our sentiment about an act in our lifeworld. Right implies that things could have been wrong, and wrong implies they could have been right. But something that is false cannot be conceived of as true. Verity is a label for of a statement that, when held in our mind, can either be fulfilled or not. "I euthanized my cat" False. Right and wrong is the label for a statement like "I should not have euthanized my cat". It implies I could have euthanized my cat had I willed it at the time. I realize that true, right, wrong and false are used interchangeably and their meaning depends on the context (the sentence they apply to). But I narrow their use to create clarity.

The implication of wrong is that I could have acted differently. If I could not have acted in any other way than I did, how could it be wrong? Even our system of justice takes this position. Manslaughter is less severe than murder because with the former death was not intended. However, it was still the result of careless behavior that the process of jurisprudence deemed to be the wrong behavior, behavior that could have been avoided. Now if a person is declared insane, they are not at all subject to the same laws. This is because we believe they could not have acted in the "right" way. Right and wrong in the lifeworld of an insane person is so alien to us that we disavow them of their responsibilities. We only punish people if we believe they were rational and that they could have acted in some other way than they did. They chose, through their free will, to do what they knew would be deemed wrong by society at large.

So if free will is an illusion, then so is the concept of right and wrong. And by implication, the discipline of ethics is pointless. Morality becomes an empty concept. Why would anyone think free will is an illusion given how central it is to our lifeworld? The trouble is that it implies a fundamental unpredictability, which means that our efforts to determine the reaction of every action is put in jeopardy. If free will exists, then there are things that cannot be predicted. With other words, there is a mundane, a most common phenomenon that cannot be explained. However much science we throw at it, we will be left with at best statistical distributions.

The fascinating thing about modern physics is not that it's "weird" but that it uses some of the same toolsets as social sciences. Why? Because both have indeterminacies! So both have turned to statistics to overcome the limitations on the act of "knowing" that any indeterminacy introduces into a system. Long ago, these uncertainties were considered by some physicists to be an indication of the incompleteness of our current models. That has long since passed for most. But, since uncertainty is still antithetical to the purpose of science, new "explanations" have been conceived.

Some fulfill their need for determinacy by considering the wave functions in quantum mechanics more real than the world we observe. A world outside our lifeworld is conceived, a world well beyond the world we can observe in its immediacy. Mysterious parallel universes are postulated, universes where the wave function collapsed differently from the way we perceived it collapse in our lifeworld. In fact, it is imagined that the wave function never collapsed at all! Reality is not the lifeworld we observe, but some bizarre eternal Hilbert space containing all possible states at all times. It is Platonism brought to its delusional end state.

In a Scientific American Special Report Parallel Universes (SCA45026), Max Tegmark gives a clear outline of the theory that our universe is just a subset of a larger "multiverse". I have no problem with this by now quite common theory in itself. To think that our observable universe is all their is would be the same as thinking that because I cannot observe something form my wife's exact perspective, her perspective does not exist. Or, even worse, to therefore assume she does not exist at all! It would be that naive solipsistic conclusion that "she's a figment of my imagination". My wife's effect on me is very real, consistent and evocative and I can but conclude that she has her own lifeworld similar to yet distinct from mine (even if I can never experience it in its complete immediacy).

My major problem is with the comment above a graphic ("The Nature of Time") on page 9 of the report. I don't know if Tegmark wrote this comment himself or it was added by the editors at Scientific American. Anyway, the comment goes as follows:

MOST PEOPLE THINK of time as a way to describe change. At one moment, matter has a certain arrangement; a moment later, it has another. The concept of multiverses suggests an alternative view. If parallel universes contain all possible arrangements of matter, then time is simply a way to put those universes into a sequence. The universes themselves are static; change is an illusion, albeit an interesting one.
Wow. This is Platonism gone hey wire. Change does not exist! Not really anyway. Well, sort of. But it's an illusion, a flicker on the wall of the cavernous background of my lifeworld. Tegmark makes no secret of being a Platonist. On the contrary. He celebrates it, demonstrating through his writing that even scientists are political animals. On page 11, Level IV: Other Mathematical Structures, in paragraph 4, he says:

As children, long before we have even heard of mathematics, we are indoctrinated with the Aristotelian paradigm The Platonic view is an acquired taste.
By using the word "children" and "indoctrinate", he infantilizes the Aristotelian perspective. He then elevates Platonism to a refined status for a few initiated by calling it an "acquired taste". Sort of like anchovies, which can only be appreciated by true food connoisseurs. How political we are indeed, despite our noble efforts towards objectivity.

