Wednesday, August 29, 2007

While I was visiting with Perry, he harangued me a bit about free markets. I'm not sure why, but it got me to thinking. One thing he pointed out was an *actual* moral hazard, which is real: it used to be the case that in New York, you could buy catastrophic coverage for health insurance. But then they passed a law saying you couldn't discriminate on the basis of pre-existing conditions, and so people could buy that insurance *after* they were diagnosed with some expensive condition, and so of course all the insurance companies immediately stopped offering it.

This is not like the usual moral hazard of health insurance, which is complete nonsense: the idea that people will, on average, get more health coverage if it's free. In fact, going to the doctor is a pain, and it's also scary, and, hypochondriacs excepted, people tend to avoid it. So it's a non-problem, and using this problem as a reason to justify not having universal health care is just insane. But people do it.

And of course, one of the things I really wanted to talk to Perry about was the LISP project we're working on. Whose entire purpose is essentially to cure what both Perry and I consider to be a market failure.

The "Free Market" is a construct. It's not the natural state of things. The natural state of things is an ecology. It's the bacteria thing I was talking about a few posts back. People tend to gravitate toward the things that produce the most value for the least effort. It's not just human nature - it's how ecosystems work.

So the crappy Acela railcar I'm on is crappy because a ton of money appeared in an unlikely place, with no real competition, somebody was awarded the contract, and they proceeded to deliver the worst value they could for the highest price, generating the greatest profit.

Perry would say "just let the free market take care of this." But the free market isn't special. What happened with the Acela train was a failure of a socialist system. But the free market fails too, because it's operating in the bacterial culture, just as socialism is.

The point of the construct that is the free market is to constrain people's activity to trading. The ideal of the free market is that two people each have something that the other wants. Each values the other person's goods more highly than what they have. And so they engage in a transaction, and both participants feel enriched by the transaction.

Unfortunately, this is the ideal, not the norm. It's no more likely than the situation where you have a competitive bid on a government contract, and all the bidders act in good faith, with the goal of delivering good value for the money. It can happen, and it does happen. But just like the free market example, when it happens, it happens because the actors involved want it to happen, and work to make it happen. If the actors involved want to maximize profits, then in either case, you get failures.

For example, consider the case where there is a surplus of unskilled labor. Everybody needs to eat, unskilled laborers included. So where there is competition for unskilled jobs, you wind up with a situation where the person purchasing the labor has a lever to use against the person who is offering it: give me your labor at the lowest price possible, or I will hire someone else.

This is a market failure. The unskilled laborer has no choice but to engage in the transaction. It is not the case that they can say no to this offer. And now the person hiring them has power over them.

A free marketeer apologizes for this by saying "if the market for unskilled labor is so crappy, why not learn a skill?" But learning skills is hard. And not everybody is a brainiac. And people lie. Perry was telling me about how the world of chemistry research is overpopulated because grad students are free labor, and chemistry is labor-intensive, and so chemistry departments try to attract as many grad students as possible, so as to get as much free labor as possible.

When these grad students get their PhD's, they find themselves in a job market that is so overpopulated that there is virtually no chance of them getting a decent job. And they have four to six years of college loans to pay off. So they are unskilled laborers, with no choice but to take whatever work is offered.

This is probably the most fundamental failure of the free market, and it is one that free marketeers do not like to talk about, because the cure for it causes its own set of problems. If you set up a system where peoples' basic needs for housing, health care and food are met, then some people who can't get skilled labor in their own profession will subsist on the dole until a job opens up. And so a lot of necessary unskilled labor gets left undone, because the price of the labor is too high. And so the economy becomes unable to support the cost of the dole. And you wind up with cycles between free market and socialism, which you are in fact seeing in Europe. Right now free marketism is on an upswing, but don't be surprised if socialism makes a big comeback in the next twenty or thirty years.

Anyway, the point is that because the base state of things is the bacterial culture, not the free market, and not socialism, coming up with an economic system that meets peoples' needs without creating market failures is a Hard Problem. It is not solved by the free market. It is not solved by socialism.

To summarize it differently, the free market takes advantage of a basic human failing: desire. People want things. So if you can set things up so that in order to get them, they have to create value, then more value will be created, and the overall wealth of the world will increase. Desire *hurts* socialism. Because everybody gets their basic needs met, and because there's a lot of money in the system, people don't work as hard, and people who are greedy are as likely to try to steal from the system as they are to produce value. This happens in a market economy too, but at least in a market economy desire produces something good as well as something bad.

