Friday, July 29, 2016

The True Believers

Beliefs are either objective, derived ultimately from evidence, or subjective and derived from some internal revelation or the belief that some other person has had a true internal revelation and communicated it honestly. While not wanting to denigrate people’s beliefs in subjective truths, the success of Science and the triumphs of our modern world rest entirely on objective truths. Yet the voting public has partly lost faith in the people claiming to be purveyors of objective truth. The water is muddied by people lying for fun and profit, and by Science shooting itself in the foot with a lot of overconfident deduction and speculation having little or no support.
There is an urgent need to restore the public’s faith in Science and objective truth, which are the foundations of our civilization. Can we perhaps get some intelligent supporters of objective truth to make some sacrifices that will bring the matter to the public’s attention in a good way. Take the following as an example of the sort of thing that might work. Better ideas are welcome.
The proposal is to create a Monastery (or hopefully a network of many Monasteries) dedicated to determining the objective truth, and to discovering and “excommunicating” those attempting to pervert the search for the truth. Those who had merely strayed, making bad deductions or trusting the wrong people, would be formally forgiven and “born again”.
The monks would put their wealth in a financial Trust, and wear some modest uniform. Trusted folk from outside can act as lay advisers. There are investigations, in which evidence is collected. Then there are trials in which the two sides are debated. When nobody is available to support one side, devil’s advocates are appointed. Monks clinging to views that most monks think have been completely disproved can be demoted back to applicant status and thus expelled from the monastery.
And, of course, all this is live streamed on the Internet. Viewers can participate to varying degrees based on their level. The highest levels are applicants (wanting to become monks) and lay advisors (who typically are unable to become monks for some reason). Next are trainees learning to evaluate objective truth and preparing for tests that will get them up to that higher level. Finally there are supporters. All these lower levels can make themselves available to help the monks. The general public have a ringside seat on this vigorous search for the truth and the truthful, and the key objective is to get them to understand and support it.
Finally a little riff on the desirability of the truth. The truth can’t lead us astray if properly understood. However properly understanding it is not always easy when our culture has implanted so many subjective truths so firmly in our brain. Let’s take a simple case: bullying. You will pardon my expression of personal non-expert opinion as if it was truth. It is purely illustrative, so it doesn’t matter if wrong. Humans used to form groups of several hundred related individuals divided into families. The families have a status order, like a pecking order in chickens, and it is there for the same reason as all status hierarchies: because without it there would need to be a fight over each conflicting intention. The human situation is similar to (some species of) macaques, with family status passed from mother to daughter. Everyone needs to know their place and one of the ways this is done is by bullying. If A bullies B and B’s relatives don’t rush in then B knows that A and A’s family have higher status. In its natural setting bullying is only necessary when there is doubt. Of course in our city lifestyle this all breaks down. Status is a mess, with endless struggles leading to a lot of bullying. Now I would say that we need to understand this to make good decisions about dealing with bullying (which doesn’t even do its job in our society). But a lot of people would say “You can’t say that bullying is natural. That condones it.” Actually it only condones it if you have the subjective idea that human nature is good by default and departures from the good represent some malfunction. The correct view is that human evil, such as bullying, needs to be dealt with in human ways, not by trying to find and fix a malfunction.
Still we need to accept that the general public is not going to easily accept things which contradict their firmly implanted subjective truths. Such matters need to be dealt with carefully, and avoided as much as possible.

[update: This interact with the proposed Truth and Expertise Network (previous post) because people can just say "I trust the monastery" and get good feedback on the stuff they read.]

The Truth and Expertise Network

While specific facts and resulting deductions are at the core, in the main we are interested in identifying those who are, and those who are not, good sources of the truth. Most particularly we want to identify those who are lying for their own advantage, since those lies are much more likely to cause harm than merely mistaken beliefs. We are mainly concerned with facts that are relevant to public policy, but even there we come to issues where well-meaning folk would say “you shouldn’t say that, even if it is true”. We’ll leave such delicate considerations until the next blog post.
For those who don’t want the technical details, the general idea is this: Individuals can specify their level of belief about claims made, about the motivation for claims, and about the trustworthiness of other individuals. Software can then warn you about claims based on the claim itself, or the people making it. The software would only follow links from the people you trust (and that they trust, etc). This might need some social engineering to actually work, and that is described in the following blog post.
So the idea is that participants in the scheme will have one or more public-private keypairs. These will be used to sign assertions of various sorts, discussed below. They will be of no use unless (a) people link to those keys in various ways; and (b) the assertions are made public (at the very least to some of the linking people).
People can just make their main public key publically available in places they are known to control. Or give them to specific people. They can also have keypairs that they don’t advertise as belonging to them, but endorse them as reliable as if they were some other unknown person. They can then  make assertions that can’t be attributed but can be used by people who trust you and the people you trust.
I’ll list (some of) the assertions that can be made. Software running in the user’s machine, and the machines of those she trusts, and in central servers, will cooperate to provide the user with warnings of false claims, claimants lacking the expertise they claim, claimants seeking to mislead. Perhaps the most important things will be information about internal contradictions in the trust network. If your trust network supports incompatible claims then it is an indication of a problem, such as people in your trust network being overly confidant about an uncertain matter, or infiltration of the trust network by incompetent or bad actors. Tracking these things down will help everybody who wants to get a good handle on the truth.
  • “My prior (belief pending future evidence) for this claim to be true is P%” where P is between 0 and 100. The claim should be a block of text, [+ optionally a wider block of text from the same source providing context], + a URL giving the location.
  • “My prior that this claim is honestly believed by the claimant is …”
  • “I believe the claimant is … [with probability] acting on behalf of … [with probability]”
  • “I trust this person to only express honestly held beliefs”, giving a public key.
  • “I believe this person is an expert on …”
  • “I trust this person to choose others who are trustworthy” (thus allowing an extended network of trust).
Systematizing all that (and more) is a tough job. It is similar to the jobs done by the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force), and maybe we need an OTETF (Objective Truth Engineering Task Force).