Of course, the split between the illuminati and the rest of the riffraff has been part of Platonism since, well, Plato. It's the whole philosopher-king complex. However, the exclusivity issue is not really my main gripe with Platonism. Some things are really only understood by a very few. The issue is with how the ideal is held to be real and the real, well... they're the famous shadows on the wall. Or, more succinctly: our lifeworld is an illusion. It's a shimmering, vibrating mirage.

Illusion means something which is not really what it seems. A magician pulls a rabbit out of an empty hat. A thirst stricken wanderer lost in the desert stumbles towards a pool of water and discovers it's not there, just tricks of light on the atmosphere. To fully understand these illusions, our analytic approach should be to bracket out the irrelevant without removing the essence. In order to analyze these phenomena in their purest form, we only want to remove what is preconceived and not consequential to the thing in and of itself. In the case of the mirage in the desert, we cannot bracket out the it that refers to the optical phenomenon, which is indeed very, very very real. What happens to the wanderer is that the interpretation of, and the assumptions about the phenomenon changes as the wanderer approaches the pool of water.

In the case of the magician, the empty hat turns out to be a rather curious non-standard stovetop hat. The phenomenon, the thing as it is in its purest form in our mind, the perception of pulling something out of something empty is real. Obviously, some may say, it's just that the freakin' rabbit was under the table! And there's a hidden whole in the table and in the top of the hat! But this is the crux, the seeming impossibility of getting the rabbit into the hat, the emptiness, is an assumption made by the viewer because of the context in which the phenomenon was perceived. And the same with the pool of water. It's not really a pool of water at all. It's an optical phenomenon. However, this does not diminish the reality of its occurrence. The optical phenomenon is quite real.

So what is this comment in Tegmark's article about change being an illusion? What is he (or the editor) trying to tell us? The comment states that "the universes themselves are static" and "time is simply a way to but these universes in a sequence". Simply usually implies that there is nothing more complex below it. Something simple is something that can easily be understand. It's a concept that can be held in our mind without confusion and a desire to ask more questions. Simplicity usually implies that no further investigation is necessary. In the case of the comment, change has been explained as a simple sequencing of determinate states. This seems to indicate that other types of sequencing would be possible since the "parallel universes" are hypothesized as a higher reality (note: Platonists tend to be very hierarchical). Does simply here then mean arbitrary?

The article itself clearly hypothesizes the existence of parallel universes which might have identical copies of us. It makes the interesting observation that such parallelism is not predicated on mysterious quantum events, that parallelism is likely (even inevitable) if the universe is infinite in size and almost uniformly filled. It goes on to speculate that at a higher level, a type of parallelism he calls Level IV, there may be manifold, in fact an infinite number of parallel mathematical universes. Again, this falls back to Plato's concept of the ideal, the world of Forms. Tegmark speculates that there are a limitless variety of such worlds (or universes). One of them, he suggests, might just be an empty dodecahedron.

In the article itself, Tegmark, makes no reference to change being an illusion. Which is reassuring and makes me suspect it was added by a careless collaborator or editor. But lets' for a moment, assume it is an illusion. What are we left with? What remains are sequences of static frames. Any inquisitive mind would ask what causes these frames to be arranged in any given way. Or: why did my life end up edited into the film I have been watching unfold?

Extrapolating from Tegmark's concept of the very real and fundamental existence of infinite possibilities, we end of with a superset of all possible combinations of all frames. That is, time has an infinite number of dimensions. The birth of George Washington could have been proceeded by World War II. I could have died before I was born. Even more interesting, Prince Ferdinand could have been shot twice in the same way 100 years apart. Some sequences might be stuttering repetitions, a truly fantastic time construct where time is an infinite dimension of zero length (some form of recursive loop, or, in other words, a static time frame).

Of course, none of this would be too troubling if time were just an illusion. It would not be much of an issue if we were what Tegmark calls the bird (a theoretical cognizant being watching all these worlds from a higher plane). But, unfortunately, we are what Tegmarks calls the frog (perceiving everything within the plane itself). The bird could choose to watch the frames in any sequence it desires. But the question is why do we find ourselves experiencing the specific mirage we perceive? Who are we? Are we just an arbitrary member of our set of doppelgängers? When I die, will the branch that I call my "self" be a random selection of all the viable states that evolved since I was conceived? Of course, I'm just a frog, so what do I know. I'm trapped by my inability to fly up into a higher dimension.

