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

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Abolition of Man?

There's a discussion at Less Wrong on the feasibility and morality of stopping possible future changes in values:

Change in values of the future agents, however sudden of gradual, means that the Future (the whole freackin' Future!) won't be optimized according to our values, won't be anywhere as good as it could've been otherwise. It's easier to see a sudden change as morally relevant, and easier to rationalize gradual development as morally "business as usual", but if we look at the end result, the risks of value drift are the same. And it is difficult to make it so that the future is optimized: to stop uncontrolled "evolution" of value (value drift) or recover more of astronomical waste.

Regardless of difficulty of the challenge, it's NOT OK to lose the Future. The loss might prove impossible to avert, but still it's not OK, the value judgment cares not for feasibility of its desire. Let's not succumb to the deathist pattern and lose the battle before it's done. Have the courage and rationality to admit that the loss is real, even if it's too great for mere human emotions to express.

A society that can stop values from changing is what C. S. Lewis warned about in The Abolition of Man:

The latter point is not always sufficiently emphasized, because those who write on social matters have not yet learned to imitate the physicists by always including Time among the dimensions. In order to understand fully what Man's power over Nature, and therefore the power of some men over other men, really means, we must picture the race extended in time from the date of its emergence to that of its extinction. Each generation exercises power over its successors: and each, in so far as it modifies the environment bequeathed to it and rebels against tradition, resists and limits the power of its predecessors. This modifies the picture which is sometimes painted of a progressive emancipation from tradition and a progressive control of natural processes resulting in a continual increase of human power. In reality, of course, if any one age really attains, by eugenics and scientific education, the power to make its descendants what it pleases, all men who live after it are the patients of that power. They are weaker, not stronger: for though we may have put wonderful machines in their hands we have pre-ordained how they are to use them. And if, as is almost certain, the age which had thus attained maximum power over posterity were also the age most emancipated from tradition, it would be engaged in reducing the power of its predecessors almost as drastically as that of its successors. And we must also remember that, quite apart from this, the later a generation comes—the nearer it lives to that date at which the species becomes extinct—the less power it will have in the forward direction, because its subjects will be so few. There is therefore no question of a power vested in the race as a whole steadily growing as long as the race survives. The last men, far from being the heirs of power, will be of all men most subject to the dead hand of the great planners and conditioners and will themselves exercise least power upon the future.

The real picture is that of one dominant age—let us suppose the hundredth century A.D.—which resists all previous ages most successfully and dominates all subsequent ages most irresistibly, and thus is the real master of the human species. But then within this master generation (itself an infinitesimal minority of the species) the power will be exercised by a minority smaller still. Man's conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man's side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well aas stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car.

Reading mid-20th-century SF (with psychohistory or the Lensmen or the Psychology Service etc.) and comparing it to mid-20th-century history made me realize that the above quote was not any kind of a straw-man argument. At the time, it was a common idea that just as knowledge of Nature led to control of Nature, knowledge of Man would lead to control of Man. The question of who would do the controlling was rarely mentioned. (Reading The Abolition of Man out of context makes it look like a wacko combination of “traditional values” conservatism and green nonsense.) It looks like there's an attempt at Less Wrong to revive this.

As for fighting this, I suspect the best tactic is likely to be, of all things, space colonization. Once hominids are spread over several solar systems, even the most powerful Planners won't have complete control. Interstellar distances might not yet be “God's quarantine regulations” but they might be someday.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Seriously Now, What Do You Think Is Going to Happen?

In view of the unlikeliness of the scenarios in the preceding post, I suppose I should mention what I think is the most likely effect of our civilization getting close to a carrying capacity: Rents will rise. There's lots of evidence increasing rents cause lower birth rates. In other words, we can expect population to level off long before any catastrophe.

The real question

The real question isn't whether there's clear evidence of current overpopulation (there isn't). It isn't even whether overpopulation is theoretically possible (it isn't the slam dunk that Malthusians think, but it's “the way to bet”). The real question is whether overshoot is likely.

Let's consider the consequences either way. If overshoot is unlikely, we don't have to worry about overpopulation until it actually happens. Since it's not actually happening, we don't have to worry about it. If overshoot is likely, we have to worry about overpopulation even if it doesn't look like a problem. In particular, we should be sensitive to even the slightest hint of population problems, even if they're anecdotal.

