December 2009


Sometimes a pundit manages to prove the opposite of his intended point.  E.g. Shmuel Rosner’s piece in Slate which insinuates that world leaders are disinclined to do anything for Obama because he’s too “nice and conciliatory”.  “If he can’t fight, he isn’t scary,” Rosner snarks.  (We’re in two wars; how many do we have to wage before we’re fighting?)

Only by Rosner’s own admission, George Bush, who was not nice and not conciliatory and very willing to fight, did even worse.  He cites Time‘s judgement that “the Bush administration is neither loved nor feared in growing sectors of the international community — increasingly, it is simply being ignored.”

But you know, if US arrogance and US civility have the same effect, then perhaps the explanation doesn’t lie on the US side.  Certainly you can’t suggest that Obama is too nice when you’ve also just shown that not being nice has even less effect.

By his own evidence the likeliest explanation is that the world just isn’t seeing the benefit of aligning with US policy.  That’s exactly, in fact, what Fareed Zakaria has been saying.

However, I do think Rosner is exaggerating how bad things are, with a barely concealed smirk.  It’s hardly fair to expect Obama’s first year to create a turnaround on Cuba, or even Israel.  (In calmer moments Rosner has even explained why no one in the Mideast is interested in peace for now.)

The most important international issue Obama’s addressed is global warming; the agreement at Copenhagen is at least a step back to sanity and working together, which at least is better than Bush’s eight years of noncooperation and denial.  But this isn’t an issue that’s going to be solved at international conferences anyway.  To put it bluntly, the world will start to take it seriously when the US does… and it hasn’t yet.  Don’t blame the Chinese for not doing what we’re also not doing.

I just finished Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic: Why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us).  As a book, it’s a bit clumsy, like its title.  But he’s got a fascinating subject.  Traffic– or driving, really– turns out to have a lot of paradoxes.

  • The average driver is lousy but thinks he’s great.  This is largely due to the reversed feedback: bad driving is actually positively reinforced by the long stretches where it doesn’t cause an accident.  Normally we’re not even aware of the near-misses that our bad habits produce.
  • Slower is faster.  Past a certain level of congestion, you get more cars getting through by people driving steadily, not as fast as they can.  E.g. in an experiment, police limited the number of cars that could enter the Holland Tunnel in NYC to 22 per minute.  The result: throughput rose from 1176 to 1320 vehicles per hour.
  • Safer is more dangerous.  Remove obvious obstacles, give plenty of space, and make a road look like a highway, and people drive like it’s a highway… and if it’s not, if it’s a city street, this causes accidents.  A slight level of confusion is good for us: we slow down, stay alert, notice the pedestrians and bicyclists (and because slower is faster, gridlock is avoided).
  • Adding more roads creates more traffic; adding more parking adds more congestion. 

There’s also a neat example of what we might call the paradox of liberalism: solve a problem, and people forget what the problem was and begin to resent the solution.  In Minneapolis, a state senator (Republican, naturally) got a moratorium on ramp metering (restricting the number of cars that could enter at a given ramp).  After all, the traffic on the highway is moving, why can’t we join it?  Results: speeds dropped and travel time went up; in certain areas highway throughput halved.  The meters were reinstated.  The traffic was moving because you couldn’t just rush into it.

It’s hard to finish the book without thinking that designing our lifestyle around the automobile was probably kind of a bad move (and that’s without getting into global warming or running out of oil).  Also that flying cars would probably be exponentially more complicated…

Here’s a great article by Jonathan Chait at The New Republic on why anyone to the left of John McCain should be pleased with the health care bill just passed by the Senate:

http://www.tnr.com/article/politics/just-noise?page=0,0

He summarizes the bill, shows that Republican talking points are based on nonsense, and criticizes progressives who are prepared to derail the plan because they didn’t get more.

The most promising aspects of the bill (besides just extending coverage) is a series of experiments on reducing health care costs.  Chait slightly covers this, but here’s a more thorough New Yorker article by Atul Gawande.  In short, there’s no single, proven magic bullet to lower costs; we have to try a bunch of ideas and see what works.  And that’s exactly what the Senate bill does.

