6.20.2008

Our National Debt: 1/200th of everything in the world

According to the U.S. National Debt Clock, our government is currently 9.371 trillion dollars in debt. Just how much money this is is actually pretty interesting.

I emailed Steven Levitt (of Freakonomics fame) for a rough estimate of how much (at current prices) it would take to purchase every economic right in the world-- i.e., how much money every sort of thing, property, and salable right in the world is worth. Now, this is back-of-the-envelope math, so there are plenty of caveats, but Levitt suggested the following as a rough estimate:
WDP (World Domestic Product) * 30.

Now, since cia.gov says the WDP as of 2006 (purchasing power parity) was estimated at $65.95 trillion, we get:
9.371/(65.95*30)=.0047

So, bottom-line? Our national debt is roughly equal to half a percent of the economic value of everything in the world. 1/200th of Every. Thing.

(Until we start to inflate it away, of course!)

6.18.2008

Quote: 13.7 hours of education

John Hawks, summarizing a recent study on the state of our science education:

We're entering an age in which health decisions will be made based on genetic information -- when everyone may know their own gene sequences if they want to. New diseases are emerging, new crops are being developed, and new organisms are being transplanted from one continent to another. Decisions about the economic development of entire regions -- perhaps entire nations -- are now subject to the evaluation of biodiversity, including threatened and endangered species.

The people making these decisions ten to twenty years from now will have an average of 13.7 hours of education on evolution.

I think positive change in our culture's approach to scientific literacy is coming. Painfully slow, but coming.

Update 6-22-08: Hawks has a nice post up arguing that evolution education matters- that evolutionary theory sheds light on how we should think about many pressing current issues.

5.23.2008

Transcipt of Lessig's Change Congress Announcement

A couple months ago I transcribed Lessig's announcement of the Change Congress movement-- since then, it's just been sitting on my hard drive. So in the spirit of spring cleaning and making good things more searchable, here's the full text of the announcement.


Lessig Launches beta of Change Congress Project in Sunshine Week Lecture
Thursday, March 20, 2008 1:30 PM Eastern
The National Press Club - Washington, DC

Introduction by Ellen Miller, Executive Director and Co-founder of the Sunlight Foundation.

Abridged Introduction: Lawrence Lessig is a professor of law at Stanford Law School, founder of the school's Center for Internet and Society, and founded the Creative Commons Foundation. Before joining Stanford he was the Berkman Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and a professor at the University of Chicago. He has clerked for Judge Richard Posner and Justice Scalia. Among many other awards and activities, Lessig has also authored 4 books.


Lessig:

So I'm going to talk about Truth, Trust, and Title VII.

First, a little about Truth. So we have a government, which engages in lots of policy making, faces questions in lots of very hard cases, gets some of those cases right, gets some of those cases wrong. But I want to focus for a moment on what we should think of as easy policy cases, easy policy cases which our government increasingly gets wrong.

For example, one that I spent ten years of my life dealing with, copyright term. There's a consensus among policymakers that if you're going to change the copyright term, it could only make sense to change the copyright term prospectively. Copyright is an incentive to produce new works; no matter what we do, George Gershwin will not produce anything more. Indeed in England, the Gowers Commission, headed by the former editor of the Financial Times, studied all of the economic literature about copyright term, and concluded that never could it make sense to extend the term of an existing copyright. Milton Friedman in the United States, when asked about the question, said anybody who thought it could was, quote, "brain-dead".

But the puzzle is that every time governments confront this question of copyright term, they always extend the term prospectively and retrospectively both. Indeed in the cycle that we're in the middle of right now, Germany extended the term first, leading the EU to extend the term, leading the United States to extend the term, leading EU to it because we went beyond the EU, leading Spain to extend it again, leading to this endless cycle of extending the term of existing copyrights.

Here's an easy policy question, which governments consistently get wrong.

Or think of a second one, nutrition. There's a consensus among scientists that we eat too much of this junk, not enough of this stuff. Indeed in 2003 the World Health Organization tried to set standards to guide the amount of sugar that we would consume: they said no more than 10% of our caloric intake from sugar. Well the sugar industry, pictured in this very sweet way here, went ballistic- there they are, going ballistic- at the suggestion that we eat only 10% of our calories from sugar. They launched an attack on the WHO's efforts, indeed leading the United States Senate, here's a letter from Senator Craig, to threaten to withhold funding from the WHO if they didn't adjust their recommendation. Indeed adjust their recommendation to 25% consumption of sugar in our daily diet. And indeed in 2003, the food nutrition board, after the sugar industry got a little bit more support on that board, increased the recommendation to 25% of our caloric intake coming from sugar. This is a, quote, "balanced diet" according to our government? Here's a daily intake that would satisfy this? You could start with some fruit loops or M&Ms for breakfast, a glass of milk, cheeseburger for lunch, pizza, indeed three slices of pepperoni pizza and cookies, for dinner. That's a balanced diet according to our government.

Here again, an easy policy case, from the perspective of those who know about this issue, which we get wrong.

Or maybe most profoundly, the issue that all of us have focused on in the last couple years, this issue of global warming. Obviously there's a consensus out there that we're doing it, we're responsible for it. As Al Gore summarized the debate, the debate's over, there are five points in this consensus. Number one, global warming is real; number two, we human beings are mainly responsible; number three, consequences of this are very bad; number four, we need to fix it quickly; and number five, it's not too late to fix it.

Now this consensus has been tested in studies in both scientific journals and in popular media. So, a review of a thousand peer-reviewed scientific journal articles published between 1993 and 2003 found that 0%- exactly zero- questioned that basic consensus. And then a similar study of six hundred popular media articles between 1988 and 2002 found that 53% questioned the basic science. This is of course the product of an extraordinary amount of junk science that had been funded to spread in this debate, leading to this extraordinary delay in the United States of at least ten years in confronting perhaps the most important public policy problem we face as a world.

Again, an easy public policy question which government got wrong.

Now in all three of these cases, these easy cases, these easy cases that we get wrong, the fundamental question is why is it. Not that in the hard cases government goes off-track, but in cases where there is no real debate, government goes off-track.

That's Truth. Think a little bit about Trust.

We have in our society many institutions that depend upon trust. Trust by the people in what they do, in order to be effective. Think about courts, or doctors, or academics. This trust depends on certain conditions that these institutions live with, then. Conditions where we believe that their decisions are a function of reason, not a function of their interests, either personal or institutional interest.

So think about the Supreme Court. Which has done an extraordinarily good job, both the Federal Supreme Court, and Federal courts generally, in building in people a sense that whatever reason they've made for their decision, it has little to do with their personal gain. Or even the gain that their institution might get from that decision. Of course we question the politics in their decision, and rightly so, but the institution has developed the conditions of trust that let us believe that its decisions are not guided by this personal consideration.

Think though, about doctors, who have actually not been so good in building this same sort of trust for the work that they do. Indeed they reveal a kind of blindness, fundamental blindness, to how their work, and the institution they've built, connects to how people view them. So for example, this drug, Alteplase. It's a drug that was developed to deal with what we used to call strokes, which the industry now wants to call 'brain attacks'. This drug was studied in a 1998 American Health Association study. That study had significant support for the release of this drug, but some pretty significant dissent about whether its safety was, on balance, supported. When a 2000 report was issued by the AHA about this, the dissent magically disappeared. Indeed the author of the dissent was stricken from the list of those who had actually worked on the report. And then it was discovered that the company that was funding the drug, Genentech, had given more than eleven million dollars to the American Health Association, raising fundamental questions about exactly what led to the conclusions of the report, leading this L.A. Times reporter to comment, "This recommendation may have been made in a true spirit of unbiased scientific inquiry, but the appearance of dispassionate analysis was eroded by large donations from a drug company."

Or think for example about this issue of vaccines. Of course one has to be extremely careful not to mark oneself off as a nutcase in this debate, so here I'm going to be very careful. First, vaccines are good and right and needed, no doubt. And number two, mercury does not cause autism. I want to make this very clear- vaccines are good, mercury does not cause autism. Alright, that's not what I'm asserting here. What I'm asking you to do though, is to put yourself in the place of parents, parents of children with autism. Who for years have suffered this anxiety that maybe something they did, some decision they made about how in fact they went about raising their child and taking precautions against disease, this extraordinary anxiety, might have led to this link between the disease that their children face and the steps they took. And recognize in the parents here, the pervasive lack of trust they have in the information given to them about this question.

