Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Hay there

While I defragment my life/mind enough to get back to writing, enjoy some of the things that I have enjoyed lately (source at Szabo's blog):

"The technologies which have had the most profound effects on human life are usually simple. A good example of a simple technology with profound historical consequences is hay. Nobody knows who invented hay, the idea of cutting grass in the autumn and storing it in large enough quantities to keep horses and cows alive through the winter. All we know is that the technology of hay was unknown to the Roman Empire but was known to every village of medieval Europe. Like many other crucially important technologies, hay emerged anonymously during the so-called Dark Ages. According to the Hay Theory of History, the invention of hay was the decisive event which moved the center of gravity of urban civilization from the Mediterranean basin to Northern and Western Europe. The Roman Empire did not need hay because in a Mediterranean climate the grass grows well enough in winter for animals to graze. North of the Alps, great cities dependent on horses and oxen for motive power could not exist without hay. So it was hay that allowed populations to grow and civilizations to flourish among the forests of Northern Europe. Hay moved the greatness of Rome to Paris and London, and later to Berlin and Moscow and New York."
- Freeman Dyson 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Aphorisms 2

A worry is a wasted thought

A man is remembered, not for the pleasures he enjoyed, but for the responsibilities he carried

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Aphorism 1

The present lasts for a moment. The future is forever. So build with an eye on eternity.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Semper Fidelis

Fidelity is a virtue that is not much heard of in these days - it means faithfulness, or loyalty.

The word popped into my head when I attended a Catholic mass, recited in Latin. In midst of the ceremony, it is easy to imagine people gathering together to perform it for almost two thousand years, a chain unbroken from Roman times. Candles have been lit in front of the cross, the Lord’s prayer recited, and the Eucharist taken by a community of the faithful from generation to generation, during good times and during times of persecution. Semper fidelis.

Faith belongs to the kind of objects that you keep, like a promise - "keep the faith". It is not a single extraordinary act, but a constant duty. Keeping a faith is a responsibility that changes the bearer. It requires you to look ahead, seeing with the eyes of eternity in order to plan for events long after your own death. The charge must be guarded and passed from one generation to the next, like a torch-flame. Each generation must be imprinted with the gravity of it so that they can instill the motivation to keep it into their own children and grandchildren.

As the responsibility of raising a child changes a parent, so too does the practice of faith-keeping transform its bearer into something grander. (The transformative power of long-term thinking is the raisson d'ĂȘtre of the secular Long Now Foundation)

It is remarkable that the mass, a practice originating in Roman Civilization, comes down to us still alive, constantly living, over all these years. “Keep doing this in remembrance of me”, a man once said. And so it has been. It is in my nature to love a thing that lasts.

Is it not possible to love Christmas, for the same reason? I know of people that treat Christmas with disdain - bright intellectuals that view it as an ignorant and outmoded ritual. But is it not worthwhile to keep an ancient flame alight for its own sake? Like an endangered animal species, when it becomes extinct we will not again see its kind. And while we now take it for granted, we may burn with regret when it is gone.

Can we start new traditions, more suited to our present values? It can be done. But not every age has the same capacity for laying foundations. It requires the strength of will not only to bind your own life to the task, but also to bind all future generations. It can only be done in the spirit of the greatest solemnity. The characteristic emotion of our time - irony - is poorly suited to the task.

So I choose to keep the Christmas traditions for their own delight and as a reminder that mankind can build things that endure. I am grateful to those who passed it down to me. I do my own small part to keep the flame alive, and will pass it to my own children someday.

Someday the will to continue may be lost. Mankind may shrink in moral stature and lose the capacity for fidelity, and all of this may be forgotten in the depths of time. But as long as a single member of the faithful draws breath, that day is not yet.

Anno Domini 2013

Sunday, April 28, 2013

"The Player of Games", a review. Sort of.

Affiliate link here. This review is spoiler-free.

When science fiction author Iain Banks announced his terminal cancer a month ago the internet responded with an outpouring of concern and praise. I'd never read his books, or even heard of the man, so I belatedly picked up "The Player of Games" while travelling.

I study history to learn about human society. I often think about the essential or optional characteristics of a sustainable society where most people can live a good life. My gold-standard test for all political philosophy consists of two questions: 1) can a society built on these principles last? And, 2) does it allow for human flourishing?

For the modern liberal American consensus, I lean towards a "no" for the first question and a qualified "yes" for the second. This makes me a partial politico-cultural dissident and drives my interest in exploring alternative forms of society.

For the same reason that I enjoy history I also enjoy fiction that provides a culture shock. Science Fiction is a rich genre for cultural experimentation as authors are given the freedom to imagine ways of life far outside the normal boundaries. However, sociological evidence from fictional cultures must be treated more cautiously than evidence from historical ones. The apparent desirability of fictional societies are left in the hands of the author who always has an ideological axe to grind. Fiction can give us hypotheses about new ways to live, enriching our social palette, but it cannot give us evidence about the desirability of a particular way of life due to the author's inherent conflict of interest.

