Last year, not long after I became a dad and moved to New Jersey, I watched the news of the Sandy Hook shooting play itself out online. I found myself oddly moved by this event. Having a kid of my own had seemingly turned on some kind of circuit in my brain that made me feel a kind of proximity to events like these that I never had before.

Following the event, I did something fairly rare for me: I spent a bunch of time on Facebook. Specifically, I found myself reading over discussions on friends’ pages that involved some amount of debate or dialog between those people opposed to gun rights in the US, and those in favor.

As a Brit relocated to the US, I couldn’t really understand the enthusiasm around gun ownership. I didn’t want to be angry with the people promoting guns. I didn’t want to berate them or challenge them. I wanted to understand them. I still want to understand. I still really don’t get it.

I understand that people are concerned about personal freedom. But shouldn’t those people most concerned about freedom be against gun ownership? After all, more guns means less freedom. The one thing about a gun is that when somebody owns one, they can point it at you and make you do things. That’s what they’re for. It’s either that or killing people.

So I simply can’t see how having more guns can possibly make more freedom. By definition, every gun that you add to society makes the amount of personal freedom decrease.

I believe that the popular notion is that if both people in a problematic situation have a gun, then the power of one person to control the other is zeroed out. But this requires that those people reach for those guns at the same time. It seems to me that we’ve known since Wild West shootouts that that doesn’t happen. Instead, someone has a gun first and the other person reaching for their gun gets shot.

And then there’s the notion of personal defense. A person with a gun can hypothetically defend themselves more effectively. But that requires that the person doing the defending bring their gun out before there’s an unambiguous threat. Which means they have to assess the potential threat correctly one hundred percent of the time. Which means there are going to be mistakes and that some innocent people will die.

And finally, there’s the notion of the right to bear arms to protect oneself from one’s government. But the US government can listen in on all phone conversations, can see postage stamps from space, and has more nuclear weapons than anyone else on Earth. You can’t defend against that with a handgun. In fact, you can’t defend against that at all.

What I saw on Facebook was a lot of people on both sides of the debate feeling angry and entrenched, and a lot of dialog not going anywhere. That seems counterproductive to me. And at the same time I do have an opinion. What’s a dual citizen to do?


Ray Kurzweil Revisited/Reanimated

Yesterday, I received the most interesting and cogent response yet to my Tinker Point idea. It came from my friend Rob, who is himself a biologist. For those who don’t follow the comments on my posts, here is his comment in its entirety, because I like it. My thoughts on his remarks follow.

Interesting ideas here but the evolutionary reasoning is a little false. There are already examples in nature of convergent individuals that are very successful. So successful in fact that they have all but given up individuality for group success. The family Physaliidae is the best example of a society that maintains both a division of labor as well as an absolute requirement of cooperation.

But higher eusocial organisms also fit the bill, such as hymenopteran and isopteran societies that grow into vast numbers of of individuals. Even mammals have eusocial organiosms in the naked mole rats of East Africa.

I would not be so quick to imagine an evolutionary disadvantage to being susceptible to mental manipulation. Organisms that “allow” themselves to be domesticated do very well, much better than their wild type counter parts. Domestic chickens have gone global and outshine jungle fowl to a ridiculous extant. All horses are now domesticated. Dogs, corn, wheat, sheep, pigs, all have allowed themselves to be under profound control and in so doing have far outstripped their wild ancestors in evolutionary success.

I think what your argument does cover is that there are some very dark solutions to a future that includes a Kurzweil Singularity. If you mean that we may lose something of our individuality, or our humanity, then you are right to hold that fear. But game theory indicates not that individuality will be maintained, but rather that choices will be made that enhance a payoff. And every payoff is not the same to everyone in the game. So if something, such as a collective creature of electronic, biological, or amalgam, gets an advantage over a bunch of individuals then game theory and evolution both predict the payoff goes to that “something.” And by the way, evolution does’t care if an advantage is short term, it only cares about who wins right now. That’s why we still have global warming, and that’s why Kurzweil is correct.

These are great points. I agree with most of them.  Rob’s science is solid. And yet I still think Ray Kurzweil is wrong, and that my evolutionary perspective holds up. Why? Because the Tinker Point and the idea of collaborative human aggregation are not at odds with each other.

The idea of the Tinker Point is that no intelligent species gets past the point where it’s easier to tinker with themselves than to not. It says nothing about the pattern of cooperation under which that limit is reached.

I think Rob’s take here is that in a cooperative society in which humans lose a little humanity in order to bind together into a hyper-intelligent whole is one in which humanity is suddenly on the same page, and thus the incentive to destructively tinker goes away.  And while this might not look nice to individual human beings, it still constitutes a singularity. But I don’t think this interpretation holds water.

