Government Structure

January 6, 2010

The entire point behind the manner in which a government is organized is to maximize its ability to govern well – generally, to maximize the goodness and minimize the badness of its policies. I don’t particularly understand understand people who claim to like a particular government structure for what amount to metaphysical reasons (although I will, of course, grant that the debate over the goodness and badness of policies is wide and far reaching).

Newt Gingrich: the big tent phase

December 31, 2009

You don’t want to come to my camp… What do I care… I have your children… Soon you will be gone… But your children will be in my camp
-Adolf Hitler 1932 speech on dissidents to the Nazi Party

Newt Gingrich recently gave a fantastic speech – you can see all forty minutes here: the speech.

While it sounds like the progressives are in trouble here, what this speech actually does is illustrate the amazing weakness of the conservatives; the progressives control all of the intellectual machinery of the country, which means that the Overton window always shifts to the left. Progressives don’t have to be in the majority now. They sink their stakes confident that in a few decades time, the majority will have caught up to them.

December Links

December 4, 2009

Anders Sandberg on Whole Brain Emulation.
Anders Sandberg on Chess

An interesting point made by Maslov is that the branching ratios of the game tree seems to approach the distribution 2/(pi sqrt(1-r^2)), which has a peak close to 1 – most positions have very few likely subsequent positions. This may be due to the database used mainly contains games by skilful players, who do their best to move the game into situations where the opponent has few choices. So if he is right, here is a signature of intelligence in the game tree statistics.

Eric S Raymond on the CRU Climate Hack 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Now we learn that the CRU has admitted to throwing away the primary data on which their climate models were based. I quote: “We do not hold the original raw data but only the value-added (quality controlled and homogenised) data.”

Eric S Raymond on parsing (x|h)tml
Ben Casnocha: Let’s Just Add Some Virality
Ted Talk: Talks Rory Sutherland: Life lessons from an ad man via Wehr in the World
Seth Roberts: Three Things Elizabeth Kolbert Doesn’t Know
Ben Casnocha: Success on the Side
Bob Sutton: Selecting Talent: The Upshot from 85 Years of Research
Alain de Botton: A Religion for Atheists via Ben Casnocha
Paul Berberian: Picking a Business
Kalid: A BetterExplained Guide to Calculus
Michael F Martin: Do Animals Cooperate with Non-kin
Michael F Martin: Rolfe Winkler Looks Like a Major New Blogging Talent
Michael F Martin: How Persuasive are You?
Michael F Martin: Functionalism and Systems Theory and the Supreme Court’s Upcoming Review of American Needle
Michael F Martin: The New Economics by W. Edwards Deming
Michael F Martin: Reflexivity Goes Deeper than Soros Himself Seems to Realize
Haseeb: Story of Isildur1 (very good read)
Thorfinn: What a Free Market in Healthcare Looks Like
Charlie Stross: Designing society for posterity
Kevin Marks: Baron Mandelson and Magna Carta
Kevin Marks: How Twitter works in theory
Michael Pettis: Lecturing each other on trade
Mark Wethman: Twilight of Secular Europe? Maybe, maybe not.
Joe Hewitt: On Middlemen
James Hamilton: Yes the future deficits are worrisome
Kevin Meyer: Team Science
Bill Waddell: Throwing in the Towel
Brad Feld: Board Meeting Lessons from the Supreme Court
Andrew Chen: Product Design Debt Versus Technical Debt
Andrew Chen: Facebook Viral Marketing: When and WHy do Apps “Jump the Shark?”
Rabiz Khan: The Short Sellers of Philanthropy
Steve Hsu: IQ, Compression and Simple Models via Rabiz Khan
Denis Mangan: The Most Read Paper in Social Science over the Last Year (direct link)
Steve Blank: Times Square Strategy Session – Web Startups and Customer Development
Steve Blank: Relentless – The Difference Between Motion And Action
Aaron Schwartz: How I Hire Programmers
The Social Pathologist: I Live in Bedford Falls

Small Business Financing

December 3, 2009

A great post on Interfluidity about (the dearth of) financing options open to small businesses. There is also an interesting proposal which involves an interesting take on tranched debt.

