Polyprofundis: June, 2018


–“Matriarch: Queen Mary and the House of Windsory”, Anne Edwards. This lively examination of one of Great Britain’s famous modern queens at once humanizes the great lady while detailing the consequences, good and bad, of her astonishing devotion to the monarchy. She took her duty as a matriarch and symbol of continuity, power, and majesty very seriously, brooking no lapses from other members of the royal family. This is part of what made her such an effective and popular ruler. Another part was her exceptional intelligence — by all accounts she was smarter than almost everyone around her, memorizing lengthy passages of Shakespeare, taking great trouble to read literature in the original French and German, devouring volumes of Indian history and even learning basic Hindi phrases in preparation for an extended visit to British India.

This book also imparted a sense, foreign to an American such as myself, of just how important the monarchy was to the British people. The Queen’s stern countenance and unyielding steadfastness in the face of personal tragedy, world wars, and the rising tide of modernity were a source of great strength to her subjects. Edwards (the author) speculates that the Nazi bombing of Buckingham Palace during WWII was a profound tactical blunder because, in showing that even the monarchy was not immune to the catastrophes falling daily from the skies above onto the streets of London, it did more to bring the country together than almost anything else could have.

— “If Aristotle Ran General Motors”, Tom Morris. This slim volume examines business and ethics through Aristotle’s four cardinal values (Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and Unity), making a philosophical and empirical case for cultivating each in our working lives. Excellence in business, argues Morris, rests on honestly dealing with customers and workers, on feeling that our work connects to a larger purpose and stimulates us aesthetically, and in knowing that what we do in the office is a function of who we are as a person. Though it was written at the turn of the millennium the book’s tone and style reminded me of classic self-help books like James Allen’s “As a Man Thinketh”.

Good stuff.

— “The Origins of Political Order” ^ “Political Order and Political Decay”, Francis Fukuyama. This is Fukuyama’s famous two-volume look at what drives the development of progressively more complex human societies (answer: lots of stuff) and what makes some of them function better than others (answer: also lots of stuff). Though Fukuyama has a real blind spot around free-market economics, I still gained in both broad sociological perspective and in knowledge of specific historical periods.

-“The Languages of Pao”, Jack Vance. I have a real fondness for these old-school SF paperbacks, with their endearingly-cartoonish cover art and a panoply of goofy names for what is supposed to be high technology (“hammer-beams!”, “mind-blinders!”). The underlying premise is an interesting one: in the far future the descendants of humans have colonized various worlds, one of which is the titular Pao. Aeons of peace, plenty, and certain features of their language have made the Paonese into something like docile cattle, to be milked by more bellicose neighbors and slaughtered, as required.

Royal intrigue results in the young heir to the throne being taken to the Breakness world as a kind of hostage/squire. Over the years he conceives a burning desire to return to Pao as its rightful “Panarch” to bring it into modernity. This will require deposing the current ruler, as well as introducing a language-based caste system which will match features of three new languages with the requirements of brand new classes of warriors, industrialists, and intellectuals — the likes of which have never been seen on Pao.

Unforseen consequences of this scheme, as well as the competing interests of various powerful and crafty malefactors entangle our Panarch in plots which could cost him everything, including his world and his life.

Published in the 50’s, I couldn’t help but thinking that the book’s driving premise could use a modern reboot. Surely with modern linguistics, psychology, and economics much more could be done with it. Still worth the read.

“Seveneves”, Neal Stephenson. The book begins with the explosion of the moon in the skies over Terra; a few pages later it occurs to the relevant authorities that eventually the pieces are going to rain onto the Earth and kill 99.999% of everyone on it.

After that, the action picks up a little bit.

With the possible exception of Jean L’Flambeur being shot between the eyes by the All Defector in Rajaniemi’s “The Quantum Thief” I can’t recall another work of fiction that punches the reader in the nose as soon as they open the book. In classic Stephensonian style we are treated to lengthy discussions of topics like space suit pressurization, orbital mechanics, and the fluid dynamics of tears in space. But the author of “Anathem” and “The Cryptonomicon” has never give short shrift to non-technical subjects, and so we also explore everything from the interpersonal dynamics of humans living in tin cans their entire lives to the effects of social media on human attention to the long-term consequences of humans separating into genetically distinct races.

If you liked his other work you’ll like this one; if you didn’t, then we are very different people.

“The Voice of Reason”, Ayn Rand et al. Mostly I read this because I was experimenting with ways of turning PDFs into audiobooks and I had this PDF lying around. If you’ve read other collections of Objectivist essays there won’t be any surprises here, but her meditation on the absurdity of American antitrust legislation was especially solid, Peter Schwartz’s critique of early libertarianism merits consideration, and Leonard Peikoff’s poignant, illuminating reflections on his thirty-year friendship with one of the most polarizing thinkers of the twentieth century was well worth reading.

