Friday, January 8, 2010

Of beating hearts part 2

CONTENT WARNING: This is an embarassingly long post, with a lot of long-winded analysis, caveats, pronouncements and occasional gems of insight. A nifty bulleted list is provided at the end, excerpting the main theses and arguments for the time- or attention-challenged.


In "Of beating hearts" I expressed the opinion that in general, redundant, non-hierarchical or polycentric networks exhibit superior reliability and stability, compared to monopolistic, hierarchical ones, in most domains of technology, biology and social life, despite the polycentric systems having frequently an appearance of disorder and chaos. Yet, there is one particular form of network services that very persistently, in almost all societies, takes the hierarchical, monopolistic form - and that is the provision of law, order and defense (LOD).

This fact may be evidence that for some reason LOD services in principle cannot be provided by multiple, independent, competing providers. Indeed, without doubt there are particular societies and groups of people who cannot sustain competitive LOD networks, just as there are societies unable to develop e.g. the enterprise of natural science. The qualities of available network components are of course crucial for determining the range of network architectures that can be built. You can't have a Philosophical Society in a group of illiterate, IQ 85 people with high time preference, and you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. These, and many other issues are good reasons why historically the vast majority of societies went the LOD monopoly way - but this shouldn't stop us from looking at the polycentric LOD issue, just as our lack of wings didn't stop us from eventually learning how to fly.

In fact, there are at least two historical examples of societies with relatively competitive LOD networking - medieval Iceland and the Wild West, described in David Friedman's "The Machinery of Freedom". Their development may have been a historical accident but their functioning is proof that competitive LOD is possible even in a society consisting of unmodified humans of average intelligence.

To state more clearly why I am writing this post, I am considering competitive LOD for two reasons: firstly, out of concern for long-term reliability in the provision of LOD services, and secondly and much more importantly, because the LOD regime tends to influence all aspects of social life. A corrupt LOD provider inevitably corrupts its charges, teaching fear, hatred, and violence, degrading society's ability to deal with physical challenges, the ability to discover truths about the physical world, to innovate and to survive. If it were possible to build a better LOD system, it would have far-reaching, cascading effects throughout the whole social fabric, allowing unprecedented improvements in the quality and probably duration of our lives.

Let me explain first what I mean by a polycentric LOD system through contrasting it with the modern state. Modern states combine judiciary and military components with a wide array of other aspects, from the regulation of zoos to the redistribution of income from workers to whoever happens to be at the levers of power. A constant feature is the unitary structure of the state: all persons in its area of influence are subject to direct control by organs of the state, with no recourse except by appealing to other organs of the state. You are truly surrounded by the state, and the cost of switching to another is large. In a polycentric system there would be no single organization capable of exerting direct control over more than a rather small fraction of the populace. A police organization could not wantonly attack any persons who happened to be in its reach, a single school system would not teach all students, a lawgiver could not proscribe the use of drugs except by persons voluntarily subscribing to his law. The polycentric LOD providers would be truly independent of each other, sovereign with respect to other providers in a manner reminiscent of the relation between sovereign states, yet spatially intertwined. These two features, sovereign independence and spatial intertwining would provide the conditions necessary (but not sufficient) to allow one more crucial element to be realized: individual, low-cost exit option. Should you be dissatisfied with your current laws and their enforcers, you could switch to an alternative with a single credit card authorization. This individual choice option is the crux of the matter as far as fullfilment of individual wishes is concerned - being able to choose the law to obey would maximize social utility (efficiency) of the system, since individual citizens are collectively in possession of a much better knowledge of their own preferences than possible for a group of even well-meaning and brilliant rulers. And, of course, individuals have on average a much better set of incentives to act in their own interest than any third parties. Increased efficiency in fulfilling wishes of users is to be expected in the polycentric system just as it always happens when a monopoly (say, AT&T, or the state grocery in East Germany) is replaced by a competitive ecology of providers.

Before I continue, let me dispense with one of the common objections to the possibility of building a polycentric LOD system - namely, free-loading (i.e. defection). It is important to realize that protective services are not non-excludable, therefore the system can easily be defended against defectors. In the polycentric system, anybody could choose not to have a protective contract with a LOD provider - but this would not mean an easy life under other people's umbrella. There would be no law protecting such persons from predators. Should you choose to cancel your protection policy, you could find yourselves robbed by random thugs, chopped up for spare organs, and nobody would come to your aid, except for a much higher price. While this might sound brutal, it isn't - just as getting yourself killed by your own choice, e.g. in an extreme skiing accident, is stupid, not brutal.

Now back to justification for considering the polycentric option: I emphasize the efficiency of the polycentric system because there are many very smart thinkers who endorse the monopolistic state for efficiency, i.e. social coordination reasons. I believe they are factually wrong on this issue: The state is incapable of outperforming a polycentric LOD system, ceteris paribus, just as a central planner is structurally incapable of outperforming a market in apportioning of resources. The state relies on long feedback loops (elections, rebellions), does not utilize dispersed knowledge and does not align individual incentives effectively. The individual exit option in the polycentric system combines optimal utilization of dispersed knowledge about preferences (available to individuals through introspection) with optimal responsiveness to this knowledge through individual choice and the very short profit/loss feedback loop between them and the LOD providers. Furthermore, laws, just as any other complex ideas relevant the world, must be first discovered, and then validated in reality - the multitude of polycentric LOD systems therefore acts as a method of experimentally finding the best possible solutions in the social realm, a type of truth-finding device not unlike the collective enterprise of scientific discovery in the physical realm. Even the brightest state bureaucrats do not know as much as their subjects do, even the most altruistic bureaucrats don't care that much about the man in the street, even the best calibrated monopolistic lawgiver cannot reliably find the best solution - for greatest efficiency we need individuals who know about what they want, care about their desires and are free to experiment with their lives. To put is succinctly, the state exists not because it is better but because it is easier to build.

