Archive for March, 2012

Charter Cities: Evolution and Intelligent Design

One of the most promising initiatives in Urbanism right now is the Charter Cities movement. The basic idea is that new cities can be intentionally founded with very different sets of rules than the nations in which they’re founded, allowing for greater experimentation with governance as well as fostering competition between various models of urban design and regulation.

Esther Dyson, writing at Project Syndicate, gives an excellent overview of the concept. She makes an interesting, if off-hand analogy, when she says that charter cities can benefit from intelligent design and that “sometimes, in order for evolution to do its best work, the individual components need some intelligent design.”

This is an interesting statement for a few reasons, not least of which is that the Charter City movement is fundamentally about competitive governance. Competitive governance, in turn, is largely about evolution and improving the rules under which we live. Arnold Kling, for instance, makes some excellent arguments that the best way for people to improve government and to secure real freedom, is to leave when they find conditions unsuitable. The basic argument is that if we force cities (and countries) to compete for “customers”, they’ll be more responsive to the wants and needs of their citizens and be quicker to adopt rules that work and quicker to abandon those that don’t.

The initial founding of charter cities, though, will happen initially in the absence of such competition. How would one go about determining the best rules under which to found such a city? I guess that the best way would probably be goal-driven. If you’re looking to maximize economic growth, you’ll want to select for policies that have proven economic results, like free market capitalism and free trade. If you’re looking to maximize freedom, you’ll want something like liberal democracy and English-style adversarial common law.

But of course, those are only the ground state. From there begins the interesting process of refining existing governance technologies through competition. To this end, of course, cities will need reform mechanisms baked right into the initial charter. Moreover, the reform mechanisms should make both changes and reversions easy, at least at first. One interesting prospect for rule reformation is an annealing process, whereby the city’s rules get increasingly difficult to change as time goes on. This leads to the ability to discard bad initial conditions early on, while eventually stabilizing rules and minimizing regime uncertainty, once initial kinks have been working out.

This combination that Dyson alludes to of intelligent design and evolution, is one of the best strengths of Charter Cities. They enable us to take technocratic ideas that seem promising and not only test them, but refine them in the laboratory of real human experience, and then to evolve them into workable systems for modern living. This combination of technocratic intelligent design followed by competitive evolution promises to give us some of the best environments human beings have ever enjoyed.

In closing, I wanted to point out one other interesting passage of Dyson’s essay. I’m a huge believer in Aristotle’s assertion that he polis is the natural environment of mankind. One (admittedly circumstantial) piece of evidence for this, is the incredible endurance of cities, even while larger, stronger political bodies rise and fall around them. Dyson aptly points out that cities have historically outlived their nations many times over:

Cities (and their imperfections) persist in a way that large political entities, even those of which they are a part, do not. Compare, say, Athens, Jerusalem, Vienna, Beijing, Moscow, or Istanbul, to the Roman Empire, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Imperial Russia, the Third Reich, or the Soviet Union.

Cities persist so well, in part because they are our true environment. We’re forged only abstractly by political state in which we live. It is the real, concrete day-to-day experience of our urban polity that shapes us. I can’t help but think that any movement that gives us a powerful means to improve our cities, also gives us a powerful means by which to improve ourselves.

Like Just Hearing About U2 for the First Time

A couple of weeks ago, I overhead a few of my coworkers talking about a band called Junoon. It turns out, as a true testimony to American musical hegemony, they’re one of the most popular bands in the world. But they’re not American or British, so you’d be hard-pressed to hear of them here in the States. They’re from Pakistan, and are insanely popular all over South Asia. (To put things in perspective, they have about the same number of lifetime sales as Johnny Cash.)

Here’s one of their tunes, “Meri Awaz Suno” which sounds to my ears a little bit like what would happen if Pink Floyd had been formed in Pakistan.

I can’t say it’s my thing, really. I think there are a few too many musical cues that I’m missing. But they’re obviously talented musicians and their massive success indicates that they’re obviously making music that people want.

Still, it’s interesting to find out that there’s a thirty-million-record-selling band that’s been touring the globe for two decades that I’ve just never heard about.

Jonathan Haidt and Moral Foundation Theory

Jonathan Haidt is one of the most important thinkers of our time. I feel I can offer that statement without qualifying adjectives because he was, so far as I know, the first person to appropriately combine two of the most powerful ideas of the Enlightenment: rigorous Empiricism and the Theory of Moral Sentiment.

