Sunday, July 16, 2017

Riding With AI

I've been looking for a new car, and my main criteria are legroom, headroom, and all the safety features. So I was test driving a Cadillac CT-6 yesterday, and decided to test the lane keeping and auto-brake features. I was not impressed. I deliberately let the car wander across the lane line (other cars were too far away to be endangered by these maneuvers, but probably close enough to conclude that I was drunk or an idiot). The lane keeping was supposed to keep me in my lane while vibrating the seat on the side where I wandered off. Well, it did sort of keep me in my lane, meaning that it wandered drunkenly from left lane mrker to right, but it never vibrated.

The emergency auto-braking feature didn't work either, unless it planned to switch on after I got close enough to panic brake and scare the heck out of my wife.

So far, not impressed with this implementation.

Existential Threat

David Z. Morris in Fortune:

Appearing before a meeting of the National Governor’s Association on Saturday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk described artificial intelligence as “the greatest risk we face as a civilization” and called for swift and decisive government intervention to oversee the technology’s development.

“On the artificial intelligence front, I have access to the very most cutting edge AI, and I think people should be really concerned about it,” an unusually subdued Musk said in a question and answer session with Nevada governor Brian Sandoval. Musk has long been vocal about the risks of AI. But his statements before the nation’s governors were notable both for their dire severity, and his forceful call for government intervention.

“AI’s a rare case where we need to be proactive in regulation, instead of reactive. Because by the time we are reactive with AI regulation, it’s too late," he remarked. Musk then drew a contrast between AI and traditional targets for regulation, saying “AI is a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization, in a way that car accidents, airplane crashes, faulty drugs, or bad food were not.”

Those are strong words from a man occasionally associated with so-called cyberlibertarianism, a fervently anti-regulation ideology exemplified by the likes of Peter Thiel, who co-founded Paypal with Musk. Get Data Sheet, Fortune’s technology newsletter.

Musk went on to argue that broad government regulation was vital because companies are currently pressured to pursue advanced AI or risk irrelevance in the marketplace:

That’s where you need the regulators to come in and say, hey guys, you all need to just pause and make sure this is safe . . . You kind of need the regulators to do that for all the teams in the game. Otherwise the shareholders will be saying, why aren’t you developing AI faster? Because your competitor is.

Part of Musk’s worry stems from social destabilization and job loss. “When I say everything, the robots will do everything, bar nothing," he said.

But Musk's bigger concern has to do with AI that lives in the network, and which could be incentivized to harm humans. “[They] could start a war by doing fake news and spoofing email accounts and fake press releases, and just by manipulating information," he said. "The pen is mightier than the sword.”

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Juggling

I used to be able to juggle a little bit, by which I mean I could do a few simple tricks with three balls and with three clubs. I could also sort of keep four balls in the air for a little bit.

Anyway, I recently took out some juggling balls and quickly proved that my nervous system has declined quite a lot. After a bit of practice, can sort of do three balls, but just barely. I can't quite do two balls in one hand yet and the clubs seem to present an insuperable air traffic control problem. That may be partly because practicing requires picking up the clubs, and my back doesn't like bending over much. Also, kick-ups are beyond me - too stiff and too clumsy.

Thank You for Your Service

A group of us were discussing a small town in Arizona and I happened to mention that I had been stationed near there when I was in the Army. Somebody I had just met said "Thank you for your service." I was a bit flabbergasted, but since it was the first and only time anyone had said that to me in the half century since I got out of the Army, I was OK with it, though I have to admit that it did remind me of the fact that my service was so much less heroic than that of all the men and women of the military going in serious harm's way, then and since, and of my childhood friend who died in Vietnam, and the other guys I went through basic with, almost all of them destined for Vietnam.

Nobody was thanking guys in uniform for their service back in 1967, but I never got any grief about it either. Apparently some who serve now are finding our current fixation with it a nuisance. From a letter to Dear Prudence:

I am a career senior military officer stationed in a U.S. city with a small but bustling base. When I’m in civilian clothes, I read as just another 40-something dad, but in uniform I’m the BIG DAMN HERO. I get thanked for my service to the point of distraction. I’ve had parents force their kids to come up to me to thank me in front of my own kids at school drop-off. People try to bring up the details of combat, which I’m not interested in talking about. The worst is at the grocery store. I often stop by on my way home to pick up ingredients for dinner, and for whatever reason the produce aisle seems to bring out the most obsessed veteran-hunters. Handshakes. Bro-fists and chest bumps. Crazy-uncle jingoism. And so many uninvited hugs.

