30 April 2007

Extreme personality

Woo hoo, I’m part of a scale now. How cool is that?

Memetic intelligence

Peter Burnett comments

the whole problem with Dawkins and his merry band of god-killers comes down to their leaning on science and its artifical abstract language to restrict or even root out the subjective, free will and the authority of conscience and consciousness in human affairs by ordaining 100% uncontrollable, unconscious, materialist origins to them.

That’s an interesting claim when one considers the field of artificial intelligence, which Dawkins et. al. (as far as I can tell) support. While this may not be an accurate summation of Dawkins’ view, it one that I have heard supported by many (of which B.F. Skinner remains the archetype). If one views the human mind as simply a collection of memes and impulses, one has a bit of a dilemma with respect to believing in the achievability of artifical intelligence (the “strong AI” position).

On one hand, if humans aren’t really intelligent the bar for a human equivalent AI is much lower. On the other, it seems rather bizarre to take the position that one can build a computer system intelligence with free will that humans don’t have.

This is one reason that I don’t think that accepting memes as a valid description of a real phenomenon in any way implies a lack of free will (and therefore conscience) on the part of humans.

In fact, the better analogy for memes in the computer field would be software viruses. Just as the existence of viruses doesn’t require fundamental properties of computer use, the existence of memes doesn’t determine the fundamental properties of human thought. Similarily, one can work with the ecology of memes in the ideosphere the same way software virus ecologies are handled without presuming to have a complete model of the behavior of the host systems.

Ordinary evil

Somehow I ended up reading this reivew of Superman IV (which is hilarious and far, far better than the actual movie). At one point the author is ranting about the heavy handed display of ideology in the movie and I realized that it was actually a demonstration of the screen writers not grasping the concept of the “banality of evil”.

Basically, the screen writers make a moral equivalence argument between the USA and the USSR by showing ordinary Soviets doing ordinary things in ordinary ways. How could that be part of an Evil Empire? Obviously, real evil people do evil things all the time1. That’s what makes them evil.

In real life, of course, much evil is accomplished by ordinary people shuffling ordinary papers and living ordinary lives — that’s the banality of evil. It seems obvious to me but this review reminded of how little it’s actually known, because I see the same sort of propaganda used over and over, apparently effectively.

I am left wondering if perhaps the long term project of the Gramscians to focus history on the quotidian is an effort to do this on a larger scale, to remove the ability to observe evil in action by looking at the big picture, creating such a focus on the trees that the forest is lost to sight.


1 This was the basis for one of the best scenes in the Symphony of the Ages, in which the main characters are searching for the host of an evil spirit. A suspect is suggested and one character says “but I saw him helping orphans and blessing the people”. Another character replies, “what, do you think evil people spend all their time slaying widows and beating children?”. It’s an excellent metaphor for the zeitgeist of the modern West.

29 April 2007

Meme meanie

I don’t mean to pick on Mr. Burnett but — oh, wait, yes I do. It’s quite deliberate.

Anyway, Mr. Burnett writes

Well Brit, if those are science, I’d like to know what science they are. They sure aren’t biology. What scientific evidence is there that memes exist?

This displays a common misaprehension of “memes” and other scientific principles. It’s no different from asking “what scientific evidence is there that polynomial functions exist?”. None, because the term is a descriptive one that serves to categorize things that are themselves purely mental constructs. Memes exist because they are defined to be an abstraction of things (human mental processes) the existence of which is not disputed.

One can, of course, dispute the rigor and utility of the category “meme”, much like certain baseball statistical measures, but existence is not arguable. This gets back to a post I have needed to write for years now, which lays out the conceptual framework I use to analyze these issues and ties it in the faults of post-modernism, the primary one of which is to blur the distinction between those realms of existence that are subject to human will (categorical definitions) and those that are not (laws of physics).

Indefensible

Random Jottings wonders about why the Democratic Party is so viscerally opposed to ballistic missile defense —

Dems are less likely than Republicans to vote to spend money on a carrier, or a new tank. But they do vote for such things, they do accept the necessity of them. But they always seem to oppose missile defense.

As is usually the case with such things, there is no one cause behind it, but rather the confluence of multiple ones that come together to create the effect. The commentors hit on two of the reasons, sympathy for the Soviet Empire and desire for Planning, although in many ways the fomer is a consequence of the latter.

