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Computer vs human

March 4th 2015 20:35
Now, it's quite possible for me to be walking in the park, to hear a song, and for that song to remind me of x, which reminds me of y, which reminds me of z, which in turn provides inspiration for solving a maths problem.

One difference between the human brain and a CPU: we react to stimuli differently. A stimulus can echo along webs of association, so that you end up somewhere apparently quite distant from where you started. Our gift for seeing similarity is greater than a computer's. Our gift for this kind of pattern recognition is greater.

Or, to put it another way: as organic things, we're bundles of action and reaction, stimulus and response. We form habits, we condition our reflexes. It may be better to conceive of what's going on when we interact with the world as "cause and effect" rather than "storing ones and zeroes".


Job creation

February 7th 2015 00:44
Anything the government does is at a cost. If it spends more on universities, presumably it’s spending less on the arts. Or else it’s raising the money somehow (through increasing taxes or borrowing).

So, when a government promises 290,000 new jobs if re-elected, you should be at least a little cautious.

The first reason to be cautious -- “What is the cost?” They can’t magic those jobs out of nowhere. Either they’re spending less elsewhere (fewer hospital beds, or fewer government jobs elsewhere), or they’re borrowing money, or they’re reducing revenue somewhere to make investment more attractive, or they’re raising taxes on people or corporations. If they’re raising taxes on corporations, the corporations will themselves raise prices, or will cut jobs to maintain profit margin. If they’re raising taxes on people, people will spend less, meaning economic activity is reduced, and retailers will cut jobs to maintain profit margin.

The second reason to be cautious -- “What are the negative effects of increased employment?” There are too many positive effects to list (“dignity in work”, whatever that means, less crime, reduced drain on welfare, more trained people, more infrastructure built, etc). But there are potentially negative effects also.

Put it this way…

If there’s high unemployment, then, in terms of the happiness of the community, the government might well be doing the right thing by spending on job creation.

But if there’s already high employment, then where do the workers come from? Either they’re imported from outside Australia, in which case there’s potentially flow of money out of Australia. Or they already had jobs, in which case the government has to offer high wages to make it attractive to change jobs. But offering higher wages in turn means the market’s wage expectations rise, companies’ profits are reduced, companies start raising prices to maintain profit margin.

A final reason to be cautious -- “What happens when the party is over?” What happens when the highway is built, or the coal is all mined, or the shoe factory wants to get cheaper labour in a different country? You might have mass unemployment, with concomitant social problems, you might have problems to do with high wages and inflation, you might have useless infrastructure. Consider Michael Moore's home town:

In 1908, William Crapo Durant formed General Motors in Flint… However, by the late 1980s the city sank into a deep economic depression after GM closed and demolished several factories in the area, the effects of which remain today.

In the mid-2000s, it became known for its high crime rates. Since this time, Flint has been ranked among the "Most Dangerous Cities in the United States", with a per capita violent crime rate seven times higher than the national average. It has also been in a state of financial emergency since 2011, the second in a decade.

-- Wikipedia




January 28th 2015 20:54
I know nothing at all about economics, but wanted to note down some ideas anyway.

* It’s possible for someone to be wealthy but unhappy, and it’s possible for someone to be poor but have a great standard of living. Therefore, the concepts of “wealthy” and “poor” are in many contexts separable from ideas of happiness and standard of living.

* Say I earn $10 a week and a loaf of bread is $5. At the end of the year, my salary is raised to $20, but the price of bread also goes up to $10. Arguably, I am as wealthy as I was before, because there’s been no increase in my purchasing power.

So there’s at least two ways for me to become wealthy -- if my salary goes up and the cost of bread stays the same, or if my salary stays the same and (through technological innovation or lucky weather conditions or improved agricultural methods or whatever) the cost of bread goes down.

And there’s also a third way to become wealthy -- if my purchasing power increases relative to everyone else’s. The concept of “wealthy”, like many adjectives (“long”, “cold”, “heavy”) doesn’t have an absolute standard, but only really has meaning when there's comparison with something else.

For anyone to be "wealthy" at all, you need poor people.

* The country as a whole...

Think of an economy as all the actual money in a country. Call this "economic evaluation 1".

If you put more money in (through tourism or export or investment), that doesn’t necessarily increase wealth. If the country’s salary goes up, but the cost of bread also goes up, then it’s a zero sum game. And sometimes putting more money in itself causes the cost of bread to rise.