Recently, while I was grabbing some produce off the shelves, a woman came up to me from behind and initiated a hug completely out of nowhere. A lost-in-thought combat veteran is not a good person to surprise. I spun around, took a step back, and asked the lady not to touch me. She backed away with tears in her eyes, and another woman who’d seen what happened gave me a dirty look. I told her that I was just as entitled to my personal space as she was and that my clothes weren’t an invitation for physical contact. Yesterday in the checkout line a woman approached me, looking nervous, then handed me a $100 gift card for the grocery store. I told her I didn’t want it and she should give it to someone who needs it (I get paid plenty), but she insisted. (I took the card and donated it to a local charity that serves refugees.)

It probably beats getting spit on, but people are hard to please.

Short People

This new paper in Nature looks at a study in Bangladesh funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.

In the late 1960s, a team of researchers began doling out a nutritional supplement to families with young children in rural Guatemala. They were testing the assumption that providing enough protein in the first few years of life would reduce the incidence of stunted growth.

It did. Children who got supplements grew 1 to 2 centimetres taller than those in a control group. But the benefits didn't stop there. The children who received added nutrition went on to score higher on reading and knowledge tests as adolescents, and when researchers returned in the early 2000s, women who had received the supplements in the first three years of life completed more years of schooling and men had higher incomes...

A picture slowly emerged that being too short early in life is a sign of adverse conditions — such as poor diet and regular bouts of diarrhoeal disease — and a predictor for intellectual deficits and mortality. But not all stunted growth, which affects an estimated 160 million children worldwide, is connected with these bad outcomes. Now, researchers are trying to untangle the links between growth and neurological development. Is bad nutrition alone the culprit? What about emotional neglect, infectious disease or other challenges?

Shahria Hafiz Kakon is at the front line trying to answer these questions in the slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh, where about 40% of children have stunted growth by the age of two. As a medical officer at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr,b) in Dhaka, she is leading the first-ever brain-imaging study of children with stunted growth. “It is a very new idea in Bangladesh to do brain-imaging studies,” says Kakon.

Nutritional interventions are known to reduce the growth and other deficits by about 1/3, but disease and other concomitants of poverty are thought to be responsible for the rest. Other interventions are being tested, but cost is a huge factor in poor countries.

Economic development is probably the best long term cure, but starting with healthier bodies and brains has got to help.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

And Now For Something Completely Different

I decided to read another "important" novel. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. So far, I'm not impressed. Overblown prose, a tedious plot, and, most irritating to me, an implausible seeming post-apocalypse.

It's early, and the novel is widely praised, so I figure I better give it another 50 pages or so, but back to the post-apocalypse. Some cataclysm has smoked the country, apparently killing off most plant and animal life, but leaving a number of humans - implausible. Worse, everything is covered with ash from the fires, and clouds of ash fill the atmosphere, five years post-A. Meanwhile it rains and snows frequently.

This, I think, is complete BS. Ash from fires disintegrated rapidly. Ash from volcano doesn't, but it doesn't park in the atmosphere for years either. It's very hard to conjure up a cataclysm that would char the soil everywhere so deeply that buried seeds would perish yet a substantial human population be spared.

Opinions by anyone who has read this - or even seen the movie - are welcome.

A Chip Off the Old Block

Larsen C just set off for an independent career as an iceberg. Its mass is estimated at a trillion tons. It was already floating, so it won't raise ocean levels, but how much would that much ice have raised the global oceans if it had been land based, or if it is replaced by ice now on land?

The global ocean has an area of 362 trillions square meters, so Larsen C amounts to 1/362 tons per square meter, or a bit more than 2.5 mm of height increase (if it weren't already floating, but it was). Anyway, it's a bunch of ice.

Soap

I've become addicted to our national soap opera. The first thing I check every morning is the latest edition of the Trump Family Follies. A day without some Trumpian disaster is a disappointment.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Reviewing Homo Deus

I've been thinking about writing a review of Yuval Noah Harari's new book, Homo Deus, but maybe I will just link to some by the professionals:

Jennifer Senior, in the NYT:

I do not mean to knock the handiwork of a gifted thinker and a precocious mind. But I do mean to caution against the easy charms of potted history. Harari, a historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has a gift for synthesizing material from a wide range of disciplines in inspired, exhilarating ways. But an argument can look seamless and still contain lots of dropped stitches.

In a nub: “Homo Deus” makes the case that we are now at a unique juncture in the story of our species. “For the first time in history,” Harari writes, “more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists, and criminals combined.”

