Friday, April 26, 2013

Rat Finks - or - How the West Was Really Won

In a game of repeated Prisoner's Dilemma, you will find that the best strategy is called "Win-Stay, Lose-Shift". Oh, you are familiar with the Prisoner's Dilemma game, correct? It's a non-zero sum game. You and your partner in crime are being separately interrogated by the cops. You have two options: keep quiet, or rat out your partner. Your partner has the same options. If both keep quiet, you might do some time, or the charges might be dropped. If you rat your partner, and she keeps quiet, you walk and she rots in jail. If you keep quiet and your partner rats, she walks and you rot. If you both rat, you both rot. Simple, huh?

What gets interesting is when you repeat the play, in which case four strategies are evident.
1) Always cooperate (keep quiet)
2) Always defect (rat fink)
3) Tit for tat (Do unto your partner what they last done to you)
4) Win-stay, Lose-shift (cooperate when not ratted out, rat fink when ratted).

All very rational, correct? (Well, actually, there is one other strategy called Generous Tit for Tat, but that's not rational). Now expand it to a general population, and you end up with an interesting game in evolution. And what you find is there is, over time, no one good static solution. The population dynamics will shift from mostly cooperators, to mostly rat finks, and back and forth, but with an interesting overall Pareto distribution over time of a population of around 80% normal people and 20% assholes. I suppose, out in the real world, the temptation would be to just eliminate the assholes.

Problem is, the assholes are not the problem. It's the evolutionary niche that favors assholes that is the problem. So, how to minimize the size of that particular basin of attraction in this game of chaos theory? Well, borrowing from Sherlock Holmes, you have three avenues of attack: motive, means, and opportunity. Traditionally, government is used to limit opportunity and means. Situational parameters tend to randomize the motive, although I suppose there is some segment of the population who are just always going to be psychotic pricks about things. Which leads me to my review of Anne F. Hyde's book "Empires, Nations, and Families".

Short review? I liked it. Longer review? I believe she provides insights on two levels. One is, well, fairly obvious to anyone who can get past Piaget's Concrete Operations Stage (which pretty much rules out Conservatives and Libertarians), which is, that there's a very special place in Hell waiting for the United States of America. Anne is a bit more generous, merely qualifying certain decades as times when citizens of the United States can be portrayed as "particularly nasty".

The second level of the book is to stake down and skin that old bullshit myth about how the west was won by white people entering an empty landscape and claiming it as their own by dint of hard work and strong character. (Yeah, and lots of government assistance). She does a very good job of populating the West (from 1800 to 1860) with the people that actually lived there, a mixed bag of characters, families plying ancient trade networks. We tend to forget that the whole point of business was the fur trade, a huge money maker at the time.

Let me digress for a brief moment to talk about one major delusion on the part of libertarians, that limited government and a free market would create paradise on earth for all involved. Witness the Pacific Northwest.

In 1818 the United States and Great Britain agreed to a “joint occupancy” of the Pacific Northwest between the 42nd and 54th parallels. Joint occupancy meant that neither nation would have a government presence there, but that “the vessels, citizens, and subjects” from both nations could do business and settle there. The British took the first gamble in occupying the region, establishing Fort Vancouver north of the Columbia River. Governor George Simpson, of the Hudson’s Bay Company, good capitalist that he was, decided to strip the region of furs. The Hudson’s Bay Company quickly created a “fur desert” all the way back east to the Rockies to discourage American fur trappers.

Eventually, American settlers moved into the Oregon Territory, often, due to poor planning and lack of foresight, starving, and destitute. John Mcloughlin chief factor of Fort Vancouver, offered the American settlers food and supplies on credit.
“This policy, overly generous as it was from the perspective of the Hudson’s Bay Company, still created resentment among the immigrants. Many of the arrivals had been saved from starvation by free supplies given to them by the U.S. Army  at various forts along the Oregon Trail, and now they couldn’t understand why the Hudson’s Bay Company posts, which was, of course, British and private, would ask them to pay money for food in their time of need. Even the policy of extending credit led to the reputation of the Hudson’s Bay Company as being anti-American and tight-fisted, although the Company wasn’t doing anything that American merchants wouldn’t have done, or did do, to their own countrymen in Oregon”. p.141 Empires, Nations, and Families by Anne F. Hyde.
The point here? Mostly irony heaped upon irony. But onward...

In 1783, with the Treaty of Paris, Britain ceded all claims as far west as the Mississippi River. Why such a generous concession was made is still something of a mystery to me, and I need to look into that. 