The notion of efficient individual choice of law leads directly to the question of legitimacy and some normative considerations here. Almost any extant social system relies on the notion of legitimacy, the idea that some aspects of organization are right and proper, independently of mere brute force acting on their behalf. But where does legitimacy come from? Olden rulers claimed a divine source. Our current batch claim to be empowered by the will of the voting people, however nebulously translated into the Federal Register. Some libertarian dreamers say they are inspired by "natural law" but hot debates immediately ensue as to its exact precepts. The legitimacy of the polycentric LOD would in my approach rest primarily on the claim of superior efficiency in attaining the goals espoused by its participants. Just as you can estimate the efficiency of a particular phone network at reliably shuttling voice between users, so it should be possible to estimate the efficiency of the polycentric LOD system at fullfilling the wishes of its customers, and I am confident that a quantitative comparison with monopolistic systems would at least for certain classes of customers strongly favor the polycentric system, for reasons partially enumerated in the preceding paragraph.

Furthermore, any LOD system is not only shaped by its customers but also influences them in a reciprocal fashion. A tyranny breeds the weak, the cruel and the corrupt. A capitalist system rewards boldness, industriousness and humility (but not greed, contrary to what many shallow minds assert). A polycentric system would strongly favor openness, honesty, conscientiousness, tolerance but not indolent indifference to dangers. The Homo Anarchicus (subsp. Critarchicus) is likely to blossom under the influence of benevolent laws generated by his provider, just as Homo Sovieticus was morally and socially stunted by the laws generated by the local monopolist. Instead of having their minds polluted by collectivist propaganda dispensed by state-run schools, a greater number of children could be exposed to a variety of systems of thought, thus helping with the development of critical thinking faculties, not to mention their skill in argumentative blogging.

Therefore, a polycentric LOD system would be legitimized both by its immediate short-term improvements in efficiency and by its benevolent long-term effect on the moral fiber of the citizenry. I understand that persons emotionally beholden to the monopolistic state might find this long-term feature abhorrent, a perversion of their basic moral ideas. I would counter their objection as follows: The polycentric LOD system is legitimized by its efficiency but then as a second-order effect it gives rise to a novel and for many persons quite counter-intuitive reformulation of basic moral concepts, such as violence, right, and crime. Learning to accept this new definition of violence is a form of moral progress on par with and going beyond the benevolence espoused by the New Testament, or universalist morality advanced by secular humanism.

The definition of what constitutes violence is very important in the makeup of any society. Understanding violence is at the very bedrock of our morality, and describing an action as violent opens the way for the legitimate (i.e. accepted as right and proper, that which should not be prevented) use of force, or any other means necessary to stop or punish the action. Infringing a right allows the use of force against the perpetrator. A crime is an infringement on rights that are defended by laws. The precise interpretation of actions as violent or criminal emerges in a long process of recursive interactions between many actors - lawmakers, enforcers, infringers, victims. The outcome is shaped by moral beliefs of the participants, and by objective regularities in their interactions (analyzed by e.g. game theory), as well as various local features of the physical world. Beliefs of actors shape each other and develop in sometimes non-intuitive ways, leading to ever-changing notions of right and wrong. Now, is there a way of determining which of the myriad socially constructed definitions of violence is in some way "best"?

If you are a highly rational person like me, you won't be able to escape the notion of efficiency as the basis for translating moral intuitions and concepts into practical injunctions. To want or wish something (a state of the world) means to act within your capabilities to bring that state of the world into existence. Efficiency is choosing actions so as to realize the maximum number of (weighted) wishes that can be attained given the actions available to you. A rational person is by definition always acting efficiently, no matter what particular wishes drive his behavior. If desires are the matter of morality, then efficiency is the matter of meta-morality. Applied to the social realm, the criterion of efficiency is meta-judicial: The desires and beliefs of citizens must be translated efficiently into action, thus various independent legal approaches to this translation can be compared and evaluated by their levels of efficiency. Rational actors must then choose the most efficient possible approach (or else they are not rational). For example, if capital punishment is efficient in achieving whatever goals are to be achieved (deterrence, revenge), then it should be a part of the system. Otherwise it should not be used. The decision to use this action or not is thus driven by an analysis of desires among participants in the system (network) and the degree of efficiency of the action. I would claim that the most efficient system provides the best definition of violence, contingent on current beliefs, and superior to definitions produces by less efficient systems. Continued operation of the efficient system is likely to recursively modify beliefs, leading to more advanced definitions of violence, not attainable in less efficient systems.

I noted that a polycentric LOD system, like any market system, should be very efficient at aggregating dispersed information about desires. At the same time, through the pricing mechanism this system effectively communicates information about the efficiency of actions, about the trade-offs and costs inherent in the action. Insisting on punishing minor infractions (e.g. stealing a loaf of bread) by death could be very costly for subscribers to a private LOD organization, since their provider would frequently find itself in to-the-death battles with other providers. Still, there might be persons willling to pay high prices to save their loaves, and the polycentric LOD system would not a priori exclude any specific solutions to moral problems from consideration (aside from solutions that directly produce a monopolistic LOD system). Dissemination of information about the full prices of actions would most likely have an impact on the moral beliefs underlying such actions, in a recursively self-modifying fashion. If Americans had to pay the full price for killing hundreds of thousands more-or-less random brown people in far away lands, there might be fewer voices favoring sending troops out for no clear reason. Closer to home, the polycentric LOD system would most likely put a high price on envy. It would be difficult for the inept and the unscrupulous to extort resources from the hard working and the successful, since instead of simply voting for higher taxes and "benefits", the parasitic classes would actually have to go to war with LOD providers protecting workers from exploitation. Given enough time the polycentric LOD system would most likely reshape many cherished beliefs and desires, acting as a technique of moral progress, damping the thirst for violence and easy disregard for the wishes of others that characterizes monopolistic LOD systems.

