Philosophy Between The Lines

Seven years ago I raved about a Journal of Politics article by Arthur Melzer that persuaded me that ancient thinkers often wrote “esoterically,” e.g., praising their local religions and rulers on the surface, while expressing their true atheism, rebellion, etc. between the lines. Melzer has just come out with a very well written and persuasive book Philosophy Between The Lines, that greatly elaborates this thesis.

Melzer’s book emphasizes the puzzle that while ancient thinkers were quite open about esotericism, modern thinkers have mostly forgotten it ever existed, and are typically indignantly dismissive when the idea is suggested. Below the fold I give an extended quote on a fascinating transition period in the late 1700s when European intellectuals openly debated how esoteric to be.

While Melzer’s last chapter is on implications of esotericism, he really only talks about how it can somewhat undercut cultural relativism, if we can see intellectuals from different times and places as actually agreeing more on God, politics, etc. Yet he doesn’t mention the most obvious implication, at least to an economist: since esotericism raises the price of reading the ancients, we will likely want to buy less of this product, and pay less attention to what the ancients said. Melzer also doesn’t mention the implications that the rise of direct speech might be in important enabler of the industrial revolution, or that seeing more past esotericism should lead us to expect to find more of it around us today, even if we now officially disapprove of it.

Melzer says that the main point of his book is just to convince us that esotericism actually happened, not that it was good or bad, nor any particular claim about what any particular ancient really meant. But this stance is undermined by the fact that the main bulk of the book focuses on elaborating four good reasons why the ancients might have been esoteric. In contrast, when Melzer talks about why we moderns dislike esotericism, and why esotericism is the usual practice around the world today in non-Western cultures, he mentions many illicit reasons why writers might be esoteric. For example, Melzer quotes An Anthropology of Indirect Communication giving these reasons for such talk:

To avoid giving offence, or, on the contrary, to give offence but with relative impunity; to mitigate embarrassment and save face; to entertain through the manipulation of disguise; for aesthetic pleasure; to maintain harmonious and social relations; to establish relative social status; to exclude from a discourse those not familiar with the conventions of its usage and thereby to strengthen the solidarity of those who are.

But when Melzer talks about why the famous long-revered ancient thinkers might have been esoteric, he gives only reasons that such ancients would have seen as noble: protecting thinkers from society, protecting society from thinkers, teaching students, and promoting social reform.

Now whether the ancients were esoteric for good or bad reasons isn’t very relevant to the empirical claim that they were in fact esoteric, which Melzer says is his main focus. So then why does Melzer focus on if the ancients were esoteric for good reasons? One possible answer is that Melzer actually wants us to like and respect esotericism, not just believe that it existed. Another possible answer is that Melzer sees his readers as biased to see ancient thinkers as good people. If many folks have invested so much in identifying with famous ancient thinkers that they will not accept a claim about those ancients that suggests they were bad people, then to convince such folks of his claim Melzer needs to show that that his claim is quite compatible with those ancients being good people.

Either way, however, Melzer does quite successfully show that the ancients were often and openly esoteric. That promised quote on late 1700s European intellectuals:

Continue reading "Philosophy Between The Lines" »

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“I Robot, You Unemployed”

Tomorrow (Wednesday) at 7pm EST I’ll do a Learn Liberty Live! web presentation on “I, Robot. You, Unemployed” here. After a short ten minute presentation, I’ll lead ninety minutes of discussion. I expect to focus on em econ.

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The Rosy View Bias

How much does merit contribute to success? A rosy view is that success is mostly due to merit, while a dark view is that success is mostly not due to merit, but instead due to what we see as illicit factors, such as luck, looks, wit, wealth, race, gender, politics, etc.

Over a lifetime people gain data on the relation between success and merit. And one data point stands out most in their minds: the relation between their own success and merit. Since most people see themselves as being pretty meritorious, the sign of this data point depends mostly on their personal success. Successful people see a rosy view, that success and merit are strongly related. Unsuccessful people see a dark view, that success and merit are only weakly related.

