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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Symbol, Information Channel, and Meaning

My wife and I visited Indonesia in the early 1990s and did a lot of hiking to visit quite a number of old temples and ruins.  We were quite shocked to encounter a huge number of swastikas adorning these temples in various forms.

We later learned that the swastika symbol has been in existence for 5,000 years and that the Sanskrit meaning of the word "swastika" is "it is good."  The information channel from the creators of the temples thousands of years ago to my wife and me was so intensely corrupted by the Nazi's adoption of that symbol, that our first reactions assumed some sort of virulent antisemitism, hatred, violence, and murder.

I've had the humorous opportunity to watch two daughters and their friends evolve in their choice of clothes between the ages of 13 and 16.  At 13, an overwhelming percentage choose to dress totally inappropriately every possible chance they get.  The 13 year old boys take very little notice as they're not yet ready to "appreciate" that sort of thing.  16 to 19 year old boys take a lot of notice, and that makes this period rather dangerous for everyone involved.

The 13 year old girls believe that the message they're sending is something like, "hey, I can dress like the popular stars of the world." The message is intended only for other girls with which they associate.  They have no idea what message they are sending to the slightly older boys.

The humorous part is that these same girls at 15 or 16 are often appalled and ashamed of how they had dressed when they were 13.  At that point they understand how the message of their dress was received by many others (especially the boys) and they dress much, much more conservatively.  And little sisters who are now 13 get quite a talking to by their older sisters when the younger ones start dressing like sluts - the older sisters often make mom look quite permissive! This is definitely an example of how the channel transmitting the information badly distorts the intended meaning on the receiving end.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 13: Michael Ashmore, of Hooks, Texas, leans against the White House fence with his confederate flag.  He and other demonstrators have walked here after attending a rally at the WWII Memorial to protest its' closing on October, 13, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Embarrassingly, I either never knew or had forgotten what a confederate flag looked like.  Like the swastika above, it has extreme negative connotations, the topmost being extreme racism towards blacks, including being pro-slavery.  Unlike those who adorned their temples with swastikas thousands of years ago and couldn't possibly guess that their sacred symbol would have horribly negative connotations in the distant future, someone who waves a symbol at a political rally doesn't have that excuse.  The best defense is a fairly lame one, and is that like the naive 13-year old girls discussed above, he didn't understand how poorly the message of waving a confederate flag in front of the White House would be received by a substantial majority of the citizens of the United States, including both liberals and conservatives.

That does, indeed, seem to be the excuse.  Here is an excerpt of something he's written about the event in response to the negative press coverage:
"You sit behind your laptop and type articles about people you don’t know. You sit there and think you know the true meaning of the confederate flag, but in truth you only know what people have told you.Did you know that the confederate flag was flown on the USS Columbia ( CL-56) during WWII. 
"You would be surprised that the confederate flag is often used as a symbol for culture and to display love for one’s country. So to sit there and say you know me is a lie. I fought for my country, My family and my friends."
And according to Wikipedia, that is all true.  Nonetheless, by being oblivious to how the information channel would color and deliver his message, he managed to single-handedly paint the tea party, conservatives, marines specifically, and the military in general, as racist - at least in the minds of many liberals and conservatives.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Shrinking Hours and Obamacare

Small business is sometimes said to be the engine of jobs creation in America.  If so, the following chart doesn't bode well for employment opportunities in the future with Obamacare coming on line.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Ferguson v. Krugman

As I've made clear in various post and comments, I never go out of my way to read Krugman anymore, especially since various colleagues and acquaintances send me his columns fairly often.  The following four articles by Niall Ferguson (Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University; Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University) are a good example of why I don't read Krugman:

Krugtron the Invincible, Part 1

Krugtron the Invincible, Part 2

Krugtron the Invincible, Part 3

Civilizing the Marketplace of Ideas

Here is a brief excerpt from the last article:
As economists go, they do not come much mightier or more influential than Paul Krugman. A Nobel laureate who teaches at Princeton University, Krugman is also a columnist for the New York Times, whose commentaries and blog, “The Conscience of a Liberal,” are read with an almost religious fervor by liberal (in the American sense) economists and journalists around the world. He is a Twitter superstar, with more than a million followers. [...] 
Krugman has been the intellectual equivalent of a robber baron, exploiting his power to the point of driving decent people away from the public sphere – particularly younger scholars, who understandably dread a “takedown” by the “Invincible Krugtron.”
For those who find Krugman's columns powerful and true, the above articles won't convince you otherwise. However, they will give you a description from an excellent and concise historian of what some of us see when we view Krugman and his writings.  And from there, you can imagine that if you encountered someone who looked like that to you, you'd probably ignore him as well.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Divided We Stand

Sweden is often held up as an example of an excellent political-social-economic system, especially by those on the Left.  And while it's possible to quibble over the numbers, it's pretty hard to deny that in virtually every measure of well-being of a society, Sweden ranges somewhere from quite good to top notch.