Our lifeworld is obviously full of things that suddenly appear from the unknown, then exit into our remembered world (the model of the place beyond the horizon of our immediacy) and then return into our immediate world (the here and now). To deny the existence of things in the unknown is foolish. The consistency of things that are suddenly incorporated into our phenomenal universe is so great that we have to assume they are as phenomenally real in our absence as the phenomena experienced in our remembered and immediate sensory realm. This is not about doubting the existence of parallel Level III universes (Tegmark's term for similar universes that exist due to the nature of quantum events). If an unknown has any effect on our phenomenal world, we have no choice but to incorporate that phenomenon into our remembered world. They become a part of our life. The only issue is the importance of why phenomena enter into and pass between the immediate and remembered world in the very consistent and specific sequences that they do.

Calling time a simple illusion is to deny the phenomenon of immediacy and remembrance itself. It is the same as denying the immediate world and remembered world as such. It is to deny the existence of self. If we deny the existence of self, certainly it becomes moot to ask why we experience certain sequences of frames. There is no we. There is no frog. But that leads us into contradiction with Descartes famous cogito ergo sum (who was it that denied the existence of the frog?).

I hope that the comment on page 9 of the report was a careless editorial mistake. Since he raises the issue of the anthropic principle and decoherence, it would seem as if it was. But some aspects of Tegmark's focus does indicate a disinterest in what I would call the more real and more important (our lifeworld, the result of the remembered world and the immediate world). Again, he makes no political secret of being a Platonist, thereby elevating perfect forms (the equations, the constants) to a higher importance than their imperfect shadows (the illusion, the phenomena). Truth is to be found not in how we experience the world as such, but in how we experience mathematics. It would seem to me (though I am conjecturing a little), that Tegmark believes he can somehow be one of his allegorical birds, freeing himself from the limitations of our frog-like existence.

We cannot escape ourselves. Even Plato recognized this prima facie truth. We are always the frog and never the bird. Despite how egocentric it may seem, all truths must extend from our immediate and remembered world. This does not mean we cannot postulate phenomena independent of our lifeworld (worlds beyond the perceived and the remembered). But all such worlds are more surreal than real, hazy dreams out of which potentially instantiable phenomena (conceptual phenomena that can become sensory in nature) enter into our lifeworld . The construct Tegmark lays out is a limitless conceptual world we can never really access in any true sense of the word real.

His conceptual worlds (Level IV parallel universes) are similar to a thought experiment I posed to myself a decade ago, an experiment very akin to the anthropic principle. Imagine anything was possible: What would happen? Such a thought experiment should not be considered to describe reality. The real is that which manifests itself (becomes sensory). To conflate the worlds conceptualized from such thought experiments performed, mind you, by the frog is to conflate the ideal with the real. They do not, by the mere definition of real, exist in reality. Only in the ideal.

The Platonic temptation is to hold the ideal as somehow superior (perfect circles, golden ratios, elegant integrations, etc.). And the ideal starts seeming more real than the real itself. But as can be seen by the previous sentence, such attribution blurs the border between two useful concepts. Note that both "the ideal" and "the real" are mere concepts since "the real" in any sentence is a mental phenomena of that which manifests itself in our sensory domain (a representation of that which is in actuality).

Reality is never as as simple as it is experienced in its immediacy. Obviously. Otherwise we wouldn't have the rich cultural and technological lifeworld that we have. Thanks to our memory, we can experience a complex juxtaposition of phenomena by recalling what has happened in the past, being aware of what is happening and guessing what may happen in the future. Every time we look into and around a phenomenon, we discover yet more phenomena. We correlate them together and create a model within our lifeworld of what is in actuality. No phenomenon that presents itself to us is in-and of-itself a "simple illusion" (something that did not happen).

An illusion is just a misunderstanding, an incorrect correlate about the the "blurb" (the sensory phenomenon as experienced). Time is most likely not the irreversible order of frames it seems to be its immediacy. But the specific sequencing that we experience is very real and its causes, the phenomena that occur within immediate conjunction, beckon to be explored. It may seem bizarre to some to suggest time has causes since cause is by its classical definition predicated on time. But what I am suggesting is that perhaps the concept cause needs to redefined just as atom has been drastically redefined since Democritus coined the still useful term atomicos.

Math can reveal new yet unexplored possibilities to explain the sensory phenomenon of time. But it is necessary to explore the sensory realm itself to establish what is real. And usually when we make such exploration, reality turns out to be more fascinating than any of our current mathematical ideas. Such exploration in turn even alters and advances our systems of math. To believe math is itself reality is to believe that the mystery of reality can make itself known to us through mere silent and inner contemplation. Perhaps there is big m Mathematics out there from which all things emanate. But it is not our small merely descriptive set of symbols and relationships. To talk about big m Mathematics is about as useful as talking about God.

And whatever you do, please don't call what is real and phenomenally present "simply an illusion". That's just a scientific copout...