Brainwashing is Sorcery

Can’t bring yourself to slaughter a nearby village, or a long-time associate? Mysticism can help you believe they already attacked you first, and that the stakes are so much higher than your personal gain. (More)

Most states have breach-of-the-peace laws that criminalize … obscene or abusive language in a public place, engaging in noisy behaviors, fighting in a public place, resisting lawful arrest, and disrupting a lawful assembly or meeting. … vagrancy, loitering, and public intoxication. (More)

Most laws are defined in relatively objective ways, so that society can truthfully say “no one is above the law”. Those who violate the law can be found guilty and punished, while others remain free.

But most societies have also included a few less objective and more “flexible” offenses, flexible enough to let the powerful more arbitrarily punishment disliked parties. For example many ancient societies let you retaliate directly against someone who previously attacked you via “sorcery”. And many societies today allow punishment for vague crimes like “vagrancy” and “loitering”.

The key difference is that such “flexible offenses” tend to be defined more in terms of how someone important doesn’t like an outcome, and less in terms of what specifically someone did to induce that resulting dislike. And a big problem is that this flexibility often lies dormant for long periods, so that those offenses don’t appear to be applied very flexibly in practice. Until, in a new period of conflict, potential flexibility gets realized and weaponized.

Our world of talk, conversation, and debate are policed by some official laws, such as on “fraud” and “libel”, and by many more inform norms. These norms are often complex, and vary in complex ways with context. We academics have an especially rich and powerful set of such norms.

While most of these norms are relatively objective and helpful, we also seem to include some more flexible offenses, such as “brainwashing”, “propaganda”, “manipulation”, “deception”, “misinformation”, “harassment”, and “gaslighting”. Again the key is that these tend to be defined less in terms of what exactly was done wrong, and more in terms of a disliked result. For example, someone is said to be “brainwashed” if they afterward adopted disliked beliefs or actions. But if exactly the same process results in approved beliefs or actions, there are no complaints.

In times of relative peace and civility, such offenses are applied flexibly only rarely and inconsistently, when particular powerful people find an opening to bludgeon particular opponents. So we don’t much notice their flexibility. But at other times of more severe, aligned, and polarized conflict, they become key weapons in the great battles. We today live in such a time.

The problem isn’t with the general idea of laws or norms, with the idea of enforcing laws, nor with the idea of shunning or shaming those who violate norms. The problem is with a small subset of especially vague norms, offering “loopholes big enough to drive a truck through”, as they say. And with periods when passions become enflamed so much that people become willing to wield any available weapons, such as flexible laws and norms.

The main solution that I can see is to work harder make our laws and norms less flexible. That is, to more explicitly and clearly express and define them. To more clearly say what exactly are the disapproved behaviors, independent of the disliked beliefs that result. This isn’t as easy as many think, as our social norms do actually tend to be subtler, more context dependent, and less widely understood than we think. Even so, it is quite possible, and often worth the bother. Especially in times like ours.

Another complementary solution is to switch from norm to law enforcement, as I’ve previously suggested. Legal norms are reluctant to allow flexible laws, and legal process is less prone to mistaken rushes to judgement.

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Can Combined Agents Limit Drugs?

Using pre-covid stats, a new J. Law & Econ paper tries to account for all U.S. crime costs, i.e., costs due to not everyone fully obeying all laws. These costs include prevention efforts, opportunity costs, and risks to life and health. The annual social loss is estimated at $2.9T, comparable to the $2.7T we spend on food and shelter, the $3.8T on medicine, and a significant fraction of our $21T GDP. One of the biggest contributions is $1.1T from 104K lives lost in 2018 at $10.6M each, including $0.7T from 67K drug overdoses deaths.

But such drug deaths have been roughly doubling every decade since 1980, and in the year up to April 2021, there were 100K US drug overdose deaths, making that loss by itself $1T, at least if you accepted a $10M per life estimate, which I do think is too high. Even so, drug overdose deaths are clearly a huge problem, worth thinking about. What can we do?

Reading up on the topic, I see a lot of conflicting theories on what would work best. But a big part of the problem seems to me to be that it isn’t clear who exactly owns this problem. We might see it as a family problem, an employer problem, a medical problem, or a legal problem. Yet each of those groups resists taking responsibility, and we don’t fully empower any of them to deal well with the problem.

Now I’m no expert on drug overdosing, bit I do fancy myself a bit of an expert on getting organizations to own problems. So let me try my hand at that.