As a result, everybody can probably learn something of value by studying Sweden.

I'm no exception.  What I've learned from looking at Sweden over the years is that 2 to 20 million people is a really nice size for a country.  It's big enough to have the diversity of talents and desires to form a vibrant economy, yet small enough that the people have a feeling of belonging and camaraderie with their fellow citizens.  It's big enough to support the necessary institutions of government and trade in the modern world, yet small enough that the government feels accountable to the citizens. It's big enough to create and accumulate wealth, yet small enough that it's worthwhile for citizens to protect their property and country from those who would use political power to take it.  All of the advantages of being big enough, but not too big.

When the United States declared independence in 1776, the population was about 2.5 million, a nice size. But even at that small size, the founders focused on forming a federation, with the individual states keeping the vast majority of legislative power and a high level of autonomy, even though each state only had a few hundred thousand people.

A few hundred thousand in this day and age may be too small to support itself effectively.  But what Sweden proves, unequivocally, is that 9 million is definitely not too small.

The United States has over 100 times as many people when it was founded.  It has also concentrated the power in the central government.  This has led to an Angry America where tens of millions of people don't have a feeling of belonging and camaraderie, don't feel that government is accountable to them, and feel like they are being taken advantage of by the ruling political class.  I believe this has led to constantly rising hostility, government shutdowns, out-of-control government spending, subdued economic growth, and a desperate and hopeless feeling on the part of many that their country, and a place where they can live in peace and prosperity, has been irretrievably lost.

My belief is that if we could reduce the population of the United States to 9 million people, the vast majority of these problems would go away.  310,000,000+ people is not a manageable size.  9,000,000 people is.

Obviously, it's not possible to reduce the population, even though it would be an interesting experiment to send 300,000,000 million people to Sweden and see how it goes there.

The only possible approach is to split the country into smaller Pieces.  Around 50 Pieces would work well, leaving, on average, 6.2 million people per Piece.  Each Piece would be given complete sovereignty over itself. I would suggest that all the Pieces form an alliance for mutual defense and foreign relations, sort of like a mixture of NATO and NAFTA.  They could call this alliance the Northern American Pieces, or NAP.

Then people could move to the Piece that best fit their ideology and way of life and that would diffuse the anger in Angry America.  The Pieces would let people in other Pieces live in peace and prosperity.  Divided we stand, united we fall.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Your Guide to Obamacare

In case you were wondering why they're having trouble with the software for the exchanges (click on thumbnail for larger size image)...
Hat Tip: The Belmont Club

Monday, October 14, 2013

Angry America

"Life is choice."
That's what life is to me, anyway.  While not the standard definition of human life, the dead make no choices. Someone in a coma is alive in some sense, but we don't hold them up as an example of vigorous human life. I think of someone in a coma as more "existing" than alive.  To be fully alive is to make choices continually and experience the consequences, good and bad, of those choices.  No choices, no life, rather mere and bleak existence, which for me, is little or no better than being dead.

The choices that form the basis for human life need not be rational choices.  They can be choices made by, or for the purpose of satisfying, the lower brain.  As far as I'm concerned, the usefulness of the rational, conscious portion of the brain in the vast majority of decisions is hugely overrated and often counterproductive.
"Human sociality involves something like an adaptive evolutionary arms race in the capacity to deceive and the capacity to reveal deception." Joseph Carroll
I subscribe to the hypothesis that the large size of the human brain is in large part due to the huge evolutionary advantage of being able to deceive others and detect being deceived by others.  Consciousness is an emergent property of that capability and is thus an indirect artifact of the tool of deception used by the lower brain to further its agenda.
"Building on Byrne and Whiten's concept of "Machiavellian intelligence," [in Why We Lie, David Livingstone Smith] presents a scenario for a genetic 'arms race' in human evolution between deception and detection, and its implications for the development of our big brain and its capacities. If the reader finds this something of a stretch, Byrne and Whiten's most recent data show that among infrahuman primate species, frequency of deception is directly proportional to size of neocortex." [emphasis added] Irwin Silverman
A critically important part of modeling deception and therefore deploying and detection deception, is self-deception, and intelligence seems to significantly increase the likelihood of self-deception:
"More than 90% of professors think they are in the top half of their profession."
As an indirect artifact of deception, our consciousness, the thing each of us refers to as "me," is mostly just along for the ride and is pretty much at the mercy and command of the lower brain which is where the real "me" resides.

