politics

Oh, this is going to be awesome.

Sharron Angle is running against Harry Reid (the Senate majority leader) this November. During the primary, she ran as a hard-line ultra-conservative, playing to the Tea Party. Once that ended, she took down her web site and replaced it with one suggesting that she's a moderate.

Reid decided to put up a copy of her old web site, on the theory that such data should be preserved and publicly available.

Now Angle is suggesting that she wants to sue Reid for copyright violation.

Yes, definitely. Suing someone to make them stop repeating what you said in the middle of a highly-publicized election is an excellent strategy for burying the story. Please, go ahead and do this. I will make popcorn.

Fallingwater, further thoughts

One interesting aspect of the structure of Fallingwater which I'm seeing much more clearly after building this model is how each level of the building has the logical structure of a "pool." The floor layouts are open and in slightly irregular shapes, with edges and patterns which mimic the flow of water; the connections between levels, both inside the building and outside (through the various paths and balconies) indicate the natural way in which water would fall from one level to another in a natural system of pools on a cliffside. The windows serve to both open up the space and let in light, and to highlight this building / water relationship. (The model designer nicely used the same brick type for the water and the windows, which really makes this vivid) The river at the bottom simply seems to be the lowest level of this stacking. The overall effect is that the house is like a permanent (but oddly well-sheltered) camp in the hills.

I think I need to get out to Mill Run sometime and see this in person.

Organic architecture

I'm spending part of this Fourth of July holiday building a Lego model of one of the great works of American architecture, Fallingwater. Building this is a fascinating process; it's from a plan worked out by a professional, and he did an excellent job of conveying a lot of Frank Lloyd Wright's key ideas in the building process. For example, one begins by building up the landscape; the point at which you begin building up the house proper is only clear in retrospect, the house grows out of the environment so seamlessly. Then you assemble a construction which is unambiguously "house;" but when you attach it to the already-laid foundation, the boundary again becomes confusing. The wall of the house could just as easily be a rock escarpment; the window, a waterfall.

It's giving me a real appreciation for FLW's work on this house. I need to walk around and look at some other houses and see how they handle the relationship of the structure to its environment; I suspect that a big part of the reason that so many suburban houses look, well, so suburban is that they have no clear relationship to it at all, and look rather like they got dropped on an otherwise empty lawn by aliens.
science

Economics thoughts

Technical rambly post.

So last night I started reading MWG on microeconomics. One of the things which struck me was their use of a rather artificial-feeling mathematical framework, with consumption being a function of prices (a vector in an L-dimensional space) and of wealth (a single real number). Various bits of math follow from the statement that consumption is homogenous of degree zero as a function of these two sets of variables, which is just the statement that prices are only meaningful relative to overall wealth.

What's a bit unnatural is the division of price and wealth into two separate variables, and the equations all reflect this. It seems a great deal more natural to merge these into an L+1-dimensional vector, with "commodity zero" being money. This is nice both mathematically (the equations are suddenly a lot more compact) and conceptually (it makes it a lot easier to think about, say, multiple kinds of money flowing around in a system) The Walras axiom then takes the form that the aggregate consumption of money over time is equal to total wealth, i.e. ultimately people spend all of their money.

But this led me to two questions which I think still need some pondering.
  1. In this context, the Walras axiom no longer seems so obvious, especially when you consider that there could be multiple "money-like" commodities in the system. What is special about money that causes people to ultimately spend all of it? In a utility model, I could see that money would be a utility-zero commodity, so if there's anything with positive value to spend it on you would probably do so. (At least, so long as all interactions are linear -- but I think that you can prove that they always are) But this non-obviousness suggests that there may be a more interesting way to phrase the axiom which ties more directly to the way that people relate to money.

