Tag Archives: Arts

Live Long Or Wide?

One of my favorite science fiction novels is Kiln People, by David Brin in 2003. Not so much for its characters or plot, but because it takes an interesting future/tech scenario seriously. Most fiction with artificial intelligence describes a world with only a few of them, yet one of AI’s most important features is its easy of copying.

In Kiln People, Brin takes seriously this idea of cheaply copying intelligent agents. The key assumption is that in a few minutes and for a modest cost one can copy a person’s mind into a new clay body that lasts about a day. That copy’s memories of its day can also be added back into the original at the day’s end. Brin imagines many details of how this would change society. While he gets some things wrong, and an economist would get more right, Brin does far better than most science fiction.

Assume for the sake of argument that you came to accept that such clay copies really were “you.” So that if on Monday you made six copies and merged them all back in at the end of Monday, and then you slept the rest of the week, you would have lived just as much as an ordinary person in a normal week. You’d remember having lived for seven days that week.

Now imagine that this copy technology is improved let copies last ten years. Then compare two ways to stretch your life:

  • Time Stretched Life: You are able to live for another 110 years before dying.
  • Space Stretched Life: You make nine copies now, and the ten of you live for ten years. Then you merge the memories of all these copies back together, and live for another ten years before dying.

I suspect most people would admire the life stretched across time more than the life stretched across space, similar to the way most people admire a time stretched civilization more than a space stretched one, and to the way they accept time genocide more than space genocide. I again attribute this to the future seeming more far:

The far future seems more far … than situations far away in space, or in the far past. The near/far distinction was first noticed in how people treated the future differently, and our knowing especially little detail about the future makes it especially easy to slip into abstract thought about the future. … We are less practical, more idealistic, and more uncompromising in far mode.

Added 8a:  The time stretched life lets you see more of human history, but the space stretched life lets you help yourself more (e.g., the ten of you could start a business together), is better able to prevent your death, and trades later for earlier decades of your life cycle. As most people seem to discount the future and to prefer earlier life decades, these factors seem to favor space-stretching overall.

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Stross on Singularity

I’ve long enjoyed the science fiction novels of Charlie Stross, so I’m honored that he linked to my Betterness Explosion from his Three arguments against the singularity:

I periodically get email from folks who, having read “Accelerando”, assume I am some kind of fire-breathing extropian zealot who believes in the imminence of the singularity, the uploading of the libertarians, and the rapture of the nerds. … It’s time to set the record straight. … Santa Claus doesn’t exist. …

(Economic libertarianism is based on … reductionist … 19th century classical economics — a drastic over-simplification of human behaviour. … If acted upon, would result in either failure or a hellishly unpleasant state of post-industrial feudalism.) …

I can’t prove that there isn’t going to be a hard take-off singularity in which a human-equivalent AI rapidly bootstraps itself to de-facto god-hood. Nor can I prove that mind uploading won’t work, or that we are or aren’t living in a simulation. … However, … the prospects aren’t good.

First: super-intelligent AI is unlikely because … human-equivalent AI is unlikely. … We’re likely to leave out … needing to sleep for roughly 30% of the time, being lazy or emotionally unstable, and having motivations of its own. … We clearly want machines that perform human-like tasks. … But whether we want them to be conscious and volitional is another question entirely.

Uploading … is not obviously impossible. … Imagine most of the inhabited universe has been converted to a computer network, … programs live side by side with downloaded human minds and accompanying simulated human bodies. … A human mind would lumber about in a massively inappropriate body simulation. … I strongly suspect that the hardest part of mind uploading … [is] the body and its interactions with its surroundings. …

Moving on to the Simulation Argument: … anyone capable of creating an ancestor simulation wouldn’t be focussing their attention on any ancestors as primitive as us. … This is my take on the singularity: we’re not going to see a hard take-off, or a slow take-off, or any kind of AI-mediated exponential outburst. What we’re going to see is increasingly solicitous machines defining our environment … We may eventually see mind uploading, but … our hard-wired biophilia will keep dragging us back to the real world, or to simulations indistinguishable from it. …

The simulation hypothesis … we can’t actually prove anything about it. …. Any way you cut these three ideas, they don’t provide much in the way of referent points for building a good life. … It’s unwise to live on the assumption that they’re coming down the pipeline within my lifetime.