I think it helps to look at a map of the North American continent in 1783. The Tsar of all the Russias claims Alaska and the Pacific Coast as far south as Vancouver Island. The Pacific Northwest and Canada as far east as the current province of Alberta is up for grabs. South of this, the Empire of Spain lays claim to all lands of the current lower 48 east to the Mississippi. Britain holds Canada, and a pipsqueak upstart of a nation called the United States clings to the Atlantic coast. Five million Anglo-Americans operate under a soon-to-fail-miserably-Libertarian experiment called the Articles of Confederation. In control of the interior continent are nations such as the Iroquois, Ottawa, Fox, Delaware, Miami, Shawnee, Cherokee, Chikasaw, Wichita, Comanche, Apache, Sioux, Cheyenne, Blackfoot, and Ute. 

 Anyone who wishes to engage in the highly lucrative fur trade within the continent would best serve themselves to look at the existing trade relations of Spanish and French traders - who have been metabolized by the Indians through intermarriage, family, mixed-blood relatives, networks of long established mutual trust and good fellowship. Some few Anglo-Americans understand this, and join this centuries old system. The problem is the new version of capitalism that has recently emerged with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, and the modifications of moral and ethical systems this entails. 
"native nations faced their biggest challenges in the border zones where trade brought people together and where Anglo-American settlement happened most quickly. The U. S. government, such as it was, had no control over the process of settlement or the operation of trade. The problem of white squatters and their conception of ownership of land led to chaos - chaos that government agents chose to ignore, because, in the end, the most human bureaucracies of the United States believed in white settlement at any cost." 
In short, in an unregulated business environment, business regulates government. Anyone who chooses to see this as a good thing clearly has not paid any attention whatsoever to world history. I would identify these types of people as either willfully ignorant or dangerously stupid, but entirely able to brush aside the empirical evidence of human history.

Anyone who has spent any time looking at trade recognizes that it is always subject to boundary conditions. Trade exists at the frontiers of established regions - not just geographic, but informational, cultural, what have you, as well. And where boundaries exist, boundary conditions can fluctuate, and thus all the more reason to regulate those conditions to avoid catastrophe. 

Case in point: With the Trade and Intercourse Acts of 1822, Congress gets government out of the fur trade. Congress abolished the factor system of trading posts, and instead instituted local agents to deal with individual tribes and regions. The logic in abolishing the “factory” system was to open up the fur trade to more people, allowing market competition to regulate prices for furs and Indian trade goods. The results proved disastrous for everyone involved. Congress assumed that frontier regions had a much larger governmental presence than existed, and that all participants would practice under a rule of law. This policy of self-policing worked about as well as you would expect. Well-regulated and established flows of prohibited goods, such as liquor and guns, soon became chaotic with a larger number of players increasing tensions. In addition, Natives used to receiving quality goods from Europe (such as Italian glass trade beads, Chinese silk, British tower muskets, soft, strong wool yarn and vermillion from England) were now offered shoddy American goods. Natives had no reason to trade furs, which irritated some Anglo-American traders, resulting in increase in theft and trade by force. Centuries of trade was replaced by decades of war. 

Now, a fair question to ask is, was this a result of lack of regulation or the recent arrival of the Anglo-American version of capitalism? Or was this merely a reflection of the fundamental viciousness hard-eyed business pragmatism of the collective American character? Regardless, we are aware of the consequences - whether it’s through the stain of chattel slavery imposed upon our African cousins (and some few indentured Europeans), or the genocide and ethnic cleansing carried out upon the indigenous populations, we as a nation, like Marley’s ghost, have forged a very long chain of sin indeed. 

If we are to blame the American character, we must look to Britain. But that can’t be it, because they drink tea and watch Dr. Who. 

So it must then it must be the industrial version of capitalism. Anne F. Hyde places the sea change at 1864. I can understand why. That’s the year the United States turned pro, with a modern system of governance, and an established official plan of Manifest Destiny.

I say it was 1857 when things shifted. The natives still had fighting chance up until then, but afterwards they didn't stand a chance. There were two competing two visions back East that played out on the Kansas plains: the slave empire versus the machines subsidized land and cheap imported people to work them. Underneath all that was :
“hunter versus settler, trade and negotiation versus cash on the barrelhead, shared space versus exclusive rights, racial mixing and family formation versus white supremacy”. 
We all know how that turned out. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Amish Poopsicles

Mother Jones has a good layperson's article on the role of gut bacteria in weight loss and healthy living. More than just human health here, human existence when it comes to the gut.