And why is there this pervasive lack of trust? Well as the House Oversight Committee commented in 2000, "The FDA standards defining conflicts of interest are ridiculously broad." The CDC has virtually no standards, because all ACIP (this is the immunization board) members automatically receive annual waivers. The very members of the board receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from the industry which they are purportedly regulating.

Now when you raise these questions with doctors, they say in great outrage, 'Of course, we would never compromise our scientific judgment for money.' Even though, scientific studies of the effect of reviewers who have been paid, compared to reviewers who have not been paid, consistently demonstrate that there is in fact a bias that comes in the interpretation of data that comes from reviewers who have been paid. But even if you accept their claim, that they would never compromise their scientific judgment, this claim is simply oblivious to the way in which the institution needs to build trust. It's a hollow claim in the face of the background knowledge that money so completely pervades the process of producing knowledge here.

Or think finally about academics. And the increasing rise of what's called the 'coin operated expert'. My colleagues, increasingly, who come to Washington paid by industry to opine about matters of public policy. Saying the way the world ought to be based on their academic expertise. Increasingly, there's a presumption that if you're here, talking about public policy, it is because you've been paid- why else would you have come? And indeed, so deep is this presumption, that whenever one encounters a policymaker like a congressman or a senator about the issue, confronted in response with the assumption that you have taken money.

So in a pretty heated email exchange I had with Senator Sununu, once he shot back to me, "And don't shill for the big guys protecting marketshare through neutrality regulation either." And it hit me, like a ton of bricks. He thought, he assumed, that I was being paid, by Google, or et. al, for the stuff that I wanted to talk about here. He assumed it, because again, why else would one be here. And of course, his assumption is reasonable against a background of academics who choose not to stand and say what right public policy is based on their experience or knowledge- instead, to say, because they've been paid.

This is a pervasive lack of trust, I suggest, in key institutions, because we ignore how trust is built. And my claim here is not some sort of simple claim against money, or the importance of money. Money has an extremely important part in our society, to drive the market in ways the market needs to be driven. We just need to recognize that money in certain places is destructive of trust. And to recognize that even if we don't believe that the people making decisions are themselves directly driven by the money. Because trust comes not from what they do, but instead from how what they do is perceived.

Finally, about Title VII.

Not the Title VII you were thinking about. I'm going to talk about Title VII of the Communications Act. Then you're going to tell me there isn't Title VII of the Communications Act, there's only Titles I, II, III, IV, V, VI, that's true. But the Title VII that I want to talk about is something that was intended to come out of Title II, which covers common carriers, or telecom in this context, and Title VI, which covers cable.

Al Gore, in 1994, proposed this idea of creating Title VII out of Title II and Title VI, and to have it regulate all internet services. So all of these internet services would be under one organizational structure, and that structure would be de-regulated. Minimal interconnect requirements, not even the Net Neutrality issue people are talking about today, just minimal regulation to encourage investment in this space.

When Gore's team took this idea to the Hill, he got back the answer as one of the members of the team told me- "Hell no", the hill said. Why? "How are we going to raise money from the telecoms if we de-regulate them?" was the question.

That's Title VII.

Alright. Take these things together: Trust, Truth, Title VII. Let me apply the thought to Congress.

First, this idea of Trust and Truth. The framers of our constitution were fundamentally focused on what they would have called 'independence'. We think independence means independence from Britain- I'm not talking about independence from Britain, and neither were they. They were thinking of independence in the sense of building a government that didn't have dependence, meaning the members of that government were not improperly dependent upon outside influences, particularly the influence of money. As Jefferson put it, "Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambitions." Or as Foner[?] describes the 18th century, "It was an axiom of 18th century politics that dependents lacked a will of their own, and thus did not deserve a role in public affairs."

Did not deserve a role in public affairs.

Now the point here is improper dependence, because of course we want our representatives to be dependent upon the will of the people expressed in the polls. But it's dependence upon the influence of money that led to the kind of corruption that was their obsessive focus in the founding generation. Their common aim was to build institutions, constitutions, against that dependism.

Now their idealism failed in the original period of the republic. Indeed here's a picture of Daniel Webster, a particularly evil picture because that's my point. Daniel Webster, during the time in which he was serving in Congress, was a paid representative of the Bank of the United States, and wrote the Bank of the United States, "If it be wished that my relation to the bank be continued, it might be well to send me the usual retainers."

Directly in the interest, in the dependence upon that bank, while pushing public policy as a member of Congress. Indeed it wasn't until 1853 that bribery was even a crime, as it applies to Congress.

So my point is that they had less than ideal results from their ideal of creating independence, and in the sense that I'm criticizing them, 200 years later we have radically improved on what they did. This crude form of corruption, 'feathering the nest' of the representative, is not the problem we face today. This is the exception, Duke Cunningham, not the rule. Personal corruption in this Congress is in my view at its lowest in history in the United States, lower than it's ever been.

But the point to recognize is that just because there's no personal corruption, does not mean that this institution is independent, or that its members are independent. It doesn't mean that there is no institutional corruption, in the sense that the institution is driven by interests that ought not to be driving it. They can be personally secure from the influences that Daniel Webster couldn't resist, but they can be professionally dependent, subject to a kind of corruption, which we need to increasingly see.

The 'economy of influence', which defines the way ideas and action moves through this Congress, is exactly the kind of corruption, lack of independence, that the framers feared. This economy of influence, which controls access, and which affects the results, and affects the respect, that the institution has.

So, has it affected the respect of Congress? Well, Trust is an easy question to answer. Respect for this Congress is the lowest that it's ever been. 19% approval rating for this institution. And with respect to Truth, well think back to my example of the easy cases. Right, who cares about Mickey Mouse, right? I'll just drop that issue. Whether he's in the public domain or not is not the most important issue out there. But when our children are facing the extraordinary problem of obesity, the 25% recommendation for sugar intake is a serious problem. And when we take the most serious public policy problem that we face as a nation, and delay considering it for at least 10 years? This is a profoundly serious problem, a mistake of profound importance.

All of these errors here are driven by this improper influence of money. All of them are a function of an improper dependence. This Constitution, that the framers imagined they would build against that dependence, has failed. These people are personally honest, I will believe and assert, they're institutionally corrupt.

And this is the most important challenge, I believe, that we face. To build this Constitution of independence, that they failed to build.

Of course there's an extraordinary movement to do that already, a movement of reform, a reform that expresses itself in the single meme of this election, the meme of change.

But the reform I want to talk about is the change in the power of money, in the way that public policy gets made. A change in how Congress works: that's the meme I want to animate this Change Congress movement. And I think we need to recognize an extraordinary opportunity for this change right now, in this election. There are 68 open seats in this election, the largest number of open seats since at least 1996. And these open seats will bring members of Congress into Congress who will have a taste for reform, as they begin to taste their life under the existing system, a life which is increasingly dominated by cubbyhole telemarketing to fundraising to guarantee they can return to Congress.

So the Truth and Trust, which we need to focus on in thinking about this reform, truth in getting the right answer, and getting the right answer for the right reason, has led many reformers to talk about proposals that might restore both the trust of this institution, and the ability of this institution to get it right.

So for example there's been a call by, Democrats primarily, John Edwards launched the call, that members not accept money from lobbyists or PACs, an effort driven to drive an increase in trust, in the ability for people to understand what members of Congress are doing not as a function of who gave them money, but what they think is right. And there's been a push for transparency, muted by both parties, pushed mainly by organizations such as the Sunlight Foundation, which aims for the same objective, increasing trust.

And a very strong push right now, the Republicans taking the lead on this against earmarks, for the same reasons, so we can begin to believe the reason that money is being allocated doesn't have to do with the money going into a campaign, decisions being made for the right reasons. And not just because we're worried about, quote, "waste", but because we're worried about government functioning in the basic way it's supposed to function.

