Thursday
Jun102010

Democracy Lives

One of the things I’ve been listening to lately is a series of video essays by Stefan Molyneux, an anarchist thinker.  I have very mixed feelings about his arguments for a variety of reasons.  I am in some ways sympathetic to anarchist polticial philosophy (which includes concepts like volunteerism, consensus decision-making, and free association while managing to avoid some of the pitfalls of naive libertarianism), but on the other hand I’m a big fan of democracy.  He rants a good rant, but his argument can be less than watertight.  For example, in Molyneux’s first “Statism Is Dead” essay, he states:

[presenting an argument for statism] “People won’t be voluntarily charitable, but they will vote for the violent theft and transfer of their wealth.”  I mean, it’s like a Kafkaesque dream sequence, these arguments, right?. People don’t want to help the poor, but they will vote for people to put a gun to their head and force them to help the poor.  […] The existance of the wellfare state is certain proof of the fact that people want to help the poor, and will.

It’s a bit of a straw-man, that argument.  I can think of two reasons why people might pursue policies democratically instead of through volunteerism.  First, they might think that a democratic government is better able to carry out that policy than a non-governmental organization. Second, they might be more willing to support a policy in a decision process where everyone is bound by the results, as opposed to volunteering to support a policy supported only by the volunteers.

Of course, the uncharitable way of describing that is to say that people will voluntarily support charity so long as they can require the “violent theft and transfer” of non-volunteers’ wealth (Molyneux does not say that, presumably, because he’s trying to persuade and does not want to (indiscriminately) insult his audience).  A better way of describing that, in my opinion, is that people in a democracy participate in a decision-making process where they pre-commit to be bound by the result of the process, even if they don’t get their way on a specific issue.  In the world as it is, that may not be a voluntary pre-commitment.  Moving to another democracy can be hard, moving to a libertarian/anarchist society may be impossible.  Still, I would argue that people have a right to participate in a democratic decision-making process and a corresponding responsibility to abide by the results or willingly face the consequences, even though current conditions don’t allow for participation in society to be truly voluntary.

(But here’s a recurring idea of mine, which might apply to this situation:

Idea #3: People tend to worry too much about freeloaders.

So maybe you could run a modern society on volunteerism and consensus without tax collectors and then the police knocking on someone’s door when they say, “Screw the decison-making process, I didn’t agree to that policy,” and that would be even better.  I’m skeptical, though.)

* Of course, to hear Molyneux say it, it’s even worse than that:  Democracy is a sham, all political progress merely granted to the masses by a monolithic political class to improve productivity, the equivalent of “free-range” livestock.  Even given his argument that the US is that sort of government, I don’t think that’s reason to support anarchy over democracy in the abstract.  Nor do I think a bunch of virtuous non-voters will be very effective at achieving political change.

Wednesday
Jun022010

#Flotilla

This Monday, Israeli forces boarded and captured the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla”, a convoy of ships carrying food and medicine to the besieged territory of Gaza.  Nine activists were killed, many more activists and some Israeli soldiers were injured.

Gaza has been under a near-total blockade since 2007, though Israel formally ended their occupation in 2005 and denies that their near total control of the land, sea, and air borders, complete blockade (save for limited humanitarian aid imports), and complete prohibition of any kind of military development qualifies them for any of the responsibilities of an occupying power.  It’s not clear at all that the blockade is legal under international law.

Meanwhile, the organizers of the flotilla had a stated intention of breaking the Israeli blockade, but they were sailing under the Turkish flag (the lead ship was a Turkish ship, the convoy departed from a Turkish port, though the vessels in the convoy were from a bunch of different countries) and attacked in international waters.  The activists claim that Israeli soldiers fired on them before boarding, Israel claims the soldiers only returned fire after coming under attack (with improvised weapons and their own weapons).

