Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

A new protected class: things you've said

Saturday, October 27th, 2012

Some years ago, when this site was much smaller than it was today, it was suggested to me that I might want to be careful about what I wrote here lest it get read by a prospective employer who might find a reason in it to decline me employment. Having my website be nothing more than a online resume would be very boring, though, so I declined - in rather more polite terms than I really felt. Besides which, any employer who would do such a thing would clearly not be a good employer to work for. I'm lucky in that I have a pretty desirable skillset, though - not everyone is so fortunate.

I bring this up now because of this horrifying story that I read this morning. The very suggestion that such a thing might be done will have a massively chilling effect on participation in publicly archived discussions. Blogging is already hard enough knowing that everything I say is really part of my permanent record without imagining that it will be data-mined to discover all sorts of things about me that I didn't want to share in the first place!

We talk a lot about free speech in the western world, and take very seriously any possibility that government might limit that speech. But I think we don't take seriously enough threats to our free speech from public sector. Knowing that we can't get arrested for stuff we say online isn't terribly useful if that same stuff can make us unemployable.

So, I'd like to see some kind of legal framework that would prevent employers from discriminating against prospective hires based on things they've said. Such a framework wouldn't be completely unprecedented - there are already several pieces of information that are technically available to employers which they can't use in employment decisions. I propose that we just expand that to make "stuff you've said" a protected class. Naturally, that would also make it illegal to fire someone over something that they said (though exceptions would probably have to be made for things directly related to their job - it should still be possible to fire someone for violating an NDA, for example).

Companies don't like to have employees who say terrible things on the internet, because it reflects badly on them (and their hiring practices). But it only does so because they have the power to do something about employees who say terrible things on the internet. If they didn't have that power, they can just say "it's not work related - it's nothing to do with us". Essentially, because it's not prohibited it's essentially compulsory. So companies ought to be clamouring for this legislation - it would ensure they could concentrate on their core business and not have to go googling for dirt on their employees. It would also mean that they could choose the best person for the job without having to take into account stuff that fundamentally doesn't matter to them. And it would make it less likely that they would be left short-handed due to an ill-advised comment.

Government as singleton

Thursday, October 11th, 2012

Sometimes I read things on the internet written by libertarians. I used to read reddit a lot and that has always been a bit of a libertarian stronghold. Occasionally I read things on I think I'm pretty squarely on the left side of most political systems but libertarianism is one part of conservatism that I do have some sympathy for. I like the idea of legalizing all drugs, for example, not getting into wars without a really good reason, and generally not imposing unnecessary rules on people or companies.

Those who describe themselves as libertarians often seem to take this principle to extremes, though. One sentiment in particular that I've noticed being expressed repeatedly is that all taxation is theft. I disagree with this - theft is illegal while taxes are legal. Also, one has a say in taxes (via voting and other forms of participation in the political process) but no say in getting robbed. Finally, one doesn't get anything back from getting robbed but taxes pay for useful government services and infrastructure. To me the accusation seems like an instance of the worst argument in the world.

Another thing that libertarians say is that government has a monopoly on (legal) aggression and violence. That sounds like a bad thing (because monopolies are bad, and violence and aggression are bad). But in this case two bads make a good - you don't want multiple violent organizations competing, as that would not tend to minimize the amount of violence. Since we can't eliminate legalized violence altogether (since otherwise we would have no way to arrest an uncooperative murder suspect) it's best that a single (accountable) organization has that monopoly.

There are other things that government has a natural monopoly over - things that benefit society as a whole but won't get done by the markets because there isn't any profit in being the one to do them - things like making sure the poor have enough to eat and access to life-saving and preventative medical care. Another case is where having multiple competing organizations would cause practical difficulties: I don't want my house to be connected to six different electrical networks, six different water supplies, six different sewers, six different telephone networks, have driveways connecting to six different road networks, have six different garbage collectors coming by and I don't want my town to be served by six incompatible rail networks. The basic provision of utilities like these is best done by monopoly - even if building, servicing and billing can have competing providers (here in the UK I can choose from many different electricity companies to bill me each month, but they all have the same number to call if there is a power cut). Similarly, the military is probably best done centrally, otherwise different militaries representing different interests of the same country might end up fighting each other!

