In Search Of Lost Time

that which I should have done I did not do


Is life long or short? As I get older I am often amazed by how long it has been since some event happened, as long as it happened when I was an adult, and yet also amazed by how short the time span was between 2 events that happened in my childhood. How could it have been only 5 years between “Groundhog’s Day” and “Rushmore”? How could it be 20 years since “Rushmore”?? I assume this is due to a kind of compression algorithm.  Most of my life is incredibly repetitive. Every day is not exactly the same but its a few routines repeatedly endlessly with occasional differences. The differences can stand out while the repetitions get forgotten. Childhood had more changes and more milestones so more memories stick out.

For example, I know that I’ve had a lot of coffee and I can remember drinking coffee but I can’t remember very many specific instances of drinking coffee further back than a few days. The archetypal experience is retained but the thousands of individual experiences are forgotten. So, in essence the countless hours I’ve spent sipping coffee, doing work or whatever are gone. They made no lasting impression on my brain and the tens of thousands of cups of coffee that I will probably drink in the future will similarly have no effect. I will not gain any further insights into what coffee is like.
Realistically, the vast majority of the rest of my life will be taken up by a small set of mundane activities that will disappear from my mind almost instantly.

I wonder what it would feel like to have had a very long life. I’ve thought about it since reading this post on Lesswrong years ago. Would it feel much different to be 1,0000 than it feels to be 37? There would be more and more things to remember but then would the cutoff for what is worth remembering just get higher until I have no better a recollection of the past I lived through than someone could get by reading a history book?   If I spent most of my life doing the same mundane things over and over would I end up saying things like “I can’t believe Da Vinci died nearly 500 years ago. I feel like I was just talking to that guy.” If most of the memories of life have disappear into a fog, is that the poor man’s version of an infinite life?

If my life kinda sorta stretches back to infinity,  how does a dog’s life do? They are shorter lived but the repetitiveness is much greater. Can a 12 year old dog remember much of anything that happened 7 years ago? If their lives stretch back into the abyss and they have no concept of their own death are they, from their own perspective, immortal?

One way in which life is certainly not infinite is that it ends.  My life will end and there will be some things I wish I had done but did not do.  There are 2 classes of those things. One is the class of things that I could do at any time if I were willing to skip some of the comforting mundane things that I engage in nearly constantly. If I want to see the Taj Mahal I can just go. It would be expensive and upset my family, but they would get over it and I could make up for the expense by drinking a bit less coffee for awhile. If I want to have shredded abs for 1 day of my life I could just snack a bit less every day for a few months and there they would be, but it doesn’t seem to be happening.  It seems that for many of the big things that I claim to want to do, the minor conveniences and mundane activities that I actually spend my time are far more important. After all, if I went to see the Taj Mahal I would always remember that, but after a few years would my memories really be any more clear than the infinite number of images that I can find online? And sure I would feel a sense of accomplishment if I could see them abs for a minute but then that sense would fade as they did and I can’t imagine wanting to be constantly hungry to maintain them.

The other class of things that I will die not having accomplished are the things which are simply beyond my abilities. Maybe if my life really was infinite I would get to India at some point or dedicate myself to fitness for awhile, but would I ever be president? Not if other people still exist. Would I ever win an Oscar or write a bestseller? The odds don’t look good.  Even in the areas where I put a lot of effort my abilities seem to plateau at well below world class, so how could I ever achieve that level in anything where I don’t put a lot of effort? Its fatuous to think that infinite life would mean infinite major accomplishments, or even any major accomplishments.

In the limit of our effectively infinite lives do we approach 100% mundane and 0% spectacular? Is that the best we can do?

thoughts on guns

I get annoyed by the US gun control debate for a few reasons:

1. No one cares until there is a mass shooting

Mass shootings are incredibly rare.  This honest piece counts 150 mass shooting since 1966 killing a total of 1,077 people. There are around 15,000 total murders in the US annually (mostly using guns), so in >50 years mass shootings have accounted for fewer deaths than normal murdering does in a month. By talking about gun control only right after mass shootings gun control advocates come off as shameless opportunists and also manage to accomplish nothing since by the next election everyone has forgotten about the issue.