You may protest that a modern state is not really that violent. After all, hardly anybody gets killed by the police in the US, right? Compared to the state of nature, when 20 to 50 % of all males died by homicide, our current levels of violent death are minuscule, even including fatalities among foreigners. I would would however contend that this is not a good measure of the levels of violence in our society. There is a subjective component to the notion of violence - the feeling of being surrounded, threatened with suffering, of having no recourse, of being violated. The polycentric LOD system, like any market system, is very efficient at measuring such feelings and translating them into price signals. Those who feel offended by an action are willing to pay to prevent it in proportion to the gravity of offense, and as long as it is easy to choose various sets of laws (outlawing different actions as being offensive to the users of the law), their willingness to pay will be translated into the existence of LOD providers protecting their patrons from the action in question. Currently however, living in a monopolistic system, I am extremely offended and feel violated by the notion that a municipal tax collector can demand access to my house to "assess" its "value", and then demand various arbitrary payments from based on his assessment. I would be willing to pay a lot to a provider to protect me from such indignities but, unfortunately, all providers in my area are members of a monopoly organization which includes the tax collector himself, making it impossible for me to express my preferences. Thus, looking merely at the statistics of slaughter does not fully describe the level of violence in a society. Since the monopolist makes a lot of people feel violated, the social level of violence is actually quite high, even if most of the time the body count is low.

This situation persists because state-inflicted violence is extremely cheap – once a coercive monopoly exists, it is as cheap as paying a uniformed thug 15$ an hour to enforce whatever law the state machine came up with. On the other side there is an enormous harm inflicted on the victims of the law, the harm of being exposed to and broken by violence. Therefore, whoever manages to get a hold of the levers of state power will impose his notions of what constitutes violence or harm, while disregarding the desires of others, and cheaply inflicting almost arbitrary levels of violent harm on his victims. In fact, the state is *built* to prevent any form of measuring the relative moral weights of violent harms inflicted on a law’s victims vs. the “harms” allegedly prevented by the law. It is the antithesis of moral efficiency – because of the massive imbalance in power between the state and its victims there is no bargaining process or any other effective way of measuring the relative weights of harms involved (short of a bloody uprising), and therefore using the state to achieve one’s goals is extremely likely to increase the overall harms inflicted on members of the ingroup.

To summarize the foregoing analysis, a polycentric LOD system would act as a moral research engine driven by considerations of efficiency, reshaping our notions of violence, rights and crime through a process of recursive modifications of laws and beliefs. The polycentric LOD system could make us better humans.

The interesting question then is what kind of conditions would have to be fulfilled to purposefully create a stable competitive LOD regime, and whether there is a feasible pathway leading from some of today's systems of mutual oppression into the shining future of untrammeled freedom. A few very bold thinkers tried to answer it: David Friedman, Mencius Moldbug, Patri Friedman, and Robert Nozick come to mind. Fans of science-fiction might be familiar with Vernor Vinge, Karl Schroeder, and John C. Wright in this context.

I will not summarize the ideas set forth by my illustrious predecessors in this field of armchair social philosophy. Invincible, cryptographically controlled robot armies would be a fine addition to our political armamentarium but, certainly, a stable polycentric LOD system would require other ingredients as well.

The most important indispensable ingredient that is currently missing is probably faith: a belief, shared by a sufficient number of actors, that the polycentric LOD system is a good of great importance, one that must be defended against all kinds of influences. Our Holy Mother Church depends on parishioners' belief in her divine origin for paying her electric bills. Democracy depends on the belief that participating in the spectacle of elections is right and proper. A polycentric LOD system is no different in this respect: There must be a critical mass of polycentrists, both in absolute numbers and as a fraction of the society at large, to allow for the system to come into existence and to maintain itself. The first problem on the path to polycentrism is then convincing a sufficient number of people of the validity of the concept.

The ability to appreciate the benefits of polycentrism depends on sufficient intelligence, exposure to a large body of historical information, and having the right set of emotional attitudes. In my experience, to follow the argumentation in favor of polycentrism one needs to have an IQ in excess of 120 - I have been completely unsuccessful in communicating the issues of polycentrism to persons of average intelligence. The advent of the internet gives the inquisitive 120- and up person the ability to sift through a lot of sources of information and to develop the critical faculties needed to collect data relevant to polycentrism (including game theory, history, evolutionary psychology, economics). It is now also much easier to find other persons of similar persuasion and to accelerate one's development by interacting with them. Thus the number of potential polycentrists is probably growing, although I doubt that there will be enough of us to effect any positive action before the singularity wipes the social and political slate clean. It may be possible for some small areas with polycentric LOD to emerge (a la charter cities) but of course their sovereignty would be dubious, as they would exist by the sufferance of other states, rather by virtue of their own defensive capabilities (about which I might write another post). On the other hand, the humans (if any) who survive the AI singularity will be most likely more intelligent than us, and will have also the ability to modify their own psychology to remove atavistic tendencies that made sense in the environment of evolutionary adaptiveness but are completely useless now, such as instinctive xenophobia, or the strong yearning to belong to a hierarchical, authoritarian structure that is exhibited by at least 50 - 70 % of modern humans. If polycentrism is possible in the post-Singularity computational substrate (no AI singleton is in charge of everything), there may be a good chance that the requisite numbers of post-humans will form themselves into polycentric networks.

