The Power to Assign Value

Who has the power to assign value?  In a small sense, anyone can assign value to any one thing at one time by purchasing it, as the value of any thing is the amount someone is willing to pay for it.  However, we are pretty limited beyond that.  The value of that thing then becomes whatever the next person is willing to pay for it.  You can’t assign the value of every one of those things except by buying them all, and then we are back to square 1.  The purchasing power and value of your currency is also out of your control.  The market sets the price (sometimes being manipulated by big players) and the Fed sets the value of the dollar in the US.  The power to assign value is concentrated in the hands of very few people.

Sometimes, economic value deviates from what would be ideal for human well-being.  For example, factory farms are continuing to be the winning economic model and are driving out smaller, family owned farms all across the US.  The horrors of many factory farms are well-documented, but also the incentive to create a large amount of food for profit competes with the incentive to create healthy, nutritious food.  Are we always going to be slaves to what is the most economically viable?

One solution to this would be to implement a reputation economy on a local level.  This is currently possible with existing technology.  Ethereum is a blockchain platform where anyone can mint their own currency, like a Bitcoin.  The how is not important, though.  The reason it’s relevant is because one use case on this platform is building a token (or coin) to use as a reputation system where people can exchange value to one another.  You could call this the reputation economy.

Say for example, you have a pickup truck and someone on your block needs help moving.  You can loan your truck (and maybe your time and labor) to assist this person, and you are awarded reputation points that you can later use to redeem for assistance that you need.  It’s basically the a really advanced bartering system. The key takeaway from this is that this allows the community to assign value for things that differs from the existing value assigned by the market.

Back to our farming example, imagine if a community implemented a reputation system that highly valued small, sustainable farming.  The community cannot reasonably inflate the prices at the supermarket, but they could reward people who contribute food in a way that is not currently captured by our economic model.    Those farmers realistically have no chance of competing economically with factory farms.  However, within this community would be able to farm for a living and exchange their reputation points for good and services they need.  Communities could be in charge of assigning what they consider valuable and incentivize behavior that is de-incentivized by the market.  It brings us to an interesting question, what sorts of behaviors do we want to incentivize?

OJ on Race

I had a previous post where I called out OJ for not being a member of the black community.  I do not mean to attack him in any way.  He had a pretty interesting take on civil rights that really made me think.

As an up and coming star athlete, OJ decided to not participate in any way with the civil rights movement.  In fact, he actively distanced himself from it.  He did not want to be a black athlete, as he said “I just want to be OJ”.  In many ways, he did that.  After his NFL career as a star, he was the first black person to be the spokesman of a major brand and starred in national commercials.  He became a prominent actor.  He was an announcer on Monday Night Football.  He was all over the radio, TV and silver screen.  These are no small feats for any man, let alone a black man in America during the 70’s.

I obviously don’t know what OJ’s motives were, but it does make me wonder, which is the better path towards equality and acceptance, the OJ path or the path of demonstrative activism?

Rational Thought is Limiting

I wanted to share an except from the book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb because this story is hilarious and interesting:

The protagonist makes a big discovery. He remarks that a fellow named Joe Siegel, one of the most successful traders in a commodity called “green lumber,” actually thought that it was lumber painted green (rather than freshly cut lumber, called green because it had not been dried). And he made it his profession to trade the stuff! Meanwhile the narrator was into grand intellectual theories and narratives of what caused the price of commodities to move, and went bust. It is not just that the successful expert on lumber was ignorant of central matters like the designation “green.” He also knew things about lumber that nonexperts think are unimportant. People we call ignorant might not be ignorant. The fact is that predicting the order flow in lumber and the usual narrative had little to do with the details one would assume from the outside are important. People who do things in the field are not subjected to a set exam; they are selected in the most nonnarrative manner—nice arguments don’t make much difference.

Basically, lumber experts were being out-traded by a guy who had no idea what he was trading.  The takeaway is that assumptions about what are important may be wrong, and conclusions that are perfectly rational may be completely wrong, and it’s impossible to know what we don’t know.  In this way, rational thought is limiting.

Try things that don’t seem rational, check even the most basic assumptions and don’t worry too much about figuring everything out  because you are looking at the world through a keyhole.

How Trump OJ’ed the US

Bear with me on this one, because it’s kind of roundabout, but here’s a hot take for you on the US election .