2. The core conservative argument is terrible  

At some point in every gun control debate cycle conservatives have to actually make an argument as to why they think guns are very important. Guns, they say, are the main defense against tyranny. “The 2nd Amendment makes the Other 9 Possible”  is a typical way of stating the argument. Supposedly, the wise founding fathers knew that without a well armed citizenry, the evil federal government would simply enslave the entire population. Hitler, conservatives will eagerly point out, was kinda sorta a gun control advocate.  The problem with this argument is simply that if the federal government wanted to enslave us and got the military to go along then it could do so easily. Conservatives with their AR-15s are not going to be able to stand up to a helicopter gun ship, let alone a nuclear bomb. Our defense against tyranny is that the military has no interest in enslaving us. If politicians told the pentagon to subdue the US population by force, they would say no. Our deep cultural norms cultivated over centuries protect us, not our personal armories. The world when the US was founded was very different. Then, an armed populace made some sense. We had no standing military and militaries just weren’t that big or powerful back then. It was a poor world, and militaries take a ton of resources to maintain. Total world GDP in 1800 was basically on par with current US military spending! The main threat back then was not the theoretical tyranny of the US government. It was actual hostile foreign powers, like the native american nations, or the British, who burned our capital city to the ground not much later.

3. Gun control advocates advocate nonsense

After the Las Vegas massacre they advocated banning “bump stocks” which are devices to make semi-automatic rifles act more like fully automatic rifles. The were used in Las Vegas but usually mass shooters do fine with semi-auto guns. So banning them will have little if any effect on future mass shootings (let alone future murder in general).  Since the latest mass shooting the focus has turned to re-banning “assault weapons.” Those were banned from 1994-2004 but once the ban lapsed no one much cared to reinstate it. Assault weapons are basically a cosmetic category. They don’t include the majority of semi-automatic rifles or pistols that are all about equally capable of killing lots of people in short amounts of time.

So we are in this situation where one side doesn’t want to do anything based on dumb principles, and the other just wants to do something so at best they compromise and do something completely pointless. That’s how we end up with ethanol mandates!

On an optimistic note there is this proposal to require gun owners to carry liability insurance. If implemented properly I do think this could solve a lot of problems. For non-criminals who are responsible with their guns, the liability cost would probably be minuscule. The angry young men that tend to commit crimes with guns would be completely uninsurable risks. Private insurance companies could do a much better job of discriminating against the people we want to discriminate against than the law ever could.

Trying to Justify Morality Part 1

Morality in general always seems insufficiently motivated to me. People talk about what is right and wrong all the time but usually ground it in intuition or common sense. But we know that in other domains common sense or intuition will often lead us astray so can we do better?

One problem with discussions of morality is that the alternative is often a straw man. People act as if an amoral person would be a sociopath, acting in a way that would quickly and predictably lead to their own harm. But then the dictates of actual moral codes that people advocate tend to go way beyond the minimum that people need to live in society. So let’s try to determine how a rational amoral person would act, and then see if such a person would get anything out of adding in a moral code.

Let’s imagine an amoral person named Joe. He is a male human. Just like any other animal, he has basic needs and desires that he wants to attend to. When he’s hungry he wants to eat. When he’s thirsty he wants to drink. When he has fecal urgency he wants to poop and when he’s horny he wants to have some sex.  Overall, he basically knows what gives him pleasure and what causes him pain and he’s just trying to maximize the former and minimize the latter as much as he can for the rest  of his life. What other people are up to isn’t really his concern except when it intersects or interferes with his own goals. Since he is a rational human he tries his best to foresee what will help him achieve get what he wants and avoid what he doesn’t.

Joe is confident that going to prison will be unpleasant so he obeys all the major laws. He doesn’t steal or kill or rape, even if maybe he has the urge to do these things sometimes he knows that the risk outweighs the reward.

Joe can see that having more money allows him to get more of what he wants than having less money so he gets the best paying/least annoying job he can and puts effort into it until he feels like he is reaching diminishing returns.  He also makes sure to save some of his money since he can foresee that having too little when he needs it would be a bad idea.

Since he wants to continue to feel good rather than bad and do things that he enjoys for as long as possible, Joe make sure to eat relatively healthy and exercise regularly. He doesn’t overindulge at any one time even though that feels good in the moment because he knows that it won’t feel good over the longer run. When some people tell him that eating meat is immoral or that the animals he consumes suffered in their lives he wonders why they care. Its not like they can experience the suffering of those animals, especially if they choose not to think about it.

