Saturday, October 29, 2005


Geoff: Dad, I know something you don't
Dad: probably. What this time?
Geoff: George Taki is gay.
Dad: Sulu? I knew that. Everyone knows that.
Geoff: No, it just came out.
Dad: Impossible. If I've known for years, then everybody knows.
Geoff: No, it just came out.
Dad: He. He just came out. I can't imagine this is news.
Geoff: It is!

Sin and Insanity

A friend of mine has recently crossed the border from "eccentric with spats of violence and delusion" into actual full-blown insanity. Real brain dysfunction causing emotional and cognitive problems which cannot be treated with any form of counseling and may not be responsive to psychopharmacology. I feel badly for him and worse for the people he's hurt along the way, especially his children who have grown up never knowing if they were going to be with good dad or bad dad. While good dad was often generous, supportive and loving, bad dad would bit the heads off dolls, throw things across the room or, as I once witnessed, run naked from the shower to scream and berate the children for some random, perceived misdeed. While not a fan of the government making familial decisions, I am relieved that he does not have custody of his kids. However, he does have visitation which he uses randomly and unfortunately good dad is increasingly less a part of those visits. It has reached a crisis point and I suspect my friend is going to be institutionalized.

Which brings me to this thread. I've heard a lot about souls, free-will and choices. I know the story of Adam which is a good allegory of choice and consequence in some ways. I've also read a little on what the Catholic church ahs to say on the subject of insanity, sin and responsibility. At least as far as I can find, they dodge it. The church agrees that if one is born insane, they aren't responsible for their actions and they are not sins. Actually to my mind this brings up 2 questions, 1) do the insane have a soul if they are never responsible for their actions and 2) why does god create people insane from birth? Scientifically I understand this, but from the point of view of beings with a "soul" , specifically born to make choices and go to heaven or hell it seems ... not very well thought out.

What about those that are going insane? What about people who, like my friend, are seemingly sane at some time and insane at another?

One idea is that the insane are not responsible for their actions. However, the Catholic Encyclopedia points out that, while a humane policy, it's directly in conflict with church doctrine:

The theory does, indeed, seem to disagree with the doctrine of our textbooks of moral philosophy and theology, which maintains that freedom of the will can be diminished or destroyed only through defective or confused action of the intellect.

In other words, through choices. This makes sense theologically since the soul is all about choice and if physical changes to the body can change our choices, it puts the soul and one's responsibilities into a very shaky area.

Its an interesting problem.

Kudos to Kurzweil

I read a great deal of Ray's book yesterday on the plane from Seattle to Boston, and came away, as usual, unwillingly impressed by Ray. I had been prepared to write the following one line review of his book:

“Ray Kurzweil has written a Harlequin Romance novel for the technoratti.”

This was based primarily on the conversations I used to have with him and generally how they went. At KAI it would usually be Vlad and I against Ray and Francis on these topics and I'd bet my last dollar each side believed that it came out the better. Unfortunately I can't write that line for my review, it would be neither completely honest or fair. There are, however, elements of the romance novel in it.

First, the highlights:
I mentioned the other day that, while looking at in the bookstore, I read an appendix where Ray tries to give a mathematical justification for the singularity. The basic issue I had with it is that he made an assumption which I thought was unjustified and, if cast ever-so-slightly differently ( and more honestly in a scientific sense), the effect goes away. I sat down afterward and wrote what I thought was the more objective equation, solved it for a family of solutions and saw how Ray's solution was a subset within that superset. Ray's not wrong, just ... judicious in his choice of parameters. Upon looking through the book at leisure, I found that Ray had gone over this criticism in full. Not only had he enclosed a version of what I thought was the right general solution, he spent some time explaining why he thought he chose a conservative solution and argued that his solution should be stronger than it was.

Kudos to Ray for doing this.

However, his justification for doing this is circular. It basically boils down to, we know a singularity is coming, if I chose this parameter and do some math I get and equation with a singularity, therefore a singularity is coming. Q.E.D.

