Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Don't tell them there's something wrong with them

This American Life has a story on Mosaic Downs Syndrome. A particular mother of a child told his K teacher he had this. When she visited the class, her child was being allowed to lie on the floor isolated while every other child sat in a circle for a story. From that point on, Mom never told anybody what was up. Her son has an IQ of 110 and got A's and B's. He finally pressed her when he was 13 or 14 years old and months after he first asked, she told him.

If we were the kind of people that treated all individuals as individuals, we wouldn't need to hide things like this. But we are not. There are old studies where some teachers were told that their classes were "gifted," while other teachers were not. The classes were not gifted, they were the usual mix of vagabonds and knaves you find in any class. The classes where the teachers were told the kids were gifted all scored higher by the end of the year.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Faster than light travel!

I'm reading Roger Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind. I'm less than halfway through, but so far the outline of the book seems to be
1) Review every major bit of math, physics, and metaphysics from the last 5000 years
2) Point out how the idea of determinism is pretty weak about 16 different ways
3) (and I haven't gotten to this point yet) show how a regular computer can never be a brain.

But the journey, in this case, is a good fraction of the fun. Today I read the twin paradox. I first learned this 35 years ago, I have known it in some sense for 2/3 of my life. And somehow in that time I never noticed that that Special Relativity allows for faster than light travel!

Consider this example to explain it. The space-faring twin leaves the earth, travels to a star 4.45 light-years away, and returns to earth. He does this at about 86% the speed of light, enough for about 50% time dilation.

The amazing thing, to me, is the traveling twin returns to earth after only 5.14 years of his own time have elapsed. So this twin woke up one day, said "I will leave on an 8.9 light-year trip today," and 5.14 years later looks up into the sky at the star 4.45 light-years away and says "I traveled to that star and back in 5.14 years." Indeed, he arrived at the star when only 2.57 of his subjective years had one by.

Now by my calculations, that twin traveled at 8.9/5.14 = 173% the speed of light!

And if he had traveled significantly faster than 86% c, he could have cut that elapsed time down to arbitrarily low.

Now this must have been true for the last 35 years, but how could I have not noticed it? How could I have not noticed that you can look out your window, see something 100 light years away, and if you can travel at .999999 c, you can get there in a very manageably short time?

I'm shocked and amazed at myself. And wondering, has this been exploited in science fiction? It seems it must have been. So how could I have not noticed it after reading all those thousands of sci fi books I ahve read?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The fiction of health-care market efficiency

This blog entry is written as the U.S. debates whether or not to increase its socialization of medicine to come up towards something more completely approaching making health care universally available to its citizens.

I propose an unusal addition to the argument for socialized medicine. And that is the market argument. If you look at how non-government corporations treat health care among their employees, they virtually all reject market solutions in favor of socializing the costs within their jurisdiction. The vast majority of successful corporations offer subsidized health insurance to their employees. Indeed, the most successful of these corporations offer the highest degree of socialization of these costs: high quality health care available to their employees and employee families at little or no out-of-pocket cost.

Let me make this clear. Essentially all successful U.S. corporations, acting as rationally as is concievable in the modern world, reject market solutions for the health care of their employees. This rejection is notable for what these corporations do NOT choose
  1. They do not offer less insurance to large famililes than to smaller families or single employees
  2. They do not choose insurance plans with very large co-pays or partial coverages
  3. They make no attempt to alternatively compensate employees who use the benefit less, and therefore cost the company less

How remarkable is it that U.S. corporations, these bastions and beneficiaries of free market capitalism, treat health care in this market-rejecting way? Not that remarkable. Think of the other ways U.S. corporations reject markets every day.

  1. There is no market in offices. Wouldn't there be a great efficiency and fairness in calling upon employees to rent their offices in a market system? Shouldn't the employee willing to work in a windowless cubicle be paid some of what he saves the company compared to his colleague in the corner office with windows?
  2. Information Technology (IT) help is available for free. I'm sure there are some employees who beat their computer problems to death before they make that call to IT. I'm sure there are other employees, like myself, who love the high quality help so much that we look forward to finally addressing the problems of our laptops with hour-long calls to IT. Shouldn't the company charge employees for their IT calls? Isn't the efficiency of the enterprise dependent on employees making intelligent choices about which resources to use, something they can only do when signalled by pricing information? Shouldn't the low-impact employees make a little bit more money, since they are saving the company money?
  3. Indeed, there is no market in computer equipment, office equipment, or access to printers and fax machines. For years I have bureaucratically fought for the best computers and laptops I could get. I have always had a better laptop from work than anything I would ever buy at home. How crazy is it to think that a profit-seeking company can ignore the information a priced market would provide to improving resource allocation.