Why? Well, there’s no guarantee that costs will rise, but sometimes they do. Sometimes bread-sellers think, “Everyone’s got more money. Let’s raise prices. They can afford it.” Or sometimes introducing more money leads to more demand for labour, which in turn raises salaries, which in turn costs companies more, which in turn makes them raise prices.

* But you don’t have to think about an economy as money only -- there are also the assets. You could put a dollar value on all the loaves of bread and also all the people who bake the bread, and treat it all as part of the economic value of a country. Call this "economic evaluation 2".

How to increase a country’s wealth when evaluated in this sense? Well, for the concept of wealth to be meaningful, now you have to think about what the country can buy in other countries, or have to think about its relative purchasing power.

Putting more money in -- digging it from the ground, increasing the population and "human assets", exporting, attracting tourism and investment -- all these things increase the wealth of the country as a whole assuming the price of bread remains the same elsewhere.

The trick is: what if all the third-world countries increase the price of their bread? It’s a zero sum game again -- purchasing power doesn’t increase.

* How do you increase the wealth of the world as a whole?

From the point of view of "evaluation 2" (which is putting a price tag on all assets), applying the word "wealthy" to the world as a whole doesn't make sense, because you can't talk about purchasing power in some other world.

From another point of view ("evaluation 1", thinking just about money) the only real way for wealth to increase, assuming the amount of money stays the same, is for the price of bread to drop. You can't increase wealth by printing money, because that simply leads to raising the price of bread.

So, it's only really through technological innovation that the world as a whole gets wealthier.

Of course, it’s quite arguable that wealth is the wrong question in the first place, and governments should focus on happiness and standard of living.

If the entire world were in some Star Trek future, where everyone could use matter replication devices to make whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, who would care about purchasing power?



-- Friday 30 January 2015: Here's a pun so hideously bad I couldn't not make it. People think that exercise leads to weight loss, just as people think that investment leads to wealth increase. But the fact is that exercise causes hunger, and so you end up eating more than you normally would. Ie, both exercise and investment often result in inflation.


Executing the innocent

December 27th 2014 02:13
Assume that "justice" in a particular case requires death, and consider these two claims:

-- Claim 1: "I would rather let 100,000 criminals escape the death they deserve than execute one innocent person." Under peacetime conditions, innocent life is just that valuable

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Real-world argument

December 26th 2014 02:03
You leave a pencil balanced vertically, standing on the kitchen table. You go to the bathroom, and when you return you find that the pencil is now lying on its side.

There are infinite imaginable explanations, and the same goes for science generally -- any set of facts is compatible with infinite theories. Maybe an alien time-travelled from the future to knock the pencil over

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Heads or tails

December 22nd 2014 23:27
A problem I'm worrying at. Forgive me if this is old news to you; I'm sure it's the sort of problem many people have thought about already.

So, someone presents you with a gamble: heads, you win $15; tails, you lose $10. Should you take the bet

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Does art matter more than life?

December 20th 2014 19:56
An extract from A Conversation of the Quai Voltaire by Lee Langley:

“He held out his hand and touched the blue tracery beneath the skin

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Marina Abramovic: Rhythm 0

December 20th 2014 10:27

End of a wedding

December 9th 2014 02:24
So it’s the midnight rubble at the end of a wedding. Bride and groom have long gone. Staff are sweeping up mess and stacking furniture. Audiovisual people are dismantling the stage. A few guests loiter, mostly close family of the couple, removing decorations.

Myself and the other videographer have packed the bags and are ready to head out, when he discovers that he’s one memory card short. He counts the cards he has and counts them again. He deduces that the missing card was the main wide-angle during the ceremony and also contains speeches from the reception. The bride is his client and also a good friend of his. The card came from his camera. The responsibility is squarely his

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Heat of the moment

December 4th 2014 18:38
Should you kill your boss? On the one hand, he deserves it, and killing him would be pleasurable, and his death would be a lesson to bad bosses everywhere. On the other hand, you might get caught… and also, believe it or not, murder goes against your religious beliefs (though you might be willing to make exceptions).

You somehow express all the pros and cons in a common currency, perhaps by looking at each factor and asking yourself which you prefer to which; and on that basis you assign values and weightings. You think and think. And, sitting in your office cubicle, you conclude that murdering him is the wrong decision

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