The illusion of conscious control, while overwhelmingly strong (very possibly due to self-deception), is unconvincing when I give it careful thought.  Anything our conscious mind wants to do is at best a request to our lower brain since the lower brain comes between "us" and the control of musculature via the nervous system.  The opposite isn't true - the lower brain can completely ignore the conscious brain and do whatever it chooses without any interference of conscious thought.  Consider the many important life situations where it is clear that our consciousness plays a minimal role.  These include:
  • Love: Falling in love is in no way a rational process.  We don't make objective measurements and consciously decide to fall in love.  It's our lower brain that determines our attraction to potential mates and then we rationalize why we fell in love after the fact.
  • Sex: Need I say more? While I, of course, have always been in complete conscious control of my sex drive and have never ended up in situations that my rational self would consider non-optimal (if you believe that one, I'm better at deception than I thought), it seems that the vast majority of men and a non-zero number of women end up not infrequently motivated to do things by their lower brain sex drives that are nearly certainly counterproductive by any rational analysis.
  • Acts of high stress, emotion, altruism and heroism: These pretty much happen with our conscious self just going along for the ride with little or no influence on our own actions.  For these sorts of actions, there's often just not enough time for us to consciously process the situation, so our lower brain just takes over completely.
  • Food:  Have you ever been on a diet and found yourself eating something, like a piece of cake, that you're sure you didn't consciously intend to eat?  Usually, we just sort of zone out when we do stuff like that, but next time you're in that situation, try consciously focusing on the experience.  I've found it to be very odd.  You might be able to fight it and win (i.e. stop yourself from eating the piece of cake), but I find it disconcertingly difficult and that it takes an enormous amount of energy.
And that's the rub.  While our consciousness can sometimes negotiate with our lower brain and influence the outcome, it's very tiring and wears us down.  Any time our conscious analyses are in conflict with our lower brain desires, we eventually run out of stamina and the lower brain gets its way.  That's why so many people fail on diets, for example.
Sartre goes into a cafe. He says, "I'd like cup of coffee, no cream." 
The waitress says, "I'm sorry, Monsieur Sartre, but we're out of cream. Would you like that with no milk?"
In 1992, California enacted a mandatory helmet law for motorcyclists.  I've always worn a helmet when riding a motorcycle and I had ridden motorcycles for tens of thousands of miles prior to 1992.  Yet I remember being angry with the passage of that law.  Why, you might ask, would I possibly care since I always wore a helmet anyway?  I'm not sure, but I'm guessing that it's because it took away a choice. Every time I got on my motorcycle, I chose to put on my helmet.  That choice had been taken away. And with that choice, a bit of life.  I felt a little less alive and a little more like I was just existing.
"Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal." Robert Heinlein
Emotions emanate from the lower brain.  We feel anger, for example, and then try to figure out why we're angry, and that makes us a rationalizing animal.  Sometimes it's obvious.  Sometimes, as in the helmet law example above, it's not obvious at all.  Sometimes, it's unfathomable why we're angry, yet we still try to figure it out.  That's because it's painful, as in emotional pain, to be angry, and like every living thing with a nervous system, humans are designed to escape and avoid pain.
America is angry.
On one side, conservatives, tea-partiers, libertarians, etc. are angry, and while they rationalize it into different reasons, a common underlying theme is destruction of choice. A myriad of regulations and abuses interferes more with their lives, and even when the growing effect of those isn't direct, it's more and more noticeable and in-your-face every day.  Obamacare is the latest insult and many consider it a direct and massive destruction of choice.

That analysis may be completely wrong, of course.  They may be angry for some completely different set of reasons.
Or for no reason at all.
What is certain, is that they are angry.  And that they'll do anything possible to escape the pain of being angry.  Including, for at least some of them, finding that a significant risk of destroying America is perfectly acceptable.  The anger may or may not be rational or even rationalizable.  The response to the anger, which is to destroy that which is making them angry, is perfectly rational.