As a human, Joe knows he is a social animal. Being alone all the time doesn’t feel good. He likes to talk to people. He likes to laugh and have discussions about movies and whatever people like to do. So he puts some effort into meeting people and being friendly. He knows that if he is too selfish with others then they won’t want to be around him and then he will feel lonely. When he has sex he puts some effort into providing pleasure to his partner so that she will want to do it again.

If one of the people that Joe knows tries to tell him how much he should care about distant strangers who are suffering for some reason or other he doesn’t feel anything about it, but he doesn’t go out of his way to appear “heartless” to that person.

For all appearances Joe is a normal, conscientious and friendly person. He doesn’t cause anyone harm. It could reasonably be supposed that if everyone was more like Joe then the world might even be a better place.

To me this is the strongest vision of what an amoral person is like. An amoral person could also be irrational or impulsive or dangerous but they don’t have to be. So, then the question is what is Joe missing? Is there anything more to life than Joe currently has and would the addition of some sort of moral code make Joe better off or worse off?  And if morality would make Joe better off, what kind of morality would it be?

I think I may have an inkling of some answers to these questions but the purpose of this post is just to set up how difficult the question really is. If you have an idea please leave it in the comments otherwise stay tuned for part 2.

Let’s Start Watching the Watchers

In my business there are laws that everything I do electronically must be recorded. Every order that gets placed into the market has to tagged with a responsible individual’s name. Every chat and email needs to be stored for years or else there are legal consequences. If these protocols are not followed its called “failure to supervise” and the management of my firm can be fined huge amounts. The only possible consequence of breaking these rules is some people might lose some money.  The FBI is responsible for people’s lives. But apparently they are just like “If you see something, say something and then maybe we’ll do something if we get around to it. Fuck you!”

I bet we never hear a word about any consequences for anyone who received this tip or should have been responsible for forwarding it on or acting on it. Just like we never heard anything about consequences for the error the Air Force made that allowed the Sutherland Springs, TX shooter to buy a gun.

Why do we allow the government to hold itself to such a lower standard than it demands of us. That is the #swamp. That is what needs to change. Its our government. We can make it do better.

Let’s Be Cops

Yesterday there was a bad mass shooting in Florida. There is evidence that law enforcement knew about the shooter well ahead of time but didn’t pursue it. As usual, there are calls for gun control but the evidence shows they are futile. Perhaps its time for a new idea on the subject of preventing violence in our society?

Here’s a question: What should the government do, in general? What is its proper function? Lots of people have different answers to that question but at the intersection of those answers tends to be that they it should maintain public order. Keep the peace. Prevent violence in our society! If you read “Better Angels of Our Nature” that is one of the big takeaways. The better the government is at preventing violence the better a society tends to function.

Given the fundamental importance of preventing violence why does the US spend so little on law enforcement? Overall we spend around $100 billion/year on law enforcement and there are a little under 1 million police officers in the US. Law enforcement consumes about  0.5% of GDP while government as a whole spends something like 36% of GDP. We spend about 7 times as much on our military than on police even though foreign enemies kill virtually no Americans (aside from soldiers we put in foreign war zones) and criminals kill about 15,000 Americans every year. There are over 22 million people employed by government at all levels in the US. So less than 5% are law enforcement.

I also read this yesterday. Men are not doing very well, relatively, in the labor market. Police officer is a highly respected, middle class and male dominated field. If we increase the demand for police, the supply is there to meet it.

Lets aim high. Lets imagine that we could get from less than 1 million police officers to say 5 million police officers. That would still only consume about 2.5% of GDP. Still well under what we spend on the military let alone on the civilian parts of the government. We could probably save that much just by increasing government efficiency. We could save way more than that if we got our healthcare spending down to levels comparable to other developed nations. The money is definitely there if we want to find it. Imagine what 5 million police officers could do. There are <100,000 public schools in the US. So, it would be trivial to have police at every school whenever children are there. Most crime happens at night anyway, so they shouldn’t be too busy during school hours. Having police at every school would have to decrease the likelihood and severity of school shootings. Every major public area could have an abundant number of police. Every crime ridden area could be absolutely blanketed with police. The costs of growing up around crime, afraid for your safety are profound.  Removing that stress from all those children would be well worth the cost in terms of greater long term productivity, lower long term crime and government dependency.

