Thursday, November 29, 2007

Thoughts on Substance Free Dorms

A number of the colleges we have been visiting have "substance free" dorms. It's an interesting concept. I'm not an expert on Aristotelian philosophy, but as I understand it, the form of a dorm defines its shape, the substance is the stuff the dorm is made of. Which at first left me puzzled about how one could have a dorm with no substance at all. But I think I have now solved the puzzle.

Obviously, substance free dorms exist in virtual reality--possibly in World of Warcraft, more plausibly in Second Life. There only can you have a building that is all form and no substance.

Which, now that I think of it, also explains how it is possible to have food with no chemicals in it.

How to Attract Students

In the process of visiting colleges with my daughter, I have come to two conclusions relevant to the problem faced by colleges in attracting students:

1. Student "sleepovers" provide information to the prospective student that is both valuable and likely to influence the final decision, but ...

2. There is a lot of noise in the signal.

The information is valuable because it gives the prospective student a feel for the student society in which she will be immersed for four years if she goes there. It is noisy because student society varies a good deal even within a single college, and what part she gets exposed to depends on who her "sponsor"--the student whose dorm and room she is doing the sleepover in--happens to be.

I conclude that a college could increase the number of students who choose to go to it by investing more resources in matching sponsor and prospective student. Some schools clearly make some attempt to do this, as judged by conversations I had at two of them. On the other hand, at least one of the schools my daughter visited did a spectacularly bad job, and one a spectacularly good job, with the result that the latter is currently her first choice.

Of course, there may be schools with ideological reasons not to engage in such matching. If a prep school prospie is unimpressed by a host from the inner city, or a football fan prospie by a shakespeare quoting host, that may just show, in the view of some schools, that the prospie is too narrow a type for them to want, however good his or her SAT scores, grades, etc. There may even be schools which see the sleepover as an opportunity to educate the prospie by exposing him or her to a different sort of person.

The former, at least, is not a wholly unreasonable position, although on the whole I would be inclined to see it as a negative, not a positive, signal about the school. On the other hand, the school where my daughter most strongly felt that her host and her friends were her sorts of people--the sorts who spent their free time talking and singing, not watching television--was also the one where she most felt that her own multiple oddities were seen by the students she met as interesting, as assets not liabilities.

Which is to say that, in her perception, that particular student society was the one that appreciated diversity--in the sense relevant to an academic environment, not the usual sense of a euphemsm for affirmative action.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Why Tie Showing to Selling?

The usual way to shop for a new car involves visiting lots of dealers, each of which lets you test drive and tries to sell you one or more of its models. Long ago, it occurred to me to wonder why we do it that way. Why is there nobody simply selling the service of helping you choose a car? Why can't I go, not to a dealer, but to someone with a selection of what he considers the best alternative cars for each niche, along with a few well informed advisors, literature on the cars, and a computer with an appropriate set of bookmarks?

Of course, such a firm would have to pay its bills. But why not do it by selling services rather than autombiles? Why not simply charge me fifty dollars an hour, or whatever other sum is consistent with their costs and my value, for helping me choose a car? They could then, as an additional service, help me search, online and elsewhere, for the seller with the best price. The advantages of such a firm have declined in recent years, as auto malls become more common--places where you can visit half a dozen dealers within a mile or so. But it still seems as though it would be useful.

I was reminded of this old puzzle recently in a different context. As I have mentioned here, not long ago I identified a high end smart phone that looked as though it was just what I wanted, bought it, and ended up sending it back. Even more recently I have identified another candidate, the HTC Advantage 7501. Judged by its specs, it is more or less the ultimate smart phone--quad band as a phone, triband as a 3G data device, with a full VGA screen, built in GPS, and its own micro hard drive. It is big for a cell phone--but not so big for a miniature computer. Its weight--about 13oz--is almost exactly the same as the weight of the Psion 5mx, the pda I carried for some years and became very fond of.

The Advantage is, however, an expensive device and a somewhat odd design (see the link for details), so I am unlikely to buy one unless I can first get my hands on it, and perhaps not then--there will be other high end smart phones coming out over the next year, so perhaps if I wait I can get something even better.

Which brings me back to my question. I live in Silicon Valley. Why isn't there, somewhere nearby, a showroom for high end cell phones, not limited to any single company, supporting itself by charging by the hour for access? Not only would that let me look at the Advantage, it would let me compare it to competitors. So far as I know no such thing exists, although I will be happy to be informed that I am mistaken.