Anyone who knows anything about US politics and the media knows there are many, many problems, some of which we have ranted about on this blog.  During this past election, Donald Trump hit on valid criticisms of corruption, incompetence, nepotism, and others that are impossible to argue with.  This is not really a new tactic, but what he was able to do is convince people that *he* could solve these problems or that *he* was immune to these problems.  I think he did it in the same way OJ Simpson got away with murder.

For some background: OJ Simpson was a superstar back in the 60’s but it’s easy to forget because he did not participate in any way in the Civil Rights movement.  While athletes like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Muhammed Ali (and other less famous athletes whose names you don’t know because their careers were ruined) were aligning with leaders in the black community and speaking out in favor of civil rights, OJ made the decision to stay neutral and declined to participate in politics.  After his NFL career, OJ settled in Brentwood, CA in the same neighborhood as the mayor.  He was a prominent businessman and his friends and associates were mostly white, rich businessmen in the area.  I’m not attacking OJ for this, and he actually had an interesting take on civil rights which I will write about later.  I simply want to say that OJ was a much bigger part of the white community in southern California than he was of the black community.

So, when OJ was accused of murdering his wife, the defense preyed upon the numerous instances of police brutality and injustice that had been happening in the black community of southern California at the hands of mostly black policeman and got the people and the media running wild with this idea.  He had legitimate criticisms to raise.  The LA police had a long, simmering history of violence against unarmed black people where the cops walked away with impunity.  There was a historical racial bias.  One of the cops who arrested OJ had some kind of racist history.  Thus the defense made a grand spectacle about this being another day in the predatory police state where a member the black community is getting screwed.

However, not only was OJ categorically NOT a member of the black community (the defense famously removed all the pictures in OJ’s house of him and his white friends and put up pictures of black people so he seemed more ‘black’ when the news cameras went through his house), there is a large amount of evidence that OJ murdered his wife.  OJ and his defense got everyone so emotionally fixated on legitimate issues that everyone ignored the actual evidence of a horrible crime and history of spousal abuse.

I see this apply to Trump particularly with his attacks on the media.  He called them scum, shills, traitors and other absurd names for his ‘unfair’ treatment of him.  Now, no doubt there are legitimate issues with the news media.  It is exclusively corporate owed, profit driven, sensationalist, and biased.  However, can anyone honestly say that reporting on the absurd things he said to be unfair attacks?  And can we then use those legitimate criticisms of the media and allow ourselves to throw out everything else we know about the man?  Apparently, enough of us can.  I’m just saying it’s possible for us to have a shit media and for Donald Trump to be shit as well.

 

PS Sorry for getting political.  As is tradition, I have to buy the next round

Corruption and what to do about it

I choose to define corruption broadly to mean any dishonest, unethical, or sometimes ethically neutral act by someone in a position of authority done for personal gain to the detriment of others.

 

The short version

  1. Corruption exists because everybody cheats a little bit and justifies it
  2. Our ethical choices are governed by social pressures
  3. The size of our social circle has an upper limit (Dunbar’s number)
  4. Systems relying on human trust do not scale past Dunbar’s number
  5. Trustless systems can replace current systems that rely on human trust

 

The long version

I think almost all society-level problems stem from corruption.  I’m talking about the big hitters like famine, war, poverty, and social injustice.  It’s been a problem since the beginning of human civilization and it seems like it will always be with us.  Is it human nature?  Are we doomed to be stuck with this and suffer it’s consequences forever?  If not, what do we about it?

Most cheating is done by good meaning, regular people but the aggregate fucks us massively

First, we have to expel the myth that corruption only happens because of bad people doing evil things.  Corruption exists because everybody cheats a little bit and then justifies the cheating to themselves–this is a feature of human psychology.  Ask yourself, do you think you are a good person who generally does the right things?  Next, have you lied, cheated or stolen in the past 6 months?  If you said yes to both, how do you justify this juxtaposition?

Common justifications are things like it’s so small, no one will even miss it, or I’ve worked so hard and I deserve it, or everyone else is doing it, or a million others. While some people cheat massively, they are actually in a minuscule minority and don’t actually cost us that much in total (with notable exceptions like Bernie Madoff) but what really kills us as a society is the aggregate of all the good people making small ethical failures, coupled with the fact that corruption breeds more corruption and makes it easier to justify further corruption (e.g. everyone else is doing it).  Most cheating really just boils down to a conflict of interest and you convince yourself that you are justified in acting in your own interest.  People in positions of authority are not immune to these conflicts.