[update: Naturally browser plugins and other user software will make it as easy as possible for users to participate in this scheme.]

The Truth and Expertise Problem

Katherine Viner, writing in The Guardian, gives a comprehensive overview of the way social media and tailored news is disrupting the truth (https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/jul/12/how-technology-disrupted-the-truth). It used to be that most of the population saw a common set of reasonably authoritative information from newspapers and TV. Now the real experts struggle to be heard over the cacophony, the truth is mixed up with falsehoods, and the way people get their news is highly likely to reinforce their biases.
But things are not all bad. Previously many lies got firmly established, and Viner gives the example of the Hillsborough tragedy. Now the population has learnt not to trust everything that is written down. This is a necessary step to not being misled. The problem is to get them to take the next step: to collect and evaluate the evidence like a scientist, then to think through the implications like a mathematician.
Well obviously that’s unrealistic. All of us, even the greatest experts in some field, are forced to identify experts that we trust when it comes to areas in which we lack expertise. The problem is that our faith in experts has been seriously eroded. In many ways this is a good thing. We now know that experts have put many people in prison through highly exaggerated claims about DNA and fingerprint identification. We know that many of the medical treatments that doctors have used, and advice they have given, are not supported by the evidence or results. We needed to take this step of treating experts with caution, but not go to the current extreme where expert advice is often completely ignored.
Experts need to be evaluated in some way. They won’t like that, but we need to achieve two things: Making sure that the experts we trust are not abusing that trust; And finding the real experts to trust in the midst of so many competing claims. We also need a process that can be respected by the public so that they and the media are inclined to select real and honest experts for their understanding of important matters.
This is the first of 3 blog posts. The 2nd will discuss a technological solution for identifying what is true, and why, and for identifying who is an expert, who is trying to mislead. The 3rd will provide a rather wild idea for a social experiment that might get the message to the public that there is an objective truth which is worth pursuing.
[There is a relevant new book “A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age” by David Helfand, and here’s a review: http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/indepth/2016/jul/28/between-the-lines].


Sunday, June 12, 2016

Gene compatibility for making babies

I presume that the common reason why multiple variants of a gene persist is because variants of one gene work variably with variants of other genes.

To take the simplest case, suppose there are 2 relevant genes, and the first has variants A and X, and the second has variants B and Y. And suppose that either combination  AB or XY is good and will make a successful individual, but combinations AY or XB work badly. Even though AY and XB people don’t have many offspring, still they keep coming.

The way evolution tries to handle this is for gene combinations to also cause detectable changes, and to cause detection systems that respond to those changes. In humans this is done in part by smell. So perhaps B people will smell different from Y people, and A people will prefer the smell of B people and X people will prefer the smell of Y people. But obviously there are a lot of genes and this has to be a rough process.

We now have the opportunity to help people find compatible partners, so that no AY or XB babies are born. We also have the opportunity to make some big mistakes. For example if AB people are actually better than XY people (according to some evaluation), then it might seem like a good idea to get rid of X and Y completely so there is no problem. But having multiple variants gives us robustness. Suppose a new beneficial variant of a 3rd gene arises. It may be that it works best with XY individuals rather than AB individuals. If we get stuck with only AB people then maybe we lose the option of benefiting from that 3rd gene variant.

It is not impossible that our 3rd gene variant solves the problems that AY people have and actually works best with them, but is that a good reason not to help people find compatible partners?

Friday, June 10, 2016

The rise of tribalism (and how it helps the rich)

We observe that the Democratic Party in  the USA is more likely to take actions that help poor people, while the Republicans like to help the rich. Yet a lot of poorer white folk vote Republican, so that the poorer states often have Republicans in power, amplifying the bad outcomes in those states. This is typically perceived as voter stupidity. This seems unlikely given 100s of thousands of years of human evolution favouring intelligence. We need to look deeper.

Humans have triumphed in the boom and bust cycles of the Earth's last few million years. What is likely to be a good strategy? When things are good we have lots of kids, and send some of them off to explore and settle. When things are bad the population has to shrink. What do our genes want us to do then? The higher status individuals are most likely to survive and reproduce. So the genes for low status individuals will like it (metaphorically) if it is closely related high status individuals who survive, as opposed to more distantly related individuals. So we should have an increased willingness for low status individuals to make sacrifices to promote the interests of high status individuals in their tribe against other tribes.

But how do we identify relatively more closely related individuals in large societies. In addition to the standard cultural identification (similar language, accent, facial expressions, attire, hair style), it is natural that people take notice of similar appearance.

The rich in America, at least the visible ones, seem to be mostly of European origins. So perhaps there is a reason for poor whites, feeling (mostly incorrectly) that things are going bad, to support the Republican party and its support for hereditary wealth. And perhaps it is instinctive for the high status individuals to promote tribalism. It's certainly working for them today, but as we saw in Europe in the 30s, it can easily get out of hand.