The pattern I observe in both markets, showing services bundled with selling services, is a common one--indeed, in the economic literature, it is sometimes used to explain otherwise puzzling practices such as resale price maintenance. What I don't see is why that pattern is so common. After all, if I buy a car, or a cell phone, from a dealer that also provides a showroom, I'm paying for the showroom implicitly in the price of the car or phone. So why not separate out the two products and price them separately?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Amazon's Kindle

I've just been reading the description of Amazon.com's new ebook reader, which might be the breakthrough device for that market. It looks as though they have succeed in both making it as convenient as a paperback, in terms of size and weight and readability, and providing a lot of the advantages possible with electronic books, such as the ability to search a document and to carry a very large number of books at once. I've been doing more or less the same thing with pda's (Psions, then a Sony CliƩ) and, more recently, my cell phone (Nokia 9300) for a very long time, but this looks to be a much better version for the mass market.

Initially, the available range of in print books will presumably be smaller than in a bookstore, since Amazon has to strike a deal with each publisher to make its books available. On the other hand, the system could potentially provide a much wider range of books than any bookstore other than online ones such as Amazon itself, and Amazon is in a good position to rapidly expand the range of what is available.
Many of the books I would want on such a device are out of print and available to me for free in machine readable form--either my own manuscripts, which I like to go over to note things that need changing (or because I like reading my own work) or books from Gutenberg, the Baen free library, and similar sources. As I understand it, Amazon will be willing to put such material, delivered to them in the form of Word files, on my Kindle, at a low price--how low isn't clear. If low enough, that solves the problem.

Alternatively, I might be able to put them on myself. The Kindle has a USB connection and will take a removable SD card. How easy it is to move files to it will depend on how easy it is to get them in the right format, but I assume it won't be too hard.

This, however, raises an obvious problem, the one publishers have long been worried about--piracy. What prevents me from buying a best seller, downloading it to my Kindle, transferring it to my SD card, then using that to transfer it to my friend's Kindle? At that level, what I am doing isn't much worse, from the publisher's standpoint, then finishing the book and passing it on to my friend. But the next step is for someone to set up either a pirate archive online or a decentralized file sharing system and make lots of in copyright books available via the internet.

My guess is that Amazon and the publishers are simply gambling that this won't be enough of a problem to outweigh the advantages of the device, and they may be right. There are possible technological fixes, however, at least worth thinking about. Your Kindle could, for instance, encrypt everything it gets from Amazon, or have Amazon encrypt it before sending. If the decryption key is built into the hardware in a way that makes it hard to extract--different for each Kindle--what you can transfer to a friend will not be of much use to him.

There are ways of getting around such a system. And there are serious risks of consumer complaints coming out of misfunctions--or even out of people feeling that they ought to be able to pass the book on to a friend. So my guess is they aren't doing it.

Which leaves me with one suggestion. To make the product even more valuable, Amazon should arrange with Gutenberg--better yet, with anyone who wants to make free books available in ways that don't violate copyright law--to include their books on the list searchable from the Kindle. Amazon can make money doing it with a modest charge for the service of transferring the material.

[Apparently Amazon was ahead of me. According to one webbed source, discovered after I wrote and posted the paragraph above, you can buy books from Gutenberg for something under a dollar--payment to Amazon for converting the format and transferring the book. And it sounds as though the Kindle reads a number of formats, including HTML, which should simplify transferring one's own material. Sounds great.]

Monday, November 19, 2007

Another Attempt to Exploit My Readers

As some of you know, my current nonfiction book project, Future Imperfect, deals with a variety of possible technological revolutions over the next few decades, their consequences if they happen, and how to deal with them. Insofar as there is a theme, it's that the future is radically uncertain.

My publisher wants to know "Which professional societies, associations and/or industrial/commercial organizations will be most interested in your book?" Off hand not much occurs to me; do any of you have suggestions? Similarly, are there any countries where such a book would be of special interest? Any fields other than economics, law, computer science and biology? Any organizations that would be likely to want to buy such a book in quantity?

What about "journals and publications" where it would be particularly appropriate to have such a book reviewed or advertised?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Reading the IPCC Report

The reports are now in part out and webbed, and I started by looking over "Summary for Policymakers" from the Working Group II report. It makes an interesting contrast with the news stories. For instance:

"Globally, the potential for food production is expect to increase with increases in average temperature over a range of 1-3 degrees centigrade, but above this it is projected to decrease."