In addition, successful people tend to know other successful people, and people tend to think their associates are also meritorious. So the other data points around people tend to confirm their own data point. The net result is that older people tend to have more data on the relation between merit and success, with successful people seeing a rosy view, and unsuccessful people seeing a darker view.

Since the distribution of success is quite skewed, most older people see a darker view. However, that dark majority doesn’t get heard much. Most of the people who are heard, such as reporters, authors, artists, professors, managers, etc., see rosy views, as they tend to be both older and successful.

Also, most people prefer to look successful, and so they prefer to look like they’ve seen a rosy view. Even if they haven’t, at least not yet. And a good way to look like you believe something is to actually believe it, even if your evidence doesn’t support it so much.

In sum, we expect the people we hear to be biased toward saying and believing a rosy view of the relation between success and merit. Of course that might be good for the world, if a realistic view would lead to too much envy and conflict. But it would still be a biased view.

Added 11p: Of course if they can find a way to rationalize it, we expect everyone to be inclined to favor a view where merit is a big cause of people reaching up to the success level where they are, but non-merit is a relatively bigger cause of people reaching the higher levels above them. When there are many success ladders we expect people to see merit as a big cause of success on their ladder (up to their point), but as less a cause of success on other ladders.

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Thrown’s Kit’s Self-Deception

Back in July 2010 Kerry Howley published a nice New York Times Magazine article on the tensions between my wife and I resulting from my choice to do cryonics. The very next month, August 2010, is the date when, in Howley’s new and already-celebrated book Thrown, her alter-ego Kit first falls in love with MMA fighting:

Not until my ride home, as I began to settle back into my bones and feel the limiting contours of perception close back in like the nursery curtains that stifled the views of my youth, did it occur to me that I had, for the first time in my life, found a way out of this, my own skin. … From that moment onward, the only phenomenological project that could possibly hold interest to me was as follows: capture and describe that particular state of being to which one Sean Huffman had taken me.

I’ve read the book, and also several dozen reviews. Some reviews discuss how Kit is a semi-fictional character, and a few mention Kit’s pretentiousness and arrogance. Some disagree on if Kit has communicated the ecstasy she feels, or if those feelings are worthy of her obsession. But all the reviewers seem to take Kit at her word when she says her primary goal is to understand the ecstasy she felt in that first encounter.

Yet right after the above quote is this:

And so naturally I began to show up places where Sean might show up— the gym where he trained, the bar where he bounced, the rented basement where he lived, the restaurants where he consumed foods perhaps not entirely aligned with the professed goals of an aspiring fighter. I hope it doesn’t sound immodest to say that Sean found this attention entirely agreeable.

Kit does the same to another fighter named Eric, and later she gets despondent when Erik won’t return her calls. She tracks him down to a fight, hugs him in front of the crowd, and is delighted get his acceptance:

My moment of embarrassment had already transformed into a glow of pride. The entire room saw that I was his, and he mine.

While Kit only feels ecstasy during an actual fight, she spends all her time as a “groupie” to two fighters, Sean and Erik. (She says she is a “space-taker”, not “groupie”, but I couldn’t see the difference.) Kit mainly only goes to fights when these men fight, even when such fights are months apart. Kit’s ego comes to depend heavily on getting personal attention from these fighters, and her interest in them rises and falls with their fighting success. The book ends with her latching on to a new fighter, after Sean and Erik have fallen.

It seems to me that if Kit had wanted mainly to study her feeling of ecstasy while watching fights, she would have gone to lots of fights, and tried to break her feelings down into parts, or looked at how they changed with context. She could have also talked to and studied other fighter fans, to break down their feelings or see how those change with context. But Kit instead sought to hang with successful fighters between fights, when neither she nor they felt this ecstasy she said was her focus. She didn’t even talk with fighters much about their ecstasy feelings. What mattered most to Kit apparently was that fighters associated with her, and that they won fights.