Having subdued (though by no means vanquished) famine, pestilence and war, Harari argues, we can now train our sights on higher objectives. Eternal happiness. Everlasting life. “In seeking bliss and immortality,” he writes, “humans are in fact trying to upgrade themselves into gods.”

Another NYT review, this time by Siddhartha Mukherjee, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Emperor of all maladies:

“Organisms are algorithms,” Yuval Noah Harari asserts in his provocative new book, “Homo Deus.” “Every animal — including Homo sapiens — is an assemblage of organic algorithms shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution. . . . There is no reason to think that organic algorithms can do things that nonorganic algorithms will never be able to replicate or surpass.” In Harari’s telling, the human “algorithm” will soon be overrun and outpaced by other algorithms. It is not the specter of mass extinction that is hanging over us. It is the specter of mass obsolescence.

...

Such concerns aside, Harari’s book still remains essential reading for those who think about the future. The algorithms that Harari describes are not trying to imitate humans; they are trying to become human, and possibly exceed our abilities. One story in his book that captivated me was that of the musician and programmer David Cope, who wrote a program to imitate Bach’s compositions. Listeners described the compositions as having touched their “innermost being” — and were furious when told the music had, in fact, been created by a device whose “innermost being” happened to be a mesh of silicon and copper. Cope later wrote another program — this time to generate haikus. He then published a book in which some poems were written by the computer while others were written by “organic poets,” as Harari describes them, leaving the readers to agonize over which poem was generated by which being. This organic writer, for one, could hardly tell one from the other.

Tim Adams in The Guardian:

Yuval Noah Harari began his academic career as a researcher of medieval warfare. His early publications had titles like “Inter-frontal Cooperation in the Fourteenth Century and Edward III’s 1346 Campaign” or “The Military Role of the Frankish Turcopoles”. Then, the story goes, having won tenure at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he embarked on a crusade of his own. He was invited to teach a course that no one else in the faculty fancied – a broad-brush introduction to the whole of human activity on the planet. That course became a widely celebrated book, Sapiens, championed by Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Barack Obama, and translated into 40 languages. It satisfied perfectly an urgent desire for grand narrative in our fragmenting Buzz-fed world. The rest is macro-history. Yuval Noah Harari: The age of the cyborg has begun – and the consequences cannot be known Read more

On almost every page of Sapiens, a bible of mankind’s cultural and economic and philosophical evolution, our millennial battles with plague and war and famine, Harari announced himself a Zen-like student of historical paradox: “We did not domesticate wheat,” he wrote, “wheat domesticated us”; or “How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined.” The most intriguing section of a wildly intriguing book was the last. Harari’s history of our 75,000 years wound up, as all bibles are apt to do, with apocalyptic prophesy, a sense of an ending.

Of course these are brief excerpts - to get the reviews, follow the links.

So what did I think?

It had plenty of fascinating bits, as well as even more where I wanted to stop the author and say "Yes, but." Overall, I don't think that it's at the level of Sapiens, a truly excellent grand synthesis, but still plenty interesting.

Get Ready for President Pence

Now that we know that the Trump Campaign did collude with the Russian government to steal the election, can Trump's impeachment be far away? At some point, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have to do the math on whether they want to continue with the Trump albatross around their necks or move on to Pence. Unless, of course, Pence himself is implicated, which I will guess is unlikely. My guess is that Trump would try to keep that in the family.

I should think that the main obstacle is the anticipated fury of the hard core of 36% or so of Trump true believers, who don't believe or don't care if he is selling the country out to Putin. Of course it's also not good to have to admit that the election was stolen, but Pence is almost certain to be a better president for the Republican agenda (tax cuts for rich donors, immiseration of the poor and middle class) than Trump.

If Hannity and Fox and Friends turn on Trump, it's over. Otherwise, it could be long and bloody.

I wonder how Tillerson and McMaster feel about their role in propping Trump up.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Harari Again

Never in history did a government know so much about what’s going on in the world – yet few empires have botched things up as clumsily as the contemporary United States. It’s like a poker player who knows what cards his opponents hold, yet somehow still manages to lose round after round.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (p. 374). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

You're harshin' on us man. I can think of some previous empires that probably did a lot worse.