“Debunking Utopia”, Nami Sanandaji. If you read just one book on economics this year, it should probably be this one. Sanandaji — a trained Norwegian economist sympathetic to government-sponsored programs like universal healthcare — challenges the standard Leftist talking point that the Scandinavian countries are prosperous because of their enormous public sectors.

His case can mostly be boiled down thusly: make a list of all the things you like about Norway/Denmark/Finland/Sweden. With virtually no exceptions it can be shown that those positive social features either 1) predate the establishment of socialist-democratic governments by decades or centuries; 2) also mark Scandinavian immigrants to other countries, like the U.S., which completely lack such public-sector initiatives; 3) are actively eroding the cultural basis for Scandinavian success.

“The New Jim Crow”, Michelle Alexander. A sobering look at how truly terrifying the American judicial system has become and how far outside the mandates of the Constitution we’ve wandered, with the predictable, tragic destruction of countless lives. I have not yet decided how I feel about the book’s central thesis; Alexander’s view that implicit and explicit racial prejudice was the primary motive for the war on drugs and stacks the deck against poor non-whites in ways clearly meant to be discriminatory has been challenged by the left no less than the right, and for my own part I think there are noteworthy evidentiary omissions and places where she overstates her case.

Nevertheless, I found myself unable to read about ‘Operation Pipeline’ or civil asset forfeiture without a rising sense of incandescent fury on behalf of all those crushed under the bulk of a monster whose evil and stupidity will someday be described as nothing short of breathtaking.

“Antitrust: The Case For Repeal”, Dominick T. Armentano. A leading antitrust scholar draws on more than a century of data to demonstrate that, contrary to popular opinion,a combination of legal ambiguity and arbitrary enforcement makes this law little more than a means by which firms can punish successful rivals and the government can plan the economy.


WorldSys: Austrian Home Study Course, Week 27

READINGS: Various articles on patent law from Gene Callahan

1 Describe Amazon.com’s patent.

Amazon patented the idea of buying items on the internet with a single mouse click.

2 What did British Telecom announce as its patented innovation?

Hyperlinks (!)

3 Why does Callahan challenge Gleick’s statement that “[patent law] fueled industrial progress in the early United States”?

Because Gleick can’t possibly know that. He can’t go back in time, remove the legal apparatus of the patent office, and observe the effect of this maneuver on industrial progress. Admittedly this is a problem for historical, economic, and sociological hypotheses more generally, so I don’t know if Callahan has a particular reason for rejecting this line of thought in this case.

4 Why does Callahan say that patent law is not grounded in the common law?

He claims that they are a state intervention which came later and ultimately strip the rights of subsequent inventors.

If someone patents an invention a week before me and I independently invent it later, without use of the earlier inventor’s designs, I am open to legal punishments.

5 What is Gleick’s analysis of the specific case of the incentives facing Jeff Bezos?

Without a patent on 1-click ordering Bezos would’ve still invented it, seen it copied by other online distributors to the benefit of consumers, and would’ve prospered to the degree that he could continue to innovate.

6 Describe the typical attitude of Walter Mossberg concerning PC software.

That the software is far too buggy and computers should simply work at all times without issue.

7 Why does Callahan think the partnership for which he worked couldn’t possibly be accused of sacrificing the end user’s needs when it came to software quality?

Because the people who paid for and used the software were the same people — they therefore could not be mis-understanding their own interests.

8 Why was 61 percent accuracy the point at which debugging of Callahan’s program should stop?

Because, on the basis of some fairly simple accounting, that is the point at which the stock-trading program Callahan was working on would be profitable. At 61% good trades the program would be making money on average and any additional advance testing beyond that point would simply be costing the firm money.

9 Is it really true that home appliances besides computers never crash?

No, if they didn’t there wouldn’t be plumbers, dishwasher repairman, or warranties on refrigerators. And even if this were the case it would hardly be decisive — home appliances are much, much simpler than computers.

10 What alternatives do customers have to “buggy” Windows?

They have a choice between two Windows varieties, Windows 98 and Windows NT, as well as all manner of Unix distributions and the OSx family of operating systems.

11 Describe some of the proposed reforms of the software industry, and Callahan’s reaction.

A government mandate regulating how buggy software could be and implementing a licensing scheme for software engineers. The former would make developing new software too expensive for anyone except the likes of Microsoft, and the latter would drive up the costs of entering the software development field while ossifying the high salaries of anyone able to afford licensing.

WorldSys: Austrian Home Study Course, Week 26

READINGS: “Private Security” in Bob Murphy’s Chaos Theory.

