Thursday, December 24, 2015

Merry Christmas!

Even though I've studied the state of human development for some time, these are the sorts of changes not even Soviet statisticians would have been brave enough to make up! In less than 25 years, the world has gone from mostly poor to mostly well off.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Cheap Energy = High Growth?

Interesting article from Next Big Future asking whether building cheap energy sources will usher in rapid economic growth. The author challenged readers to come up with ways this might happen and I thought of:

  1. More computing power because of lower thermal/efficiency constraints. High performance computing is limited because of efficiency/power costs and form factor issues. For instance, a high performance desktop (let alone a high performance computing cluster) can draw several hundred watts. Running a 1.2kW machine continuously costs $1,000/year with a typical $0.10/kWh fee. If electricity was nearly free, we would expect to see even more powerful machines in widespread use. However, dissipating that kind of heat would require dedicating cooling infrastructure; it's an order greater cost to an already impractically expensive system but easily negated if electricity is cheap enough. All this extra computational power means faster progress with chemical simulations and protein folding among other applications.
  2. Increased agricultural output. I'd been looking at grow lights and even with LEDs, it is not economically sensible because of electricity prices. 
  3. Desalination. 
The article covered many of the biggies like cheaper aluminum, heated roads, massive terraforming. One I thought about but couldn't really explain was a kind of virtuous circle of 3D printing, self replication, and material extraction - all to trend towards nanotechnology, robotics, and biotech proliferation. Consumer 3D printers use crappy plastics but with nearly free energy, metalworking becomes doable and higher precision 3D printers/CNC machines become possible. The minerals composing the Earth's Crust are: Silicon, Aluminum, and Iron. The cost to extract aluminum made it on par with the cost of silver; now it's in foil and cans and is basically disposable. Just a few minutes think about it and the imagination goes into overdrive. 

There are many synergies that come about with cheaper energy. Another way to put it is that cheaper energy means higher energy consumption. And higher energy consumption is strongly correlated to higher income.

Electricity Use vs Income (log-log)

Oil User vs Income (log-log)

Some might argue that correlation is not causation and that in this case, higher incomes were responsible for higher energy consumption. However, if Say's Law is true, higher production necessarily means higher consumption and, mathematically based on the definition of GDP, higher income per person.

There are other factors involved in economic growth, sed ceteris paribus, greater energy production will drive economic growth since most, maybe even all, economic activity requires it.*

* It might be possible to make a praxeological argument for it along the lines of: unease leads to attempts to remove that unease. Cheaper energy will often allow new superior options to remove that unease. If and when someone does scratch that itch ... hmm, I probably need to reread Human Action

Monday, December 14, 2015

Laurie Calhoun and Just War Theory

Tom Woods interviews Laurie Calhoun regarding Just War Theory. Woods prefaced his podcast by saying that he's largely come to reject it so he mostly assents to her reasoning. I'm sure Woods, as someone who previously believed in Just War theory, changed his position with great consideration. And I'm sure that Calhoun's book contains a more exhaustive and systematic treatment of the subject.

I'm saying this because Calhoun did not present a good case for rejecting the theory.

Objection: The principles of Just War tend to be used platitudinally by warmongers.

Here I'm going to invoke the principle abusus non tollit usum, i.e., abuse does not take away use. The fact that an evildoer justifies his behavior in terms of something good does not somehow invalidate the good thing. The example she uses is the just cause principle which she says doesn't mean anything other than that the leader wants to wage war. Yet the fact that she does allow for the use of self defense means that she views self defense as a just cause for violence. Only complete pacifists might be said to deny there being any sort of just cause for violence.

Objection: There have been no cases where someone has supported a war, then become familiar with Just War theory. who then proceeded to withdraw support for war.

Hard to say but it'd hard to believe there hasn't been a single leader in history who wanted war and, conferring with a bishop or priest, decided against it. History is mainly about the wars that do get fought, not the wars that aren't. There are probably better examples, but General Paulus choosing to surrender rather than fight to the death, as ordered by Hitler, in Stalingrad is an application of the Just War principle of fighting only when there is a reasonable chance of success. Had the Japanese adopted these principles, they might have chosen to eschew human wave tactics and saved the lives of countless people.