This makes America's progressives angry.  This anger is perfectly rational and explicable.  After all, they are the majority, they have the mandate, the power, and the moral high-ground to enact programs that will make the country and the world a better place.  And this relatively small minority of conservatives and their allies is getting in the way, resisting at every step, gumming up the works, and purposefully damaging the country with their  temper tantrums and other reactions due to their uncontrolled anger.  Who wouldn't be angry at that?  I certainly would be.
Everybody is angry.
What should be immediately obvious, is that there is no possibility of a rational, reasoned debate.  This is about a strong difference of opinion of lower brains.  This is an emotional conflict, not a conflict of reason. Even if you believe that the Democrats are completely rational, the Republicans certainly are not, nor can they be, about the intrusions of the progressive agenda into their lives.  There are no solutions, within the structure of American government, that will alleviate the anger.

Can a society with so much anger survive?

Friday, October 11, 2013

Heading Clovis's Direction

The other SWIPIAW and I are heading to Machu Picchu and the Galapagos this afternoon.  Back in three weeks; I hope I don't miss too much while I'm gone.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Inaccessible Link Error Fixed?

So I think I fixed the problem with the template that was keeping people from clicking on comments buttons and other links that happened to be to the right of the Andertoons widget.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Sincerely, A Concerned Citizen

For those of us who believe in vast conspiracy theories...

Hat tip: xkcd

Pink Parable

I really dislike the color pink.  Not only do I find it incredibly ugly, when I'm in an environment with a lot of pink in it, I get headaches and feel sick.  This is a lower brain stem sort of thing, has nothing to do with rationality, and is strictly a strong innate subjective preference.

Fortunately, there's not a lot of pink in my life.  The sky is blue, trees are green, and rocks are brown and grey.  My wife knows that I don't like pink and her wardrobe is pretty much devoid of pink clothes.  My older daughter seems to have inherited my aversion to pink.  My younger daughter likes pink a lot, but does her best to keep pink in her room which works just fine for all of us.

But let's say that instead of living with my family, I was living in a house with three roommates, all of whom liked pink a lot.  As with my younger daughter, as long as they mostly kept pink to their own rooms, it wouldn't be a big deal.  But what if they decided, as the majority of the household, that all rooms, including mine, needed to be pink?  I might try to resist somewhat, but realistically, I would simply move out and go somewhere that wasn't pink, even if other living arrangements were substantially more expensive.

But what if moving out wasn't an option? Let's say there was nowhere else to live or that the majority everywhere decided everything needed to be pink.  Every day, my roommates add more and more pink to the household.  Every day, my headaches and feeling of sickness get worse.  There's no place to go, the roommates refuse to back down no matter what, the misery is relentless.

What would you do?

Thursday, October 03, 2013

A Public Service Announcement

Keeping those at bay who would rather smash and grab or destroy than do anything productive -- and no, I'm not talking about progressives here -- requires the rest of us to jump through all manner of annoying hoops.  As much as I'd like to provide an easy answer to bridging the gap between airport parking and reaching the gate, I can't.

However, I am going to throw out a suggestion for dealing with an aspect of keeping our lives away from the vandals who really need vigorous kidney punching: computer hackers.  As much as I'd like to provide an easy answer to captchas (Restating the Obvious's is particularly annoying, and it isn't Harry's fault), I can't.  But I'm going to throw out a way to deal with the plethora of security questions to which we are obliged to provide answers.

There are a couple serious problems with security questions.

First, depending on the question, the answer is knowable -- your high school, for instance.  Sarah Palin had her personal Facebook account hacked because she picked a couple questions just like that, and then gave the true answers.

Second, if multiple people are to have legitimate access, their answers can obviously vary, sometimes insidiously.  I temporarily lost access to a joint account with the other SWIPIAW because, as it happens, the spelling of female names is notoriously feminine, and there are probably a half-dozen different ways of spelling our maid of honor's first name.  Then there is the problem of whose first pet, junior high school, favorite teacher, book, food, song, ad nauseum.

Therefore, I recommend taking an entirely different approach to security questions: use a rule to provide an answer that has nothing to do with the question, and will provide the correct, and different, answer to any question.

For examples: The answer to every security question is the first letter of each word in the question.  Or the second letter.   Or the first letter for the first word, second letter for the second, etc.  Or the first letter in each word, starting with the last word. 

The important thing is to pick one rule that is easy for you to remember, and use it every time. 