Haidt’s creation, Moral Foundations Theory, asks an extremely important meta-ethical question: what rubrics or heuristics do we use to resolve moral questions or to make moral judgments? That, in itself, isn’t a new question. For me, the best pre-Haidt account of the sources of Ethics is Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self in which the Catholic philosopher makes a compelling case for moral frameworks based around sources of value or “hypergoods”. In other words, each of us has some set of abstract Forms in comparison to which we form all value judgments. If “Health” is a hypergood for a particular individual, then they will value highly things like exercise and clean living.1

This bears interesting resemblance to Haidt’s much more rigorous, much less philosophical work, in which he actually tries to determine empirically what our sources of value are and what mental heuristics we use to form our moral sentiments. It’s an interesting and important project, but even more interesting are the results. Haidt’s experiments (which you can learn more about and participate in at the Moral Foundations Theory Homepage) have found six primary sources for human moral values. They are:

1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]
3) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.
4) Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”
5) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
6) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

This is an interesting result in and of itself, but what’s even more striking are the differences in which various groups emphasize which moral foundations. In the political sphere, Haidt &co. found that Liberals a strong propensity to understand moral questions in terms of Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating, while conservatives showed a more balanced orientation towards all of the various moral foundations. As one might imagine, Libertarians were extremely skewed towards Liberty/Oppression. (For more on these interesting political differences, see Haidt’s excellent summary of his findings in this essay on the Moral Foundations of Occupy Wall Street.)

This, to me, is perhaps one of the most important concrete conclusion’s of Haidt’s work. Which is the main reason why I’m very excited that it is the focal point for Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. The large political divides in every Western democracy are, at least in part, differences in values. Actually, they’re much more fundamental than that, because they’re differences in moral axioms. Liberals, conservatives, libertarians, statists, anarchists, etc. often differ not only in their ideas, but in the sources of their value. Whether you call them “hypergoods” or “moral foundations”, the fact remains that one of the reasons we disagree is because when presented with the same moral question, we break out entirely different tool kits to help us resolve it.

Personally, I’m very excited about Haidt’s new book, and I look forward to hearing more of the results of his research. He’s already done an incredible service to the cause of human understanding and self-reflection, and I hope his contributions continue for many years to come.


Disclosure Notice

1 I have a theory that many modern discontents are caused by a profusion of hypergoods. Our globally connected world means that we get exposed to the extolations and value judgments of so many people that we begin to try and adopt too many hypergoods. And so we end up feeling like we have to be Healthy and Green and Wise and Civil and Religious/Areligious and Thrifty and Wealthy and Relaxed and Hard-Working and and and… This leads to huge conflicts in our judgments of value meaning that we can’t do anything without feeling at least a little bit guilty about it. Because no matter what we do, we’ll be in violation of one of the many hypergoods we’ve acquired. Interestingly enough, this ends up in practice turning into the same kind of neo-Puritans that H. L. Mencken mocked in American society a century ago.

Gibson on Wetware

The only really compelling argument I’ve heard against cybernetics (in the let’s-all-stick-circuit-boards-in-our-brain sense of the word) comes from William Gibson. The Cyberpunk luminary makes the case in an essay first printed in the June 19th, 2000 issue of Time magazine. The essay is titled, appropriately enough, “Will We Have Computer Chips In Our Heads?”

[I do not think] that we will one day, as a species, submit to the indignity of the chip. If only because the chip will almost certainly be as quaint an object as the vacuum tube or the slide rule.

From the viewpoint of bioengineering, a silicon chip is a large and rather complex shard of glass. Inserting a silicon chip into the human brain involves a certain irreducible inelegance of scale. It’s scarcely more elegant, relatively, than inserting a steam engine into the same tissue. It may be technically possible, but why should we even want to attempt such a thing?

This is, I think, basically correct. After all, there’s nothing special about silicon. What we transhuman types really want isn’t chips-in-the-brain per se, of course, but the prospect of upgradeable humanity. H+, as it’s sometimes styled. I think Gibson hits at the fundamental fact that modern silicon might very well be the wrong medium for that. I personally think the probable path forward is one that repurposes our own basic materials, whether through genetic engineering or more intricate nano-scale mechanical tinkering.