It makes sense to have one single organization take care of all the things that need to be done that can't or won't be taken care of by markets for one reason or another, and that organization is what we call government.

There's a similar concept in software engineering called a singleton object - a single chunk of memory where you put all the things that there is only one of in the program. It's bad engineering practice to stuff in the singleton that doesn't really need to be there, because it leads to inflexible programs that allow you to have only one at a time of something that you might want to have multiple instances of. Similarly, it's bad practice for the government to do stuff that the market can do better - I wouldn't want government to get into the business of designing and making laptops, for example, since the market does a great job at that.

If the world were rational

Sunday, October 16th, 2011

Sometimes I wonder what the world would be like if it were possible to get everybody to agree on true things.

Suppose that, whenever two people find that they disagree about something, they invoke the Argulator algorithm to resolve the dispute. The Argulator algorithm is trivial for statements which empirically true or false - you just go and do the experiment to find out who is right. For other statements, each side enumerates each argument for their position as a set of statements, then figure out which statements in each of their opponent's arguments they disagree with and recursively invoke the Argulator algorithm on each of those.

The Argulator algorithm isn't guaranteed to terminate, though - you might have two positions which are perfectly internally consistent and consistent with the observable universe, but which still disagree with each other. For example, two people might disagree about the purpose of government - one might argue that its purpose is to provide a safety net or basic minimum standard of living for the least well off members of society. Another might argue that its purpose is to further the cause of human achievement (maximize rate of total long-term economic output) by any means necessary. Without agreement on what the end goal is, the chances of agreeing of a course of action are pretty slim.

The mathematical universe

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

Max Tegmark's Mathematical Universe Hypothesis is extremely compelling - it's the only idea I've ever seen that comes close to the holy grail of theories of everything "Of course! How could it possibly be any other way!". And yet it seems unsatisfying in a way, perhaps because it's conclusion is (when you think about it for a bit) completely obvious. Of course the universe is a mathematical structure containing self-aware substructures - what else could it be?

Also, if it is true then it leaves a lot of questions unanswered:

  • What is the mathematical structure that describes our universe?
  • What is the mathematical definition of a self-aware substructure (SAS)?
  • If any mathematical (or even computable, or finite) structure that contains SASs exists in the same way for those SASs that our universe exists for us, why is our universe as simple and explicable as it is (Tegmark calls this the "measure problem").

My feeling is (as I've said on this blog before) that it's extremely likely that our universe is in some sense the simplest possible universe that supports SASs (i.e. the "measure" punishes complexity to the maximum possible extent). I have no a priori justification for this, though - it just seems to me to be the most likely explanation for the third point above. While it may seem unnecessary to have three generations of leptons and quarks, I strongly believe that when we have a more complete theory of physics we'll discover that they are completely indispensible - a universe like ours but with only a single generation of these particles would either be more complex (mathematically speaking) or make it impossible for SASs to exist. I suppose it is possible however, that when we do find the theory of everything (and/or a theory of SASs) we'll be able to think of a simpler structure in which SASs are possible.

The other thing about MUH is that I'm not convinced that it really does make any predictions at all, because it seems like whatever we discover about our universe with respect to the other possible universes in the Level IV multiverse can be made consistent with MUH by an appropriate choice of measure.

Issues as political proxies

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

Suppose you own a large successful business which makes money by telling customers things they want to hear - reassuring stories, comforting platitudes and advice and guidance about how to live their lives. Suppose also that, for tax reasons, you are not allowed to use your influence over your customers to push them towards voting for one particular candidate over another, and you're also not allowed to donate any of the company's profits to political parties or candidates.

However, you'd still prefer to have one candidate elected over another because your preferred candidate might lower your taxes or give you more freedom to run your business the way you want to run it, or maybe just because he's a good customer. How could you covertly support that candidate?