So in order to transcend the weaknesses of the free market and of socialism, a substantial number of members of the society need to stop acting like bacteria and start acting like an organism - treating the common wealth as their own wealth. Treating everyone's welfare as if it were *exactly* as important as their own.

And indeed if you look at the successes of American culture, most of them have to do with that discipline. Likewise with cultures around the world, of course. What matters is not so much whether the culture's economy is fundamentally capitalist or socialist, but rather how many people in the culture think like bacteria, and how many value the common good. So attempts to create a utopia by tweaking the economic system are doomed - it's not the economic system that's the problem.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Acela train is a big disappointment - the regional train I took from Springfield yesterday was much nicer. I'm in business class, because Acela doesn't have cheap seats. The seats and furnishings are definitely more expensive, but they're less sturdy, less comfortable, more cramped, and I think substantially more dangerous - in a derailment, anyone with a table down is going to get a spade to the gut, because the table is just a huge slab of steel, instead of being flimsy plastic. And it's not even sturdy. Very sad. Oh well. Next time I do this trip, if I do, I'll try the regional train to see if it's like the one I took from Springfield.

The signaling system on the Hell's Gate Bridge is out, so we're sitting in the station. I don't have anything better to do today, so I don't really care that much, but there goes those twenty minutes. I noticed that the 9:30 regional to Boston was sold out this morning, and tickets on the 8:30 were the same price as the Acela. So I suspect that people in the know take the Regional instead of the Acela. Oh well.

New York was fun. I got to go to Mana with Perry, which is one of my favorite uptown restaurants. It's cheap by New York standards, and they serve macrobiotic food. Yum. Then I went out to Queens because I was planning to have dinner with Ritesh. I made a couple of false moves heading out to Queens and wound up wasting an hour or more on the N line, but finally wound up in a Starbucks with an outlet where I hacked for a couple of hours before meeting up with Ritesh.

Ritesh has a car, which I guess is traditional in Queens. Possibly also traditional for Queens, the place where he parks it is behind someone's house a few blocks from where he lives. The alley leading to the parking space is about a foot wider than his car, so in order to park it, he positions his car carefully at the entrance so as to avoid ripping his tire on the broken drain. Once he has cleared this hazard, he sticks his head out the window and gauges the distance from the wall with his head as he pulls gingerly forward through the alley. Once he's in the back yard of the house, things get much easier - his parking space is only a foot or two narrower than the one we had in Chicago.

We had dinner at a really good Thai restaurant that's near the 7 line. It's called Sripraphai and it's supposedly so good that people come from Manhattan to eat there. If you never lived in New York, you might not realize how big a deal that is - people who live on Manhattan pretty much never leave the island if they can help it. Going to Queens for Thai Food is like a San Franciscan making a trip to Oakland for dinner.

Ooh, we're on Hell's Gate bridge now. New York is at its best right now visually - it's summer, so all the trees have leaves on them, and it looks like a manicured garden. Hell's Gate runs parallel to the triboro bridge, so I have a nice view of that, the Chrysler building, and the Empire State building. Okay, had. And I can see that weird twin-towered deco building that you always see from Central Park. Sweet.

I kvetch about the train, but it's not so bad. It's just sad to see money spent and so little gotten for it. The Acela was a nice idea in theory - it just didn't happen the way it should have. I think one thing that might be worth doing on the Acela is to spring for First Class. It's kind of spendy though - an extra $60, I think. I've been getting a lot done on the train, so it's certainly worthwhile to have a good seat, although maybe not $60 worthwhile.

This morning I hung out in a *$$ down on the Long Island Railroad level of Penn Station using the WiFi and the open electrical outlet while I waited for my train. It was a good time - that *$$ has to have one of the worst morning rushes in Manhattan. Bad for the folks behind the counter, good for enjoying crowds. Every so often I look up and notice a specific person, but mostly it's just the proximity of so many people who are all focused on their day, living their life.