The basic problem is how strongly "the rate of technological change" couples to "the amount of knowledge in the world". Squishy concepts to be writing equations for in the first place. Ray assumes the coupling is directly proportional at least and maybe proportional to the square or some higher exponent. I take the more conservative approach and say while I think it's proportional, there are alot of other things the "amount of world knowledge" is dependent upon and say it's some power law X^(n) where 0<n<1. In Ray's solution you eventually get a singularity, in mine you "merely" get exponential growth. Given that nothing in nature (yes even black holes) generates a true singularity, I think mine is a more prudent set of assumptions. Ray, always the optimist, disagrees.

Also, kudos to Ray for directly confronting a lot of critical arguments. He has a whole chapter on a dozen or so objections people raise (I only thought of 3 or 4 of them). Some of them like, computers don't have souls so god will not recognize them as sentient beings, seem... too esoteric or philosophical for me. While I applaud him for raising them, I was not convinced about how he dismisses them, mostly with one version or another of "trust me, it will all be great".

The rest of the book is good and if you're one of the folks that already believes this is going to happen, this will help you rationalize believing that. While I was unconvinced of the approach of a singularity in 2050, the consolation prize (exponential growth) is pretty good and I do happen to believe that. Ray does a superlative job of laying out the current direction of technology, innovation and growth. He does a less successful job with economics, i.e. scarcity is solved and we all live in a communist utopia in 2050, law, human nature and, surprising to me, the nature of the eventual AIs.

This last point bears some explanation as I learned everything I know about AI from working at Ray's company, but not from Ray. It's also important to note here that Ray himself did not work on research or code at KAI. While I think he he understands AI very well, I don't think he quite gets what is going on in there. Basically his assumption is that neural nets will mimic the human brain and that the AIs the come in 2050 will all be human-based benevolent gods who (more or less) love us and keep as pets. My view is different. I think the AIs will be as alien to us as the dolphins, chimps and whales are. Actually, more so, as the latter all have meaty brains, meaty urges, meaty lusts and above all, meaty motivations. I think the AIs will be nothing like us at all, with no sense of nostalgia, no sense of history or parentage etc. In short, from our perspective as humans, they will be functionally psychotic, with nothing to ground them in the meat world and no real allegiance to us. It's likely to be more like Skynet than the Eschaton. Humans are not likely to understand the monomania and motivations of real AI based superintelligence and, if it understands us at all, it's not likely to care.

However, while never in doubt, I am often wrong and hopefully that is the case here. Read the book, it's got a lot going for it despite my reservations.

And, like a said, exponential growth is a damn fine consolation prize.

If, in 2051, I'm reading this as a disembodied consciousness floating just outside Tau Ceti IV, I'll enthusiastically cop to having been a doubter.

The Cutest Picture Ever

Which I would file under "Things Man Was Not Meant To See".


Sign up for the Liftport Newsletter while you are over there.

Friday, October 28, 2005

BAG News

I went to BAG news to see what was going on with the marketing of the current crisis. I was explaining to Jim that, while not an expert, I have accidently become knowledgable about marketing. I was giving the Nixon example when the page loaded.

I laughed for a full minute.

Jim's patience knows no bounds.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Currently Reading: The Singualrity Is Near

By Ray Kurzweil

Yeah, I'm reading Ray's book. I took a gratuitous pot-shot at him the other day, calling his idea that the singularity will happen in his lifetime a fantasy. I worked for him for nearly four years and, while I can't say we were friends or even very close, you could not work for KAI (Kurzweil AI) for more than 4 hours without getting a heaping spoonful of Ray's ideas (and a lesser, but potent dose of his optimism). Kathy, Amy and Mike, also KAI alum(1) and occasionally blog readers (Hi Guys!) should feel especially free to chime in here if I'm being too soft or mush-headed. Especially you Mike(2) After the pot-shot I figured the least I could do was read his book and base some of my judgment on that.

I did skip to the appendix in the store though and read his mathematical proof of the singularity. The math was flawless and straight-forward. It was also based on an incorrect assumption, rendering the proof invalid. Not a stunning start.

