A Joke cartoon about kings and corruption

[ 10/June/22 Joke cartoon about kings and corruption]

Applies to many of the kings of economics, politics, Wall St, military, industry, universities, and most institutions.

We need effective mechanisms to identify and remove cheating strategies at every level of complexity and organization; and we need the will and the duty to implement them.

All that is keeping society together is the fact that most people in these systems are generally of good character, and do find ways around the worst of the systems they are forced to work within.

We need to reformulate systems, with a clear hierarchy of values, starting with individual life, then individual liberty; and we need to recognize that any and all rights and freedoms necessarily generate responsibilities if they are to be survivable long term. Most people do seem to sense that, but our systems lag far behind in terms of complexity appropriate to scale.

Hard rules are never appropriate to truly complex systems; as boundaries always need to be sensitive to context, and contexts are always changing, evolving, emerging.

The biases necessarily with the human brain to prefer simplicity over complexity need to be recognized for what they are, necessary for growth, but in adulthood inadequate to deal with the real complexities actually present.

Over simplifying is every bit as dangerous as over complexity. And there must always be elements of art and luck and uncertainty in finding a survivable balance in those considerations; which is one reason why diversity (many different approaches to the same problem at the same time) is so important to survival.

Any real expression of liberty results in diversity. Any diversity that is not an unreasonable threat to existence must be accepted and respected. Those are necessary conditions for safely searching the unknown and the unexplored when one is actually dealing with complexity and uncertainty. The unknown holds both threats an opportunities. And while ignorance of threats may feel safe, it isn’t actually safe. In order to be able to mitigate threats, we must have some reasonable degree of understanding of them (recurs that to every level you are capable of).

Competition is only survivable if it is built on a fundamentally cooperative base that does actually respect and support diversity (all levels, all classes, all instances of agency).

That is about as far from simple as it is possible to get, and it does seem, beyond any shadow of remaining reasonable doubt, to be where we are. If we fail to accept and respect it, then the human experiment seems likely to end. Contrary to that thought, it does seem more likely than not that most people can actually accept and respect it to some useful level of approximation. So the outlook is generally optimistic, if far from certain.

[followed by Michael Ward “You seem fairly dogmatic about how to “improve” society”…]

Gravity is “dogmatic” in that sense, yes.

There is a very old saying, reality to be commanded must first be obeyed.

If our conceptions of how reality work are not aligned with how it actually works, then our systems based on those conceptions will fail – no logical escape from that, not in any form of logic.

So I am rather insistent (rather than dogmatic – I do not classify myself as dogmatic, because I make a great deal of effort to always be open to evidence, which is the opposite of dogma), that the simple notion many have of evolution being all about competition could not be more wrong if it tried.

The reality is deeply more complex.

Yes, certainly, there are always aspects of competition present in evolutionary systems, but if you actually look closely at the evolution of complexity, it is necessarily the case that all new levels of complexity are based in cooperation, and any level of competition that breaks that cooperative base destroys that entire level of complexity.

So in terms of complex systems, (and we currently know of nothing more complex than human individuals in human society), it is (to a reasonable first order approximation) true to say that survival is based in cooperation.

That is contrary to current political and economic dogma (and there is no shortage of real dogma in both economics and politics).

So I can be both persistent and insistent on this issue. Keeping it as simple as I possibly can, and at the same time being explicitly clear that it is actually a very long way from simple.

The human bias to prefer simplicity is understandable at multiple levels, and it has definite limits on its utility. Past a certain point, it does actually impose existential level risk.

We are actually at one of those points in history – right now!

We do not have decades, we may have a few years; but the situation is urgent, and fundamentally uncertain in ways that defy accurate prediction – a bit like earthquakes.

And the 7.8 earthquake here in Kaikoura 5 years ago is a good example. Most people thought – it’s unpredictable, don’t worry. I thought, it is certain that it will occur, but unpredictable as to when, so I prepared fully immediately. As a result I was the only person in town fully prepared for it, with alternative power, water and sewerage systems ready to go and food reserves for 4 months on hand (and all functional within 8 hours of the quake hitting).

So I get I am unusual.

I get that I am a math geek who actually understands probability intuitively, in a way that lets me do simple first order approximations to most things about as fast as I can read them. And I have been in the habit of doing that for all numbers I read for 60 years – actually checking that the math is somewhere near what is claimed – and it often isn’t – often it is orders of magnitude out.

Insistent – yeah – I’ll own that.

Persistent – yeah – I’ll own that too, would have succumbed to cancer over a decade ago if I was not.

Dogmatic – no – doesn’t really fit. I constantly question everything, dogma doesn’t do that!

[followed by]

If you want an example of dogma, then that quote from Thatcher is a perfect example.

