Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Anarchy vs. Statistics

Somalia has long been cited as a prime example of the horrors of anarchy. I believe that anarchy must avoid the pitfall communism usually falls into, and never say that a place wasn't 'anarchic enough.' There's an argument that runs along the lines that less government is good, therefore you can't conclude that all of a sudden no government is bad, any more than less tumour is good, but completely eliminating it would be bad.

Therefore, I have always accepted Somalia as an example of the features of anarchy, even if I could not, until now, explain what exactly was going on there. This was simply because the place was being misrepresented.

I'll open with the humdinger.

"In the year following the state’s collapse, civil war, exacerbated by severe drought, devastated the Sub-Saharan territory killing 300,000 Somalis (Prendergast 1997).
Though largely unrecognized by economists, the widespread violence that ravaged Somalia in its first year without government vanished considerably by 1994. By the mid-1990s peace prevailed over most of the country (Menkhaus 1998, 2004). Since 1997 most indicators of Somali development show slow but steady progress and today are above their pre-stateless levels."

And I think that's exactly what you could expect if you implemented anarchy right here and now. Mass death, followed by improvement.

This is an issue that I think lies behind most objections to anarchism, but I never see brought up explicitly. Indeed, in nearly any particular, we can easily see that the government is incompetent and would be better off leaving well enough alone. It's even easy to get agreement on this if you don't make your interlocutor actually think of it as anarchism.

There's just that little bit of mass death between here and there, so if you do bring up anarchism, it covertly takes over the entire dialogue. So, try it out, as I'll be doing. Every time I see an objection of the form, 'but government is necessary for X,' I'll replace it with, 'but what about the mass death?' and see if it still makes sense in context.
"On the one hand, popular opinion sees government as universally superior to anarchy."
"On one hand, opinion sees government as universally superior to a period of mass death." Seems to be working out.

Page twelve has the table listing the actual statistics at hand. The table notes a decline in GDP, which shows how useless GDP is. Radios, TVs, telephones, and physicians all go up, but wealth goes down? Notably, Leeson has an excellent analysis of why the statistics fall like this, but I think the analysis could be generalized farther than Leeson would be comfortable with. I'm also highly amused that literacy and schooling have dropped while life expectancy, and indeed general health, has increased.

Things that are truly important, full list:

Actually that's not true, it's just that government education is basically worse than useless. For instance, the medical advances the Somalis are using to improve their health would be impossible without at least one person getting educated, in spite of being schooled.

I am especially amused by this bit, emphasis mine

"Public goods come from a variety of sources in stateless Somalia, including the “taxes” charged by militia. Clan militias provide security to citizens in their territories, and militiamen for hire protect businesses, seaports, large markets, and trade convoys. In other cases shari’a, a form of religious law/courts discussed below, provide security by including guards in their court militia in return for payment from businessmen (UNDP 2001: 109-110). Clan leaders also work together to provide needed public goods in areas outside of Somalia’s big cities where very few exist."

While Leeson has discarded the automatic association between anarchy and mass death, by noting that the mass death can't go on forever, he has failed to discard the association between certain goods and the term 'public.' Public goods are defined as those which can't be properly paid for by being charged for. Although, I can understand why Leeson might be unconsciously reticent to admit that the basic service that his government provides - security - is not, actually, a public good.

Another thing working exactly as your average anarchist says it would:

"Private courts are funded by the donations of successful businessmen who benefit from the presence of this public good in urban centers. Under anarchy, dispute resolution is free and speedy by international standards (Nenova 2004; Nenova and Harford 2004)."

Something that needs to be uplayed a great deal:
"Expansive domestic clan-based social networks also provide social insurance."
The role of a robust social fabric is critical in any anarchic situation. It's one of the reasons anarchy here and now would lead to mass death.