There are three main reasons to take overshoot seriously. First, overshoot is a phenomenon frequently observed in animals. It is rarely seen in plants. As far as ecology is concerned, humans are, of course, plants. When there are more of a species of animal there is less of what that animal eats. When there are more of a species of plant, the resources the plant needs either increase (soil) or stay the same (sunlight). The only resources that humans treat the way animals do are fossil fuels and wild fish. Both of those should be obsolete soon.

Second, in the past overpopulation theorists tended to underestimate carrying capacity. When they predicted population would level off soon, the population increased past the point they predicted. Rather than admit they made a mistake, some of them started to claim that the population would not level off but instead crash. On the other hand, now that some countries are declining in population, that theory may disappear.

Third, there's the potato chip from Brazil phenomenon. In It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown, there are the following lines:

Lucy: Well, look here. A big yellow butterfly. It's unusual to see one of those at THIS time of year, unless of course, it flew up from Brazil. I'll bet that's it. They DO that sometimes, you know. They fly up from Brazil.
Linus: That's no butterfly! That's a potato chip.
Lucy: Well, I'll be. I wonder how a potato chip got all the way down here from Brazil!
Overshoot looks like a potato chip from Brazil.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Math Problem Posed by a Reason Commenter

In the course of a discussion of a Ronal Bailey column on overpopulation hysteria, D Kingsbury (that's the author best known for a novel about eugenicist cannibals trying to breed professional politicians) wrote:

"We are headed for the stars, whether you're ready or not," says Mr Lol. Ha. ha. Lol, you are obviously not a mathematician and probably cannot even add. Learn something about exponential functions. If the human race started to expand TODAY at the velocity of light, and was able to convert ALL mass in our path to serve the human need for bodies, and at the present rate of population increase, we'd run out of mass in less time than it took to get where we are now from the time of the pharaohs. Lol, RIGHT NOW you are in the middle of a violent population explosion and you just don't see it because you are such a transient mayfly. With your limited command of reality you couldn't possibly see as far as a future where man might be involved in interstellar exploration!
In response to that, I wrote:
Okay. If we're expanding close to the speed of light, time dilation will slow the rate of growth.
In turn, D Kingsbury replied:
Hertz, you don't understand time dilation. In the first place, time dilation requires an INCREASE in mass. People may be screwing at a slower rate but they are multiple-thousands of times heavier and multiple-thousands of times more resource (mass) hungry. AND they have to STOP to colonize. Nor do you understand volume to surface ratios -- the bigger you are (volume) the smaller is the "surface to volume ratio." Jeez, take a math course. Sure we can go into space, maybe even interstellar space -- but you can only do that from a stable population base. Note that I said "stable" not "constant." If you look at stability as a mathematical concept, what we have today CANNOT be defined as stable. Don't worry, nature's constraints will FORCE a stable configuration whether it is 9 billion or Trantor's 30 billion or whatever You may not like that world when it comes. If you are a teenager now, in forty years you may be one of the desperately poor multitudes -- unless you're one of the few who will have figured out how to exploit your fellow man and are rich enough to hire guards and own an armored car. Even then you might end up in a spider hole like Saddam after a few years of living off your fellow man. If you seriously think we humans can avoid nature's constraints you have tipped over into insanity. Run as fast as you want, the constraints will catch up. The boogy-man lives under your bed.
Oh boy, it's a calculus problem! (Calling it differential equations might have been a bit pretentious.)

Let's set up the equations according to the model. The rate of increase in total human biomass M is = αTdM, in which α is the growth rate and Td is the time-dilation factor. Since we are assuming “the human race started to expand TODAY at the velocity of light, and was able to convert ALL mass in our path to serve the human need for bodies” and if we further assume that the human need also includes transportation needs, we must recall that the time dilation Td = Ec2/M, where E is the total energy available and c is the speed of light. The total energy E = Dc2(ct3), where D is the density of the universe and t is the time. Putting it together, we get: = αM2/D(ct3). This can be expressed as: dM/dt = αM2/D(ct3) or d(1/M) = (α/2Dc3)d(1/t2). When we integrate both sides, we get: 1/M = (α/2Dc3)(1/t2) + Constant. To sum up: M = 1/[(α/2Dc3)(1/t2) + Constant].

Long breath now …

The long-term behavior of M depends on whether the constant is positive or negative. If M is small enough, the constant will be positive, which means time dilation will ensure that population levels off. If it is large enough for the constant to be negative, the population will reach ∞ in a finite time. It looks like Kingsbury assumes the constant was negative.