I'm rather pleased that I was born and raised when and where I was. Lots and lots of dirt and germs for me to be exposed to from birth onwards. Being raised in the country, or what passed for it, I never had the icky reflex when it came to Nature. And, although I have a sweet tooth, I've never liked soft drinks and have will always eat my vegetables. ( I actually don't consider dinner dinner unless there's a vegetable dish or two). I've inadvertently been keeping my gut bacteria happy, for the most part. No wonder I enjoy such good health.

A couple of things of note that caught my eye in the article. This quote here:
"If our microbiota plays a role in keeping us healthy, then how about attacking disease by treating the microbiota? After all, our community of microbes is quite plastic. New members can arrive and take up residence. Old members can get flushed out. Member ratios can shift. The human genome, meanwhile, is comparatively stiff and unresponsive".
"The human genome is comparatively stiff and unresponsive". Yup. Gonna really need the rest of the world to make that body properly. Those fundamentalist gene-centric keep forgetting that.

And "fecoprospecting", for another. There's a research effort to go outside the developed world to collect gut bacteria before our processed foods diet renders some strains extinct. So, they fan to rural Africa and Asia, the Amazon, and other areas where traditional foods are still eaten.

In some cases, doctors will, for people with very unhealthy digestive systems, perform a fecal transplant from a healthy donor. I know what you are visualizing, shoving poop up someone's butt, but instead they dilute the feces in saline solution and run a tube down your nose and esophagus and stomach to deliver it to the small intestine. I would almost prefer the butt entry.

But it makes me wonder if some future medicine show on the TV will have something like:

Doctor: "Well, we are all done here. And now, nurse, Mr. Henderson is ready for his fecal engraftment".
Nurse:   "We have several poopsicles thawed out, Doctor".
Doctor: "Excellent. What flavor poopsicle would you like, Mr. Henderson?"
Mr. Henderson: "Amish, I think".

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Narrow Escapes

"Anything I'm really good at probably isn't that hard to do" - Baby Brother

Corollary: "That's why I never give 110%".

Anyone else worried about the Singularity? (Is it that time to talk about it again? No it isn't!) I'm not worried. First off, I see no signs of us even coming close. Secondly, I'm convinced that if it does occur it will be wholly by accident, and without the need for the agency of accelerated super-intelligence.

Currently, the artificial intelligence field is dominated by weak AIs, or as I prefer to call them, Narrow AIs. Programs that perform tasks like voice recognition, or chess playing, or Jeopardy questions do not, as it turns out, require a well-rounded education or a smooth, sophisticated, urbane personality. They do not possess a generalized intelligence that we clever monkeys (perhaps foolishly) pride ourselves on possessing, which is called Strong AI, or Broad AI.

So we are faced with something of a riddle. I know that IQ points as such don't really mean much, but let's assume they do, and let's further assume that your average human possesses 100 IQ points. So, a top of the line model, like Einstein or Newton is around what 250 or so? And even then, that's a narrow IQ. Einstein may have been good at physics, but not everything. Why, I'd be willing to bet he was lousy at building garden sheds, or starting fires rubbing sticks together. In fact, the last time a human animal had to be a really generalist was probably back when we were all hunter/gatherers, back when, if a tool or a weapon broke, you had to fashion a new one from scratch. So we ourselves are to one degree or another, Narrow AIs (just without the artifice part).

So, my suspicion is even though we as a species are good at a lot of things, maybe those things aren't that hard. But then, again, and here's the riddle, we can create things that do not exist in Nature, like H-bombs and nanotechnology, synthetic biology and quantum teleportation. Are those things hard to do? If not then, what could an animal with a thousand IQ points do? A million IQ points? We can't know the answer if those IQ points are general intelligence points, but we already have a good idea if those points are narrow, if they are field specific (keeping in mind we are treating these points as meaning something).

Take Deep Blue. That program was designed with the sole purpose of beating Garry Kasparov in chess. So, hard can chess be? Well, pretty fucking hard, to beat Kasparov. (Although, it turns out, Kasparov was beaten by a bug in the program. On the very first game, Deep Blue made a move towards the end which was tactically illogical, but later analysis by Kasparov and his team revealed a deep strategic move seeing at some 20 moves ahead in the game. This revelation froze Kasparov's heart solid with fear. It screwed up his head. Only later was it found out that the move Deep Blue made was an error, a random default the program would commit if it could find no viable moves).

How about IBM's Watson? Was that program designed to make inferences and connections between categories, to understand sideways references, and engage in both vertical reasoning and lateral imagining, or to win the game of Jeopardy? And as such, IBM's Watson is only good at what you train it intensively on. And that's fine. And it's probably human, given that humans designed it.