Our ethical choices are mostly governed by social pressures from our peers

Think about how human social structure has been for most of history.  Civilizations is maybe 20,000 years old out of 200,00-300,000 years for anatomically modern humans.  Most of human life was characterized by small nomadic tribes and clans who enforced rules and ethical behavior through social pressure.  Social pressure is really powerful and behavior is enforced by positive and negative reinforcement and shunning, as well as your own incentive to appear of high status.  Take Slab City for example, which is basically an ad hoc hippie collective where laws and social norms one in the same.  This structure works in smallish groups but we run into problems when we try to extrapolate this organization to larger numbers.

Our social circle is limited by Dunbar’s number

Another characteristic of these tribes and clans is that they were typically smaller than 150 or so in number.  The upper limit on the size of these tribes is called Dunbar’s number.  Although the number varies from individual to individual, it is roughly the upper limit on the number of people that belong to a community and know every single person individually.  It can be rephrased as a practical limit on the size of your social circle. Other primates in captivity have an observable upper limit on group sizes as well, such that groups will splinter when individuals are added so that the group grows beyond this threshold.

Any system based on human trust does not scale well past Dunbar’s number.  You can’t really expect someone you’ve never met to act in your best interest all the time because our psychology makes it easier to justify ripping off a total stranger, especially if it’s to benefit yourself or others within your social circle.  Again, it boils down to a conflict of interest.  To extrapolate this idea, you could argue someone in the US Congress gets more pressure from other members of Congress, lobbyists, or other insiders in the “club” than he or she would to the general public because of primate psychology.

The solution is implementing decentralized, trustless systems

So you can’t trust anybody, so what do we do about it?  We replace all systems based on human based trust with trustless systems that are backed by cryptography (sometimes in tandem with reputation systems) instead of authorities.  These systems don’t rely on us making ethical choices and they can be scaled to the entire population of the world. A trustless system shifts our reliance from humans, who are imperfect moral agents, to math which is verifiably true.

We have examples of these systems in various stages of implementation already. Bitcoin is the most notable example where transactions are authorized and authenticated using public key cryptography, so that you can be sure that the transaction was initiated by the actual person who has the Bitcoin, and that they actually have the Bitcoin that they claim to have.  (You can steal somebody’s Bitcoin wallet, but that’s a different issue.)  These transactions are written to a public ledger so that you can verify that a transaction did or did not take place.  This example of taking monetary exchange and making it trustless needs to be applied to larger social systems.

A side note about centralization vs decentralization.  It seems to me that centralization was necessary 20,000 years ago and was probably the only way that humans could organize themselves effectively to create civilization as we know it.  Corruption and abuse of power is a downside, but there are obvious upsides like the ability to the build cities and social institutions that allowed us to grow scientifically, technologically and ethically.  Centralization served a necessary purpose but it’s not the optimum way to organize a population of humans of the size we have now.

Examples of trustless systems

Three fundamental systems of society that currently rely on human trust are commerce, material production, and law, and there are people working to replace these with trustless systems.  Some current examples:

1) Commerce – This one is the furthest along for current implementations with Bitcoin being a decentralized means of exchange and marketplaces like OpenBazaar acting as the platform for exchange of goods and services.

2) Decentralized production – ☭  3D printing is still in it’s infancy, but this technology has exciting possibilities.

3) Law – Polycentric legal structures allow providers of legal systems to compete and overlap and allows participants to choose their desired legal system provider in their own dealings.  Ideas around polycentric law are still being developed but we do have examples of “Startup Cities” which are special economic zones that are exempt from many local regulations and instead abide by an agreed upon legal framework that allows small companies to exist and grow without the burden and expense of being compliant with local regulations.  More info here (scroll down to Startup Cities).

A prerequisite of these 3 is decentralized communication, with some implementations existing like Bitmessage.  This is sort of bedrock for the previous 3 and allows people to be made aware of instances of corruption, abuse and fraud.

 

That’s all for now

These systems will take a long time to develop and gain adoption but it’ll be worth it.  Trustless systems are the only way we can break the cycle of corruption and engineer a more fair and more scalable society.