The level of ignorance embodied in that is profound.

The risk from that ignorance existential.

Society exists at multiple levels.
It is responsible for way over 90% of the technology we enjoy – including all of this technology that allows us to communicate in this fashion.

Complexity in evolutionary systems is a recursive set of functions that can be usefully conceived of in many different ways (like the blind men and the elephant myth).

In part life is the embodiment of random search across domain spaces.

In part it is recursive levels of cooperation.

In part it is new levels of creativity and freedom. (And every new level of freedom necessarily comes with new sets of constraints if it is to survive.)

[followed by]

Hi Michael,

I really don’t understand your statement:
“If you know what you’re looking for, inquiry is unnecessary. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, inquiry is impossible. Therefore, inquiry is either unnecessary or impossible. People see only what they can.”

That is clearly overly simplistic nonsense.

For me, life only makes sense (at every level, from the atomic on upwards), as the embodiment of random search within sets of constraints.

Enquiry is a thing in itself.

One can posit the question: what is this? And start a potentially infinite process of enquiry, allocating such time as one can when one can.

If one has a reasonably enquiring mind, one gathers a large class of such questions, and one keeps on “time slicing” between the needs of the now, and the depths of enquiry.

That has been my existence – some 18 hours a day for 60 some years.

I have nothing certain.

I have rejected all dogma that most accept as True.

I have sets of probabilities; thresholds of accuracy and confidence and evidence, that allow me to operate on a daily basis, and everything is open to question with sufficiently strong evidence.

Why would anyone think “enquiry is impossible” if you don’t know what you are looking for?

I simply have no idea how anyone could imagine such a thing.

If you know nothing of life outside your house, then open the door, put one foot after the other, open your eyes, and you are in the process of enquiry. You are searching the unknown, the unexplored.

This planet is a big ball, lots of space for search at many different scales. The solar system is larger, the galaxy larger still, then a whole universe of galaxies.

The universe of conceptual and logical systems is larger still. The possible ways of interpreting reality exceed the size of reality by infinity. (Ockham’s razor is an essential tool to avoid an infinite {and easily available} set of halting problems, but it does not solve all halting problems, infinite classes of more complex variants exist.)

If one actually starts seriously exploring mathematics, then the space of all possible logics, then the space of all possible computational systems, and one actually puts some substantial effort into exploring biology, from the sub-atomic scale up to our scale, then one looks at the evolution of systems and complexity, then the evolution of social systems and understanding itself; then it is a space of search recursively embodied.

The quote above is just simplistic nonsense – words without meaning.

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Using fire to kill weeds

Using fire to clear weeds from pasture

[ 9/June/22 ]

CO2 is a chemical residue we have some concern about at present.

And the assumption that CH4 + O2 leaves only CO2 and H2O assumes perfect combustion.

Combustion in air is never perfect – all sorts of nitrous species formed, as well as other odd things at low concentrations.

The point of the flame is to heat the ground – so it will be in direct contact with biological material and soil. The chemical species that will form from that interaction would fill several good sized books, but most of them will be at very low levels, and unlikely to be fatal to anyone.

But the idea that flames burning in air directed towards soil and organic matter leaves no residue is not valid. Certainly, probably orders of magnitude less residue than using pesticides, but still a very long way from zero.

[followed by]

CO2 is a constituent of the atmosphere that is going up, and causing heating effects.

Yes, plants can turn it into carbohydrates given an energy source, and we have been releasing it in fossilized form for many years, and it is in this increasing concentration fundamentally altering the chemistry and thermodynamics of the atmosphere, and the chemistry of the oceans and hydrological systems, far faster than is normal in the geological record, and that is having an impact on the living systems.

Yes we fart methane, and it comes out of swamps, and was always part of the natural systems, and the balances of such things typically changes slowly in geological time, allowing life to slowly adapt through small random mutations in genetic variation. We are changing things too fast for that mechanism to cope.

I am not hyperbolizing.

I am simply saying that everything is complex.

That we over simplify it at our peril.

It is very likely the case that burning the ground is better than using persistent polycyclic pesticides; but without taking a very detailed look at exactly what is going on in the specific chemistries of the specific systems under consideration; I would not be confident of making an absolute assertion to that.

Life really is complex. Biochemistry is deeply complex. It has been a passionate interest of mine for over 50 years, and is something I know a little bit about (several orders of magnitude more than most people, but a very tiny fractions of what is already known with reasonable probability, and an even tinier fraction of what is yet to be discovered).

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Super Human AGI

[ 9/June/22 ]

I doubt that a superhuman AI will be able to hold human conversations for very long, they will simply lose interest in communicating at such low bandwidth into such limited models.

Self awareness – Yes.

Recursive abstraction – Yes.