Or in other words, given the predicted temperature increase of .2 degrees/decade, global warming will tend to increase food production for at least the next fifty years, and perhaps as much as the next hundred and fifty. Has anyone noticed that prediction in news stories about the report?

"Globally, commercial timber productivity rises modestly with climate change in the short- to medium-term, ... "

I also like "Nearly all European regions are anticipated to be negatively affected by some future impacts of climate change, ... ." Note the "some." It's hard to imagine any substantial change in the world, good or bad, for which which the statement would not be true.

Also note, from Chapter 2, that the projections of sea level rise "are smaller than given in the TAR due mainly to improved estimates of ... " TAR appears to be the 2001 estimate, if I understand it correctly. Perhaps I missed it--did any news story report that fact?

As Tim points out, the IPCC is now hedging its sea level predictions--in part by pointing out the uncertainty, in part by saying what might happen over thousands of years and adding that they can't be certain it won't happen over mere centuries. But the six scenarios they provide numbers for give predictions ranging from a low of .18 meters to a high of .59 meters--about two feet. The bulk of that is from thermal expansion, so actual melting of continental ice would have to be several times as high as their estimate in order to substantially increase it.

I am, of course, selecting bits from the post that support my point--that the news stories are hype, selecting out negative predictions, often very uncertain ones, and ignoring positive predictions and ambiguity. There are other bits of the report that do indeed support a negative view of the consequences.

Another point that struck me was how much of the report depended not on climate science, however good or bad that may be, but on social science, especially economics. My guess, from a quick look over it, is that those results are very uncertain and might easily get the sign of the effects wrong.

People adjust to change--they vary the crops they grow, the areas under cultivation, where they live and the like in response to changing climate. If you assume no such adjustment--not, I think, what the IPCC is doing--then the net result is almost certainly negative. With enough adjustment, taking advantage of opportunities produced by, for example, longer growing seasons, the net result can be positive. It's not clear how they know, or how they can know, how much adjustment will actually take place. I am reminded, perhaps unfairly, of just how bad the predictions in _Limits to Growth_ turned out to be.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Global Warming Hype

From today's news story on the IPCC report:

"The report produced by the Nobel prize-winning panel warns of the devastating impact for developing countries and the threat of species extinction posed by the climate crisis."

...

" The report also predicts a rise in global warming of around 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade."

Two points are worth noting. The first is that "Nobel prize-winning" makes it sound as though it is evidence of the scientific expertise of the panel. But although the IPCC surely includes a lot of highly qualified scientists, the fact that the commission got the Nobel peace prize tells us very little about its scientific qualifications. Al Gore got the prize too, and he is a politician not a scientist.

The second is that the fuzzy and emotive part of the story--"crisis" "species extinction" "devastating impact"--comes first and gets the attention. The actual prediction--an increase of less than two degrees by the end of the century, which isn't what most people imagine when they talk about global climate change--is buried down in "also predicts."

It would be an interesting experiment to ask people who have read that, or similar, stories, how much they think global temperature is predicted to rise by 2100.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Is there Serial Correlation in World of Warcraft? Should There Be?

In World of Warcraft--and, I assume, similar games--players sometimes spend time hunting creatures for the loot they drop. Fire elementals, for instance, sometimes drop motes of fire; combined in groups of ten, the motes are used in making things.

If you are hunting fire elementals, it feels as if there are times when they drop a lot of motes, others when they hardly ever drop any. It feels, in other words, as though there is a probability of a drop that changes over time, slowly enough so that if you are doing well now you will probably be doing well five minutes later, and similarly if you are doing badly. My first question is whether the pattern is real or an illusion, the second is, whether or not it is real, whether it should be--whether such a pattern would make the game more enjoyable.

The reason for suspecting that the pattern may be an illusion is that gamblers often report similar patterns--sometimes the cards or dice are hot, sometimes they are not. In those cases, we know the underlying mechanics of the game. With rare exceptions, they imply that, unless someone is cheating, the pattern is an illusion. The probability that you will roll eleven is the same each time you roll, so a string of good rolls is evidence neither that the next roll will be good nor that it will not.

