Monday, December 25, 2006

Friday, December 22, 2006

A weighing system.

Tyler Cowen wrote this post on moral arithmetic a while ago and it predictably caused a storm of protest from commenters. The post reads:
1. For reasons of practicality and cost, nations should in many cases devote more resources to their own citizens than to foreigners.

2. Once the costs mentioned in #1 are taken into account, foreigners are still "worth less" than citizens.

#2 does not follow from #1, that is a mistake in moral arithmetic. #2 is false.
The moral is that all individuals count equally, but individuals will be best off if governments focus on serving their own citizens. This is a general rule and should be broken for things like Boxing Day tsunamis, in other words governments should still take foreigners into account, but less so than citizens.

Samuel Brittan talks of a weighing sytem assigning more value to citizens than foreigners in the same way that parents do for their children, it's ok to save your kid instead of 5 other kids maybe, but surely not 100 000.

This is all fine, but if governments start thinking this has some deeper significance rather than just a useful rule of thumb then they will seriously underestimate the costs of war.

When you venture past your borders, all lives count equally as well as property etc. Can citizens and governments be trusted to mean it when they pat lip service to these ideals?

You Are Never Entitled to Your Opinion

Ever! Robin Hanson explains. There's a nice discussion too.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

jack and jill

Jack and Jill both work for the same high school. Jack is the principal and Jill is the vice-principal. One day the government tosses Jack in prison for being Jewish and Jill is promoted to the top job. 5 years later a more liberal government takes over and releases Jack who reapplies for the job as principal of the school. Jack is a better candidate and so gets the job and Jill gets demoted to vice-principal.

Has the new government harmed Jill? Is she due compensation?

Addendum: The issue is not weather Jill should have been demoted, it's the extent of the government's moral responsibility for the harm done to Jill by releasing Jack.

what is your dangerous idea?

Daniel Gilbert is the author of "Stumbling on Happiness", which Tyler Cowen recommends as book number two of the year. I love his answer to the question, "what is your dangerous idea?":
The idea that ideas can be dangerous

Dangerous does not mean exciting or bold. It means likely to cause great harm. The most dangerous idea is the only dangerous idea: The idea that ideas can be dangerous.

We live in a world in which people are beheaded, imprisoned, demoted, and censured simply because they have opened their mouths, flapped their lips, and vibrated some air. Yes, those vibrations can make us feel sad or stupid or alienated. Tough shit. That's the price of admission to the marketplace of ideas. Hateful, blasphemous, prejudiced, vulgar, rude, or ignorant remarks are the music of a free society, and the relentless patter of idiots is how we know we're in one. When all the words in our public conversation are fair, good, and true, it's time to make a run for the fence.
This instantly elevates him to hero status, now I really wanna read the book (hint hint).

I doubt Phil will like the quote as much as I do.

Lots of other clever people were asked the same question, go check out their answers.

Millions Participate In Cuban Version Of Survivor

This is, of course, from the Onion:
HAVANA, CUBA–Inspired by the hit CBS show Survivor, Cuba's 11 million citizens are participating in their own version of the popular island-survival game. "I hope very much to make it to next week," said contestant Livan Ordonez, eating a rat as part of a "Starvation-Immunity Challenge" during last Wednesday's episode. "If I do not survive, who will provide for the Ordonez Tribe?" Under the somewhat altered rules for Cuban Survivor, contestants who fail to remain on the island are declared the winners
This isn't funny to those people who still believe that Cuba is a socialist utopia.

Update: Since I clearly have nothing better to do (like Christmas shopping), here are some more articles from the Onion:
Family dog Loki experienced the best day of his life for the 400th straight day Monday, the black Labrador retriever reported. "I got to go outside! I got to sniff the bush!" Loki said, wagging excitedly. "I saw a squirrel and I barked at it and it ran up the tree! Then I came back inside, and the smoky-smelling tall man let me have a little piece of bacon and then I drank from the toilet!" Loki will experience the best day of his life once again tomorrow, when he digs a hole, chews on a slipper, and almost catches his tail.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


Says noted legal scholar Harry Hutton. A 17 old boy (man?) has just been sentenced to 10 years in jail, without possibility of parole, for having consensual oral sex with a 15 year old. He will also be registered as a sexual offender for the rest of his life. So he'll be known as a pedophile when he gets out of jail, I'd say his prospects are good!

Eugene Volokh has some more serious things to say here. If he had had regular sex with a 14 year old the maximum sentence would have been 1 year. This is the craziest thing I've read since the guy who was shot 51 times.