So it would be possible to attack Trump's support by identifying wealthy foreigners and those of non-European heritage who will profit by Trump's and wider Republican plans. Of course this contributes to inflaming social tensions, and should not be used unless there seems to be some chance of Trump winning. After the election we hope Democrats in Congress will move vigorously to address the decline of the middle class, most particularly by printing money and spending it on much needed infrastructure.

Friday, April 15, 2016

David MacKay and individual action

I know that "it rains on the just and on the unjust", but the early death of Prof David MacKay seems to take this too far. What a great guy.

I first learned about him when I was trying to understand modern probability and inference. He wrote an excellent book on this, and made it freely available. It starts out with a nicely self-deprecating story about trying to solve a physics problem that becomes trivial when looked at using Bayesian thinking. Then he used his understanding of inference to build software that enabled highly disabled people to type English on a computer with reasonable efficiency by just steering towards various options with the most probable being the biggest target. And he then went and worked with disabled people to make it work for them. More about these things on his web page (which I hope is preserved for posterity): http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/mackay/.

He became interested in global warming. He was particularly concerned that politicians were making token plans that had no hope of addressing the problem. As, indeed, they still are. So he wrote a book on sustainable energy. I was already following his blog, so I saw early drafts. In the early drafts nuclear power was classified as unsustainable because of incorrect low estimates on the amount of available uranium.  But in the end the book includes nuclear power in the options for ending the use of fossil fuel. Though the book is written in a balanced way, its effect on me was to convince me that nuclear power is the only answer and wind and solar are a distraction from the mammoth investment needed in research and development of next generation nuclear power.

The effect of his beautifully balanced and logical and well researched book was that the British Labour government gave him a big public service job as scientific advisor to the Energy ministry. This enabled him to build a tool for future energy planning that anybody could use. The end result is that Britain is continuing to expand nuclear power while other countries are talking wind and solar, closing down nuclear power and very quietly building ever more coal and gas power plants.

MacKay was big on individual action. He made his house as energy efficient as possible and turned the thermostat down. He rode a bicycle. I think that this sort of thing is counter productive. Most people are struggling with life and this just puts them in "I don't want to think about that stuff" mode. And, just like turning your phone charger off when not using it, it isn't going to get the job done.

It is a sobering thought that when David MacKay is my age he'll have been dead for 20 years (a modified Tom Lehrer quote).

Saturday, February 27, 2016

21st Century Money

On Google+, I wrote:

Nick Szabo argues, convincingly, that commodities (like gold, oil, and even real estate) become (in part) money, when people use them to store value rather than entirely for their immediate practical value. He then shows how this leads to big swings in commodity prices as people change their mind about which things will be the best place to store value. His belief in gold and silver as a good single store of value didn't convince me. He also fails to note that it is a good thing if people store things which will be more valuable in the future than they are now. That has the effect of driving prices, and hence supply, up sooner rather than leaving it to the last minute. Speculators and hoarders provide a useful service! Information technology allows us to manage multiple currencies simultaneously allowing a more coherent attack on the issue than just hoping gold will do the job.
http://unenumerated.blogspot.com.au/2016/02/two-malthusian-scares.html

To expand on that last sentence: Banks should make it easy for their customers to hold their balances in a mix of currencies. When payments are made then conversion is done into the agreed exchange currency (such as the local central currency) according to a prescription provided by the customer. And inversely for incoming payments. Presumably banks will compete to cover the currencies that customers want and to provide reasonable conversion rates. 

Banks or governments could provide a currency that covers a (slowly changing) basket of valuable commodities. It would be important to do this in a very open and transparent way, so that there is confidence that the backing commodities do exist and can all be recovered by the currency owners (given large enough amounts of the currency). But banks should also allow customers to keep a balance of commodities according to the customer's prescribed ratios.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Village Clan Tribe

The anonymous nature of the Internet is one of the things that makes Internet security difficult to get right. The anonymous nature of modern daily life affects real life security too. Consider the way loners can accumulate weaponry and then cause a sudden massacre. But the following proposal isn’t intended to address these issues. It’s just meant to be fun. It is also meant to allow experiments with social structure on the Internet that may help with practical concerns in the future.
The idea is to get people to self-organize into a hierarchy and let the participants try using that for various social purposes. The levels of the hierarchy are: Village, Clan, Tribe, Nation, Empire.
Participants join some Village that will take them, or they get together with others to create one. A Village has from 64 to 128 people, at most ⅔ of one sex. The only rule is that every member must have a face to face brief meeting, perhaps in a small group, either live or by video link, with more than half the other members of the Village on some regular basis (and covering every other member on some longer time scale). The intention is that everyone knows everyone else, and a little bit about them. Belonging to more than one Village is not allowed but is not necessarily detectable.
Once there are 32 Villages then every Village belongs to a Clan. A Clan has 32 to 64 Villages. Once there are 32 Clans they belong to a Tribe. And so on upwards, but it can’t go much further.
What things the Village may do is to be decided democratically, and then by representative democracy in the Clan. Every Village appoints 2 representatives to the Clan, not the same sex. These then are in contact with other representatives on a regular basis, and thence know a little bit about the other Villages in the Clan. And so on up the line.
When Villages (or Clans or Tribes) get too big they need to  reorganize. It is just, barely, possible for them to get to 128 and split to two 64s. A more interesting option is for 2 Villages to get together and emerge as three. (Clans and above are perhaps more likely to take the split option.)
Individuals have unique names or pseudonyms in a Village. Village names are unique in a Clan, and so on. So this gives every participant a unique identification.
Villages will, in general, have additional future members who are not yet qualified (minors who have a parent in the village, or candidates who haven’t yet met other villagers). Similarly Clans can have incipient “future” Villages that don’t yet meet the rules, and villages are demoted to that status when they break the rules. Things will presumably be more stable higher up.
I imagine that a significant activity will be jokey us-vs-them cultural activity. I.e. Villages will have some special, perhaps partly secret: dress rules, handshakes, idioms, musical activities. Villages will socialize with other villages in some ways. The aim will be to grow villages by attracting compatible people, then perhaps get to the mock-serious business of getting together with another village to produce an offspring.
Note that there is a presumption of privacy beyond the Village level, apart from the reps at the next level up, and village activities that people have agreed to take part in. A high level objective of this proposal is to experiment with cryptographic support for making this work in ways that combine security with the medium level of privacy which we all enjoyed until recent decades.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Multiplicity of currencies