I’ve previously suggested that people choose health agents, who pay for and choose medicine but who lose lots of money if their clients become disabled, in pain, or die. I’ve also suggested that people choose crime vouchers, who must pay for cash fines when their clients are found guilty of crimes, but who have client-voucher contracts able to set client co-liability and to choose punishments and freedoms of association, movement, and privacy. I’ve also suggested having agents who insure you against hard times, career agents who get some fraction of your future income, and that parents get such a fraction to compensate for raising you.

So as a man with all these hammers staring at this tough nail of drug overdoses, I’m tempted to merge them into one big hammer and take a swing. That is, how would a merged agent who had all these incentives try to deal with a potential drug problem?

Imagine a for-profit experienced expert org approved by the client’s parents when they are a kid, or by the client when they are adult. In a world with with few legal constraints on the contracts that this agent can agree to with clients. An org who probably also represents many of this client’s friends and family. An org who gains from client income, but who must pay when a client is found guilty of a crime, or suffers hard times, pain, disability, or death. An org able to limit client freedoms of privacy, movement, and association, And able to set client punishments for verified events, and to make associated clients co-liable, so that they are all punished together re events involving any one of them.

Such an agent might make sure to get addicts a reliable drug supply, or to have overdose drugs readily available. Or they might forbid clients from mixing with drug types. Or they might test clients regularly, or encourage althetics that conflict with drug use. Or any of a thousand other possible approaches. The whole point is that I don’t have to figure that out; it would be their job to figure out what works.

Now if an org with incentives and powers like that can’t find a way to get clients to avoid becoming drug addicts, or to not overdose if they do, then that would probably either be due to some larger social context that they couldn’t change, or because many individuals just like drugs so much that they are willing to take substantial chances of overdosing.

What if a larger social policy related to drugs or users was a key problem? For example, maybe drug laws are too strict, or too lax. If so, I’d expect these orgs to figure out which and lobby for changes. And given their expertise and incentives, I’d be tempted to listen to them. If you didn’t trust them so much, well then you might consider using futarchy to choose. But honestly I expect such combined agents could handle the problem regardless of larger policies.

In sum, I suggest that the key underlying problem with drug overdoses is that no expert org owns the problem, by being approved by clients yet given clear abilities and incentives to solve the problem. Yes this is a big ask, and this is my generic solution to many problems. Doesn’t mean it won’t work.

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The Planiverse

I recently praised Planiverse as peak hard science fiction. But as I hadn’t read it in decades, I thought maybe I should reread it to see if it really lived up to my high praise.

The basic idea is that a computer prof and his students in our universe create a simulated 2D universe, which then somehow becomes a way to view and talk to one particular person in a real 2D universe. This person is contacted just as they begin a mystical quest across their planet’s one continent, which lets the reader see many aspects of life there. Note there isn’t a page-turning plot nor interesting character development; the story is mainly an excuse to describe its world.

The book seems crazy wrong on how its mystical quest ends, and on its assumed connection to a computer simulation in our universe. But I presume that the author would admit to those errors as the cost of telling his story. However, the book does very well on physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, and low level engineering. That is, on noticing how such things change as one moves from our 3D world to this 2D world, including via many fascinating diagrams. In fact this book does far better than most “hard” science fiction. Which isn’t so surprising as it is the result of a long collaboration between dozens of scientists.

But alas no social scientists seem to have been included, as the book seem laughably wrong there. Let me explain.

On Earth, farming started when humans had a world population of ten million, and industry when that population was fifty times larger. Yet even with a big fraction of all those people helping to innovate, it took several centuries to go from steam engines to computers. Compared to that, progress in this 2D world seems crazy fast relative to its population. There people live about 130 years, and our hero rides in a boat, balloon, and plane, meets the guy who invented the steam engine, meets another guy who invented a keyboard-operated computer, and hears about a space station to which rockets deliver stuff every two weeks.

Yet the entire planet has only 25,000 people, the biggest city has 6000 people, and the biggest research city has 1000 people supporting 50 scientists. Info is only written in books, which have a similar number of pages as ours but only one short sentence per page. Each building has less than ten rooms, and each room can fit only a couple of people standing up, and only a handful of books or other items. In terms of the space to store stuff, their houses make our “tiny houses” look like warehouses by comparison. (Their entire planet has fewer book copies than did our ancient Library at Alexandria.)

There are only 20 steam engines on their planet, and only one tiny factory that makes them. Only one tiny factory makes steel. In fact most every kind of thing is made a single unique small factory of that type, and only produces a modest number of units of whatever it makes. Most machines shown have only a tiny number of parts.

