Sunday, December 22, 2013

Life, the universe, and everything considered as a helix of semiprecious Star Trek episodes

Version 0.2

Life, the Universe, and Everything Considered as a Helix of Semiprecious Star Trek Episodes (and as explored with Internet search engines)

Well, it started as a kind of joke of a meme when I woke up this morning. Initially it seemed like a kind of zen collapse item, then as a humorous meme to claim, but now it feels like an overblown mockery of Delaney's truly original and creative story "Time Considered as a Helix of Semiprecious Stones" from 1970. According to today's google report, the "considered as a helix" meme has 13.5 million. It appears Microsoft's bing is taking it more loosely, with 252 million hits on the unquoted form, but a mere 52,800 for the quoted string. Of course that leads back to a quoted search on the google, which yields 538,000 hits. All of the top hits are to the Delaney story, but this is clearly a highly contagious meme.

The titular form of this blog is then seen as a personal idiosyncrasy. I happened to be impressed by these three memes, with Delaney's as the natural uber-meme. to unify them. However, now I'm more interested in other people's extensions of the original Delaney meme, which I think is captured in the central phrase "considered as a helix"... Both of the unquoted searches quickly lead into unrecognizable territory, predictably dominated by the relatively unusual word "helix". My jumps are generally by 5 pages of search results at a time, and show an interesting range of wit and thought.

Actually, my most interesting discovery is that the google claims are misleading. Apparently the google runs out of steam at 217 results, while the hits are still dominated by references to the original meme, and it isn't clear how to force it to show the rest of the potentially more interesting hits that it claims to know about. That's only 22 pages of search results. In contrast, bing kept on trying to 605 results, when it suddenly decided it had had enough.

Adding -time to the search exposed many more of the derivative memes. Only 21 from bing versus 137,000 from the google? Interesting and stark contrast. In the next obvious step, it appears that I am the first to add "everything considered as a helix" to the Internet, insofar as both search engines reported no hits and unquoted the string for their searches... Kind of amazing how quickly we can get into the unexplored territory, isn't it?

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Linear Humans Facing Logarithmic Cliffs

Version 0.2

Every Logarithmic Change Looks Like a Cliff to Linear Human Beings

Thesis: We're basically linear beings and we live on a linear time scale. Any logarithmic change will eventually look like a cliff to us.

The example I've been aware of for a while was population increase, starting from the perception of homo sapiens the hunter-gatherers. We evolved in small-scale societies where we could know all of the people who mattered, but now we live in an international society with so many people we could never meet all of them or learning anything about the vast majority of them. However, from the perspective of the thesis, it's probably best to consider the famous population S-curve, which is often used to depict logarithmic population growth and the eventual leveling off when arithmetic reality collides with and causes the end of the period of exponential growth. (Another extension is to consider how this interacts with the rapid spread of any important genetic mutation to sometimes make evolution appear sort of spastic...)

Now it's technological change that's getting in our faces. For a personal example, I used to feel I was almost up to date on computer technology, but it's increasingly obvious that it's running away from me-and from everyone else, too. I actually concluded that Thomas Jefferson was living in a time when it was still possible for an intelligent person with sufficient leisure to learn almost everything about science.

At this point, we're creating so much of anything that any individual human being can saturate any amount of human time. For example, you could never keep up with all of the movies that are being released or you could spend your entire life just watching the old movies we've already created. Ditto for books, and even for more narrow areas.

Kind of an extended 'application' of my thesis here, but in the Google IO keynote presentation a few weeks ago, Larry Page received a friendly question about showing people the search results they wanted to see rather than possibly more accurate answers that are less satisfying. He generally seemed to be seeing things through rose-called [Google?] glasses, and he replied that he didn't see any problem with this form of personalization. I actually predicted this problem a couple of years ago under the label of "pandering to the user", which has come to pass and is much worse than I thought it would be. (That may have been around 2005, but I can't easily check due to google censorship of the newsgroups.) My first research after Larry Page dismissed the problem was to google "obama birthplace kenya", which produces more than 2 million hits. If that's what I want to believe, the google just gave me enough "evidence" to saturate all of my free time for several years...

