November 2005

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Tuesday, November 22, 2005


I heard a few reports the other day about how Vice President Cheney was out condemning those who criticize the war, the way the intelligence was misrepresented, etc...

So I decided to actually read the speech myself.

I don't see what the fuss is all about. The more I hear from Cheney, the more I like him. Yes, he was critical of what he considered irresponsible statements from senators. But, it seemed to me to be a balanced and well crafted statement.

Not only is there an element of humor:

These are elected officials who had access to the intelligence materials. They are known to have a high opinion of their own analytical capabilities.
But it is also far from a blanket condemnation of constructive criticism:

Nor is there any problem with debating whether the United States and our allies should have liberated Iraq in the first place. Here, as well, the differing views are very passionately and forcefully stated. But nobody is saying we should not be having this discussion, or that you cannot reexamine a decision made by the President and the Congress some years ago. To the contrary, I believe it is critical that we continue to remind ourselves why this nation took action, and why Iraq is the central front in the war on terror, and why we have a duty to persevere.
I might not agree with every word of the speech, but it strikes me as a thoughtful statement.

Perhaps it's a left-brain/right-brain thing, but I'm able to hear (and read) his words and perceive a cogent argument. Others seem to react emotionally, as if he were some kind of a monster. Maybe it's a self-defense mechanism to help them avoid his argument.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Economic Regulation 

Radley Balko (The Agitator) posted this topical version of an old joke:
Three guys are in a jail cell. They start to talking and find out that they're all gas station owners.

The first one says, "I set my prices at a couple of cents higher than my competitors. I'm in here for price-gouging."

The second one says "I set my prices at a couple of cents lower than my competitors. I'm in here for predatory practices."

The third one says "I set my prices at the same price as my competitors. I'm in here for collusion!"
Radley says: "It's funny 'cause it's true."

I remember first seeing this same notion when I read the marvelous short poem Tom Smith and his Incredible Bread Machine over twenty years ago. If you haven't read it yet, please do. The similar portion of the poem reads:

"You're gouging on your prices if
You charge more than the rest.
But it's unfair competition
If you think you can charge less.

"A second point that we would make
To help avoid confusion:
Don't try to charge the same amount:
That would be collusion!"
I'm not going to try to debunk the bad economic reasoning that leads people to hold the theories that these "crimes" are based on. It's been done often and better than I can do. Anyone interested in these arguments can find them.

What I'm going to complain about is the moral reasoning that leads people to conclude that they have a right to coerce people into changing the way they do business.

Businesses aren't monsters from space. They are the individual and collective efforts of human beings. They are people who contribute their time, effort, and creativity to be productive and to succeed in the marketplace; where success is principally achieved by providing more value to customers than competitors offer.

It's true that sometimes other people act in ways that we don't think are in our (and often their own) best interests. That's an inevitable consequence of freedom.

Decent people don't apply force (or the threat of force) to get others to conform to their wishes. They use arguments and reason. They try to convince them to make better choices. Or, they try to convince enough other people that there is good reason to apply enough non-coercive pressure to try to make the "wrongdoers" change their behavior. Failing in these efforts, they learn to live with their disappointment.

I think that a fundamental moral notion is that (aside from extraordinary emergency situations) people should be treated as ends in themselves, rather than as means to the ends of others. I don't know any good reason why people engaging in commercial activity shouldn't warrant this kind of consideration.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Back Where? 

Ok, I know I shouldn't pay so much attention to lyrics, but I heard an old Supremes song this morning and noticed:

He's back in my arms again
Right by my side
Isn't that kind of awkward?

Saturday, November 05, 2005

The Singularity Is Near 

I just checked this book out of the library and will probably be a bit busy for the next few days engrossed in it.

When I was in college, I was excited by the idea of artificial intelligence (AI). I imagined incredibly patient and creative tutors helping people learn whatever they wanted to; robotic scientists conjecturing new theories based on all of the available evidence and proposing and conducting the best (most efficient) experiments to grow our knowledge in important areas as quickly as possible (thus solving the most pressing problems such as diseases, energy, food production); wonderful companions for the lonely (and everyone else who might be interested); automated software engineers to build customized high-quality solutions for people in an interative process (since most people are unable to fully specify what they want until after they get what they ask for a few times...); artificial artists creating pictures, films, books, and music to entertain and enrich us; etc...

I don't believe there's anything magical about people that enables us to perform intellectual feats that are impossible for computers to do, in theory. We are, after all, machines.

I read and loved Gödel, Escher, Bach, of course, and was encouraged by the thought that lots of very smart people were working on these problems.

Unfortunately, progress has been slower than I hoped. There have been many advances, and we have some "clever" programs that do cool things, but not the kind of things I had been anticipating. Over the years I've been casually following progress in the area, as well as prospects in biotechnology and nanotechnology. All have great potential, but as time has gone on, I've been lowering my expectations about when we'll see real world-changing progress.

Ray Kurzweil knows a lot about this stuff, and has a pretty good record at predicting technological progress. It's not possible to precisely predict things that depend on individual discoveries, but it seems possible to recognize the nature of the rates of growth and to find bounds to when things can reasonably be expected. According to Kurzweil, we're approaching the "knee of the curve" of exponential growth in these areas and can expect to see phenomenal progress in the next few decades.

I appreciate Kurzweil's optimistic view of these changes. Many, like Bill Joy, tend to focus on the dangers and urge us to stop progress. But I don't think it's wise, or possible, to put the genie back into the bottle. Knowledge can't (and really shouldn't) be destroyed. If we leave it to others to develop it, we'll only be at greater risk. Bad guys will always have the advantage that destroying is easier than creating. Our best chance lies not in hiding from progress, but in learning as much as we can about the dangers so that we can devise counter-measures as quickly and as well as possible.

In any case, while I'm somewhat familiar with some of the information in Kurzweil's new book, I'm excited about seeing how he puts it all together, learning a lot more about some details, and knowing when he thinks certain developments are likely to occur.

Even if he's wrong by a few decades, it's going to be a wild ride and we'll probably start seeing a lot of cool stuff relatively soon.

It's a great time to be alive.