Open Thread

This is our monthly place to discuss related topics that have not appeared in recent posts.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as:
Trackback URL:
  • Guest

    If a technology could copy complete people with memories, beliefs and personality intact, what would happen to democracy?

    • Dave

      How is that situation fundamentally different from the status quo?

      The purpose of democracy is to reduce violence by roughly matching political power to population. When the population wants a change, they can get it peacefully by voting instead of violently by revolution.

      If you make a bunch more people, they still represent a bigger “army” that can get their way violently – so if you think democracy is a good idea, the newly created people should still get a vote regardless of how they were created.  Because they still represent potential “soldiers” in a violent revolution.

      • Petar Subotic

        Would you take that argument further and state that citizenship boils down to being a potential “soldier”?

      • Dave

        Not at all, if I understand your question correctly.

        I’m just saying the main virtue of democracy is that it reduces violence.

        Anything a large majority wants strongly enough they will eventually get regardless of the political system – by violent revolution if necessary – and they’ll win because they are a large majority.

        Democracy lets them get it peacefully.

        It’s not as if there’s anything “fair” about having 51% the population dominate the other 49%.  

        Is there?

      • Guest

        According to this logic, being old, frail, disabled, or just not owning a gun should mean you don’t get to vote.

      • dmytryl

        Well, if majority wants to still be able to vote when they’re old…

      • You need a bright line–Schelling point sort of thing.

      • Guest

        srdiamond, it can’t be that bright of a Schelling point – teenagers are already barred from voting merely because of their age. Until recently, women couldn’t vote either. Now they can – because we discovered they have guns, too?

        It’s a weird hypothesis. There is probably a better one from a change in expectations of social justice.

      • As srdiamond said, you need a bright line.  

        Democracy is a rough-and-ready solution to the problem of violent revolution. It doesn’t pay to to have a fitness test for every potential voter to see how effective they’d be as a revolutionary. 

        Obviously some individuals are going to be more effective ‘soldiers’ than others, but the law of large numbers holds and these things average out – there is nothing to be gained in terms of violence reduction by allocating votes to individuals based on their physical fitness.

        Broad classes of people, on the other hand, do have differing abilities to revolt violently.

        That’s why children can’t vote. (Recall the Children’s  Crusade…)

        Women got the vote soon after the industrial revolution dramatically reduced the influence of physical strength on violence. (The Colt revolver was called “the equalizer” because it enabled the physically weak to be nearly as dangerous as the strong.)

        Going back further, only landowners had the vote. Because “norvos belli, pecuniam” (endless money forms the sinews of war –Cicero). When a middle class arose without hand-to-mouth dependency on landowners, they got the vote. Not before.

        The idea that democracy has anything to do with justice (‘social’ or otherwise) is an after-the-fact rationalization. In a pure democracy (which, happily, doesn’t exist) 51% of the electorate would be free to torture, enslave, and kill the other 49%. What connection would THAT have with justice?

      • It’s a weird hypothesis. There is probably a better one from a change in expectations of social justice.

        To signal honorability and avoid taking credit for what’s not mine, it’s not my hypothesis–since Guest was replying to me.

        I don’t think I’ve considered the question before. But it’s one of those things one has tacitly assumed and upon being presented with the problem, has a thoroughly obvious solution.

        But surely someone has systematically defended this theory of democracy. Anyone know?

        I agree with Dave’s response to your objection as well. I’d add one proviso–that there’s an intrinsic drive to one vote one “adult citizen” standard because it represents the brightest possible line.

        What those of us who permit ourselves to speak of social justice really must mean is measured in terms of approach to the bright line. Since, like Dave said and Cicero before “endless money forms the sinews of war,” those thoroughly committed to this bright line (the far left) are also committed to an economic system that truly rather than only formally realizes equality of power: equality of economic resources.

  • Anonymous

    The government regulates how many planes can fly in and out of O’Hare, and it might be time to regulate how many people can live in New York City. Some of this will happen naturally, as people bid for areas that were lightly impacted by Sandy.

    That said, getting food and gas to the 10 million people on Long Island is challenging with the gridlock passing in and around Manhattan. Without electricity you have to deliver more food since much of it will perish.

    This will open several people’s eyes, but there is too much in New York. It’s a national security risk.

    • lemmycaution

      I think the US can handle having the 8th largest city in the world.

    • Douglas Colkitt

      Economic productivity scales as a power-function to city size/density. (Albeit it a fairly low exponent if I remember). Dispersing people from New York, by far the largest, densest city in the Western world, is a terrible idea. 

      For terrorist or military attacks your argument makes some sense, since they’ll explicitly target the largest concentration. But the costs of terrorist attacks is virtually nothing against the elevated productivity for tens of millions of workers in the metro area.

      For natural disaster your argument makes no sense whatsoever. Spreading people around doesn’t reduce the expected value of natural disasters it only reduces the variance. NYC is as likely to get hit as anywhere else on the East Coast, so spreading people around doesn’t decrease the chance of any one person being slammed by a hurricane.