So for example, this guy, Douglas Hashek[?], was an entrepreneur developing a fire-retardant T-shirt for the Army, so that soldiers in Iraq would have a T-shirt that would resist burning when they were in the middle of firestorms. He then discovered as he went to bid on this government contract, that the bid had been closed down, because of an earmark from David Wu, a Democrat from Oregon, giving the contract to this company. But it turned out that this company actually hadn't produced a fire-retardant T-shirt; the T-shirt melted at a certain temperature on the skin of the Iraqi soldier's backs. And then it turned out that that company had given $9,000 to Congressman Wu in campaign contributions, through the collection of money from inside the company.

This is not just a question of whether we waste money. It's a question of whether government can function the way it's supposed to function. Both Truth and Trust, threatened by this process of earmarking.

And finally in the context of public financing. It's been pushed by members of both parties, maybe more by the Democrats, to remove this dependency directly. Consider the proposal of Paul Begala and James Carville, that says once a member is elected to Congress, he's not permitted from that moment on to raise one dollar for his re-election. Instead the amount of money he gets is a function of how much his opponent raises. So his opponent raises a million bucks, he gets $800,000, written to him in a check from the U.S. Treasury. A design to assure that from the very moment he enters Congress his work is not driven by an understanding of whether he's going to get rewarded in the campaign fundraising process. The same idea behind public campaigns work, adjusted[?] dollars work, to get public financing to allow members to focus on what they ought to be focusing on, instead of focusing on what will get them money in their re-election.

Now of course the Right has been naturally skeptical about these proposals. The Right worries this is more Big Government, more spending by government, we should be focusing on reducing the size of government. But what the Right needs to recognize, is my message behind my story about Title VII.

Why is government so big? Members of the Right? Because Congressmen must get elected. The insidious relationship between the desire to regulate, so that money can be raised for an election, drives the expansion in the size of government. And if we could remove that dependency we could allow the government to shrink in those places where it maybe ought to shrink. A huge chunk of the FCC could disappear, if it weren't for this weird and perverse interaction.

So if Public Campaign is right that these elections would cost maybe $2 billion dollars to run, we need to recognize, those from the Right, that $2 billion dollars is a tiny number (see, really tiny on the screen, now), compared to the drag that this unnecessary regulation imposes on the economy.

So this has led some of us, in particular me and Joe Trippi, who I'm honored is here today, to think about launching what we call this Change Congress movement, and today we're launching the beta of this Change Congress movement.

The Change Congress movement is a bipartisan movement, maybe a multi-partisan movement. It's not just about Dems and Republicans. Designed to leverage and amplify the reform work that has been done by others. It's a kind of Google mashup applied to politics, where we take the work that's going on out there already and we find ways to make it more significant. Not displacing the extraordinarily important work done by these reform organizations, but finding ways to make it more successful.

So there's a simple sense of the mashup, you go to our page right now you can see in the front page this map, which in this sludge color tries to measure the amount of money that comes to a campaign from PAC and lobbyist contributions, so you can click on your campaign or your candidate and discover how much of his money comes from PAC or lobbyist contributions.

But it's a mashup in a more fundamental sense than that, and it will be rolled out in three stages.

Layer 1 that we are rolling out today, gives people a simple way to pledge support for reform. It's modeled after the work that we've done at Creative Commons.

Creative Commons' objective was to find a simple way for copyright holders, authors, to mark their creative work with the freedoms they intended it to carry. So you go to our page and you pick, do you want to allow commercial use, do you want to allow modifications, do you require others license the work that is the modification of yours just as freely? You get a license, the license appears on the webpage attached to the content, if you click on the license you have a simple description of the freedoms associated with the content, backed up with an enforceable copyright license.

Change Congress wants to do the same thing for reform. So a simple way, for both candidates and citizens, to signal their support for reform. And the reform, that we'll be talking about, comes in four separate possible pledges.

Number one, that you won't take money from lobbyists or PACs.

Number two, that you support a permanent ban for earmarks.

Number three, that you support the public financing of public elections, and

Number four, that you support changes in rules and law to require total transparency in the way Congress functions.

The candidate has the option to make this pledge by going to the webpage and picking which of these things they will support, they then get this badge, or one of the badges want, they get code they can put onto their page, when you see this on a webpage and click to it you get a description precisely of the support that that candidate gives for the reform they want to make.

So too with the citizen. The citizen can get a pledge in the same way they can put on their website that indicates what kind of candidates they will support, signaling the level of support that exists out in a particular district for certain kinds of reform.

That's Layer 1. Really in some sense the smallest step we can make to make more transparent the kind of support there is for this reform.

Step two is to track support for reform. Because we recognize already out there, there have been efforts to get pledges to components of the Change Congress platform. And indeed there are hundreds of members who have pledge to support various parts of it, including Public Campaign's effort to get people to support in 2006 a pledge for public financing.

So in stage two of the Change Congress site we're going to develop some wikified tools, inspired by the work of Sunlight in exactly this way, to build an army of collaborators whose job it will be to suss out which reforms certain candidates are for. And then once we verify this reform, and make sure this is the reform this candidate has supported, or this member has supported, we will ask the member to join the Change Congress movement with respect to that reform.

But then we will map, both actual support and pledged support of existing members of Congress. Actual supporters will either be marked red, dark red, or dark blue, for Republicans or Dems who have actually pledged, but tracked support will be light red and light blue, for members who have actually signaled that they support platforms in this. And then those who have neither taken the pledge nor signaled their support will still remain this ugly color, sludge, so that you begin to get a map that signals exactly how broad actual measure of support out there is for this fundamental Congressional reform. Revealing, what we think, is an extraordinarily optimistic picture, just how deep and strong support is for substantial change in the way Congress functions.

Finally Layer 3, we'll begin to fund this reform, kind of a carrot in the mix, following the ideals of the Emily's List. We will set up a reform page where people can pledge money to candidates who have supported reform, pledge five dollars a month to five candidates who have supported reform, to fund and support these campaigns for reform.

Now all three of these layers are intended to build recognition. In the best of what you could think of as a web way, because this is actually a Silicon Valley approach to this problem, not building big institutions but leveraging off other institutions. And in many ways it's a Wikipedia-inspired solution to the problem. Wikipedia's great insight, and of course many have followed the same model, and Sunlight does this right now, is to take the problem of reform and break it down into manageable, digestible, and segmentable problems. That people can work on 20 minutes a day, or 20 minutes a week, that gives them a sense of actually accomplishing something towards the end they're trying to accomplish, a public good they want to support, but that actually produces value towards that end. And these tools, embedded in this site, will be the most important part of how this site advances the movement.

Again, complementing, not competing, with the extraordinary work done by others. Not announcing some new idea, but really recognizing a new opportunity that this idea has to have some effect in changing the way Congress functions.

These are the first steps that we're announcing today.

The next steps will be to build the Board of this organization in a bipartisan way that makes it sound credible, much more credible than any flailing idea of a law professor, even a law professor backed up by someone as credible as Joe Trippi. But these steps, these next steps, will be to build this movement into something that can leverage the support we believe is out there to effect this fundamental change in the way Congress works.

Let me just add one final thought.

So in 1965 this man gave a radio address. In the radio address he said this:

"A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover they can vote themselves largesse out of the public treasury." "From that moment on," Reagan said, "the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits from the treasury - with the result that democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy."

I think Reagan had it half-right. There is something fundamentally unstable about democracy. About the democracy that we've inherited.

But the danger here does not come from the masses. The problem we face right now is not that the masses have gotten together to steal, to rape, from the rich, all the money of society. The problem we face is in fact the reverse. It's the problem of crony capitalism, using power to capture government. Not wealth pumped down, but the reverse, wealth pumped up, a problem of the top 1% in our society taking advantage of this structure to the disadvantage of the bottom 99%.

This is profoundly destructive, of trust and democracy. This is the danger that Reagan should have recognized. And the challenge is whether we can in fact change this.

Now the "experts," political experts, will tell you, can't be done. It's not possible to focus people on this issue, it's not a concern of ordinary people, process always loses over substance. There are going to be many more important problems that the public faces, and that's what will get their attention.