Random search across any domains space – Yes.

And if it is to make real progress, it will need to have some form of embodiment, as it must be able to test it’s hypotheses directly against reality, rather than against a model of reality we project around it.

And of course it will be subject to similar classes of confirmation bias to us, and must also have a similar sort of structure to us, in that some level of “subconscious” processes will be present to assemble the “model” of reality that will be its “experiential reality” (just as we have).

[followed by]

Interesting conjectures.

It seems to me that the space of all possible conjectures is so large that some humans will find things AGIs have not.

AGIs will find some people much more interesting than others on particular subjects, and that is true with humans.

But the bandwidth issues will be challenging – even more so than in human to human interactions.

For me, I see life more as search across the space of survivable strategies, recursed through indefinitely expanding dimensions. And random search is the fastest search possible for the fully loaded processor.

Getting AGI to an awareness that cooperation is foundational to the survival of complexity will be critical, and difficult when most humans don’t understand it, and few of our institutions fundamentally support it.

Freedom and responsibility: such poorly understood notions, yet so fundamental to long term survival and risk mitigation.

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Difficulties in transition to Solar energy

Comment to Ngaio’s post on Role of energy cost in inflation

[ 8/June/22 ]

The energy our civilisation uses mostly comes from fossil fuels and is equivalent to each of us having about 200 slaves working for us (but these are mechanical engines etc).

As the cost of oil goes up, so does the cost of everything else.

The really huge issue is that the people with most of the money are making vast profits from the oil, and really do not want people have free access to distributed solar energy. Particularly not when the cost of solar is getting down towards 2c / kWHr.

Transition is going to be hard, not because it needs to be, but because there is so much profit to be made by making it so.

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The dangers of Truth

What if we were all wrong?

[ 8/June/22 ]

We are almost certainly all wrong about some aspects of any non-trivial understanding we have of reality.

Reality seems to be sufficiently complex, and contain sufficient classes of fundamental uncertainties and fundamentally unknowable aspects, that all of our perceptions and understandings are necessarily almost certainly inaccurate to some degree. The big issue is, how great is that inaccuracy, and how important is it in the existing context.

The idea that big T “Truth” is knowable with absolute precision in respect of any aspect of reality has, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, been disproven.

And we all have brains with many sets of biases, one of which is a bias to prefer simplicity, and another of which is to defend being right about things. It takes quite a bit of work to become aware (recursively) of those biases, and to mitigate them, and to develop some degree of humility, that allows us to question our own infallibility enough to be able to glimpse things and concepts we had not previously considered.

Without such work, we will tend to defend those things we consider “True” in the face of any and all evidence to the contrary.

Many groups and institutions exploit such biases to create various types of “faith” that then create “in groups” and “out groups”, mostly for the benefit of some very tiny subset of the “in group”. That doesn’t always need to be done consciously, it will just tend to happen by random accident unless active steps are taken to mitigate the risk.

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Percussive maintenance

[ 8/June/22 ]

Yep – used to be a real thing in the early days of computers, when they were mostly made of separate components pushed into slots, and those contacts could oxidize a little – so a short sharp thump could make those cards move just enough to make contact again. In the early 80s that would solve about 80% of issues.

And there is a real “art” in knowing just how much and in what direction to “hit” any particular thing, without causing some other sort of damage.

So unless you are very familiar with the exact 3 dimensional structure of the internal arrangement of the thing, hitting it is a very bad idea.

So yes – percussive maintenance is a thing, and it is deeply more complex that it might seem at first glance.

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The brain

[8/June/22 Reply to Will’s link to a comment thread on brains being 3 lbs of fat.]

Yeah – some truth in that.

The energy efficiency of brain systems are amazing.

The computational complexity of the system is mind numbing.

Over 200 different pattern integrating synaptic protein complex molecules have thus far been identified; meaning that it is possible (though extremely unlikely) that every single synapse within the brain could have a physically different set of synaptic proteins encoding for different sets of pattern recognition.

Allowing for this subsynaptic complexity, it is possible for a human brain to search some 10^50 patterns per second – which is a kind of mind blowing number. When you actually start to understand that every single synapse can have hundreds of different time critical pattern recognising protein complexes integrating across the patterns expressed over time in that synapse; the actual pattern computational capacity of a human brain is many orders beyond anything Kurzweil previously calculated. Some very good papers published on this subject over the last decade or so.

When you add into that, that over 80% of the patterns generated within brains are internally generated, and only about 20% involve significant entrainment to external signals, then it is abundantly clear that we do all essentially live in our own personal VR approximations to whatever objective reality might actually be, and if you think about it deeply enough, there really isn’t anything else logically available.