(1) In the interests of honestly and full disclosure, I am not actually a member of Listen to Me. "Listen to Me" was the phrase one used to activate the interactive mode of the recognizer and serves today as the name of the alumni news letter. My occasional petition for membership is always quietly rejected in part because many of the members of "Listen to Me" were people I either had fired or fired myself. The news-letter operator, Steve Rothman, was my boss for awhile at KAI. I got him fired.

(2) technically I own Mike's soul. I bought it for $5 one afternoon and so I feel justified in occasionally using the imperative voice with him. Mike is another Atheist and a good friend.

2 Bits of Minor News

Bit 1: My new Motorola MPx220 smart phone arrived today. It's pimped out in every way I could think of, Bluetooth, Sim card, Quad band, MS Magneto OS, Internet and corporate email, etc. Very nice, although a little higher on the phone tech scale than I'm used to. My New number is 207 415 XXXX* Why a phone bought in Seattle has a Maine phone number, I'll never understand.

Call me when you get a chance, or email me at work I should get it either way!

Bit 10: I'm heading back to Boston tomorrow where I'l be in town for the better part of 3 weeks. 5 days of that I'm spending in the Lahey Clinic, 4 days in Dallas and 2 in New York, but other than that (21-5-4-2 = 10) I'll be home in an empty place with Jim, the cats, 2 chairs and a plastic table.

And my smart phone! :)

*Geoff rightly points out that, although the readership is small, google remembers things forever. Call the old number for the new

An Amusing, Agreeable Point on ID

From William Saletan

This soft-headed agnosticism matches the soft-headed arguments for including it in the curriculum. They're the same arguments leftists have made for ebonics. According to ID proponents, the committee in charge of Ohio's science curriculum is too "homogenous" and lacks "diversity." It marginalizes alternative "points of view" to which students should be "exposed." A conservative state senator says some people "think differently, and all those ideas should be explored." A conservative member of the state education board says Ohioans deserve a science curriculum "they can all be comfortable with."

Well said.

Devil Woman

You can almost smell the brimstone from this USA Today photo.

These kinds of things sell papers of course, but I dread to think what they'll do to her when she's VP.


I'm almost finished with Mary Roach's excellent book Spook. It's exactly the kind of book that the psuedo-scientific religious find extremely unconfortable because it comes up with rational pedestrian explainations for things which many report to be evidence of the supernatural. It's done in a non-condecending, humorous tone and Mary, like me and many others, want to believe in some of this stuff but can't find any reason to.

Part of Spook focuses on ghosts and hauntings and, at least so far, is one of the best parts of the book. Disclaimer: When I was young, until about the age of 11 or 12, I saw ghosts from time to time. I vividly remember them when I was 5 or 6 and would still hear things/feel things at night into my teen years. Mary goes through this pretty throughly and does a great job talking about how humans precieve infrasound and how we react. Infrasound is the term for an acoustic (longitudinal) wave with a frequency between 10 and 20 hertz, just below the threshold for hearing. You still precieve sounds this low, you just don't hear them. What do you do? Well, you panic a little.
It turns out that a lot of animals communicate by infrasound, especially ones with large territories to defend. The beauty of low frequency waves is that they travel for fucking ever, so if your an elephant or a rhino or a whale, infrasound is a good investment for you.

Or, if you're a tiger.

It turns out tigers communiate a lot through infrasound and humans (or at least soem humans who have not yet ruined their ears by playing the Yes Album at 120db for 18 hours a day) respond rather strongly to this.

It also turns out that your PC speakers can do a pretty good approximation of sounds in this range.

So, I went to a site Mary suggested here, read through and scrolled down to the first speaker. I hit the button, fully prepared to hear a tiger roar. And I did. What I was not prepared for, so much so that I burst out laughing afterwards at my foolishness, was the little spike of pure fear that came with it. I litterally got goosebumps. I played it a few more times and realized that part of what I felt was the little dark feeling of something in the room I had when I was a kid. Add to that the dark, too much imagination and some religion classes and I am fully satisfied I understand the creepiness feeling.