Once a polycentric system is created it must be stabilized and defended against various internal and external influences. It is useful to look at extant sociopolitical belief systems and the mechanisms contributing to their stability. There is a number such mechanisms, operant in parallel and in various contexts. Altruistic punishment, banishment of non-believers, early indoctrination, control of reproductive access (directly or indirectly, e.g. by controlling financial resources), modern security organizations (i.e. the Gestapo and its congeners), and propaganda are capable of perpetuating the most odious, destructive and useless social organizations, seemingly limited only by their liability to be physically supplanted by less inefficient ones. Certainly, some techniques are adequate to the task of maintaining a polycentric system as well.  Of course, using e.g. concentration camps to enforce polycentrism would be a strange contradiction so not all of the commonly used methods would be appropriate or possible here. Probably the best stabilizing technique would be a social norm allowing any citizen, or group of citizens, to attack any LOD provider that exceeds some preset market share, and to divide its property (as well as the property of the provider's patrons) among themselves. This may sound strange - a call for brutal aggression against a successful corporation and thousands of its clients - but it is not any different from the aggression that is allowed in the direct defense of any political system. All persistent sovereign entities and social systems are willing and capable of inflicting extreme harm in protecting themselves from being supplanted, or else they are supplanted by other, more resilient systems. Once a tyrant blinks, his enemies pounce. Once the king, the politburo or the senate lose their mojo and no longer feel good about slaughtering their enemies, their demise is near. In this respect the polycentric system is not different from a state but the stabilizing action would be achieved by independent organizations of citizens rather than by a hierarchical institution. Another technique would be ostracism of individuals who do not subscribe to polycentric beliefs, or fail to ostracize such individuals. Both of these techniques are a common feature of many stable and successful societies. They are forms of individually initiated but collectively effective punishment of defectors, allowing the indefinite maintenance of both primary public goods, i.e. the beliefs about polycentrism, and the secondary public goods, i.e. the willingness to punish defectors.

Of course, relying on such ad hoc movements would make the system somewhat prone to instabilities caused by variations in commonly held beliefs and attitudes. In a tyranny you can have a stable, if brittle, structure consisting primarily of individuals opposed to its existence. In a polycentric system, which keeps aggregating information about preferences and translates it into action, as I extensively expounded upon previously, even small shifts in crucial beliefs could have a destabilizing effect. Since I expect that large polycentric systems will come into existence only after the AI singularity, I can wave the magic futurist wand here, and declare that the requisite stability of beliefs woud be achieved by a priori designing participants' minds to hold polycentric beliefs in a stable manner, subject to modifications only is some special circumstances - e.g. if a Bayesian analysis of available data strongly favors a different social system. Such stabilization would probably require programming techniques similar to what the SIAI would like to develop for building the Friendly AI but applied to (post)-humans rather than sentient artifacts. Post-Singularity knowledge of mind functioning would also result in a whole new level of psychological transparency and belief verifiability, making mutual, reciprocal enforcement of necessary beliefs less daunting than it is now. Importantly, in contrast to the current situation, only a very small number of meta-legal beliefs, directly related to the prevention of instability in the polycentric network, would need to be maintained in this way. The myriad of legal norms, desires and proclivities that form the bulk of what we want would still be free to evolve, enabling the moral progress machine to reach new levels of functioning.

OK, this is a monster of a post, almost an unqualified reservation. Let me finish by providing a nifty little bulleted list encapsulating my main theses:

- The polycentric LOD system consists of sovereign and independent but spatially intertwined providers of law and law enforcement

- It may be infeasible in many societies but there are clear historical examples of its emergence and relatively long-term stability

- Free-loading is not the prime obstacle to the functioning of a polycentric LOD system

- The main feature leading to increased efficiency of law generation in the polycentric system is the low-cost individual exit option

- The mechanism of increased efficiency further relies on aggregation of dispersed knowledge, a transparent pricing mechanism allowing rational trade-offs, shortening of feedback loops, and improved alignment of incentives

- The polycentric LOD system promotes high levels of legal innovation and discovery of novel, useful laws, leading to accelerated social progress

- An efficient legal system translates individual preferences into rules in such a way as to maximize achievement of participants' goals

- Normative claim: Laws of the polycentric LOD system are morally superior, because they are more efficiently translating human preferences into concrete rules than is possible using other sources of law

- The criterion of efficiency is meta-judicial

- High efficiency legitimizes the polycentric LOD system

- The polycentric LOD system acts a legal and moral discovery engine

- The polycentric system recursively modifies moral thinking of its participants, leading to moral progress and a blossoming of humanity

- The polycentric LOD system's ability to transform common notions of rights, violence, and crime could lead to a moral quantum leap on par with the greatest ethical revolutions of the past

- From the moral vantage point of persons accepting polycentric LOD, our current monopolistic system (i.e. the liberal democratic state) is marred by unacceptably high levels of violence

- High levels of violence delegitimize the state, independently of its claims to justification through general franchise

- The main ingredient necessary for the stable formation of a polycentric LOD system is the belief in its efficiency shared by a sufficient number of rational actors

- Additional features, such as norms for maintenance of secondary public goods through individual punishment of non-cooperators, are most likely needed to further stabilize the polycentric system

- Due to limitations of intelligence and rationality, it is unlikely that a large, sovereign polycentric LOD area would form in the near future, although smaller enclaves with limited sovereignty could form by conventional political mechanisms