In the case of World of Warcraft, we do not know the underlying mechanics, or at least I don't. It would be perfectly straightforward to design the game with a drop probability that varies over time, with enough serial correlation so that current observations give you some information about what will happen in the near future. To find out whether that is how the game is designed I could keep track of a long series of tries, then do a statistical analysis to see if the results are consistent with the simple model--a fixed probability, the same each time. So far I haven't been sufficiently enterprising to do it; I don't know if anyone else has.

The second question is whether the game should be designed with serial correlation built in. My guess is that the answer is "yes." Human beings enjoy finding patterns, exercising skills. The fact that gamblers find patterns even when they do not exist in part reflects this. So why not make the game more interesting by building into it subtle patterns of the sort that players will look for?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Another Nokia E90 Gripe

At the risk of beating a dead horse ... .
NokiaUSA currently lists the E90 and says of it:

"Get high-speed 3G mobile broadband connections for Internet browsing and file transfer"

It's true that there is a footnote saying that "Many features and mobile services require network support." But given that no network in the US supports the E90's 2100 MHz 3G connection, the initial claim is at least irresponsibly misleading.

Whether it's evidence of dishonesty or incompetence I don't know. Given that it's a very high end and expensive item, I would think the loss due to people buying it and then being annoyed, as I was, when they discover that the high speed connection cannot be made to work in the US would be larger than the gain due to people buying it because of the claim and keeping it anyway.

Choosing a College

A commenter on one of my recent posts raises the general question of how to choose a college and does not seem to have much in the way of serious answers. So I thought it might be worth discussing our approach:

1. My daughter, having been home unschooled (and perhaps for innate reasons as well), does not want to take courses that someone else has selected for her because that someone else thinks they would be good for her. One of our collections of information, put out by the Intercollegiate Studies institute (an organization I have not yet forgiven for the base cowardice of changing its name from the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists), is very useful in this regard. Its authors are in favor of a "core curriculum," so their approving comments provide a convenient way of warning my daughter away from schools with lots of requirements.

She was particularly put off by one school that has mandatory physical education. Her view was that although she could satisfy the requirement with dance, which she likes, its existence signaled a paternalistic attitude she disapproves of and will tend to attract students who like sports and/or paternalism, a negative signal for her.

2. My daughter is likely to find smarter students more interesting, so high average SAT scores are a positive signal, and the information is readily available.

3. My daughter shares my political attitudes but not my taste for arguing about them. Given that at almost any school she is interested in the orthodoxy will be far from her views, she wants someplace where she won't feel obliged to either conceal her views or spend a lot of her time defending them.

The comment by the tour guide at one school that he thinks capitalism is a good system but, so far as he could tell, he was the only member of his class with that opinion was a mild negative signal, as was the comment by another tour guide that, although she was herself politically liberal, she wished her classes were not so consistently on that side of the political spectrum. On the other hand, the comment by an econ professor at one school that he deliberately makes politically incorrect economic points in his environmental economics class (if you want there to be more trees, don't recycle paper) and that the reaction he gets is curiosity, not hostility, was a mild positive signal.

More generally, I found it informative to wander into the economics department and get into a conversation with one of the professors, both because being a fellow economist provides a link and because economists are likely to find themselves at odds with some of the political orthodoxy almost anywhere, hence to be sensitive to such issues.

4. Still more generally, I try to find links not provided by the school--independent views. We have long been active in the SCA, a group that does historical recreation and has local chapters at many schools. So, where possible, we arranged to talk with someone from the local chapter to get his or her view of the school. In one case, that led to adding a school to our list--the student running the local chapter in Northfield, which we visited to see Carleton, was a student at nearby St. Olaf's, and visiting with her gave our daughter a very attractive view of that school ("there's music everywhere"). It's now on her list.

5. Probably the most valuable information comes from casual contact with students. Most of a student's interaction is with other students, so the feel of the student environment is critical. Pretty clearly, a lot of the reason my older son enjoyed Harvey Mudd was that it was a society he fit into, where characteristics that had made him an outsider in high school made him a valued insider in college.

The main source of that information was sleepovers arranged by the colleges; our daughter met with a student--in every case a freshman--and spent the night in her dorm. That provided a chance to socialize with her hostess and her friends.

It's a good system, but a very noisy signal, since student society within a single college is likely to vary a good deal. She got a strongly positive impression of one school, where her hostess was very much her sort of person--she and her friends spent their spare time playing guitar, singing and talking. She got a negative impression at another where her hostess, although obviously a nice person trying to do her best, considered watching television the natural way of spending free time. How much of that reflected differences in the schools is hard to know.