The application of computers to economic life is about managing complexity. Think of the systems that keep planes full and airfares cheap, compared to the old paper ticketing system. Handling complexity means that you can get closer to an optimal system. When you can't handle complexity you have to accept inefficiencies to simplify the process.

Fiat currencies, like the Euro and national currencies, are just such a simplification that leads to a non-optimal solution. We see that non-optimality starkly in Greece (and Puerto Rico, and Detroit) where a semi-independent government body gets into financial trouble, and the resulting exodus of the best people from that area exacerbates the disaster.

We don't need fiat currencies any more. We can handle the complexity of multiple proof-of-work currencies. You go to a shop that wants payment in gold. You point your phone at the displayed price and it will display the conversion in currencies you have. Online purchases are even easier. Of course we are assuming a mutually trusted body to hold and track the ownership of that physical gold. This can be augmented with cryptographic currencies (like bitcoin) and by cryptographic proof of transfer of centrally held physical stuff (like gold) held by one or more trusted parties.

For small payments fiat currencies will continue to be important, and we can presume that people selling small amounts of stuff will continue to be required to accept them.

One of the advantages of fiat currencies is that they enable the government to raise money easily in an emergency (such as a war) by simply printing it. This is a tax on people who happen to hold the currency or who are owed money denominated in the currency. This will likely continue to work for small items, while for large items IOUs denominated in various currencies can be required to be accepted in a proclaimed emergency.

There is a really big advantage of moving to a proof-of-work currency that is backed by physical stuff held by multiple trusted central services: The physical stuff doesn't have to be useless (like gold or bitcoin). Instead it can be non-perishable stuff that might be useful at some future time. It might, in other words, double as actual preparation for some difficult future circumstances.







Sunday, July 12, 2015

3 Climate-related news items

In http://news.discovery.com/earth/global-warming/million-year-old-bubbles-reveal-climate-snapshot-150518.htm we see the key quote: "for the past 1 million years, carbon dioxide levels never rose above about 300 ppm". This means we're in uncharted territory and even if we didn't know anything about the probable effects we should still stop pumping CO2 ASAP. But we do know some highly probable effects: climate change and surface ocean acidification (more H+ ions, less OH- ions, even though staying on the basic side of neutral).

Two other items remind us of things that nature might throw at us.

The 20th century had few major geological events. The 21st century has started with two huge earthquakes. What might happen if we have some big volcanic eruptions. Recent analysis of ice cores and tree rings is very interesting: http://www.dri.edu/news/dri-news-and-press-releases/5102-volcanic-eruptions-that-changed-human-history.

There is also the possibility of a maunder minimum in the sun's activity. Some modellers claim (http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/mini-ice-age-coming-in-next-fifteen-years-new-model-of-the-suns-cycle-shows-10382400.html) to have an improved model of the sun's sunspot cycle, and that model predicts a maunder minimum in the next 20 years. The last one was associated with, and may have been a contributing cause of, the Little Ice Age (around 1700).

It would be interesting to see the climate models of a couple of big volcanoes going off close to each other in time, during a maunder minimum of solar activity, combined with a lot of open ocean in the Arctic pumping moisture into the atmosphere to fall as snow...

These scientific investigations act as an antidote to the impression non-scientist Greens try to give that all bad things come from humans, and all natural stuff is good. But they don't effect the imperative to stop pumping CO2. Maybe we've lucked out by making it a bit warmer before a cold snap hits, but after the cold snaps we'll race quickly to the trend line of warming. And, of course, acidification will be added stress to ocean surface life during any cold snaps.

The way to prepare for nature's cold snaps is to have lots of spare capacity of cheap carbon-free energy, so that we can do a lot of farming indoors with artificial light. The way to do that is with advanced nuclear power. Needless to say: solar power is not going to work in the next year without a summer.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Countries can save without causing financial disasters

Germany and China continue to demand the right to export more than they import. How do they do that? Obviously there must be more money coming in than going out. This has to be balanced by money going out that does not have anything coming back immediately, which is foreign investment in various forms.

The Chinese used to do this by buying US bonds. Then when the US decided to print money to buy bonds (and thus keep the value of bonds low), the Chinese realized they'd lost control of their money. We now see a lot more real investment in external real world assets. They still don't ultimately control that. Let's hope they never try to.

The Germans have a multinational currency. So all they need to do is find a sucker in the EU to lend it to. This gets harder and harder, so they've been lending to increasingly poor credit risks. Then when it blows up in their face they claim that the suckers must go to the equivalent of debtor prison.

Repeatedly down the years we hear China and Germany claim the moral high ground: "Why doesn't everyone live within their means and export more than they import, like us". When people point out that this is totally moronic, they go quiet for a while. But they don't change what their doing. And then they say it again.