Kit quits her philosophy program:

I knew what they would turn my project into, these small scholastics with their ceaseless referencing of better men would, if they even allowed my explorations as a subject of dissertation, demand a dull tome with the tiniest flicker of insight buried underneath 800 pages of exegeses of other men’s work. Instead of being celebrated as a pioneer of modern phenomenology, I would merely be a footnote in the future study of Schopenhauer, whom, without my prodding, no one would study in the future.

It seems to me that Kit is self-deceived. She thinks she wants to study ecstasy, but in fact she is simply star-struck. The “ecstasy” feeling that hit her so hard was her subconscious being very impressed with these fighters, and wanting badly to associate with them. And she felt very good when she succeeded at that. By associating with their superiority, she could also feel feel superior to the rest of the world:

I would write my fighterly thesis, but I would not fraternize with the healthy-minded; better to leave them to their prenatal yoga, their gluten-free diets, their dull if long lives of quietest self-preserving conformism.

Of course Kerry Howley, the author, does not equal Kit, the voice Kerry chooses to narrate her book. Kerry may well be very aware of Kit’s self-deception, but still found Kit a good vehicle for painting an intimate portrait of the lives of some fighters. But if so, I find it odd that none of the other dozens of reviews I’ve read of Thrown mention this.

Added 21Oct: Possible theories:

  1. Most reviewers read the book carefully, but are too stupid to notice.
  2. Most reviewers are lazy & only skimmed the book.
  3. Reviewers hate to give negative reviews, & this sounds negative.
  4. Readers crave idealistic narrators, and reviewers pander to readers.
  5. My reading is all wrong.

Added 27Oct: Note that at the end of the book Kit articulates no insight on the nature of ecstasy. You might think that if understanding ecstasy had been her goal, she might have a least reflected on what she had discovered.

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Em Software Results

After requesting your help, I should tell you what it added up to. The following is an excerpt from my book draft, illustrated by this diagram:

SoftwareIntensity

In our world, the cost of computing hardware has been falling rapidly for decades. This fall has forced most computer projects to be short term, so that products can be used before they are made obsolete. The increasing quantity of software purchased has also led to larger software projects, which involve more engineers. This has shifted the emphasis toward more communication and negotiation, and also more modularity and standardization in software styles.

The cost of hiring human software engineers has not fallen much in decades. The increasing divergence between the cost of engineers and the cost of hardware has also lead to a decreased emphasis on raw performance, and increased emphasis on tools and habits that can quickly generate correct if inefficient performance. This has led to an increased emphasis on modularity, abstraction, and on high-level operating systems and languages. High level tools insulate engineers more from the details of hardware, and from distracting tasks like type checking and garbage collection. As a result, software is less efficient and well-adapted to context, but more valuable overall. An increasing focus on niche products has also increased the emphasis on modularity and abstraction.

Em software engineers would be selected for very high productivity, and use the tools and styles preferred by the highest productivity engineers. There would be little interest in tools and methods specialized to be useful “for dummies.” Since em computers would tend to be more reversible and error-prone, em software would be more focused on those cases as well. Because the em economy would be larger, its software industry would be larger as well, supporting more specialization.

The transition to an em economy would greatly lower wages, thus inducing a big one-time shift back toward an emphasis on raw context-dependent performance, relative to abstraction and easier modifiability. The move away from niche products would add to this tendency, as would the ability to save copies of the engineer who just wrote the software, to help later with modifying it. On the other hand, a move toward larger software projects could favor more abstraction and modularity.

After the em transition, the cost of em hardware would fall at about the same speed as the cost of other computer hardware. Because of this, the tradeoff between performance and other considerations would change much less as the cost of hardware fell. This should greatly extend the useful lifetime of programming languages, tools, and habits matched to particular performance tradeoff choices.