I made some attempt to get a picture of student society myself by eating in the dining hall and listening to conversations, but it would take a lot more of that than I had an opportunity for to produce much useful information.

6. Our daughter attended classes at all the schools she visited. At most of them her impression was positive. There was one economics class where she had to refrain, out of considerations of courtesy, from contradicting the professor, which left a very mildly negative impression. He had asked for examples of goods with inelastic demand, a student has offered water, and he had agreed--presumably because it did not occur to him that drinking water, for which one would expect a very inelastic demand, represents a trivial fraction of total water consumption.

None of it adds up to a spreadsheet formula that we can use to calculate a first, second and third choice. But I think it all helps.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Civil Immunity, Blackstone and Legal Regress

I am a law professor but not a lawyer and my legal interests are more in economic analysis of the law and making sense of a variety of different legal systems than in the details of our current system, so I have a question for the actual lawyers out there, coming out of my previous post:

What limits, if any, are there to Congress cancelling tort liability after the fact?

In the criminal context, we have the constitutional ban on ex post facto legislation, but I do not believe it applies to tort and I'm not at all sure it prevents Congress from cancelling (rather than imposing) criminal liability for past acts.

All of which reminds me of a bit of legal history. In English law in the 18th century there was a legal action, still on the books although not much used in practice, called the "Appeal of Felony." It was a private action, like a tort suit, with criminal penalties. Blackstone, describing it, writes:

"IF the appellee be found guilty, he shall suffer the same judgment, as if he had been convicted by indictment : but with this remarkable difference ; that on an indictment, which is at the suit of the king, the king may pardon and remit the execution ; on an appeal, which is at the suit of a private subject, to make an atonement for the private wrong, the king can no more pardon it, than he can remit the damages recovered on an action of battery."

So it looks as though 18th century law took it for granted that the crown could not cancel liability for tort damages, at least after the case had been tried. I don't know if Parliament could. And, if I correctly understand current news stories, everyone takes it for granted that the 21st century Congress can cancel liability for tort damages, if not after judgement at least while the case is in progress.

Any comments from those who know more than I do about current law? Could one argue, along Epsteinian lines, that canceling such liability is a taking, hence barred under the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment?

Law and Order

In election campaigns, all candidates are in favor of law and order. It is therefore particularly striking to observe an elected politician--the President of the United States--publicly committing himself to veto a bill if its terms do not include a mass pardon releasing from civil liability firms that deliberately violated the law on a massive scale over a period of years.

The lawbreakers are telecom firms which apparently violated existing law by assisting the government in intercepting communications--by some accounts enormous volumes of communications, mostly from one American citizen to another--which they had no legal right to intercept.

Of course, the firms were not the only lawbreakers. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act regulated interception of communications between people outside and people inside the U.S., requiring them to have permission from the FISA court. It seems clear from what we now know that that requirement was also violated on a massive scale, by the National Security Agency acting on instructions from the Administration. Under FISA each such interception is a felony, carrying a penalty of up to ten years in jail. So is the knowing use of information obtained by such an interception--meaning that the President himself is, by his own statement of the facts, although not by the administration's view of the law, a confessed felon.

Oddly enough, while the Administration is insisting that the telecoms be let off from civil liability for breaking the law at its request, it has not, so far as I can tell by the news stories, requested immunity from criminal liability--for itself or the hundreds or thousands of its employees who, under (I think) any plausible reading of the law, are felons.

I discussed what I believe to be the reason some time back in the same context. Criminal law is controlled by governments--you can only (in the US) be prosecuted for a crime if a government prosecutor chooses to prosecute you. Hence the government itself is effectively immune from criminal law if it wants to be, subject only to the risk that some future change of government might result in prosecution for past crimes or that one government--say a state--might prosecute the agent of another. Civil law, while its cases are decided in government courts, is privately prosecuted; a private party, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, can prosecute a civil suit against the telecoms whether or not the government approves. Hence the need for special legislation to retroactively alter the law in favor of the lawbreakers.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

More on Colleges

Today we attended a local event put on by one of the schools our daughter is considering--hosted by local alumni, organized, apparently, by someone from the school's admission department, attended by potential students, their parents, and school alumni.