Objection: The "Last Resort" requirement doesn't preclude anyone from doing anything

The fact that rulers often go to war under the pretense of it being the "last resort" when it often isn't probably means that rulers tend to be unprincipled. The fact that Christians lie and steal constantly doesn't mean that the Ten Commandments are invalid and should be discarded.

If Calhoun accepts that violence is acceptable in some cases, i.e., self defense and neighborhood defense - though perhaps not defense of neighbor extended generally, then war can be resorted to. But if war can be resorted to, how can any person who desires peace not suggest that it be the last resort? What place should "going to war" be placed among the options politicians have?

Objection: George Bush, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, etc. all use Just War Theory to justify their aggression

Again, abusus non tollit usum. There's also a kind of fallacy of association, i.e., equivocation, going on here.

Objection: It is the composition fallacy to extend the right of individual self defense to groups. 

This is trickier. As someone who adheres to methodological individualism, I tend to agree. But if someone is part of an invading army, they have assumed a collective identity voluntarily. So it is appropriate to say, "defend against the German Sixth Army" whereas it is not appropriate to say "defeat Germany". The people living in Germany are not necessarily the same as the Germans who freely joined the German government/military to initiate aggression against others.

And if an aggressor collectivizes me (despite my identifying otherwise) and decides to aggress against that collective, i.e., Americans, then I am in danger and have the moral options for self-defense that result.

Objection: War is being waged abroad which is analogous to a neighbor who creeps into another neighbors house and kills him because he thinks he may try to harm him later. This is a crime in civil society

Preƫmptive war is very difficult to justify.* However, if a murderer is active, even if they have not initiated aggression against you or your particular neighborhood, using violence to stop that murderer is (in my mind) acceptable. When the Soviets were conquering Eastern Europe, certainly an attack on Soviet military positions in occupied territory by previously non-belligerent actors would not be a crime - especially given the Soviet ideological basis of violent revolution to usher in Communist dominion.

Objection: Just War theory is actually not a limit to war but rather the most dangerous weapon for a bellicose leader. 

How about a theory that suggests that what is best in life is conquest and indiscriminate killing of military and civilians? A worldview that glorifies death in combat? The Vikings and Mongols show what unlimited war can be like. Although the type of warfare practiced in World War II is sometimes called Total War, had it been unlimited, then Dresden and Hiroshima would not have been the exception.

Objection: Just War states that soldiers must obey the authority no matter what

Certainly not. There are many examples of soldiers who refused to kill innocent people and who paid for their insubordination with their lives. These usually became saints. It is absurd to think that Augustine or Aquinas would believe those soldiers would have been better off following orders on account of Just War theory.
As an aside, she suggests that the "legitimate authority" as divinely appointed is a medieval Catholic phenomenon and that it was the Protestant Reformation which brought the idea of fallibility to rulers. This is incorrect. Divine authority resting in political leaders predates Christianity and the Catholic Church; it is not at all specific to medieval Catholic Europe. Pharaoh was a god, the Roman emperor was a god, the Chinese emperor ruled by the Mandate of Heaven, etc. Indeed it is one of the hallmarks of Judaism and Christianity to reject political leaders as being divine which typically led to conflicts between political and religious authorities. Ironically, the idea of secular authority as supreme gained traction in Western Europe (in the East, the issue was largely decided along caesaropapist lines) because of Protestantism. German princes since 1648 were greater authorities than the Church, and the King of England was the head of the English Church.
Objection: The doctrine of double effect in warfare is really based on the idea that "we are good" and "they are bad". For example, the US government justifies civilian casualties in Vietnam because they were an unintended consequence of bombing military targets but hypocritically declaims the civilian deaths from the 9/11 attacks. 

It's true, almost self-evident, that there are few who engage in wars without believing the enemy is bad. But while we cannot read men's souls, some attempt to determine intent does inform our evaluation of whether some act of violence was justified.

Flying planes into the World Trade Center buildings is as clear a deliberate attack on civilian targets as can be. In this case, it is clear that the people who perpetrated those attacks were unjust under Just War theory (and any theory where civilians are considered innocent) even if the attackers justified their cause on account of US interventionism in Saudi Arabia. Punishing the conspirators ought to be uncontroversial.