Their 2D planet has a 1D surface, with one continent divided into two halves by one mountain peak. The two ends of that continent are two shores, and on each shore the fishing industry consists of ~6 boats that each fit two people each and an even smaller mass of fish. I have a hard time believing that enough fish would drift near enough to the shore to fill even these boats once a day.

As the planet surface is 1D, everyone must walk over or under everything and everyone else in order to walk any nontrivial distance. Including every rock and plant. So our hero has to basically go near everyone and everything in his journey from one shore to the mountain peak. Homes are buried underground, and must close their top door for the rivers that wash over them periodically.

So in sum, the first problem with Planiverse is that it has far too few people to support an industrial economy, especially one developing at the rate claimed for this. Each industry is too small to support much in the way of learning, scale economies, or a division of labor. It is all just too small.

So why not just assume a much larger world? Because then transport costs get crazy big. If there’s only one factory that makes a king of thing, then to get one of it to everyone each item has to be moved on average past half of everything and everyone. A cost that grows linearly with how many things and people there are. Specialization and transportation are in conflict.

A second lessor problem is that the systems shown seem too small and simple to actually function. Two dimensions just don’t seem to offer enough room to hold all needed subsystems, nor can they support as much modularity in subsystem design. Yet modularity is central to system design in our world. Let me explain.

In our 3D world, systems such as cells, organisms, machines, buildings, and cities consist of subsystems, each of which achieves a different function. For example, each of our buildings may have at least 17 separate subsystems. These deal with: structural support, fresh air, temperature control, sunlight, artificial light, water, sewage, gas, trash, security surveillance, electricity, internet, ambient sound, mail transport, human activities, and human transport. Most such subsystems have a connected volume dedicated to that function, a volume that reaches close to every point in the building. For example, the electrical power system has connected wires that go to near every part of the building, and also connect to an outside power source.

In 2D, however, a volume can only have two or fewer subsystems of connected volumes that go near every point. To have more subsystem volumes, you have to break them up, alternating control over key connecting volumes. For example, in a flat array of streets, you can’t have arrays of north-south streets and east-west streets without having intersections that alternate, halting the flow of one direction of streets to allow flow in the other direction.

If you wanted to also have two more arrays of streets, going NW-SE and NE-SW, you’d need over twice as many intersections, or each intersection with twice as many roads going in and out of it. With more subsystems you’d need even more numerous or conflicting intersections, making such subsystem even more limited and dependent on each other.

Planiverse presents some designs with a few such subsystem intersections, such as “zipper” organs inside organisms that allow volumes to alternate between being used for structural support and for transporting fluids, and a similar mechanism in buildings. It also shows how switches can be used to let signal wires cross each other. But it doesn’t really take seriously the difficulty of having 16 or more subsystem volumes all of which need to cross each other to function. The designs shown only describe a few subsystems.

If I look at the organisms, machines, buildings, and cities in my world, most of them just have far more parts with much more detail than I see in Planiverse design sketches. So I think that in a real 2D world these would all just have to be a lot more intricate and complicated, a complexity that would be much harder to manage because of all these intersection-induced subsystem dependencies. I’m not saying that life or civilization there is impossible, but we’d need to be looking at far larger and more complicated designs.

Thinking about this did make me consider how one might minimize such design complexity. And one robust solution is: packets. For example, in Planiverse instead of moving electricity via wires, it is moved via batteries, which can use a general transport system that moves many other kinds of objects. And instead of air pipes they used air bottles. So the more kinds of subsystems that can be implemented via packets that are all transported via the same generic transport system, the less you have to worry about subsystem intersections. Packets are what allow many kinds of signal systems to all share the same internet communication network. Even compression structural support can in principle be implemented via mass packets flying back and forth.

In 1KD dimensions, there is plenty of volume for different subsystems to each have their own connected volume. The problem there is that it is crazy expensive to put walls around such volumes. Each subsystem might have its own set of wires along which signals and materials are moved. But then the problem is to keep these wires from floating away and bumping into each other. Seems better to share fewer subsystems of wires with each subsystem using its own set of packets moving along those wires. Thus outside of our 3D world, the key to designing systems with many different kinds of subsystems seems to be packets.

In low D, one pushes different kinds of packets through tubes, while in high D, one drags different kinds of packets along attached to wires. Packets moving along wires for the 1KD win. Though I as of yet have no idea how to attach packets to move along a structure of wires in 1KD. Can anyone figure that out please?

