Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Two Kinds of Minds

I'm not really sure what the idea of a Boltzmann brain is supposed to convey—I think it's about the relative likelihood of a "real world" vs. a hallucination generated by a randomly-occurring self-aware fluctuation, the logic being that if the universe lasts infinitely long, then the likelihood of the latter gets arbitrarily close to 100% or whatever.  (I really don't care to engage with the details.)

I essentially believe that if you are a Boltzmann brain, then your "world" is as real as the one we inhabit.  Or another way of putting it is, "reality" is not a function of some kind of metaphysical existence, it's a function of the reliability of information.  Water is real because I've experienced it before and I will experience it again, and it can be expected to follow certain laws at all times.  It doesn't matter whether there is really such a thing as water, or whether I'm hallucinating.  What matters is that the thing that I observe and call "water" behaves as if it is real (if it is a hallucination, it is a persistent and predictable one).  The Boltzmann brain may or may not experience anything as "real" as the water I experience, but if it does, then that water is perfectly real for the brain's purposes.

So far so good.  But what do we make of analytic truth, and the fact that reality seems to conform closely to it?  After all, these things don't have to be true in a dream.  So why would they have to be true to a Boltzmann brain?

You might say that analytic truth and certain kinds of inductive truth have to hold because they are the preconditions for rational thought.  (I understand this to be an argument that Kant made, though I haven't read his version of it.)  But again, this only seems to be true if the mind is bound by the laws of the world it observes.  That has to be the case for a brain that evolves within a world like ours, but I don't see why it has to be true of a Boltzmann brain.  Sure, the universe giving rise to the Boltzmann brain may need to obey certain physical laws, but why would the universe observed by the Boltzmann brain be bound by those laws, or any others?  Would it really remove the conditions for rational thought if there were a little "magic" in the world?

So we can divide minds into two types:  those whose perceived worlds include their own brains, and those whose perceived worlds don't.  But you don't necessarily know which type of mind you are.  Our organic brains seem to be of the first type, and in fact maybe there is a good argument that any mind that observes an orderly world with neat correspondences between observation and analytical truth must be the first type of mind.  But I haven't fully figured this out, I am just thinking it through.  One implication I wonder about is whether the singularity will mark a transition from one type of mind to another, since there is no particular reason that synthetic minds would need to be bound by the constraints imposed by our natural laws and analytical truth.  On the other hand, maybe that is a desirable feature.  On the third hand, maybe it is a computationally expensive feature that will have to be abandoned!

I've gotten to the point where I'm not sure I'm making any sense whatsoever, which means it's time to click "publish" on this blog post.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Immigration, Free Trade, and the Fruits of Civilization

A comment on free trade and liberal immigration policies.

Obviously not everyone in the U.S. is happy.[citation needed]  We are far from what you might call a good society.  (I mean, not so far, seeing as how Canada is right across the border.)  But we are doing relatively well.  More than most places in the world, our government and our society have created the preconditions for a good life.  A lot of this is path-dependent and contingent, and we don't really know why it works here, much less how to make it work elsewhere.  Or if we do, we lack the...  transmission mechanism to cultivate these institutions around the world.  We try:  Jimmy Carter goes to young democracies and certifies the fairness of their elections.  We provide reduced-cost HIV drugs.  We try to induce countries to develop the institutions that we believe deserve the credit for our own success:  democracy, free markets, rule of law, pluralism, strong civic institutions, free press, freedom of conscience.  But these things don't always take root, and it's not as though the U.S. is always so pure.  Quite often we undermine the institutions to which we pay so much lip service.

Anyway my point is that we have had very limited success "exporting" our contented way of life.  But we are quite successful at "importing" people who seem to thrive here.  Again, I don't want to exaggerate how happy immigrants are.  They are probably not much happier than the rest of us, if at all.  But many of them are quite pleased to be here, which indicates that they enjoy some of the fruits of the civilization that we have stumbled into.  There are millions, maybe billions, of people who are desperate to live in a place where human life isn't cheap, where there are decent jobs, where murders are punished.  Since we can't (or at least haven't) accomplished that there, there is a compelling case to bring them here.