I hate to be so topical, but hey Obama, considered Somalia?
"Private healthcare is also available. Although the state of medicine in Somalia
remains extremely low, medical consultations are very affordable ($0.50/visit)"
Fifty cents. ... Fifty cents?! Puts that dollar a day ("extreme poverty") wage into perspective, doesn't it? Given a minimum wage of eight bucks, that would be $30 for a doctor's visit around here. Medical care, when government isn't mucking with it, is priced on par with DVDs,[1] and moreover markets do not produce shortages, two reasons you know that the American healthcare system is not private, whatever they're fond of saying.

Another thing that puts the dollar a day wage into perspective...most of Somali is pastoral. Many earning that dollar aren't relying on that dollar for all their wealth the way a western citizen does. They not only have farms, they have friends with farms. Living hand to mouth isn't something we really do here - but, literally, at least some of those 'extremely poor' Somalis are making things with their hands, and then consuming them. Instead, they're just using the cash to pay for doctor's visits.

Despite all this, I have three concerns. First, the GDP issue is probably just the tip of an iceberg of dodgy statistics. The paper may not be as supportive as anarchism as it appears. Second, the paper only barely touched the fact that while Somalia lacks a central government, it is not really anarchy, but rather polyarchy, which would simply invoke the well-known principles governing monopolies, rather than the people's ability to self-govern. For example, the paper places the free market price on roads - apparently it is 5% of something, but that could simply be because the local militias compete with each other for traffic, and is not likely to continue indefinitely.

Finally, in the Europe of say 1500, military realities would have forced a place like anarchist Somalia off the map in a matter of days, only limited by the time it took for the armies to march across the landscape. What has changed? Depending on the answer, anarchy may be even more viable than Somalia leads us to believe...or Somalia may be unknowingly dancing across a knife edge.

[1] Does that mean an MRI would cost about as much as a DVD player? If so, a getting a truly private MRI would probably be about as much hassle as buying a DVD player. The Somalis do not have the capital investment to afford MRIs, but, in a decade or so, perhaps we'll find out? If the TNG doesn't get off the ground, that is.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Independent Discovery and Journalism; Consciousness in New Scientist

It is certainly not an article I expect from such a bastion of orthodoxy as New Scientist. Clearly, the commenters agree. As per my last post, yes, sometimes journalism will rise above its mandate and produce something approaching worth reading. (NS has also published Lee Smolin, whose writing could not be more different than the bulk of the magazine.)

The key is here:

"It is about the deep philosophical confusion embedded in the assumption that if you can correlate neural activity with consciousness, then you have demonstrated they are one and the same thing, and that a physical science such as neurophysiology is able to show what consciousness truly is."

Tallis fails to follow this through properly, I think. As most discussions of consciousness do, it begs the question. On one side, consciousness is physical, and the only thing left is to demonstrate it, while on the other, with Tallis, consciousness is clearly not physical, and it is just a matter of making the other side admit this. The whole point of the debate is whether the neural correlates, or some equivalent, are indeed consciousness itself or not; there's no use in just reasserting one's opinion.

I will now follow it through properly.

Assume we have the neural correlates exactly corresponding to consciousness, and we have completely described the brain. To use the eye, we can trace the trail of causation as photons enter the eye, as spikes travel through nerves and neurons, as the voluntary nervous system swings into action, and the person responds. ("That is one fine and dandy picture you got there.")

I take this model. I change one thing; I assume the correlates are unconscious. Does the model still work?

"The analogy fails as the level at which water can be seen as molecules, on the one hand, and as wet, shiny, cold stuff on the other, are intended to correspond to different "levels" at which we are conscious of it. But the existence of levels of experience or of description presupposes consciousness. Water does not intrinsically have these levels."

By definition, we have no direct access to another's consciousness, we can only correlate neuron spikes with consciousness reports, and liken those reports to our own experience. The reports, however, are themselves unverifiable, and if there's any systematic bias, they will be systematically wrong.

(As any Buddhist can tell you, there's lots of systematic bias. As long as you're not talking about consciousness, a good psychologist can also go on and on about systematic biases.)