Most criminals are basically sane and rational. If you increase the chance that they will get caught by dramatically decreasing the distance to the nearest cop then they will commit less crimes. If crime visibly works less well then fewer people will decide to pursue it.  The idea is not to round up all the bad guys, it’s to convince them to stop being bad. This would also have the effect of helping with the problem of mass incarceration over the long run. The less the police have control over an area  the more criminality there is going to be and the more it will have to be punished. If criminals simply lay down their arms knowing that continuing makes no sense, then they don’t need to be arrested.





The Root Of Knowledge

Imagine you are faced with some kind of system that is too complex to be understood reductively and that you have some sort of goal you want to achieve. All you can do is try to interact with the system via some set of strategies, see which ones seem to kinda work and which ones don’t at all, then discard the ones that don’t and tweak the ones that do to make them work better.

If you are nature then your strategies are living organisms and the process is called natural selection.

If your goal is knowledge then your strategies are called hypotheses and this is called the scientific method or bayesian inference or induction. They are all the same thing.

If you are an economy then the strategies are called businesses and the process is the “invisible hand” of the market pushing resources towards more efficient businesses with better products. The result is innovation and growth.

This process happens in our brain. Neural connections that are used are strengthened while those that are not are broken.

A normal person trying to just get something done will probably call this process trial and error. It is the source of all knowledge and all progress. How efficiently and effectively you use it as an individual will determine your success in life. How efficiently and effectively your society uses it will determine its wealth and success. The goal of all social policy should be to promote this process and anything which interferes should be stripped away.

The Parable of the Altruist God

Once there was a minor god. She didn’t have all the powers of God but she had a few tricks up her sleeve and one day she was given a planet to look after. It was a beautiful little world teeming with life. Since she was but a young god she was given a planet of plants to start. From a distance the world was an Eden but as the god looked closer she was dismayed with what she found. When she looked close she did not see a paradise, she saw a war.  She saw tall trees fanning out large leaves to take all the sunlight while small bushes, ferns and grasses withered and suffered below trying to find small pockets of light for nourishment. Every day while some plants flourished and grew others were dying of starvation or thirst. The suffering of the young was greatest. The vast majority of baby plants died before they reached maturity.

Seeing all this suffering and inequality, the god knew she must act. She did not have the ability to make nutrients out of nothing, but she was able to reallocate. She said to herself, “Those that have much should give to those who have less. Surely that will be more just and would increase total utility.”  So the god put a spell on the planet such that every living thing that had an excess of nutrients would have some of them magically transferred to those that were the most in need. Then she sat back to watch her little planet thrive and flourish.

Immediately the young saplings that were dying in the shade started to perk up and grow. The great trees gathered the sunlight but it was now distributed to all. Without excess energy they could grow no further but that was just a wasteful competition. Now so many more plants could live.

All the plants continued to age and die as was their nature. The god could not prevent that and even if she could, it was important to make room for the new on her little world. Since no trees could gather enough excess energy to reach great heights the tall forests of the planet were gradually replaced by a vast grassland. This was good, the god thought, since millions of little blades of grass could live in the sun that was once hogged by one great tree.

As millennia passed and the plants lived their lives the blades of grass that dominated the world grew thinner and thinner. For each little blade the work of growing their one leaf to capture as much sunlight as possible did not make much sense. If they could not support themselves then other blades with wider leaves would support them. They could spend their energy making more seeds since their offspring would also be aided by whatever grass still generated more energy than it absolutely needed to survive. Finally, grasses started to evolve that produced no leaves at all. Relying on the now ancient spell to provide them with enough nutrients to survive they simply put all their energy into growing more seeds.

While the total number of lives on the planet continued to increase the total energy captured from the sun declined.

When the end came it was swift. Suddenly, there was simply not enough energy left to support the lives of most of the plants. The spell worked furiously to transfer what energy that was available to those who were closest to starvation but it was only able to extend their starvation by mere seconds. The few remaining plants that could feed from the sun had to starve to support the multitudes that could not. In one final gasp the planet died as the last calorie was consumed faster than the next could be produced.

The little demon looked at her dead planet and said “There, now all is just. All is equal” and moved on.