- A polycentric organization may be a feature of post-Singularity societies, relying on augmented intelligence, software-stabilized beliefs about polycentrism and complete psychological transparency among AI or post-human sentients

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Here is a non-exhaustive list of my beliefs and opinions, both conventional and unusual (or worse):

- IQ is the best known measure of cognitive ability, predicts lifetime success in many domains, is predominantly genetically determined in modern populations, and systematically differs between various ethnic groups

- evolution is a fact, not a theory

- there is no god around these parts, and even if there was, he/she/it would not be somebody worthy of invitation for dinner, much less worship

- espousing the three opinions above is enough to make you a pariah almost everywhere

- affirmative action is evil, it is a form of institutional racism directed primarily against Asians

- I give you 9:1 odds we will be destroyed in an artificial intelligence singularity

- I have no soul, YMMV

- hard drugs should be legalized

- the FDA should be abolished

- medical licensure should be abolished

- governments should be abolished and replaced by non-monopolistic, commercial providers of law and order

- World of Warcraft is a masterpiece of psychoengineering, a dark maw that swallows the weak of mind

- charity is noble

- welfare is immoral

- salsa is fun

- the demographic transition is still a mystery, its effects are mildly dysgenic but it doesn't matter (see singularity, above)

- if I ever get root access to my mind, about 70% of it will be removed in the first round of modding

- carbon dioxide contributes to retention of heat in the atmosphere but nobody really knows how much

- carbon dioxide is good for plants (yes, I actually read the Jasper Ridge research), and therefore it is good for people

- liberals are even more hypocritical than conservatives but not by much

- highway speed limits are one of the stupidest laws in the US, destroying millions of QALY-adjusted life-years each year

- deer are the enemy, and should be shot, poisoned or vaporized with lasers, whatever comes handy

- as a point of meta-ethics, ethical theories that fail to specify an in-group are gibberish

- as a point of meta-ethics, ethical theories must be computable using available resources

- female hypergamy offers both challenges and opportunities to the conscientious male

- even for a math-challenged neurologist, the many-world interpretation of QM is obviously more reasonable than the alternatives

- there is no proof that lowering cholesterol makes you healthier, although some things that make you healthier (such as statins and exercise) do lower cholesterol

- don't eat margarine

- the only a priori moral duty within my in-group is the duty of non-violence

- consent is only possible if a meaningful option to refuse is given

- taxation by a territorial state denies the meaningful option to refuse

- taxation is a form of violence

- helmetless biking is good for the rest of us, who might need a kidney someday

- kids are fun to have

- it is sophomoric to strive for happiness, we grown-ups have more important things to do

- once you go Mac, you'll never go back

- it is wrong to vote, except to abolish elections, and maybe not even then

- more than 70% of modern medicine is a waste of time and money but the average value of medicine is still positive

- a laser bug shield is going to be the next killer app from Microsoft

- I am not sure what I am trying to signal here but it sure feels good

- some of Chopin's music is divine

- Glock 27, .40 S&W

- it bears repeating that non-initiation of violence is the only criterion for differentiating between good and evil

- network redundancy is extremely important

- short-selling, insider trading, and hostile takeovers are good for the stockholders

- the only legitimate sources of law are non-monopolistic providers, such as trade associations, private licensing authorities, and commercial courts

- in a timeless multiverse, causation is nothing but correlation, and consciousness is a property of some series of patterns that exhibit a significant degree of self-reference

- everything that can exist, does, but most of it really far away in the configuration space

- God exists ... actually all of them do, which is why you could call me a polytheist, or even a maxitheist (all thinkable gods exist somewhere)

- environmentalism is immoral, since it explicitly ascribes an intrinsic value to non-sentient objects, above and beyond their instrumental value to members of my in-group

- cryonics is kooky, and my Alcor # is 1941

- socialists are mean, nasty, hypocritical and confused

- fascists are mean, nasty and confused but at least not so hypocritical

- still, socialists are the lesser evil

and, last but not least:

- don't hurt dachshunds or you will make me very angry

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Of beating hearts

I can trace the beginning of the road leading towards my current political views to studying human physiology, sometime around 1988. At that time I was cramming for an exam in physiology in my medical school, and I read about the risk of cardiac death as a function of the variability of heart rate. To my surprise, the less variable your heart rate, the higher your risk of suddenly dropping dead. It seemed like a paradox that order, a steady, unchanging heartbeat, i seen mostly in patients suffering from heart failure, while chaotic variations in heart rate are typical of the healthy young.

It may be strange to see political lessons in cardiac physiology - still, the juxtaposition of death and order on the one hand, and chaos and life on the other hand, is quite stark and it stayed in the background of my thoughts ever since. And as I observed success and failure in various domains, I noticed that there are those amazing analogies between the way the sino-atrial node and e.g. the internet are built.

Let me give you a bit of background on the physiology of heart rhythm. The SA node is the natural pacemaker of the heart. It integrates inputs from multiple sources (vagal nerve, sympathetic innervation, various hormonal influences) and consists of a network of cells which exhibit spontaneous cyclic depolarization, which is the source of the rhythm. Individual cells differ in their tendency to depolarize, the beat frequency they collectively produce is the outcome of an interaction between multiple, individual, independent oscillators, which are capable of partially substituting for each other. There is no master rhythm cell, the buck doesn't stop in any particular place, and the rhythm is therefore quite chaotic - it exhibits spontaneous minor and major variations stemming from multiple influences and multiple independent decisions - and this is precisely why the heart mostly keeps on beating, reasonably well adjusting to various conditions. Yet, as the heart is stressed, the SA cells start dancing to a single tune - some cells are eliminated from the decision-making, only a subset of similar cells can continue to function, and the heart settles on a much more rigid, usually faster rhythm. This is bad: instead of a graded, appropriate response to stimuli the heart my exhibit sudden, catastrophic changes in rhythm, including the deadly ventricular fibrillation.