I strip the unreliable reports out; the reports are not necessary for the model to work, and indeed should be predictions of the model, not components. I simply show, using our hypothetical exact model, how certain questions cause these answers. As per my one change, the reports are because of the neural correlates, not because of the contents of consciousness. If indeed the materialists are correct, a full causal description of the brain is simply a full description.

Now, hopefully, you can clearly see why Tallis is correct, that it is self-contradictory to look for consciousness in the brain. Materialism contradicts the very existence of consciousness; and indeed all materialists are in fact crypto-dualists. To reiterate, the neuroscientific persuasion of materialist measures a neural correlate, asks the subject what they're experiencing, and then correlates the two. Which is fine that far, but then they assume the subject's response was not caused by physical thing they just measured, but because of their conscious state, and then they assume the conscious state was the thing they just measured. This species works through the problem with dualism, and then assumes the answer is monistic.

To see this another way, to assume as above that the correlates are in fact unconscious is either to assume consciousness doesn't exist or to assume epiphenomenal dualism is true. The fact that the model still works if Ockham's razor is applied like this means that the model either assumes consciousness doesn't exist, or is dualistic.

(So, do you think my characterization of the camps is accurate?)

As a bonus, this kind of answer is not just philosophically wrong, but scientifically wrong as well.

I've seen complaints that dualism is just a myterious answer to a mysterious question. Neural correlates are actually a mysterious answer to a mysterious question. Ask the physicist question; how does this neural correlate know it is supposed to be happiness, and not surprise? As your neural cortex is processing red, why would even bother to know it is processing red, and not just do it? Consider further: it is a bunch of electrons, protons, and neutrons processing red and apparently also knowing that they are processing red. The photon itself is long gone at this point, there's no actual redness around. How do these particles know they're supposed to be correlating to red, and the particles in your hair know they're not supposed to be?

What is qualitatively different about being a neuronal neutron versus a hirsute neutron? How does it know? Because, if it can't know, then it must be the same, and either both unconscious...or both conscious.

Many materialists are aware of these kinds of issues, which tends to bring emergence into the discussion, but unfortunately that is even more absurd, because emergence hardly even pretends to be objective. Briefly, a flock is an emergent structure. Now, read Tallis' bit about water again. To say we became conscious because of emergence is to say we became conscious because of features of consciousness. Physics doesn't recognize flocks. Physics recognizes fundamental particles, and that's all.

To touch on journalism again, it seems obvious to me why Tallis didn't follow through properly; the whole article reeks of being crammed into a tiny space. (Long form Tallis.) While I can say Tallis should not have written the article, or NS should not try to stuff such a complex, difficult, frustrating topic into the corner...to do so consistently would violate Sturgeon's Second.

And now for some light fisking. I wonder if the article would be so glibly dismissesd if these errors were corrected.
"If it were identical, then we would be left with the insuperable problem of explaining how intracranial nerve impulses, which are material events, could "reach out" to extracranial objects in order to be "of" or "about" them."
Tallis fails to explain why the problem is insuperable. In fact, the perspective is new to me, so I have no idea if he's right, or even if he's on to something at all.

"Straightforward physical causation explains how light from an object brings about events in the occipital cortex. No such explanation is available as to how those neural events are "about" the physical object. Biophysical science explains how the light gets in but not how the gaze looks out."

I mentioned independent discovery, although that last sentence is more question-beggging.

Further down is,
"I believe there is a fundamental, but not obvious, reason why that explanation will always remain incomplete - or unrealisable."
"There are also problems with notions of the self, with the initiation of action, and with free will. Some neurophilosophers deal with these by denying their existence,"

Finally, Tallis trips up more seriously.

"It does not, as you and I do, reach temporally upstream from the effects of experience to the experience that brought about the effects. In other words, the sense of the past cannot exist in a physical system. This is consistent with the fact that the physics of time does not allow for tenses: Einstein called the distinction between past, present and future a "stubbornly persistent illusion"."