There is also a very strong reactionary trend in the MAL, along with a hefty dose of Luddism. BMD offends both of these sensibilities. I suspect that, related to the reactionism, is an unwillingness to discard moral equivalency. If the USA can protect itself from foreign missiles, that makes it different and special which is something that the MAL opposes in many other areas. One can see the same principle at work in disarming citizens (gun control) and making people like the VTech shooter just another victim.

It might also be that in MAL ideology, only victims are moral therefore a USA that defends itself (and is therefore not a victim) makes the nation immoral. Suffering is noble, not success, and missile defense is all about not suffering.

Beyond all that, there is the desire to not have the peons mess up The Plan, which also requires rendering them defenseless. The Democratic Party has enough sense to not apply this principle too strongly to conventional defense (although efforts at the death of a thousands cuts is frequently used, along with misappropriation of defense money to non-defense projects) but BMD is apparently just too much because of the confluence of the other factors.

28 April 2007

The real lesson of Libya

Via Brothers Judd is this tidbit

On or around May 1, President Chavez is expected to expropriate American and European oil ventures in Venezuela.

It will be a sad day for the Venezuelan economy. The same thing happened to Libya in the 1970s, when Muammar Gadhafi nationalized the oil industry, and Libya and the other OPEC member states that later undertook such an experiment have yet to recover.

[…]

That is the lesson Mr. Chavez is about to learn.

The habit of presuming not only rationality on the part of people like Chavez but good governance goals astounds me every time I see it. Why the author of this piece presumes that that Chavez will learn anything escapes me. What Chavez has already learned is that it’s easy to spend oil money to stay in power and if you do it long enough, you get to stay in power regardless of the collapse of the oil industry (isn’t that the real lesson of Libya?). Sure, the populace takes it in the shorts, but the author never explains (or even seems to grasp it as a question) why Chavez would care about that.

Home improvement

SWIPIAW was watching some home improvement show which was about the The Kitchen of the Fuuuuuuture! The one interesting bit was that the desire for a self-cleaning kitchen and / or dinner ware had been at the top of the desired list since 5 minutes after the first time anyone discussed The Kitchen of the Fuuuuuuture! but had yet to be achieved.

I thought about the problem a bit and realized that it’s quite a hard problem as it requires a lot of precise and complete mechanical action with highly variable surfaces which is a huge technical challenge. My view is that the solution will be either

  • Dinner /cook ware as nice as current permanent quality but so cheap and/or recyclable that you just throw it away and don’t bother with cleaning it.
  • Advanced nanotech that allows the surface of the dinner ware to be switched in and out of a near frictionless state making even the worse messes easily cleaned in seconds by a dishwasher.

I think both of these are far more likely than any sort of actual robotic washing device that can handle effectively any dirty dinner or cookware.

25 April 2007

Death of a thousand red tapes

I had to laugh a bit when I read this story about halal labeling in Illinois (via Jihad Watch). Creeping caliphascism meets corrupt Illinois politics —

Five years after Illinois lawmakers passed legislation making it illegal to falsely label or sell food as halal, the rules still have not gone into effect and the law is not being enforced. One reason for that is that the definition of “halal” was left vague and unenforcable but good enough to fool the law’s supporters in to thinking “something was done”. A cynic might want to encourage a massive political battle over the precise definition in order to

  • Make everyone involved look silly to the general public
  • Encourage factional fighting among the halal supporting community to distract them from other Shari’a related efforts
  • Distract the legislature from even worse activities

Every cloud has a silver lining, after all.

While there’s also been a bit of a hue and cry about this about this as unwarranted government intrusion in religious aspects. That’s certainly a possibility but that turns on the details of the law. For instance, it seems that New Jersey of all places has what seems to me to be a very proper (even from a libertarian point of view) implementation. The state government doesn’t itself judge halal or kosher, but serves as a common registration point for private organizations that do. The state simply enforces the registration of judging agencies and that if food vendor X claims that its product is certified by judging body Y, that Y did in fact certify that product. What or how Y did the certification isn’t an issue addressed by the state, it is properly left up to the consumer and his opinion of Y. I am not seeing the problem, unless the law is written badly which isn’t specific to this issue.

Even now, elections still matter

Hot Air and its commentors are going on about Senator Harry Reid explicit refusal to consider any opinion on Iraq contrary to his own.

To me, the question isn’t why Reid would do that, but why it’s an (apparently) successful electoral strategy. Many of the commentors rail about Reid saying whatever he can to stay in office, which ignores that larger question of why Reid thinks this is a good idea.

