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Re-election Predictions

I would like to start by apologizing from having a political entry in my blog. I believe that politics is intertwined with other intellectual endeavour. As scientist and engineers, we have a duty of social awareness, to see that our creations are being used for the benefit of humanity.

I was saddened by tuesday’s election results. Up until the eve of November 2nd (Central European Time), I was hoping that the Unites States would wake up from the state of collective insanity it has been suffering from for the last four years, and join the civilized world.

Dubya is arguably the worst president in US history. He is bad for world security. He is bad for the world economy. He is bad for the environment. He is bad for the U.N. From the exit polls after the US election, I think he was only elected because he is willing to let the government regulate behaviour that does not affect others, but that the religious right considers immoral (abortion and gay marriage). And because of that, the American people choose to ignore his horrible track record on foreign relations, economy, world security, and civil liberties (not to say plain ol’ stupidity). How can you guys be that stupid?

How will this affect the future of technology? Here are a few of my predictions for the next four years:

  • Off-shoring will continue, probably at an increased rate
  • American software development effort will grow in the area of data mining/profiling of citizens. The 1984-vision started by the USA PATRIOT act will continue
  • In addition to data profiling, the only other software area that will be groving is defence contracting
  • Bioinformatic research, especially that involving stem cell research, will move to Europe and India
  • Migration of value production to India and China will make the US extremely succeptible to competition from these regions. You’re outsouring your workers (and to some extent middle-management) now. What stops Indian executives from competing for the same work force and keeping the profit for themselves?

Unless you’re a fan of big-brother-type government, I expect most Americans will be increasingly disturbed with the development of their nation.

I’d like to end this entry with an excellent statement I saw on a bumper sticker in Pennsylvania this summer:

If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention

… and it is getting worse.

(God really should hurry up with that blessing of America that you all are so big on)

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Do Mind the Gap

I am currently reading Hackers & Painters by Paul Graham. It contains many brilliant essays, but it also has a few not so brilliant ones. In “Mind the Gap”, Graham proposes the idea “in a modern society, increasing variation in income is a sign of health”. The rationale for this is that some people have the potensial to be more productive than others and by rewarding them proportionally, everyone as a whole would be better off. “I am not saying that if you let Henry Ford get rich, he will hire you as a waiter to your next party. I’m say that he’ll make you a tractor to replace your horse”.

At the fundamental level, I have no problem with Graham’s argument. But I see two problems undermining his argument: First, Graham says: “As [technology] seems to increase the gap in income, it seems to reduce most other gaps”. That is, we are not concerned about relative poverty, only absolute poverty. Second, Graham posits that the rewards a Henry Ford, a Wozniac, a Gates should get should be propertional to the wealth they generate.

Hackers and PaintersOn the subject of other gaps than income gaps closing, this is only true to some point. Modern societies seem to have an increasing problem with real poverty in the last decade. I don’t know where to find statistics for this, so I will have to go off an anectote. I live in Norway, one of the more socialist democracies in the world. We pay high taxes, we have socialized healthcare, socialized higher education, public housing, good unemployment benefits. Yet we have more poverty than we should have. Living in downtown Oslo, I occasionally witness such poverty. Yesterday was such an occasion. While walking the dog, I came across a collapsed man in a small public plaza. I called the police. “Oh, he’s still there? He’s a junkie, if you nudge him, you’ll see that he’s alive. He won’t freeze, so we can’t really priorize it. He’ll be fine”. It seems to me that here is clearly a problem of poverty that could be solved by throwing more money at it, in a “socialist” fashion. I know I would be happier if I know that more people like this were taken care of. I think the portion of people living in poverty in Norway is increasing. I think the US is even worse in this regard.

So much for the other gaps being reduced. On a whole, more wealth is generated, but I believe the level of poverty is increasing. This is obviously a bad thing for everyone.

Secondly, I agree with Graham that productive people should be rewarded handsomely. But this does not mean we must be rewarded proportionally to the wealth we generate. The more money you have, the more you are able to enjoy even a small increase. If your regular expenses are just paid off, a 10% increase in income is a 100% in disposable income. A steeply progressive tax regime could still maintain the incentive to excel. And the general rule, the more wealth you generate, the more you are dependent upon the estabilished infrastructure to produce, market, and deliver that wealth to your customers. The more customers you have, the more you are dependent upon your customers level of education, amount of spare time, and income in order for which others have paid.

I believe there is such a thing as Society with a capital S. Society’s interest is to generate maximum wealth, and distribute it in such a way to create maximum happiness (that is, the largest ratio of people being well off, not a few being exceptionally rich). In order to generate wealth, productive people have to be rewarded, as Graham describes. But in order to reduce poverty, to create good consumers and workers, to address the real cause of crime, Society should redistribute the wealth to a greater extent than what Norway or the US are doing today.

(If you want to improve the state of the world, close the tax loopholes for companies and individuals who flee a country for tax reasons, but still make their furtune on the infrastructure that country has created. This is as close as you can get to the old way of generating money that Graham describes: Stealing it.)