To LIFO... physics does not respect tense because there is only the present. Each fundamental particle only feels its immediate surroundings, both spatially and temporally, as per the principle of locality,[1] and the name for the temporally local is simply 'the present.' Particles don't care about the past or future because, almost by definition, the particles can touch neither.

However, your memories exist in the present. While we look backward by inducing a feeling of looking backward, it doesn't mean the process of remembering means moving backward in any way. The bar against correlation works both ways.

[1] I must note that while our current principle seems very local, as it basically means adjacent, it need not be, and locality can be back-defined; the local is simply the things a particle can touch, wherever they happen to be. For example, you could say entangled particles don't send signals faster than light, but rather bend space.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Journalism Rethunk

My main issue is just that the 95% crud journalism is taken seriously, combined with the fact that the errors journalists make just happen to be of a kind I find particularly abhorrent.

I learned this by publishing my misapprehensions on the subject on this blog. For some reason, it makes me compare what I've written to everything I read, to see if it matches up properly, and earlier today I suddenly thought, "There has to be some good journalism."

(If you're interested in the process, when it hit me I was reading the line, "That reality helps fuel cynicism about journalists and journalism among some — and The Daily Show may not be helping, Williams says.")

So I think I'll stop blaming journalists particularly for two flaws in humanity generally. It's not their fault that (~95% of) their jobs are inherently a bait-and-switch game, or at least not their fault that the demand exists.

Though I must wonder how much the responsibility for taking those jobs lies with the journalist. The preliminary results of my studies into self-control suggest that they don't actually have much choice. It would be the perfect solution, of course - "I'm noticing that my job isn't what it's supposed to be, so I and my entire department are quitting. Have a nice day." - it's just utterly impossible.

"So," I say to myself, "Of course most journalism is yellow. Most studies are wrong, most art is crap, most ventures fail. It's just more of the same."

The test for this new perspective is - if we magically replaced the journalists with better quality people, would journalism improve? My answer is no. Even if some of them managed to bleach their papers and keep them that way, they would be driven from the market by those that embraced the market's demand. The quality of people must not be the issue.

The only thing left is for me to Accept that near everyone will remain Ignorant of these facts. (Oh wait, also to recurse the technique that found the facts.)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Range of Interstellar Radio

SETI has been in my news feed recently, which behooved me to track down my favourite discussion about picking up alien transmissions. I've never seen the actual physics all mathed out anywhere else, and the reason for this dearth seems obvious from the results. The analysis is basically complete, so I just have a few disjointed comments.

They simply use the word 'detect,' which I take it to mean something like 'differentiate from background noise,' which is backed up by comments like, "In keeping with the estimates of Aburto and Woolley, the Signal to Noise Ratio for all calculations was taken to be 25 since this is between the SNR of SETI@home (SNR=22) and the maximum SNR used by Project META (SNR=33). "

Especially striking is the graph showing how large your dish needs to be to pick up human TV signals from Alpha Centauri or Vega. A little extrapolation shows that at nearly all of the stars in the galaxy you require an effective dish well over a billion metres wide. Billion's a nice big round number, don't you think?

If I were a journalist I would now have to decry this outrageous waste of tax dollars. Presumably, this is supposed to stop outrageous wastes of tax dollars. I find it to just be a waste of outrage. The kind of people who fund SETI, if forced to stop, are not likely to suddenly wake up, find their heads, and screw them back on. They'll just make the exact same mistake in some new and interesting way. In short, that cash was effectively flushed down the drain the moment it left the taxpayer's hand.

I'd also like to highlight:

"beacon signals- These non-leaked signals would be intentionally designed to attract the attention of observers in the direction of Earth. If there are advance civilizations that choose to make themselves known in this way, then it is possible that present SETI efforts may one day produce a positive detection. However, these beams must be aimed at Earth at a time when we are listening for a positive detection to occur."

Aiming a signal at Earth from most of the galaxy would be difficult, especially if they're not already aware we're here and looking for it. This alternative stacks unlikelihood upon unlikelihood.