After an initial period of large rapid gains, the software and hardware designs for implementing brain emulations would probably reach diminishing returns, after which there would only be minor improvements. In contrast, non-em software will probably improve about as fast as computer hardware improves, since algorithm gains in many areas of computer science have for many decades typically remained close to hardware gains. Thus after ems appear, em software engineering and other computer-based work would slowly get more tool-intensive, with a larger fraction of value added by tools. However, for non-computer-based tools (e.g., bulldozers) their intensity of use and the fraction of value added by such tools would probably fall, since those tools probably improve less quickly than would em hardware.

For over a decade now, the speed of fast computer processors has increased at a much lower rate than the cost of computer hardware has fallen. We expect this trend to continue long into the future. In contrast, the em hardware cost will fall with the cost of computer hardware overall, because the emulation of brains is a very parallel task. Thus ems would see an increasing sluggishness of software that has a large serial component, i.e., which requires many steps to be taken one after the other, relative to more parallel software. This sluggishness would directly reduce the value of such software, and also make such software harder to write.

Thus over time serial software will become less valuable, relative to ems and parallel software. Em software engineers would come to rely less on software tools with a big serial component, and would instead emphasize parallel software, and tools that support that emphasis. Tools like automated type checking and garbage collection would tend to be done in parallel, or not at all. And if it ends up being too hard to write parallel software, then the value of software more generally may be reduced relative to the value of having ems do tasks without software assistance.

For tasks where parallel software and tools suffice, and where the software doesn’t need to interact with slower physical systems, em software engineers could be productive even when sped up to the top cheap speed. This would often make it feasible to avoid the costs of coordinating across engineers, by having a single engineer spend an entire subjective career creating a large software system. For an example, an engineer that spent a subjective century at one million times human speed would be done in less than one objective hour. When such a short delay is acceptable, parallel software could be written by a single engineer taking a subjective lifetime.

When software can be written quickly via very fast software engineers, product development could happen quickly, even when very large sums were spent. While today investors may spend most of their time tracking current software development projects, those who invest in em software projects of this sort might spend most of their time deciding when is the right time to initiate such a project. A software development race, with more than one team trying to get to market first, would only happen if the same sharp event triggered more than one development effort.

A single software engineer working for a lifetime on a project could still have troubles remembering software that he or she wrote decades before. Because of this, shorter-term copies of this engineer might help him or her to be more productive. For example, short-term em copies might search for and repair bugs, and end or retire once they have explained their work to the main copy. Short-term copies could also search among many possible designs for a module, and end or retire after reporting on their best design choice, to be re-implemented by the main copy. In addition, longer-term copies could be created to specialize in whole subsystems, and younger copies could be revived to continue the project when older copies reached the end of their productive lifetime. These approaches should allow single em software engineers to create far larger and more coherent software systems within a subjective lifetime.

Fast software engineers who focus on taking a lifetime to build a large software project, perhaps with the help of copies of themselves, would likely develop more personal and elaborate software styles and tools, and rely less on tools and approaches that help them to coordinate with other engineers with differing styles and uncertain quality. Such lone fast engineers would require local caches of relevant software libraries. When in distantly separated locations, such caches could get out of synch. Local copies of library software authors, available to update their contributions, might help reduce this problem. Out of synch libraries would increase the tendency toward divergent personal software styles.

When different parts of a project require different skills, a lone software engineer might have different young copies trained with different skills. Similarly, young copies could be trained in the subject areas where some software is to be applied, so that they can better understand what variations will have value there.

However, when a project requires different skills and expertise that is best matched to different temperaments and minds, then it may be worth paying extra costs of communication to allow different ems to work together on a project. In this case, such engineers would likely promote communication via more abstraction, modularity, and higher level languages and module interfaces. Such approaches also become more attractive when outsiders must test and validate software, to certify its appropriateness to customers. Enormous software systems could be created with modest sized teams working at the top cheap speed, with the assistance of many spurs. There may not be much need for even larger software teams.