I’ve typically not been impressed with engineering arguments against direct, nerve-level human-computer interfaces and the chip-in-brain cyberpunk future they make possible. After all, engineering problems have shown themselves to fall pretty handily to human enginuity, especially in the age of modern information technologies. But the basic facts strongly indicate that using modern circuits is, itself an engineering dead-end that will need to be transcended. Circuit-boards, after all, are large, hot, and prone to failure when compared with the brain into which we might want to stick them. (Of those problems, Gibson focuses on the “large”, but I actually think that’s the least of the problems. Modern CPUs get hot enough to boil water unless equipped with sizable heatsinks and good airflow. And who wants to get brain surgery every three to five years when one of their potentially many chips burns out.)

So the problem isn’t one of engineering, then. It’s not just about finding clever ways to wire neurons up with copper leads. It’s not even about the basic problems of figuring out how to cram the chips and connections into our skulls. It’s that our current tools and materials (circuits printed in copper on silicon wafers) aren’t the right ones for the job. We might, with sufficient ingenuity, make them work, but the correct solution is to work on developing the right tools.

Of course, better yet (and the course we’re taking), is to pursue both tracks in parallel. Afterall, cyborgs already walk among us, with magnet-and-electrode ears and video camera eyes. Cybernetic limbs are also making great leaps both figuratively and literally. Of course limbs are more amenable to being improved by modern materials than are brains. In fact, they’ve gotten so good that since 2008, cyborgs are disqualified from the Olympic Games. After all, they have an unfair advantage over us regular H. Sapiens.

Welcome to the future, flesh-bags. We may never get chips in our heads, but one thing is for sure: H+ is well on its way. No matter what materials he’s made out of.

“She can chase us through the dark / activate our nerve endings”

“Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings)”, the first single off of Silversun Pickups’ forthcoming album.

I’m in love. May 8th can’t come soon enough.

Joe Strummer

(Via The Impossible Cool)

“Dangerous man with the pearly whites says to bahd dah dahditah dahdahdahdat”

I completely missed the Pomplamoose phenomenon when it ramped up in 2009. I was too busy wearing out CD players with my round-the-clock repeats of SSPU’s Swoon. So it’s been to stumble across their songs and realize that I was missing out on some great music done by some incredible talented and charismatic musicians.

Case in point:

Killer composition, awesome horn section, gorgeous vocals and lyrics. The bass lines unspeakably groovy and the sampling of the tapedeck is a stroke of genius.

And, of course, Nataly Dawn’s weapons-grade adorableness.

Killer track all around.

I also really like the VideoSongs style that Dawn and her co-conspirator Jack Conte have going for them. I love that it incorporates a bit of the elements of stage presence as well as giving little bits of transparency to what’s going on musically in the song. Perhaps this a side-effect of my own propensity to over-analyze art, but I think that having a bit of a view into how the song is actually constructed can help the listener appreciate just how great a track it is.

Plus it helps us wonks talk slightly more sensibly about which parts of the track we liked.

One more for you, here’s Pomplamoose covering Lady Gaga’s “Telephone”:

“You tricked me on shaky ground”

Marc Randazza, Recidivist Badass

So it turns out some people (who shall remain nameless and linkless) are trying to start shit with first amendment lawyer Marc Randazza of the Legal Satyricon blog. Now not only is this extremely unwise, it’s also rather unfortunate. See Marc Randazza is a true friend of liberty. He defends the first amendment with unmatched zeal, unparalleled wit, and uncompromising rhetorical badassery.

He is, to cadge a phrase from a better writer than myself, the firebreathing door-kicker of first-amendment lawyers. So go check out his blog, or better yet, checkout Ken of Popehat’s shameless (and awesome) fan-blogging.

(Seriously, if anyone reading this knows Ken, you may want to check the margins of his documents for “Ken Popehat Randazza” written in flowing cursive and adorned with hearts.)

BitCoins, Money, and Winning the Currency “Game”

I got linked to an essay by Jon Callas in which he talks about something that he claims is an amazing property of BitCoins:

Did you know that if a Bitcoin is destroyed, then the value of all the other Bitcoins goes up slightly? That’s incredible.