The United States of Europe

December 1, 2009

Interesting post in the Financial Times, “Greece can expect no gifts from Europe

The current strategy of the EU is to raise the political pressure – perhaps even provoke a political crisis – with the strategic objective that the Greek government might eventually relent.
So what happens if Greece cannot meet a payment on its bonds, or fails to roll over existing debt? About two-thirds of Greece’s public debt is held by foreigners. According to calculations from Deutsche Bank, Greece is looking to raise some €31bn ($46bn, £28bn) in new borrowing and €16bn to roll over existing debt next year. In the absence of help from the eurozone, the Greek government would have to resort to the International Monetary Fund if it were to encounter difficulties refinancing the debt.

Previously, I had assumed that the major road to European federalism was via treaties and agreements which slowly work to export sovereignty to Brussels. I hadn’t anticipated that the EU, which withholds the power to print money from its member states, would use fiscal emergencies and the natural proclivity of social democracies to run deficits to make larger, more pronounced gains in sovereignty.

While there is no evidence that this is happening yet (at last in the EU), all of the pieces and players look remarkably like the game the IMF plays with developing nations.

Whither God?

November 23, 2009

Every once in a while I run across people who make fun of the idea of god, saying something along the lines of

There’s two things I know about god – he’s mean, bigoted, ill tempered, quick to judge and generally ornery. And he has terrible aim.

This sort of objection seems to me to be completely backwards.

One of the fundamental questions people in any society have to answer is: why does ethics work? Why is it that people who behave ethically are in fact more prosperous, have better lives and are more successful than those who don’t?

Nowadays, we have game theory, which seems to do a pretty good job of explaining things, but before the 1940’s people did not have the luxury.

How does one explain how people who try to get ahead by any means necessary – lying, cheating, stealing, etc. get out competed by those who abstain from such activities? It would have to be that the universe itself has a fondness for virtue and a hatred of vice. And what is god but another name for a conscious universe?

Common sense thoughts about Global Warming

September 25, 2009

There’s quite a bit of crap thinking about Global Warming going on. I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts.

1. The worst case scenario

Almost everyone agrees that oil is the results of lots of dead plants being heated and pressurized underground for a long period of time. I’m sure there are complications in there, but those are the basics.

So, what can we expect the world would look like, if all that oil is returned to the atmosphere?

We already know: It’ll look largely like the world before the dinosaurs. Take a look at this map of the Early Devonian period.

It’s kind of hard to judge how much land is actually under water – it looks like it’s about 1/4 – 1/3 of the present land mass.

That’s pretty much the worst case.

A few things to note: the climate back then was quite conducive to life. The most life-intensive areas in the world are the continental shelves – those would be enormous compared to nowadays. Additionally, there should be quite a bit of rainfall – enough to grow all the plants necessary to make the oil, not to mention support all of the dinosaurs.

As far as diversity of life, if the worst case scenario happened and the sea levels rose that much, most of the large animals (not under human care) would probably die out. Large animals generally have long life-spans and hence slow evolutionary cycles. Also, most animals which live in highly specialized niches or depend on complex interactions between many different species will probably have a difficult time surviving.

Warmer temperatures will favor cold-blooded animals over mammals.

2. Carbon Sequestration

I hear about this one all the time. We need to develop the technology to sequester carbon.

Well, we already have it. It’s been around for far longer than humans have been alive.

It’s called plants.

Plants are essentially composed of solid atmosphere. By dry weight they are about 50% carbon (depending on the relative concentration of lignins and cellulose) – significantly more concentrated than carbon dioxide’s 15.8%.

The interesting thing is that we, as a nation, have already been engaging in carbon sequestration at a massive scale. In New York’s Fresh Kills landfill alone, there is roughly 10 million tons of carbon (not carbon dioxide, carbon) being stored in the form of paper.

A brief primer on money

May 27, 2009

In a barter based economic system, there are generally two quite difficult problems to solve. These problems are generally known as something along the lines of “coincidence of wants” and “store of value”.

Coincidence of wants is the n^2 problem. Briefly, in a barter economy there are O(n^2) exchange rates where n is the number of goods in the economy. If one of those goods is used as money (everything is traded into and out of that good), the number of exchange rates drops to O(n). This tends to reduce the problem of market thinness where markets function poorly due to a lack of participants.

Store of value is just that – people generally want to store the “value” of the stuff they create, both through time and space. It is difficult for a dairy farmer to sell 1000 gallons of milk a year from now, across the country. It is much easier to sell the milk locally and travel across the country at the appropriate time and to the appropriate place with cash in hand.

To solve both of these problems, money should generally be small, durable, value dense (both in terms of volume and weight) and resistant to inflation.

On Power: Politics and Legitimacy

May 25, 2009

One interesting thing about politics is that there are political theories which closely “identify” with the types of power I identified earlier.