Alas Stross’s post is a bit of a rant – strong on emotion, but weak on argument. Maybe Stross did or will explain more elsewhere, but while he makes clear that he doesn’t want to associate with singularity fans, Stross doesn’t make clear that he actually disagrees much. Most thoughtful singularity fans probably agree that where possible hand-coded AI would be designed to be solicitous and avoid human failings, that simple unmodified upload minds are probably not competitive creatures in the long run, and that only a tiny fraction of our distant descendants would be interested in simulating us. (We libertarian-leaning economists even agree that classical econ greatly simplifies.)

But the fact that hand-coded AIs would differ in many ways from humans says little on the key issues of when AI will appear, how fast they’d improve, how local would be that growth, and how fast the world economy would grow as a result. The fact that eventually unmodified human uploads would not be competitive says little on the key issues of whether uploads come before powerful hand-coded AI, how long nearly unmodified uploads would dominate, or just how far from humans would be the most competitive creatures. And the fact that few descendants would simulate ancestor humans says little on the key question of how that small fraction multiplied by the vast number of descendants compares to the actual number of ancestor humans. (And the fact that classical econ greatly simplifies says little on the pleasantness of libertarian policies.)

Stross seems smart and well-read enough to have interesting things to say on these key questions, if only he can overcome his personal revulsion against affiliating with singularity fans, to directly engage these questions.

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Recipe: Men Exploit Fems

There are many movies and documentaries about female prostitutes. While some focus on women forced into prostitution against their will, most of the rest vaguely imply that the female prostitutes are exploited by their male customers. The message seems to be “Don’t they see that the money they gain is just not worth their loss of intimacy, self-respect, etc.?”

The ’06 documentary The Great Happiness Space (reviewed here) offers an interesting contrast. It shows the world of a certain kind of male prostitute in Japan. And it vaguely implies that male prostitutes exploit their female customers. The message seems to be “Don’t they see how much money they lose for just an illusion of intimacy, respect, etc.?” Even though many of the female customers shown are themselves prostitutes, we are expected to see them as victims.

Of course the two prostitution practices differ somewhat, according to male vs. female fantasies. Men tend more to seek simple no-strings sex and polygamy, while women more seek emotional stroking and hypergamy. But it is striking that any for-pay male-female relation portrays men as exploiters and women as victims, no matter who pays whom.

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Music Signals Status

Seventy participants were asked to rate photos of eight individuals (four males and four females). … More positive traits were attributed to females, high-status looking individuals and individuals with a preference for high-status music. … Liking for low-status music lowered evaluations in high-status looking individuals, but liking for high-status music did not affect evaluations of low status looking individuals. Participants’ own musical preference did not consistently affect ratings of photographed individuals. …

Participants rated individuals who like classical and jazz music as possessing significantly more positive traits, such as educated, rational and intelligent, than negative traits, such as aggressive, ruthless and hostile. … Liking for rock–pop, trance, oriental (Arab) and oriental pop music was associated with more negative traits. (more; HT Eric Barker)

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Meaning of Meaning of Life

Rewatching Monty Python’s Meaning of Life led me to wonder: what exactly do most people mean by “the meaning of life?” Now first, it seems to me people mainly want to know the meaning of their life; they consider life in general mostly for hints on that. So consider some sample answers to “what is the meaning of my life?”

  1. God has a plan for my life, so if I follow it my life has meaning.
  2. I am King George’s personal assistant; my life is to serve him.
  3. I am the custodian of this forrest, and will protect and nurture it.
  4. My children are my life; all I want is for them to thrive.
  5. I am a native american, and fight to regain what has been taken from us.
  6. In the historical battle between tyrants and freedom-lovers, I fight for freedom.
  7. I do scientific research, to push back our frontiers of knowledge.
  8. I am a good musician and love music.

It seems what people want is a satisfying story about their place in the universe. Since characters are the most important elements of a story, the main “place” that matters to people is their social place – who they relate to and how. People feel they understand their place when they have a story saying how they can relate well to important social entities.

Central to any social relation is whether the related person supports or opposes you in your conflicts. In fact, it seems enough to give your life meaning to just know who are your main natural allies and enemies among the important actors around, and what you can do to keep your allies supporting you, to give you high enough status.