There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here.  Legally, the act was either a crime commited by Israeli soldiers on a Turkish vessel or an act of war by Israel against a Turkish ship.  Israel argues that the flotilla presented a danger to Israel that justified acting in international waters instead of waiting.  Turkey is understandably upset that an ostensibly friendly country expects them to ignore such a provocation, and is threatening to send a naval escort with the next such attempt.  It’s brinkmanship, it’s not clear that the Turkish navy would stand by while Israel attacked a Turkish ship in international waters, not clear that Israel would wait until the ship entered their territory (since that would demonstrate that their decision-making was affected by something as trivial as the Turkish navy), and it’s not clear that an actual naval battle between warships wouldn’t lead to a war.  Which would be an awkward situation for the United States, to say the least, given that Israel and Turkey are both allies.

Brad Hicks, one of my favorite essayists, has an excellent analysis of the incident.

An interesting question is to what extent did the flotilla activists succeed in their goals.  They failed to break the blockade, and the supplies were not delivered because Hamas would rather make political points than accept another shipment of aid.  Then again, the flotilla protesters clearly shared that objective, they didn’t accept Israel’s offer to allow the supplies in through an Israeli port.  Another shipment of supplies won’t end the chronic food and water shortages in Gaza, won’t restore the destroyed economy.  So here’s an idea that’s worth highlighting:

Idea #2: Nonviolent direct action succeeds when it is disruptive politically or economically.  Getting attention isn’t enough.

Was the flotilla disruptive?  It’s certainly caused a lot of noise.  Turkey aside, Ireland is pulling out the diplomatic threats over a lagging Irish vessel following the flotilla.

But brinkmanship and talk are nothing new, actual war or significant sanctions wouldn’t be.  The former is (fortunately) unlikely, the latter… well, the relevant question is what exactly would it take to cool unconditional US support for Israel?  (Note that attacking a US navy ship was not sufficient to cool US-Israel relations.)

Friday
May282010

Chill Out!

This post is entirely unrelated to my last post, expect that to be a theme.

So, I’ve been reading a lot from Less Wrong lately, it’s a blog on “human rationality” and quite the wiki walk.  One of the major posters is Eliezer Yudkowsky, an AI researcher for SIAI, the creator of the AI Box thought experiment, and a fiction writer of some considerable skill.  The reason I’ve been reading Less Wrong recently is that I ran into Yudkowsky’s work in a rather unexpected place and followed it back.

Anyways, I was going to write about some of the logic puzzles from Less Wrong, but then ran into something more interesting, this post from some months ago in which Yudkowsky talks about attending a conference for those signed up for post-mortem cryonics (the really short definition: a procedure in which the body is frozen immediately after legal death in the hopes that improvements in technology will allow the person in question to be somehow revived at some future point):

after attending this event, and talking to the perfectly ordinary parents who signed their kids up for cryonics like the goddamn sane people do, I’m going to come out and say it:  If you don’t sign up your kids for cryonics then you are a lousy parent. [emphasis mine]

That claim struck me as irritating, frustrating.  Pushed my buttons, you could say.  Some things that bother me:

  • Claims that all people not following some fringe idea are lousy people.  Whatever the merits of the idea in question, it’s actually quite hard to distinguish between fringe ideas that are great ideas and fringe ideas that are terrible; that most people favor the status quo is not surprising.  (Not that I necessarily expect the mainstream to be correct, but being on the fringe doesn’t necessarily mean he’s right, either.)
  • Assertions that one is (approximately) the Only Sane Man, especially immediately following an appeal to emotion / explanation why the speaker might not be thinking clearly on the topic in question.  Yes, it’s appropriate to feel emotions that fit the facts, but strong emotion can cloud thinking as well, and people who feel emotions based on false premises tend to think that their emotions fit the facts, too.
  • Lauding one’s self as “a hero”.  (Literally!)
  • Overstatement before consensus.  That is, it’s not enough to state that one is correct while (most of) the rest of the world is wrong, one must state that their chosen conclusion is obvious, True, “massively overdetermined”.

The above isn’t to say that Yudkowsky’s position in favor of cryonics is wrong, necessarily, just that his rhetoric is terrible.  And I don’t think his argument is as strong as he thinks.