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Against Day Fines

Today, more than 30 European and Latin American countries levy penalties using an income-graduated, or “day fine,” model. Under this system, people who break the law pay a fine equivalent to a percentage of their income, rather than a flat fee. … “can be thus seen to be more equal and effective than a system where the amount of fine is fixed.” … American lawmakers have failed to take the idea of income-adjusted fines seriously. (More)

Yes, making crime fines proportional to income can achieve a more progressive taxation. Even so, “day fines” make us worse off compared to using more direct forms of progressive taxation. To see this, consider the case of speeding and other rushed driving offenses.

When people are driving, they trade the risk of an accident against saving time. For example, in their rush to get places, drivers can choose to not take as much time looking for pedestrians before making a right turn, or checking that a lane is empty before changing lanes. And they might drive faster; the rate of fatal accidents per mile seems to go as the cube of driving speed in the city, and rises even faster in rural areas.

Of course if they were just at risk of hurting themselves, we might not care how they made their trade-offs. But most car accidents also involve other cars. So we want a way to encourage drivers to take the harm that their accident might inflict on other drivers into account. Speeding fines, and accident liability, help us to induce such concern. (B.t.w., with vouchers and well-set accident liability, we wouldn’t need speeding fines.)

All else equal, drivers with twice the wages tend to put twice the dollar value on both saving an other minute of driving, and also on preventing another small chance of their own death. So if the dollar amounts of their speeding tickets and liability given an accident were also twice as large, then the dollar amounts on both sides of their tradeoff would all be twice as large. Thus in the same circumstances they would make the same choices to trade time versus the chance of an accident. So in the same car on the same road etc., they’d drive the same speed, and take the same time to check before turning or changing lanes.

However, having two drivers, one with twice the wage of the other, each take the same amount of time to use the same technology to prevent the same amount of harm to others is not efficient. That’s wasteful, just like having a high-wage donor work the line at a soup kitchen, instead of working at their high-wage job a bit more to pay a low-wage worker to work that soup kitchen line. In the driving case, we can keep the car accident rate the same and make both drivers better off, if we have the lower wage person drive more carefully, the higher wage person drive less carefully, and have the high wage person pay the lower some cash.

For example, the median US wage is now ~$16/hr, and workers tend to value commuting time at about half of their wage rate. So imagine that drivers A and B value each their driving time at $9/hr and $18/hr respectively, which is one and two pennies per four seconds. In this case both A and B can be better off, while the total accident rate stays the same, if B gains 1.0 pennies by putting in 2 fewer seconds, A loses 0.5 pennies by putting in 2 more seconds, and B pays A 0.75 pennies.

In general, we use traffic fines and accident liability to buy the time of drivers’ to prevent more accidents. Day-fines proportional to income buy the same amount of time from all drivers in similar circumstances. But we can be better off if we instead buy more time from drivers with lower wages, and less time from drivers with higher wages. And roughly the right amount of time is induced from each via fines and liability that do not vary with income.

You might complain that ordinary constant fines, that do not vary with income, do not include a cash transfer from high to low wage drivers. But that critique only makes sense if we currently had day-fines, and I was proposing to switch to constant fines. In fact constant fines are our status quo, which I’m proposing that we keep. I don’t see we should need transfers to reject an inefficient change and keep things the same.

Note that a similar argument also says it is inefficient to give the same jail time sentence to high and low wage convicts. Jail is the least efficient of all known forms of punishment, and equal duration sentences just makes this worse. We should instead delegate punishment choices to vouchers.


For the math-literate, here’s a simple math model. Consider a driver who drives at speed si, values their life at Vi, causes accidents at rate r(si), faces average speeding fines Ti(si), and faces liability from a fatal accident of Fi. The cost they seek to cut might be written Ci = Vi/si + Ti(si) + r(si)(Vi + Fi). (Note that fine Ti(si) has the same effect as r(si)*Fi.)

Ignoring enforcement costs, the social harm from each driver might be written Si = Vi/si + r(si)(Vi + A), where A is the average over Vi, assuming random accident victims. So we can induce drivers to set si to minimize this social harm by setting each Fi = A. (Setting Ti(si) = r(si)A also works.) This choice also (nearly) minimizes Sumi Si under the constraints that each i will pick si to min Ci, and that we must use transfers to ensure each driver expects to be no worse with our choice than in some arbitrary initial Fi setup.

Note that we could have used any function vi(si) instead of Vi/si here.