Now I want to do two things: 1) I want to watch Ghost Hunters again on Sci-Fi. I watched a few times hoping they would find something, but they never seemed to come up with anything convincing. I want to see if they are in environments which are likely to be good ultrasound resonators. and 2)

I want to play these sounds for the cats...

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Talking Points Memo

If you have not read Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo on the Italians, the faked Nigerian Yellowcake documents and the Office of Special Operations, your missing the best stuff in news reporting.

If you're not keeping up, there will be a point in the near future where you say to yourself "Why did that happen". If you read this, you'll have a better idea why Cheney gets indicted.

Excellent Pictures From Iraq

Excellent photo essay on Iraq.

Andrew Sullivan's Excellent Point and the 5 Most Dangerous Words in the English Language

Simple and effective, as most clever things are. I don't know why I didn't htink to ask this, but I didn't.
THE SOCIAL RIGHT AND GAYS: My debate with David Blankenhorn on the matter of marriage rights is now posted. In many ways, I think the most telling part of the conversation was at the very end. Blankenhorn was asked a simple question by a member of the audience: since you oppose marriage rights for gay couples, what do you support for them? What's amazing is that after decades of thinking about marriage and several years mulling the issue of marriage for gays, David still had no answer. Frum has no answer. Gallagher has no answer. Kurtz has no answer. I have to say I find this quite extraordinary. It is as extraordinary as the social right's complete indifference to the revolution in gay culture and society these past two decades. I just read Rick Santorum's book about conservatism and the "common good." It's better than I expected and has many pages devoted to excluding gay couples from civil marriage. But again: I could find no practical, constructive suggestion from Santorum on what he believes should be our civil policy toward gay couples. Should they be deterred from settling down? Should they be encouraged to make faithful commitments? Should their households, when they include offspring, be legally protected? Silence. Nada. Zip. The "common good" does not include gay people or their kids. For much of the social right, homosexuals simply do not exist. Our reality is so threatening to them that they cannot even begin to construct a viable social policy toward us. And that's why they're losing this debate. In many ways, they haven't even joined it.

The Right can't simply come out and say, "stop existing", it's too late for that and anyone with a modicum of decency would be turned off. No, they can't answer because, like similar folk on the Left, the truth is unspeakable. Like their tutors on the Left, it's better to make some seemingly positive social policies (and damn the consequences) and quickly change the subject.

The 5 most dangerous words in the English Language are still:
Maybe it will go away.

Donald Trump, Forever

I've been working on the book a little this week after getting some stuff settled in Seattle and finishing some travel. The outline is hovering around 40 pages or so, and I'm starting to fill in details specific to one or two areas. Right now I'm working on life extension and the Corporate Senate sections, the former much harder than the latter.

In looking at trends in human history, there are a couple that might serve as models; 1) Cheap, easy and culture shifting, 2) expensive, rare and elite and 3) for lack of a better work, genetic or evolutionary.

1) Cheap, easy, culture shifting: The model here is electricity or the phone (or these days the internet). Everyone (or almost everyone with rare exceptions) has access, it quickly dives under the cultural radar (heard any Tesla jokes lately?) and isn't news except when it's missing. Many technologies eventually go this route. However, I don't think life extension will be one of them, at least not soon. Ray Kurzweil's fantasies aside, the singularity is not as close as people think, nano technology has been Real Soon Now for decades and, well, even stuff from the '50s like cheap fusion is still (and has always been) 20 years away. I think LE is not going to be a simple nutritional supplement, but a complete re-write of your DNA, or at least extending certain parts of it into every cell in your body. This is hard, uncertain work and biology isn't physics (it's vastly more complicated). Immortality won't be coming in a pill for a long time I think, so for the next 150 years or so, I'm ruling this one out.

2) Expensive, rare and elite. Everyone has a car (in the US) but how many people have McClearens? Not fucking me that's for sure. Delorian tried but failed. I think if LE is as complicated as I suspect, the first few iterations on existing humans may only be partly successful and I expect it to be very expensive. Also, the economics of it would seem to me (a non-economist) to keep it rare, i.e. providers could charge huge amounts of money for it because absolutely everyone would want it. It's unlikely to be covered by a healthcare plan especially when these days more and more plans are getting away from expensive treatments and looking for workers who won't get sick at all.