However, I've since thought of an even less friendly way to pose the question. I would ask "Did Google help kill Steve Jobs?" When his ultimately terminal cancer was first diagnosed, at least one of his doctors has said that it may have been treatable--but he delayed treatment. I don't blame Steve Jobs for wanting to believe that there were alternatives to immediate surgery, and now I wonder if the google helped him in making that fatal decision. My understanding is that he tried some kind of anti-cancer diet to control his cancer and it failed and he died. Did he get information about that diet from a google search? If just did the search "alternative cancer treatments", and several of those hits and ads look potentially dangerous, but personalization means that your hits will probably be different--and more attractive and specifically appealing to YOUR tastes and interests. As long as someone paid for the ads, I guess the google doesn't see any problem if Steve Jobs made a fatal mistake, eh?

In another perspective, perhaps the saturation of information is driving people nuts, which led me to the AI threat... One aspect is the increasingly difficulty of standing out in a positive way that might drive some people to try to stand out in a negative dimension. When you combine it with increased individual capacity to do good (or bad) things, we humans beings start looking rather dangerous. Maybe the solution to the Fermi Paradox is that any AI is led to a very unpleasant conclusion... If it's creators are fundamentally irrational and dangerous, perhaps the only conclusion is that they must be exterminated as soon as they can be replaced with suitable robots?

Or perhaps I'm just too frustrated by banging my own head against logarithm cliffs?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Wasting Other People's TIme as the Greatest Sin?

Version 0.1

Wasting Other People's Time as the Greatest Sin?

Just one of those early morning wanderings of the brain... So here's something of the logical chain. Actually started from recollections of a great teacher, Bill Martin, who lost his faith while attending the Harvard Divinity School. From the perspective of his deeply religious parents, that leads to speculations about the Harvard Profanity School. Then jumped to considering the nature of the greatest sin, which linked to thoughts of time-based economic theory, where are personal time is the most precious and limited resource of all. In conclusion, the greatest sin must be wasting other people's time.

To avoid the sin, I should just stop there, but I'll just note that I still haven't any answers to the questions posed in Couch Potatoes of the World, Unite. Not even a hint.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Free speech versus moderated comments

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Free Speech Versus Moderated Comments

I want to clarify my position on free speech in light of my settings for moderation on all blogger comments. I think there are several elements of confusion, especially about the use of the word "free".

First, let me be clear that I strong approve of free speech in the sense of freedom to say whatever you want. That means I am STRONGLY inclined to approve EVERY comment or reaction submitted in response to any of my blogs. Except for unsolicited commercial spam, I am unable to recall any comment that I did not approve, and I have even approved a couple of replies that came dangerously close, but which seemed sincere enough and strongly relevant to the topic of the comment.

Second, I want to thank you for disagreeing with me so strongly that you actually change my mind. It doesn't happen very often (except for corrections of typos or silly mistakes), but it is possible and I really want to learn about my misconceptions, incorrect reasoning, and especially about any false evidence I am relying upon or unknown and important evidence that I should consider. Even if you disagree with me vigorously, I want to approve your post. However, if you are sincerely trying to change my mind, you should focus on new evidence or analytic flaws in my reasoning.

Third, if you just call me a bunch of vile names, I'm just going to approve your post so I can hold you up and wave you around as effectively discrediting and disproving yourself because you are unable to provide anything more substantive. I actually think emotional writing can show sincerity and there is even research showing it is more persuasive, but I insist that I am an essentially reasonable person and I'm quite happy to say something along the lines of "This fellow strongly disagrees with me, but he is contradicting himself and can therefore be dismissed as some sort of liar without even trying to figure out which side of his own words he actually believes." That's just one example, but I'm frequently surprised by how inconsistent people are... There might be some limit of angry ranting where I would just decide not to approve the comment, but I'm having trouble seeing where it would be, because the crazier someone gets in their disagreement, the more reasonable I feel and the happier I am to use their craziness as evidence of my reasonableness.