But is it Broad AI? No.

We are increasingly entering the world of Narrow AIs. We are also, as a result going to increasingly enter the world of major catastrophes and disasters committed upon our society by Narrow AIs. And if we get through them, the question will become: If we keep having these narrow escapes, how hard can the disasters be? After all, in the Terminator movies, Skynet was defeated by roach technologies wielded by the dregs and remnants of humanity. How hard could it have been to defeat it?

And maybe, it's the really big one where we find out just how smart we are. Or not.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Chimp Mode

This may sound callous, but I've got a bet going on that 1) there is an arrest in the Boston Marathon bombing case before the weekend is out, and 2) it'll be a redneck/hillbilly/conservative/libertarian type terrorist that did it. Why? These sanctimonious control freak types love to talk about liberty, but it's liberty on their terms, for and about them, and they seem so intent upon forcing their vision of America upon the rest of us. Why can't they just stay at home and furiously masturbate over their grand vision? Save us all some trouble.

Yes, once upon a time, the hippies did that type of thing. For a brief period. But for the majority of this nation's history, it's been the right wing hillbilly rednecks that have been the greatest enemies of democracy. All you need do is read to figure that out.

In any case, long ago, when I was working on something, I would recognize when I entered into chimp mode. Chimp mode is when you start using anything within reach as a hammer - even if a hammer is available. Wrench within reach?Screwdriver within reach? Use it as a hammer. (It doesn't matter that there's a hammer right fucking there to hand).

That's one example, but you get the idea.

Suddenly, we go from being thoughtful tool managers to apes. That's when you need to take a break.

I've noticed here at the college that you cannot find one single piece of equipment or tool that ins't fucked up in some fashion. You see the same thing in grade and high school, but that's generally just vandalism. Kids are terrorized into either not touching stuff, or asking permission. Not always. THey enter chimp mode quite easily.

But it takes an adult to really fuck up something. And the thing is, they usually think they are being quite clever when they abuse a tool. They have a problem. They're too stupid to work it out properly, but they figure a workaround which solves their immediate problem, and fucks up the technology they chose to abuse to solve it.

I mean, it's even stuff like the handle a bucket has been cracked because some clever fucking chimp used it as a lever or a shim or a spacer and they've ruined what it your wildest imaginations you would never expect to possibly be fucked up. How did they do that? How did they manage to strip out a part that is internal and cannot be removed save through superhuman animal tenacity?

Seriously, it's like a god-damned monkey house around here.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

They's All Full Of Shit

Over the years, I've obviously become even more of a curmudgeon than when I was younger. That's almost a law of Nature, I think. So, in my youth, I was pretty open-minded about a lot of things, especially New Age Hippie Stuff. But over time, you find out it's about 99% horse-shit, just scams put out by charlatans to separate you from your monies.That other 1$% though? That's where the interesting stuff is, and even though I now work under the operating principle of being closed-minded until convinced otherwise, that leaves a large area open to inquiry. One thing, though, is I will always treat the theoretical explanations as suspect and contingent.

(I'll give you an example. Back in my teens, my brother and I became familiar with Wilhelm Reich's cloudbusters. At a friend's girlfriend's house, we made use of their pool and an elongated aluminum pool cleaner pole to attempt to bust up some clouds. (This was contrary to Reich's advice that a series of parallel copper tubes connected to a body of water were necessary and that one aluminum tube, according to my brother "probably wouldn't work").  That day, there was a whole herd of nice fat puffy cumulus clouds up in the an otherwise blue sky. We pointed the "device" at a cloud, and, I swear, a giant circular hole appeared in it. We next pointed the device at the edge of another cloud, and it grew towards where the tube was directed. We freaked. Since we didn't know what was causing it, and didn't know what other effects might be taking place, we left it alone. Years later, I asked my brother and my friend if they remembered what happened that day. My friend did not, but my brother did. I wondered if, since we directed the device, rather than their being any ionization laser effect or orgone, or whatever the hell it was, if it was simply observer dependent, or just a hallucination. Since we did not have access to videotape, we didn't know. But a quick search of youtube yields nothing even close to what we did. I swear, a circular hole of sky in the middle of the cloud within about sixty seconds).

So, to the point. Regarding a (really, actually) tiny kerfuffle involving two players arguing over a TED entertainment moment, my final comment was "They's all full of shit".

Which is true, but I think I owe a fuller explanation. I think the two gentlemen in question, Jerry Coyne and Rupert Sheldrake are both just entertainers pushing their own little extravaganza. And both operate under a primitive metaphysics - the former relying on materialism, the latter on mentation. Neither metaphysical explanation offers any real explanation, and few people seem to understand that.