So that's our humanitarian situation.  It seems that by far our most effective means of sharing the benefits of this model we have inherited is to let people in.  Trade is also reasonably effective, if it is conducted within a basically decent framework.  (Our demand for narcotics has ravaged Mexico, but our demand for, say, washing machines and avocados has probably helped a lot of Mexicans escape poverty.)

All of this is why cosmopolitan leftists are relatively unsympathetic to the native-born blue-collar workers who have borne the brunt of our liberal policies.  From a political and distributional perspective, we are essentially telling our low-skill workers:  "I hear you, but it would be racist to use restrictive policies to help you enjoy the fruits of our prosperity.  Would you like maybe some food stamps?  Also, did you know our elite colleges are mostly need-blind?"  And maybe this is morally right, in some sense, but it is an awfully bitter pill to swallow while the elites in the U.S. benefit tremendously from almost every aspect of our globalized, (classical) liberal policies.

Of course one answer is social democracy, but this is not politically realistic or sufficient.  (Or maybe a better way to put it is:  what is politically feasible is insufficient, what is sufficient is politically unfeasible.)  Anyway a thorough-going social democracy really can't afford to let that many people in, unless it is willing to discriminate against the recently-arrived.

Another answer is to "compensate" the "losers" from our policies.  But how?  And why are they deserving of more help than people who were going to be impoverished either way?  Should we prop up $70,000/year jobs in Michigan (which are being destroyed by trade/immigration) but allow people in rural Kentucky to live in squalor?  The whole thing bogs down and is basically guaranteed to be unworkable and unfair.

So we live in a world of extreme global inequality, with billions of people living under terrible conditions, and no obvious way of helping them that doesn't involve extremely distasteful distributional consequences for our own citizens.  This isn't meant to be a counsel of despair, but these are the lines my mind is following as we (maybe) confront the political consequences of our mostly well-intentioned choices.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

An Explanation for My Behavior in the Village Last Night

It is one of those clever insights of history
That Rome's mighty walls were a sign of weakness, not strength,
A display of engineering prowess
Built to assuage Roman fears of raving hordes
That in previous centuries would have been unthinkable.
A proper wall is made of men (or ships, if you are Athens)
And Rome's legions were the only walls it needed,
Until they weren't.  Then came the weakness, the walls, and the collapse.

It must seem ludicrous and off-putting
To watch someone stacking stone on stone,
Futile and awkward,
Dull and lame.
Just remember:  not everyone has legions like yours.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Investing in the Obama Era

After any official statement indicating a desire to strengthen gun regulation, people go into a gun-buying frenzy.  Presumably, as lobbying efforts go, getting liberals to talk about gun control would be relatively cheap.  Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Assignment Desk

Compare and contrast ACT UP with Black Lives Matter.

Compare and contrast the HIV epidemic in the United States with the great famine in Ireland.

(I may assign the second one to myself.)

Monday, January 04, 2016

Do You Like Websites?

In the Between Two Ferns interview of Jon Hamm, Zach Galifianakis asks, "Do you like websites?"

Why is it any less funny and weird to ask someone, "Do you like reading?" or "Do you like books?"  I'm really asking.  I guess there are plenty of people who actually don't like books, whereas a website is a medium that almost everyone uses.  Still, it seems odd.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Puns Lost

Turns out the "separated by a common currency" territory (based on "The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language") is well-trod.

Worthwhile British Initiative

Just a little note.  I recently read A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War, by Amanda Foreman.  It's okay...  I don't know enough Civil War history to judge it, but it seems well-researched.

Anyway it reminded me of one of my recurring themes, which is that the United Kingdom has been blessed by remarkably capable leadership from the Regency through modern times.  (I am not here making the claim that Britain responded appropriately to the Great Famine in Ireland, although I will note that it is said that no Irishman starved while Robert Peel was prime minister.  Call me a Peelite, I won't object.)

Again and again, Britain performed better than any individual would have done.  She stayed neutral during the American Civil War (against the wishes of the otherwise reliable William Gladstone).  With a few exceptions, she kept out of war during the second half of the 19th century.  She let Ireland go with relatively little (British) bloodshed, though of course she is to blame for Ireland's immense suffering.  She conducted the Norway Debate with remarkable candor, and then she prosecuted her fight against the Nazis with remarkable fortitude and aplomb.

It is therefore sad to see the United Kingdom and its traditional values in such dire straits.