A retaliatory strike on account of the attack on the Pentagon, however, isn't as clear cut. The Pentagon is a military target and the people working there do have significant responsibility for the stationing of US troops in Saudi Arabia, Iraqi sanctions, etc. Live by the sword, die by the sword.**

Bombing, with its attendant "collateral damage", has always been hotly debated by Just War theorists. Just as economy of the United States is often mis-characterized as a Free Market system, so too is the foreign policy of the US Government mis-characterized as a Just War based policy. In some ways it is, in some ways it isn't.

It's clear Calhoun does not place much stock in the Principle of Double Effect because in her mind, intention is unimportant. Though she did not state as much, she seems to believe in a Consequentialist or Utilitarian ethic. One of these days I'll go into why that view is actually unrealistic.

Objection: Just War is always justified because it is interpreted by leaders to be so - it is their prerogative.

Just because Obama claims the prerogative for justifying the bombing of Syria doesn't mean he actually has it. Just War criteria can be used by individuals, as moral actors, to help them determine whether some action is permissible.

Some examples:

The German state having agreed to a certain land border with Poland, nevertheless decides to invade. As a Polish soldier, you might face a number of problem situations that Just War theory can help solve. Is it okay to bomb a German column inside the Polish border? Yes. Even if the column is far from your town? Yes. Is it okay to bomb a German children's hospital? No. Even with a direct order? No. Is it okay to lead a cavalry lancing charge against tanks? No. Is it okay to ignore all overtures for peace coming from the German government? No.

These might seem obvious, but they are only obvious because of the moral framework within which Just War theory exists. There are many difficult questions that Just War theory does not clearly address which is why the ethics surrounding violence continue to be debated. But to dismiss Just War the way Calhoun does? Madness.

Objection: The Just War injunction to treat soldiers as human beings is pointless as we see governments fail to do this all the time

Again, abusus non tollit usum.

* In the case of the United States which enjoys the security of the two largest oceans on Earth and peaceful relations with its two much weaker border nations, it is nearly impossible. Of the nations on Earth, the US - assuming the international framework - should have been the last nation to have ever considered invading Iraq.

** Usually this is taken in a negative way but I interpret it as the recognition that violence begets violence, even if completely justified. If I killed a home invader, I should have some expectation that friends of the invader might want to exact revenge on me and so on. Those consequences that attend violence should be part of the calculus involved in deciding whether to employ it.

Applied to a nation's soldiers, they should know that they've forfeited the presumption of innocence by choosing (obviously mitigated in cases of draft) to join a group that believes in violently executing the will of the state. But it is possible to maintain the sanction of Just War theory if politicians act accordingly - the Swiss are the best example.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Right Ascension

Donald Trump wants to temporarily ban Muslim immigration. Many people suggest that ostracizing Muslims can radicalize them while opponents wonder whether "we" should be letting people in who are so easily prone to radicalization.

It's hard to argue with either view. I think it makes sense to restrict the entry of Salafist or Wahhabist (Sunni) Muslims who, unfortunately, form a large part of the Muslim community. At the very least, the United States should stop supporting Saudi Arabia which has been supporting these movements; but you'll hear very little criticism of such an important geopolitical ally.

Had Trump prefaced his ban with a clear exception for peaceful and persecuted Muslim groups like the Ahmadiyya and Sufi whose beliefs tend to be viewed as heretical by mainstream Islam, it would have been a reasonable policy. There's not much the non-Muslim world can or even should do to help Islam at large engage with modernity, but one hopes that the flourishing of peaceful Muslims would help.

What is definitely not helpful is the portrayal of Trump as the reincarnation of Hitler. Rather than shock and silence the opposition, the constant comparisons of Trump's rise with Hitler and the Nazis for policies that are not at all equivalent to the brutal murderous Nazi regimes only legitimize fascism. That is, if you call someone a Nazi every time they oppose you, they are not going to think Nazism is a big deal.