Countries can, and should, prepare for the future, but they can't do it by saving money as ordinary folk do. They need to actually acquire real world stuff that will make the future safer. A good choice is to build energy creation systems that are relatively expensive to build (capital cost), but then have relatively low running cost. If you have cheap energy you can then make other stuff. Another thing to do is stockpile raw materials that are not easily available within your borders, but that can go wrong if future production switches away from that particular material.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

CANZUK to CANZEWSI

The plan (http://grampsgrumps.blogspot.com.au/2015/05/the-canzuk-solution.html) is to solve a lot of problems at once:
  • Keep Scotland in the fold by making a better fold;
  • Get the UK out of the EU to allow both to move forward separately, because it is increasingly clear that they can't move forward together;
  • Allow a group of nations that are culturally aligned to come together to build something that is more than the sum of its parts;
  • It would be really nice to bring Ireland into the fold as well. Unification is the obvious carrot. That could be ugly, but so might other options that I've thought of.
  • Address Australia's anxiety about being a minnow in a tough local area where we are not well liked.
Previously I picked the CANZUK acronym (and later found that others had done the same). However in my mind the idea is to replace the UK with this new federation, with the nations each having complete home rule for domestic matters. So I like the CANZEWSI acronym better. There might be a better arrangement of letters, but remember to keep "NZ" together.

It is a bit hard to see why Canada would join, but it will be a bit strange without them. Somehow I feel that emotionally they will want to join if the other 6(7) ask them. One carrot would be to put the capital there: maybe Halifax. Another might be support in establishing an Arctic presence and opening up the NW passage.

The widely spread Federation would have good reason to reestablish our ancestors' strong involvement with shipping. The world needs a revolution in shipping to significantly reduce the carbon emissions. Nuclear powered ships are the only plausible solution. The next generation of nuclear power generation will be ideal since it fails safe and is very hard to adapt for weapons. Nuclear powered vessels can produce the energy needed to act as ice breakers over extended periods of time.

The people who had the idea before me are The United Commonwealth Society. There are a couple of reasons why it is probably best not to link the plan to the British Commonwealth.
  • It suggests that other poorer parts of the Commonwealth might be included at some stage. This will not go down well with voters and explicit denials won't get through to all of them.
  • It will probably be best if the chosen name avoids identifying one location (i.e. Britain) over the other parts. Of course British heritage and English language are core unifying factors, but it is hard to get that in the name without annoying some folk unnecessarily.

The importance of proofs

For at least 2 thousand years mathematicians have been constructing proofs, and everyone else has been saying "that is not important to me, I'm only interested in algorithms for real world problems". Now two things are happening: proofs are important; computer software can help us check them and even generate them.

Bug hunting can be a fun intellectual exercise. Here's a nice story if you like that sort of thing: http://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2015/05/the-discovery-of-apache-zookeepers-poison-packet/. What it illustrates is the ubiquity of software bugs. We already knew that because of all the security bugs that hackers (good and bad) love to find.

What we want is that software is proved to be correct to the greatest extent possible. One thing we explicitly don't want is perfection, which is unattainable. The weakness of perfect systems is one of the key discoveries of 20th century mathematics. What we want is to know the axioms that we are assuming, and the things that we expect to be true which we don't yet have a proof for.

So what do we do about assumptions that we don't have a proof for? Use Science. Experiment. In other words: test. Try to disprove it. Testing is expensive and error-prone. The reason for proving as much as possible is exactly so that we know what needs to be tested and to reduce that to as little as possible.

So who is going to build these software development systems incorporating proof technology? We can't trust government research to do it, because governments everywhere are addicted to using software bugs as a vector for surveillance and even for acts of war. It will need to be done by the independent open source community. Doing this will be the 21st century equivalent of defending freedom by bearing arms in a well regulated militia.

Monday, May 11, 2015

We shouldn't always do what we are optimized for

Here's a mistake I made a few years ago. The question I wanted to answer was "How do you decide how much UV you should get?". Now it turns out that your skin colour is correlated with the Autumn UV levels where your ancestors come from. We are optimized for sunlight levels where our genes come from. So I thought that that level of sunlight is what will be best for us.

It was a particularly dumb case to get wrong. The English may be designed to survive a UV-free dull grey winter. But that doesn't mean that it is optimal for them to experience that. It actually seems extremely likely that, however pigmentless your skin, it is a good idea to get some extra UV in some way during winter, or at least take vitamin D supplements. Extremely likely but not certain. Maybe our genes have developed some trick that depends on that break in UV exposure to work correctly.

This error is related to the logic error called Modus Tollens, and humans seem particularly prone to errors of this general type. And we can see why. If there is absolutely no other factor that you can think of then it is a reasonable starting point to assume that what we are optimized for is (arguing backwards) what is optimal for us. Still, as we see, we can nearly always think of other factors.

A case where this style of argument is being used is the Paleo Diet. Maybe we are optimized for a paleo diet. That doesn't mean we can't improve on it. It does mean that we shouldn't reject aspects of it too quickly.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

How to integrate political parties into the electoral process

Traditionally in Australia, political parties were invisible in the electoral process. Suppose you were voting for 5 senators for your state. All you see on the ballot paper is the names of individuals. The voter numbers the squares, and the magic of single-transferable-vote means that you get proportional representation. So maybe the winning party gets 3 senators and the rival party gets 2. But as far as the electoral process was concerned it was just electing 5 individuals.

This beautiful system was difficult for the voters, so the rules were changed. Now political parties are registered and their names appear beside the individuals, or at the top of a list of individuals. I think this is the way it is in other countries. The problem is that it is no longer clear whether we are voting for people or parties. What should happen when an elected member of parliament decides to leave the party which they had claimed to represent? What if the member was expelled from the party?