A very similar pattern is observed whenever a network of independently interacting, redundant elements (SA cells, internet routers, stock market traders) changes into a strict hierarchy, or a group of identically-reacting ones (stressed SA cells, rule-bound administrators). The wisdom of crowds is lost, information bottlenecks appear at the top, feedback loops are weakened. A strict hierarchy by definition is not redundant and this is why when a hierarchy fails, it fails catastrophically. Any network that is dependent on a single master node to function (whether we are talking about a central air transport hub or a dictator) will be only as reliable as the master node.

Examples of highly successful redundant networks abound: the social construction of science is one. Every successful market (i.e. efficiently transforming inputs into outputs) is one. Reducing the redundancy and degrees of freedom in such networks very reliably degrades their performance, in Soviet Russia 90 years ago, and in the USA today. When everybody runs the same operating system, one virus brings everyone down. When everybody eats potatoes, the blight can kill millions. I could spend a long time listing examples of the success of network redundancy and the dangers of centralization but it is hard to come up with examples of the opposite.

This observation may be uncontroversial among network engineers but most humans resist it fiercely in the social and especially political realm. Especially under stress, most people respond by closing ranks, demanding unity, and conformism. A crazy patchwork of security agencies coagulates into Homeland Security: previously, for something bad to happen, every one of the overlapping agencies had to drop the ball, now, it takes only one point of failure. In response to economic disturbances politicians demand more centralized control of the economy, and the masses applaud. This is not a random development but rather a predilection ingrained since our evolutionary past spent in small tribes continually engaged in mortal combat against other tribes, and to an almost identical degree, within the tribe, where loyalty to the group and obedience to a single focal figure of authority was frequently indispensable for survival.

I am probably deficient in the neural hardware that subserves this predilection: I could never generate much enthusiasm for "our" soccer team, I would feel weirded-out by the sight of my compatriots singing the national anthem with their hands over their heart, there is not a single politician that I ever unequivocally admired. I am very loyal to my family and friends, the people I know personally, but I am calmly dispassionate when thinking about groups of strangers. Did you note that I haven't yet used the word "we"? I almost never think as a group member, even when I analyze groups that are outside groups to which I belong.

This may be one of the reasons why my political views, developed via very circuitous route from cardiac physiology, put me in a very small minority, known as market anarchists. We (yes, we) agree that what is good for the reliable functioning of the heart, the discovery of scientific truths, the internet, and the trading of pork bellies, should be also good for governance. Unfortunately, the ability to dispassionately extrapolate from analysis of the SA node to looking at elections is very uncommon. Almost everybody gets bogged down emotionally, fearful of the power vacuum, always yearning for a father figure at the helm of the tribe. Others are entangled in their hubris, imagining the very smart regulations they would impose to bring order to the world. There are probably too few market anarchists in the whole world to fill a soccer stadium, much less create a viable stateless society. And thus we end up with a world where the most important, life-and-death issues like war, peace, and economic prosperity are controlled by territorial monopolies consisting of narcissistic thugs self-selecting into "public service", and the willingly ignorant masses they control.

In the next post in the series I will consider the situations where pluralistic governance could plausibly take hold, and what are the meta-ethical conclusions of cardiac physiology.

Friday, October 2, 2009

What is "subsistence"?

Robin Hanson expects that our descendants (whether biological or machine) will lead a subsistence life, that is the resources available to the median individual will not be significantly greater than what is necessary to allow survival. While I tend to generally agree with his contention, I do have a few quibbles.

First of all, the details of what constitutes "subsistence level" crucially depend on the time horizon one looks at. In the very short term (the time needed to write "In the very short term") all I need to survive is the absence of major alterations in temperature, gravity, radiation levels, etc. To finish this post I also need air. To see the Sun turn into a white dwarf I would need to also conquer aging, keep a gigaerg source of energy, as well as end war and petty violence, just to name a few of the likely long-term subsistence-level resources and conditions.

In this context, the word "subsistence" should not evoke images of swarthy farmers plowing their tiny plots behind burros. Galaxy-long linear accelerators might turn out to be indispensable tools for the would-be trillion-year survivor. One might need to understand and explore the string theory landscape to escape the heat death of the universe, or the Big Rip, or whatever doom awaits this little pocket of dusty vacuum we live in.

But, of course, the notions of long-term vs. short-term are themselves dependent on the entity entertaining them. For an E.coli bacterium in exponential growth phase, long-term may mean beyond two to three minutes, since most of the feedback loops operating within this survivor are calibrated in seconds. One must also remember that there is a hierarchy of (potentially) replicating entities, starting with genes, through cells, to multicellular organisms, to superorganisms, and evolution, depending on the conditions, may act on any of those levels (arguments against simplistic group selection theory acknowledged and irrelevant). The time span of subsistence will then depend on the organizational level of the entity undergoing evolution. The configuration space of likely entities into which humans could evolve is huge and varied, and we know too pitifully little to predict the exact trajectory of post-human evolution. This includes predicting the longevity of the dominant mind species in the post-human ecology.

Our minds and bodies have been blindly shaped by evolution but this process couldn't keep up with technological change, resulting in a mismatch between innate desires and actual fitness-relevant possibilities. I agree with Robin that this situation is unlikely to persist over any evolutionarily long time. I expect that soon we will be supplanted by post-human beings specifically designed for survival in a technological ecosystem, and the natural, blind evolution will thus largely end (who would design these entities is an issue I may consider in another post). But, although we can surmise the post-humans will be good fitness-maximizers, we can say very little about their organizational level, physical form, longevity and the actual physical meaning of "subsistence resources".