Friday, December 15, 2006

bangs, crunches, shrieks and whimpers

Here's a really fun article examining various extinction scenarios, except the only actual extinction scenarios are the "bangs", some of the crunches, shrieks and whimpers are pretty horrible, but I would guess that a lot of people would actually prefer some of them to the "non-extinction" scenarious. Here are the mst interesting "bang" scenarios:
  • We're living in a simulation and it gets shut down
    A case can be made that the hypothesis that we are living in a computer simulation should be given a significant probability. The basic idea behind this so-called “Simulation argument” is that vast amounts of computing power may become available in the future, and that it could be used, among other things, to run large numbers of fine-grained simulations of past human civilizations. Under some not-too-implausible assumptions, the result can be that almost all minds like ours are simulated minds, and that we should therefore assign a significant probability to being such computer-emulated minds rather than the (subjectively indistinguishable) minds of originally evolved creatures. And if we are, we suffer the risk that the simulation may be shut down at any time. A decision to terminate our simulation may be prompted by our actions or by exogenous factors.
    While to some it may seem frivolous to list such a radical or "philosophical" hypothesis next the concrete threat of nuclear holocaust, we must seek to base these evaluations on reasons rather than untutored intuition. Until a refutation appears of the argument presented in, it would intellectually dishonest to neglect to mention simulation-shutdown as a potential extinction mode.
  • Badly programmed superintelligence
    When we create the first superintelligent entity, we might make a mistake and give it goals that lead it to annihilate humankind, assuming its enormous intellectual advantage gives it the power to do so. For example, we could mistakenly elevate a subgoal to the status of a supergoal. We tell it to solve a mathematical problem, and it complies by turning all the matter in the solar system into a giant calculating device, in the process killing the person who asked the question.
  • Physics disasters
    The Manhattan Project bomb-builders' concern about an A-bomb-derived atmospheric conflagration has contemporary analogues.
    There have been speculations that future high-energy particle accelerator experiments may cause a breakdown of a metastable vacuum state that our part of the cosmos might be in, converting it into a "true" vacuum of lower energy density. This would result in an expanding bubble of total destruction that would sweep through the galaxy and beyond at the speed of light, tearing all matter apart as it proceeds.
    Another conceivability is that accelerator experiments might produce negatively charged stable "strangelets" (a hypothetical form of nuclear matter) or create a mini black hole that would sink to the center of the Earth and start accreting the rest of the planet.
    These outcomes seem to be impossible given our best current physical theories. But the reason we do the experiments is precisely that we don’t really know what will happen. A more reassuring argument is that the energy densities attained in present day accelerators are far lower than those that occur naturally in collisions between cosmic rays. It’s possible, however, that factors other than energy density are relevant for these hypothetical processes, and that those factors will be brought together in novel ways in future experiments.
    The main reason for concern in the "physics disasters" category is the meta-level observation that discoveries of all sorts of weird physical phenomena are made all the time, so even if right now all the particular physics disasters we have conceived of were absurdly improbable or impossible, there could be other more realistic failure-modes waiting to be uncovered. The ones listed here are merely illustrations of the general case.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Cognitive enhancement

Cognitive enhancement could come in two forms; it could help us think faster or improve our memory. We would have more of what we already have. It could also allow our minds to work in entirely new ways that we could never imagine with our current puny brains.

Both seem likely to me. We are all evolved from the same little clay crystal or electrified methane molecule (or whatever) that had less capacity for empathy or abstract thought than most of us today and we aren't so great that we couldn't be further improved.

One of the possible arguments against cognitive enhancement is that it would probably be expensive and thus out of reach to the poor; this would increase inequality. People who dislike discussing IQ and the fact that it is correlated with income will surely not like cognitive enhancement.

I don't want to downplay the challenges raised by a cognitively enhanced elite, but here are some thoughts. Most innovations were initially available to the rich. TV's cost more than cars when they first appeared and however crap you think today's TV is, it was worse then. But now most poor people have access to TV and it isn't seen as bad for inequality. The same is true for plenty other innovations, especially medical advances. Money incentive helps these things being invented in the first places which is surely good.

I often hear complaints that people lack the imagination or empathy to fully realise the plight of the very poor. I would guess that the same people would be suspicious of cognitive enhancement. Our increased capacity should help us better understand the plight of the poor and be better equipped to do sensible things about it.

Or would we only enhance the money making parts of our mind?

when was the best time for humans to be alive?

When was the best time for humans to be alive if not now? Why?

This is a serious question. I'll post substantial suggestions and explanations on the normal blog.

do you want a punch on the nose?

I'm a rule utilitarian, so I think that the morality of actions should be assessed by their consequences. If someone offered me R50 000 for the privilege of breaking my nose I'd take it; I'd be happier with the R50 000 than an unbroken nose. So the actions of this weird stranger are good as long as he has my consent. The money raises my "good" meter by more than the pain etc lowers "bad" meter.