For example, if there is a great powerful God, it seems enough to know what he wants you to do to keep him on your side. If you are a lowly servant but have the King for an ally, little else matters but pleasing him. (Unless you had higher status ambitions.)  If you have committed yourself to certain strong relations, like a spouse or kids, then it may be enough to know how to keep them on your side. If your relations shift more often, you might instead focus on general features of your natural allies, such as gender, personality, ethnicity, or some grand shared far value. For example, knowing you are good at and love music may ensure the support of music lovers, “your people,” wherever you go.

People think their life has less meaning when enough aspects of it are determined by “impersonal” forces that refuse to take social sides.  For example, a death caused by an enemy’s plan, or an allies failure to help, or by the dead person’s trying to help his allies, has far more meaning that a death caused by simple physics.

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Athletes vs. Musicians

Consider three kinds of celebrities: politicians, athletes, and musicians. We clearly hold politicians to higher moral and social standards than we do musicians. This makes sense because we feel more vulnerable to bad behavior by politicians than by musicians. An out of control politician could kill us all, while an out of control musician would at worst just fail to make music we like.

What about athletes? While we may not hold athletes to the high of standards we hold politicians, we clearly hold them to higher standards than musicians. Tiger Woods was vilified for moral violations that wouldn’t be worth reporting about a musician. Yet the above explanation for politicians vs. musicians doesn’t work here. While we are no more vulnerable to athletes than to musicians, we still hold athletes to a higher standard.

For our distant ancestors, athletic skill was much closer to political power. Small forager bands feared that the few most physically powerful members would attempt to dominate the band by force. Foragers had much less reason to fear domination by the few most musical folks in the band. So it made sense for foragers to hold athletes to higher moral standards than musicians.

So I suspect our tendency to hold athletes to higher standards than musicians is a holdover from our forager days; I’d explain similarly the fact that it is easier for an athlete than a musician to covert into a politician.

We can understand why we treat different kinds of celebrities differently today in terms of reasons our distant forager ancestors had to treat them differently.  Can this approach help us understand our differing treatments of other kinds of celebrities?

Added 7p: The fact that athletes are held up as role models seems less an explanation for them being held to higher standards, and more as a restatement of the question. I’m not saying athletes are actually more moral, just that they are punished more severely when caught.  I think the fact that we tolerate far more subjectivity in judging musicians than athletes is also related, but I’m not sure how.

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Spent vs. Ridicule

I just re-watched Ridicule, a ’97 movie I’d liked. Its villains are Versailles courtiers just before the French Revolution, and its heroes are two young idealist engineer nobles seeking money, a man to drain a swamp to improve peasant health, and a woman to help her invent underwater gear. Both are tempted by the “corrupt” Versailles community to sell sex for favors, and the man also to maneuver politically and to spar for the peak of Versailles prestige, a reputation for wit, i.e., clever spontaneous, often insulting, remarks. He sells but is outwitted and fails, she refuses to sell, but no matter, the revolution kills off their rivals a few years later.

Interestingly, in many ways these “corrupt” courtiers achieve the ideal Geoffrey Miller advocated in Spent:

We are social primates who survive and reproduce largely through attracting practical support from kin, friends, and mates. We get that support insofar as others view us as offering desirable traits .. we have evolved many mental and moral capacities to display those desirable traits. Over the past few thousand years, we have learned that these desirable traits can also be displayed through buying and displaying various goods and services in market economies. … As a self-display strategy, it is very inefficient. … Almost every other way of acquiring and displaying human artifacts or experiences sends richer signals about one’s personal qualities. … Buying … offers low narrative value – no stories to tell about interesting people, places, and events … It does not expand your circle of friends and acquaintances.

The Versailles courtiers described in Ridicule were clearly intended to be despised by movie viewers. Yet they avoided consumerism and returned to forager ways in important ways. That is, they gained status not by buying things but attracting loyal allies and by displaying very personal rich story-full signals, little mediated by wealth or institutions: spontaneous verbal wit. Courtiers also revived forager-levels of promiscuity which, by his go-back-to-what-worked logic, Miller should also approve. But I’ll bet he doesn’t.

So why don’t anti-consumerist let’s-signal-via-storyfull-human-interaction folks celebrate Versailles’ witty courtiers? I’ll bet it is simply that they were rich while others were poor. But we are rich in a world where others are poor. So how could anti-consumerist habits ever vindicate us?

