Monday, December 24, 2007

Wonderful Dream

Ted Kennedy had a vacation home in Nova Scotia. An old cantilever bridge was near his house. The bridge was in bad shape and was supposed to be torn down. Kennedy wanted the old bridge preserved and protested its impending destruction.

For some reason, George W. Bush got involved on the side of tearing the bridge down. That side eventually prevailed in court.

On the day of the scheduled demolition, Bush, Kennedy, and Kennedy's good friend Al Gore all showed up at the bridge. Because of the notoriety of the persons involved, it became a news item, and I was watching the scene on television.

The three politicians stood near each other. Gore, with lots of finger pointing, began to give a speech decrying the loss of such a historic structure. He declared that he wouldn't allow such a travesty to happen, and he and Kennedy opened their suit jackets.

Both were wearing vests made of dynamite. They took Bush hostage and forced him to climb with them up into the trusses of the bridge.

Some stuff I have only a hazy memory of happened, and then a newscaster came on. He said that because of the importance of the persons involved in the hostage crisis, authorities were using every conceivable resource available.

Accordingly, they had ordered complete gene sequences of the three men to see if any useful insight could be gained. To the surprise of all, the gene sequences revealed that George Bush was really a chimpanzee and that Al Gore was a space alien.

I woke up laughing.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Stand on Zanzibar

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner is an incredible exercise in speculation, one of the most impressive SF masterworks ever, but I believe it is wrong about two of its central conjectures--that population is going to keep increasing out of control and that we are going to face diminishing resources.

As for population, we have good contraception and are developing better contraception. Once a society reaches a certain level of wealth, its members appear to be willing to use that contraception. The entire First World, and I believe most of the former Second World (the old communist countries), now have birthrates below replacement level. Some people speculate that the forces of natural selection will again start forcing the population back up, but I fully expect that societies will forcefully intervene if it looks like excessive breeders are going to turn the world into a hell.

As for scarce resources, I think we are going to be awash in increasing resources for the rest of our perhaps long lifetimes. There might be temporary recessions or even depressions, but I think the overall trend is going to be upward. Personal services will get increasingly expensive, but material wealth will get increasingly inexpensive. I will give some examples I've seen on the science-news sites lately.

The news out of photovoltaics looks great. The price is falling. The efficiencies are going up. There are several different new technologies coming online. There is lots of venture capital.

The news out of biotechnology looks even better. Prices aren't just falling; they are plummeting. There is at least one big story out of biology every week. See this site for examples. It certainly looks like that within five to ten years, whole genome sequencing is going to be a consumer item.

The number of simultaneous experiments that biologists can run keeps going up by orders of magnitude. The rate of experimentation, of course, is one of the things that paces the rate of scientific discovery. I could go on, but the site I recommended does a better job than I can in a short blog entry.

Then there is robotics. Progress has been slow, but robots and automation have steadily gotten better, and they are starting to look really good. Replacing human labor lowers costs and increases production, and those are the factors that increase wealth. You can now get consumer robots that are actually useful and inexpensive enough for the middle class. They can vacuum and scrub your floors and mow your lawn.

There is an abundance of most metals we use in building things. The big bugaboo is petroleum. Some hysterics are predicting peak oil and the end of civilization. If humanity does something stupid, civilization might end, but it isn't going to be because of crude oil. There are many ways we can work around petroleum shortages; I'll spin just one scenario. Consider that we already know how to build breeder reactors. Uranium-235 is fairly rare, but the earth has lots of U-238 and thorium. Breeder reactors can turn those into useful fuel. Therefore, if we wanted to, we could easily provide electricity for the entire planet through nuclear fission.

Lack of petroleum for transport fuel would be a pain in the butt for a while, but with lots of electricity and only current battery technology we could still get over a hundred miles per charge for rechargeable vehicles. Transportation might be more inconvenient, but it certainly isn't a civilizational risk. The above assumes current batteries, but batteries are another technology that is attracting venture technology. The way to bet is that we are soon going to have good batteries.

In short, I see lots of good news coming out of science and technology and not a lot of bad news. Anyway, for those readers who are interested, here are some of the sites that provide my ideas:

Al Fin
Science Daily
Advanced Nanotechnology

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Blank Slaters

The defining characteristic of a blank slater is the belief that human intelligence, personality, and physical attributes are largely trainable and conditionable. The definition of largely is of the I-know-it-when-I-see-it variety. So far as I know, there had been no formal definition of blank slater attempted by anyone who uses the term.

If you care about mine, I believe that intelligence differences in adulthood are somewhere between .6 and .8 heritable in First World countries, with the true factor most likely being toward the .8 end. See here for a short summary of the latest Minnesota Twins Studies findings.