Assault on Liberal Humanism Continues

Harari:

Indeed, even Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and the other champions of the new scientific world view refuse to abandon liberalism. After dedicating hundreds of erudite pages to deconstructing the self and the freedom of will, they perform breathtaking intellectual somersaults that miraculously land them back in the eighteenth century, as if all the amazing discoveries of evolutionary biology and brain science have absolutely no bearing on the ethical and political ideas of Locke, Rousseau and Jefferson.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (p. 305). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Eroding Humanism

Harari thinks science has begun eroding some of the foundations of liberal humanism:

Over the last century, as scientists opened up the Sapiens black box, they discovered there neither soul, nor free will, nor ‘self’ – but only genes, hormones and neurons that obey the same physical and chemical laws governing the rest of reality. Today when scholars ask why a man drew a knife and stabbed someone to death, answering ‘Because he chose to’ doesn’t cut the mustard. Instead, geneticists and brain scientists provide a much more detailed answer: ‘He did it due to such-and-such electrochemical processes in the brain that were shaped by a particular genetic make-up, which in turn reflect ancient evolutionary pressures coupled with chance mutations.’

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (p. 282). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Deliberately provocative? Well duh.

Those Old Time Religions

Give me that old time religion
Give me that old time religion
Give me that old time religion
It's good enough for me

...
It was good for Hebrew children
It was good for Hebrew children
It was good for Hebrew children
And it's good enough for me

Read more: David Houston - Old Time Religion Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Harari is skeptical

True, hundreds of millions may nevertheless go on believing in Islam, Christianity or Hinduism. But numbers alone don’t count for much in history. History is often shaped by small groups of forward-looking innovators rather than by the backward-looking masses.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (p. 269). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Humanist Religions

Harari argues that the last 100 plus years has been dominated by what he calls the humanist religions. The Twentieth Century, in his analysis, was dominated by an epic struggle between three versions of humanism: liberalism, evolutionary humanism (culminating in Naziism), and socialist humanism, with Marxist-Leninism. He summarizes the various critiques that the warring branches leveled against each other. Here is his version of the socialist critiques of classical liberalism.

What good is the liberty to live where you want when you cannot pay the rent; to study what interests you when you cannot afford the tuition fees; and to travel where you fancy when you cannot buy a car? Under liberalism, went a famous quip, everyone is free to starve. Even worse, by encouraging people to view themselves as isolated individuals, liberalism separates them from their fellow class members and prevents them from uniting against the system that oppresses them. Liberalism thereby perpetuates inequality, condemning the masses to poverty and the elite to alienation.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (pp. 261-262). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

That's pretty much my critique of Libertarianism, an extremist version of classical liberalism. Of course we now know that socialism in general, and Marxism-Leninism in particular, have failed miserably in bringing the promised benefits to the masses. It just doesn't match up well with human nature.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Venus if You Won't

Stephen Hawking recently suggested that Trump's policies could produce a Venusian style runaway greenhouse on Earth. This produced scathing critiques from the wise and the less wise, including the Stoat and the Lumonator. Just how confident can we be that Hawking is wrong? I'm pretty confident, but not quite so confident as the w and the lw, mentioned above. Let's review some pertinent facts:

First, because Venus is closer to the Sun than Earth, it receives about 1.88 times as much solar radiation as Earth does, but the story doesn't stop there. Venus is also much shinier than Earth, with an albedo of 0.76, more than twice that of Earth (0.37) and consequently absorbs less solar radiation than Earth does (about 91% of what we do). Also, recall that the Venusian greenhouse started when the Sun was a lot cooler than it is now, quite possibly when Venus received less solar radiation than Earth does today.

Of course the chemistry of the Venusian atmosphere is much different than that of Earth, but much of that difference is due to the runaway greenhouse. For example, the enormous concentration of CO2 in the Venusian atmosphere is due to the fact that without oceans, the carbon that winds up in carbonate rocks on Earth winds up in the atmosphere, and the oceans likely disappeared due to photodissociation of water in the upper atmosphere and loss of the hydrogen to space.

My estimate: critics 0.95, Hawking 0.05. But do your own math.

Friday, July 07, 2017

On Jewish History

The clash between this new literate elite and the old priestly families was inevitable. Fortunately for the rabbis, the Romans torched Jerusalem and its temple in 70 AD while suppressing the Great Jewish Revolt. With the temple in ruins, the priestly families lost their religious authority, their economic power base and their very raison d’être. Traditional Judaism – a Judaism of temples, priests and head-splitting warriors – disappeared. In its place emerged a new Judaism of books, rabbis and hair-splitting scholars.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (p. 194). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Comparison Shopping

Antibiotics, unlike God, help even those who don’t help themselves. They cure infections whether you believe in them or not.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (p. 179). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

I say the guy knows how to turn a phrase.