Scotland and History

Certain countries put themselves on the right side of history and thus earn our eternal praise and gratitude.  Canada comes to mind, as does Denmark after 1848.  Germany obviously with serious qualifications, and Russia only inasmuch as it utterly destroyed the Third Reich (and gave us Tolstoy, Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, et al.).  The United States from the emancipation of the slaves through the civil rights movement, and not ignoring our contribution to the defeat of the Axis powers.  We paid in blood.  (And, again, to hammer the point home:  the Russians paid a far higher price in blood, and have therefore earned our eternal respect.  Simply utter the word "Stalingrad," and any Westerner should bow his head.)

Scotland has a deservedly stellar reputation.  Home of a disproportionate number of great philosophers.  Brewers of great beer.  (Do not be fooled by today's "Scottish ales."  Back in the day, Scottish brewers were second to none in their deployment of hops.  Anyway, even today's Scottish ales are tasty and capable of being enjoyed in great volume.)  Makers of great whisky.

And I'll add another distinction to the list.  Since the time of Gladstone, Scotland has been a steadfast supporter of enlightened, democratic, peaceful policies.  Scottish voters were the most enthusiastic Liberals, the most reliable Labour voters, the least supportive of Margaret Thatcher's adventures in the Falklands.  (That said, if Thatcher contributed to the end of the Dirty War, then she deserves our thanks.)  The least swayed by Queen Victoria's anti-Gladstone imperialistic bullshit.  (Did you know that Kaiser Wilhelm II was Victoria's grandson?  Seems surprising until you realize that he basically embodied her jingoistic horseshit.)  Sober, rational, humanistic, and tolerant.  Scotland has earned its place in history as one of the truly great nations.

It is a shame that the Scottish National Party is going to throw all that away in a quixotic and misguided quest for independence.  Show me a member of the SNP, and I'll gladly give him a Glasgow kiss.

Oh SNP

Just want to lay down a little marker:  I abhor the emergence of the Scottish National Party, and despite my affection for the Scottish people, I wish they would tell the SNP to go stuff it and return to the Labour fold (or, barring that, resume their longstanding and honorable support of Gladstonian Liberal policies, which now reside in the Labour Party, so it's much the same thing).  The Conservatives should sit on it, and must be made to do so by the voters of Scotland.

James, a Glaswegian?

Long ago I realized that Amherst College was the wrong place for me, and I should have gone to the University of Chicago for my undergraduate degree.  Very sad!

Denmark is perhaps the most James country in existence, but possibly I belong in Scotland.  As evidence I present the following (from the Wikipedia page on Glasgow) (emphasis added):

Glaswegian, otherwise known as the Glasgow patter, is a local variety of Scots.
Glaswegian is a dialect, more than an alternative pronunciation; words also change their meaning as all over in Scotland, e.g. "away" can mean "leaving" as in A'm away, an instruction to stop being a nuisance as in away wi ye, or "drunk" or "demented" as in he's away wi it. Ginger is a term for any carbonated soft drink, historically referring to ginger beer (A bottle o ginger, IPA: [ə ˈboʔl ə ˈdʒɪndʒər]). Then there are words whose meaning has no obvious relationship to that in standard English: coupon means "face", via "to punch a ticket coupon". A headbutt is known in many parts of the British Isles as a "Glasgow kiss", although this term is rarely used by Glaswegians, who say "Malkie", e.g., "ah'll Malkie ye" or "stick the heid/nut on ye".

Hong Sang-soo, Some Kind of Genius

Among the Hong Sang-soo movies that I've seen, here is a rough ranking:

1.  Oki's Movie
2.  Woman on the Beach (this is very close to Oki's Movie, I go back and forth)
3.  Woman Is the Future of Man
4.  The Day He Arrives
5.  Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors
6.  Night and Day (very close to Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors)
7.  The Power of Kangwon Province
8.  In Another Country

Toward the bottom of the list, I could probably switch the movies up pretty much on a whim.  But the top two are very clearly his best movies (at least among the ones I've seen), and Woman Is the Future of Man also has a claim to greatness.

I wish he would make a movie set in Amsterdam (or New York...  or Chicago!), and I wish he would collaborate with Lars von Trier (resulting in, one presumes, the most depressing and sexualized movie of all time).