One thing you could do is a pick a couple of social issues which aren't fundamentally a big deal to you one way or another but which differentiate your preferred candidate from their opposition and which the opposition is unlikely to change their minds on (perhaps because they are objectively correct in their position). Then you can use your platform to tell your audience that your preferred position on said social issues is vitally important, and deciding the wrong way on them will lead the country to ruin. You don't even need to mention the names of the political candidates or the upcoming election to your audience at all - they can figure out themselves what they need to do.

For this reason I think we need to avoid making "tax deductions for political neutrality" deals - it's too easy for the organizations in question to be covertly politically non-neutral and the tricks they use cause pressure to move candidates away from objectively correct positions in this kind of issue.

How do we get there from here?

Sunday, September 4th, 2011

So we have some ideas about how we want the world to look - the next question is "How do we get there from here?" It seems to be very difficult to get anything changed at least in US politics because there are so many entrenched interests, but here's the best idea I've had about it so far.

We use this fantastic information transfer medium of the internet to get as many people interested, involved and well informed as possible. We get these people to vote in on-line elections (that are at least to begin with unofficial, non-binding and informal but are as secure as possible and only open to registered, authenticated voters). We then try to persuade politicians to take these polls into account (as well as what they suppose the opinions of the rest of the electorate to be) when making their decisions. Participating in this system costs the politician nothing at first (since when they disagree with what the poll says they can say "oh that's just the opinion of a small minority of people, most people have the opposite opinion"), but as more and more people participate in these polls they eventually become impossible to ignore ("it's the will of the people"). When politicians vote against the will of the people, we call them out on it and hopefully get them voted out of office in the next election. Once the system has sufficient momentum, we start to field candidates who run on a platform of voting according to the results of these polls rather than their own opinions. Then eventually we can transition away from having elected politicians at all and just have a system of direct delegated democracy so that the people can vote (directly or by proxy) on every piece of proposed legislation. This is much less susceptible to corruption by corporations, because decisions are not made by wealthy minority.

In the meantime, we have to do something about the media. It's no good having a democracy if people are voting against their own interests and blindly following the instructions of corporate mouthpieces. I think this is more of a US problem than a UK one the BBC is much more impartial than private media can be. Here in the US there are massive numbers of people who get all their information from Fox News and conservative talk radio which are really just fronts for organizations like Koch Industries. This is how we get public support for absurd wars and other policies that are disastrous for almost all of the people who are voting for them. The usual method we use as a society for determining which side of an argument is true is the judicial system, so I'm wondering if we can somehow make news organizations liable for things that are not true that they present as news. Don't make the penalty too big because sometimes mistakes happen but make it large enough so that the likes of Fox can't continue their current scam. And if that puts too much power in the hands of judges, then we'll need some entirely new system of checks and balances to prevent abuse there. I guess to avoid stepping on the first amendment there would have to be some kind of voluntary labeling scheme for news organizations, and we would have to learn to take with rather more salt news from sources which don't stand by what they say by participating in this scheme.

We still need to keep the economy growing as fast as possible. Unlike the conservatives, I don't think the way of doing this is reducing taxes on the rich and reducing services on the poor. I think we need more small businesses, and that there are a lot of impediments preventing people from setting up or taking over small businesses. These impediments need to be identified and removed. More small businesses means more competition for large corporations. In the US, creating a functional public healthcare system would be a great benefit for small businesses (companies in the US are can't attract the best employees without providing health insurance plans, which is much more expensive for small companies than for big ones).

The slow intelligence explosion

Monday, August 29th, 2011

Each new technology that we invent has improved our ability to create the next generation of technologies. Assuming the relationship is a simple proportional one, our progress can be modelled as \displaystyle \frac{dI}{dt} = \frac{t}{\tau} for some measure of "intelligence" or computational power I. This differential equation has solution \displaystyle I = I_0e^\frac{t}{\tau} - exponential growth, which matches closely what we see with Moore's law.