Iain Banks delivers a provocative vision of a future society in "The Player of Games". It is one of several books that take place in "The Culture", an advanced human society. The Culture is a place of great wealth where production is automated by technology including artificial intelligence. There is no need for work so instead people pursue their recreational and artistic interests. The Culture novels offer relevant food for thought in an America currently experiencing high unemployment rates and anxiety about automation technology displacing workers.

The theme is common in science fiction - what would life be like if we lived forever and had no need for work? Would life be enjoyable, meaningful, and fulfilling? The Culture books answer with a resounding "yes!", with just enough nuance to add believability without much weakening the conclusion.

And indeed the Culture is a pleasant place to live. Everybody is genetically engineered to be intelligent, beautiful, and healthy so they make good use of their wealth of leisure (we also have regions in our world where few people work, but they are not pleasant places to live). The political order is a kind of anarcho-communism. There is no property since there is no want. The abundance of friendly robot drones makes it near impossible to be killed or to harm another human, eliminating the need for a justice system. The culture has few rules and no politics. Rules are most often enforced by social sanction and norms of politeness. In the worst cases robotic drones prevent humans from repeatedly bothering others.

If communism is ever to work, if it is ever to be the paradise Marx promised instead of the bloody butchery it became, then it will exist in a society that is already extremely wealthy like the Culture. It differs significantly from the theoretical communism where workers control the means of production, instead it is a society where production is too plentiful to worry about control.

Banks explores some of the potential flaws in his vision, but only briefly. One character upon returning home after several years worries that someone else will be using the house that he lived in for decades. Since there is no property rights in the Culture he does not have claim to the home he is not using and the Culture's norms of politeness allow someone else to make use of it. I suspect Banks underestimates people's attachment to things and places, and I suspect that concepts of property will always arise in a society that tries to get rid of it.

I respect Banks as an author with a sharp and honest mind. He never tries to sell us on a utopian vision without pointing out its flaws and dependencies. He's clever enough to see that his novel political order depends on novel technology and he avoids the mistake of selling a social order which would be falsified, or even falsifiable, by historical evidence.

The main character is the eponymous player of games named Gurgeh, the best game-player in all the Culture. People gather to watch his games and children study his strategies in school. In a world where medicine grants infinite life, could one be consumed by studying games for all eternity? Maybe. It is  Gurgeh's boredom with his life as the Culture's biggest gamer celebrity is the catalyst that kicks off the plot.

During the course of the novel we come into contact with a hierarchical, traditional alien empire that is compared unfavorably to the Culture. In terms of the Star Trek universe, think of it as the Federation vs. the Klingons or the Romulans. The book preaches the moral superiority of the Culture too much for my taste.

But Banks briefly points out some of the ways that life in the Empire is preferable to the Culture. The citizens of the empire feel more purpose in life. They are emotionally tougher than the decadent Culture and there is much to admire about them. It is a competent though biased meditation on the costs and benefits of a restrictive tradition versus an individualistic worldview that offers greater freedom and equality but that often leaves people feeling lost and adrift.

"The Player of Games" is worth your time. Banks' Culture is an appealing ideal form of the "enlightened" liberal worldview. Since I so often find myself in opposition to that worldview in present day politics, I enjoy being challenged with the best it has to offer. The Culture would indeed be a pleasant place to live if it were possible.

Saturday, April 13, 2013


You can learn a lot about how the American media works from the Kermit Gosnell case.

The world is warming a lot less quickly than we thought it would, which is great news for all of us. It turns out that 95% confidence intervals aren't worth a whole hell of a lot in climate science.

Declining participation in the workforce is one of the major economic story of the last 10 years. In related news, NPR's planet money reports on the burgeoning abuse of the USG disability program.

Margaret Thatcher, R.I.P.

The American left is in a period of waxing confidence and hostility.

Most Republicans under 50 years old now support gay marriage.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Why Bitcoin?

From Satoshi Nakamoto:
Yes, [we will not find a solution to political problems in cryptography,] but we can win a major battle in the arms race and gain a new territory of freedom for several years. Governments are good at cutting off the heads of a centrally controlled networks like Napster, but pure P2P networks like Gnutella and Tor seem to be holding their own.

The root problem with conventional currency is all the trust that's required to make it work. The central bank must be trusted not to debase the currency, but the history of fiat currencies is full of breaches of that trust. Banks must be trusted to hold our money and transfer it electronically, but they lend it out in waves of credit bubbles with barely a fraction in reserve. We have to trust them with our privacy, trust them not to let identity thieves drain our accounts. Their massive overhead costs make micropayments impossible.

A generation ago, multi-user time-sharing computer systems had a similar problem. Before strong encryption, users had to rely on password protection to secure their files, placing trust in the system administrator to keep their information private. Privacy could always be overridden by the admin based on his judgment call weighing the principle of privacy against other concerns, or at the behest of his superiors. Then strong encryption became available to the masses, and trust was no longer required. Data could be secured in a way that was physically impossible for others to access, no matter for what reason, no matter how good the excuse, no matter what.

It's time we had the same thing for money. With e-currency based on cryptographic proof, without the need to trust a third party middleman, money can be secure and transactions effortless.