Sunday, September 30, 2007

Who Rules the World

There is an interesting debate going on at Comment is Free about who really controls the world in the 21st century.

The best answer on this page is Brian Eno's sensible comment that no one can really be said to rule the world, but rather that what happens is the result of the ecosystem of competing interests, including states, corporations, charities, media groups, individuals and other social and economic factors.

One of the more ridiculous answers is that of the admirable Camila Batmanghelidjh. She talks about viral psychological momentum (cultural or social movements?), but her use of obscure vocabulary damages whatever point she's trying to get across by rendering it unintelligible.

The other responses range from moronic paranoia ("...greedy, aggressive and ruthless neocon businessman..." - Nitin Sawhney) to the usual "guilty liberal" self-flagellation ("...We still rule the world and we're screwing it up..." - Sam Duckworth).

I wouldn't normally comment on this sort of thing as I feel I'm not qualified to do so. However I suspect that anyone who claims to know the answer is also unqualified. Eno makes the most sense by pointing out that the question begs the question: "does anyone rule the world?" The answer is no, of course, but people always seem to want to believe in some malevolent conspiracy.

The truth is that you should never attribute to evil what can just as reasonably be attributed to incompetence.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Game Theory and Northern Rock

There is a fascinating article over at Slate Magazine at the moment that places the recent crisis of confidence over Northern Rock in the context of game theory.

The article refers to a classic game theory problem of hunting stag versus hunting rabbits. Although half a stag is worth more than a brace of rabbits, hunting stag requires you to cooperate with another hunter, so the outcome relies on your trust in the skill and intention of another hunter. Hunting rabbits carries no such risk.

The people withdrawing from Norther Rock were hunting rabbits. They knew that there wouldn't be a big problem if no one chose to withdraw their savings from Northern Rock, but as everyone did (or rather the impression was given that everyone was) they were compelled to withdraw themselves, exacerbating the problem.

The key point the article makes is that the main difference between rich countries and poor countries boils down to the confidence people have in "the system." In the reliability of the state, the law, and the money.

So much that I take for granted is based on promises made by various organisations. I know my money will be safe and available for conversion into material assets because a company (my bank) tells me that this is so. I know that I am safe from foreign invasion because the state tells me this is so. I know the state will not harm me because the state says this is so. I know this post is available to millions, should they seek it, because Google says this is so. I know my computer is secure and functions satisfactorily because Microsoft says that this is so. I know that when I queue up behind someone I will be served immediately after them, I know this because social convention says it is so.

No one is an island. States and companies are superhumans in their sheer capability. I don't think ideological anarchists stand a chance of living in a world where their ideals are realised. We are all interdependent. It's like that Bob Dylan song: sooner or later you gotta serve somebody.

This is all fairly depressing. But at the same time it is fairly comforting. I am always going to be part of something, whether I like it or not.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Poetry and Morality

There is a bit of poetry quoted in The Stone Canal by Ken MacLeod called The Bells of Hell:

The bells of hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling

For you and not for me;

For me the angels sing-a-ling-a-ling

Death has no threats for me.

Oh death where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling

Oh grave, thy victory?

The bells of hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling

For you and not for me.

- Anonymous, from Songs and Slang of the British Soldier: 1914-1918

I really like this poem. It is simultaneously suggestive of the transhumanist desire to enable individual humans to live forever and of the bravery of the morally correct (i.e. those who apply the ethic of reciprocity to every aspect of their lives) in the face of death. For such a cheerfully pessimistic poem (my favourite attitude, aside from melancholic optimism…) it does carry a darker message as to the motives of those who would destroy themselves to harm and kill others.

The hijackers who flew the planes into the World Trade Centre might as well have been chanting this as they directed the aircraft towards their targets.

This raises a deeper moral question: is it right to kill as a soldier if you believe your enemy is evil? This poem highlights one of the biggest and most insidious problems of a deep faith in an afterlife – it reduces the morality of our actions here and now to a question: what would God have me do?

My belief at the moment is that the real world is far too messy and random and chaotic for us to ascribe an absolute morality to everything in every situation. We should just ascribe the ethic of reciprocity to as many situations as possible, promote pluralism in our discussion of morality, continue to discuss morality, and try to do the best we can.

Truck Love

It often seems like the trade-offs we'll have to make to reduce carbon dioxide output promise a hair-shirt existence of low-acceleration cars, more public transport, less international flights, and fewer articles of ultra-consumerist potlatch.

It is therefore fortunate that steps are being taken to achieve what we want in more environmentally friendly ways. This series of images from the Hybrid Truck Users forum at Wired are part of this trend towards maintaining our ridiculous capitalist system whilst reducing our carbon dioxide emissions.

Also I really want an E-One Command Centre. I don't know what I'd use it for, but it's important to know what you want, as well as what you need.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Science Writing

A wonderful and award-winning essay here summarises something I think can't be said often enough: science is not opposed to religion.

Putting science in opposition to religion is a mistake only someone who doesn't understand science would make. Science isn't about facts written down in textbooks. Religion is about facts written down in textbooks.

Science is a process, a machine of thought cobbled together to help us better understand the universe. Science is about basing your beliefs, and hence your actions and morality, on observable evidence.

David Hume understood this, and he also understood that there are no absolute truths. Everything we believe is ultimately based on what our own flawed perceptions tell us.


Dan Hardie has written an excellent article on the perceived liberal bias within the BBC. The article is long by blogging standards but makes many excellent points very well.