There are some alternative theories, though —

It could be that Reid’s wrong, that he’s been swept away from reality in the Beltway Bubble and is destroying his own political career. Perhaps he’s smarter than he looks and believes that his career is doomed anyway (he has no shortage of other scandals that have been unearthed in the last few years) and is therefore positioning himself to live off the hysterical largess of the modern American Left.

It might be that Reid’s worried about the scandals and thinks that his posturing will keep a compliant media compliant so that when the election rolls around everything gets buried again.

Or, more simply, that Reid’s never been held to account for anything due to a compliant media and therefore doesn’t worry about the consequences. This is the one I think most likely.

24 April 2007

Preserving evil for the children

Over at Samizdata there’s some discussion about the absurdities of the modern environmental movement. What always strikes me is the double think about petroleum. The standard green rage view of this substance seems to me to be that

  • Use of oil is an affront to Gaia, polluting the pure air and melting the globe.
  • Oil is a precious substance that must be conserved for the use of future generations.

To me, these are obviously contradictory. If using oil is bad, why preserve it to bedevil future generations? We should burn it all, right now, to protect the future environment. Or if it’s something precious and useful enough to worry about saving for The Children™, then what’s so bad about using it?

At a higher level, if there’s a finite amount of oil, then at some point future generations will have to do without because either it will get used up or we won’t ever use it again which has the same effect. Finite resources cannot be preserved indefinitely, it just doesn’t make sense. But indefinitely preserving a deadly resources seems to be the basis of much environmental theory about oil which doesn’t indicate good things about the grasp on reality of those believing it.

23 April 2007

You have to give to get

The Nation whined a while back about Charles Simonyi blowing bigs wads of cash on a space travel adventure. Apparently it’s not enough that Simonyi donates generously — the article notes that

In 2003, Simonyi finished 23rd in the Slate 60, the annual ranking of largest American charitable contributions

— he must never spend any money on just having fun for himself.

Beyond the obvious absurdity of that, there is a larger mistake which is that Simonyi (and wealthy people like him) can only contribute to society by spending the wealth they have accumulated, which is a fundamental misunderstanding of capitalism in particular and economics in general. It is rare indeed that an individual becomes rich without making other people wealthy and many people better off. By the time Simonyi has enough money to pay for an orbital ticket, he’s already benefited society far more than he could even if he spent every penny he had. Any charitable giving is icing on the cake and not of any real significance.

This attitude is likely fed by the common image of the “self-made man”, the lone capitalist getting rich. But real world capitalism is enabled by a network of cooperation and mutual assistance which is why far more of the created wealth ends up in hands other than those of the guy at the top. He’s likely to have the largest single slice, but that’s very different than having most of it. Anyone against market economies has a strong interest in concealing or obscuring that, hence ignorant ranting articles like this.

Via Transterrestrial Musings

Poisoning the other guy's well

I was thinking about the modern music industry once again because of the EMI announcement that the company is dropping copy protection on their music catalog. If those guys were smart and cynical, what they should also do is secretly pay sociopaths to dump garbage files in to any free music exchange programs. One of the critical features that will convince consumers to pay EMI for its tracks is a guarantee of quality. This becomes more valuable as the perceived quality of free alternatives decreases, so why not help that process along?

21 April 2007

Hopefully absence makes the heart grow fonder

I have committed the ultimate weblogger error, I have allowed real life to interfere with my online writing. I am frantically trying to finish up the one last (please, please, be the last) feature for the product while child activities are reaching their mid spring peak.

Anyway, one thing I do for the adults of the future who are my children now is record their precious little lives with my camera. Occasionally, through pure luck, I get a picture that I think is actually good on its own, instead of just because of the subject matter (i.e., the way the in-laws like my pictures because of who is in them, not because the photography is much to look at).

Since there’s been some discussion of art and merit around Post-Judd-Land lately, I thought I would share a bit of my aesthetic sense by posting something I created and like. I can’t say why I like it exactly, it just looks cool to me. This is of a fellow player on Boy One’s soccer team, playing in the cold and the rain. I consider it “found art” because I just found it among the many pictures I took during the game.

11 April 2007

Discuss

If you don’t have regrets, you’re not really making choices.

10 April 2007

Technological Growth

I think that the hexagon on Saturn’s north pole is very cool. Any geek, of course, will wonder if it’s natural or the artifact of alien technology. While that would be wonderful, I suspect it will turn out to be a natural phenomenon, as hexagons are not unknown in nature.