Also worth reading: Andrew Sullivan on Obama’s first year.  His summary of the whole year also applies to health reform in particular:

Change of this magnitude is extremely hard. That it is also frustrating, inadequate, compromised, flawed, and beset with bribes and trade-offs does not, in my mind, undermine it. Obama told us it would be like this – and it is. And those who backed him last year would do better, to my mind, if they appreciated the difficulty of this task and the diligence and civility that Obama has displayed in executing it.

The messiness of letting Congress create the reform bill has unnerved supporters all year.  But by doing it this way, rather than at the White House as under Bill Clinton, Obama achieved what Clinton couldn’t: passage by both houses of Congress.  There’s just one more hurdle, the reconciliation process; but earlier hurdles were higher.

There was a note on some medicine we recently picked up:

Dispense with Medication Guide

This has two readings, quite contradictory: the Medication Guide must be either required or thrown out.  You’d think giving instructions to pharmacists ought to be quite clear…

There’s two types of bestsellers: fashionable tripe that’ll be forgotten in a couple of years, and good stuff that remains highly readable, though it makes the literati shake their heads.  The only way to tell the difference is to wait.  2400 years should do it, as in the case of Herodotus’s History.

Herodotus invented our sense of the word ‘history’– ἱστορίαι in the first line of his text meant ‘investigations’.  He seems to have travelled extensively in the Mediterranean, asking pretty much everybody he met about their cultures and how they got caught up in the Persian War.

He has an interesting approach to organizing his work: he follows the rise of Persia, and as the Persians reach each section of the world he talks about its culture and history.  As a result he doesn’t get to the Persian invasion of Greece till Book Six (of nine).

What struck me most about Herodotus is that all his stories are personal.  There’s not a shred of geopolitics and economics, besides a generalized lust for conquest.  Wars are all because X offended the son of Y or stole Z’s sister or whatnot.  There’s some talk about subjects of the Great King being “slaves” and the shamefulness of Greeks choosing the Persian side (there’s a concise verb for this, “medizing”), but it’s really orthogonal to the Greek-Persian conflict.  The objection to Persian rule isn’t that it’s absolute but that it’s foreign; also of course that once feelings intensified, Athens and Sparta faced destruction if they lost.

The other striking thing is the brutality.  Many of the stories Herodotus tells include rape, murder, prostitution of one’s family, bodily mutilation, and cannibalism.  Of course, to some extent that’s the point: the frisson of horror made a good story then as it does today.  Still, it comes up so often that it’s clear that one of the accepted perks of being an absolute ruler was to commit horrors.  (Though not always with impunity; such indulgences might provoke betrayal or revolt.)

Herodotus talks about all sorts of indecencies, but he’s reticent about one thing– the details of religious rituals, evidently too holy to talk about.  Even talking about the gods seems to make him uncomfortable.  At the same time, he has a curious certainty that everyone’s gods are the same as those of the Greeks, though under different names.  (He also likes to supply everyone with an eponymous Greek ancestor– e.g. the Persians derive from Perseus.)

Often he tells us he doesn’t believe some story he’s heard– e.g., he surmises that a story that the air of the far north is full of feathers just refers to snow.  On the other hand he can be by our standards quite credulous.  (E.g. he reports that lionesses bear only one cub; one might wonder why the lion population doesn’t halve with each generation.)  He, like the rulers he describes, is very deferential to oracles, especially that of Delphi– though he approvingly tells of the story of 0ne ruler who tested a number of oracles about a matter known only to him and henceforth consulted only Delphi, which answered correctly.

Some tidbits:

  • Every culture seems to need an opposite.  Herodotus finds his in Egypt, where sex roles are all backwards: the women run the shops and the men weave; women piss upright and men squatting.
  • The handsomest men in the world are the Ethiopians.
  • For being so martial, the Spartans twice fail to send armies on time because they’re busy celebrating festivals.
  • Almost every bit of martial history I read contains a stray female warrior or two.  Herodotus mentions two: Tomyris, a Scythian queen who defeated and killed Cyrus, and Artemisia, one of Xerxes’s commanders, said to be one of his favored advisors.
  • It’s notable how many of the Greeks “medized”, willingly or not.  At the end the resistance came down to the Peloponnesos plus Athens, and even Peloponnesene cities like Argos refused to help.