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The most common voluntary activity is not eating, drinking alcohol, or taking drugs. It is not socializing with friends, participating in sports, or relaxing with the family. While people sometimes describe sex as their most pleasurable act, time-management studies find that the average American adult devotes just four minutes per day to sex.

Our main leisure activity is, by a long shot, participating in experiences that we know are not real. When we are free to do whatever we want, we retreat to the imagination—to worlds created by others, as with books, movies, video games, and television (over four hours a day for the average American), or to worlds we ourselves create, as when daydreaming and fantasizing. …

This is a strange way for an animal to spend its days. Surely we would be better off pursuing more adaptive activities—eating and drinking and fornicating, establishing relationships, building shelter, and teaching our children. Instead, 2-year-olds pretend to be lions, graduate students stay up all night playing video games, young parents hide from their offspring to read novels, and many men spend more time viewing Internet pornography than interacting with real women. …

One solution to this puzzle is that the pleasures of the imagination exist because they hijack mental systems that have evolved for real-world pleasure. We enjoy imaginative experiences because at some level we don’t distinguish them from real ones. …

Just as artificial sweeteners can be sweeter than sugar, unreal events can be more moving than real ones. There are three reasons for this.  First, fictional people tend to be wittier and more clever than friends and family, and their adventures are usually much more interesting. I have contact with the lives of people around me, but this is a small slice of humanity, and perhaps not the most interesting slice. My real world doesn’t include an emotionally wounded cop tracking down a serial killer, a hooker with a heart of gold, or a wisecracking vampire. As best I know, none of my friends has killed his father and married his mother. But I can meet all of those people in imaginary worlds.

Second, life just creeps along, with long spans where nothing much happens. The O.J. Simpson trial lasted months, and much of it was deadly dull. Stories solve this problem—as the critic Clive James once put it, “Fiction is life with the dull bits left out.” This is one reason why Friends is more interesting than your friends.

Finally, the technologies of the imagination provide stimulation of a sort that is impossible to get in the real world. A novel can span birth to death and can show you how the person behaves in situations that you could never otherwise observe. In reality you can never truly know what a person is thinking; in a story, the writer can tell you. (more)

Yes modern stories and art are more enticing than were those of our distant forager ancestors.  But their stories and art also occupied much of their time, especially when food was plentiful.  It seems rather implausible that this was only because “imagination … hijack[s] mental systems that have evolved for real-world pleasure.”  Surely our foragers would have evolved a resistance to such imagination, if it in fact wasted valuable time.  I’m pretty confident that since foragers had stories and art, then stories and art must have served, and still serve, important functions.

Modern humans often prefer to believe that the activities which they most treasure have no evolutionary function – that they were accidents.  This attitude helps them stay blind to those functions, awareness of which would make their treasured activities seem less noble.

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CEO Movie Villains


In the movies, capitalists are almost invariably cast as villains. … Is an environment being despoiled? Look no further than the CEO of some large corporation. … The most grotesque character in the “Star Wars” films represents commerce, Jabba the Hutt, a literal business worm. …

Hollywood’s anti-capitalism … stems from three sources: the rage of directors and screenwriters against their own capitalist backers, the difficulty of using a visual medium to depict the invisible hand, and an ethical framework which Hollywood shares with most of our culture that regards self-interest as inherently immoral or, at best, amoral. …

Directors and screenwriters see the [movie-investing] capitalist as a constraint, a force that prevents them from fulfilling their vision. … Hollywood … share[s] Marx’s … idea that under capitalism workers are separated from the product of their work and made to feel like cogs in a machine. …

A second … reason, … movies focus on individual character, choice and action because that’s where the drama lies. … To really understand capitalism we must transcend the level of character to see the hidden forces that coordinate the actions of millions of individuals across the world. …

[Third,] Hollywood wants its heroes to be virtuous, but it defines virtue in a way that excludes any action that is self-interested. If virtue means putting others ahead of self, then it’s clear that most people, let alone most capitalists, aren’t very virtuous. …

Like many works of literature, Hollywood chooses for its villains people who strive for social dominance through the pursuit of wealth, prestige, and power. But the ordinary business of capitalism is much more egalitarian: It’s about finding meaning and enjoyment in work and production.