The competition for higher status among ems would tend to encourage faster speeds than would otherwise be efficient. This tendency of fast ems to be high status would tend to raise the status of software engineers.

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History Vs. Future

I’ve long puzzled over differing interest in history and the future, in both fiction and non-fiction. And I’ve finally collected some numbers.

Amazon.com says it has 37 million books on offer. Here are the fraction of those books it says are in these named categories:

AmazonCategories

Note that Amazon has no “future studies” category, so I listed the two future-themed categories I found. Here are the fraction of books associated with related keyword phrases:

AmazonKeyword

Why the far larger interest in real history, relative to all the other combinations of future/history and real/fictional? It can’t just be a simple history vs. future effect, nor a real vs fiction effect – it is some sort of combination effect.

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Why Not Egg Futures?

Older women often find themselves too old to have kids, and regretting it. Such women would have gained by freezing some eggs when they were younger. But when younger, they didn’t think they’d ever want kids, or thought the issue could wait.

Such women might be helped by an egg futures business, paid to take on this risk for them. Such a business could buy eggs from women when young, freeze them, and sell them back to these same women when old.

Of course, to compensate for the wait and risk that the women wouldn’t want eggs later, this business would have to sell eggs back a high price. But still, if the women bought the egg later, that would show they expected to gain from the deal.

Also, not all women would make equally good prospects. So such a business would focus on women likely to wait too long, be well off, and want kids later. So this business would “discriminate” by class in its purchases, paying more to upper class women. A lot like we now discriminate when we pay more for used clothes, cars, or houses from richer people.

Several people have told me that, while they were not personally offended, they expect others to be offended by such a business. Especially if men were involved in the business – a female only business would offend less. I’m somewhat mystified, which is partly why I’m writing this post. Maybe others can help me understand the objection.

Interestingly, we could add some personal prediction markets, which would probably be legal. For each possible young woman, there could be a market where one buys and sells conditional shares in an egg from that customer. If you owned a conditional share, you’d own a share of the profit from later selling that customer her egg. And you’d owe a share of the cost to buy her egg from her, freeze it, and store it. Imagine the fun buying and selling conditional shares regarding the young women that you know. And the fact that this is a share of a real physical object should make it legal.

Ok, I can see how people might be offended at this last suggestion. After all, there’s a risk that people might have fun on something that is supposed to be serious! ;)

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Em Software Engineering Bleg

Many software engineers read this blog, and I’d love to include a section on software engineering in my book on ems. But as my software engineering expertise is limited, I ask you, dear software engineer readers, for help.

“Ems” are future brain emulations. I’m writing a book on em social implications. Ems would substitute for human workers, and once ems were common ems would do almost all work, including software engineering. What I seek are reasonable guesses on the tools and patterns of work of em software engineers – how their tools and work patterns would differ from those today, and how those would vary with time and along some key dimensions.

Here are some reasonable premises to work from:

  1. Software would be a bigger part of the economy, and a bigger industry overall. So it could support more specialization and pay more fixed costs.
  2. Progress would have been made in the design of tools, languages, hardware, etc. But there’d still be far to go to automate all tasks; more income would still go to rent ems than to rent other software.
  3. After an initial transition where em wages fall greatly relative to human wages, em hardware costs would thereafter fall about as fast as non-em computer hardware costs. So the relative cost to rent ems and other computer hardware would stay about the same over time. This is in stark contrast to today when hardware costs fall fast relative to human wages.
  4. Hardware speed will not rise as fast as hardware costs fall. Thus the cost advantage of parallel software would continue to rise.
  5. Emulating brains is a much more parallel task than are most software tasks today.
  6. Ems would typically run about a thousand times human mind speed, but would vary over a wide range of speeds. Ems in software product development races would run much faster.
  7. It would be possible to save a copy of an em engineer who just wrote some software, a copy available to answer questions about it, or to modify it.
  8. Em software engineers could sketch out a software design, and then split into many temporary copies who each work on a different part of the design, and talk with each other to negotiate boundary issues. (I don’t assume one could merge the copies afterward.)
  9. Most ems are crammed into a few dense cities. Toward em city centers, computing hardware is more expensive, and maximum hardware speeds are lower. Away from city centers, there are longer communication delays.

