Here’s a story about how a modern government might have protected baby Jesus.
Archive for December, 2005
Book Review: An Underground Education : The Unauthorized and Outrageous Supplement to Everything You Thought You Knew About Art, Sex, Business, Crime, Science, Medicine, and Other Fields of Human Knowledge by Richard Zacks
This book is an irreverent collection of interesting but mostly unimportant historical anecdotes.
A sampling of stories that I enjoyed:
The fork (at least as used for eating) was initially condemned as “the devil’s pitchfork” by priests who thought people ought to eat with their hands.
Witchcraft prosecutions were motivated at least in part by the desire of churches and civil authorities to get the property of the accused, until a legal change in 1630 prevented them from getting such property. Similar motivations for the inquisition, where property could be confiscated decades after the death of an alleged heretic how had owned it.
He describes mail order porn in 1863.
He has a photo of George Washington’s dentures, made from human teeth (presumably taken from dead soldiers).
The medieval church forbade doctors from dissecting human corpses to learn about anatomy and forbade surgery. Some of the other medical anecdotes suggest that there have been many times when patients would have been better off if the prohibition on surgery had lasted longer.
Don’t expect too much wisdom from these stories. One isolated place where he attempts a non-shallow analysis is when he asks “How did child labor start in America, and why was it widely tolerated”? Unfortunately, his attempts to analyze this merely consist of finding reports of child labor earlier than he thinks his readers expect. It doesn’t occur to him to ask whether people could even afford to do without child labor before the industrial revolution.
Accelerando! is an entertaining collection of loosely related anecdotes spanning a time that covers both the near future and the post-singularity world. Stross seems to be more interested in showing off how many geeky pieces of knowledge he has and how many witty one-liners he can produce than he is in producing a great plot or a big new vision. I expect that people who aren’t hackers or extropians will sometimes be confused by some of his more obscure references (e.g. when he assumes you know how a third-party compiler defeats the Thompson hack).
He sometimes tries too hard to show off his knowledge, such as when he says “solving the calculation problem” causes “screams from the Chicago School” – this seems to show he confuses the Chicago School with the Austrian School. He says that in the farther parts of the solar system
Most people huddle close to the hub, for comfort and warmth and low latency: posthumans are gregarious.
But most of what I know about the physics of computation suggests that warmth is a problem they will be trying to minimize.
The early parts of the book try to impress the reader with future shock, but toward the end the effects of technological change seem to have less and less effect on how the characters lives. That is hard to reconcile with the kind of exponential change that Stross seems to believe in.
He has many tidbits about innovative economic and legal institutions. But it’s often hard to understand how realistic they are, because I got some inconsistent impressions about basic things such as whether Manfred used money.
His answer to the Fermi paradox is unconvincing. It is easy to imagine that the smartest beings will want to stick close to the most popular locations. But that leaves plenty of other moderately intelligent beings (the lobsters?) with little attachment to this solar system, whose failure to colonize the galaxy he doesn’t explain.
Some interesting quotes:
humans will be obsolete as economic units within a couple more decades. All I want to do is make everybody rich beyond their wildest dreams before that happens.
“A moment.” Manfred tries to remember what address to ping. It’s useless, and painfully frustrating. “It would help if I could remember where I keep the rest of my mind,”
disaffected youth against the formerly graying gerontocracy of Europe, insist that people who predate the supergrid and can’t handle implants aren’t really conscious
And here’s one quote from the Fred in my reading group’s discussion of the book:
The meat shall inherit the earth
I’ve been slowly working my way through a book by Richard Zacks called An Underground Education. I’ve found one section that deserves a blog entry of it’s own (I’ll discuss the rest of the book when I’ve finished reading it).
It describes a fairly popular betting-style market that ran from 1771 to 1776 in London about whether a diplomat named Chevalier D’Eon was male or female. D’Eon apparently acted and dressed at times as a man, and at other times as a woman, and refused to help the bettors settle their bets (even when D’Eon was offered a large amount of money to provide evidence of his/her sex). Eventually bettors got tired of waiting for an outcome and resorted to at least one lawsuit. The judge decided that D’Eon was a woman based on testimony from both sides of the lawsuit. Why did the side who had bet D’Eon was a man produce testimony that D’Eon was a woman? It was part of an accusation that the other side traded on what the SEC would call inside information. After D’Eon’s death, mortuary attendants said D’Eon was a man.