The concept of a technological singularity is a fascinating one. The idea is that eventually we will create a computer with a level of intelligence greater than that of a human being, which will quickly invent an even cleverer computer and so on. Suppose an AI of cleverness I can implement an AI of cleverness kI in time \displaystyle \frac{1}{I}. Then the equation of progress becomes \displaystyle \frac{dI}{dt} = I^2(k-1) which has the solution \displaystyle I = \frac{1}{(k-1)t}. But that means that at time t = 0 we get infinite computational power and infinite progress, at which point all predictions break down - it's impossible to predict anything about what will happen post-singularity from any pre-singularity time.

Assuming human technology reaches a singularity at some point in the future, every human being alive at that time will have a decision to make - will you augment and accelerate your brain with the ever-advancing technology, or leave it alone? Paradoxically, augmentation is actually the more conservative choice - if your subjective experience is being accelerated at the same rate as normal progress, what you experience is just the "normal" exponential increase in technology - you never actually get to experience the singularity because it's always infinitely far away in subjective time. If you leave your brain in its normal biological state, you get to experience the singularity in a finite amount of time. That seems like it's the more radical, scary and dangerous option. You might just die at some point immediately before the singularity as intelligences which make your own seem like that of an ant decide that they have better uses for the atoms of which you are made. Or maybe they'll decide to preserve you but you'll have to live in a universe with very different rules - rules which you might never be able to understand.

The other interesting thing about this decision is that if you do decide to be augmented, you can always change your mind at any point and stop further acceleration, at which point you'll become one of those for whom the singularity washes over them instead of one of those who are surfing the wave of progress. But going the other way is only possible until the singularity hits - then it's too late.

Of course, all this assumes that the singularity happens according to the mathematical prediction. But that seems rather unlikely to me. The best evidence we have so far strongly suggests that there are physical limits to how much computation you can do in finite time, which means that I will level off at some point and progress will drop to zero. Or maybe growth will ultimately end up being polynomial - this may be a better fit to our physical universe where in time t we can access O(t^3) computational elements.

To me, a particularly likely scenario seems to be that, given intelligence I it always takes the same amount of time to reach kI - i.e. we'll just keep on progressing exponentially as we have been doing. I don't think there's any reason to suppose that putting a human-level AI to work on the next generation of technology would make it happen any faster than putting one more human on the task. Even if the "aha moments" which currently require human ingenuity are automated, there are plenty of very time-consuming steps which are required to double the level of CPU performance, such as building new fabrication facilities and machines to make the next generation of ICs. Sure, this process becomes more and more automated each time but it also gets more and more difficult as there are more problems that need to be solved to make the things work at all.

In any case, I think there are number of milestones still to pass before there is any chance we could get to a singularity:

  • A computer which thinks like a human brain albeit at a much slower rate.
  • A computer which is at least as smart as a human brain and at least as fast.
  • The development of an AI which can replace itself with smarter AI of its own design without human intervention.

Net neutrality

Friday, August 26th, 2011

Lots of things have been written online about net neutrality. Here's my contribution - a "devil's advocate" exploration of what a non-neutral internet would mean.

From a libertarian point of view, a non-neutral internet seems like quite a justifiable proposition. Suppose people paid for their internet connections by the gigabyte. This wouldn't be such a bad thing because it would more accurately reflect the costs to the internet service provider of providing the service. It would eliminate annoying opaque caps, and heavy users would pay more. Even as a heavy user myself, I'd be okay with that (as long as it didn't make internet access too much more expensive than it currently is). There would be a great incentive for ISPs to upgrade their networks, since it would allow their customers to pay them money at a faster rate.

Now, some services (especially video services like YouTube and NetFlix) will require a lot of bandwidth so it seems only natural that these services would like to be able to help out their users with their bandwidth. Perhaps if YouTube sees you used X Gb on their site last month and knows you're with an ISP that costs $Y/Gb they might send you a cheque for $X*Y (more than paid for by the adverts you watch on their site, or the subscription fees in the case of NetFlix) so that you'll keep using their service. Good for you, good for YouTube, good for your ISP. Everyone's happy.