Anyone who believes that intelligence differences are only trivially heritable, say less than .3, I would most likely consider a blank slater.

I believe that broad personality differences are about .5 heritable. Again, I would tend to classify as a blank stater anyone who believes they are significantly less than that.

I believe that there are other intellectual capacities, such as musical ability, that have a large genetic component. I know of no study that tried to measure it.

I believe that athletic abilities have a huge heritable component. Take, for example, a persons ration of fast twitch muscle fiber to slow twitch muscle fiber. That is ratio is inborn, and it has a major effect on what sports a person can be good at. I would characterize anyone who thinks a good athlete can be created by taking a random student and making him practice a lot as a blank slater, good being defined as, say, a high-school star.

I used to laugh at the people who declared that blacks average so much better in basketball than whites because blacks play so much more basketball as kids. No, white me can't jump because white men are usually born with less fast twitch fiber in their legs than people of West African descent.

Now, the average person, when asked, isn't going to be willing or able to provide his heritability estimates on demand. One can, however, recognize blank slaters by what they do. Using NCLB again as an example, one can see that the congress that passed it and the media who continue to treat NCLB's goals as reasonable are working from blank-slate assumptions.

Those who believe that different races, sexes, and ethnicities would be proportionally represented in a given job if hiring were free of discrimination are working from blank-slate premises.

Those who believe that their schools are failing black students who score about one standard deviation below white students on academic tests are working from blank slater premises.

The fact is many human differences are inborn. They are either genetic or the result of something that happened in the womb. They are intractable. Pretending it isn't so doesn't make it not so. It just gets in the way of doing things that might actually work.

Sunday, March 11, 2007


This sounds interesting. Also see the NYT article.

It reminds me of what I read about twenty years ago or so, AI researchers trying to build huge databases to give computers context of the natural world and the human social sphere. This idea, if it takes off, would harness the information and skills of millions of participants.

Furthermore, Google is trying to build an AI, and I'm sure the Google AI would be just as happy to slurp up the Freebase database as Freebase is to slurp up Wikipedia and other databases.

Folks, we are building God.

Friday, March 09, 2007

If you aren't paranoid, you haven't been paying attention.

One needs to get used to the fact that, unless civilization is crippled, there are going to be huge archives of data collected about everyone. The government is already starting to make it illegal to erase these archives. Growing computational power will make it increasingly simple to search, collate, and analyze these archives. Some examples:

Your cellular telephone company is going to track the location of your phone at all times. This "service" will be sold to the public as useful for 911 calls. It might already be implemented; I haven't kept track of the issue.

Your phone company keeps track of all the numbers being dialed from your phone and calling to your phone.

Your cellular telephone can be used as a bugging device.

Your friends, acquaintances, coworkers, rivals, etc. are going to take your picture and make videos of you with and without your knowledge. These photographs and videos are going to get posted to the Web. As computational resources get better and cheaper, it is going to become increasingly easy to identify you, even if you currently aren't identified. The coeds who get a little crazy during spring break this year might have to answer some tough questions ten years from now when they are trying to make partner at the law firm. (Or not, the mores might change as everyone's skeletons get pulled from the closet.)

If you get mentioned in the local paper or written about in the company newsletter, it is going to available forever. It might not be posted to the Web, but it will be there to be searched if someone subpoenas it. The same will all of your business emails. Remember it is becoming increasingly illegal for businesses to delete anything.

Businesses right now make certain privacy guarantees, but all of them will roll over for the government, and their guarantees aren't necessarily honored if the company is acquired. Sure, Real Doll guaranteed your privacy, but when Sony (or Hustler) buys them out, they made no such promises to you.

Everything you buy with a credit card is part of your permanent record.

Everything you buy while using a store loyalty card is part of your permanent record.

Your ISP will bend over for the government.

If you fly somewhere, it is part of your permanent record.

If you cross the border, it is part of your permanent record.

I repeat, searching, collating, and analyzing your permanent record is getting steadily easier.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Free Will

My take: Either we have at least partial free will, or we do not. If we do not have free will, our beliefs about free will are determined by fate--that is, either the deterministic playing out of the laws of physics or of quantum chance--and we have no influence over them. (If we had any influence over our beliefs about free will, that implies we have at least partial free will.) Therefore, the only case in which our beliefs about free will can influence our actions is the case in which we have at least partial free will. If we have at least partial free will, choosing to believe that we have free will is a more accurate model of the universe than is choosing to believe that we do not have free will. Therefore, I believe we have free will.

I might, in fact, not have free will, but in that case what I believe is not under my control.