The answer is that the voters have to be given some reasonable level of control. This can't extend to reconsulting the voters, which is almost impossible for multi-member electorates. Nor may it depend on the political parties having any rational behaviour or even continuing existence. I have a plan.

The idea is that the ballot paper will show a mixture of individuals and parties. Voters can vote for one or the other or in some systems (such as STV) a combination. More detail on this below. The important thing is: what happens when a party wins, rather than an individual.

When a party registers as a candidate for an election it would provide a list of individuals who will be the custodians of that seat should the party win it. There should also be an individual nominated who will be the person to initially hold the seat.

Now suppose the party wins the seat and their representative is installed. At a later time the nominated custodians can send replacement votes to an appropriate electoral authority. If, during the first half of any month, more than half of the nominated custodians request that the elected representative be replaced with some specific willing person, then that nominee will become the new holder of that seat starting from the beginning of the following month. Additionally 2/3 of the custodians can vote to replace some other custodian in the list.

A nice thing about this is that, for seats held by parties there is no need to make any special arrangements should the sitting member become unable or unwilling to continue.

This can work with any electoral system. For multi-member STV electorates, the political party candidate will only appear once on the ballot paper. It can translate into multiple winners if, after preference distribution, it collects multiple quotas. Also parties can endorse individuals to stand in the same election as well, to gather the votes of those who want a known individual who can't be replaced. However this would be problematic in first past the post systems because it would split the vote.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The CANZUK Solution

Three of Britain's prior colonies are substantially populated by people of British descent: Canada, Australia and New Zealand. 150 years ago it was obvious that these colonies were so far away that they needed to become independent. Then 60 years ago it seemed that Britain was close to Europe and needed to find its future there. But now communication technology (particularly the Internet) and air travel have made the world a very small place.
The UK is very dysfunctional, not knowing if it is one country or several. The result of the UK election suggests that the Union is not long for this world. The huge population imbalance between England and the other nations in the union is a significant factor in making the Scots uncomfortable.
Well I have an idea that might solve the UK's problems, and some of Australia's and hopefully some others I haven't thought of. The plan is:
To create a political Union of the current UK nations, plus Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
The Union will have the following features:
  • The separate nations will retain their identity for sporting and many other purposes.
  • The central government will handle foreign policy and defence.
  • There will be a single currency and a central bank with full power.
  • The central government will collect the bulk of the taxes and redistribute wealth to provide balanced service delivery, as happens in all well functioning unions.
  • However national and subnational units will deliver most government services.
This is the way successful unions work, and not the way the EU works. It is possible because all the proposed constituents are about equal in per capita wealth.
I believe this plan will have various benefits:
  • Scotland will be happy to stay in a union in which England has less than half the population.
  • The British people will not be uncomfortable to return to being part of a world-wide entity.
  • Australia will get a nuclear deterrent, and generally beefed up defense. This means we won’t have to suck up to America all the time and go on all their stupid wars.
  • The UK will get help in paying for their nuclear capabilities.
  • One country, with historically good financial regulation, on which the sun never sets (almost), is a natural to dominate the world financial industry.
  • Australia (and NZ) get an operating nuclear industry in case we need to stop burning coal (which we do).
  • I think that all the participating nations will be more comfortable with this union than the various regional groups which they are currently involved in. (Except Quebec will likely be grumpy).

[Update: I did a google for "CANZUK" and found that this is not a new idea. An obvious name, since all the parts have retained the British monarchy, is the "Federated Kingdom of ..." It is a delicate balancing act but it is most likely to work if the individual countries (with England, Scotland and Wales separate) are regarded as independent, so that the FK (and the old UK/GB) doesn't have any sporting teams.]


Saturday, April 25, 2015

The health and diet debate heats up

A news.com.au article chases up both sides after a recent anti-carb study: http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/health/whats-the-real-secret-to-weight-loss/story-fneuzkvr-1227316009826. The BBC takes a different tack on the same anti-carb study: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-32417699. Also this is interesting, not least because it addresses real outcomes not risk factors: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2015/04/11/398325030/eating-to-break-100-longevity-diet-tips-from-the-blue-zones.

I've changed my mind so often on these health issues that nobody should take much notice of my opinion. For what it's worth here it is.

Firstly here are some facts which seem reasonably likely to be correct:
  • People lose weight on a low carb diet, and reduce their blood sugar levels.
  • People lose weight on a low fat diet, at least if it is low in sugars and other refined carbs.
  • Statistics used to show that being overweight was bad for your health and reduced life expectancy.
  • Statistics now show that being overweight is protective and increases life span.
  • Gluten allows leakage from the gut into the blood circulation. In celiac (and maybe other gluten sensitive folk) this gets to be significant.
  • Emulsifiers may do the same.
  • When obese people have a gastric bypass operation, so the food bypasses the top 1/7 of the gut, then they almost immediately stop having high blood sugars, long before they lose any weight.
  • If you are fit and active you will live longer if you stay overweight.
  • If you are unfit and inactive you will live longer if you are overweight.
  • A very high protein diet (particularly if from mammals) is bad for your health. So you've got to eat carbs or fats or both.
  • Processed food, particularly meats, are generally bad for health.
  • A healthy diet, particularly one low in refined carbs, makes people enjoy being active more.
  • UV (direct sunlight) modifies molecules in your blood, and in some cases (at least one = bilirubin) turns them into something  your liver can deal with better.
So why did statistics previously favour not being overweight? The reason is that most fit active people don't stay overweight. Previously more than half the population were fit and active (and got out in the sun) and these tended to normal weight. Being overweight was highly correlated with inactivity which was the actual cause of the statistical bad outcomes. Now things have changed. Nearly everyone is inactive, and now the health advantages of higher weight show up directly.