Fourth, I want to address the confusion about "free speech", which is NOT related to free beer. Being able to speak freely has almost nothing to do with the actual financial costs of speaking, especially in these days of exceedingly cheap Internet-based publishing. I am moderating these comments because of unpaid COMMERCIAL speech, specifically the scams that are being "advertised" by spammers. Okay, I admit that I don't have many readers, but I am NOT going to help the spammers in harassing them as the spammers desperately search for the tiny number of suckers who can be fooled into sending money. If you are a spammer, your comments will NEVER be approved by me and I will do everything I can think of to put you out of business. I am NOT saying we can convert spammers into decent human beings, but I do believe that without the money, they will crawl under less visible rocks.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Couch Potatoes of the World Unite

Version 0.3

Couch Potatoes of the World, Unite!
You have nothing to lose but your humanity!

Yes, I'm being a bit tongue in cheek, but there's a serious notion underneath. We need to rethink economics, and I'm even going to outline a different way of thinking about it. I hope my conclusion surprises you: The couch potatoes are more valuable and more human than you think and they actually contribute more to our economy than they are usually given credit for.

Let's start by analyzing economic activity and classifying it into three categories. There is an essential category that keeps us afloat, an investment category that makes things better, and everything else that makes us enlightened human beings. The rest of this post is basically explaining those three ideas and offering a few of the most basic observations, but my real questions are about the numbers. I've been looking for this kind of information for some years, and so far I've been coming up dry. Isn't ANYONE else thinking along these lines? Please point me at the right economists. The comments are open for such purposes!

The essential category includes such things and producing food and clothing and maintaining houses and essential infrastructure. This is what you have to do just to keep life at the current physical level. One way to think about it is as a metric of the productivity of the civilization. A more advanced society will do this more efficiently. Think of it as an average of the total working time. In an advanced society, perhaps the average working time to produce the essentials will be 2 hours per week, and the rest of the economic activity is for other purposes, whereas a relatively less advanced society may require 30, 50, or even 80 hours of weekly work from each individual just to stay afloat. In other words, at some point a society cannot sustain itself because there aren't enough hours in the week, and there are poor and effectively dysfunctional societies that really are dependent upon outside assistance just to attempt to survive.

The investment category includes all of the spending that improves productivity and thus reduces the economic expense of the essential category. That includes things like building better infrastructure or creating better machinery for more efficient factories, but it also includes less obvious things like technical education and even abstract research where the results are years away and quite unpredictable. You can actually evaluate the spending in this category based on the RoI (Return on Investment). The easy calls are cases where you can calculate that developing a certain device will cost a certain amount of money and it will take a known amount of time to make profits that equal that amount of money. Yes, the future is never certain, but some things are relatively easy to predict and the investments in those cases are easy to justify. I actually think this part of the economy should be evaluated in competitive terms. A nation that wants to advance relative to other societies should spend more in this category, for example by tweaking the tax incentives to encourage people to shift more money from the next category...

Now we're ready for the category of everything else, and that's where the couch potatoes enter the picture as representatives of the leisure class. Yes, it's a stereotype with negative connotations, but there really are a lot of economic activities in the leisure class that are represented by the people who watch television or who read books. This category has a lot of interesting attributes. For example, it is divided into a creative and consuming side, and advanced societies have already passed the threshold of maxing out. Let's take a simple example of books: We already publish more new books than any person can possibly read, even if that person was free to spend all of his time reading new books. Another aspect is that the demand on the consuming side is never satisfied. You can only eat so much food or wear so much clothing, but the only limit on your leisure time is the time itself. A related aspect is that many of these leisure goods are not consumed, since the same movie can be viewed by any number of people. What mostly counts in this part of the economy is how people vote with their time. In the example of an advertising-based economy, it really matters to the advertisers if the couch potatoes vote for football or baseball.

Okay, I guess that's enough food for thought. As noted earlier, I've been thinking about these ideas for some years, but so far I haven't found any leads and especially I haven't been able to find any numbers. If you know of such, comments with pointers would be greatly appreciated.

Oh yeah, I better explain the subtitle about humanity... I suspect than an inhuman civilization of machines would skip the third category. It's the humanity, stupid.