  2. Once you start to treat money as Yet Another Commodity, the arbitrariness of using it as the scale for all the other variables seems significantly more obvious. Not in the moral sense, where it was pretty obvious to begin with, but simply mathematically; the choice of a preferred axis in commodity space seems almost perverse. One interesting alternative way to model things (which fits more naturally with choice models) would be to think about pairwise exchange costs rather than overall numerical costs -- i.e., to think of everything as barter, with money simply a highly fungible good. What's interesting is that this is significantly more general than numerical costs, in the same way that choice models are more general than preference models; it lets you model things such as nonfungible goods. (Money can buy time, but can't necessarily buy loyalty; on the other hand, loyalty can buy loyalty) I suspect that there are some interesting techniques possible here -- has this area been explored?
politics

Well, crap.

It looks like the US may have actually managed to do something which will change the situation in Afghanistan in the long term, not just the short term: discovered large mineral deposits.

It's going to take a while to process the potential implications of this. Afghanistan has been an isolated place, ruled by tribal warlords and resisting any lasting change from foreign invasions for the past 2,300 years, in no small part because it has so little value to a conqueror; its positional strategic value is limited by the fact that it's so damned difficult to hold and to cross, its natural resources were nil, and it had little population. People would invade it as a buffer zone (Brezhnev), or to get from one place to another (Alexander, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane) or to deal with some group causing trouble (Auckland, Lytton, Bush), but nobody ever held it for a long period of time.

But now there's an estimated $1T of resources in the ground. On the one hand, local warlords are going to want to get in on the action; but they don't have anything like the technical or logistical capability to extract resources effectively and sell them on the market. That suggests "large foreign investment," which would normally be a euphemism for large companies setting up shop and extracting whatever they can, leaving behind as little as possible... but in an area quite as heavily-armed as this one, the normal techniques of this won't work. I could imagine Western companies coming in if they were backed by a heavy mercenary force, or Chinese companies coming in backed by government troops. Western forces would be backed by governmental forces too, primarily US, assuming that the US had any sense in this -- because if there are that many resources in the area, on top of its location, this place suddenly got a great deal more strategic, and keeping it out of the wrong hands (such as China's) is an important policy goal. Russia is obviously going to want in as well, and I'll bet that they're going to use their other resources in Central Asia (e.g., their ability to secure countries where the US needs to maintain military bases to support operations in Afghanistan) in order to ensure that they get it.

Looks like it may be time for another Great Game in the area. I do wonder exactly when people realized the extent of resources available — it may shed some interesting light on the decisions people have been making over the past several years.

Fascinating medical research

Physical gender is apparently more fluid than we anticipated. New paper from NIMR: they showed that knocking out the Foxl2 gene from the ovaries of adult mice not only made the ovaries stop working as such, but they switched over and started to become testicle-like. Not actually manufacturing sperm, but they do start manufacturing male rather than female hormones.

NB that was in adult mice; apparently some of the key sex-differentiation pathways don't shut off after the basic organs are built. Which isn't entirely surprising given the existence of sex-changing fish, but still pretty damned surprising given that these are mammals.

This has some very interesting potential applications, especially for those with gender dysphoria. (Imagine being able to switch some parts over in situ rather than needing regular hormone injections?) It also really increases my curiosity about gender dysphoria; now that we're starting to get a clearer picture of the various stages involved in determining physical gender, it would be really interesting to see if anomalies in any of these stages were correlated with dysphoria later in life.
politics

Analyzing proposition 14

(Paraphrased, with some modifications, from a comment in jlassen's journal)

Prop 14 has been characterized -- I'd say mischaracterized -- as opening up the primary system, or allowing people to vote in primaries other than their own. It really does something much deeper: It replaced the primary / general election system with a general / runoff system. The round 1 election is now not a party matter, but rather a general election; the top two finishers meet in a November runoff.

My thoughts on where this will lead, quoted from the thread:
But the measure isn't about allowing non-party-members to vote in party primaries; it's a wholesale conversion of the primary / general system to a general / runoff system. It means that we no longer have a phase 1 election which has a low turnout and is dominated by party bases; an interesting open question is whether the new phase 1 election, which is the one which behaves a lot more like a many-way general election, will start to draw the same participation levels that old general elections used to pull.