The arguments for cryonics strike me as a sort of cross between Pascal’s Wager* and the Drake Equation.  Take a bunch of numbers (odds that one will be successfully cryopreserved, odds that it will be done in such a way that allows some sort of reanimation, odds that the organization doing the preserving will remain economically stable enough to continue to function, odds that technology will get good enough in the future that they’ll start to revive people (even given the potential for legal consequences in the event of failure… or success!)), multiply that by infinity (live forever in a future paradise!), disregard equally (im)plausible dystopian possibilities as “exotic” and unlikely.  Is it worth paying a few hundred dollars a year to have access to some small (how small? who knows?) chance at something really good in the event of the development of some plausible (but not necessarily possible) future technology?  Maybe?

The Alcor (cryopreservation organization) FAQ states (excerpted for brevity):

Q: Why isn’t vitrification reversible now?

A: To vitrify an organ as large as the brain, Alcor must expose tissue to higher concentrations of cryoprotectant for longer periods of time than are used in conventional organ and tissue banking research. The result of this exposure is biochemical toxicity that prevents spontaneous recovery of cell function. In essence, Alcor is trading cell viability (by current criteria) in exchange for the excellent structural preservation achievable with vitrification.

The nature of the injury caused by cryoprotectant exposure is currently unknown. […]

Q: Has an animal ever been cryopreserved and revived?

A: […] it should be obvious that no large animal has ever been cryopreserved and revived. Such an achievement is still likely decades in the future. […]

(An actual example of a human being put into cryostasis and revived would strengthen Yudkowsky’s argument quite a bit, putting the lower bounds on the probability of successful reanimation above zero.)

As far as getting you to this state of “biochemical toxicity that prevents spontaneous recovery of cell function” from which no mind has ever been recovered, well, those odds at least seem a bit better.  Of the nine patients Alcor preserved in 2009 and early 2010, three were cryopreserved within hours, the rest moved to moderately cold storage within hours and actually cryopreserved within days.

A recent post by Will Newsome critiquing Yudkowsky and other’s position on cryonics puts it well:

Signing up for cryonics is not obviously correct, and especially cannot obviously be expected to have been correct upon due reflection (even if it was the best decision given the uncertainty at the time) […] That said, the reverse is true: not getting signed up for cryonics is also not obviously correct. The most common objections (most of them about the infeasibility of cryopreservation) are simply wrong. Strong arguments are being ignored on both sides. The common enemy is certainty. [emphasis theirs]

They go on to note:

I don’t disagree with Roko’s real point, that the prevailing attitude towards cryonics is decisive evidence that people are crazy and the world is mad. Given uncertainty about whether one’s real values would endorse signing up for cryonics, it’s not plausible that the staggering potential benefit would fail to recommend extremely careful reasoning about the subject, and investment of plenty of resources if such reasoning didn’t come up with a confident no.  Even if the decision not to sign up for cryonics were obviously correct upon even a moderate level of reflection, it would still constitute a serious failure of instrumental rationality to make that decision non-reflectively and independently of its correctness, as almost everyone does. I think that usually when someone brings up the obvious correctness of cryonics, they mostly just mean to make this observation, which is no less sound even if cryonics isn’t obviously correct.

That’s an interesting thought.  What should be the threshold for giving ideas “extremely careful reasoning”?  Plausibility?  Potential?  I think that might be a hard standard to live up to, there could be a lot of plausible ideas with “staggering potential benefit”.  Plenty of utopian schemes, for example.  Even if you insist on that benefit including immortality for yourself, lots of ideas to consider.

However, I will agree that at least scientists in the field should be seriously thinking about plausible ideas with staggering potential benefit in their field, which is not happening in this case.  The paper at that link mentions ethical and PR concerns as reasons for the rejection of cryonicists by cryobiologists, often under-informed by actual science.  But it fails to note how cryonicists’ rhetoric might also contribute to that effect.

Idea #1:  Have an idea that could change the world?  Pay attention to rhetoric.

* Since Yudkowsky has a reply to an argument along that line, I will say that’s not the argument I’m making; I don’t think the probablility of being revived into a future (approximate) utopia is vanishingly small because that would be really awesome.

Tuesday
May252010

Oil Volcano Apocalypse

The story of the Gulf oil spill have been on my mind a lot lately, I’ve been following it since the initial disaster, and there are some interesting recent developments, so it’s as good a topic as any to start with.