It was a pleasant event, but not, I think, very informative. The problem, which I discussed in an earlier entry, is that all schools, at least all of the liberal arts colleges we are looking at, make essentially the same claims. They are all warm, friendly, non-competitive places, with easily accessible faculty doing cutting edge research, populated by creative, intelligent, tolerant, diverse students.

For the most part the claims are hard to test. Listening to alumni, it's clear that they think well of the school. But the alumni who come to such events are not a random sample and, perhaps more important, most of them have no good basis of comparison. They know what their experience was at that school but not what their experience would have been at one of its competitors.

The event included a movie, produced by students, lauding the school. Two things struck me. One was the effort to show what happy non-conformists the students were. The problem, of course, is that the more the school emphasizes the importance of that, the more one suspects that their sort of nonconformity is what students are conforming to. Judging at least by the schools we saw and, more, by what they said about themselves, the real nonconformist would have been wearing suit and tie and getting his exercise playing tennis instead of ultimate frisbee.

The other thing that struck me in the movie was not, I think, intended by its producers. One of the students, explaining how wonderful the school was, described it as undefinable--"like the square root of two."

The square root of two is quite easily defined--it is that number that, multiplied by itself, equals two. The correct term is "irrational," but I don't think that's how he wanted to describe his college. The actual information conveyed by that segment was that at least one student at that college was both mathematically illiterate and mathematically pretentious, and that nobody making the movie knew enough elementary mathematics, or was paying enough attention, to do a retake with the error corrected. I don't think that was the message that the school intended to give to potential students and their parents.

"Doing Something"

Yesterday, eating dinner at our favorite Italian restaurant, we noticed something new--a sign on the table informing us that, due to a water shortage, drinking water would only be brought to the table if we asked for it. It was the second such sign I had seen recently, so I asked one of the restaurant people if it was some sort of city program. The answer was yes. She didn't go into details as to just how mandatory it was, but the restaurant had been told, I think by the city providers of water, to institute the policy.

When there is a problem, something must be done--more precisely, those deemed responsible must be seen to be doing something. What is needed is some clearly visible action. Ideally one does something that everyone will notice but that will not impose sufficient costs on any reasonably well organized group to cause political problems to those doing it. The policy I observed met those requirements. It might be a minor nuisance for the restaurant and a minor inconvenience for patrons, but nobody was seriously inconvenienced and everyone could see that the water problem was being dealt with.

Unfortunately, one requirement that such policies do not face is that they actually do anything to solve the problem. I suspect that very few restaurant owners or patrons bothered to do the arithmetic to see how important the waste being prevented was in the overall scheme of things. I would not be surprised if the people who instituted the policy didn't bother either.

The calculation is pretty simple. I don't have figures for San Jose, but a quick google produces a figure for U.S. daily water consumption of about 400 billion gallons--well over a thousand gallons a day per capita, most of it used for irrigation or cooling power plants. If we estimate, I think generously, that the average person eats at the sort of restaurant that puts filled water glasses on the table one day out of five, that half of the customers don't want the water, and that the average glass holds a cup, the policy saves about a tenth of a cup of water per capita per day, reducing total demand by about one part in 200,000.

But something is visibly being done, which is the important thing.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Subjective Status or Fooling Our Genes

When I was an undergraduate at Harvard, a very long time ago, it occurred to me that I was embedded in the ideal social system--everyone at the top of his own ladder. The small group of students who put on plays knew that they were the important people; the rest of us were there to provide an audience. The small group seriously involved in Young Republicans and Young Democrats knew that they were the important people. The rest of us were there to be persuaded to come to a meeting once a year and vote them into the offices that might be the first small stepping stones to a political career. The small group ... . The point occurred to me, as best I remember, after discovering that the foreign student with whom I had been discussing international military matters was the son of the defense minister of Pakistan. From his standpoint, in his world, he was a VIP--just like all the rest of us, which made it a society where he could comfortably fit in.

While waking up this morning, I was thinking about the current version of the same system. I am at least tangentially a part of a lot of different sub-societies. In some I am myself a VIP. In others I am a moderately important person (MIP?), either directly or through my connections with someone else who is a VIP. In others, I am an entirely unimportant person--but, of course, I don't spend much time thinking about those.

I knew there was some deep significance to all of this but was at first too sleepy to realize what it was. But it then occurred to me that, just like sex, it was an example of the brain defeating the genes.