One of these is that the British Conservative Party is ideologically dead in the water. With Labour impinging on social justice and immigration there doesn't seem to be anywhere left for the Conservatives to go.

Hardie points out that there is a logical fallacy at the heart of conservatism (the ideology the Conservative Party are meant to represent in British politics).

Small-c conservatism is often held in opposition to liberalism, at least in the minds of those who consider themselves small-c conservatives.

But in reality "economic liberalism" is promoted by the pro-free-market Tories. At the same time the Conservatives stand opposed to an increasingly authoritarian Labour but they still fail to embrace "social liberalism."

We all live in a pluralistic liberal democracy, so technically we're all in favour of liberalism, except those who aren't, of course.

The basic point when talking about liberalism is that you need to define what it is you're talking about, ideally by proposing actual legislation instead of blathering about a political ideology that had meant so many things to so many people that it is essentially meaningless.

"Conservatives are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives."

- John Stuart Mill.

The "default position" of Middle England (swing voters that politicians have to appear to care about in order to win elections) is conservatism. But this isn't being represented by the Conservative Party.

What is needed is a genuine opposition. This genuine opposition would be libertarian. It would be pro-free-market, anti-prohibition (i.e. requiring the legalisation of all recreational drugs), pro-immigration, pro-civil liberties, and would seek to lower taxes and reduce the impact of the state on the lives of individuals.

The sad thing is all these things would be rejected by the mediocre, Daily Mail-reading, Alan Titchmarsh-loving, grumpy, hypocritical, consumerist, tax-hating, wilfully ignorant, God-fearing but faithless, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-intellectual, closet-racist, cowardly, overweight and pessimistic Middle Englanders.

Another quote, slightly mangled:

"Your guilty conscious may force you to vote for liberals, but secretly you want a cold-hearted conservative to lower taxes, brutalise criminals, and rule you like a king..."

For all that Middle England may claim to despise higher taxes and increasing incursions on civil liberties in reality what every tabloid-reading hypocrite really wants is a Big ol' Nanny State to look after him.

Sorry for such a badly written essay, but hate is unhealthy if it is bottled up inside. I thought it would be better if I dealt with it by writing my rants down instead of subjecting them to those that don't deserve it.

Friday, September 21, 2007


Well, I'm at Manchester University. I will probably be blogging much less frequently over the next few months, as I settle in and get to grips with the subject (chemical engineering).

Friday, September 14, 2007

More on the Singularity

For some time now I've been trying to write a thoughtful article on the Technological Singularity. In true blogger style I've decided that rather than expend my energies on creating my own article, I will find someone else's and link to it.

The writer is Ronald Bailey from Reason Online, the online wing of a reasonably popular (by UK standards) libertarian magazine, and he is reporting on the recent Singularity Summit.

Bailey does a good job of summarising the basic ideas surrounding the Technological Singularity. He quotes one of the attendees of the conference: Eliezer Yudkowsky, cofounder of the Singularity Institute:

"...the Event Horizon school is just one of the three main schools of thought about the Singularity. The other two are the Accelerationist and the Intelligence Explosion schools..."

My summary of these groups is as follows:

Event Horizon: once an intelligence is developed that is "greater" (dismiss for a moment the difficulty in quantifying intelligence) than ours we, by our very nature, will be unable to predict what will happen.

Accelerationist: advances in computer hardware (c.f. Moore's Law) will continue to accelerate, along with our understanding of our own biology and our ability (via genetic engineering, implants, bioengineering etc) to alter our own biology. This means that within a few decades we will merge with our technology and become the greater intelligence. Suggested by Ray Kurzweil in The Singularity is Near.

Intelligence Explosion (not a bomb at Thames House, the other kind of intelligence): technology arises from the application of intelligence to problems. When technology is applied to our own apparent lack of intelligence, we will get marginally better intelligence which will result in marginally better technology which will produce even better intelligence. A feed-back loop will be created, with "intelligence" increasing with each iteration. Suggested by I.J. Good in a New Scientist article.

The three concepts feed into one another and don't necessarily cancel each other out.

I suspect that the world sketched out by Kurzweil is not impossible, but the timeframe seems implausible. There is no reason why matter shouldn't be able to support beings that are more durable than we are, longer lived, faster at learning, with better memories, and that experience the world more slowly and deeply (i.e. each second for them would offer what would amount to a week's worth of thinking time to us).

However the current state of our ability to control matter, though significant, doesn't seem to offer the possibility of superhumans within, as Kurzweil suggests, 50 years.

If silicon-based computer chips are currently undergoing exponential increases in the transistor per centimetre counts then it doesn't necessarily entail similar progress in another area like brain-scanning.

Kurzweil does a good job of pointing out exponential trends similar to Moore's Law in The Singularity is Near, for example the Human Genome Project (page 510 of the USA Penguin hardback copy I have), and the resolution of non-invasive brain scanning (page 159).

My basic problem with Kurzweil's book is my incredulity: the book is compelling whilst you read it, but once you're back in the real world you simply can't imagine a "singularity" of any flavour occurring.

Which, ahem, is pretty much the definition of the event horizon style singularity.


So I suppose I'll just have to wait and see, like everyone else...

Thursday, September 06, 2007


Aaron Diaz's sublime webcomic Dresden Codak continues, with the most recent installment including an essay that harpoons the critics of transhumanism with spears of satire.