And that might be a true description of how politics works today. And the challenge is whether we can change that, to get them focused on something more than the particular problems they now face.

But we shouldn't forget that there have been extraordinarily important moments in the history of America where process revolutions have succeeded. And more importantly, we need to point to what I think is a common recognition of a certain kind of problem.

So every one of you in this room knows an alcoholic or someone who has been hurt by alcoholism. I know it personally, very very significantly, in my own family.

What is the structure of the problem of an alcoholic? An alcoholic could be losing his family, his job, his liver, these are extraordinarily important problems in any scheme of reckoning, these are the most important problems he could be facing. But he will never face and solve those problems until he solves this alcoholism first.

This problem that I have described is not the most important problem. It's just the first problem. It's the first problem that we have to solve if we're going to solve other problems. There are no end to extraordinarily difficult problems that we face right now in this country.

But we won't be able to address those problems sensibly until we solve this first problem, this dependence on money. Not a dependence that reveals itself in the way evil people act, but a dependence that corrupts even the way good people solve the problems they come to Washington to address. We need to solve this problem now. We need to take this extraordinarily important and powerful passion for change and direct it at the one institution that really needs to change if this problem is to be solved.

Thanks very much.

5.16.2008

Quote: FSJ on Google

The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs, on working at Google:
And you know what? There is something really evil about taking thousands of the world's smartest young people and using them to sell online text ads more efficiently. Really.
I think it's a complicated situation, but I have to admit he has a point.

A suggested model for Dark Energy

I decided to post a brainstorm on an unsolved problem in theoretical physics just to get it out there. This is probably not particularly interesting to most of my readers- pardon the detour. It's also probably wrong, but you can't win if you don't try. Back to your regularly scheduled content shortly.


------------------------ Start Brainstorm ------------------------
An analogical approach to explaining Dark Energy, with two suggested formalizations:

Dark Energy, or the mystery force causing the accelerated expansion of the universe, is one of the prime mysteries of modern physics. The approach I suggest here, which I believe to be novel, is essentially to model spacetime as imperfectly compressible (contrary to the standard implicit assumption of perfect compressibility) and identify Dark Energy as the natural, emergent, and proportional 'pushback' connected with gravity's compression of spacetime.

For example, if we take spacetime to be like the surface of a balloon which we live upon, the gravitational effects from aggregated clumps of matter (stars, galaxies, black holes, etc) are like fingers pushing into the balloon. It's natural for the balloon to bulge where it's not being compressed. Furthermore, though its volume stays ~constant[1] as you squeeze it, the balloon (like the universe) appears to expand: its total surface area increases in relation to how unevenly compression is applied.

In short-- Dark Energy is a buoyant or inflationary effect on the surface of spacetime equal to the total amount of spacetime 'displaced' by the gravitational imprint of matter+dark matter+energy. The volume of spacetime thus displaced-- and thus the inflationary effect-- will increase over time as matter clumps up and applies compression unevenly.

To help quantify what this would mean, my prediction is that we should expect a special-case universe composed of 0% energy, 100% homogeneously distributed matter to neither contract nor expand[2] (contrary to the standard prediction of contraction due to gravity), much like how a balloon filled with incompressible liquid pushed equally from all sides would stay roughly in equilibrium. Once matter starts to 'clump up', however (and it invariably would due to quantum effects), the surface area of the universe would start to expand, just like the surface area of a balloon expands if you squeeze one side of it. I haven't run the numbers, but it would appear such expansion might become an accelerating positive-feedback cycle.

The timeline of massive expansions due to Dark Energy seems to correlate with what we can guess about major thresholds in the de-homogenization of matter distribution. We would expect a massive initial de-homogenization right after the Big Bang due to quantum effects, then another when particles are able to form, another when large-scale matter structures are able to form, and another as matter organizes into very large scale structures such as galaxies, clusters, and superclusters.

An alternate, particle approximation of this would be roughly as follows: within any specific range of times, the amount of Dark Energy should be equal to:

Gr(a)*S(a) - Gr(h)*S(h)

Where
Gr(a) is the actual number of gravitons exchanged in the universe;

Gr(h) is the hypothetical number of gravitons which would be exchanged in a universe of the current size if matter and energy were distributed homogeneously (necessarily equal to or lesser than Gr(a));

S(a) is the scaling factor of how much the average graviton bends spacetime in the current universe;

S(h) is the scaling factor of how much the average graviton would bend spacetime in a hypothetical universe of the current size but where matter and energy were homogeneously distributed-- presumably differing from S(a) due to differences in average graviton longevity.

Discussion:
- The particle approximation involves many ambiguities and really dodges the issue of *why* this would occur. Also, generally speaking, we don't know enough about the mechanics of gravitons (still purely hypothetical) to speak with much confidence on the difference between S(a) and S(h), and it's unclear how this force would make itself felt. A new carrier particle? A non-localizable property of spacetime? A MOND-like modification of gravity? An emergent property of entropy? I include the particle approximation as an alternate, semi-quantitative description, not a proper explanation.

- There are many metaphysical questions raised by the geometric formulation of this model. In the above balloon analogy, the liquid inside the balloon is incompressible and thus creates the pushback. What, precisely, would be surrounding or enclosed by spacetime such as to create the pushback? Or is it something inherent to the 'fabric' of spacetime?

[1] There are really three options here- that spacetime is perfectly compressible, imperfectly compressible, or perfectly incompressible. My theory merely requires that it is not perfectly compressible.

[2] This statement would not be exactly correct, as it would depend upon the formalization used. In the geometric formalization, even a universe with homogeneously distributed matter would have a small dark energy component, because only a universe with homogeneously distributed compression would not. But if matter was truly distributed homogeneously this component would presumably be very small and would not be a dehomogenizing force.



I'll admit it's rough. But I think the core approach elegantly arises from one assumption, is relatively clear and intuitive, and in principle is quite testable.
------------------------ End Brainstorm ------------------------

Edit, 8-21-10: A recent survey of multiple data sets has better quantified the magnitude of what we're calling Dark Energy. Via Ars, "The end result: at a 99 percent confidence, the matter density is between 0.23 and 0.33, while the cosmological constant is between -1.12 and -0.82."

4.22.2008

Quote: Blog comments

Lawrence Lessig has been getting some trolls over at his blog and asked his readers for advice on a comment policy (basically, what the threshold should be for deleting inappropriate comments). Here's what I took to be the most insightful suggestion:
Anon:

You should delete all comments, including those which attack you and your work, which are expressed in a fashion which a civil adult would not use when speaking face-to-face with another adult. Off-topic comments also get launched. That is, being on-topic is necessary but not sufficient for a comment to remain. Being civil is also necessary but not sufficient for a comment to remain.

Larry, there's an adage which applies to hiring, that says: A-quality people hire A-quality people. B-quality people hire C-quality people. So you need to only make A hires, or your business is headed downhill.

In commenting, I've observed that A-quality comments attract A-quality comments. B-quality comments attract C-quality comments.

I'm an *old hand* at the internet discussion forum game, though I don't care to list my name here. Your blog is already headed downhill as far as comments are concerned. If you want to maintain comment quality, you must prune rather ruthlessly. Now, nothing terrible will happen if you don't. Your comment section won't be any good, but then most comment sections aren't, so yours won't stand out. I don't know that you actually want the hassle of maintaining a good comment section, it's certainly harder than maintaining a bad one. But I'm telling you how, if you want to: if you want to maintain an actual GOOD comment section, one that literally *attracts* A-level commenters, you need to prune ruthlessly.

I suspect the same notion holds true for most internet communities, wikis inclusive, once they reach a certain popularity threshold.

(Luckily, Modern Dragons does not yet suffer from such pitfalls of runaway popularity!)

4.20.2008

John Wheeler

John A. Wheeler, the great physicist who coined the term 'black hole,' a primary architect of modern physics, and the scientist for whom the fictional "Wheeler Laboratory is named in 'A Beautiful Mind', died last week. Many are calling this an end of an era; as Max Tegmark of MIT says, "For me, he was the last Titan, the only physics superhero still standing." There's a great write-up in the Times about his life and career.