It's weird - the crowds on the boat in Alaska were starting to bug me by the end of the trip, but I'm always nostalgic for the crowds in New York, and in fact when I'm here I really enjoy them. I got to pass through Penn Station, Grand Central Station, and Times Square. I rode the N train and a couple of 3 trains, all of which were crowded (although the N, this morning, wasn't very crowded - I had a seat the whole way). And I just felt happy and energized, and a little let down when I got to Queens, where the crowds thinned out to Chicago levels.

Even in Queens, as dusk settled, sitting in the *$$, the streets started filling up with people heading home, or heading out for the evening, and so it felt a little crowded, although nothing like a street in Manhattan.
I'm sitting in an Amtrak train, running through swampland near the Connecticut-Massachusetts border, with a little country road across the forest to the left, listening to Brandi Carlile, which seems like incredibly appropriate music for a swamp train.

Amtrak has a serious IT problem. I don't know what the deal is, but it's not working out. Their web site doesn't work in Safari, Firefox or MSIE, which is really quite an impressive trifecta, considering that it's non-workingness is blatant, not subtle. And the ticketing system was down today - when we called for directions to the station, they couldn't answer the phone and asked people not traveling today to just hang up. I hate to see this sort of thing. And yet, with all the lameness, and the crappy track, it's still really nice to be on a train in New England, running south to Manhattan. The weeds alongside the track remind me of my childhood.

Pulling into New Haven station to the sounds of Evanescence's goth metal riff on the lacrymosa from Mozart's Requiem (or is it the C minor mass? I really need to figure that out - I haven't listened to either work in way too long). New Haven is the first time you really feel like you're in a railyard rather than out on a rural spur line. This is where we switch from diesel-electric to an electric-only locomotive. So we'll be sitting here for a while. In fact, I'm on batteries right now (the horror!).

Because it's a railyard more than it is a train station, no effort is made to make it pretty, so you have these giant spidery steel structures holding up the electrification lines, and they're all covered with a patina of dust and rust. I find this really welcoming - it reminds me of New York, and also brings to mind the ancient (once modern and flashy) Victorian steel edifices of the Age of steam trains.

I have noticed that everyone in this train car who has a laptop out (there are three of us) is using some kind of Mac. Dunno what that means, if anything. Andrea called me an Apple fanboy this morning. Clearly my disguise is slipping. I have to say, this way of getting to New York (starting from Springfield) is completely failing to suck. I wish the service were this good as far north as Brattleboro, but unfortunately the Vermont train doesn't have such direct track support.

I don't know if the tracks from Springfield to Brattleboro were ripped out one day in a paroxysm of ill-considered modernization, or if you just went through Boston to get to Burlington (which was a major rail center) back in the day. It's kind of unfortunate that so much of the passenger rail system in the U.S. is essentially a nostalgia trip, but it is - the system was laid out over a hundred years ago, and I doubt any new lines have been added since the forties, if not earlier. Hm, Fanfare for the Common Man. Does this relate?

It's starting to hit me that I'm actually going to be in New York in an hour and twenty minutes. It's been far too long. Really looking forward to the ride on the 2/3. I hope it's working okay today.

Imogen Heap: Just For Now. Really nice waking-up-to-a-morning-in-the-city music. Not really morning anymore, but who's counting. I certainly feel refreshed. It's a good song. Passed the Rye station just now, so we're actually in New York State. Are you bored yet? This is kind of a rambling travelogue, but I'm kind of enjoying writing it, so hopefully it's not too bad. Oh, the track is good down here, so we're hauling ass. Yay! Mamaroneck - what a name for a town...

If everything comes from karma, then every pleasant moment we ever experience, we earned. There's no reason at all to feel a debt over it. The trick to being fortunate is to not let it kill your generosity. Too often people have enough, and then they lose their charity even for themselves, and then can't enjoy the happy moments that come to them with an open heart. Enjoyment becomes this constricted, controlled thing that really doesn't even deserve the name, although they might call it that. They meaning me, sometimes - there's no question that I'm very fortunate.

Stopped cold in New Rochelle - no clue why. Oh, it's a station stop. Wow. Bizarre. I guess as the "Regional" train it makes sense to stop here. Oh groovy, it's raining and I didn't bring an umbrella. Sigh. Not very hard, though. I guess we'll see how it goes.

