Yet another weird SF fan

I'm a mathematician, a libertarian, and a science-fiction fan. Common sense? What's that?

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Yet another weird SF fan

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Human Irrationality?

The latest excuse for criticizing capitalism comes from psychologists:

For all its intellectual power and its empirical success as a creator of wealth, free-market economics rests on a fallacy, which economists have politely agreed among themselves to overlook. This is the belief that people apply rational calculations to economic decisions, ruling their lives by economic models.
That's not necessarily the case. In order to oppose the free market, it is not only necessary to show that people are irrational, it is also necessary to show that regulators are rational. It's hard to combine the two claims when we remember that most regulators consist of members of the same species as the people.

There appears to be some evidence showing that people have cognitive blind spots. Has there been any investigation into similar blind spots on the part of regulators? What is the track record of groups of decision makers who thought they knew how to run people's lives better than the people did?

Meanwhile, the studies purporting to show cognitive blind spots are based on asking unbriefed people questions in highly artificial environments. I have read that when the knowledge of physics of The Celebrated Man In The Street is analyzed under similar circumstances, most people will give the wrong answer when asked about the behavior of objects swung in a circle and then released. On the other hand, most people can throw a ball across the room. Maybe they're better at making decisions than at answering questions about making decisions.

In any case, if humans are that irrational, what does that say about the accuracy of conclusions derived by human psychologists? Are psychologists from another planet?

More on Fake Success

According to a recent survey, 20 percent of Americans buy from spammers. I think the spammers were cooking the responses.

On the other hand, given the spelling styles in spam, maybe 20 persons have bought from spammers.

A Fake Success

A terrorist group associated with al Qaeda, stung by assertions that their kidnapping tactics have never worked, came up with a response. They kidnapped several Turkish hostages just before Bush visited Turkey. They released the hostages right after anti-Bush demonstrations and claimed that meant their tactic was a success.

They will next kidnap Americans just before Labor Day and release them as soon as millions of Americans take a day off from work.

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Negative Rights, Positive Rights, Negatively-Positive Rights, and Positively-Positive Rights

Cass Sunstein, in the course of commenting on FDR's “Second Bill of Rights,” pointed out that the common distinction between negative rights and positive rights is slightly blurry. Libertarians usually classify property rights as negative rights. On the other hand, property rights, at least when they include the right of stockholders to defend their property against an Enron-style mutiny, require government activity. (You can make the case that defending small objects or even small pieces of real estate can be done in the absence of government.)

One way to distinguish between those property rights that require government enforcement and the usual examples of positive rights is that property rights are enforced by ensuring that some things don't happen whereas positive rights requires that some things do happen. We can call property rights part of “negatively-positive rights” whereas a right to medical care is one of the “positively-positive rights.”

To take Roosevelt's “Four Freedoms,” as an example, freedom of speech and freedom of religion are negative rights, freedom from fear is a negatively-positive right, and freedom from want is a positively-positive right.

Transhumanists vs. Bioconservatives

In this corner, weighing …

Seriously, this fight doesn't have to continue. It's time for them to bury the hatchet. The ideal place is in their common enemy, the Malthusians.

Seen via Instapundit, of course.

Monday, June 21, 2004

But That Trick Never Works!

Daniel Pearl, Nick Berg, Paul Johnson, and now Kim Sun-il. How long will it take the terrorists to figure that threatening to kill a hostage no longer works?

On the other hand, they regard any retreat from a policy, even a stupid policy, as a “sign of weakness.” They were inspired to attack the United States because of the retreat from Somalia and they're worried about the effect of a retreat from kidnapping.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

On the Other Hand …

The “environmental awareness” of Hindu-Americans mentioned in the preceding post might simply be due to the professional activists infesting every ethnic group. Any lack of environmental activism on the part of Muslim-Americans might merely be a matter of being distracted by other idiocies.

