Monday, May 29, 2006

There's an interesting article going around today about robotics as it applies to our socioeconomic system. It's always dangerous to use artificial intelligence research as a basis for speculation about how the world actually works, but I think there's something in this.

What I think is in this is a sense of distance. We tend to see social injustice as a case of a bad person harming a good person, or as a bad system creating harm that falls upon many, and is generally supported by a few despite its badness, because those few benefit from it.

What the article talks about is an experiment where some robots are put in an environment where they have to cooperate in order to survive. All of the robots are given the same programming, but the environment is a real physical environment, meaning that it is variable, not deterministic. Over time, something that the researchers describe in terms of a social hierarchy forms. The researchers claim that they were not expecting such a thing to happen, and indeed their programming was expected to produce a non-hierarchical situation.

So why did the hierarchy form? The nice thing about this experiment is that the actors are robots. Computer programs. While people sometimes tend to personify computers, in general I think we all know that computers are machines; a computer with a soul, whether or not we believe that it is possible, is at a best the exception, not the rule.

So we can't ascribe the outcome of this experiment to a soul. Rather, it is an emergent behavior of a supposedly cooperative environment. What I find personally interesting about this is that it matches my experience of the world better than the "evil actor" model - the model where every ill of the world can be blamed on the intentional or stupidly ignorant actions of some scapegoat.

I don't mean that there aren't criminals, nor that there is no need for law enforcement. But what I do mean is that when we find ourselves in the midst of a dysfunctional environment, there is a commonly-held idea that the way to resolve the dysfunction is to either eliminate certain bad actors, or to reform them. And this idea is probably wrong. It would be a wonderful thing if we could rest ourselves from our long labor of tilting at this particular windmill, and seek out real solutions to the world's pain.

(Yes, this is an awful lot of philosophy to suck from the marrow of a single magazine article. So sue me. :')

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Just to be clear, while I do think I have a better handle on how to be happy than I did in the past, I'm no more immune to the whole biggering thing than the next guy. Andrea and I live in a nice house, and we have a nice TV, and I have an electric guitar. The price tag on the electric guitar would have covered a lot of MREs.

And then, what's the point of the whole soliloquy anyway? I mean, is the situation hopeless? Well, possibly yes. But if we are realistic about exactly what situation we are in, then we can eliminate false choices - choices that seem beneficial, but in fact yield no benefit. And to the extent that we can try to see clearly exactly what our situation is, perhaps we can see, if not how to fix it, at least what avenues are actually open to fix it, and what avenues are not.

The problem with grand ideologies like Communism and Capitalism, and the compromise, Socialism, which makes no ideologue particularly happy, is that they identify the problem as one of ideology, and attempt to apply an ideology to solve it. But it doesn't work - if the twentieth century teaches us nothing, it is that grand ideologies are not the solution to the world's pain. And my point is that that's not just because we keep picking the wrong grand ideologies. The very idea of an externally-imposed ideology that could render all the people in the world happy is a blind alley. As long as we keep blundering down that alley, widespread happiness is not achievable.

I really think that the best a government can ever do to help is is to make sure that the battles we fight amongst ourselves don't kill anyone. If we want to be happy, we have to individually find our way there, not depend on some outside force to make it happen.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Will put a quiz on his blog; quizzes are a really great seed for lazy person writing, so I will take advantage of it here:

What are the essentials of a good life?
  1. Happiness
  2. Freedom from pain
Should everyone have them?

Heck yeah!

Do the resources exist to provide them?

Yes and no. I think that the resources presently exist in the world to provide everybody living in it with freedom from want. However, this isn't a stable situation. Resources are being consumed at a rapid rate; it's not clear that we can continue to consume them at the same rate without creating new resources.

Happiness is an internally generated state, and if you accept the idea that a person's life exists in isolation - no life preceding or following it - then I think it is not possible for everybody to be happy; indeed, I don't think it's even possible for more than a tiny minority to be happy. I think that leverage can be applied to this problem, but it would take actual magic to bring happiness to every person living in the world today, not just clever distribution of resources or education.