There are others who would also prefer the money, including Joe. Suppose our mystery stranger punches me in the nose but gives money to Joe. Total utility still goes up but I can't agree that the action is good.

Intuitively, most of us don't accept that benefiting somebody is a good reason for hurting someone else, even if the benefit is quite great. This is a general principle that we'll ignore under certain circumstances but it's still a principle that I think is common (and good).

Public policies normally create winners and losers so they involve the above kind of trade off. How can we choose between policies? One way is checking the levels of coercion. If two policies result in the same amount of utility then the less coercive one is better and highly utility doesn't necessarily justify coercion.

If this point has any value, it is relevant to the minimum wage question. Economists agree that a minimum has a negative effect on employment, but many argue that those who benefit benefit more than those whose employment prospects are (often very slightly) worse. Others argue the other way. They disagree about which policy will maximize utility.

The non-coercive option is the no minimum wage option. A minimum wage involves punching some in the face and giving cash to others.

This post was prompted by this post on The Economist blog. They suggest that on average the minimum wage helps the wrong (i.e. well off) people and hurts those most in need.

Happiness research also suggests that unemployment makes people particularly miserable; this should be included in "utility calculations".

Friday, December 08, 2006

the future

What will the world look like in 1000 years? There are indefinitely many options but here are a few broad categories that our future could fit into. I haven't really thought this though, so please suggest improvements.

  1. Apocalypse; either we all die, or most of us do and the survivors end up eating pinecones (and possibly each other).
  2. Gentle decline, this happens in Lord of the Rings and similar stories. I’m not sure why people suddenly stop reproducing but I think it has something to do with imagined golden ages when people were smart and moral.
  3. Human race splits into the “haves” and “have not’s” and possibly start to evolve into separate species.
  4. We settle into a stable equilibrium, possibly at about the current level of Western Europe.
  5. Technology and living standards increase at a constant rate.
  6. Technology and living standards increase at an exponential rate indefinitely.

Have I missed any? Which is the most likely? I think a dramatic apocalypse scenario is quite likely and this seems to be a popular option to judge by sci-fi movies. I really don’t buy the slow decline story, any takers?

I think that some countries will go for the stable equilibrium version but I don’t think it will be stable because if only one country grows just 1% a year faster than the others they will be a lot richer in 100 years. Humans are a sulky and acquisitive bunch. I doubt that people living in the static societies will be happy with the status quo, especially if people in the rich countries are living substantially longer. So I think that this is unlikely.

I think the option 3 might be popular, especially to those who see various forms of inequality relentlessly rising for the last however many years. I wouldn’t rule this out, but I doubt that governments would let this happen even if it looked like it was happening. I also doubt that western society is unequal compared to most societies of the past 2000 years.

Constant increases in standards of living would be great but it’s impossible to know where we’d end up. We could keep improving but never achieve some things that might be desirable, like significantly longer (healthy) lives. I also don’t see why the rate would be constant, seems unlikely to me.
The last option is the most interesting. What things could humans not do in principle? We should be able to colonize the galaxy, extend our lifespan indefinitely and make ourselves way smarter than we are now. Even things that we think of as physically impossible may turn out not to be.

Tyler Cowen's favorite young philosopher has much more to say

Here's a letter from utopia to strain your credulity.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Right-wing hacks in action, part CXXXIV (Arnold Kling edition)

Crooked Timber is a leading left-wing group blog. Its contributors are highly intelligent academics. If I want my blogroll to be balanced (which I don?t) I should include them right? I used to link to them (and read them) but found them to be arrogant and mean spirited. Here's an example from Chris Bertram:
Dasgupta, as someone with a record of concern for development and the well-being of the global poor, is someone who should be taken seriously when voices them and might be expected to devise and support policies that benefit the worst off. Right-wing hacks, are, needless to say, a different matter.
Arnold Kling blogs at Econlog; calling him a "hack" is wrong and insulting. What is it with left-wingers assuming that libertarians don't care about the poor? Kling describes himself as a bleeding heart libertarian and Bertram would know that. Jane Galt decided not to let him get away with it. Chris responds in the comments where he and Jane have a fun exchange. Chris ends up calling Jane a hack as well! Classic.

Much of the debate has focuses on whether Kling is correct in his initial post. While that is interesting it isn't relevant to question of whether or not he is a hack; he could be wrong without being a hack. Bertram needs to show that Kling was being dishonest or deliberately distorting someone else's position. Same thing goes for Larry Summers; he repeatedly said that he could be wrong but that based his belief on the evidence he had read.