There is an argument to be made that folks could finance their LE and pay it out of their multi-hundred/thousand year lifespan. However, for those arguments to make real sense, you a) need the first few folks to live a sizeable fraction of that to prove it actually works (medical breakthroughs have an unfortunate history of not working quite as well as planned, e.g. seen any Jarvik artificial hearts around? Not a mean criticism, it's just a hard, hard problem in a complex system) and b) you need actuarial tables for those lifespans. LE doesn't mean you can't get hit by a car, slip in the shower etc. To point b), I talked to a number of insurance actuarials about this (my job brings me in contact with all sorts of interesting folks) and this is a known problem some few folks have worked on. Assuming immorality, your mean time to a fatal accident is somewhere between 800-1500 years. This also assumes that LE confers immunity to all disease, an assumption I can't see justifying. I don't see folks financing more than a small fraction of this, say 100 years or so. Hence, not may people will be able to afford it. Trumps, Hiltons, Gates etc. maybe, but not you or I. Well, not I.
Result: Donald Trump might be with us for a long time, but fortunately we'll die and not have to watch.

3)Genetic, evolutionary. I see some home for this. If we can build genes, or better yet eggs and sperm, we could build the LE genes right in from birth. This avoids a lot of problems in 2) and gets us to 1) (or at least set up for 1)) in a relatively short time. It's comparatively simple, cheaper than doing it after the system has booted (but likely not cheap) and might be workable. I call this the Gattica option and, while personally fond of it, it means pretty directly playing god with peoples lives (or future lives). I can't see this being popular for a few hundred years until a population of Gatticans gets large enough to vote in significant numbers. Again, this won't be available to everyone, so 2,000 years from now, we all might be Gates, or Fords, or Trumps.

This is evolution in action in the brave, new world.

I'm certainly open to other arguments, corrections, or debates on why I have my head up my ass, but this is the direction I'm going to head on this.

Texas Leads the Way!

I see the Texans have already made a good start at getting government out of the bedroom and off our backs (via Volokh)

Opponents of a proposed amendment to the Texas Constitution banning same-sex marriage said Monday the initiative's poor wording could effectively nullify all marriages.
Proposition 2 on the Nov. 8 ballot states that marriage exists only as a union of one man and one woman.
It then adds that the state or political subdivision of the state "may not create or recognize any legal status identical or similar to marriage."
"That in the hands of an activist judge could lead to the ruin of my marriage and every other marriage in this state because the status that is most identical to marriage is obviously marriage itself," said Trampes Crow, a graduate student at the University of Texas and a former army captain who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I'd say it's still in Captain Crow's hands to save or ruin his own marriage, but folks like to have a State to blame...

Tax the Permanently Single

This seems to be a point of surprise to some, but I think this is really just the enfranchisement of a new group in an existing process (Gregg Easterbrook, via Cathy Young, via Volokh)

If significant numbers of gays and lesbians begin to wed, the 100 million single people may become more dismayed that still more people wearing rings get special deals while they do not. Equally important, for every gay or lesbian pair who weds, winning benefits, a couple of single people must be taxed more to fund these benefits. Benefits can't just be demanded; someone must provide them. Marriage benefits for gays and lesbians will not come from the pockets of those in traditional one-man-one-woman unions. The benefits will come from the pockets of the single.
You chortle now, but as same-gender unions gain acceptance, prejudice against the single may become the final frontier. Marriage definitely isn't for everyone; some people were made by God to be single, and why should society punish them for that? Millions of people wish to marry but cannot find suitable partners; why should society punish them for that? The single makes substantial contributions to society, including often assisting in the all-important raising of children. Many single people form long-term or even life-long bonds to each other based not on eros but Platonic friendship; why shouldn't such people be able to pool their credit, inherit each other's property without taxation, and so on? ... At any rate, complaints from the single seem the next logical progression of this debate, and complaints from the single are going to be hard to rebut.