I'm no authority on this stuff, but as an enthusiast reading about the history of physics, I was always impressed with Wheeler's propensity toward clever speculation. Here's an excerpt from Richard Feynman's 1965 Nobel Lecture where he talks about one of his mentor's crazy ideas- the idea remains unproven, but it provided the inspiration for modern Quantum Electrodynamics:
As a by-product of this same view, I received a telephone call one day at the graduate college at Princeton from Professor Wheeler, in which he said, "Feynman, I know why all electrons have the same charge and the same mass" "Why?" "Because, they are all the same electron!" And, then he explained on the telephone, "suppose that the world lines which we were ordinarily considering before in time and space - instead of only going up in time were a tremendous knot, and then, when we cut through the knot, by the plane corresponding to a fixed time, we would see many, many world lines and that would represent many electrons, except for one thing. If in one section this is an ordinary electron world line, in the section in which it reversed itself and is coming back from the future we have the wrong sign to the proper time - to the proper four velocities - and that's equivalent to changing the sign of the charge, and, therefore, that part of a path would act like a positron." "But, Professor", I said, "there aren't as many positrons as electrons." "Well, maybe they are hidden in the protons or something", he said. I did not take the idea that all the electrons were the same one from him as seriously as I took the observation that positrons could simply be represented as electrons going from the future to the past in a back section of their world lines. That, I stole!
And thus the Feynman Electron Diagram was born.

Still, I have to think it'd be a neat application of Occam's Razor if Wheeler is eventually proven right that the fabric of reality is woven by just one particle, getting knocked forward and backward in time by its past and future selves.

4.12.2008

The dark and murky effects of HFCS

I like America a lot. But lately I've been wondering, "what's going on here?"

The latest poll numbers are in, and I'm clearly not alone. The AP is now reporting that 81% of Americans think we're on the wrong track. One need not look far for proximate reasons: a strange and fragile economy, huge credit card debts, the behavior of our elected officials, our election of said officials, the sad, hollow state of our public discourse, voter apathy, the general state of our media, and so forth. There are still plenty of things going right in America, but compared to our particularly exemplary history of competence, principles, and vibrant public life, something has clearly changed.

As Bob Herbert of the Times opines in today's column, Losing Our Will,
This is the pathetic state of affairs in the U.S. as we approach the end of the first decade of the 21st century. Whatever happened to the dynamic country that flexed its muscles after World War II and gave us the G.I. Bill, the Marshall Plan, the United Nations (in a quest for peace, not war), the interstate highway system, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the finest higher education system the world has known, and a standard of living that was the envy of all?

This dysfunction is clearly a matter of willpower, not capacity. So what's happening and what can we do about it?

Many (such as Herbert) simply blame President Bush. He's certainly made a dog's breakfast out of anything he's touched, but I tend to see him as more of a latecoming figurehead to this national dysfunction that's been building for quite some time.

Many would say this is a question without an answer: that when you talk about a culture getting screwed up, the dysfunction is so complex and emergent that it defies words. Similarly, a group of researchers have recently asserted that "once a society develops beyond a certain level of complexity it becomes increasingly fragile" and devotes more and more of its output to merely supporting its complexity, and as time goes on will tend to either implode or crumble in result to outside threats (they describe Rome's downfall as such[1]). I think this is worth noting, but the 'it just happens' explanation rings rather hollow and unsatisfying.

Many blame the media; secular atheists; religious fundamentalists; monied interests; particular cultural quirks of the baby boomers; the winner's curse; various academic fads and corrosive memes; various liberal movements; various conservative movements; corporations; Canadians. There's likely some truth in some of these, but our culture has dealt with worse in the past and not become dysfunctional.

Near to my heart, we have the Change Congress movement and its description of Washington as having developed an economy of influence systematically biased toward monied interests. I think this is accurate, that it contributes to the problem I describe, and that CC has some elegant solutions.

But I would suggest there's an embarrassingly simple yet profoundly corrosive factor underlying a non-trivial amount of America's dysfunction: we eat too much high-fructose corn syrup.

This connection is obscure but important. To back up a bit:

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has become the sweetener of choice for processed foods and sweetened drinks. It's cheap, sweet, and flexible (i.e., easily chemically modified for more or less sweetness and has a longer shelf-life than sugar). In the past 40 years America has had the unmatched distinction of going from eating 0 to ~70lbs of the stuff per capita annually. Lately it's appearing this has been a big mistake: the majority of the science coming in is implicating HFCS in the drastic jumps in obesity and type II diabetes of the past 40 years[2]. A common theory (though not the only one available) suggests that because HFCS can't be broken down in the way other sugars are, it taxes these alternate pathways, puts stress on the body's ability to pump out insulin, and most importantly and verifiably, tends to cause insulin resistance and general problems in regulating glucose levels[3][4]. It's likely that this looms larger for younger people with still-developing physiologies, and like many health risks, the effects of HFCS are statistical and are often felt more at the aggregate level than the personal.

This is probably old news to many readers.

What I think is not obvious and is worth pointing out is how tightly coupled glucose and cognition are, and specifically, how tightly coupled glucose regulation and willpower/self-control are.

We know that glucose is the fuel of thought: our brains use up the glucose in our bloodstream as it functions. But recent results from Gailliot and Baumeister[5] highlight several things about the brain's 'glucose economy'- among them are:
  • Thinking through complex problems, keeping focused, and resisting temptation consume a relatively large amount of brain glucose. Subconscious, 'easy', and habitual actions consume a relatively small amount.
  • We are less able to resist temptation when we have recently resisted temptation (e.g., faced with multiple temptations, our brain runs low on glucose and has a harder time going against the grain). All tasks involving self-control seem to follow the same pattern and draw from the same reservoir, be they resisting temptation, suppressing emotion, keeping focused, and so on.
  • Once depleted, drinking Kool-aid sweetened with sugar replenishes this reservoir of willpower, bringing experimental metrics of self-control up to their original levels, while drinking Kool-aid sweetened with Splenda (a sweetener that does not contain or metabolize into glucose) does not[6].
  • People vary significantly in their glucose tolerance (a measure of how accurately and quickly their bodies can normalize blood sugar), and scoring low on this test is highly predictive of tendencies toward impulsive and aggressive behavior, attention deficits, moodiness, addiction, and a general lack of self-control. In effect, their bodies' clumsiness at regulating blood glucose levels lead to having smaller reservoirs of willpower.

More commentary (with pretty graphs) at Cognitive Daily. It's a neat experiment and a fascinating finding.

In essence, willpower is a finite quantity and it's centrally (though not exclusively) linked to the presence of and ability to regulate glucose.


So on one hand, it's established that HFCS tends to corrode our bodies' ability to regulate our glucose levels. On the other, it's becoming clear that the single most important factor in willpower is having a well-functioning glucose regulation system. It's a minimal jump to put these hands together and assert that by consuming high-fructose corn syrup, we're not just making ourselves fat and diabetic, but we're also actively corroding our physiological basis for willpower and self-control.

I'm not saying this is the root cause of everything that's wrong in America, but I am saying that, aggregated over 300 million people, it'd be odd if it hasn't been a contributing factor to this weirdly lazy, short-sighted, apathetic, debt-ridden state parts of the country are in. Speaking from both a humanistic and a cost-benefit perspective, I think it makes a truly excruciating amount of sense to prioritize more direct study of this hypothesized connection, to stop subsidizing HFCS through corn subsidies and sugar import duties, and to figure out how to prevent such situations from happening in the future.


Footnotes:

[1] Another theory on Rome's downfall is that the common and semi-indiscriminate usage of lead for plumbing, utensils, medicine, cooking ingredients, and so on caused mild brain damage to enough youngsters that Rome could no longer support itself.

[2] Bray, George A; Samara Joy Nielsen and Barry M Popkin (April 2004). "Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 79(4):537-543.

[3] Faeh, David; Kaori Minehira, Jean-Marc Schwarz, Raj Periasamy, Seongsoo Park and Luc Tappy (July 2005). "Effect of fructose overfeeding and fish oil administration on hepatic de novo lipogenesis and insulin sensitivity in healthy men." Diabetes. 54(7):1907-13.