U2. It's a Beautiful Day. I'm in New York, the sacred shrine of our better hopes, the center of the Mandala, a place of terror, love, and beauty. Roses are blooming in the backyards of tenement houses.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Just read a really good article on the question of "Religion: Threat or Danger?" I think it's worth a look.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Would the world be a better or worse place if people didn't work on things that weren't wanted, just to earn money to survive?
Suppose there was a computer. And on the computer, you could write a program that, when run, would answer any question you had, and produce any thing you ever wanted. But the computer didn't come with instructions, nor with that program. But it was running some programs. Now, suppose you came up with a complete document describing in detail the physical machinery of the computer - all the gates, and all the logic, and all the memory. Would studying that body of knowledge be a fast or effective way to figure out how to write better programs on the computer?

And suppose someone claimed to know how to program the computer. Would you try to pick their brain, or keep reading the machine operations manual? Would you ever actually try to write the program, or would you wait for someone else to write it?

There are just so many ways to waste time and not accomplish anything. And you can't really even know if what you're doing is useful. It always surprises me when people think that they are going to figure out how to write the programs they want from first principles, as if there were no giants upon whose shoulders one could stand.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

What you get when you have too much money and too little brains:

Designer desk. Note the second-to-last paragraph in the description. Note the price. Note the theory under which this desk was constructed. Courtesy of Fake Steve Jobs.

And when you have too little brains, and want more money:

Health aids that can kill. Hint: China has the death penalty for being stupid or just in the wrong place at the wrong time. You really, really don't want to embarrass the Chinese government if you live in China. Courtesy of my dad.

Actually, I sort of think in both cases it's too much brains and too little common sense, but what are you going to do?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

If you find things Middle Aged amusing, and you also read SF, you might enjoy this: Old Mannes Werre, by Iohannis Scalzi.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Speaking of evolution, Andrea and I have been watching Dr. Who on a DVD set that Elly brought back with her from the wilds of Canada. The latest episode but one involved a weird sort of plague, which turned out to involve nanobots. You hear about nanobots sometimes in U.S. films, but they always get the implications of what a nanobot is horribly wrong. Dr. Who's nanobots actually made sense, at least on a computer science level. Extra points for a very inventive grey goo scenario (one that involved no grey goo, but was still just as chilling).

Maybe it's no accident that a lot of my favorite hard science fiction is coming from british authors these days.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Okay, a little evolution on the previous idea, thanks to Jym's and Will's prodding. Will and Jym both say pretty much the same thing: sure, you're basically right, but still. There are people who use their entrenched power to keep things the way they are - to keep the poor down, and keep exploiting them.

Well, yes, that's true. And I tend to think that implicit in that statement is the notion that we have to stop them in order to bring about a happier world. But that's a mistake.

Consider the average fat, rich westerner. Take a dozen of us and drop us on a desert island with a plentiful supply of fish, coconuts and roots, and no poisonous plants or predators capable of harming us. But now we pretty much have to kill and gut fish to eat, or figure out how to crack coconuts. Life is manageable. We will survive. But we change, don't we? My guess is I'd lose a lot of weight. If you ran into me a year later, my life would be radically different. What I did on a day to day basis would be completely changed.

What's happened? I've been transplanted into a different ecosystem. It's an ecosystem where my survival is not in question, but what I have to do to survive is completely different.

My argument is this: the institutions you are talking about are like the fat westerners in my story. They are doing bad things to people who don't deserve it, because that's what they think they have to do to survive. And because they live in the same ecosystem we do, this is a problem for us, and we try to solve it by trying to make them stop doing what they are doing. And they resist. They fight tooth and nail. They kill if they have to. Because they see this as a fight for survival.

My point, and I do have one, is that if you want the fat westerners to change, the way to get them to change is to change their ecosystem. You can't bring them to a desert island, but you can bring the desert island to them. You can't stop being in the ecosystem they're in, but if you want to change them, the most effective way to do it is to stop passively accepting the ecosystem as it is, and start changing it.

And by this I don't mean to convince the masses that they have to change. What I mean is, be a more successful organism than the ones whose behavior you hate. Show people how it's done. If you can do that, then maybe there's a chance of changing the world.

Friday, August 10, 2007

I'm putting this in my blog because it got kind of long. It's the continuation of a thread on Will Shetterly's blog. The gist of it is that I said that while I agree with him that when you look at things in terms of racism, you fail to see the underlying problem, I don't agree with him that the underlying problem is "the rich."