In summary, the refrain that the market is always more efficient than the government seems fraught with the peril that even those making it choose non-market solutions time and time again. If the market is no good for the health care of the employees of the best, richest, smartest, most profit-managed corporations in the world, then why would anyone think it is a good idea instead of a government program for health care?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

An OT reply to a Motley Fool post

A reply to http://boards.fool.com/Post.aspx?mid=28031986&reply=true#reply

Darn it, man, I recieved my used copy of the Emperor's New Mind not two weeks ago and am already on page 14. You just made me surf all over the place on "Goedel Escher Bach strong AI" to find out what Hofstadter might think as this kind of thing matters to me very much these days. THe best I could find is "...his conviction that human-level consciousness/strong AI can appear in a machine."

I accept the Chinese Room and no longer believe you will get true AI by programming a computer. You MIGHT get fake AI, a simulation of intelligence which can do many of the things you think can only be done by someone/something intelligent. BUt they will not be intelligent, I now agree. A simulation of intelligence is no more intelligence than is Sim City a real city, World of Warcraft a real battle between monsters, or a simulation of an H=bomb likely to ever knock down a building. And classic AI is, I think, a simulation of intelligence. We keep looking to see what intelligences do, and where we can find patterns we code them up.

But can a machine have intelligence? Of course. What are we other than a wierd bioligical machine? Maybe we have wierd quantum stuff going on in our brains. But either there is a god with a personality that comes down and plugs souls into machines, in which case it is pretty much up to her mood whether an appropriately built machine gets a soul plugged into it, or it is something about the way the brain/body is built that gets it consciousness, in which case it seems we could eventually figure out how to build something like that, too.

I have to say the Chinese Room thing now seems obvious to me. A chess playing program is no more intelligent than is the calculator I use to figure my taxes. All the intelligence is in the programmer of the machine. Building real intelligence will require something very different from programming.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


Are some people better than others? Or does it just seem that way?

Our hosts in Tuscany are Holly Melia and Luca Belluci. In the 18 hours we have been here, Holly has brought over a pile of art books written by her mother (Pauline Bewick), cucumbers and zucchini from her garden. Holly or Luca sent a plate of cut-up watermelon down to us when we were swimming with their children in the pool.

I need two or three affirmations to cut out, write down, repeat to myself. "Be careful where you are going because you will get there" is a BAD paraphrase of one, I must find it. But the one I think of now is "if you admire someone for doing something, do that thing yourself." Again a bad paraphrase, but I think the idea is clearer.

Thinking that, I washed the dishes before I went to sleep even though I was tired. And this morning I made coffee for Barbara twice. The people I admire do things for other people, and do not seem to be tired all the time.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Notes on what to Blog

In Florence:

What makes a small(ish) town in 1500 produce Michelangelo, Leonardo, Gallileo, Bruneschelli?

The Christian stories don't seem tailor-made for a commerce-dominated society. Maybe the Christian empires deserve a little credit for that. Christianity may have been quite the humanizing influence, maybe.

We all live in ignorance. Of course, peasants in the dark ages presumably lived in more ignorance than intelligientsia in the 21st century. But what is the great materialistic fallacy? That this time it is different. We live in ignorance, just way way WAY less ignorance than serfs in the dark or middle ages. But ignorance none the less. We don't know where we are before we are born, or where we go when we die. We don't even know IF we are before we are born or IF we are after we die. We do not know if we have free will or not. We do not know whether conscious life is a miracle, or whether we just mix the right things together and we get some.

What is the lesson of zen? On one level it seems the lesson is that life is. It hits you in the face and you keep trying to figure it out, then it trips you in the mud and hits you in the face again. Maybe it is not so much that this is some great virtue, but that this is what we do in our state of ignorance. Every time we perseverate over figuring something out, we have missed the point that we are still ignorant.

The place in Tuscany is beautiful. Two little girls to keep Melissa and Julia company in the pool. A miraculosly beautiful villa in a tiny community of perhaps three or four families, secured by a long dirt road/driveway to get there. Iron rail around tiled patio with stone walls, wood beamed ceiling. While it was hot(ish) when we got here, we rolled in the pool for an hour or two and at 6:45 PM the sun is still reasonably high over the hills, but the breeze is blowing lightly through the pines and olive trees. I am sitting here with Julia and Melissa at the rough table, (probably a few hundred years old) while they eat buttered toast. There is an ancient scale hanging above the porch. All this, and internet!