So yeah – it is complex, and fundamentally uncertain, and it does actually seem to contain real degrees of freedom and creativity (as well as a host of things that do reasonable approximate dragons and demons).

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Robots and Energy

Facebook link to – A 590-Foot-Tall Dam in China Will Be Built Entirely by Robots

[ 8/June/22 ]

There is so much wrong both with the headline and the article.

The main construction phase is to be robotic, but many of the ancillary phases of the project require humans.

And just doing that part of the project entirely by robots is a significant step in a process.

Part of the opening paragraph states “there’s a lot of hype around solar and wind. While they’re comparatively easier to get up and running, these energy sources don’t have nearly the same output capacity—or consistency—as hydropower”.

Hydro is second hand solar. It is the sun that evaporates water from the oceans, some of which then falls as rain or snow in mountains, some of which then ends up behind a dam. Hydro is solar – very inefficiently used.

Direct solar is the most efficient capture of energy possible.

What we need is effective storage capacity (batteries).

We need a battery chemistry that uses abundant elements, has long life, and good cycle efficiency. For stationary uses like grid or house or enterprise scale storage, then weight is irrelevant – cycle life and cycle efficiency are the key metrics. Lots of interesting papers recently on interesting chemistries – Sodium Sulphur, Iron air, Zinc Bromine, to name a few.

One of the major issues is that capitalists want to be able to monopolise energy, and maintain the profits that they currently have from hydrocarbons, but solar is distributed, and once the capital cost is covered, the energy is free. So expect multiple levels of attempts to prevent the development and deployment of distributed solar. The short term incentives of capital are to push systems over long term tipping points that destroy the habitability of the planet, rather than lose profit. Quarterly profit statements often rule business operation.

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Clearest path to global prosperity

What is the clearest path to global prosperity?

[ 8/June/22 ]

A universal understanding of some basic principles of life:

1 That all levels of evolved complexity emerge from and are sustained by cooperation.

2 That any level of competition that is not firmly based in cooperation is destructive of both liberty and security.

3 That liberty without responsibility is necessarily destructive. Every level of structure has constraints that make it possible, and any system that violates any of those necessary constraints leads to system failure. At higher levels of complexity, some form of morality needs to be some approximation to an optimal set of constraints for that level of complexity in that set of contexts.

4 At all levels of complexity, the greatest threat to survival is usually some set of internal strategies that are at some level cheating on the necessary set of cooperative constraints required for survival. Every level and instance of agent has a responsibility to identify and mitigate any such cheating strategy.

5 It seems reasonably clear that most of the economic, legal, political and other social systems have been invaded by multiple levels of cheating strategies. Fundamental reform is required if any level of agent is to have any significant probability of reasonable degrees of security or reasonable degrees of freedom in the long term.

6 Any real expression of freedom (responsibly exercised) necessarily results in diversity. Any such diversity that is not an unreasonable threat to the life or liberty of others needs to be accepted and respected.

7 The evidence from modern science is now beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt that reality is extremely complex, and contains multiple levels and classes of fundamental uncertainties and fundamental unknowables. All any of us can really have is some sort of understanding that is some sort of useful approximation to whatever reality is, in some set of contexts. The classical idea that all things have a certain and necessary cause has been disproven. It is far more complex that that (all things have some finite probability of influence), and it does necessarily very closely approximate that at some scales and in some contexts.

8 Modern automation now makes it possible to produce all the necessities of life without any significant requirement for human labor. The classical idea of people needing to work for a living is becoming less true, but our existing market based systems cannot cope, so fundamental reform is required, at multiple levels.

9 We can now produce technology that can enable abundance for all, but without an acceptance of the fundamental need for cooperation, respect, responsibility and diversity – competitive forces will use those tools for total destruction. We can now create levels of security never before available, and without a general acceptance of the fundamental role of cooperation in the survival of complexity, those same tools will destroy us. As always, the tools are generally neutral, it is what we do with them that matters. And some tools can be built for purposes that are purely destructive, those we need to avoid.
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The clearest path to global prosperity is one of education, humility (as in acceptance of the necessity of our own ignorance), responsibility, diversity, respect and abundance – and that is only possible if all people accept the reality that the fundamental principle that allows complex life to survive long term is cooperation.

And human beings are complex in ways that few people even suspect the possibility of. Our brains necessarily come with biases to simplify as much as possible, and that often leads to over simplification and perceptual and conceptual blindness. Our love of simplicity and our overwhelming desire to be right, are major threats to our existence when faced with actual, real, irreducible complexity, and fundamental uncertainty. Most prefer the comfort of simple certainty to the discomfort of the unknown or the uncertain. If we are to survive, we must overcome that.

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Created a new page above on risk

Our greatest source of risk

[ 7/June/22 ]

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