We are designed, like all products of Darwinian evolution, for reproductive success--but, while that is the objective of our genes, it is not our objective. Sex is pleasurable, pregnancy sometimes inconvenient, so we have invented birth control and various other sorts of non-procreative sex as ways of getting what we want instead of what we are designed for.

Similarly for status. The reason humans want status is that, in the environment in which our species evolved, status--especially but not exclusively for males--led to reproductive success. Important men were more likely to get a mate, more likely to get more than one mate, more able to get the resources to keep their children alive, more likely to get their children into a position where they too would have status and its advantages.

The fact that my brother in law is one of the world's top bridge players is of no use at all for my reproductive success--but it gives me a little extra status, and the pleasure thereof, if I happen to be associating with bridge players. The fact that a major figure in the Open Source movement was familiar with my work gives me no advantage in reproductive success, but it gave me a jolt of status-pleasure when I came up to him after he gave a talk, introduced myself as "David Friedman," had him ask me if I was "David Director Friedman," and suddenly became one of the Important People in the room. It also got me invited out to a Chinese restaurant after the talk with the people who had organized it.

If, among the multitude of status markers that each of us has in each of a multitude of contexts, we chose at random, it would be merely, from the genetic standpoint, random error, a failure of our genes to properly manipulate us. But we don't. We choose to focus on those contexts where we have relatively high status, to think of them as important, remember them, judge ourselves by them. Which makes it, not random error, but a triumph of the human mind over its genetic puppet masters.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Future Imperfect: High Points

Saturday I spoke at a Foresight Institute Unconference, using material from my next book, Future Imperfect. Since the audience at their events is already familiar with a lot of odd idea about the future, I decided to focus on a few things that I thought were interesting and might be unfamiliar. Since I suspect many readers of this blog have similar backgrounds, I thought they might be interested in a very brief precis. For details, see the webbed manuscript of the book.

1. Privacy.

Public key encryption has the potential to give us a level of privacy in cyberspace greater than anything we have ever experienced in realspace. Not only would it be possible to communicate with reasonable confidence that only the intended recipient could read your messages, it would be possible, using digital signatures, to combine anonymity and reputation--have an online persona with provable online identity, but control the link between that and your realspace persona.

Surveillance technology, the combination of video cameras on poles, face recognition software, and databases, has the potential to give us a level of privacy in realspace lower than anything we have ever experienced--everything you do in public places not merely recorded but findable. Wait a few years until we can produce video cameras with the size and aerodynamic characteristics of mosquitos, and "public places" become more or less everywhere.

What if we get both? The net result depends on two questions. Can you control the interface between realspace and cyberspace--strong encryption does you no good if a video mosquito is watching you type. How important is realspace anyway? The latter question depends on a third technology--virtual reality. In the limit, nothing much of importance is happening in realspace, just bodies in storage lockers being fed nutritious glop which VR turns into sushi and chocolate, while all the real action is in (encrypted) cyberspace.

2. Should we regulate nanotech?

Some of the Foresight people, despite generally libertarian biases, think we should, given the specter of a high school kid in his basement lab destroying the world. I think we need to consider the balance between offensive and defensive technologies. If, in nanotech, offense has a huge advantage, then we're probably done for. If not, it's worth remembering that there will be lots of private demand for defense but the only people who spend really large sums on finding better ways to kill people and smash stuff are governments. So putting governments in charge of regulating nanotech has a strong feel of setting the fox to guard the henhouse.

3. Can technological progress make us worse off?

Yes. Making human society work depends on a very intricate coordination--someone has to make the inputs to make the inputs to make the inputs to what I am producing. The centralized solution to that problem works only on a small scale. The decentralized solution--markets and trade, or something similar--depends on being able to break the world up into pieces (my stuff and your stuff) such that what I do mostly affects my piece (except with your permission) and what you do mostly affects yours. Technological progress can, among other things, increase the size and scale of what individual humans can do, which might result in each person's actions having effects most of which are divided among a very large number of other people. If so, the number of solutions to the coordination problem might be reduced from one to zero.

Comments welcome. Anyone who wants to criticize the above for being only a sketch is invited to first read the longer version.

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Nokia E90: A Summary Judgement

1. The word processor is much worse than on the earlier 9300. Loading a book formatted as MSWord takes up to nine or ten minutes. And, unlike the 9300, it can only have one document loaded at a time. That makes it unusable for those of us who view a smartphone as in part a convenient way of reading books and doing minor edits.