Basic background:  On April 20, there was an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig (belonging to Transocean, leased by BP, operating 80 km off of the Louisiana coast).  The resulting fire could not be extinguished, and after two days, the rig sank.  The disaster killed eleven crew and caused a massive oil spill.

The oil spill should have been stopped by the rig’s blowout preventer device.  It’s unknown if the crew tried to trigger the device manually.  The failsafe dead-man’s switch failed to trigger the device.  Subsequent attempts to activate the device with ROVs failed.  Some countries require an acoustic remote control for the blowout preventer on offshore wells, but BP had successfully lobbied against US regulation that would require that.  It’s not clear that would have helped.  Yesterday, the well casing collapsed.

BP and the Coast Guard have been trying various methods to contain the oil spill, with very limited success.  BP does not appear to have had enough boom on hand to contain a spill of that magnitude (a lot, but still actually rather cheap compared to the cost of operating the rigs, where just the lease is nearly a half-million dollars per day).  The general idea is to use multiple layers of overlapping boom to divert oil to catchment basins.  That way, even though some oil sloshes over and under the booms (and it will), the lion’s share of it can be concentrated and removed from the area.  If you see long parallel lines of boom parallel to the shore, that’s a sign that things are being done wrong.

They’ve also been hitting the spill with chemical dispersants, which have several problems:  They’re toxic.  The metabolism of oil by bacteria, which the dispersants are intended to allow, is also pretty disruptive to ecosystems.  It turns the ocean into a giagantic oil lava lamp, which makes the oil harder to track and more disruptive to ecosystems at all depths.  Not surprisingly, oil is being found at great depths and the media are mostly following the spill at the surface.

BP is also considering implementing a “top kill” (circulating mud and concrete through the well to seal it), but it’s not clear whether that plan will work now that the well has disintegrated further.  Also, if they succeed, they’ll face the question of why they didn’t implement the plan sooner.

The spill has been interesting politically.  BP has claimed that they’ll pay “all legitimate claims” of damages from the spill, but it’s not clear how arduous a process they’ll use for determining “legitimacy”.  If they pay more in civil liabilities than required by law, they might risk shareholder lawsuit.  Republicans have blocked attempts to raise that limit from $75M to $10B, but I don’t know if such a change after the accident would affect BP.  President Barack Obama has talked a good talk about making BP pay, but has done nothing of substance (some possible but implausible options).  Sarah Palin has accused Barack Obama of being in bed with big oil (warning: the preceding sentence may contain a lethal dose of irony).  Libertarian (and now Republican congressional candidate) Rand Paul accused Obama of being “un-American” for merely criticizing BP, seeming to assert that BP’s assurance that they’ll pay civil penalties is more than enough.

It’s also been interesting from a media standpoint.  BP’s been trying to restrict access to spill sites.  On the other hand, they put the live streaming feed from their ROV monitoring the drill site on the internet, though that may now be down.  CNN is curating citizen journalism on the spill on their iReport site.

So, interesting stuff.  What am I still missing about this story?  I’ll probably have some political opinion writing to do on the subject, but I think I’m going to wait a bit given recent developments, and because this post is long enough as it is.

Monday
May242010

About This Blog

I created this website for kicks.  I figured I’d share a little bit about what I’m thinking about, what sorts of ideas have influenced and interested me.  Some friends have suggested that I start a more serious blog here, free of the personal-blog-style cruft of minimally-cultivated links and Twitteresque posts about what I had for breakfast.  So fair enough.

Since I’m going to be doing more serious essaying here, I figure I should be up front about my personal beliefs and/or biases.  So, I am: An American, a Bostonian, a city-dweller, white, male, heterosexual, upper-middle class, an atheist, a humanist, a moral realist, a liberal, an intellectual, an engineer, a programmer, a technologist, not much of an artist, a democrat (I refer to the political system, not the American political party), an environmentalist, not a cornucopian, a feminist, an egalitarian, a compatibilist, a physicalist, generally optimistic about human nature, generally pessimistic about the magnitude of the challenges the world faces in the first half of the twenty-first century.

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