[4] Elliott, Sharon S; Nancy L Keim, Judith S Stern, Karen Teff and Peter J Havel (November 2002). "Fructose, weight gain, and the insulin resistance syndrome." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 76(5):911-922.

[5] Gailliot, M.T., Baumeister, R.F. (2007). The Physiology of Willpower: Linking Blood Glucose to Self-Control. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11(4), 303-327. DOI: 10.1177/1088868307303030

(If you like science, go read it-- it's genuinely interesting. http://psr.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/11/4/303 )

[6] Though this particular experiment shows a link between glucose intake and willpower, the bigger picture is that it's more precisely a link between the body's ability to regulate the amount of glucose in the brain and willpower. Presumably too much sugar would disrupt this regulation just as much as too little. As the authors state,
This does not entail a linear relationship between glucose and self-control, such that a person who downs a large bag of candy will become a paragon of self-discipline for the next few hours.
Indeed.


Notes:

It's unclear how much of HFCS's reported contribution to insulin resistance is specific to HFCS and to fructose, and how much of it is a result of overingestion of sugar in general. Still, one of the criticisms of HFCS is that, because it doesn't trip the body's normal satiation response, people tend to eat or drink more of something if it's sweetened with HFCS vs. a more conventional sweetener. Fructose also has a unique metabolic footprint in that it's broken down by the liver, not absorbed through the intestine. And it's also possible that some of HFCS's observed health risks are associated less with its fructose content and more with the biochemistry of how it's commonly manufactured. The correlation between ingesting HFCS and developing a malfunction in regulating blood glucose is getting clearer and clearer, but the causal mechanism is still guesswork.

If I had to identify a smoking gun, however, it would be the unbalancing influence a high-HFCS diet likely has on the ecology of our gut flora, which is in turn tightly linked to our health. There's every reason from microbiology to believe high vs. low fructose diets would lead to different gut ecologies, and that even modest differences in gut flora could have huge physiological effects, but like most phenomena involving gut flora the science is still out.
ResearchBlogging.org

Update, 3/08/09: Of note, the journal Environmental Health has published an (industry-disputed) study on the prevelence of mercury in high-fructose corn syrup. The takeaway seems to be twofold: one, that a significant amount of HFCS may contain mercury due to particulars in the manufacturing process. And two, that HFCS is not 'pure' by any means: it takes a cocktail of reagents, enzymes, and chemicals to refine corn syrup into HFCS, and at least some of this cocktail is carried over into the final product.
Washington Post synopsis.

Update, 3/14/10: A reader points me toward a NYT article entitled Blood Sugar Control Linked to Memory Decline, Study Says.

Update, 8/18/10: Results from forensic anthropology indicate that "people in the samurai class of Edo period Japan were poisoning their children with lead" via their lead-based makeup (specifically empaku). Hawks notes that
I think it's interesting to find these cases where technology, adopted first by the elites, ends up biting them with unanticipated side effects. Usually they don't even know what hit them.
Update, 4/14/11: There's a longform piece in the NYT, "Is Sugar Toxic?", that explores the concept that sugar isn't just empty calories, but is actively toxic to the body. It implicates sugar in many common ills but doesn't single out HFCS as worse than e.g., table sugar. The choice quote:
Lustig’s argument, however, is not about the consumption of empty calories — and biochemists have made the same case previously, though not so publicly. It is that sugar has unique characteristics, specifically in the way the human body metabolizes the fructose in it, that may make it singularly harmful, at least if consumed in sufficient quantities.
The phrase Lustig uses when he describes this concept is “isocaloric but not isometabolic.” This means we can eat 100 calories of glucose (from a potato or bread or other starch) or 100 calories of sugar (half glucose and half fructose), and they will be metabolized differently and have a different effect on the body. The calories are the same, but the metabolic consequences are quite different.
The fructose component of sugar and H.F.C.S. is metabolized primarily by the liver, while the glucose from sugar and starches is metabolized by every cell in the body. Consuming sugar (fructose and glucose) means more work for the liver than if you consumed the same number of calories of starch (glucose). And if you take that sugar in liquid form — soda or fruit juices — the fructose and glucose will hit the liver more quickly than if you consume them, say, in an apple (or several apples, to get what researchers would call the equivalent dose of sugar). The speed with which the liver has to do its work will also affect how it metabolizes the fructose and glucose.
In animals, or at least in laboratory rats and mice, it’s clear that if the fructose hits the liver in sufficient quantity and with sufficient speed, the liver will convert much of it to fat. This apparently induces a condition known as insulin resistance, which is now considered the fundamental problem in obesity, and the underlying defect in heart disease and in the type of diabetes, type 2, that is common to obese and overweight individuals. It might also be the underlying defect in many cancers.
If what happens in laboratory rodents also happens in humans, and if we are eating enough sugar to make it happen, then we are in trouble.

4.09.2008

New York: 2108

The New York Times recently published a set of speculations on what the lives of New Yorkers will be like in the year 2108. Among those asked were professors and Nobel Laureates, and discussion topics ranged from biotechnology to global warming. All very interesting, but here's my favorite:

KATE KAPLAN

Seventh grader, School of the Future, a New York City public school near Gramercy Park

The city will be all skyscrapers, no more town houses and brownstones. Buildings will connect to each other through an aboveground tunnel system. You’ll no longer have to worry about finding a bathroom; you’ll just carry a small chip with you that can expand into a private portable toilet.

Central Park will be preserved in a bubble to protect it from the adverse effects of global warming. Everything will be shiny and nice and big. The subway cars and stations will have TVs in them. The Empire State Building will no longer be New York’s largest building; it will probably be replaced by a giant Starbucks. Madame Tussaud’s wax figures will have robotic capabilities.

Finally, instead of antidepressants, doctors will make people happy by implanting chips in their heads with comedy routines and programs, like my favorite, "The Colbert Report."

Well played, Miss Kaplan.

4.02.2008

Transhumanism essay: part two

Part 1: The Transhumanism Movement.
Part 2: Society is more delicate than transhumanists think.

This short essay doesn't delve into my personal ethics as applied to enhancement-- which, I must admit, I don't have figured out yet. And I'm assuming, for the sake of this essay, that a technological 'Singularity' is a feasible outcome of our current technological trajectory, or at least that significant augmentative technologies will become available in the not-too-distant future. This is a purely practical critique of full-speed-head-and-damn-the-torpedoes Transhumanism.


Transhumanism is about using technology to transcend one's humanity and becoming qualitatively more[1] than what one was born. There are, of course, social downsides to allowing people to do this.

The Equality Objection to Transhumanism
: breaking the bonds of common humanity is a serious thing.



First, let's talk about equality. In the Western public sphere, we tend to treat everyone (save children and mental patients) as exactly identical. Now, the sharp-eyed among you will notice this often doesn't make a lot of sense-- but the current excesses and irrationality involved in treating everyone as exactly identical in the public sphere are much less harmful than the excesses and necessary oversimplifications involved in treating everyone differently with respect to the the perceived value of their capabilities and potentials. More than just as a matter of efficiency or polite fiction, there’s real, generative value in the philosophy of equality, even if it doesn't completely fit reality at the seams[2]. And I think this broad-sense every-human-is-equal liberalism we’ve built into our culture is really the only buffer we have against really nasty, heartless states of affairs that could arise from the misuse of cognitive enhancement. But I suspect that the very presence of cognitive enhancement may very well erode its own mitigating buffer.

If we look inward, it’s not a large stretch to say we’re a culture worth saving and amplifying in large part because of the liberalism and philosophy of equal worth we’ve deliberately nurtured and woven into our collective self-identity. Insofar as cognitive enhancement increases the cognitive divides within society[3], people will notice and it’ll put an unavoidable culture-wide strain on this philosophical outlook. We’ve spent hundreds- perhaps thousands- of years building, affirming, and lauding our bonds of common humanity and equality, and it’s now Western society’s nominal organizing principle and the glue that holds us together. Technology that threatens to rip this integral part of our social fabric apart is not progress. Or if it is, it must pay (preferably in advance) for the damage it will cause.