      Furthermore many people if regulated out of NYC would probably move to California instead. The total expected value of natural disaster loss is far higher on the West Coast than the East Coast because of the fat tail of earthquakes and tsunamis. 

      • VV


        New York, by far the largest, densest city in the Western world

        Isn’t that Mexico City?

  • rapscallion

    In a universe without entropy would there still be depreciation tax deductions?

    • Guest

      No, because there would be no life in such a universe?

  • Nathan

    I am wondering why the implied odds of Barack Obama being reelected president are so different in different prediction markets.

    Right now, the price to buy a contract on Intrade is $6.70, implying there is a 67% chance he will be reelected. It seems the total volume there is $1.5m, so it’s not all the liquid but not trivial either.

    Also right now, if you bet $1.00 on Betfair that Obama will win the payoff is $1.29, implying odds of 77.5%. At the moment, there is about $16,000 available at these odds, and they claim they have about $20m in bets on Obama or Romney.

    How can two different markets have such different predictions for the same event? Why isn’t there arbitrage?

    • Dave

      Why don’t YOU arbitrage across those markets?  There is money on the table waiting to be picked up, right?

      Answer that question for yourself and you’ll have your answer.

    • Nathan,

      How can two different markets have such different predictions for the same event?

      Good question. Or more simply, why would anyone who bets on Obama on BetFair not bet on Intrade instead? I’ve heard said that the traders on Intrade are more naive than on BetFair, but then, why do the more knowledgeable traders betting on Obama switch to Intrade.

      (Inexperienced traders are said to overrate the underdog. The nature of the bias involved is controversial. I’d conjecture it’s the tendency to overstate small probabilities.)


      Speaking for myself, the simplest answer is lack of funds, but this doesn’t  answer Nathan’s question.

      [I wish Robin would respond to questions like this. Why withhold relevant knowledge?]

      • I see that MjGeddes has responded. 

    • mjgeddes

      Hi Nathan,

      Betfair pro here.  Been using Betfair for a couple of years, and I’ve probably put through a total over 1 million Australian dollars in bets.
      You should trust the Betfair markets, they are super efficient. 

      The arbitrage is limited because its actually illegal for Americans to use Betfair due to US regulations on internet gambling.  Betfair blocks bets by people in the US.  But you can be sure the Betfair odds are much more accurate than the Intrade ones.     

      • mjgeddes,
        But then, why don’t those trading on an Obama win on BetFair not switch to Intrade, where the inefficiency works in their favor. 

      • mjgeddes

        Dunno.  Habit I suppose.  People outside the US are used to Betfair, can’t be bothered with Intrade?  Bear in mind the liquidity on Intrade is much lower, Intrade is very small fry compared to Betfair.  Big traders would have a hard time getting sizable bets matched on Intrade…it’s not worth the bother I guess?

      • Big traders would have a hard time getting sizable bets matched on Intrade

        Add the observation that “big trader” tends to correspond to “sophisticated trader,” and we probably have the answer to the original question.

  • wo

    Now that we, as a species, have a much clearer picture of the machinery of human thought and brain-functioning, why is it that we persist in communicating through clumsy languages shaped by the blind forces of natural selection? What would a rationally-designed language look like?

    Would it be possible to construct a language optimized for communication?
    Would it be possible to construct a language optimized to minimize the possibility of miscommunication?
    Would it be possible/useful to construct a language with a syntax that looked more like a web-diagram than a straight line? There’s no reason for a modern language to be framed by the scarcity of real-estate on a slab of stone.

    Why not try a language with different grammars for map-territory and map-map discussion?

    We’ve been able to learn what we’ve learned this far because of the modularity of language, which provides the framework for a certain kind of shared analytical thinking. 
    Much about the world and ourselves would have been impossible to learn without access to language. Language is like… The roots of the collective human skill tree, isn’t it worth it to try to craft a new one now based on the true knowledge that we’ve unlocked thus far about the structure of reality and mind?

    Would not this new language “grant bonuses all the way up the skill tree”, for lack of a better way to put it? Couldn’t we become better at practically everything if we made clear communication naturally easier and more efficient?

    What would the ideal language of rationality look like?

    • Mitchell Porter

      “Now that we, as a species, have a much clearer picture of the machinery of human thought and brain-functioning”

      The rise of neuroscience and computer science has also provided plenty of opportunity for people to impose their own favorite metaphors and dogmas on their own subjectivity. So far the Mind Age isn’t producing enlightenment, it’s producing scattered cognitive cults.

      Redesign the institution of language to make it “more rational” if you like, but the result is not going to be a genuine rational application of new knowledge to a new domain; it will be just another techology-era cultural mutation, in which new “scientific” beliefs collide with something pre-scientific to produce an experimental hybrid with unknown consequences.

    • Drewfus

      What makes you think a rationally designed language would make “clear communication naturally easier and more efficient?” It could have the opposite effect.