The Good Side of Islam

As long as I'm on the topic of environmentalism …

Some of my fellow reactionary crackpots are starting to regard Islam as entirely evil. I disagree. They were valuable allies in fighting Communism and they are potential future allies in fighting environmentalism:

In addition, my uncle has tied the emigration of Hindus from certain deltic areas to erosion, arguing that Hindus have a mystical attachment to the land, while Muslims are more likely to think in the short term. I am inclined to dismiss such thinking out of hand, but, I do recall that one story that my father likes to tell is of the Bengali Muslim who goes to a Hindu area, and sits on a rock, at which point the local villagers attack him. The joke is this: they worship the rock! This sort of dismissal of nature worship is fine and good, but I can not but help think that without this sort of mentality the environmental situation in much of India would be even worse than it is, and the situation in Bangaldesh suffers from the lack of spiritual significance Muslim Bengalis see in their environment (American South Asians who are Hindu also have displayed and environmental awareness that I have found positively shocking for those who have immigrated from materially deprived Third World nations-the same sentiments are totally absent among immigrant Muslim South Asians).
Let's hope we can make them presentable by the time environmentalism has turned into a full-fledged totalitarian system.

There are other possible allies in the fight against the Greens in World War V. (The Cold War was World War III and we're now on World War IV.) The French, for example, already have some experience in dealing with Greenpeace.

Trees and Pollution, Continued

Not only do trees cause pollution, but pollution causes trees.

Acid rain from Britain has caused Norwegian forests to spread.

British acid rain is good for Norway's trees, says a Norwegian scientific study.

It wipes out damage caused by pollution from local industry and has helped the country's forests spread by a quarter in recent decades.

The report, by the state-run Norwegian forestry research institute, says that acid rain has been unfairly demonised.

Svein Solberg, of the institute, said: "After 15 years' research, it is now clear to us that, as far as forests are concerned, our fear of acid rain was totally unfounded.

"What we have found is that Norwegian forests have had a growth rate of some 25 per cent over the past 15 years and that acid rain is the reason."

Apparently, pollution is even better when it's globalized.

Monday, June 14, 2004

What If We Encounter Intelligent Autotrophs?

There's a common scenario in science fiction where the human race encounter intelligent herbivores who are horrified at eating meat. What if we encounter intelligent autotrophs who are horrified at eating anything?

Photoautotrophs are unlikely to evolve intelligence. They have little need for brains and little surplus energy to power brains. On the other hand, chemautotrophs might be more likely to develop intelligence. I once calculated that a pure carbon monoxide atmosphere would provide close to the amount of energy that would result from using the same volume of air to oxidize ordinary food. (It might also take a clever and mobile ET to locate and move to transient CO sources.) So if you ever wondered if New York or Los Angeles had been taken over by beings from another planet…

This scenario reminds me of the following quote from Joiwind in A Voyage to Arcturus:

Neither will we eat plants and animals, which are our fellow creatures. So nothing is left to us but water, and as one can really live on anything, water does very well.
as well as The Two Thousand Year Old Man:
Nothing but fresh, clean spring water … and a stuffed cabbage.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Redback Spiders and the Dish of the Day

Steven Den Beste is dubious about eating the Dish of the Day. But first, let's see what the Dish has to say:

I know many vegetables that are very clear on that point. Which was why it was eventually decided to cut through the whole tangled problem and breed an animal that actually wanted to be eaten and was capable of saying so clearly and distinctly. And here I am
Steven Den Beste disagrees:

I don't think many people would disagree that it would be wrong to routinely kill and eat creatures with that level of intelligence who did not want to be eaten.

But would it be OK if the creature did want to be eaten? Keeping in mind that it was designed to want to be eaten? It may say it wants to be eaten, and indeed we might believe that it truly does. But it isn't able to want anything else; it is forced to think as it was designed to. It would not actually have a free choice.