 

Sources:

Cheating and corruption – The Honest Truth About Dishonesty by Dan Ariely, TED Talk: 3 Myths About Corruption
Dunbar’s number and social organization and social pressure – Some bits from Ariely’s book aboveThe complex structure of hunter–gatherer social networks by Marcus J. Hamilton, et al., and my own editorializing
Decentralized society – 4 Pillars of a Decentralized Society

 

The Driving Force

It has puzzled me for quite some time, why humanity has continued. Indeed, why any form of being has continued. Existence is work, a chore. Every day some upkeep, some task to be accomplished. Be ye plant, fungi, croc, rat, or cow all that your existence entails is effort. And for what. What is the drive that leads one to consume other? Is it a fear of the unknown, an unwillingness to submit to thereof, a gamble on pleasantries? Who are you, and why do you exist? If you are a “you”, and you recognize your “self” as an individual, then what drives you on? What is the purpose? Perhaps this is why religion is so well encamped in the “non-educated” class, because they are less distracted, have more time to think, and are worried about the entrails of their ideations. They may latch on to something that gives them something. Because most choose to ignore the fundamental questions those who adhere to a rigorous definition of reality are seen to be obscene, superfluous, and otherwise down right retarded. But can you blame people for wanting to justify their own existence? Their own urge to reproduce and indeed produce, change structure, MOVE, in the first place? I suppose blame is the wrong word. I digress… What leads a tree to grow? What is the fundamental drive that seems to be ever present from the micro to the macro cosm and beyond? Answer the question of DNA, a seemingly by sapien standards unconscious code that started consciousness, and ye shall have the key to heaven (or a 16 oz gold medallion, no difference). Randomness can seem to be a justification however consciousness is a factor that entirely fucks with it. As of yet the sapien society has sought to solve (alliteration lost) this problem by ascribing consciousness to solely sapiens (got it back). Go ask John Lily about that.

I suppose the point of this non-poignant repugnant indecency is to get you thinking, “Why am I still alive?”. Playing the lottery, are you? Hoping for something pleasant and leisurely against all odds? Enjoying the view? Fearing the unkown? Listen to your gut, and try to translate. I dare you.

Non-human intelligence

If you take a History of Technology 101 course hundred of years in the future, before you get to the first intelligent robot or to the Singularity, the course will begin with pseudo-intelligent entities. I think future historians will look back and declare that the corporations and governments (and to a trivial extent, your local PTA) as the first artificially intelligent entities. It is a digital vs analog analogue, where the entities are run by manual human intelligence (analog) instead of crafting its own (digital).  Also they are similar to how a virus is (controversially) pseudo-alive.

The components of the entities are humans or collections of humans.  The psuedo-intelligence comes from trivially applying the intelligence of the components.  It cannot think on its own but instead has its part think for it.  The reason I use the qualifier ‘psuedo’ is because there is no brain and there never will be (can you imagine taking orders from a machine at your job?).  People or collections of people act as the brain and give directions to the parts, and even the parts often contribute to the directions.  Topic 2 of History of Technology 101 will be about a truly artificially intelligent entity which has a central knowledge center making decisions and actions instead of being given them (truly artificial, lul).

Incentives power the actions of the psuedo-intelligent entity.  Incentives are so powerful that they can sometimes drive humans to act in outside of the norm of human behavior.  Take the recent Comcast customer service call that was made public–essentially a ‘retention specialist’ badgers a customer who wants to cancel his service because he trying to keep him a customer.  He is trying to keep him a customer because he is paid shit hourly wages plus a bonus based on his retention numbers (anecdotally and unverified, similar companies make it all or nothing so that you get a nice bonus if you retain 80% but you get nothing if you get 79%).  The economic incentives are aligned in such a way to make this man act like a crazy person in this particular instance.  In normal and abnormal cases he is acting as an arm of the entity in an abstract sense.

Consider the Paper clip thought expirement.  Essentially, an artificially intelligent machine is given the morally neutral task of collecting paper clips.  Long story short, as it learns it goes from collecting them to manufacturing them, and onwards and upwards until it converts all the mass of the universe into paperclips.  This myopically goal-oriented machine is an overly simplified caricature of the corporation whose goal is profit, obviously.  The goal of government is not nearly as straightforward and I cannot comment without admitting political bias, so you’ll have to extrapolate on your own (I also don’t know the real answer).

You can look at the paper clip thought experiment and contrive the potential dangers of misaligned incentives.  When this is backed by state power (i.e. the monopoly on violence) in the case of government, this can create an especially dangerous situation.  However, the singularity may mean total annihilation of humanity and what’s left of the human race will be hiding in caves from our robot overlords, so any efforts reforming these pseudo-AI-entities may be better spent preventing the robot uprising.

 

[I’ll tackle what the difference would be between a post singularity AI and a human i.e. gene carrying machine, and the nature of life and existence in another post]