Again, the key question is: how would em software tools and work patterns differ from today’s, and how would they vary with time, application, software engineer speed, and city location?

To give you an idea of the kind of conclusions one might be tempted to draw, here are some recent suggestions of François-René Rideau: Continue reading "Em Software Engineering Bleg" »

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Why We Believe

Long ago, I first believed in religion as a young kid because I believed what I was told. Then I also believed because religious claims seemed to explain the strong emotions that religious contexts induced. This is how religion works – you feel strong emotions due to candles, buildings, clothes, music, well crafted and button-pushing words, charismatic empathetic leaders, social support and status. And if respected leaders and supporters around you then claim that your emotions are caused by God, well that makes sense. Even though many religious claims are transparently crazy, at least to people who well understand the world, they are easy for the young or inexpert to accept.

Recently while watching an emotional movie with political and moral overtones, I was reminded that the same is true for art. Art can make us feel strong emotions via all the same mechanisms. When high status artists and art supporters around us tell us these emotions are caused by our recognizing the emotional truth of art’s moral, political, and legal claims, that can make sense to us. Yet most of the channels by which art makes us feel emotions are irrelevant to the truth of its key claims. When we come to see this, we usually make excuses and tell ourselves that we aren’t fooled by all that other stuff; we really are just evaluating only the key moral/political/legal arguments. But the many correlations we see between features of art and who is persuaded when make it hard to believe this applies to most people most of the time.

The same likely also holds for essays like this one, or academic papers. While such writings may contain logical arguments, they also transmit writing styles, author charisma, status, and impressiveness, and clues about who supports or opposes them. You might think that you correct for all those influences when you read such writings and evaluate their claims, but the patterns above in religion and art suggest this is unlikely. The fact that people aren’t very interested in the accuracy of their pundits suggests we usually give a high priority to presentation style.

Could we do better? On subjects that have implications for future observations we could use prediction markets. But what about other subjects? Well, we might try to control for presentation variation by having a group of neutral writers rewrite common arguments in a standard style. That is, a single neutral writer could present all the different arguments on some subject, all using the same writing style. Readers of such presentations would have a better chance of drawing conclusions on each subject based on the logic of arguments, instead of writing styles. The fact that we aren’t very interested in these sort of presentations suggests that we aren’t very interested in reducing the influence of other writing style related factors.

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More Whales Please

I was struck by this quote in the paper cited in my last post:

The biosphere considered as a whole has managed to expand the amount of solar energy captured for metabolism to around 5%, limited by the nonuniform presence of key nutrients across the Earth’s surface — primarily fresh water, phosphorus, and nitrogen. Life on Earth is not free-energy-limited because, up until recently, it has not had the intelligence and mega-engineering to distribute Earth’s resources to all of the places solar energy happens to fall, and so it is, in most places, nutrient-limited. (more)

That reminded me of reading earlier this year about how whale poop was once a great nutrient distributor:

A couple of centuries ago, the southern seas were packed with baleen whales. Blue whales, the biggest creatures on Earth, were a hundred times more plentiful than they are today. Biologists couldn’t understand how whales could feed themselves in such an iron-poor environment. And now we may have an answer: Whales are extraordinary recyclers. What whales consume (which is a lot), they give back. (more)

It seems we should save (and expand) the whales because of their huge positive externality on other fish. If humans manage to increase the fraction of solar energy used by life on Earth, it will be primarily because of trade and transport. Transport gives us the ability to move lots of nutrients, and trade gives us the incentives to move them.

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