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Me on Prediction Markets

Here’s a more-polished-than-usual video by me summarizing the idea of prediction market:

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Wait To Marry A Cause

Long ago people typically married as teenagers, but today we usually tell people to date while young, but don’t get married til later. In the US in 2018 the median age of first marriage was 28 for women, 30 for men. Many religions have not allowed you to join until you were old enough to make an adult choice.

What considerations say if you should make choices early or late, assuming that you will find it hard later to change or undo your choice? If later choices force you to put off important activities, choose earlier. But the more that education and life experience will inform your choice, the more you should pick later. And if more can go wrong from a bad choice, or there are more such bad options that you might choose, then choose later.

Given all this, I am here to suggest that you wait longer to pick your causes, be they political, social, religious, justice, charity, etc. You really don’t know enough to choose well when you are young, and there isn’t that much that will go wrong if you wait to choose. Instead of spending money, time, and energy on causes when you are young, you can instead invest those in your family, career, etc., where they can offer big returns, giving you more to spend on your causes later on.

Yes, in worlds where most everyone gets married young, it was hard to wait. Even so, many were often advised to wait. Today, there are many social pressures to get young people to pick causes early. And yes, it can be hard to resist these pressures. Even so, I say: wait and date. You just don’t know enough now, so your younger years are better spent learning and building. Later you will have more time, money, energy, insight, and social connections, all of which will help you to support whatever causes you choose.

So sample and dabble with causes, but wait to marry one. Yes divorce is possible, but that doesn’t mean everyone should marry at age 14. The poor will be with you always. If you rush too fast to help today’s poor you may just mess them all, hurting both today’s and tomorrow’s poor.

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Why Inequality Fell Then Rose

Back in 2003 & 2007, Thomas Piketty & Emmanuel Saez [PS] published tax-record-based estimates of U.S. top income shares from 1917 until then. They found inequality rose until 1930, fell until WWII, stayed flat until 1980, and then rose again until today. They blamed WWII tax policy and the absence of similar taxes today.

Since then, seven studies have used these same tax records to find much lower estimates of the size of this inequality and its rise since 1980. Now my colleague Vincent Geloso and three coauthors find, again using the same tax records, much lower estimates of these parameters for before 1960. Everyone agrees roughly that inequality rose til 1930, fell to WII, and then rose after 1980, but they disagree on the magnitudes and on the mix of causes. 

Geloso et al. find that half of the fall happened during the Great Depression, and another sixth of it in the decade after WWII. Others find inequality to also fall a lot 1960-1980.

But overall, this all seems to confirm the main claim of Scheidel’s The Great Leveler,  that inequality mainly falls in bad times and rises in good times. You don’t want inequality to fall, as that mostly likely indicates bad times that you don’t want.

This post is my Christmas present to Vincent.

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Foreign Policy Is Incoherent

I am quite impressed with Richard Hanania’s new book Public Choice Theory and the Illusion of Grand Strategy. It makes a simple but important point: U.S. foreign policy is less due to some persistent grand national strategy than to inconsistent lobbying pressures of various political groups. While at times causes millions to die for no good reason.

For example econ sanctions almost never work, but they satisfy a public desire to “do something”. We support big rivals like the USSR or China with trade as we resist them militarily, because business wants trade while the military wants budget. Hanania explains: 

The whole reason that International Relations is its own subfield in political science is because of the “unitary actor model,” or the assumption that you can talk about a nation like you talk about an individual, with motivations, goals, and strategies. No one believes this in a literal sense, but it’s considered “close enough” for the sake of trying to understand the world. … [But] the more I studied the specifics of American foreign policy the more it looked irrational on a system-wide level and unconnected to any reasonable goals, which further made me skeptical of the assumptions of the field.

The book felt a bit belabored to me, as I’d have been persuaded by an article length analysis. But I get why he did it; academics demand sweat and impressive mastery of literatures.

As a U.S. citizen, I am especially appalled at such waste being done in my name, even though I expect that similar problems bedevil other nations. This feeling is especially strong as I listen to major foreign policy issues being debated this week.

Monetary policy seems to me an especially promising place for a similar analysis. People usually talk as if that were being done by a central actor according to some coherent long term strategy, but that seems a priori unlikely. Yes futarchy could solve this, if only there were some interest in doing some small scale tests to hone such mechanisms. 

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Life in 1KD

Years ago I read Flatland and Planiverse, stories set in a two-dimensional universe. To me these are the epitome of “hard science fiction”, wherein one makes one (or a few) key contrary assumptions, and then works out their physical and social consequences. I’ve tried to do similarly in my work on the Age of Em and the Hardscrapple Frontier.