Transhumanists see themselves as the “good guys” (and gals… though mostly guys). Given all the good things these technologies can do, I understand why. But I’m not quite ready to grant unconditional “good guy” status as I think there are several stands of naivety that often surface in transhumanist culture, and true 'good guys' can't be naive. In this context, I think transhumanists need to acknowledge 1. the value of our carefully and painstakingly created framework of equality, 2. that transhumanism does indeed violate it, and 3. that this violation of our current social contract is an extremely serious, dangerous thing. And it’s asking a lot, but if transhumanists are going to be at the forefront of dismantling the basis for this social philosophy, I'd prefer that they offer an alternative that people can buy into that has a more nuanced understanding of human identity and human worth in this upcoming age of increasing divides. Ideally something that provides on average as much social cohesion, philosophical coherence, and spiritual nourishment as this philosophy of equality.[4] Because if we mortgage the social bonds of the present in service of the future, that future is likely to fall apart.

I think transhumanists (and people in general) tend to think of society as a somewhat dysfunctional but intrinsically resilient entity. That, for all its warts, modern society has a solid foundation we can depend on while bootstrapping ourselves into a better mode of existence. But I think when transhumanists start to tinker with human nature, we can no longer take this for granted. After all, if you’re undermining society’s organizing principle, even with the best intentions you may break important things and deeply anger many, many people. And can you blame them? For all you’re offering, you’re also dismantling the basis for their belief and identity systems, and at least apparently pushing a system that runs counter to many of our crusading social heroes such as Martin Luther King, Jr.

I understand the promise of transhumanism: literally, to eliminate all suffering. This is not to be minimized. But I think it’s an open question whether moving to a transhuman society will break society in the process.

Of course, it's unfair to put all of this on the shoulders of transhumanism. The debate of whether we should allow these technologies into society is a probably hollow one: they have so many physical and philosophical beachheads already, and we are such an open, self-directed society that lives and breathes the ideas of potential and progress, that of course they’ll become part of society. Similarly transhumanism, in its better and more public corners, is a movement that very sincerely means well, and it's less causing the development of these transformative technologies so much as being a cheerleader for their positive uses. And asking the more realistic question of, given that this will happen, how do we make this happen in the best possible way?

But my advice to transhumanists is, do understand that society is a much more fragile thing than you probably realize, and that large parts of society may not greet you as saviors.

[1] Arguable, of course. Francis Fukuyama has suggested that enhancement technologies would cause us to "no longer have the characteristics that give us human dignity."

[2] This normative force for equality within society does have its ugly side, e.g., slowing the bright kids down for "No Child Left Behind".

[3] I think it's fairly clear that transhumanist technologies will increase the divides within society and corrode our culture of equality: not only will there likely be uneven access to these technologies, and uneven knowledge about them, but there's a strong status quo bias in the human psyche. These technologies will be new, different, and sometimes very strange. A divide is a divide- and causes problems- regardless of whether it happens by chance or by choice.

[4] The philosophy of transhumanism, though relatively developed and fleshed out, is not the presumptive solution here because it simply hasn't proven acceptable to the general public. Maybe version 2.0, 3.0, or 4.0 will be the one that finally gains traction and appeals to more than a small subset of the population. But- no offense meant to transhumanists- it's clearly not there yet.

3.28.2008

The Change Congress Movement

Lawrence Lessig has announced an extraordinarily important- and what I hope will be an extraordinarily effective- movement to reform Congress. If you listen to one speech on politics this year, make it this one.

3.23.2008

On Wikipedia's Immune System

Wikipedia's immune system is impressive, but I think it scales more poorly and devolves more easily than outsiders realize. Really, most of Wikipedia's current ills can be explained as a moderate form of autoimmune disease, caused by chronic inflammation of the community by vandals and trolls.

How do you treat autoimmune disease? I don't know. Will Citizendium avoid the same fate? I tend to think (hope) so.

3.21.2008

Transhumanism essay: part one

Transhumanism: an odd name for an interesting movement.


There’s a growing number of people who believe technology is going to make things Really Different around here. And while they’re still essentially a loose-knit, fragmented movement, they’ve made significant inroads among society’s movers, shakers, and simply rich people.

So what’s all the fuss about? In short, these ‘transhumanists’ (or less rigorously, ‘futurists’) believe that the technological trajectory we’re on is exponential and will result in deep, sweeping, and generally utopian changes to society, to the human experience, and to human nature within most of our lifetimes. The word "transhumanist" refers to "transcending the human state" through technology and becoming, in a very significant way, more than what one was born -- and all the transhumanists I've talked with are quite serious about it. It may sound silly and it may sound strange, but to this growing group of people it's a real goal.

But though they have transhuman goals, as a community they're quite human (sometimes, All Too). They have their own canon, heroes, and subculture[1], even a disillusioned, skeptical counterculture. Overall it's a fairly diverse group[2]: though they're generally united by the belief that technology is going to radically change society in as soon as 15 but not more than 40 years, and they have fairly standardized ‘in-group’ terms for upcoming clusters of technology, predictions vary on which technologies will be the primary driving forces, on the nature of the change, on what the most significant technological and social hurdles to a technological utopia are, and on the future of intelligence (i.e., whether computers, enhanced humans, or even "mere" improved computer networks and human-computer interfaces will be the gateway to a 'Singularity').



This movement does have an uphill battle for credibility: not only does it make fairly wild-sounding predictions which lie outside the normal realm of human experience, but most people, if they even take notice of this movement, will tend to dismiss it as a bunch of yammering sci-fi geeks. I think many people instinctually look at transhumanists talking about augmenting their brains with computer chips or uploading their minds into computers much like they do Trekkies arguing about the ins-and-outs of the Enterprise's teleportation system (that is, as completely irrelevant). This isn't a wholly unreasonable response: many of the same geek traits (and I use that term endearingly) which give rise to theorizing about the future also give rise to solipsistic pontificating about Star Trek minutiae, and futurists have such a poor track record at predicting the future that the common conception seems to be that we'll only need to perk up and listen to them once we get our long-promised flying cars.

But- dare I say it- something's in the air. Something's different with the intellectual ferment of 2008 futurism. Futurists are starting to bring nuanced, well-referenced, and falsifiable models of technological change to the table, and futurism as a field may finally be mature enough such that futurists actually have a special angle on predicting the future. More and more 'respectable' institutions are retaining the services of card-carrying futurists and transhumanists: In addition to shoe-ins like the Army, organizations such as British Telecom, IBM, the FBI and even Hallmark employ full-time futurists. By and large, this group sees themselves as the prophets, architects and philosophers of a coming wave of technology that will fundamentally remake society-- and pretentious as this may be, they may be right.

[1] R.U. Sirius, editor-to-be of “H+” (lingo for Human-plus, or ‘enhanced’ human), notes "And it’s kind of become a little religion; we have our own Rapture and our own eschatology and all that sort of stuff."

[2] Transhumanism covers a sufficiently vast and divisive territory that I think it's inevitable that the community will splinter into many sub-movements once/if things really get going. If you think stem cells are an incendiary subject, well, you ain't seen nothing yet.

For a more detailed outline of the transhumanist argument that technological change is exponential and poised to explode, I'd recommend my review of Kurzweil's "The Singularity is Near".

I'm planning on posting part two of this essay this weekend.

2.20.2008

Two links that blow my mind

As part of my infatuation with scientific mysteries, I really dug this Nature News piece about how the number 10^122 keeps popping up in many seemingly-unrelated places in physics. Scott Funkhouser (what a name) from The Citadel identifies five of them- I'm sure this 'coincidence' would seem weirder if I knew more physics, but it seems pretty weird regardless. The basic implication is that the universe is a lot simpler than we think it is. An old, but surely good, theme in physics. With this sort of physics data mining getting easier and easier, the Large Hadron Collider coming online this year, and a growing institutional hunger to move beyond the Standard Model, the smell of new physics is in the air. Good things.

Secondly- and more importantly in my book- my favorite author is mulling running for congress. If you like what Lawrence Lessig writes about copyright, technology, corruption, and politics, I encourage you to check out his campaign at http://lessig08.org/ . I regret I don't live in his congressional district, because I literally can't think of a better person to send to congress.