I wonder, though, whether advanced alien technology will even be detectable without roughly equivalent technology. I think that current trends in information and nano technology indicate that the future will be far more organic in flavor, more pervasive but less regular, less obviously artificial. If this is the natural progression of technology (and I think it is) then recognizing advanced alien technology will be much more difficult. No kilometers long space ships, no gigantic, visible from another star system constructs. Instead, I would expect arrays and swarms of similar, redundant units that are far harder to recognize as constructed.

What I see as the driving force for this is coordination vs. manufacturing costs. When everything is precious, designs must be very rigorous, precise, controlled. Each piece much interact in a specific way with other pieces. Everything must work perfectly because error correction is too expensive.

But as manufacturing costs come down, it becomes harder to coordinate the every increasing number of pieces. There is a tipping point where it becomes better to loosely coordinate, to accept and correct errors and waste because that’s cheaper than trying to be perfect. That’s the point at which technology starts to be come more organic. I think we are near that tipping point and in fifty years there will be much less distinction between what is built and what is grown.

09 April 2007

It's OK to be unrated

Woo hoo, I am now officially a troll.

Other than that, I think there has been a bit of an overreaction by some webloggers I normally agree with. It’s actually quite libertarian for something supported by the NY Times, so I don’t see where the rancor comes from. It’s just a branding system, if you don’t like it just ignore it. I suspect it will come to naught but it doesn’t seem intrinsically flawed. The objection that it will create a plethora of standards is a good one, but I think it misses the point —

  • All new systems start with an explosion of choices, which are ruthlessly culled over time.
  • It’s a form of aggregation for blogger styles above the purely personal style and it seems likely to me that a particular person will end up tracking a small number that he finds compatible.
  • People like cute little buttons (hence this money making scheme).

The other reasonable objection is that people already know the style of the webloggers they read, but the system seems like it’s intended more as a content labeling system for exploring other weblogs. I think that in the long run some sort of labeling system for weblog content and subjects will emerge, although I think that it’s more likely to come out of the commercial web filter companies than a “grass roots” effort like this.

In the end, it's all about the story

I don’t wonder about about the cause of the trend of computer game manufacturers to increasingly engage in line extension to novels and movies. Modern strategy / RPG gaming is far more about what we geeks call “content” than cool graphics these days. A successful RPG / strategy game requires a good “back story”, a ficton within which the action of the game occurs. As with good science fiction / fantasy, it’s not necessary that the back story be explained in detail. Its existence imparts a desired verisimilitude, a continuity, that is most obvious when it is missing.

Once the effort has been made to create the back story, generating other content based on it is much easier (if you have a detailed ficton and plot, it’s easy to hire out the actual book production). One notes the popularity of “cut scenes”, little slices of movies encountered at various points in the game to move the story along. Many of these are just as cinematic as anything Hollywood has produced.

What I wonder about is why this isn’t done more often. Based on what I see of modern movies, most popular RPG/strategy computer games have a much better stories. Even if one didn’t want to make theatre quality ones, there would seem to be a ready market for quality of the level of the cut scenes but covering the entire game story. This would seem to not be that much more costly given that all the models for doing it must already exist. But perhaps I am either underestimating the cost or overestimating the audience. On the other hand, maybe Hollywood will start mining games once they’ve run out of comic books. After all, just like comic books, one could pick the enduring favorites after the fact instead of guessing before hand.

This was brought home to me recently while reading discussion about 300 and getting hooked on a game via YouTube. I was looking for a certain song and found a pastiche of that song with cut scene clips from the game. It was really quite moving, even more so if one knows the back story1.

It occurred to me that I haven’t felt that way about a movie for a long time. Why was that? I think it’s because most of the popular games have stories with the same elements that made 300 a popular but not critical success — good, evil, struggle, sacrifice, honor, love, ideals, so many of the things that standard Hollywood fare has lost. Could that be why the computer game industry is growing and movies aren’t?


1 Don’t ask, it would completely ruin my reputation if I revealed either. But two others I thought would make great movies were Homeworld and Free Space.

A club for people like us

Everyone is posting about this story

The corporation has cancelled the commission for a 90-minute drama about Britain’s youngest surviving Victoria Cross hero because it feared it would alienate members of the audience opposed to the war in Iraq.

Interesting, isn’t it, how only certain members of the audience have the priviledge of belong to the “Not To Be Offended Club”?