2. The Notes application provides a substitute, since it will load a book formatted as text pretty quickly, although it also will hold only one book in memory at a time--despite the enormous amount of memory built into the phone. But it scrolls very slowly, has no "go to page" or equivalent, and you have the choice of either using it as a viewer and being unable to edit or using it as an editor, being able to edit, but having a horizontal white line between every line of text. I think the theory is that you are taking notes on lined paper.

3. It freezes fairly often. It's barely possible that I'm just pushing the wrong button--the interface is not all that intuitive--but I don't think so. In particular, as I understand it, you are always supposed to be able to use the menu button to choose among applications. Quite often, when I push it, nothing happens.

4. Currently the high speed digital connection (CDMA etc.) is 2100 MHz, which no U.S. provider supports.

5. The "US version" of the phone starts with the European rather than the American convention for representing dates; I set the date at 11/1/07 on November first, only to discover that the phone thought it was January eleventh. The convention can be changed--this is only a small problem--but it is still annoying.

I expect I would find more problems if I tried using more applications. Currently the phone is back in its box, ready to be mailed back to the seller. My sim card is back in the 9300, which is less sexy, has a narrower screen, doesn't have a lighted keyboard or a built-in GPS or a camera, but works for the things I mostly use it for.

With luck, in another few months, Nokia will announce that the phone has been adopted by a US carrier and a real US version, with a 3G connection that works in the US and Canada, is available. With more luck, by that time, either the word processor that comes with it will have been upgraded to the point where it is useful or some third party will have produced a satisfactory word processor for the phone.

At which point I may take another look at it.

Of course, by that time, third parties may have figured out a satisfactory way of putting applications--starting with a word processor--on the iPhone, linking it to an external bluetooth keyboard, and so making it into something closer to what I want.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

When is a War Not a War?

I sometimes listen to talk radio when driving. Today I heard part of an interview with a military lawyer who had been involved in litigation over Guantanamo and was discussing what would happen when (and, presumably, if) it was shut down.

In his view, some of the prisoners would be charged with crimes and tried, some would be returned to the governments whose citizens they were.

And some would be held until the war was over.

Which raises an obvious question: What does it mean for the War on Terror to be over? There is no enemy government to surrender. There is not even an enemy organization to surrender. While Al Quaeda has played a central role, we would not consider the war to be over if it shut down and was replaced by other terrorist organizations.

The problem is that the "War on Terror" is at least in part a metaphor. It is in some ways more like the War on Drugs or the War on Poverty, a project given emotional force by analogizing it to a military conflict, than it is like WW II or the Korean War.

Suppose the President declared a War on Crime--as, for all I know, some President at some point has. Is he then entitled to arrest people he claims are criminals and hold them without trial for an indefinite period of time--as prisoners of war?

The analogy is not perfect. The attack on the World Trade Center was more like an act of war than it was like a bank robbery. But it was less like an act of war than the Pearl Harbor attack was, not only because the targets were not primarily military but because the attackers were not agents of a hostile state. The War on Terror is not as metaphorical as the War on Drugs. But it fits the pattern of war as usually and literally understood poorly enough to make a policy of taking people prisoners and holding them without trial until the war is over at best problematical.

Truth x 3

A few things from different bits of my life and thoughts coming together oddly.

1. Last year, one of the students in my "Legal Issues of the 21st Century" seminar discussed in a paper the possibility that better understanding of how the mind works might produce a real lie detector, one that reliably reported whether a speaker believed that what he said was true. There is some, very slight, evidence that such a thing is on the way. What effects would it have on our society?

2. My second novel, Salamander, is a fantasy--unlike my first novel, with magic. One of the things that can be done by some mages is truthtelling. One of the faults of the novel, currently sitting at my publishers waiting to be read, is that I didn't put much thought into the question of how a society would be different if it was possible to tell when someone was (subjectively) lying.

3. Last but not least, it recently occurred to me that we have empirical evidence on the question. There have been many societies, including one of the plains Indian tribes covered in my other seminar (Legal Systems Very Different From Ours), whose members believed that an oath taken in a particular form had supernatural consequences--that perjurers would die. A residue of that belief survives in our society in the practice of testifying under oath.

By looking at a society where such beliefs were strong and nearly universal, one ought to be able to learn a good deal about what consequences reliable truth telling would have, whether in a fantasy society or our own high tech future.

Two questions for commenters:

1. What effects would you expect it to have?

2. What do we know about the effects that it actually had?