In order to judge whether the constant is positive or negative, we must compare M (the human biomass) with 2Dc3t2/α. If we want to know what t is, we should consider the total mass available to humanity at the time of the singularity, Mh and set it equal to Dc3t3. When we put everything together, we get: D1/3Mh2/3c/α. The density of the universe (according to some astronomers) is 5×10-27 kg/m3. We can assume that Mh is the mass of the Earth: 6×1024 kg. c is 3×108 m/s. The fastest human population growth rate, according to Malthus, is 6%/year, which is α = 2×10-9 s-1. This amounts to 8×1024 kg. The current human biomass at 7×109 people and 100 kg per person (a round figure) is 7×1011. In other words, the population is small enough that Kingsbury's scenario is nonsense.

It is, of course, possible to move the goalposts and point out that the above calculations are oversimplified to “the limits of the preposterous and beyond” (as Poul Anderson and Gordon Dickson would have said), but there's no reason to believe that a more thorough analysis would be any more supportive of Malthusian theories.

One last trivial little point: D Kingsbury said in the quotes above: “Jeez, take a math course.” I think I have.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Possible Explanation of the Waste Heat Obsession

One of the favorite hobbies of Malthusians is to try to derive a reason why Population Growth Must Stop from first principles. The analysis is written down on the proverbial back of an envelope, which is then passed from environmentalist to environmentalist without coming in contact with reality.

One of the most obvious attempts was the use of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which can be misinterpreted to say everything must decline. In a more sophisticated use, it says that, in a closed system, heat will accumulate. (Never mind, that the Earth isn't a closed system.) I suspect John Holdren's belief that heat is a major global problem (mentioned here) came from that. I recall that the first objections to nuclear power plants came from people worried about “thermal pollution.” in roughly the same era. It petered out when Jeremy Rifkin published Entropy, a New World View and exposed it to public scrutiny.

There are other attempts. In 1959, Isaac Asimov wrote an essay “Life's Bottleneck” in Fantasy & Science Fiction (reprinted in Fact and Fancy) about the danger of the world's supply of phosphorus washing into the sea. (In the real world, phosphorus is the 12th commonest element in the Earth's crust and can be easily recycled from bullsh!t anyway.) This has been passed from one self-congratulatory environmentalist to another for years.

There's also the claim that if we expand at an exponential rate long enough, the space occupied by human bodies will be expanding faster than the speed of light. Of course, in that case, time dilation will reduce the rate of growth. (I intend to post an analysis of this in a day or two, complete with differential equations.)

Addendum: The above-mentioned analysis is up.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Saaaay What!?

According to Instapundit:

Forget cultural insularity or smugness. The main problem with the “new elite” is that they’re not an elite at all. That is, they aren’t particularly smart, or competent. They are credentialed, but those credentials aren’t so much markers for smartness or competence, or even basic education, as they are admission tickets to the Gentry Class, based on good standardized test scores.
He was making sense until the last phrase. I've been more impressed with their opposition to standardized tests. The combination of claims of brains and opposition to any objective method of testing those claims is not the mark of the arrogant but the mark of bluffers.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

An Irrelevant Comment on the LCROSS Data

If LCROSS detected a witches' brew of chemicals on the lunar surface … does future senator O'Donnell have anything to do with it?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

They Might Understand It All Too Well

According to Lydia McGrew, college students today have a bizarre reaction to “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. (For the benefit of anybody who didn't read the story, it's about an apparently-normal small town in which one person is chose by lot each year to be a human sacrifice.) Instead of reacting with horror, the students defended the townspeople on the grounds that we're not supposed to judge a society.

One possible reason for the change is that the most obvious instance of the unwilling being sacrificed with the approval of the Establishment within memory in the 1970s was a war carried out by a drafted army. The most obvious instance of the unwilling being sacrificed with the approval of the Establishment today is abortion. (In the early 1970s, abortion had been opposed by the Establishment within the memory of college students.) In other words, they took the viewpoint of the sacrificed in the 1970s and the sacrificers today.

Which reminds me … Many of my fellow wingnuts will look at cultural relativists and figure they are in favor of letting every civilization develop in its own way but will make an exception for Western Civilization. On the contrary, they believe in letting every civilization develop in its own way including Western Civilization … which to them means Roe vs. Wade cannot be criticized.