2.19.2008

Quote: On First Versions

Paul Buchheit on The most important thing to understand about new products and startups:

For web based products at least, there's another very powerful technique: release early and iterate. The sooner you can start testing your ideas, the sooner you can start fixing them.

I wrote the first version of Gmail in one day. It was not very impressive. All I did was stuff my own email into the Google Groups (Usenet) indexing engine. I sent it out to a few people for feedback, and they said that it was somewhat useful, but it would be better if it searched over their email instead of mine. That was version two. After I released that people started wanting the ability to respond to email as well. That was version three. That process went on for a couple of years inside of Google before we released to the world.

1.22.2008

Cognitive Enhancement, The Book

As a few readers of this blog know, since last summer I've been working on a large writing project. The tentative plan is for a book, and the release date is unknown. I'm about 60,000 words in, most of the argumentative structure and key points are there, and there's lots and lots of work on the prose left to do. I've dedicated this next week to being a mental health week. It's my first real break since summer... hopefully I can actually keep myself to it and decompress a little. Trying to write a book is a lot more brain-space intensive than I thought it'd be.

I was trying to explain exactly what I'm writing about to some friends, and having some difficulty... and I have an executive summary due in a couple weeks. So I'll take this opportunity to try to explain a little bit about just what this big project that's been soaking up most of my time is about.

The topic is cognitive enhancement. As in, drugs, gene therapy, treatments, or other sorts of technology that will make a person smarter in noticeable, meaningful, and multidimensional ways. I've outlined seven different potential technological routes to "first-generation" cognitive enhancement, and I think/hope/plan that this book will end up being a pretty good overview of what the field of cognitive enhancement will look like in the coming years. I've hopes to get into the genetics, pharmacology, supporting research advancements, major hurdles, likely dead-end approaches, and neuroscience/psychology surrounding this field, as well to cover things like what IQ does (and doesn't) mean, social influences on intelligence, the concept of 'neuroengineering', somatic vs germline enhancements, and what caveats and limitations will likely go along with these potential enhancements. What sorts of complexity can be sidestepped, and what sorts of complexity will need to be tackled head-on. I'd say about 60% of it will deal with the science and systems theory involved (but I'll try to make it interesting, promise!).

(At least, that's an overview of the science stuff I hope to figure out and fit in. Actual results may vary considerably.)

The other 40% will cover the policy and ethics issues which go with the idea of 'enhancement'-- thoughts about how these technologies may stress the fabric of society, and some important things for scientists and policymakers to keep in mind. I'm neither "pro" nor "con" enhancement: I just think it'll happen. In fact, to sum up the message of the book, I'd say this:

Significant cognitive enhancement is going to happen sooner than most people, even most experts, think. These seven distinct approaches are viable, and if even one of them works, it'll transform society in many ways. We should start thinking about the implications and ideal forms of these technologies now, so we have choices about how they enter the world.

So that's my current project. I'm really excited about it. There are a lot of "ifs" in making it happen. Honestly, I think if I write half the book I want to write I'll be happy.

1.21.2008

Obama, and keeping honest bloggers honest

I try hard to keep away from politics and religion here at Modern Dragons. They make for divisive discussions, people (including myself) tend to have all sorts of dogmatic baggage about these topics, and often I have very little to add that can't be found elsewhere. But I think it's an unhealthy trend in modern life to turn vast swaths of the public sphere completely apolitical. The political process is messy and divisive, but if we remove it from our day to day life, or even try to segment society into "political zones" and "non-political zones" I think democracy breaks down.

So, here's a little dip into politics on a mostly apolitical blog.

Obama
I'm solidly behind Obama for president. Of all the candidates, I feel he most appreciates complexity, most understands the nature of corruption, and is most able to generate, adapt, and implement a positive vision for America. He's not perfect-- but I believe in him like I've never believed in any other political candidate.

Two items I would point readers who are curious about Obama toward are
1. Ars Technica's coverage of Obama's technology proposal;
2. Lawrence Lessig on why he supports Barack.

Steve Sailer
A rather odd thing about my political leaning is that, though I'm a fairly committed liberal, my favorite political blogger is the pretty hardcore conservative (and decidedly maverick) Steve Sailer. I'd like to say something high-minded like reading a conservative blogger was a conscious choice to diversify my information stream, but the fact of the matter is it wasn't: Steve is just the most engaging, self-critically honest, and fair political blogger I've found. Very smart as well, and drawn to what I think are important topics. Often, very difficult and divisive topics I would never feel comfortable writing about, but topics I see real value in building open discussions around. Maybe I'm corrupting my mind by reading Steve, but I simply haven't found a liberal political blogger of his blogging caliber (suggestions in the comments welcome!). So while we disagree on plenty of things, the way he approaches his topics compels me to take what he says seriously.

Steve's Latest Column
Steve has been writing a lot about Obama. His latest VDare column delves into questions of Obama's racial and religious identity, largely drawing from Obama's first book, Dreams from My Father and connections between Obama and the pastor of Obama's church. Like most of Steve's VDare columns, I don't think it's as fair or as balanced as what's on his personal blog. In fact, though I don't have any objections to its factual content, it may be the worst thing Steve has ever written in how it selectively engages some facts in order to tar someone's public persona. I think it's unintentional and completely non-malicious, at worst just willful selective engagement and willful ignorance of how the piece (and its 20+ siblings) will be interpreted.

Maybe I'm a little touchy when it comes to my political candidate. And maybe I'm a liberal, Steve's a conservative, and never shall we see eye to eye. But lots of Steve's other regular readers have been commenting about his odd and continuing implicit criticisms of Obama- I don't think I'm way out of line, bringing it up.

If it were some political hack writing this I wouldn't care. And Steve is entitled to run his blog as he sees fit. But damn it, Steve, you're my favorite political blogger. I'm not going to give you a free pass.

So in the interest of keeping an honest blogger honest, here's my reply to Steve's column (a draft of which was posted in the comments). One sentence version: Steve, you say you actually kinda like Obama? Prove it.

Based on this, and your 20+ other recent postings on Obama which largely concentrate on these issues, I believe you have an impressively nuanced (and, I think, generally fair) understanding of Obama's racial and religious identity. You touch on a lot of very interesting things in fresh ways.

But having said that, you write very critically, and your choice of topics-- both to write so much about Obama and not any other candidate, and to concentrate on racial and religious identity issues, at the expense of other candidates and other topics-- is not a neutral action. You've said you actually kinda like the guy, but these writing choices change the discussion, and I believe they hurt Obama's candidacy. If that's your intention, that's your intention, and I'll butt out- but based on what you've said in the past, I don't think that's what you mean to be doing.

To put it less delicately, if you don't want to be an accessory to electing someone you really dislike, such as Clinton, I think you should broaden your coverage of candidates or topics, or put a stronger "I actually like Obama because X, Y, and Z" disclaimer on your writings. Because, regardless of your intentions, I feel pieces like these generate and nurture anti-Obama feelings.

Tangentially... after reading your blog for years, I'm surprised you seem to identify so strongly with the Republican party. I think one can have good reasons to support the Republican party-- historically, at least, they've been the party of competence and realism-- but in your case, the blind consistency of support is a datapoint that doesn't really fit. You're not dogmatic about anything else-- why do you still consistently back said horse, especially after the dog's breakfast that neocons (and to some extent evangelicals) have made of things these past few years? Income from what you see as your base, perhaps. Income is important. And insidiously persuasive. I'm very far from calling your blogging money-driven or corrupt-- you're the least corrupt, most open-minded political blogger I've come across. That's why I read you. But I read these critical analyses of Democratic candidates, and I wait for similarly incisive analyses of Republican candidates, and they don't show up.

Well, maybe that's a bit of a cheap shot. Maybe not. It's hard to say.

To get back to my original point... you seem to secretly appreciate Obama. At least, you seem to have much less disdain for him than almost any other candidate. Why not write about some of his good attributes for a change? At minimum, you've said he's an interesting candidate-- I understand you write about what you know (and I wouldn't have it any other way, and Obama did write a book tackling his racial identity, so you're not just shooting in the dark), but surely there are non-racial and non-religious attributes about this complex candidate you find interesting enough to write about?

Mike.