Nice Guy e

In my basketball days, I was known as a kind of sharp elbows guy. Has that carried over into my blog posting? I hope not, but when someone punches me I do try to punch back approximately 2.71828 times harder.

Mono

Monotheists get bashed pretty convincingly by Harari:

That’s why divorce is so traumatic for children. A five-year-old cannot understand that something important is happening for reasons unrelated to him. No matter how many times mommy and daddy tell him that they are independent people with their own problems and wishes, and that they didn’t divorce because of him – the child cannot absorb it. He is convinced that everything happens because of him. Most people grow out of this infantile delusion. Monotheists hold on to it till the day they die.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (p. 173). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Animism and polytheism gets slightly better reviews:

Animist and polytheist religions depicted the world as the playground of numerous different powers rather than a single god. It was consequently easy for animists and polytheists to accept that many events are unrelated to me or to my favourite deity, and they are neither punishments for my sins nor rewards for my good deeds. Greek historians such as Herodotus and Thucydides, and Chinese historians such as Sima Qian, developed sophisticated theories of history that are very similar to our own modern views. They explained that wars and revolutions break out due to myriad political, social and economic factors. People may fall victim to war through no fault of their own. Accordingly, Herodotus developed a keen interest in understanding Persian politics, while Sima Qian was very concerned about the culture and religion of barbarous steppe people.7

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (pp. 173-174). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Recognition that there are more powers in the world than one is a big advantage in comprehending reality.

One can argue that it was Koranic literalism that killed the Islamic enlightenment of the early middle ages.

Unfortunately:

Yet even though Herodotus and Thucydides understood reality much better than the authors of the Bible, when the two world views collided, the Bible won by a knockout. The Greeks adopted the Jewish view of history, rather than vice versa. A thousand years after Thucydides, the Greeks became convinced that if some barbarian horde invaded, surely it was divine punishment for their sins. No matter how mistaken the biblical world view was, it provided a better basis for large-scale human cooperation.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (p. 174). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Delusional thinking still seems to be in the driver's seat.

Once More Into the Breach - Libertarianism

Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose - Janis Joplin, h/t David Kurtz.

Libertarians, so far as I can tell, believe that the greatest threats to individual freedom are government regulation and labor unions. At least that's what they have worked so hard and successfully at destroying the past 50 years. That belief is probably correct if you happen to be a great baron (in the days of the Magna Carta) or big capitalist rentier today. I doubt that that's true for many others.

For average workers, the greatest threat to freedom and well-being comes from the concentrated power of big capital. An interesting example is the way independent and other truckers have been driven into poverty by the concentrated power of WalMart and other giant retailers. For big capital, economic policies that keep rents high and employment a bit low are ideal, which is why it consistently opposes Keynesian policies - except when greed has gotten their personal asses in a crack, as in 2007.

Holy Writ

The power of written records reached its apogee with the appearance of holy scriptures. Priests and scribes in ancient civilisations became accustomed to seeing documents as guidebooks for reality. At first, the texts told them about the reality of taxes, fields and granaries. But as the bureaucracy gained power, so the texts gained authority. Priests recorded not only lists of the god’s property, but also the god’s deeds, commandments and secrets. The resulting scriptures purported to describe reality in its entirety, and generations of scholars became accustomed to looking for all the answers in the pages of the Bible, the Qur’an or the Vedas.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (p. 170). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Humanism

Readers of Sapiens will recognize many familiar themes in Harari's new book, Homo Deus, above all the centrality of what he calls intersubjective realities - things that exist and have meaning only because lots of people believe in them, including God, money, nations, corporations and religions. The second part of his new book is devoted to a discussion and critique of what he calls the dominant modern religion, Humanism.

He begins, though, with the transformative power of the twin inventions in ancient Sumer of money and writing, and the consequent multiplication of the importance of bureaucratic classes. Harari is a witty and engaging writer, and he deploys a powerful erudition in illustrating his points.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Soul Terror

Why does Darwin strike such terror into Muslims and Christians?

The idea of the individual and uniquely human soul, Harari claims, can't survive what Daniel Dennett called "Darwin's universal acid":

This is no kindergarten fairy tale, but an extremely powerful myth that continues to shape the lives of billions of humans and animals in the early twenty-first century. The belief that humans have eternal souls whereas animals are just evanescent bodies is a central pillar of our legal, political and economic system. It explains why, for example, it is perfectly okay for humans to kill animals for food, or even just for the fun of it.