Thus, even though Robin is most likely right that our descendants will lead a subsistence life, their desires fully aligned with the goal of survival and none of their resources expended on irrelevant frippery, we should realize that their notion of subsistence may be quite sumptuous by our standards. Maybe they will need to expend stupendous amounts of energy just to prove fitness and to discourage predation. Maybe they will explore the most esoteric realms of post-human mathematics to reliably navigate away from cosmological disasters. Maybe their social graces, needed to stay afloat in a forever-changing political world, would surpass the most Machiavellian of our ruling classes. One is reminded of the adaptive immune system, the energetically expensive and extremely dangerous (see autoimmunity) assemblage of B and T cells that constantly churn and evolve, ever on the lookout for new infectious challenges, with no end in sight - running very quickly just to stand in place.

I think there is a good chance that some of the seemingly non-essential attributes of our lives may in the long term become subsistence necessities, at least in some of the newly created ecological niches. Freedom, unbounded curiosity, never-ending exploration, mastery over matter, and owning very large private spaceships with wormhole generators could in some scenarios be the analogue of having a burro and five acres of land - but hopefully much more fun. Time will tell.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The dangers of scientific monopsony

Humans are social animals, naturally forming complex hierarchical structures. It doesn't take much for a meme to sweep through a population and leave almost everybody believing in a lightning-bolt wielding bearded man who lives on Mount Olympus, or some such tomfoolery. While skeptics are continuously gnawing at the party line, we are well designed to stabilize certain beliefs once their level of acceptance reaches some tipping point. Religion and politics come to mind first in this context, and the reason for that is simple: both pertain to beliefs that are extremely important to the day-to-day more-or-less smooth functioning of a tribe. Multiplicity of political opinions is extremely dangerous when your Asmat neighbors think that a boy needs to cut off your head and bring it home as proof of achieving manhood. Uneasy respect for authority is the default state of mind for most humans, and a horror vacui regarding authority is prevalent; this is responsible for the anti-market bias described by Bryan Caplan.

But, the world of quarks and prions explored by science poses different demands on the practitioners of this intellectual art. This is a multi-dimensional landscape whose shape can be only dimly glimpsed, with many a fracture and loop where minds get lost. One mind is not likely to succeed, it takes a whole army but with one crucial feature: We cannot march in lockstep. Herding behavior in science means that the mis-steps of the first few trailblazers are repeated by many, and of course missteps are guaranteed - as Einstein said "If we knew what we are doing, it wouldn't be called research, would it?".

So science, more so than any other field of human endeavor, demands a multiplicity of independent approaches, different states of mind and various skeptics generating thoughts and, very importantly, data collected from differing theoretical beachheads in the landscape, until they all converge and yield a theory that, justifiably, crushes all opposition by its sheer obviousness. If they succumb to the herding behavior, we end up with the amyloid hypothesis.

Worse happens if there are direct practical implications of a hypothesis in the political arena. Aside from the originators of the amyloid hypothesis nobody really cares about it - but there are millions of weaselly politicians, pompous bureaucrats, busybodies of all stripes and plain environmentalist numbskulls who really want climate warming to be proven anthropogenic, dangerous and blameable on their enemies. Since the NSF and a few other government agencies are the oligopsonistic buyers of most climate research, it takes only a few fervent believers placed in some key grant management positions to assure speedy publication of anything that supports their preconceived conclusions. This is really bad: billions of people are fed propaganda masquerading as science, a self-reinforcing vicious circle of delusion develops, and trillions of dollars could be washed down the drain, simply because the likes of Mann and Briffa et al. cooked up some convenient truths for the Al Gore's and Greenpeaces to regurgitate.

I used to believe that public funding of science is really a great idea but now I am no longer sure about it. Centralized funding is all too likely to convert a pluralistic enterprise into a stampede to jump on whatever bandwagon goes fastest. Instead of truth-finding we get dogma. A resilient, segmented network (as good as the sum of its nodes) becomes a brittle hierarchy (as bad as the guy on top). I am convinced that the general lack of appreciation for segmented networks and the undue reverence for hierarchy are one of the roots causes of most social evils (I will blog on it later) but for now let me just finish with the following: Beware of the taint that comes with government money. If there is the faintest suspicion that the state or some of its clients benefit from a publicly funded research result, read the minority opinion.

The truth will set you free.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Me too on Mr Gates

It seems that everybody has already blogged on the arrest of Mr Gates on charges of "disorderly behavior". Such a trivial occurrence is hardly worth writing about, still, there are some useful observations to be made. But first, my take on the facts:

Sgt. Crowley entered Mr Gates' residence based on a tip about a possible burglary and found out that no burglary in fact occurred. Mr Gates became verbally abusive and generally behaved like a stuck-up, racist jerk (yes, he was racist - he verbally attacked Sgt. Crowley because of Sgt. Crowley's race, we can be confident that Mr Gates would not have similarly attacked a black officer). Sgt. Crowley handcuffed Mr Gates and arrested him on charges of disorderly conduct.

And here is what I think about it:

We live in a bizarre society where the most trivial aspects of the affair, namely Mr Gates' and Sgt. Crowley's skin color, attract a truly stupendous amount of attention, while what I would see as the only important issue gets totally ignored. In my not-so-humble opinion it is very wrong that a citizen can be handcuffed, arrested, mug-shotted, threatened with further prosecution and generally harassed simply because he screamed racist or otherwise insulting stuff at an officer. The officer is a servant of the people, and after doing his duty - protecting life and property, he should shut up, humbly return to his squad car and leave the citizen to enjoy his screaming unmolested. Instead, he has the authority to destroy a man's existence based on the flimsiest of excuses.