There are a couple of small problems with this argument but mostly just in magnitude, e.g. a number of gay people are already married to opposite sexed spouses, they just aren't happy, so in detail-balance this is a much smaller increase than it might look; the number of gays is statistically small (about 4% of the general population in the US) and the number of those who would marry is even smaller, so I'm not sure the magnitude of the problem would be detectable in the noise of the current data; 80% of gays are reproductively successful at some point in their lives so, to within a good approximation of non-gays, they are producing single folks to take up the burden, etc.

But, it's still a good point, one I'm surprised no one is really making on the other side. My solution, as always, is to get government out of the marriage business. Stop subsidies/penalties for doing it and make it a purely religious institution.

Also, take the time to ready Cathy Young's article. It's excellent, and makes the points Maggie Gallagher tried but really failed to make.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Nipple Clamps

I love wonkette.
• Maybe it was her sexy nipple clamps that made Kay Bailey Hutchison forget all about blowjobs.

Talking Points:Perjury

Consistency may be the hobgoblin of small minds, but it's also damn useful. Back during the Monica thing I was consistent in two things: 1) Congress had no business investigating the president's blow-job and 2) Clinton needed to tell the truth. While I had a lot of sympathy for the man while he was having his consensual dirty laundry aired, I didn't condone lying to cover it up.

Like everyone else, I heard the new GOP talking points yesterday by Sen. Hutchison,
"that it is an indictment on a crime and not some perjury technicality where they couldn't indict on the crime and so they go to something just to show that their two years of investigation was not a waste of time and taxpayer dollars."

The fact that the GOP flips 180 on this only when it's their ox being gored, makes me want to vote for them even less than I already do. Note: This also represents small minded consistency on my part as I stopped voting for dems on the same principle.

And, in case the GOP has forgotten their eagerness, well some helpful folks can help remind them of how they looked at this a few years ago. If anyone is stupid enough to take up the new talking points, I hope their opponents crucify them with ads in 2006.

Sen. Hutchison: "The reason that I voted to remove him from office is because I think the overridding issue here is that truth will remain the standard for perjury and obstruction of justice in our criminal justice system and it must not be gray. It must not be muddy." [AP, 2/12/99]

Sen. Frist: "There is no serious question that perjury and obstruction of justice are high crimes and misdemeanors...Indeed, our own Senate precedent establishes that perjury is a high crime and misdemeanor...The crimes of perjury and obstruction of justice are public crimes threatening the administration of justice." [Congressional Record, 2/12/99]

Sen. DeWine: "Obstruction of justice and perjury strike at the very heart of our system of justice...Perjury is also a very serious crime...The judiciary is designed to be a mechanism for finding the truth-so that justice can be done. Perjury perverts the judiciary, turning it into a mechanism that accepts lies-so that injustice may prevail." [Congressional Record, 2/12/99]

Apt comment on Harriet

Found in my mail this morning, care of the Strawberry Woman:

I give Miers no chance. She is Thomas without the pubic hair.

To which I can only add, in the faint praise category,

or the reasoning skills.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Truth in Advertising

Administration apologist and Harriet Miers Junior Fan Club President Bill O'Reilly on the Today show this week:

The Center of the Galaxy

Another great image from the APOD. This is the best picture of the center of the galaxy I've ever seen.

Superman is a Dick

I hadn't thought of it like this.

She Doesn't Take a Good Photo

Recent WH pictures featuring Harriet in her second re-launch as a product.

Wow. They can't take a good picture of the woman.

The thing here is not so much Harriet herself (intrade is currently got her at about 32% chance of winning), but the seeming incompetence of the WH team in getting her going. This is the first product they've tried to move without Rove (this has been Andy Card's game from start to finish for various reasons) and, frankly, it shows. Candidate photos are basic blocking and tackling though. I don't quite know they are managing to screw that up, it's known science.

If Rove does get an indictment, I wonder if Bush will issue a blanket pardon to keep the WH afloat?