Via

Principles over profit

The Daily Mail is reporting a brain drain from the UK once again. The money quote is this —

Professor Salt’s findings will fuel concerns over Labour’s opendoor immigration policies.

Yes, obviously the thing to worry about is how many low-skilled Eastern Europeans to allow in. Who cares why so many skilled natives want to leave. It’s the same as corporate management that can only think of cutting costs as a response to declining sales.

Via

04 April 2007

Why didn't the same people who hate colorization stop Lucas?

I see that Serenity beat Star Wars in some sort of poll about “best science fiction movie”. I suspect that Star Wars would have won had episodes 1…3 never been released.

I think I'm a clone now

Augh! It turns out that I have the same camera as Instapundit. I was a little concerned when I found out he had a D-70 just like mine, but using the same secondary camera? I am not sure I can cope with being so mainstream.

But in honor of that, here’s a picture of Boy Two’s model of a Nimitz class super-carrier taken with the T10. It’s a bit hard to see, but the bottom narrows down in imitation of the actual keel shape of the carrier. And I must say, there’s nothing like carrying on a conversation with a 6 year old about the standard order of battle for a Carrier Battle Group.

03 April 2007

Just like dieting, the solution is simple but hard to implement

Apparently the amount of western aid to ‘tackle global poverty’ decreased year over year for the first time since 1997, which, frankly, isn’t all that long ago. The article treats this as a bad sign, but why? It’s not like the decades of aid have had any net positive effect. As many have pointed, the only known effective poverty prevention program is implementing the rule of law and liberal democray. As far as I can tell, most western aid actively discourages that which cancels out the benefits of the aid. I suspect global poverty would recede faster if all aid, so I read this article as more hopeful than not.

Via Brothers Judd

Touch but don't look

I have been thinking on and off about how people think about quantum mechanics and I realized that there is one bit of common experience that makes it particularly difficulty for normal people to grasp, and that is the concept of being able to look at something without touching it.

This is competely backwards at the quantum level, where things can only be touched, not looked at. It is not possible to be a distant observer who watches but does not interfere. For instance, the classic Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applied to a speeding electron where you can’t measure both the location and velocity. This seems mysterious until you apply this principle and realize that the only way to measure the location is to bounce some other particle off the electron. Obviously, this is going to have an effect on the velocity, destroying the original value before the location measurement. And because every particle has wave aspects, making them a bit fuzzy, the more acccurately you want to know the location the more energetic a particle you need to bounce off the electron, increasing the post observational inaccuracy.

This is another example of why quantum mechanics is so well thought of in the physics community. While it is often presented as a bunch of ad-hoc rules, in reality it depends on a very small set of axioms and most of those “rules” are really just consequences of how those axioms interact. In this case, the Heisenberg Uncertainy Principle is not an axiom, but a result. This sense of a plan coming together is why QM became so accepted so quickly.

Because the public won't trade it

The big news around here is that the Chicago Tribune has been bought out. About 60% of the stock will be put in to an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) with Sam Zell, a billionare real estate mogul, ending up with the other 40% and making the Tribune Co. no longer publically traded.

I think this is a turning point in the downward spiral that will accelerate the descent to irrelevance and potential bankrupcty. While newspapers face daunting challenges from the Internet, I think more of their problems are due to the toxic and delusional culture that rules the staffs. Shifting to an ESOP majority ownership will only accentuate that defect. Moreover, just who will end up being the real power in the ESOP? The moderate, business-oriented types or the true radicals? And finally, there’s the potential for internecine conflict between the Chicago Tribune and LA Times staff. There’s already some bad blood there from the clash of cultures and I expect the ESOP to encourage more of it.

I would recommend that the staff get out now, but really, where would they go? Most of them are either (realistically) unskilled, or have skills that are becoming obsolete or oversupplied. Their fate is likely to be similar to that of book copiers after the invention of the printing press.

02 April 2007

Emergency code slinging

Sigh, I burned the whole weekend working on an emergency code fix for a Movable Type plugin that’s not even mine. It’s the MTFlickPhotos and Flickr recently changed how they handle URLs to images. Naturally, this was a small change in an obscure case that I, apparently alone of all the plugin users, use. And naturally, it effectively disabled the plugin for me.

Of course, I couldn’t just hack in a fix — no, no, that’s just not my style. I ended up doing a major restructuring to make it much more object oriented. I think the code looks much better now, although I updated it just enough to work for me. I will drop the original author a copy after it’s been in use for a bit to verify stability.

So, how was your weekend?