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Crying Infant; Screaming Parent

It is funny how little incidents reminds us of more general principles… Today, when I went to the store, there was a baby that was crying, and it’s mother kept going, “be quiet now!”, “sit down!”, “hush!” in a real angry voice (the dog-peed-on-the-rug-voice). The whole thing just reminded me of two funny things from cognitive science:

  • Punishment is actually a very ineffective way of teaching. Indeed some researchers believe that punishment is purely counterproductive. The learner develops a feeling of helplessness and dislike for the learning experience, shutting down all possibility of real learning. Nevertheless, this is seldom taken into consideration in learning situations.
  • People are biased against realising the ineffectivety of using punishment for teaching. An important mechanism behind this is the effect known as “Regression towards the mean”. Basically, when you look at a series of random data, any exceptional data will statistically tend to be followed with less exceptional data, simply because of the definition of exceptional as deviating from the mean. In plain words, if someone is acting exceptionally good at one instant, they will tend to act less good later; if someone is acting exceptionally bad they will tend to act less bad later. This is a purely statistical result, and has nothing to do with behaviour per se. The way this is perceived is that if you punish bad behaviour (or react to it in any way), it will seem like you reaction is stopping the bad behaviour; if you reward good behaviour (or indeed react to it in any way), you will perceive your behaviour as influencing the subject to behave less good. Again, these effects have nothing with the behaviour of the subject, but purely with your own perception of what is statistically normal. (An additional effect may be that we tend to overestimate the effect we have on others)

That said, I am not a parent. And I probably would be just as bad of a parent as everybody else. Knowing about these tings don’t stop me from yelling at the dog when she climbs up on the sofa…

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Top Five Computing Pioneers

Watched a show about Ada Lovelace today, and I thought about all the great names we should remember better. It would be so cool to have posters of these. I am just including dead ones. It feels kinda creepy to have living heroes.

  • Ada Lovelace (why do great mathematicians die young?)
  • Alan Turing (of course)
  • Edger Dijkstra (pioneered software and computer science as a discipline)
  • Grace Murray Hopper (championing accessible program writing)
  • Kristen Nygaard (as far as I know, he was one of the first people to be concerned about the impact of computing upon society)


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Bush ‘not mad’ at France

Bush ‘not mad’ at France

[via CNN]

“I’m going to remind him, like I’m going to remind a lot of people, that we can do a heck of a lot more together than we can arguing with each other,” [Bush] said.”


ITYM, “I can do heck of a lot more on of what I want if you stop hasslin’ me”, Dubya.


Dubya might be “not mad” at France, but I sure hope France is still mad at him. I thought we were done with autocrats after WW II.

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Taxes don’t hurt you, dammit!

I am so sick of reading about the poor economics behind arguments when it comes to tax cut. Being a Norwegian citizen, I am used to taxation levels that would make an American faint. And I don’t know if it really hurts us at all.

What I miss in the discussion goes back to the basics of economy: I am not an economist, but this is how I understand it:

Money ain’t real! Money is only a representation for the right to a certain share of the resources in society. What then happens if everyone gives half of their money to the government? Will you have to work harder to afford a house? Will you have to work harder to afford food? How can redistributing money within society result in there being less resources to go around? How can redistributing money result in there being less work performed by people (all other things being equal)?

Paying more taxes will not result in people as a whole having less. The only result can be that the relative distribution between people change. If you’re asking for a tax cut, you are saying that you feel everyone else should pay more. Of course, I would not object if it happened to me, but it is not “fair”. If you give a tax cut to the rich, all you are saying is that everyone else should shoulder a bigger burden.

Can redistribution lead to a macroeconomic improvement?

Composed with Newz Crawler 1.4

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Saddam’s bioterrorism is rational from a evolutionary psychology point of view

A view on the conflict from the standpoint of cognitive science/social science

  • Steven Pinker (“How the mind works”): People may use “doomsday machines” (strategies that are both harmful to themselves and an agressor) to deter agressors.

  • Hernando de Soto (“The Mystery of Capital”) An important reason a society with big differences are more prone to violence is that the underprivileged do not have any bargaining power.

  • Personal opinion: In a conflict with two countries that are dramatically unevenly matched, we should expect the underprivileged to resort to “doomsday machine” strategies.

  • Extending the argument from psychology to global politics is not supported by these data, but

    • Iraq is controlled by a small number of people, which makes it more likely to act in accordance with the personal feelings of these people.

    • The “doomsday machine” strategy was first used to analyse global politics and was there called “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD). (Pinker)

In the war, this is some practical predictions:

  • Saddam’s forces will set the oil fields on fire

  • Saddam’s forces will draw fighting into residential areas to cause massive civilian casualties

  • Saddam’s forces will attempt to use civilians as human shields

  • Saddam will attempt to enrage his neighbours to escalate the war

  • Saddam will attempt any dirty trick to get back at the US (like terrorism)

At this point, Saddam is a man with nothing at the bargaining table. And as the saying goes: “If you have got nothing, you have got nothing to lose”.

Disclaimer: Modern “Darwinian ethics” are very clear on separating between explaining and defending behaviour. The stance of “Darwinian ethics” is that if we want as people to behave better, we need to have an understanding of the darker impulses within us all.

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