As for fighting this, one possibility is for a teacher to announce that the teacher comes from a culture where people with those ideas flunk and that, by cultural-relativist principles, a decision to flunk an entire class cannot be criticized. For obvious reasons, this can be done only by tenured professors.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

XKCD vs. John Campbell

According to XKCD, the lack of use of psychic phenomena is a major argument against the reality of such woo:

Eventually, arguing that these things work means arguing that modern capitalism isn't that ruthlessly profit-focused.
On the other hand, according to John Campbell editorials, businesses do use psychic phenomena … but keep it secret.

On the gripping hand (am I overusing that phrase?), the mainstream media haven't uncovered that. That means:

  • They're missing an opportunity to do some scandal mongering (superstitious capitalists are wasting YOUR money!).
  • A bunch of humanities majors are missing an opportunity to bash the people who passed the classes they flunked.
I won't more than mention the fact that the numerous claims across the Internet that oil companies use dowsers tend to be short on specifics.

Monday, October 18, 2010

I'm a Bit Embarrassed by This

Just a day or two after ridiculing “Darwinian believers” who know almost nothing else about science, Ilkka Kokkarinen mentioned the same idea, but used as an example a concept I am not familiar with:

In spirit of Derb's observation of how "belief in evolution" is really just a class marker, as is easily revealed by asking the supposed evolution enthusiast to explain the Fisher-Kolmogorov equation (or even better, simply acknowledge the existence of innate hereditary variation in humans), one easy way to shut these pests up is to ask them to prove that the Mandelbrot set is symmetric with respect to the real axis.
On the other hand, at least I have some idea why the Mandelbrot set is symmetric with respect to the real axis.

On the gripping hand, I suspect the Fisher–Kolmogorov equation is less fundamental than inclusive fitness or hormesis, concepts I did know about.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Late Benoît Mandelbrot

The late Benoît Mandelbrot helped heal the split between pure and applied mathematics. Before Mandelbrot, we had pure mathematicians working on things such as Cantor sets, non-differentiable curves, and point sets consisting entirely of branch points (which were obviously far more complex than anything in applied mathematics) and, on the other hand, we had applied mathematicians working on things such as line noise, financial markets, and the Eiffel Tower (which were obviously far more complex than anything in pure mathematics). Mandelbrot pointed out that, to a good approximation, the two lines of research were about the same thing.

Mandelbrot's research has another implication. I'm sure it's occurred to most people who have studied the hard sciences that they're far more useful than that fuzzy stuff. This is important because being useful is one of the best ways to ensure that you aren't fooling yourself. On the other hand, most pure mathematicians are bound to wonder if their apparently-useless specialties are just more of those fuzzy subjects. When Mandelbrot found a use for some of the most apparently-ridiculous parts of mathematics, he gave the rest of us an excuse to study the not-yet-useful stuff. Maybe someday we'll even find a use for the Banach–Tarski paradox.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A More Easily Evaluated Problem?

According to John Holdren (quoted here, seen via Greenie Watch):

A more easily evaluated problem is the tremendous quantity of waste heat generated at nuclear installations (to say nothing of the usable power output, which, as with power from whatever source, must also ultimately be dissipated as heat). Both have potentially disastrous effects on the local and world ecological and climatological balance.
The above quote appears to be real. On the other hand, it's from an article hidden behind a paywall. On the gripping hand, a search using Google Scholar will bring one to the same article.

I'll say it's a “more easily evaluated problem.” The above quote can be easily evaluated to be a heaping load of bullbleep. If we assume that the world population is 6.8 billion (almost enough to stand on Zanzibar), that a future advanced civilization uses 1.5 kilowatts per person (the same as the current U.S.), and that the power is generated at a thermal efficiency of 33%, then the total heat output (from both the power generators and the eventual dissipation of the electric power as heat) is about 3×1013 watts. The sunlight hitting the Earth is about 1.8×1017 watts, 6000 times greater. The extra heat won't be noticed.

If the human population rises to over a trillion, we might start to see some problems. On the other hand, by that time we will be spread all over the Solar System, which will increase the heat-dissipation area by a factor of billions.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Cultural Correlations for Darwinism vs. Creationism

The cultural correlations for Darwinism vs. Creationism (recently discussed by TJIC) don’t fit very well. In a rational world, you would expect the Darwinian believers to have large families, to disapprove of homosexuality or euthanasia, and to be skeptical of central planning (also, see this blog).

On the other hand, the correlations fit Malthus (Darwin's predecessor) vs. cornucopians very well. It looks like Darwinism inherited the Malthusians.

Addendum: The phrase “Darwinian believers” might need an explanation. When people who know almost nothing else about science are convinced of the truth of Darwin's explanation of evolution, they're taking it on faith.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Are Building Restrictions Caused by Small Families?