Yes, all stories focus on visible direct effects, and neglect obscured indirect effects. And humans have long affirmed their anti-domination norms by sharing stories about selfish would-be-dominators who get their comeuppance. But our society contains many powerful folks who can visibly threaten via domination; why don’t more stories make them villians? For example, instead of a greedy CEO polluting the protagonist’s water, why not:

  • Power-mad police lies under oath to convict not-deferential-enough protagonist.
  • Celebrity musician seduces protagonist’s sister, dumps when bored, breaks her heart.
  • Clueless cover-his-butt bureaucrat denies reasonable home-extension building permit.
  • Brutal sergeant, seeking promotion, pushes his soldiers to needless deaths.
  • Professor fails protagonist student because of political disagreement.

One possible explanation is that most folk see selfishness as usual for CEOs, but unusual for police, musicians, bureaucrats, sergeants, and professors.  If so, this seems a sad and curious misunderstanding; the truth is, as Alex says, “most people … aren’t very virtuous.”

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Cannibals Die Fast

I just watched the movie The Road, and then skimmed the book. The scenario is that a calamity covers the sky with ash, making things cold and dark, and basically wiping out most of the biosphere. The story is about a child born after this starts, now at least 7 (the actor who plays him was 12 when filmed). He and his dad travel south seeking warmer climes, scavenging food along the way and avoiding “bad” folks who have resorted to cannibalism.

Both the book and movie are widely celebrated for their “realism.” NYT:

“What’s moving and shocking about McCarthy’s book is that it’s so believable,” Mr. Hillcoat said. “So what we wanted is a kind of heightened realism, as opposed to the ‘Mad Max’ thing, which is all about high concept and spectacle. We’re trying to avoid the clichés of apocalypse and make this more like a natural disaster.”

In fact, regarding the author:

You know that Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for literature, but you may not know that he also has an interest in mathematics and science, which he engages as a research fellow at the Santa Fe Institute.

Which stupefies me. Does anyone ever actually think about post-apocalytic scenarios?  Sure it has good emotional and physical detail, but that near-real is detached from its far-unreal premises. Consider:

1. Within a year at most wild food and human food stores would be completely gone. Locals have a far better abilities to find remainders; no way years later travelers would find much the locals hadn’t found.

2. Cannibalism would be the main food source within a year, and travelers would be easy prey for locals who lie in wait. You’d have to be very desperate to even consider traveling, and then you’d avoid lighting a campfire every night like these travelers. And you wouldn’t last long.

3. Cannibalism is war, where coordination is crucial.  Yet this pair don’t seem interested in joining a larger group for self-defense, and they see many other un-teamed individuals. Foragers understand that lone folks traveling in unfamiliar territories are goners.

4. Even under ideal conditions, people living mainly on cannibalism just couldn’t last that many years. Quoting Zac Gochenour:

The typical human body has a muscle to fat ratio similar to a bear, which is about 770 calories per pound. If the average post-apocalyptic person weighs about 130 lbs and is a bit leaner than a bear (say 600 calories per pound), throw away say 20 lbs of bones and 20 lbs of inedible organs, leaves you with about 54000 calories. Assuming 1200 calories a day for survival, that’s 45 person days per human body. 1200 may be too high; I’ve read concentration camp prisoners survived for months on about 300-500 calories per day, engaged in some degree of hard labor.

I figure the biggest problem facing such a population would be lack of essential nutrients. Vitamin C, for instance. The way the eskimos (who traditionally ate a diet consisting almost entirely on meat and fish) dealt with this is by eating their meat raw and keeping the vitamin C in tact. The cannibals would have to do the same.”

Even at a rate of 100 person days per body, that would use up 1% of the population per day.  An initial population of 100 million, killed off at this rate, would have only one person left after five years. In the novel there were many corpses around that clearly hadn’t been eaten; if only half the bodies were eaten, the population would last half as long. No way a kid lives to be seven when born into a world where the main food is cannibalism.

Given how lauded and celebrated is this book, didn’t anyone else has pointed these out before? (The novel Blindness dealt with similar sort of issues, but assumed a more realistic timescale.)

Added 29 May: Henry Farrell did say in ’07:

I agree on the campness of the broiled baby, and even more so of the amputees in the cellar. The latter annoyed me, in part because my sfnal instincts made me ask practical questions- how is this kind of cannibalism sustainable – presumably you’ve got to feed your victims something if you want to keep them alive, which sort of defeats the purpose of the thing (far smarter, if you adopt the logic of the cannibals to just butcher em and smoke em).

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