Generally speaking, conservatism identifies with military power, classical liberalism identifies with economic power and progressivism identifies with intellectual power.

What does identify mean? There are three parts. Forms of power that are blow the form that the political ideology identifies with are considered illegitimate. They are not to be used. There are generally a few exceptions – lower level power is legitimately used when it is used to counteract another use of that same type of power. For classical liberals, most recognize self defense as a valid use of military power (force) – both individually and nationally. Most progressives think it is morally just to donate to charity.

In general, the political ideologies see the fruit of the power they align with to be the core strength of society. Conservatives look to the strength of the military as a key sign of national greatness. Classical liberals look at economic output as the indicator of strength. Progressives generally see intellectual output as well as the compliance of society to the directives of the smartest as the true strength of society.

Lastly, forms of power above the one identified with by an ideology are seen to be too flimsy to be relied upon. Conservatives tend towards mercantilism because they see the military aspect of trade whereas progressives tend towards mercantilism out of a tactical alliance with unions. Intellectual power is generally not even considered real by either conservatives of classical liberals.

On Power: Types

May 21, 2009

This is the first in a series of posts about the way I understand power works.

First off, a definition – power is the ability to influence the behavior of other people. Essentially, it is the ability to get people to do what you want them to do.

Historically, there have been three sorts of power, which I’m going to call military, economic and intellectual.

Military power is the power to coerce – it is the power to get people to do something by threatening them with harm if they don’t comply.
Economic power is the power to cajole – it is the power to get people to do something by enticing them with benefits if they comply.
Intellectual power is the power to convince – it is the power to get people to do something by convincing them that said action is in their best interest.

Military power is the most stable form of power. All animals, whether they live in societies or not use military power to get what they want. Even in modern human society, military power is prevalent.

One of the interesting things about military power is that it acts as a sort of base for the other two sorts of power. In order for economic or intellectual power to form in any sort of concerted manner, there has to be sufficient military power for a level of stability to develop.

Economic power is the power to cajole. It is the power to get people to do something by offering them a reward if they do it. Economic power always co-exists with military power to some extent. In a war band, the relationships between members can be thought of as a sort of informal economic power. To expand on the point, most people, when they think of economics, think of what I’m going to call formal economic power – the trading of goods for money or vise versa. Informal economic power is generally contained within inter-personal relationships, making it difficult to analyze; this does not make it any less real. Imagine it as a network of favors, debts and constructive alliances between people which are rarely explicitly spoken of, but are very real none the less.

Economic power has become immense of late for very good reasons. In a situation where the exercise of military power is strongly curtailed, economic power becomes ascendant, simply because the exercise of economic power is always positive sum. Additionally, as wealth – the currency of economic power – accretes, generally a part of it ends up being capital, which increases the efficiency with which economic power is generated. This ends up being a virtuous cycle, whereby economic power in a system increases at an exponential rate.

This presents a problem, however – a large amount of economic power in the form of wealth is easily capturable via military power. As the amount of wealth grows, the more desirable a target it becomes for predations from the militarily powerful.

Intellectual power is the power to convince. Intellectual power is the power to get people to do something by convincing them that doing that thing is actually in their own best interest. Intellectual power has also always co-existed with military and economic power. In the old days, it was almost exclusively restricted to religion. Indeed, there is a reason why religious systems that incorporated a solid set of ethics out competed religious systems that didn’t – ethics is essentially primitive form of game theory – and it works. If people lived for thousands or even hundreds of years, perhaps ethics wouldn’t be such a big deal. However, given the current relatively short life time most people enjoy, ethics has historically been quite important – allowing people to converge quickly towards Nash equilibrium strategies.

One of the interesting consequences of this is that most times, when people attempt to use intellectual power, they use the language of ethics. A classic example is A Theory of Justice which. as Mencius Moldbug points out, has absolutely nothing to do with the correct application of the law. Other examples abound – finding more is left as an exercise to the reader.

Intellectual power depends on a stable economic system. Without a stable economic system, there is generally no surplus from which people seeking economic power can take a cut. Generally it is quite difficult to think of complex theories of human interaction while mining coal or harvesting wheat. This means that intellectual power is also indirectly dependent on a stable military power base.

While I only identify three methods of gaining power, I freely admit that there might be some that I have yet to discover (or that simply do not exist without the requisite technological advances). If other forms of power do exist, though, they should be readily discoverable: people who can get others to do their bidding tend not to stay in the shadows for too long.