We used to think that being overweight caused bad health. So it was assumed that things which lead to lower weight must improve health. All these interventions that address risk factors rather than outcomes are highly suspect, particularly medications.

Kids are rarely overweight until they become inactive. But that doesn't mean that anything that reduces their weight is good. Rather it is a wake-up call on activity levels.

We can see that some significant part of metabolic syndrome is caused by problems in the top 1/7 of the gut. So it makes sense that healthy diets are ones which can't be easily processed and require processing lower down in the gut. I suspect that this includes nearly all fats and proteins, so that is why a low carb diet addresses metabolic syndrome in the same way as a gastric bypass.

However I think it is hard to have a healthy diet unless it is mostly plant-based. Sugars and refined carbs are immediately satisfying because they get processed in that top 1/7 of the gut. So grains, if any, need to be minimally processed. I suspect that people would have a lot less trouble if all gluten, and many similar molecules, were not available for processing at the top of the gut.

TL;DR: Mostly eat vegetables/fruit/nuts/grains. For protein mostly fish and birds (and plant protein, particularly pulses). Mammal meat every 2 weeks. Get active. 15 hours sitting plus 1 hour of activity doesn't do it. Get your heart rate up a few times a day. Get a standing desk and keep moving. Get in the sun but don't get burnt.

I don't recommend my home-made standing desk, but it is cheap (card table plus small angle beams held up with nuts and held on with cable ties):

[update: I should have mentioned that there are important nutrients that you need to get. This (http://www.express.co.uk/life-style/health/385884/Supplements-halt-Alzheimer-s-groundbreaking-dementia-prevention-treatment) mentions B6, B12 and Folate. There are others. Selenium is important: brazil nuts often have a lot, depending on where they're grown. Look for brands which specify how much selenium.]


Saturday, April 18, 2015

A simple energy calculation

From http://nextbigfuture.com/2015/04/elon-musk-battery-singularity-1000.html we read: "The US uses 4500 TWh of electrical power (and 10 times that amount when currently non-electric transportation and industrial power usage is counted.)". Presumably per year.
So assume a near future world with 10 billion people with average standard of living and energy use that of the current US, which has 1/3 billion people. Total energy is 4500*10*30 TWh/year, which to one significant figure is 1000000 TWh/year.
In http://withouthotair.blogspot.com.au/2014/08/shale-gas-in-perspective.html we see:


Shale gas padWind farmSolar park
(10 wells)87 turbines,
174 MW capacity
1,520,000 panels,
380 MW capacity
Energy delivered over 25 years9.5 TWh9.5 TWh9.5 TWh
(chemical)(electric)(electric)
Number of tall things1 drilling rig87 turbinesNone
Height26 m100 m2.5 m
Land area occupied by hardware, foundations, or access roads2 ha36 ha308 ha
Land area of the whole facility2 ha1450 ha924 ha
Area from which the facility can be seen77 ha5200-17,000 ha924 ha
Truck movements2900-20,00078003800 (or 7600*)

So these facilities deliver 9.5/25 TWh/year. About 0.4. So we'll need 2.5 million of them. So if we take the "land area of the whole facility" to be 1000ha for wind or solar we get 2.5 billion hectares total.
Now according to google the world land area is 15 billion hectares. So no problem, right?

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Australian Test Cricket team

My pick for the Australian Test team is: Warner, Rogers, Smith, Clarke(c), Voges, Maxwell, Nevill(wk), Johnson, Harris, Starc, Hazlewood. The list of players unlucky to miss out is huge:
  • Fawad Ahmed. A Test-quality wicket-taking wrist spinner. Australia loves to have one of those.
  • Lyon. The best attacking orthodox spinner Australia has ever produced.
  • Agar. Much improved and a very good bat as well.
  • Lots of competitors for Hazlewood in the 4th fast bowler spot: Cummins, Pattinson (if ever fit), Siddle and more.
  • Watson. The best paid cricketer in the world. Could possibly replace Rogers as opener.
  • Faulkner. A genius with bat and ball. How can I leave him out.
  • Mitch Marsh. Unfairly deprived of the opportunity to play 1st class cricket recently.
  • Shaun Marsh. One of the best batsmen in the world on his day, but so inconsistent.
  • Every other first class wicketkeeper.
Maxwell and Smith (and Clarke and Warner) allow us the luxury of 4 fast bowlers. This is a team that nobody will want to bat against. The tail bats well down to number 11.

[update: Can't believe they've left Maxwell out of the squad. I've been watching Cricket for over 50 years and I rate him as one of the best players of all time.

IF they're going to put the long form of the game on a pedestal, and select people based on 1st class cricket performance.
THEN they have to allow players to say "I'm only available for short form international cricket when there are no 1st class matches I could play in."

It may be that they want Maxwell to play a bit in India (in the A side) and maybe play for a county, rather than touring but not playing much which won't suit his temperament.

In my initial version of this post I put in a different (retired) Peter instead of Peter Nevill. A "senior moment".]