Now there are many properties of BitCoins that actually are incredible. The distributed generation and book-keeping system is awesome, as is the cryptographic trickery underpinning the coins themselves. On a more abstract notion, the whole idea of a pure-virtual currency is itself pretty incredible, seeing as how it seems at first intuitively impossible to satisfy the requirements of finitude and transferrability required for a medium to actually be a currency.1

But this deflationary property that Callas calls out isn’t one of BitCoin’s incredible properties. In fact it isn’t incredible at all. It’s a simple and obvious result of the fact that BitCoins are a currency. The fact that destroying a unit of currency causes deflation holds true no matter what currency you’re talking about. If I were to melt down the change in my change jar here in my desk, the value of all other American currency would rise slightly. Very very slightly. Imperceptibly so, in fact, but it would rise.2

There are a few questions around the destruction of physical currency versus BitCoins3, but Callas doesn’t actually address any of them. Rather he inducts from his observation that destroying a BitCoin causes a very small amount of deflation and proposes that there’s are a few dominant strategies to maximize the value of your BitCoins (a pursuit he gives the excellent title of “the BitCoin Game”.)

His three dominant strategies:

(1) Create more Bitcoins.
(2) Buy up more Bitcoins, with the end state of that strategy being that you’ve cornered the market.
(3) Destroy other people’s Bitcoins. The end state of that is also that you’ve cornered the market.

I submit that none of these will actually accomplish the state goal of the BitCoin game of “maximizing the value of your BitCoins”.

Wither regards to point 1, if you create more BitCoins, this will have the opposite effect that Callas (rightly) identified with destroying them. To whit, each coin you create will very slightly decrease the value of all the other BitCoins in existence, including your own. Now if you were the only person creating BitCoins, then there’s a chance that your total value of coins would increase fast enough to outpace BitCoin inflation, but since BitCoins are a distributed currency which anyone can work at creating, this seems unlikely. The much more likely scenario (and the one baked into the design of the currency) is that many people will create more BitCoins, thus distributing the effects of inflation fairly evenly. The sinking ship of BitCoin value will sink with an even keel and everyone will lose out in balanced measure.

As for 2 and 3, I’ll lump these together, both because Callas did and because Callas correctly understood that they have the same end result. Whether you buy up all the BitCoins or destroy everyone else’s BitCoins, you end up with all of them and they end up with none. Callas identifies this state with “winning the BitCoin game” and asserts that this would turn a distributed currency into a centralized currency. He’s incorrect on both counts.

First of all, if one person monopolized all BitCoins leaving everyone else with none while also destroying or buying at very low prices the coins produced by other people, then the value of BitCoins would very quickly drop to zero. The deflationary effect of destroying currency is not monotonic, and hoarding a currency that no one else values doesn’t make you rich.

You see, the fatal mistake that Callas his made is that he’s treating value as objective, when in fact all value is subjective. If I were to destroy all other US Dollars in the world except for the contents of my change jar, I wouldn’t have maximized the value of my currency. There’s probably $100 worth of coinage in there now, but if all other US currency was destroyed, then when I went to spend it, I’d have a hard time getting anyone to accept it. I’d probably find that people had stopped using dollars in favor of something more available (read: usable) and hence, more valuable. I wouldn’t have maximized the value of my currency, I would have destroyed it.

This is also why Callas’ second conclusion is incorrect. If BitCoins got “centralized” in the sense that one person horded all of them, then BitCoins wouldn’t become a centralized currency, rather they’d stop being a currency altogether. Currency, after all, is nothing but a token for deferred barter. In order for a medium to fill that role, it needs to have several properties including the ability to be transferred (circulate) and it needs to be trusted. A world in which one person destroyed any BitCoin they didn’t control would be one in which no one would trust BitCoins and so no one would use them. BitCoins would cease to be a currency altogether. Similarly, if that person just horded all the BitCoins and never used them for anything, BitCoins would be permanently unavailable and so people would abandon it in favor of other currencies that actually, you know, worked as currencies.


1 – For more on this, cf. this post.

2 – In a bizarre paradox of inefficiencies, it’s also possible that, if my change jar were to contain enough pennies and nickels, I might be able to also increase my own net worth, since the resulting plug of slag might be worth more than the face value of the coins that when into it. For more on this, cf. this video of author John Green getting hilariously worked up.

3 – E.g. the metaphysical question of what it means to “destroy” a BitCoin, since such coins are actually numerical constructs and, hence, numinal and indestructible. Of course a practical form of destruction would just be that BitCoin and all traces of it being deleted from all the computational media in the world.

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Magic Blue Smoke

House Rules:

1.) Carry out your own dead.
2.) No opium smoking in the elevators.
3.) In Competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
4.) A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place.
4a.) Penalty one stroke.
5.) Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.
6.) Keep Calm and Kill It with Fire.
7.) Spammers will be fed to the Crabipede.