Aside from the obvious implications for how idea future style markets need to word claims so as to assure a practical means of observing whether a claim is true or not within a practical time period, this report also says some odd things about gender stereotyping. Lots of people probably think prior generations mostly had Victorian attitudes toward gender confusion, but it seems that D’Eon was sufficiently respectable in 1792 to have a dinner party thrown to honor both Thomas Paine and D’Eon.
Book Review: Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things : What Categories Reveal about the Mind by George Lakoff
I would have found this book well worth reading if I had read it when it was published, but by now I’ve picked up most of the ideas elsewhere.
He does a good job of describing the problems of the classical view of categories. His description of the alternative prototype theory is not as clear and convincing as what I’ve found in the neural net literature.
His attacks on objectivism and the “God’s eye view” of reality are pretty good. I found this claim interesting: (page 301) “to be objective requires one to be a relativist of an appropriate sort”.
The chapter on the mind-as-machine paradigm gives a superficial impression of saying more than it actually does. It discredits an approach to AI that was mostly recognized as a failure by the AI community when the book was published or shortly after that. He could confuse some people into thinking he discredits more than this by his strange use of the word algorithm. He says “Algorithms concern the manipulation of meaningless disembodied symbols”, and admits his arguments don’t discredit connectionism. Yet by the normal computer science usage of “algorithm”, it is quite sensible to say that connectionism uses algorithms to manipulate meaningful concepts.
Here are a few comments from Friday’s Prediction Markets Summit.
Chris Hibbert described a way that a market with multiple outcomes (such as for supreme court nominees, which list contracts for a number of people, plus one for the rest of the field) could improve liquidity with a modest software change. The system could generate bids and asks for a given contract by aggregating the opposite side of all the other contracts in that market, and generate a synthetic order which would sometimes be within the bid/ask range of regular orders.
Google’s Bo Cowgill reported that one legal problem that Google faces in implementing internal prediction markets is that they might sometimes spread information around the company that might make the people with that information insiders in a way that would complicate those employees’ ability to trade in Google stock. It sounds like the insider trading laws are onerous enough to create a nontrivial barrier to spreading information.
Newsfutures’ Emile Servan-Schreiber said that Newsfutures was supporting the use of internal corporate markets for some fairly big corporate decisions.
Mike Knesevitch of Intrade / Tradesports seems to have lots of experience in traditional financial markets. He said a good deal about the liquidity and accuracy of his exchange’s political markets. The Howard Dean contract went from 33 to 9 within about 5 minutes following Dean’s “implosion” speech. Part of Tradesports’ reluctance to make it’s prices easy to link to is the possibility that they will charge money for those prices much like traditional stock and futures exchanges do. I wish there were a good way for users to persuade new exchanges to commit to keeping information free, but I don’t see a practical way to do that.
HedgeStreet’s Russell Andersson reported that CFTC approval for new contracts was easier than I expected. It takes about 24 hours for contracts dealing with things that the CFTC normally deals with, but weeks to months for other topics. (Why so much variation??)
Microsoft Todd Proebsting is surprisingly enthusiastic about most (all?) of Robin Hanson’s vision of what prediction markets might do. He reported a case where a market did a much better job of predicting when a product would ship than the manager did, although there was some confusion when the market fluctuated when it’s prediction created some uncertainty over whether features would be cut to make the deadline (the contract didn’t adequately specify how it would be judged if the product changed significantly). He reported that there was no resistance to prediction markets from upper management (middle management resisted, since the markets are designed to indicate failings of middle management). He mentioned that laws regulating sweepstakes created some obstacles to implementing internal corporate markets (they’re designed to prevent a sweepstakes game from rewarding the people who control the sweepstakes). He inadvertently(?) promoted the use of open source licenses by mentioning that legal concerns deterred him from looking at Robin’s market scoring Lisp code, which has no license granting any permission to use it.
Eric Zitzewitz responded to Manski’s theoretical criticisms of prediction market accuracy (see his paper on Interpreting Prediction Market Prices as Probabilities), and described some problems with inferring causality from markets and how to structure markets to minimize those problems (see his paper on Five Open Questions About Prediction Markets). He showed an amusing graph indicating that Tradesports prices implied Osama was twice as likely to be captured in October 2004 as in November 2004 (implying some connection with the U.S. elections).