However, our latest scientific discoveries flatly contradict this monotheist myth. True, laboratory experiments confirm the accuracy of one part of the myth: just as monotheist religions say, animals have no souls. All the careful studies and painstaking examinations have failed to discover any trace of a soul in pigs, rats or rhesus monkeys. Alas, the same laboratory experiments undermine the second and far more important part of the monotheist myth, namely, that humans do have a soul. Scientists have subjected Homo sapiens to tens of thousands of bizarre experiments, and looked into every nook in our hearts and every cranny in our brains. But they have so far discovered no magical spark. There is zero scientific evidence that in contrast to pigs, Sapiens have souls.

...

Yet the life sciences doubt the existence of soul not just due to lack of evidence, but rather because the very idea of soul contradicts the most fundamental principles of evolution. This contradiction is responsible for the unbridled hatred that the theory of evolution inspires among devout monotheists.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (pp. 101-102). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Talk to the Animals

Harari posits that it is likely that our ancestors, like hunter-gatherers who survived to nearly modern times, were animists. Sentience was attributed to animals, trees, and even rocks and rivers. The rise of agriculture and its theist religions (Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity and countless others, now mostly lost), led to a devaluing of animals and also "lower" humans (slaves, serfs and commoners). Harari is a strong critic of industrial animal husbandry and the way it treats animals.

He adds:

In recent years, as people began to rethink human–animal relations, such practices have come under increasing criticism. We are suddenly showing unprecedented interest in the fate of so-called lower life forms, perhaps because we are about to become one. If and when computer programs attain superhuman intelligence and unprecedented power, should we begin valuing these programs more than we value humans?

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (p. 99). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Perhaps more to the point, how will they feel about us?

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

A Lawn Story

Harari has a few pages on the history of Lawns:

Stone Age hunter-gatherers did not cultivate grass at the entrance to their caves. No green meadow welcomed the visitors to the Athenian Acropolis, the Roman Capitol, the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem or the Forbidden City in Beijing. The idea of nurturing a lawn at the entrance to private residences and public buildings was born in the castles of French and English aristocrats in the late Middle Ages. In the early modern age this habit struck deep roots, and became the trademark of nobility.

Well-kept lawns demanded land and a lot of work, particularly in the days before lawnmowers and automatic water sprinklers. In exchange, they produce nothing of value. You can’t even graze animals on them, because they would eat and trample the grass. Poor peasants could not afford wasting precious land or time on lawns. The neat turf at the entrance to chateaux was accordingly a status symbol nobody could fake. It boldly proclaimed to every passerby: ‘I am so rich and powerful, and I have so many acres and serfs, that I can afford this green extravaganza.’ The bigger and neater the lawn, the more powerful the dynasty. If you came to visit a duke and saw that his lawn was in bad shape, you knew he was in trouble.50

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (p. 60). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The Lawn Institute tells a more nuanced tale.

A tree-free turfgrass space around your castle was a defensive measure, the better to see if Birnam Wood was approaching, but it was originally mown by grazing animals. The village green was also a protected space for grazing animals, and doubtless was the model for Harari's untouchable quad at Oxford. A twelfth century Japanese book already discussed sodding technique.

Turfgrass grows naturally and abundantly in well watered temperate climates, and tolerates grazing well.

My yard has only rock, ornamental grasses, and flowers in front, but I do have a modest lawn in back. It's pretty scruffy, mostly due to the clan of turtles that share our living space.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Pre-emption

There is a good chance that North Korea will acquire the ability to destroy many US cities sometime in the next few years. It can certainly destroy Seoul right now, and probably nuke a number of Japanese cities as well. Aside from making itself far more dangerous, it is bound to be an inspiration to a number of dangerous regimes around the world.

If there were ever any good options for avoiding this, they are long gone. The NYT presents the essentially hopeless case.

When then-President-elect Trump said on Twitter in early January that a North Korean test of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States “won’t happen!” there were two things that he still did not fully appreciate: how close Kim Jong-un, the North’s leader, was to reaching that goal, and how limited any president’s options were to stop him.

The ensuing six months have been a brutal education for Mr. Trump. With North Korea’s Tuesday launch, the country has new reach. Experts believe it has crossed the threshold — if just barely — with a missile that appears capable of striking Alaska.

Mr. Kim’s repeated tests show that a more definitive demonstration that he can reach the American mainland cannot be far away, even if it may be a few years before he can fit a nuclear warhead onto his increasingly powerful missiles. But for Mr. Trump and his national security team, Tuesday’s technical milestone simply underscores tomorrow’s strategic dilemma.