Decades ago I thought: why not flip the dimension axis, and consider life in a thousand spatial dimensions? I wrote up some notes then, and last Thursday I was reminded of Flatland, which inspired me to reconsider the issue. Though I couldn’t find much prior work on what life is like in this universe, I feel like I’ve been able to quickly guess many plausible implications in just a few days.

But rather than work on this in secret for more months or years, perhaps with a few collaborators, I’d rather show everyone what I have now, in the hope of inspiring others to contribute. This seems the sort of project on which we can more easily work together, as we less need to judge the individual quality of contributors; we can instead just ask each to “prove” their claims via citations, sims, or math.

Here is what I have so far. I focus on life made out of atoms, but now in a not-curved unlimited space of dimension D=1024 (=2^10), plus one time dimension. I assume that some combination of a big bang and hot stars once created hot dense plasmas with equal numbers of electrons and protons, and with protons clumped into nuclei of varying sizes. As the universe or star regions expanded and cooled, photons bound nuclei and electrons into atoms, and then atoms into molecules, after which those clumped into liquids or solids. Molecules and compounds first accreted atoms, then merged with each other, and finally perhaps added internal bonds.

A cubic array of atoms of length L with as many surface as interior atoms satisfies (L/(L-2))^D = 2, which for D = 1024 gives L = 2956. Such a cube has (2956)^1024 atoms in total. As I hereby define 2^(2^10) to be “crazy huge” and 2^(-2^10) to be “crazy tiny”, this is a more than crazy huge array. (“Crazy huge” is ~100K times a “centillion”. “Astronomical” numbers are tiny by comparison to these.)

We thus conclude that solids or liquids substantially smaller than crazy huge have almost no interiors; they are almost all surface. If they are coupled strongly enough to a surrounding volume of uniform temperature or pressure, then they also have uniform parameters like that. Thus not-crazy-huge objects can’t have separated pipes or cavities. Stars with differing internal temperatures must also be extra crazy huge.

The volume V(r,D) of a sphere of radius r in D dimensions is V = r^D pi^(D/2) / (D/2)!. For dimensions D = (1,2,3,8,24), the densest packing of spheres of unit radius is known to be respectively (0.5,0.28,0.18,0.063,1) spheres per unit volume. The largest D for which this value is known is 24, where the sphere volume fraction (i.e., fraction of volume occupied by spheres) is V(1,24) ~= 1/518. If we assume that for D=1024 the densest packing is also no more than one unit sphere per unit volume, then the sphere volume fraction there is no more than V(1,1024) = 10^-912. So even when atoms are packed as closely as possible, they fill only a crazy tiny fraction of the volume.

If the mean-free path in a gas of atoms of radius r is the gas volume per atom divided by atom collision cross-section V(2r,D-1), and if the maximum packing density for D=1024 is one atom of unit radius per unit volume, then the mean free path is 10^602.94. It seems that high dimensional gases have basically no internal interactions. I worry that this means that the big bang doesn’t actually cause nuclei, atoms, and molecules to form. But I’ll assume they do form as otherwise we have no story to tell.

Higher dimensions allow far more direction and polarization degrees of freedom for photons. The generalized Stefan-Boltzmann law, which says the power is radiated by a black body at temperature T, has product terms T^(D+1), (2pi^0.5)^(D-1), and Gamma(D/2), all of which make atoms couple much more strongly to photons. Thus it seems high D thermal coupling is mainly via photons and phonons, not via gas.

Bonds between atoms result from different ways to cram electrons closer to atomic nuclei. In our world, ionic bonds come from moving electrons from higher energy orbital shells at one atom into lower energy shells at other atoms. This can be worth the cost of giving each atom a net charge, which then pulls the atoms together. Covalent bonds are instead due to electrons finding configurations in the space between two atoms that allow them to simultaneously sit in low shells of both atoms. Metallic bonds are covalent bonds spread across a large regular array of atoms.

Atoms seem to be possible in higher dimensions. Electrons can have more degrees of spin, and there are far more orbitals all at the lowest energy level around nuclei. Thus nuclei would need to have very large numbers of protons to fill up all the lowest energy levels. I assume that nuclei are smaller than this limit. Thus different types of atoms become much more similar to each other than they are in our D=3 universe. There isn’t a higher shell one can empty out to make an ionic bond, and all of the covalent bonds have the same simple spatial form.