1 What is anarcho-capitalism?

The most thorough possible endorsement of private property rights and free markets. Anarcho-capitalists believe that infrastructure, healthcare, police, armies, and everything else should be provided by the private sector.

2 Are all Austrians anarcho-capitalists?

Today, it definitely seems that way, but historically many prominent Austrians, including the likes of Mises and Hayek, were minarchists.

3 How could law be privately provided?

Murphy believes that insurance companies would be incentivized to finance armies in order to protect the lives and property they’re insuring because, in the event of an invasion or similarly destructive event the insurance companies would be obliged to pay out enormous sums.

4 Do anarchists believe that all humans are basically decent and law-abiding?

No. Anarchists generally seem to believe that people are decent enough to have a society without tearing it apart, but they are not committed to any silliness about the angelic qualities of human nature. This is why they spend time thinking about how the private sector could provision courts, police, and armies — because these things will still be required.

5 How are insurance companies involved in [Bob] Murphy’s proposals?

Centrally: it is insurance companies that Murphy believes will pay for armies. Just as insurance companies would be willing to pay to build earthquake shelters and earthquake-proof buildings in a seismically-active region so too would they be willing to fund defensive forces which, in the long run, will result in their having to pay out less.

6 Wouldn’t Murphy’s system basically be a State run by insurance companies?

No, as alluded to in a previous question set insurance companies simply do not face the same incentives as a state. They do not have a territorial monopoly on violence, they personally own the resources being deployed in various capacities, and they are liable for damages.

7 Give an example of experts or “authorities” from other disciplines where force is definitely not involved.

Murphy cites baseball clubs and French restaurants as examples — one needn’t be a professional athlete or have an encyclopedic knowledge of foreign cuisine to manage establishments devoted to these pursuits, provided one is willing to hire other people to identify the requisite talent.

So if I, as a private-sector general, were allowed to compete with the Pentagon for wartime strategy, the first thing I’d do is start trying to identify and hire experts in logistics, intelligence gathering, and battlefield tactics. I would also look around for a historian who could draw from a reservoir of knowledge to make comparisons between ongoing conflicts and historical ones.

8 How might social/economic pressure persuade disputants to submit to arbitration?

Conflict tends to be expensive and obnoxious. In the majority of cases we can reasonably expect people to be willing to submit to arbitration when conflicts arise because ‘going to war’ with a person — either on a national or individual level — is often simply not worth whatever is to be gained.

9 How does the Misesian calculation argument relate to military defense?

In the same way that it does anywhere else. The calculation argument essentially claims that public ownership of the means of production — factories, lumber, labor — doesn’t allow prices to work, which means that performing rational economic calculations becomes impossible.

How is a given unit of wood or steel to be put to the best use? Without price signals there simply isn’t any way to tell.

Well, this fact doesn’t change when the subject of discussion changes to defense. Every rivet in every tank, every piece of glass in every rifle scope, every hour spent training troops or sending them out on patrol is scarce, and subject to the same economic laws as all scarce goods are.

If you accept this, then you’ll see that Misesian worries over the calculation problem apply to military defense as much as to constructing roads, harvesting wheat, and performing root canals.

10 Why would insurance companies ever pay for military defense?

As discussed in several earlier questions, to reduce long-term payouts. If I’m insuring skyscrapers, bridges, tunnels, roads, and other massive infrastructure projects it damn sure makes sense for me to use some of my profits to pay for a small military able to protect these investments from foreign invaders whose bombs and guns might destroy them.

11 Why does Murphy think that private militaries should have their budgets multiplied by a certain factor before comparing them to government budgets?

Because governments pretty much never underpay for anything, and private sector investors would almost certainly get military equipment for a fraction of the cost. No one is shocked by the $38 million price tag of an F-14 Tomcat because the government’s monopoly on defense has made it impossible to determine how much such a weapon should cost.

12 If the U.S. military is second to none, doesn’t this prove that government is the best way to provide defense?

No, because said military is competing against other state-provisioned armies, not privately-provisioned ones, so at best we can say that it demonstrates that one government (ours) is better than other governments at building enormous war machines.

But the deeper question is whether or not the U.S. military could do a better job of innovating new fighter jet designs and manufacturing existing fighter jet designs than a private firm. On the evidence, I think this is unlikely.

13 Perhaps a draft is detestable for moral reasons, but doesn’t it give a society the best means to defend itself from attack?

The best means of defending from attacks is a volunteer army of willing soldiers who know for what and for whom they are fighting, backed by a robust industrial economy and the high military technology provided thereby.

14 Wouldn’t a private army take over a society?

This would be less likely if there were many competing defense agencies, and it would be a fairly rare situation for conquest to be more profitable than trade.