A North Korean ability to reach the United States, as former Defense Secretary William J. Perry noted recently, “changes every calculus.” The fear is not that Mr. Kim would launch a pre-emptive attack on the West Coast; that would be suicidal, and if the 33-year-old leader has demonstrated anything in his five years in office, he is all about survival. But if Mr. Kim has the potential ability to strike back, it would shape every decision Mr. Trump and his successors will make about defending America’s allies in the region.

For years, the North has been able to reach South Korea and Japan with ease, and American intelligence officials believe those medium-range missiles are capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

The most drastic option is pre-emptive war, or threat of it. The US casualties of such a war might be confined to Korea, but Korean and Japanese losses might be horrific.

Monday, July 03, 2017

A Whiff of Mordor

From the NYT: J R R Tolkien's estate recently settled a lawsuit against known servants of Mordor, AKA Warner Brothers.

In particular, the lawsuit pointed to an online gambling game, “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: Online Slot Game,” the existence of which the author’s estate said it learned of through a spam email.

“Fans have publicly expressed confusion and consternation at seeing ‘The Lord of the Rings’ associated with the morally questionable (and decidedly nonliterary) world of online and casino gambling,” the lawsuit said.

Me vs. Liber Tee

It has been noted, by me included, that my dislike for Libertarianism has a passionate, even fanatical aspect. Why the fury? It's certainly not based on a deep philosophical study and rejection of the foundations, although I do reject the foundations. Nor is it purely a personal bent, though I do find it simplistic and annoying. No, I actually go back to a more Biblical analysis: "Ye shall know them by their fruits," Matthew, 7:16 (KJV).

Libertarian politics, think tanks, and a vast enterprise of disinformation are funded by a few billionaires led by the Koch brothers. They have used their resultant political power to escape prosecution for crimes, persecute their critics, and above all to protect their freedom to pollute. Of course they also don't want to pay taxes.

So far as I can tell, Libertarian politics is mostly a smokescreen to hide anti-social and sometimes criminal activity.

Predicting

Prediction is notoriously difficult, especially when it involves something as complex as society. In his new book, Israeli historian Harari makes a number of predictions for the Twenty first century, in particular, that the quest for immortality, bliss, and godlike powers will be a major focus. Of course, the immortality quest has been a human preoccupation at least since Gilgamesh, but now we have tools that could be a lot more potent than pyramids. It's also true that some of our powers, in particular for destruction, already make the old gods look like pikers.

So why predict, if it's such an unreliable guide?

Fourthly, and most importantly, this prediction is less of a prophecy and more a way of discussing our present choices. If the discussion makes us choose differently, so that the prediction is proven wrong, all the better. What’s the point of making predictions if they cannot change anything?

Some complex systems, such as the weather, are oblivious to our predictions. The process of human development, in contrast, reacts to them. Indeed, the better our forecasts, the more reactions they engender. Hence paradoxically, as we accumulate more data and increase our computing power, events become wilder and more unexpected. The more we know, the less we can predict. Imagine, for example, that one day experts decipher the basic laws of the economy. Once this happens, banks, governments, investors and customers will begin to use this new knowledge to act in novel ways, and gain an edge over their competitors. For what is the use of new knowledge if it doesn’t lead to novel behaviours?

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (p. 56). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

The Undiscovered Country

Harari on the search for immortality:

If you think that religious fanatics with burning eyes and flowing beards are ruthless, just wait and see what elderly retail moguls and ageing Hollywood starlets will do when they think the elixir of life is within reach. If and when science makes significant progress in the war against death, the real battle will shift from the laboratories to the parliaments, courthouses and streets. Once the scientific efforts are crowned with success, they will trigger bitter political conflicts. All the wars and conflicts of history might turn out to be but a pale prelude for the real struggle ahead of us: the struggle for eternal youth.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (p. 29). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Redistribution

Capitalism, and in particular, corporate capitalism, is a system devoted to transferring the wealth created by workers to the owners of what is defined to be property (capital). It is, quite literally, the name of the game. As an economic system, it has a number of potent advantages, both by promoting investment and by efficiently clearing markets. It also has a major disadvantage, because it promotes oligarchy.

Most of the advantages of capitalism come from competition, but as Adam Smith pointed out, there is nothing a capitalist hates like competition. Consequently, as soon as capitalists begin to capture oligarchical power, they use that power to suppress competition and increase profits. One way to do that is by expanding the definition of property and locking down the rights to it. This tends to culminate in the workers themselves becoming property.