The number of covalent bonds possible per atom should be < ~3*D, and B < ~D-10 creates a huge space of possible relative rotations of bonds. Also, in high dimensions the angles between random vectors are nearly right angles. Furthermore, irregularly-shaped mostly-surface materials don’t seem to have much scope for metallic bonds. Thus in high dimensions most atom bonding comes from nearly right angle covalent bonds. Which if they form via random accretion creates molecules in the shape of spatial random walks of bonds in 1024 dimensions.

It is hard to imagine making life and complex machines without making rigid structures. But rigid structures require short loops in the network of bonds, and for high D these seem unlikely to form due to random meetings of atoms in a gas or liquid; other random atoms would bond at a site long before nearby connected atoms got around to trying.

If a network of molecular bonds between N atoms has no loops, then it is a tree, and thus has N-1 bonds, giving less than two bonds per atom on average. But for P>>2, this requires almost all potential bonds to be unrealized. Thus if most atoms in molecules have P>>2 and most potential bonds are realized, those molecules can’t be trees, and so must have many loops. So in this case we can conclude that molecular bond loops are typically quite long. (How long?) Also, the most distinctive types of atoms are those with P =1,2, as enough of these can switch molecules between being small and very large.

Molecules with only long loops allow a lot of wiggling and reshaping along short stretches, and only resist deformations only on relatively large scales. And when many atoms with B < D-2 are close to each other, most neighboring atoms will not be bonded, and can thus slide easily past each other. Thus on the smallest scales natural objects should be liquids, not solids nor metals. And in a uniform density fluid of atoms that randomly forms local bonds as it cools, the connectivity should be global, extending across the entire expanded-and-cooled-together region.

Perhaps short molecular loops might be produced by life-like processes wherein some rare initial loops catalyze the formation of other matching loops. However, as it seems harder to form higher dimensional versions, perhaps life structures are usually low dimensional, and so must struggle to maintain the relative orientation of the “planes” of their different life parts. Life made this way might envy our ease of creating bond loops in low spatial dimensions; did they create our universe as their life utopia?

We have yet to imagine how to construct non-crazy-huge machines and signal processing devices in such a universe. What are simple ways to make wires, gates, levers, joints, rotors, muscles, etc.? Could the very high D space of molecule vibrations be used to good effect? Copying the devices in our universe by extending them in all dimensions is possible but often results in crazy huge objects. Nor do we know what would be the main sources of negentropy. Perhaps gravity clumping, or non-interacting materials that drift out of equilibrium as the universe expands?

The dynamics of a uniformly expanding universe is described by a scale factor a(t), which says how far things have spread apart at each time. For a matter-dominated universe a(t) goes as t^(2/(D-1)), and for a radiation-dominated universe a(t) goes as t^(2D/((D-1)(D+1)). For matter, density goes as a(t)^-D, while for radiation it goes as a(t)^-(D+1). In both cases, we have density falling as t^-2D/(D-1), which is roughly t^-2 for large D. Thus as a high D universe expands, its density falls in time much like it does in low D, but its distances increase far more slowly. There is little expansion-based redshift in high D.

When an expanding region cools enough for molecules to connect across long distances, its further expansion will tend to pull molecular configurations from initially random walks in space more toward long straight lines between key long-loop junctures. This makes it easier for phonons to travel along these molecules, as bond angles are no longer nearly right angles. For the universe, this added tension is not enough to kick it into an exponentially expanding mode; instead the expansion power law changes slightly. Eventually the tension gets large enough to break the atomic bonds, but this takes a long time as widths change only slowly with volumes in high D. (What are typical diameters of the remaining broken molecules?)

As the universe ages, the volume and amount of stuff that one could potentially see from any one vantage point increases very rapidly, like t^(D-1). However, the density or intensity of any emissions that one might intercept also falls very fast as distance d via d^-(D-1), making it hard to see anything very far. In high dimensions it is extremely hard to have a comprehensive view of everything in all directions, and also very hard to see very far in any one direction, even if you focus all of your attention there.

When two powers have a physical fight in this universe, their main problem seems to be figuring out their relative locations and orientation. It might be easy to send a missile to hit any particular location, and nearly impossible for the target to see such a missile coming or to block its arrival. But any extended object probably does not know very well the locations or orientations of its many parts, nor is it even well informed about most of the other objects which it directly touches. It knows far less about objects even a few atom’s width away in all directions. So learning the locations of enemies could be quite hard.

Finding good ways to learn locations and orientations, and to fill and update maps of what is where, would be major civilization achievements. As would accessing new sources of negentropy. Civilizations should also be able to expand in space at a very rapid t^(D-1) speed.