And this is what I'm seeing in conservative and even libertarian circles. There have always been racist and fascist leaning elements among conservatives, but the failure of the media to rise above race-baiting and Nazi name calling serves, ironically, to emphasize those elements. And while we may not have much say in the de-radicalization of Islam (and this is probably going to be the case as long as the Saudis still own and run the most important spaces in the Islamic world), Americans do have a say with how we discuss what ought to be prosaic issues, like immigration.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Sorry Star Trek, the future belongs to Khan, not Kirk.

The Washington Post had an article yesterday about editing genes to cure aging. It's probably still an outlier type of article to really say that the discussion has moved to the mainstream, but it's there.

The method used, CRISPR, is not new to people who follow life extension efforts. And when I say life extension, I don't mean eating healthy and exercising, but actually reversing the aging process and eliminating old age as a cause of death. The funding in the field is miniscule and the conversation is dominated by enthusiasts rather than professionals. Professionals are loathe to take on the project. One that did, Aubrey de Grey, issued a challenge with prize money to anyone who could demonstrate that his approach to anti-aging was unsound. It's the old aviation prize approach but Diamandis seems to make it work.

But now that a Harvard professor of genetics is talking about reversing aging, hopefully we'll see more professionals get involved. Singularity University is as good an effort as one could hope for in this regard although its publication, Singularity Hub, is really lacking; it's just a general science and tech blog no better than Next Big Future or 33rd Square.* It was a mistake for Singularity University to incorporate the Singularity Hub blog as its voice because there still is no well-curated accessible resource for directly related GNR approaches to singularity technologies.

For executive summaries about the where we are on the road, it's probably best to just check out Ray Kurzweil's latest talks. For the state of the art, Gennady Stolyarov's Fight Aging

Eliminating aging through genetic engineering presupposes technologies that will enable all kinds of other types of bio-engineering and augmentation. Just about everyone would be on board with fixing the genes responsible for cystic fibrosis but there's a lot of angst over genetic engineering as a kind of crypto-Nazi eugenics program. People inclined to see reality in terms of class distinctions are probably less sanguine than libertarian types like myself. Either way, I don't think a bright line can be drawn for therapeutic versus superficial improvements in gene editing which leads to a transhumanist vision of the future rather than one where everyone has the Einstein's brainpower and Mr. Universe's body etc.

* It's not that I don't appreciate the work that Brian Wang does at his site Next Big Future (which unfortunately seems to be focused on the Chinese military lately) or Geoffrey Brennan's site 33rd Square, but neither is really qualified to give insight into the technologies they report on. Gennady Stolyarov's Fight Aging doesn't look nearly as slick as the previous sites, but he's an actuary and actuarial thinking is a good mindset to have when evaluating research. Or maybe I'm just biased towards a fellow libertarian. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

5.6 Good Things

I read somewhere that it takes five compliments to balance out every insult in terms of emotional banking. Harvard Business Review, the best thing coming out of Harvard*, suggests the ratio should be a 5.6.

Anyway I was going to complain about how crappy Ars Technica is as a reaction to their panning of Amazon's The Man In the High Castle. But Ars Technica was never good - or at least it hasn't been good since Conde Nast bought them out. But even before then, it tended to distance itself from its amateur enthusiast audience rather than embracing it. Well that's one complaint about a tech site.

So here are five tech sites that are better. The PC enthusiast market is less active so it's a bit of a case of you've seen one tech site, you've seen them all.

Mad ShrimpsSmallNetBuilder - Network focused
TechPowerUp - Aggregates reviews from enthusiast sites
Xbit labs - Usually only review major hardware releases but they're thorough

And here's the 0.6

SilentPCReview - The site is quieter (pun intended) now that PCs are more energy efficient and quiet components are more normal. The forums are good for specialist knowledge on quiet components just as Guru3Ds forums are good for graphics card minutiae.

It's actually kind of hard to compile good PC enthusiast sites because of the shift in focus to mobile. The thing with the shift to mobile is that the audience and even the very way we interact with the hardware is very different. The correlation between the trendy mobile space and anti-gamer editorial bias isn't coincidental. Also not coincidence? Ars Technica is anti-gamer.

* Do backhanded passive aggressive type compliments count?