The popular obsession with race diverts attention from the important issue - the creeping expansion of the police state, with ever more SWAT, more surveillance, more officers intruding ever more aggressively into our everyday lives. Where is this going to end?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Malleus Amyloidarum

If you are passing familiar with the subject of Alzheimer's disease (AD), you have certainly heard of amyloid. Almost everybody in the field will tell you that amyloid is that toxic gunk which clogs up cellular machinery and kills cells causing AD. And everybody is wrong.

It all started with a case of early-onset dementia described by Alois Alzheimer who noted the presence of red-staining material in post-mortem examination of his patient. Alzheimer wrote that the patient was clearly different from the usual senile dementia cases by clinical criteria such as age of onset and duration but later other researchers observed that the same material was also more frequently present in the brains of elderly dementia cases. Somehow, this persuaded them that these different clinical presentations must be one and the same disease - probably under the influence of the infectious disease paradigm, where finding the same pathogen in different locations did not alter the diagnosis of, say, tuberculosis. But, in medicine we frequently see similar images in diseases with completely disparate mechanisms - for example, one will find a lot of similar-appearing immune cells during an infection (where they help combat the pathogen) and in autoimmunity (where they actually cause the disease). In the absence of a good understanding of the specific condition it is unwise to commit oneself to one or the other interpretation of histopathological data.

Fast forward a hundred years - It is commonly accepted to refer to non-familial senile dementia as "Alzheimer's", still in the absence of any understanding of the relationship between the familial (genetic) and sporadic cases. The molecular biology revolution brings early fruit - explanation of the cause of Huntington's disease, where a mutated gene starts producing gunk not unlike amyloid although in a different location. An ambitious research program is formulated by "Alzheimer's" researchers - to use genetic approaches to elucidate the cause of familial AD and thus provide an explanation of the much more common sporadic cases (We "know" they are one and the same, don't we?). Stunning success follows - the APP (amyloid precursor protein) gene is found to be abnormal in a few families with AD! The product of APP, or beta-amyloid, is a major component of the amyloid plaques found in both familial and sporadic cases! If amyloid is added to neural cells in culture, they die! As Mr Gore would have said if he was into dementia research, "The science is in!" Case closed.

Now all we need to do is to tie up some loose ends, and find a method for removing amyloid from brains, and presto, we have a cure for senile dementia. Nobel prizes and profits will follow.

So hundreds of millions, and later billions of dollars pour into amyloid research. One of the loose ends is finding mutations in the APP gene in sporadic cases of senile dementia. Yet, here a setback occurs - not only such mutations are not found, it is definitely proven that they are absent. For anybody with a background in genetics (like me), this is a major red flag - you have one condition, early-onset AD, *with* a mutation, and a similar but clearly clinically different condition, late-onset sporadic "AD", *without* the mutation. The geneticist will automatically conclude that these are different diseases with some superficial similarities, rather than slightly differing manifestations of the same disease. But, the Baptists (the Beta-Amyloid-Protein people) cheerfully press on with their research.

Attention is directed towards demented mice. It's hard to do research on demented old folks, one needs something simpler, like a mouse with a mutation in the gene analogous to the one that is damaged in demented humans. Considerable resources are brought to bear, and here follows a disappointment - mice with APP mutations do not develop dementia :(

Well, never mind - let's make a mouse with not only an APP mutation but also a mutation from a different form of early-onset AD, the presenilin-1 mutation, and for good measure, a mutated tau protein from yet another familiar disease, frontotemporal dementia. Success! Mice develop deposits of amyloid and get sick. As the venerable Nature Medicine writes "A transgenic triple scores a home run". An outside observer might start asking - You are using a mouse slapped with three abnormal genes from three different human inherited diseases as a model of a sporadic disease *proven* not to be caused by mutations in any of these genes? Are you sure it's a good idea?

We are sure, to the tune of many hundreds of millions of dollars poured into methods for getting rid of amyloid. There are drugs that inhibit processing of the APP, and there is a vaccine to stimulate the removal of amyloid from brains. Unfortunately, patients treated with these nostrums don't get better. In fact, after the amyloid vaccine some develop encephalitis (brain inflammation) and the trials have to be stopped. Oh, the high-flying stock of Elan Pharmaceuticals, a fleeting memory.

On top of that there are all these pesky observations that accumulated over time - e.g. the fact that the concentration of amyloid needed to kill cells in culture is actually never observed in the brains of humans, demented or otherwise. Or the fact that actually there are millions of elderly with a senile dementia without any significant amyloid yet clinically indistinguishable from the amyloid-laden cases. And conversely, there a millions of elderly without a trace of dementia but with a lot of amyloid. Or the finding that the concentration of soluble amyloid in the cerebrospinal fluid does not correlate with dementia, in fact, it seems like more amyloid may mean less dementia. Or the observation that neurons close to amyloid plaques are actually healthier than neurons located farther away from them. And finally, the finding that the only drug that seems to slow down the progression of senile dementia, dimebon, actually *increases* the concentration of amyloid in mouse brains.

Isn't it about time to reject, repudiate and renounce the amyloid hypothesis of "AD"? I know it's difficult to say that 20 years of work by 95% of scientists involved in the senile dementia field is useless. Or that concentrating all resources, without good rationale, against early warnings from genetics, on a speculative explanation for dementia has certainly delayed finding its real cause.

But isn't this the scientific thing to do?