      If rationality just means “that which improves things”, it is just a synonym for advance or progress. The argument here wants to retain the technical meaning of ‘rationality’, while implicitly supposing that rationality is so closely related to the concept of improvement that to suggest that whenever the concept of rationality is used, the speaker can be regarded as arguing for improvement. Should we improve x? Yeah, why not. Therefore we should redesign x using reason. People who apply reason to social problems and technology are therefore improvers. To oppose these people’s plans is to oppose improvement.

      Questions along the lines of “should we regulate x?” are similar. The question is almost always loaded. It does not mean “would attempting to regulate x help?” It means “regulation is that which fixes the problem, so why aren’t we regulating x?”. The success of the regulation is assumed.

    • mjgeddes

      Language for what purpose?  Different languages would be optimized for different purposes. 

       For rationality, I’d say *ontology* is the natural  ‘language of logic’.  Ontology ‘carves reality at the joints’ , pinpointing various categories and the relations between them in a given domain.  In fact, I’d say that ontology is ‘mathematics made concrete’.  Ontology is mathematics translated into conscious awareness.

      A conscious post-human capable of full reflection would have immediate intuitive access to the ‘ontology-scope’, a new form of awareness that would appear  just as real as color or sound seems to us; this type of conscious awareness of the ‘ontology-scape’ would in effect, consitute a sort of ‘theory of  everything’.

    • What would the ideal language of rationality look like?

      Isn’t this more or less the same question as what would an AI look like? Perhaps another angle on that question, but it’s safe to say nobody today knows. 

      Natural language doesn’t carve reality at its joints for some good reasons in that communicative and cognitive precision compete with efficiency. I would presume that natural languages via natural selection have made these difficult tradeoffs, although intellectual progress probably portends that some day we’ll discovery how to do better than nature. 

      • dmytryl

         I know what the worst language looks like, though. The one where the speakers think the words carve reality at joints, but the words still don’t.

  • Construal-level theory (near-far) is one of the most important recent developments in social psychology for political theory and even philosophy, but ego-depletion theory is more important.  

    For one thing, it solves the whole philosophical problem of akrasia, as I explain in “Explaining Akrasia” Part 1 of Philosophical and Political Implications of ego-depletion theory

  • How to make your last-minute decision on how to voteaccording to near-far theory. – 

  • So, I guess I’ll burn my second of two allocated comments here.  I have spent a great deal of time pondering how to fix things on this planet.  It all got started with a challenge from my sister.  I have never voted, even though I am nearing sixty, and the primary reason is the whole system seems like such a joke and I’m talking much broader than just democracy or any other form of government.  Just a sense that there was something that smelled funny in most of the way we go about things and it wasn’t the fish.

    After a lot of thought, it has come down to two things that seem to be broken.  One is the institutional structure, the other our global culture.  The hierarchical institutional structure in which most everyone spends the working lives is a mess.  It begs for bureaucracy, back-stabbing, incompetency, and irrelevance, and the flotsam, somehow, with few exceptions, always floats to the top.

    Now, since that really doesn’t get anyone anywhere by pointing out the imbecility of mankind’s daily working life, I felt it was important to find the cure rather than the disease.  While the easy to identify cure is the final evolutionary step of the elmination of the need by any one single human being for a leader, but that really doesn’t help move the cart forward much. It just shows a destination. Just to clairfy, in my view, it is not the incompetency of our leaders that is the problem. It is the individuals that look to a leader to accomplish incomprehensible and impossible things.

    So, where are the horses to pull the cart? It seems to me, it is the structure of society. Our culture is a powerful untapped force that, so far, has bee a haphazard, willy-nilly affair that is so very powerful but un-directed. And, mankind seems to just thow up their hands and say, “But, how does one do anything about a culture!” In many ways, its just getting worse due to the forces of mass media and mass entertainment that is diluting the quality of our culture drastically. And the fact that the potential for manipulation of the world’s mindset is way too tempting to the less reputable personalities in society. I also, though, believe we are on the precipice, very possibly looking out on our field of dreams brought on by the advent of the many effects of the internet and globalization. Could we, as a species, develop a set of guidelines, if you will, by which mankind lives on a daily basis? I am more and more convinced that government “by the people” is a pipe dream based on what I stated above concerning any form of institution. America’s government has already become an aristocracy and there is no going back. It is culture “by the people” that could change things drastically in a good way. I think the 99% thingy was an early, though poorly envisioned and implemented attempt in the right direction. Wikipedia may be the best attempt I have yet seen in this direction.

    Anyway, a bit over the 500 word limit, so I’ll be interested to see if anyone has a clue as to what I am attempting to talk about here. I have very few real answers, but a whole lot of insights and questions. And, in fact, I sometimes wonder if one of mankind’s major failings is his desperate need to have answers rather than ask questions. Have you ever noticed that to rise the that nasty institutiional structure, one of the main criteria is to always have an answer, whether it makes sense or not?

    Sorry I ran a bit long…