And even if it did truly have a real choice, it is by no means clear that would matter. If we think it's wrong to routinely kill creatures for food who are that intelligent, does the creature really get a vote in the matter?

One reason to be dubious about eating the Dish of the Day is that, since somebody designed it, it's exhibiting the designer's will and not its own. We can be sure it's not exhibiting its own will because presumably no naturally-evolved creature would behave that way. On the other hand, there is a species of spider that does want to be the Dish of the Day, at least for other spiders:
For redback spiders, mating begins innocently enough with the male courting the female by plucking on the strands of her web, producing a vibration which has been translated into sound in this recording. But the male is also courting death: as the two spiders mate, the female will slowly consume her partner. So does he try and escape? Hardly. Instead the male spider somersaults his body into position directly over the female’s mouth, as if to say “digest me, I’m yours!”

This Doesn't Have to Be a Tool for Tyranny

Neuronic whips have been invented in the real world:

WASHINGTON—Test subjects can't see the invisible beam from the Pentagon's new, Star Trek-like weapon, but no one has withstood the pain it produces for more than three seconds.

People who volunteered to stand in front of the directed energy beam say they felt as if they were on fire. When they stepped aside, the pain disappeared instantly.

Brad DeLong treated this as a tool for tyranny:
There was a Star Trek episode set in a parallel universe--in which the United Federation of Planets was evil--in which the Enterprise had such a device. Perhaps we have shifted into it.
I disagree. First, we already have torture devices and, unlike electrical shocks, this technology can be used by individuals.

If individual store owners could use this on “protestors” throwing rocks through windows, there would be much less need for crowd control by police.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Another Look at Moral Decay

According to Clayton Cramer:

As I have aged, my repulsion at this degradation that the left has infected our culture with just enrages me. When I was growing up, there was drug abuse. There were orgies and other forms of casual sex, where people were just used, and feelings got hurt. But that was largely high school and college, not junior high and upper grades of elementary school. I am not sure that I want to live another hundred years, and see the evil that will become the norm.
Speaking as someone who walked out on pot parties in the 1970s (I was one of the “anti-social malcontents”), I find it very hard to believe that the current generation could possibly be worse. We no longer have a situation where nearly everyone in an age group floated through college in a semi-conscious haze and made up for that by getting their ideas from people who were just as stoned. We're still suffering from the aftermath, of course. Today's environmental enthusiasms are easier to understand when we recall that they were invented by ex-stoners. In any case, I suspect people who got stoned in elementary school are less likely to be able to put through an idiotic policy than people who waited until college.

In any case, a large part of the drug-culture mystique came from the belief that we would get ever more “liberated” in the glorious future. By the late 1980s, the drug culture started looking hopelessly obsolete (except possibly in backwards areas such as Northern California). It may return—it did return a little in the mid-1990s—but it's unlikely to be unanimous again.

A Suggestion for Hollywood

If you want to make a movie about an America-destroying catastrophe, I recommend one about the next eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera. According to Wikipedia:

A full-scale eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano could result in millions of deaths locally and catastrophic climactic effects globally.
The University of Wisconsin has a map showing the predicted area of destruction. You could make the movie based on real science instead of the imaginary science “The Day after Tomorrow” is based on.

Digression: How reliable is Wikipedia anyway? It might be possible for a gang of loons to invade on an obscure issue or two and set themselves up as the Real Authorities and convince outsiders that anybody who disagrees is a kook.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

What If Something Happens to North America?

Rich Lowry, while discussing “The Day After Tomorrow,” wrote:

    The makers of "The Day After Tomorrow" revel in the prospect of our civilization being brought low, humiliated for its sins. In the film, desperate Americans flee illegally across the Mexican border to escape the weather cataclysm. Get the irony? After the disaster, the Dick Cheney-like vice president apologizes, essentially for the fact that his country has been running a modern economy lo these many years: "We were wrong. I was wrong." Even with America's economy destroyed, even with millions dead, there is a bright spot. At the end, an astronaut comments from far above our frozen continent: "The air has never been so clear." All the SUVs are buried under the tundra!
After reading that, I started wondering … what if some catastrophe caused Americans to become a wandering people similar to the Jews? There's already a resemblance between antisemitism and anti-Americanism.