I've nothing against showmanship. Science, going all the way back to the beginning, back when natural philosophy and sorcery were almost indistinguishable, has made use of showmanship and attention-grabbing spectacles. The first official demonstrator to the Royal Society, Robert Hooke, comes to mind. Before him, there was Cornelius van Drebbel, who chose not to disabuse his audience of dabbling in the black arts where it suited the presentation of his spectacles, most notably presented to his patron King James I. Demonstration being the keyword here. I don't really give a crap about your theoretical just-so story, because they are contingent upon prior knowledge and so often open to revision. I would instead rely upon (as has been so successful these past 300 years) repeatable demonstration. Do that for me, and I will have no choice but to pay attention. Start in on gene-centric biology or morphic fields or The Secret, and you've got to put a lot of convincing in to win me over.

So, forward to Coyne and Sheldrake. Coyne, I think, is a preformationist. He believes, along with many fundamentalist Darwinists like Richard Dawkins that that pretty much explains everything. I can't help but think that explanation is not only too pat, but fails to explain a lot of what we see. And that's fine, as long they think they can explain an RNA world, protein synthesis, epigenetic tags, and whole plethora of demonstrations that show that DNA is not entirely the software running the show. Wrong. Bad metaphor, anyway. Life is not machines or computers, certainly not a vonNeumann architecture machine or computer. True DNA is hardware, to some extent, cobbled together semi-randomly, certainly, but there's a ratchet, a strange attractor that looks like a goal-oriented process. But DNA is not software tape running the cell like some old IBM computer. DNA is the cell's books, the library. Books where it is easier to store shit than out in the hustle bustle of proteins, enzymes, and RNA.

Coyne, you and your boys have had a good run, but the buildup of strange biological facts is starting to overwhelm the old gene-centric models, and your increasingly livid protests suggest you are just not intellectually curious enough to look further. No problem there. There are plenty of non-entertainer scientists getting Nobel prizes looking at that stuff. After all, that's one of the best ways to get a Nobel prize, is to overturn existing "orthodoxy".

And no, I don't buy into the plaintive whine about scientific dogma and persecuted heretics. Which brings us to Sheldrake. Sheldrake has had thirty years to come up with a really elegant experiment proving or disproving his theory of morphogenic fields. He has come up with some interesting results, such as dogs that know masters are coming home, or that people can sense being stared at, or possibly a few valid statistical tests suggesting something like telepathy (albeit, such an awful and unreliable sense as to be practically worthless as a survival mechanism). All interesting stuff, but not a single experiment that definitively rules (pro or con) on morphogenic fields or what have you.

No, seriously. These are all very sloppy, very messy, very noisy, poorly thought out experiments he has done. (When in comparison to, say, Lavoisier's Demolishing of Phlogiston, or Michaelson and Morley's Nondetection of Luminiferous Aether, or Aspect's testing of John Bell's theorem, which destroyed utterly the prospect of Bohm's localized implicate order).

Sheldrake, baby, you've way, way too many variables to account for. Why not simplify? Put giraffe fetuses (at later and later stages of development) in a blender, and see if or when the giraffe morphic attribute ceases to produce a giraffe?

Why start with animals? You are an accomplished biochemist. Surely there are experiments involving protein chirality and abiogenesis to do. Borrow some moon dust, extract the carbon and introduce it into viruses to see if there is any in performance. Still too messy? True. After all, a size comparison of a water molecule to a small piece of viral RNA is about the same as the size of a man to the Empire State Building. Even folded proteins of enzymes are gigantic siege engines in comparison to the amino acids - the simplest building blocks for proteins - that comprise them. Organic molecules are very large and very complex. Maybe try something smaller. How about a chlorophyll vehicle for a photosynthetic Wheeler's delayed choice experiment? How about spontaneous arrangement of plasmonic metasurfaces using carbon, something that has never, as far as we know, existed before? In other words, Dr. Sheldrake, give up on the Vegas magic spectaculars, and try thinking harder for proof one way or the other.

In any case, I've hopefully constructively expanded upon my "full of shit" statement.

But I do stand by my continual sneers at TED. Ideas worth spreading according to whom. Big Ideas? Or still more of the standard technocratic engineer's quick fix of a pitch, usually an additional step to burrow even further into the situational cul-de-sac that prior fixes got us into, TED?

Well, you known how the old saying goes "Everything looks like a nail to an idiot with a hammer".

TED says: "Here you go, have a hammer."