A high D universe of trivial topology and any decent age encompasses crazy huge volumes and numbers of atoms. The origin of life becomes much less puzzling in such a universe, given the crazy huge number of random trials that can occur. It should also be easy to move a short distance and then quickly encounter many huge things about which one had very little information. One has not seen it nor heard about them via one’s network of news and talk. This creates great scope not only for adventure stories, but also for actual personal adventure.

I’ve only scratched the surface here of all the questions one could ask, and some of my answers are probably wrong. Even so, I hope I’ve whetted your appetite for more. If so, please, figure something out about life in 1KD and tell the rest of us, to help this universe come more sharply into view. In principle our standard theories already contain the answers, if only we can think them through.

Thanks to Anders Sandberg and Daniel Martin for comments.

Added 1Feb: One big source of negentropy for life to consume is all of the potential bonds not made into actual bonds on surface atoms. Life could try to carefully assemble atoms into larger dimensional structures with fewer surface atoms.

Added 2Feb: In low D repulsive forces can be used to control things, but in high D it seems that only attractive forces are of much use.

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Me on Tyler on Bryan on Labor

Bryan Caplan has a new book, Labor Econ Versus the World, a collection of his blog posts on the topic. Tyler Cowen says that while “I agree with a great deal of what is in this book, … let’s focus on where we differ”:

Bryan for instance advocates open borders (for all countries?). I think that would be cultural and political suicide, most of all for smaller countries, but for the United States too. You would get fascism first, if anything.

That seems a crazy extreme claim to me. First you’d get lots of immigrants! Then a big economic boom. Any fascism would come much later, and I doubt it would ever come, at least as a result of immigration. (Fascism is pretty rare for US-like places.)

Bryan on education, he believes most of higher education is signaling. In contrast, I see higher education as giving its recipients the proper cultural background to participate in labor markets at higher productivity levels. I once wrote an extensive blog post on this. That is how higher education can be productive, while most of your classes seem like a waste of time.

[From that 471 word “extensive” blog post:] By choosing many years of education, you are telling yourself that you stand on one side of the social divide. The education itself drums that truth into you.

Note how much they agree; both say the usual “material” taught in school isn’t worth much. It is not crazy to think school adds value by pushing modern work culture into students. But it is harder to believe that such a process needs to extend past high school; can the extra years of college and graduate school really be essential to such cultural transmission? Most cultures in human history have finished pushing their culture onto kids well before age 18. Seems more plausible to me that these later years of school are mostly about showing that you embody modern work culture.

[Bryan:] Unless government requires discrimination, market forces make it a marginal issue at most. Large group differences persist because groups differ largely in productivity.

I would instead stress that most of the inequity occurs upstream of labor markets, through the medium of culture. It is simply much harder to be born in the ghetto! … Bryan is not paying enough attention to what is upstream of labor markets, or to how culture shapes human decisions. …

On poverty, Bryan puts forward a formula of a) finish high school, b) get a full time job, and c) get married before you have children. All good advice! But I find that to be nearly tautologous as an explanation of poverty. To me, the deeper and more important is why so many cultures have evolved to make those apparent “no brainer” choices so difficult for so many individuals. … One simple question is why some cultures don’t produce enough men worth marrying, … once you incorporate these messy “cultural upstream” issues, much of labor economics becomes more complicated than Bryan wishes to acknowledge. Much more complicated.

So Tyler doesn’t disagree at all with Bryan on these topics; Tyler instead complains that Bryan’s book on labor econ doesn’t spend enough time on topics outside of labor econ. I think Bryan sees himself correctly has not having much useful advice to offer on how to change cultures, and also sees culture as influencing action largely via the channel of preferences. He thinks it often okay to blame people for choices that result from from their preferences, and to let them suffer consequences from such choices.

If many labor market outcome differences result from differing preferences that result in part from different cultures, then how exactly can outsiders help someone else’s culture change the preferences that it induces? One simple approach is cultural imperialism: actively suppress insider culture and forceable replace it with outsider culture. Such as via school. Another approach is to induce stronger culture competition and selection, such as was once induced by frequent wars.

These approaches are now widely repudiated. But what other plausible options are on the table? I don’t blame Bryan for not offering more concrete advice to solve such a very hard problem in a book on a different topic. I do blame Tyler for complaining that Bryan hasn’t offered a solution to a problem to which Tyler also offers no solution. He just says the topic is “complicated”. Which along with “let’s have a conversation on X” is a usual way to “talk” about a hard subject X without really saying much.

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