Next, suppose that that $X*Y is sent directly to the ISP (or indirectly via the intermediate network providers) instead of via the consumer. Great - that simplifies things even more. YouTube doesn't have to write so many cheques (just one to their network provider) and everyone's happy again. Your ISP still charges per megabyte, but at different rates for different sites.

The problem is then that we have an unintended consequence - a new barrier to entry for new internet services. If I'm making an awesome new video sharing site I'll have to do deals with all the major ISPs or my site will be more expensive to users than YouTube, or I'll have to write a lot of bandwidth refund cheques (which would itself be expensive).

There's also the very real possibility of ISPs becoming de-facto censors - suppose my ISP is part of a media conglomerate (many are) and wishes to punish competing media conglomerates - all they have to do is raise the per gigabyte price across the board and then give discounts for any sites that don't compete with them. Once this has been accomplished technically, governments could lean on ISPs to "soft censor" other sites that they disapprove of. Obviously this is enormously bad for consumers, the internet and free speech in general.

We can't trust the market to force the ISPs to do the right thing because in many areas there is only one broadband option. Perhaps if there were as many choices for an ISP as there are choices of coffee shop in Seattle, having a few non-neutral network providers would be more palatable (non-neutral ones would probably be very cheap given their low quality of service).

As I see it there are several possible solutions:

  1. Force ISPs to charge at a flat rate, not per gigabyte (discouraging infrastructure investments).
  2. Forbid sites from offering bandwidth rebates to customers (directly or via the ISPs).
  3. Forbid ISPs from looking at where your packets are going to end up (they can only check to see what's the next hop that they need to be sent to).

I think pretty much anything else really works out as a variation on one of these three things. The third one seems to be the most practical, and should be considered by the ISPs as a penalty for having insufficient competition.

Legalize all drugs

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

Some people who know me in person might be surprised to learn that I think drugs should be legalized. After all, I'm not a user of illegal drugs or a die-hard libertarian (though I am finding that I have increasing sympathies for some libertarian points of view as I get older). In fact, this is something that I've changed my mind on in the past - in secondary school I thought they should remain illegal because it makes it easier for impressionable teenagers (like myself) to say "no" to them (however, I did somehow manage to avoid trying cigarettes in secondary school.)

Some things I've learnt since then which have contributed to me changing my mind:

  • To get people to stop taking drugs, treating addiction as a medical conditional rather than a crime is much more effective.
  • To get people to avoid taking them in the first place, making sure everybody is informed about their effects would much more effective.
  • The cost in terms of police, courts and prisons is much greater than the costs to society in terms of loss of productivity and medical costs related to drug usage and addiction.
  • Making drugs illegal creates an enormous black market, leading to a great increase in crime and a flow of wealth to unscrupulous individuals (drug kingpins certainly don't want drugs to be legalized - it would destroy their monopolies.)
  • Stories of innocent people being killed in mistaken "no-knock" drug raids.
  • The existence of illegal drugs makes it very easy for dishonest police officers to frame an innocent person - just plant some illegal drugs on the person you want to imprison (or their house/car/belonging).
  • It is now de-facto illegal to drive across the US with large quantities of cash - it can be confiscated by police if found during an unrelated stop, and forfeited even if nobody is convicted of any crime.
  • The fact that the people convicted of drug crimes are overwhelmingly poor, causing the drug war to be a massive poverty trap.
  • The horrible racist and protectionist reasons marijuana (specifically) was originally prohibited.
  • The general principle that sane adults should be solely responsible for what they put into their bodies.
  • The fact that banning some difficult-to-obtain but mostly harmless drugs has created a market for easy-to-make but much more harmful drugs. Legal drugs are likely to be safer for drug users in other ways too - illegal drugs are sometimes contaminated and sometimes of unknown purity.
  • The fact that Portugal has decriminalized drugs with great success.
  • Drug laws inconvenience law-abiding people too - you can't stock up on decongestant if your whole family has colds, since (to discourage methamphetamine production) you're only allowed to buy a small amount in any given period of time. Also, shops are forbidden from stocking such "drug paraphernalia" as tiny plastic bags.
  • It seems that cannabis (in particular) is actually a very useful medicine for some conditions (such as reducing the side-effects of chemotherapy).