Saturday, March 28, 2015

A peek into the quantum world

In https://plus.google.com/117663015413546257905/posts/B16McQB6Vn2, John Baez discusses the amount of information in a gram of water. In Newton's classical world this doesn't make sense. To describe even the position of just one molecule of the water would take an infinite number of decimal places, and hence an infinite number of bits. But when we get into the quantum world things actually get simpler, and Baez can write:
we see a gram of water holds

4.05 × 10^24 bits

of information.  And amazingly, this is something we know quite precisely!  I've rounded off the numbers, but we could actually work it out to more decimal places if we wanted.
[10^24 means a 1 with 24 zeroes following.]

This makes me feel that I understand a bit more about what the quantum mechanical view of reality is [though obviously nobody should take my opinion too seriously]. Any time you have a very large finite system obeying relatively simple rules then it's going to look like some infinite thing which is philosophically more complicated, but likely to be more tractable mathematically. For example, if you plot the distribution of the result of 10^24 coin tosses then it is going to look indistinguishable from a continuous bell shaped curve (a gaussian distribution).

Will this viewpoint help me the next time I try to understand quantum mechanics a bit? We'll see.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

In-marriage Out-marriage oscillation

Previously (Group Selection of Humans) I convinced myself that humanity finds a balance between in-breeding and out-breeding. I now think that the balance is more like an oscillation, as balances often are. Here’s the story:
There was a discussion about ISIS that seemed to assume that male talk was the full story (https://plus.google.com/u/0/117663015413546257905/posts/5DfjTXF5agm). I tried to suggest more real-world reasons for the vigorous opposition to Western values:
An interesting aspect of the IS area is that a lot of marriages are to cousins, preserving family power and status. The great threat to family status is female education and power from merit. I suspect that it would be useful to understand female opinion in the area as well as listening to the cacophony of males talking about arcane knowledge.
Which everyone ignored, except for David Friedman who responded:
"An interesting aspect of the IS area is that a lot of marriages are to cousins"
Any more than elsewhere in the Islamic world?  I've seen figures for Iran, where that is also true, and it's clear in Islamic literature that cousin marriages are favored. Consider, for instance, the farmer who understands the speech of animals in an early story in the 1001 nights, where the fact that his wife is his cousin is clearly seen as a plus.
I thanked him for this:
Thanks, that perhaps explains why pushback against modernity is common in the Moslem world. It is an interesting contrast to Christianity where rules against incest were expanded to cousins for a time (unless you paid the Pope). …
Whether it had much to do with indulgences, there is no doubt that Europe freed itself from the inbreeding which, I’ve argued, was crucial in the development and maintenance of human social behaviour. But human behaviour had recently (on an evolutionary timescale) changed to feature larger culture-based groups (see What is Culture for). At times the inbred extended family groups continued within the larger groups, as we see in the Middle East now. In Europe now we see the opposite, with random marriages meaning there is no genetically coherent groups within the culture based groups. This has immediate advantages in strengthening the culture-based group, as we see in the very coherent European nation states that conquered much of the world in the 19th Century, but there are long term costs.
It changes the evolutionary incentives. Opposition to non-cooperating individuals has a cost. And now there is no direct advantage to an individual’s genes to take those actions. With that opposition weakened, the proportion of people not cooperating will rise. Indeed it will continue to rise until that culture-based group starts to malfunction. It might get to the point of losing in struggles with groups which include those extended family subgroups. But perhaps it doesn’t get that far. Perhaps as society gets dysfunctional, with lots of bad guys causing trouble, then there is incentive for families to try to hang together via cousin marriages.
So we might reasonably expect an oscillation between inbreeding with extended family groups, and outbreeding with individual loyalty going directly to the culture-based group.
I believe that cousin marriages and extended families creates a very conservative environment. In particular they have to suppress individual freedom to prevent random marriages. Freedom and individual initiative has been the most powerful advantage of the West in recent times, and very likely for other successful culture-based groups in the past. But the disadvantage will eventually catch up with us, if we let it.

Monday, February 23, 2015

What is Culture For?

[I've said this stuff a number of times, but there is no obvious URL to point to, so here's a summary]
Seventy thousand years ago humans were very different. Superficially it wasn't that different from more modern hunter gatherers. People lived in groups (quite in-bred promoting cooperation). They made tools. They talked about the weather and the food options and who was doing what with whom. But look closer and there is little to call art or music, and nothing changes over thousands of years.
Then culture started and around 30,000 years ago it swept the world. Most obviously there is art, and there is invention and change in tools and clothing and housing. What I mean by "culture" is things that groups adopt to distinguish themselves from other groups. Groups love to distinguish themselves:
  • "We are the group that dresses like this"
  • "We are the group that speaks and understands this language and these idioms"
  • "We are the group that makes this sort of pottery"
  • "We are the group that plays and enjoys this sort of music"
And these things require skills that take years. Foreigners can't just walk in and blend in.
Culture takes up a lot of brain power and a lot of time and effort. Why was it so successful in displacing the simple lifestyles that preceded it?
Intergroup conflict is a characteristic of our species, and indeed of related species such as chimpanzees. For a graphic discussion of this, see Jared Diamond's book The World Until Yesterday. Before Culture, groups were limited to ones where everyone knew everyone else. Culture allowed us to create groups that were defined by common culture. These could be much larger.
So that's it. Culture allowed us to create big groups that beat up the small groups of pre-cultural humans. At first the pre-cultural females would be absorbed by the victors, diluting the culture genes and slowing things down. But by 30000 years ago the dilution process became insignificant and the takeover of cultural genes went very rapidly to completion.
We love cultures generally and our own particularly. So this is not quite the story we would want to hear. But we need to understand how we got here if we are going to make good decisions about where to go.