Granted that Herodotus wrote in part for an Athenian audience, the impression I get is that the main factor in the success of the Greeks was Athens’s decision (due to Themistocles) to devote all its resources to shipbuilding.  Thermopylae was just a speed bump to Xerxes; the sea battle at Salamis was what made him return home with most of his army.  (Athens and Sparta share honors for the final battle at Plataea.)

 I finished Assault on Dark Athena, only to hear that Escape from Butcher Bay is supposedly the really good Riddick game.  Fine, Butcher Bay it is.

Riddick nods to the competition

It works pretty much the same way, only it feels bigger… there are more characters and more interactions.  You’re thrown in prison, and in order to escape you have to do standard prison-movie things, like beat other inmates to death. 

It’s generally challenging, because unlike say Half-Life 2, you don’t have fancy body armor– just Vin’s muscle shirt– so a second of gunfire will down you.  So you have to sneak as much as you can and use cover and die a lot.  (Hopefully the game will improve my aim… getting in the first shot makes a big difference.)

I had crashes in both games till I updated my ATI Radeon drivers.  A nasty side effect of this seems to be that Mirror’s Edge is now degraded… some levels are nearly unplayable.  Major argh.

On the plus side, over in Left 4 Dead 2, I got a beautiful charge tonight– sent two survivors off the side of the hotel in Dead Center.  There was much rejoicing among the infected.

Great video from Sugimoto Kousuke.  The first third is an amusing concept.  And then it gets insane

I love stuff like this that repays multiple viewings to follow all the threads.  Here’s an older example by Zbigniew Rybczynski:

http://vimeo.com/6846641

I had a quibble about Dennett’s conservation-of-energy argument against dualism.  His argument, I’d agree, is pretty damaging for dualist theories that imply that the soul can affect the body, but there are at least three distinct forms of dualism that don’t:

1) The view that the soul is sort of like a field generated and sustained by the body, which takes its character at any particular moment from the character of the body at that moment.  Probably the most popular among dualists in academic philosophy these days.

2) The view that the soul’s essence is partially separate from that of the body–that the soul takes some of its character at any particular moment from the body’s character at that same moment, but that it also has some characteristics that aren’t derived from the body.  Maybe more of a theistic position than #1.

3) The view that the body and soul are entirely separate causally, and that their coincidence is the indication that the Creator made Creation to be well-ordered.  Leibnitz and I think a few Indic philosophers took this view, but it doesn’t seem to be talked about much anymore.

So it’s a pretty strong argument against two-way causality between body and soul–which might be all he really needs for the arguments he’s making.  But I don’t see it answering the more fundamental suspicion that there’s something above and beyond material reality.  Could you clarify how Dennett’s argument changed your mind?

—weserei

You’re quite right that (1) and (2) escape Dennett’s argument unscathed.  However, the price for accepting them is that the soul becomes a mere spectator, with no ability to influence the world— even to move your eyes to look left.  What fun is that?  Or to put it more academically, what is the philosophical gain?  The appeal of dualism is that it fits our naive conception of ourselves.  But that conception includes the idea that we affect the world.

Of course, this might actually appeal to some people— Calvin, for example.  But I don’t get the appeal of such determinism anyway.  Theologically, I think it arises from the feeling that attributing causation to anything but God somehow diminishes him.  But it also makes him morally responsible for evil, which seems like a poor trade. 

As for (3), it’s possible, in the same sense that it’s possible that you’re a brain in a vat.  And it’s unbelievable for the same reason: the level of piddly detail required of the vat scientists or God is just too immense. 