Since only a few of these are specific to marijuana, I'm in favor of legalizing all illegal drugs and taxing them at a rate which neutralizes as closely as possible the harm that they cause to society (thus avoiding a perverse incentive for governments to either encourage or prohibit drug use). However, there are some drugs which are so harmful that taking them should be evidence that a person is not sufficiently sane to make such decisions - people taking those drugs should be committed, not imprisoned.

If it's legal to sell harmful drugs then it wouldn't make much sense for it to be illegal to sell beneficial drugs without a prescription. So, along with legalizing currently illegal drugs I would also get rid of prescription requirements (although having a prescription from a doctor for a potentially harmful drug would still be a very good idea just as a matter of common sense). Having FDA approval for a drug would no longer be necessary in order for doctors to prescribe it or for pharmacies to sell it, but I imagine the FDA would continue to exist as a voluntary safety testing and labeling scheme, and most sensible people would avoid taking drugs which had not been declared as safe (or whose side-effects do not outweigh their benefits) except when circumstances warrant it (such as it being the last hope of curing an otherwise incurable disease). There should be some kind of public awareness campaign so that people know what mark to look for when they are buying such things. To avoid the safer drugs being more expensive, the costs of FDA labeling should be borne publicly.

Such a system would also be much more sensible for small scale food manufacturers.

Correcting injustices

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

Currently the US legal system (at least, certainly in many other places as well) has a system of plea bargaining - if you are charged with a crime the prosecutor can offer to reduce the charge to a lesser one in return for a guilty plea.

I think this is a huge infringement of rights and is the fundamental cause of a great many miscarriages of justice. I would like to see the practice ended. While it does reduce the burden on the courts, this should not be the primary concern of the justice system. The one and only concern of the justice system should be uncovering the truth and protecting innocent people.

If we didn't care about protecting innocent people, the courts would not be needed at all - the police would just be able to arrest anyone they liked and lock them up for as long as they liked. Obviously that would be awful. The courts are the check on this system - making sure that only people who have actually committed crimes end up in prison.

Overworked, underpaid public defenders will often advise innocent people to plead guilty because they would have little chance of being found innocent by the court. This is an obviously disastrous state of affairs.

Plea bargains wouldn't be so bad if public defenders were actually adequate, but public defenders secure acquittals at a much lower rate than more costly lawyers. This is also obviously disastrous - there's essentially once justice system for the rich and one for the poor, and the one for the rich is much more lenient and forgiving. There's a simple way to fix this (although of course it does require spending enough money to get a functional system) - pick a sampling of publicly defended defendants at random and give them a highly-paid lawyer. If the public defenders do worse, increase the amount of money spent on the public defense system until the difference is no longer statistically significant. The randomness is important because there may be statistically significant differences between the crime rates of wealthy and impoverished people (in fact, this seems highly likely - poverty causes desperation and desperate people take desperate measures).

A third cause of massive injustice seems to me to be how long it takes to get a trial - some people languish in prison for months and even years without ever having been found guilty (the more well off can usually obtain bail). I think all trials should be set for no more than 48 hours after arrest (maybe a week tops if there are extenuating circumstances, like a key witness in a murder case being elusive). The average should be no more than 24 hours. If you don't have the evidence to prosecute someone after that time you shouldn't have arrested them in the first place. The entire bail system should be made unnecessary and scrapped.

Injustices (especially injustices like these that predominantly affect the less well-off portion of society) have the unfortunate side effect of increasing inequality - someone who is imprisoned awaiting trial can't earn money to improve his situation, and being convicted of a crime substantially reduces one's future prospects.

My proposed reforms would be expensive, but I think not unaffordable to a rich country like the US. I think eventually they will happen, as these injustices become less tolerated by society.