But I do admit to having less sympathy for the anarchist case on this point. History is replete with examples of precisely this scenario unfolding, and I’m less sanguine about that not happening in a modern anarchy.

15 Would an anarchist society need to develop nuclear weapons in order to deter invasion?

Not necessarily. Plenty of societies exist today without nuclear weapons deterring invasion, and an anarchist society might well be bleeding-edge in the private provision of nuclear defense systems.

It’s also worth remembering that anarchist countries, being poorly suited for conquest, would be harmless neighbors unlikely to provoke a preemptive invasion.

Polyprofundis: May, 2018

“Polyprofundis” is a made-up word meaning roughly “a series of profundae”. It’s just a fancy way of briefly summarizing books I’ve read. 

–“Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth”, Ludwig Von Mises. This book-length essay, published in the beginning of the 20th century, was and is among the strongest critiques of socialism ever written. Mises forcefully argues that any form of public ownership of the means of production necessarily renders economic calculation completely impossible.

–“The End of Eternity”, Isaac Asimov. Widely considered to be Asimov’s best novel, “Eternity” follows Andrew Harlan’s rise as one of the cadre responsible for standing in “Eternity”, a manufactured space outside of time, and engineering events on Earth to prevent dreadful outcomes like nuclear wars. Harlan falls in love with the mysterious Noys Lambent, who will eventually prove to be the key to a mystery stretching back through the centuries to the establishment of Eternity — and to a possible way of saving the human race.

–“The Industries of the Future”, Alec Ross. As Hilary Clinton’s secretary of innovation, mr. Ross has had a front-row view of some of the most exciting technologies in development. This fast-paced book details what he’s learned while offering speculation on the possible social and political consequences of the rise of genomics, artificial intelligence, robotics, and cryptocurrency.

–“The Children of the Sky”, Vernor Vinge. While “Children” is perfectly decent science fiction it is also the culmination of a trilogy who’s first two books (“A Fire Upon the Deep” and “A Deepness in the Sky”) are legendary, and suffers for this comparison. It isn’t that I didn’t enjoy it so much as it felt kind of tedious, with none of the galaxy-wide action that made the previous installments so breathtaking. After patiently walking us through extensive political maneuverings among two separate races stuck on a world together, the book just sort of ends without resolving the major issue that drove book one and has been lurking in the background of book three.

–“What It’s Like To Be A Dog”, Gregory Berns. For whatever reason, before Gregory Berns it never occurred to anyone to train dogs or other animals to sit still in MRI machines while performing tasks. Dr. Berns does so, and discovers all sorts of fascinating information about the inner lives of man’s best friend (along with sea lions, dolphins, and the extinct thylakine). As is indicated by the title Dr. Berns does not shy away from related questions in phenomenology and consciousness, doing a quite adequate job of making the case that similarities in brain structures imply similarity in experience.

–“The Lucifer Principle”, Howard Bloom. Like “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, Bloom’s weighty tome makes a startling claim (‘the description of human societies as superorganisms is not just metaphorical, and history is driven in large part by competition between different superorganisms) and then exhaustively adduces evidence in support of this claim. The scholarship was uneven at times, and there are profound epistemological questions implied by his thesis which are left aside, but overall an aggressively-interesting bit of work with enormous ramifications.

–“The Master Algorithm”, Pedro Domingos. Renowned machine learning expert Domingos discusses the ‘five tribes of machine learning’ and each tribes master algorithm — the symbolists with inverse deduction, the connectionists with backpropagation, the evolutionists with genetic algorithms, the bayesians with bayesian inference, and the analogizers with support vector machines. The strengths and weaknesses of each are detailed, and the book culminates with the authors own candidate for a ‘master algorithm’, ‘markov logic networks’. As engaging as it was accessible, my only complaint is Domingos’s perfunctory treatment of concerns around AI safety and his blithe dismissal of same.

–“Philosophy: Who Needs It”, Ayn Rand. I’d been putting off reading this book for a while because I assumed I’d know most of what it says. I was wrong. Featuring all of the clarity, wit, and razor-sharp analysis for which she remains famous, Rand’s book also features two delightful chapters which make the book worth reading all by themselves: an analysis of the epistemological themes of William Gibson’s dramatization of the story of Hellen Keller, “The Miracle Worker”, which is the most compelling defense of the idea that knowledge and language are grounded in percepts that I’ve ever encountered; and a unrelenting, merciless skewering of a famous B.F. Skinner book which would make Ramsey Snow uncomfortable.

–“Foundations of Western Civilization, Part II”, Robert Bucholz. This lengthy (48-lecture) treatment of Western Civilization culminates in an impassioned and beautiful plea for each of us to become worthy of Europe’s heritage by adopting, defending, and extending the tenets which made the West so magnificent.