Likewise, freedom from actual pain seems like a remote hope. So many people are suffering because of problems with their physical body--problems for which there is no known solution. So I think it would be wrong to say that there can be freedom from pain without some kind of magic solution.

If the resources exist, will enough people share them?

No. The problem is that suffering is pervasive - it doesn't apply only to people who lack the most basic resources. This results in a situation where people feel unsatisfied; at the same time, people are taught that satisfaction comes through consumption. I don't mean there's a conspiracy - it's just that the causes for happiness are so obscure that consumption frequently feels like the only choice, and so it's a self-perpetuating cycle.

One of the results of the pursuit of material wealth as a cause for happiness is that until we achieve sufficiency, we feel that we are still effectively on the same level as all other people who have not achieved sufficiency. And since sufficiency is the state where we are happy, and happiness isn't attainable through material prosperity, it's very unusual for a person to realize that they are in a trap, and to break out of it; people who are free of this trap and able to truly share are rare, and generally don't tend to accumulate wealth, and so the level of sharing required to truly meet everyone's basic needs isn't possible. This is why you have "rich" people who don't share - they don't think of themselves as sufficiently rich, because their wealth hasn't yet succeeded in bringing them happiness.

Indeed, in many cases the very reason why there are people whose basic needs aren't being met is that those people live in a situation where some group of people who buy very strongly into the cult of selfishness are in charge, and those people are blind to the suffering that their selfishness creates, or simply believe it's justified. They restrict the basic freedoms of the people who do not have power, in order to exploit them, or sometimes even simply to eliminate them, and thereby eliminate their consumption of resources.

If the resources don't exist, can they be created?

Yes, but probably not in a single lifetime. And resources really aren't the problem anyway - the poor distribution of resources is a symptom of the actual problem. The problem is simply that people generally have no way to create happiness in their lives.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

I had a really crappy day yesterday. A friend of mine in a long-standing online klatsch said something about the current political situation, and I went off on a tear about how annoying the political mail I'm receiving these days is - how the only consistent message is "us vs. them," and anything that supports that message, no matter how inconsistent with the supposed progressive party line, is cool. Like a gas tax cut, even though global warming is supposely an emergency, because, well, people don't like how expensive gas is, so if you make it cheaper somehow that's going to mean that they vote for you.

One of the tenets of Buddhism is that life is suffering, and that there really is no hope of relief from that suffering in the suffering. That is, the only way out of the cycle is to break the cycle - you can't make things better by tweaking what you do in the cycle. So it's a little bit ludicrous for me to be getting exercised about political mail, because that's all part of the cycle. Of course it's awful. Of course there is no good answer.

The funny thing is that at some point, after some very kind cajoling on the part of my lovely wife, I started to develop a really bluesy attitude about it, and that somehow helped. Admitting that the situation is hopeless made me feel happier. Weird, but true.

So anyway, I spent an hour or so ripping up the tips of my fingers on my new toy, and things seemed a lot better. The new toy is the offshoot of a couple of things, the most recent of which was an evening of music put on by Will and Emma with their friend Lojo Russo, who is a quite accomplished guitarist and singer, and really just a huge amount of fun. Check out her CDs! Emma also plays a mean guitar, and somehow watching her pluck out some old western favorites inspired me.

Anyway, I'd already been thinking that it was time to learn to play a guitar, and seeing them having such fun drove me over the edge, so I wound up picking up a used Mexican Fender Strat. It turns out to be really hard to play. I used to play keyboard, which is hard in a very different way; guitar is hard because there is no mechanical system other than your own fingers controlling what sounds come out, and the behavior of the system is 100% physics - where you put your fingers is dictated not by the symbolic representation of the musical scale, but by the length of string required to hit a certain note. Old news to you, I'm sure, but I'm a geek, so I analyze. So sue me.

Anyway, I don't know where it's going, but it's fun right now. E minor is a nice chord. I've learned two others, but my plans of doing cool bidirectional arpeggios have largely not yet come to fruition. Nevertheless, I am sure I will be playing House of the Rising Sun by next week. And this has inspired Andrea to start playing the marimba again - yay! I can just see us now, playing a duet. I'm not sure the marimba is a proper substitute for a Wurlitzer, but I am sure it will be fun.