A small family has different economic incentives regarding what type of zoning law to support than large families. For a one-child family an increase in housing costs by $10,000 will increase the family's wealth by $10,000 but the eventual house costs of the child by only $5,000 (assuming the child's spouse pays for half the costs). For a six-child family the eventual house costs will increase by $30,000 in that scenario. So if you ever wondered why people in areas with relatively-high birth rates are more likely to support capitalism, the answer should be obvious.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Military Ballots May Not Count in Illinois

Military ballots may not count in Illinois … unless the soldiers were killed in action.

Monday, October 11, 2010

There's Wind Power …

… and there's breaking wind power:

A pilot project run by Centrica in a plant at Didcot sewage works, Oxfordshire, is the first in Britain to produce renewable gas from sewage for households to use.

I Knew My Math Education Would Have a Use

As a result, I understood the last panel and title text of this Xkcd cartoon and the odds are you didn't.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Advice for the DioGuardi for Senate Campaign

There's a problem with the Joe DioGuardi for Senate campaign: his smile.

Joe DioGuardi's smile looks like he heard a rumor of a newfangled facial expression called a “smile” and wanted to try it out. It looks downright un-American.

Either try for a more realistic (or at least more American) smile or ditch the smile completely. There's a handy excuse for ditching the smile: This economy is not a matter for smiles.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Parasites Have Parasites

According to Jonathan Swift:

So, naturalists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite 'em;
And so proceed ad infinitum.
In a related story, the IRS has bedbugs.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Undecidable “Elementary” Geometry, II

A couple of years ago, I mentioned that the elementary geometry of points, lines, and circles becomes undecidable when it includes screws or spirals. More recently, I have wondered how to express a suitable set of axioms for spirals. If we start with Tarski's axioms, this includes the necessary (but insufficient) step of replacing the two-dimensional upper- and lower-dimension axioms with their three-dimensional equivalents.

According to the Wikipedia article on Tarski's axioms, it can be easily extended to higher dimensions by changing the upper- and lower-dimension axioms. On the other hand, it didn't include examples of those and the papers that give examples appear to be hidden behind pay walls. So I had to devise my own…

In short, I have uploaded a file containing a JavaScript program to produce upper- and lower-dimension axioms to my Netcom/Earthlink site. (This included the JavaScript program mentioned here.)

Next I have to come up with a plausible way to express spirals …

Monday, October 04, 2010

Life, in JavaScript for Opera

I have just uploaded a Life program to my Netcom/Earthlink site. It is supposed to produce a Life display using JavaScript to produce bitmaps. It only works properly in Opera (the scrappy independent web browser).

Sunday, October 03, 2010

I Regret to Say…

I regret to say that the UN ambassador to space aliens story has turned out to be greatly exaggerated.

In other words, the UN has done nothing sensible for decades.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

How Much Do Irreligious People Know about Religion?

I'm sure most of my fellow reactionaries have heard about a Pew poll that showed atheists and agnostics did better on a test of religious knowledge than religious people.

I noticed there were two groups of irreligious people in the survey “Atheist/agnostic” (who did well) and “Nothing in particular” (who did badly). My initial reaction was to suspect the difference is that atheists will argue in favor of unbelief, whereas nothingists don't bother. On the other hand, the people passing around the “Open letter to Dr. Laura” a few years ago (which sounded amazingly like Christine O'Donnell talking about evolution) were arguing in favor of unbelief but were rejecting a middle-school understanding of religion. The distinction between “Atheist/agnostic” and “Nothing in particular” appears to be important, but I'm not sure of what it is. (The distinction has gotten into Jewish folklore.)

This does explain why some people are invincibly convinced that they know far more about religion than the actual religious people, even if they have a middle-school understanding.

Is counter-signaling involved?

It's possible the apparent low quality of argumentation among atheists might be counter-signaling. It's also possible that someone who isn't signaling at all might be mistaken for someone who's counter-signaling.

Along similar lines, Matt Simpson at Less Wrong claimed to be counter-counter-counter-counter-counter-counter-signaling. I suppose someone who is above all the levels of n-counter-signaling would be ω-counter-signaling … and someone who is better than that is ω+1-counter-signaling …

Of course, the theological opinions of someone able to ω1CK-counter-signal (ω1CK is the ordinal greater than which no ordinal can be conceived) should be taken very seriously because He really is God …

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