I should note that there’s a fourth possibility: there is an energy input required to move the body, and we just haven’t noticed it yet.   Dennett’s argument isn’t a proof.   (One might even posit that another dualistic effect causes energy to disappear at about the same rate so that one couldn’t (say) detect the soul by testing the conservation of heat.   But it’s a useful heuristic in science that making phenomena hard to verify is a sign of pseudo-science.)

The other problem with dualism is that it’s something of a dead end, especially when it’s used as a rearguard fight against science.  Explaining cognition is a magnificent challenge for materialists, and has huge ramifications for robotics, computer science, psychology, medicine.  Even if it turned out to be wrong, we’ve already learned a lot and the failure would teach us more.  Dualism has no such program; you can posit a soul, but what can we learn from it?

After reading a bunch of Dennett lately, it was fascinating to read this, by Stanislas Dehaene:

http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/dehaene09/dehaene09_index.html

In short: Dehaene thinks he’s found the footprints of consciousness in the brain.  He’s got patterns of brain activation that correlate very nicely with when people report that they are aware of a phenomenon.

In some ways it contradicts Dennett’s theory: Dennett spends whole chapters warning people not to find a locus for consciousness, not to expect a Cartesian Theater where things are presented for viewing.  And Dehaene does rather talk as if there were such a theater. 

On the other hand, much of his findings confirm Dennett too.  There isn’t in fact a particular focus of consciousness– he describes it using Dennett’s phrase, “fame in the brain”.  Consciousness turns out to be a kind of wide-ranging excitement; he describes it as a particular item being made available to the whole brain: the visual system is looking at it, auditory stimulus is available, words and meanings are active, it’s there to be talked about or for action to be made.  Things are connecting up, being made available to all the subsystems.

By contrast, subliminal, non-conscious activations percolate through small sections of the brain and die out in a second or so.  Interestingly, they may percolate as far as awakening particular lexical meanings (that is, they go much farther than mere sensations).

Dehaene also agrees with Dennett that consciousness serves us as a sort of Von Neumann computing machine.  Unconscious thought can handle some simple recognition tasks, but for a series of transformations, you need consciousness.  Consciousness lets us focus on something, play with it in the mind, apply a sequence of steps to it. 

The most intriguing part of the article are the claims that they’ve started to identify particular thoughts– e.g. by looking at the pattern of activation they can guess (better than random chance) what number you’re thinking of– or even more remarkably, what image you’re looking at.  If this pans out, it’s going to be huge; it’s going to be a new revolution in science and society.

Charlie Stross has an interesting post on designing a society for a generation ship– a structure intended to ferry a large number of people to another star over the course of a few hundred years.

http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2009/11/designing_society_for_posterit.html

Most stories set on such ships seem to be about their failure, which is perhaps why Stross is worried about how to organize the shipboard society.  Perhaps his most provocative comment:

One thing I’m pretty certain of is that the protestant work ethic underlying American-style capitalism, with its added dog-eat-dog ethos, would be a recipe for disaster aboard a generation ship — regardless of whether it’s run as a democracy or a dictatorship. American (or British) working hours are a bizarre cultural aberration — and a very local one. More to the point, competitive capitalism tends to reward increases in operational efficiency, but efficiency is most easily optimized by paring away at the margins — a long-term lethal threat to life in this situation. The “tragedy of the commons” has got to be engineered out aboard a generation ship, otherwise the residents will wake up one [virtual] morning to discover someone’s acquired a monopoly on the oxygen supply. And that’s just for starters.

I hadn’t thought about it that way, but I suspect he’s right, given the contraints we’re talking about: a tiny little ecosphere can’t take either cutthroat competition or unbridled change.  But then you may face an even trickier problem on the other end: a society geared to milennial stability may be poorly adapted to actually founding a colony on the other end.

But then, I’ve always been out of sympathy with the idea of “let’s settle another planet ‘cos this one is screwed.”  If we haven’t solved the problem of screwing up planets, colonization doesn’t help.  If you’re an arsonist, you don’t solve your burning house problem by moving to a new house. 

FWIW, I think Stross’s problem is most easily solved by extending the human lifetime.  More to come in my SF novel. :)

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