That means you can pick any question you want, always be able to provide the "correct" answer, and no one else will, no matter how much they know about you; unless, that is, you tell them your rule.  Using the first rule on a typical question, which may not even have an answer: 

<blockquote>What was the name of your first pet?  wwtnoyfp </blockquote>

And you thought Great Guys was good only for reasonably high-faluting sparring.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Knowledge and Power

Information is surprise.  To the extent that something is predictable, it doesn't contain information.  For example, let's say you're reading a book and you see the sequence "the sky is blu".  There is zero surprise and therefore no information conveyed when the next letter you see is 'e'.  If you already know the answer, there's no information conveyed.

In information theory, entropy is a measure of unpredictability or information content in a block of data.  If the data is maximally compressed, then every single bit of data is unpredictable and the information entropy is maximized.

High entropy, maximally compressed data is indistinguishable from gibberish (have you ever looked at compressed text, for example?) - unless you have the decompression key.

To send information somewhere, you need a channel to communicate.  The channel can be a wire or air or space or something else and uses some fraction of the available spectrum and bandwidth of the particular medium to send the information.

To maximize the amount of information you can send over a channel, you want to maximize the entropy of the information, and minimize the entropy of the channel.  In other words, you want to make the information look as much like pure noise as possible (compress the hell out of it and/or otherwise encode it) and you want to make the channel itself as quiet and noiseless as possible.

To summarize so far: information is surprise; surprise is unpredictable; maximum unpredictability is indistinguishable from noise without the key or code; and reducing the noise of a communication channel enables a higher rate of information transmission.  Except for a few minor details, that's everything there is to know about Information Theory. :-)  With some innovation regarding those minor details, coupled with an excellent business model, and you could be the next Qualcomm!

In the book Knowledge and Power, George Gilder proposes that Information Theory as described above is critical for understanding economic activity and economic systems.  Each of us has extensive localized Knowledge about consumption and production.  On the consumption side, we know what we'd like to consume and what we're willing to trade for those goods and services.  On the production side, we know what we're capable of producing and many of us have expertise, sometimes extensive, about various aspects of what's possible to produce given various inputs.

For that Knowledge to be useful, the information related to it must be transmitted to others.  For the vast majority of people, the vast majority of that information is indistinguishable from noise.  However, some have the "code" to understand the information being transmitted.  As a simple example, the price of rubber looks like a random squiggle to almost everybody.  However, to a tire manufacturer, there is critically important information embodied in those prices, especially when coupled with expected automotive demand and other related information.

The information channel that supports economic activity is critically important.  First, there needs to be one. The institutions of trade, property, law, etc. need to exist and they provide the infrastructure for the channel. According to Gilder, these institutions should be maintained by government.

With the Information Theory construct, it's clearly important that the economy's communication channel has as little noise as possible. This has two implications: the institutions that form the communication channel should be as predictable as possible since unpredictability means surprise which means noise; and the institutions themselves should be as quiet and non-intrusive as possible, otherwise the institutions use up precious channel bandwidth and compete with and overpower transmissions from economic activities, impeding the flow of that information and stifling the activities that would have resulted had that information gotten through.

In Gilder's view, predictability means that the institutions have structures and rules that are unchanging or slowly changing, easily understandable, and easy to follow.  This implies "rule of law" as opposed to "rule of man" (or "rule by fiat").  According to Gilder, keeping the institutions quiet means minimizing the information flow from the institutions through the channel.  Minimizing regulations, minimizing taxes and keeping the rules associated with the tax regime as simple as possible helps keep down channel noise and enables increased economic communication and activity.

Gilder notes that one of the problems with government institutions generating noise is that government has a lot of Power.  Its communications tend to be loud, high power communications, which uses up a tremendous amount of bandwidth, while Knowledge based economic communications tend to be quiet, low-power, numerous, and difficult to hear in the best of circumstances.  Communications with the Power of government can drown out large amounts of localized Knowledge within the economy.  According to Gilder, that is the fundamental relationship between Knowledge and Power.  Information transmissions regarding economic Knowledge moves the economy forward, while noisy information amplified by government Power holds it back.

While I find Gilder's ideas intriguing, he unfortunately leaves all the details to the reader.  As a conceptual metaphor for libertarians it's not bad, but without the mathematical relationships, empirical evidence, and plausible models, I don't think there's much one can do with it other than use it as the basis for some plausible thought experiments which I may propose in future posts.  Since Gilder is an ideas guy and definitely not a details guy, I doubt we'll see anything more directly usable from him on this topic.