It's definitely true that this will reduce the number of minor candidates; absent a cheaper primary phase, people need to run a working general election campaign in the first phase, and fewer people will do that. For candidates who are running inside a party infrastructure, that probably increases the effective power of party bosses, since their choice of which candidate to back is now being done before a primary season which could have given a seemingly minor candidate a chance to make a visible impact and garner attention. For candidates running outside of any hope of getting party backing, this just further marginalizes them, but to be honest they weren't ever going to be major players in the general election, so that's a smaller change.

So what I would expect to see now is: pre-election, there's more internal party politicking over which candidates will get party backing. The first-round elections will be dominated (as in current general elections) by people with party backing or people with sufficient independent resources to mount their own campaigns. There will be a lot more noise around these elections, and probably turnout somewhere between current primary and general numbers. In most cases we'll probably see the top two be from the two major parties, but the big exceptions will probably be when a big-money candidate comes in and challenges the party picks; those are going to be Interesting Years.

Then we'll have a "general election" which is really a runoff election. Not yet sure what those are going to look like, since we don't have much experience with those in California.

There's a Washington Post article arguing that this won't do much to moderate California politics. I think this is actually wrong; if the power of party insiders goes up at the expense of base voters, parties have an even stronger incentive to pick a candidate who has a strong chance of both making it to the runoff and then winning in a two-person general election. Candidates on either fringe will both have less ability to influence their own parties and less ability to run on their own effectively.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Honestly, I'm not sure. I've generally suspected that, in a country of this size, there are benefits to moderate governance; on the one hand this slows down reforms that I'd like, but it also slows down crazy people that I don't like, and having seen what happens when crazy people end up in broad power, I'd say that avoiding this is a reasonable tradeoff. California has a slightly different calculus than the US as a whole; the state is traditionally a testing ground for new political ideas from both left and right, and so letting crazy people from all sides run the state is... well, the status quo. That has its merits and flaws (as seen in our lovely state budgeting process) but it does give the country a good way to field-test experimental ideas on only 1/8th of its population.

On the other hand, what better place to field-test a new election system? I say we give it a run and see what happens. Cthulhu knows, this state won't be afraid to change it to something else if it doesn't work out. Or even if it does.

WisCon 34 Schedule, or, Gods! Money! Artificial Minds!

I'm going to be attending WisCon this year, and have a fairly interesting schedule -- two panels and a talk:

Defining God (Panel; Sunday, 1 - 2:15 PM, Room 634)
Moderator: P. C. Hodgell; F. J. Bergmann, Chibi-Evil, Richard S. Russell, Yonatan Zunger
Atheists are often asked, "What would it take to get you to believe in God?" The stock response is "Well, you'd need to start with a good definition, so I’d know what to look for." OK, let's get started. What sort of superpowers does it take to rise to the level of godliness? Would a really smart computer qualify? If you just had a creature who could create a whole universe, but was pathetic in many other respects, wouldn't that still be pretty godlike?

Economics of the Future (Panel; Sunday, 4 - 5:15 PM, Conference 5)
Moderator: Benjamin Rosenbaum; Fred, Christopher Davis, Gayle, Yonatan Zunger
Science fiction has posited a wide range of economic models, from total abundance to mean scarcity, from plutocracy to collectivism. What happens when goods are freely available to all? What happens when long–lasting food rations are worth killing for? Which books actually talk about economics (whether capitalist or socialist or some other sort) without handwaving it all away?

AI's: The Current Reality, the Future Possibilities (Talk; Monday, 10 - 11:15 AM, Room 629)
AIs have the possibility of being very interesting from a narrative perspective because they can be a fundamentally different kind of intelligence that nevertheless shares a world with us. The basic evolutionary pressures that drove our brains to work the way they do are completely different from those that would act on them. And indeed, the AIs that we're starting to see in the real world—from search engines that understand our intentions to cars that drive themselves—look very different from the positronic brains we once imagined. In this talk, Yonatan Zunger will discuss the ways in which AIs are developing today and various possibilities for future directions.


I think this should be a really interesting con; the panels look ripe for spirited, and intelligent, discussion, and the talk should be fun. I guarantee mention of BrainPals and of the religious tendencies of artificial intelligences. Because that's the real future of AI: theologically-minded brain implants.

ETA: Dates, times and rooms are kinda useful information. Added!