I reacted pretty strongly to what Will said. He said something really nicely, and then when he was done saying that thing, he blamed it on "the rich." It occurred to me a bit later why that might have been. It really is the case that we are blinded to the real problems of the world by our perceptions of division. So we see race, instead of seeing the underlying problem, whatever you want to call it.

What I object to is the idea that there are some people who are trapped in this, and others who aren't. I know plenty of rich people, so maybe I have a different perspective on it. Rich people are just like you and me, only, frequently, more clueless.

They are more clueless for a number of reasons. First, their success. They think it's because they're smarter or better in some way than other people, but once you've actually met them, you can see that this is not so. Generally speaking, they aren't much different than anyone else. I think Trading Places really had it right, even though it was played for comedy. When rich people think they're smarter (not all of them do), it's because the decisions they've made in life have happened to work out well for them, or because they were more fortunate due to their dynasty, and therefore think that they are genetically superior.

In reality, their good fortune is the expression of a bell curve distribution, not prescience. In a bacterial culture, there will be spots where there are more nutrients than other spots. The bacteria who are in the spots with more nutrients will do well and live longer than the ones who are in the spots with fewer nutrients. There might even be some jockeying for position. But ultimately each individual's position is simply an expression of the underlying situation, and it would be silly to say that the bacteria in the nicer spots were meaningfully different than the bacteria in the worse spots.

It's a bit stark to compare humans to bacteria, but I do it because I think it illustrates the problem well. The bacteria don't know why they're fortunate or unfortunate. They didn't engineer it. And in order for them to do anything meaningful about the circumstances of the other bacteria, they have to completely transcend the usual bacteria way of doing things. They pretty much have to stop acting in terms of natural selection and competition. And they can't even just start being stupidly altruistic - that won't do it. Bacteria that can share resources and build resources without poisoning their environment are very different creatures than the bacteria we see now.

I'd like to be able to say that rich people are rich because of their hard work and honesty, or because they really worked smarter, or something like that. I know people who are very well off who got well off that way, not through nefarious means. But we all know of people who got rich by nefarious means too. So while you can find rich people who are hard working and trustworthy, I don't think it's reasonable to say that's why they're rich, any more than it's reasonable to say that rich people are all rich because they're crooks. There are rich crooks, and poor crooks. There are rich people who are honest and trustworthy, and there are honest and trustworthy people who work hard all their lives and never make it out of poverty, or actually work themselves *in* to poverty.

Rich people are like other people in another respect. Some are assholes. And some are really nice people. But what they aren't is prescient. So they are no more able to manipulate the world to make it more to their liking than you are. Sure, they can buy more stuff, and they can cause more harm. When they try to do good, they have more resources at their disposal, and when they succeed they can succeed brilliantly. And when they fail, they can fail spectacularly.

So they have more power in that sense. But look at Iraq. I honestly think Bush expected a good result from his actions there. Maybe I'm naive, but I don't think so. The problem is that Bush has had so many stupid decisions accidentally go right in his life that he has a completely warped idea of his ability to effect change in the world. And that's why we're in a quagmire in Iraq.

Okay, I strayed a long way from racism, but my point is that this idea that there's a rich person's conspiracy to keep the poor folk down is just as wrong as the idea that there's a rich person's conspiracy to keep poor people divided by race. Sure, you can find people who work to make that kind of thing happen. But the reason that we're all down in the muck, screwing up so badly, is because we're *all* deluded about how things work. It's not that the poor are deluded and the rich are not, and are trying to keep it that way.

Why get upset about this? Because as long as we keep thinking "that other guy is the cause of my situation," we can never truly take responsibility for improving our own situation, and we can never allow anyone else to improve their own situation, nor truly help them to get what they need to do so.

Friday, August 03, 2007

I just read a really good article on Islam that I want to recommend around: A False Quest for a True Islam. The author points out, among other things, that reading the Qur'an in hopes of understanding Islam as it is practiced is like reading the Bible in hopes of understanding Christianity as it is practiced, or reading the Bhagavad Gita in hopes of understanding Hinduism as it is practiced today, or reading the Pali Canon in hopes of understanding Buddhism as it is practiced today. Did I nail that point hard enough? Check it out - it's very interesting, and something that any modern critic of Islam should be reading before they open their mouth.