Because of capitalism's efficiency at redistributing wealth from the many to the few, some, like myself, advocate using the government to redistribute from the rich to less rich, ideally in ways that minimally suppress people's incentives to work and create more wealth. Several successful ways to do this include government funding of healthcare, retirement income, and education.

Libertarians, at least the US Libertarian/Republicans, hate that.

Understanding Libertarianism

There are lots of things I don't understand, for example, Algebraic Geometry. Of course I never bash Algebraic Geometry, unlike my relation with Libertarianism. The Stoat has frequently accused me of not understanding Libertarianism, and to be honest, I have devoted less effort to that than Algebraic Geometry. I have however, read the political platform of the American Libertarian Party, the Cato Institute's summary of Libertarian principles, Hayek on how labor unions were responsible for Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, and portions of the Wikipedia article on Libertarianism, from which I will quote:

Some libertarians advocate laissez-faire capitalism and strong private property rights,[7] such as in land, infrastructure, and natural resources. Others, notably libertarian socialists,[8] seek to abolish capitalism and private ownership of the means of production in favor of their common or cooperative ownership and management, viewing private property as a barrier to freedom and liberty.[9][10][11][12] An additional line of division is between minarchists (libertarians) and anarchists. While minarchists think that a minimal centralized government is necessary, anarchists and anarcho-capitalists propose to completely eliminate the state.

...which pretty much clarifies everything.

That's a bit too amorphous a beast to provide a good punching bag, so I prefer to concentrate on Libertarianism as embodied in the program of the American right of the Cato Institute, the Libertarian Party, elements of the modern Republican Party, and especially the machinations of the Kochtopus.

Here are two quotes from the Libertarian Party platform:

All persons are entitled to keep the fruits of their labor. We call for the repeal of the income tax, the abolishment of the Internal Revenue Service and all federal programs and services not required under the U.S. Constitution. We oppose any legal requirements forcing employers to serve as tax collectors ...

...

Libertarians want all members of society to have abundant opportunities to achieve economic success. A free and competitive market allocates resources in the most efficient manner. Each person has the right to offer goods and services to others on the free market. The only proper role of government in the economic realm is to protect property rights, adjudicate disputes, and provide a legal framework in which voluntary trade is protected. All efforts by government to redistribute wealth, or to control or manage trade, are improper in a free society.

Of course they don't explain how governments will function without a tax base.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

American Libertarianism: A History

The American Libertarian Party regularly runs candidates, who almost never get get elected to anything for the very good reason that the electorate quite sensibly hates their ideas. This might persuade some that libertarian influence in the US is slight - but they would be very wrong. After the failure of the Koch brothers first big push into Libertarian politics, with David Koch as Vice Presidential candidate, they decided that covert action and subversion was a more promising tactic. The result was the creation of a vast network of "academic" centers and "think" tanks devoted to libertarian propaganda, plus a highly successful effort to take over the Republican Party.

has written a history of the American libertarian movement and its record.

Here is a sample, concerning economist James McGill Buchanan's strategic plan for fighting desegregation in the South. MacLean, Nancy. Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America (p. xiii). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. :

Find the resources, he proposed to Darden, for me to create a new center on the campus of the University of Virginia, and I will use this center to create a new school of political economy and social philosophy. It would be an academic center, rigorously so, but one with a quiet political agenda: to defeat the “perverted form” of liberalism that sought to destroy their way of life, “a social order,” as he described it, “built on individual liberty,” a term with its own coded meaning but one that Darden surely understood.

The center, Buchanan promised, would train “a line of new thinkers” in how to argue against those seeking to impose an “increasing role of government in economic and social life.”1 He could win this war, and he would do it with ideas. While it is hard for most of us today to imagine how Buchanan or Darden or any other reasonable, rational human being saw the racially segregated Virginia of the 1950s as a society built on “the rights of the individual,” no matter how that term was defined, it is not hard to see why the Brown decision created a sense of grave risk among those who did.2 Buchanan fully understood the scale of the challenge he was undertaking and promised no immediate results. But he made clear that he would devote himself passionately to this cause.

Some may argue that while Darden fulfilled his part—he found the money to establish this center—he never got much in return. Buchanan’s team had no discernible success in decreasing the federal government’s pressure on the South all the way through the 1960s and ’70s. But take a longer view—follow the story forward to the second decade of the twenty-first century—and a different picture emerges, one that is both a testament to Buchanan’s intellectual powers and, at the same time, the utterly chilling story of the ideological origins of the single most powerful and least understood threat to democracy today: the attempt by the billionaire-backed radical right to undo democratic governance.

MacLean, Nancy. Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America (pp. xiv-xv). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.