But wait, there's more. The usual response to unwanted minorities is to say “send them back where they came from.” This was tried with Jews, except there is disagreement as to where we came from. According to Amos Oz:

In a recent interview, the liberal novelist Amos Oz confessed he's haunted by his father's observation that, before the Holocaust, European graffiti read, “JEWS TO PALESTINE,” only to be transformed in our time into, “JEWS OUT OF PALESTINE.” The message to Jews, noted Oz: “Don't be here and don't be there. That is, don't be.”
If Jews are part European and part Semite, we'd have to be dismembered to go back where we came from … and a large fraction of Americans are just as mixed.

On the other hand, we Jews got used to being a wandering people …

Saturday, June 05, 2004

Another Reason for Nuclear Energy

After looking at some of the comments on nuclear energy on Brad DeLong's blog, I came to the following conclusion:

If there is no safe dose of radiation and if we should be concerned about radiation that might be released in the indefinite future…

…we must use up of all that dangerous radioactive material as soon as poossible. In the absense of fission, each uranium atom will emit 50 MeV of radiation. The fission products will emit half that.

Friday, June 04, 2004

Birds with Accents

Scientists studying ducks have found that they quack with regional accents. I'm reminded of the English sparrow in the Doctor Doolittle stories who had a Cockney accent.

That's birds with accents, not nerds with accents.

Roses vs. Burglars—an Unexpected Benefit of Gun Control

I recently noticed that many of the houses in Queens (a semi-suburban part of New York City) have elaborate rose gardens. I then realized that those gardens were a way to discourage burglars. If the homeowners were armed, those gardens would be unnecessary.

This strategy was also noticed in Britain.

Every cloud has a silver lining—even civil liberties violations.

Pulmocentrism on the Left

Peggy Noonan has a term for a common leftist belief:

For reasons that call for an essay of their own, and as we all know, the banners of cigarettes are on and of the left, and the resisters of the banners are on the right. Once the banners of liquor were of the right and its legalizers of the left. The banners of drugs were on the right and the legalizers on the left.

Why did the left change its stance on what it calls personal freedom regarding cigarettes and cigars? What was the logic? And please, if you are on the left, would you answer this question for me? How come the only organ the left insists be chaste is the lung? What is this pulmocentrism? Why are lungs so special? Why can't you endanger your own lungs? Why don't you care as much about livers? Don't the Democrats have a liver lobby?

Pulmocentrism also explains the leftist theory of abortion: If breath is the essence of life, someone who has not breathed air cannot be alive.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Suggestions for Libertarian Party Mottos

  • And now for something completely different …
  • Nobody takes us seriously anyway.
  • Whatever it is, we're against it!

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Did Enron Become Wildly Profitable through Deregulation?

No, even despite the recently-revealed tapes. Enron wasn't profitable period.

If anything, the Enron episode demonstrates the capitalist principle that exploitation does not pay.

There are several factors that lead to this fiasco. First, many of the “best and brightest” were trained to believe that successful capitalists exploit consumers. It's not surprising that some people believed it and tried exploitation.

In any case, if greed caused rising energy prices, clearly the falling energy prices of the 1980s must have been caused by altruistic businessmen. Some things are too preposterous to be believed and altruism in business is one of them.

Second, there were the restrictions on takeovers that were passed to crack down on “abuses” by Michael Milliken and Ivan Boesky. If they were still in business, Enron could not have happened. Whistle blowers would have found that they could make much more by selling information to “inside traders.” Enron's stock price would have gone down long ago and the kleptomaniacs (and just plain maniacs) in charge would have been removed faster.

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