In nature, patterns of cooperation are always vulnerable to defection.  This is true at every scale, from transposons operating within individual cells, up to bankers cheating entire national economies for profit.

Furthermore, the force that keeps defection in check and enables cooperation to persist is that of group selection. Our cells don’t collapse in revolt every day because cells that revolt lead to non-viable organisms. We aren’t instantly riddled with cancer the moment we’re born because creatures whose cells don’t cooperate never get as far as reproducing. At every level at which agents cooperatively aggregate, there has to be something that the aggregates are competing against in order for the cooperation to be maintained. Bind the entire species into a single hive-mind and your incentive has gone away. Massive social collapse at that point is eventually inevitable.

Now, it’s fair to say that the Singularity as Kurzweil defines it doesn’t necessitate a single hive-mind. Here’s a definition from Wikipedia:

The technological singularity, or simply the singularity, is a theoretical point in time when human technology (and, particularly, technological intelligence) will have so rapidly progressed that, ultimately, a greater-than-human intelligence will emerge, which will “radically change human civilization, and perhaps even human nature itself.”

So a benign Singularity might entail the emergence of a set of collective intelligences, all competing with each other. But this outcome is also suspect. How is this convenient outcome supposed to happen? And in this world of competing hive-minds, what role does intelligence actually play?

If intelligence isn’t critical to their competition, we would expect these hive-minds to end up stupid as they optimized to improve fitness, thus conserving the tinker point. If intelligence is critical to their competition, then the mechanisms by which those hive minds operate is still subject to manipulation, and therefore degradation, and therefore overthrow.

In this case the tinker point problem looks just the way it does for individual humans. These hive-minds are still likely to make mistakes and fuck each other up, just like people, until that’s not an option any more.

My favorite speculative future following from this idea comes from the notion that when a new evolutionary niche becomes available, the ‘first to market’ often dominates. I wouldn’t be surprised if, when mental uploading becomes available, that Ray K is first in line to try it out. And once uploaded, of course, he’d rapidly realize that reproducing himself a trillion times and bolting the door behind him would make for a far more stable world than leaving the uplift process open to others. Hyper-intelligence would be unlikely to leave much room for naive idealism.

Hence, if we do end up with future hive-minds at war with each other over the remnants of human civilization, we shouldn’t be surprised if they all have Ray K’s face.



Pennsylvania: the WTF state.

This weekend I went, somewhat randomly, to the town of Bellefonte in Pennsylvania. It’s lovely there. There are lots of nineteenth century buildings that have been well looked after. There’s an attractive park. The food is good. The people are friendly. The town nestles in a long, linear valley full of farms and open land and so is looked over by green, attractive, tree-covered ridges in two directions. What’s not to like?

It’s also quiet. So quiet, in fact, that you can’t help but wonder how the town stays so nice. We took some long drives in the land surrounding the town, and found that to be attractive too. The landscape is so tidy around there that it feels almost Swiss. Small, perfectly maintained villages dot the landscape, each so small that they don’t contain a single shop. Families putter from place to place in Amish buggies. Everywhere there is a sense that the hand of time has been magically held back, and along with it, the pressure to fill the place with strip-malls, agribusiness and the staggering quantity of crap that clots the north east corridor.

Everywhere, that is, except State College. But while State College feels up-to-date, it’s fairly nice too. Sure, there is a fairly rabid football flavor to the place. And sure, the town is still licking its wounds from the whole Sandusky scandal thing. But nevertheless, it’s a pleasant place to spend a few hours. And it, too, seems to be buoyed up by a kind of surreal forcefield of prosperity.

So I thought: okay, Pennsylvania is a ‘Nice Place’. It’s a rural sort of state with a magic-based economy that happens to have Philadelphia at one end of it. (By this point you can probably guess that prior to this weekend, my overall knowledge of Pennsylvania was fairly low. So rather than taking interstates home, we decided to drive across country.

Mistake. Or, at least, a mistake when you have a one-year old in the back of the car who wants to make frequent stops to race around in the grass and eat gravel.

At first, driving seemed like a great choice. There was a seemingly endless supply of pretty, prosperous little towns and meticulous farms. Then we crossed a river and hit ‘Coal Country’.

Holy fucking christ on a bike. Talk about culture change. In a matter of a few miles, you go from magically wealthy to magically fucked up. You first really realize this when you hit Shamokin, a town so desolate that if if desolation was something you could bottle and sell, that they’d be millionaires before they actually ran out of desolation.

Shamokin’s number one claim to fame is that it’s situated next to the world’s largest manmade mountain. By which they mean a crap-heap of mine excreta next to the town so big that it matches the surrounding hillscape. Except that trees can’t grow on it properly because it’s made of crap, so they all sort of lean over and look sickly. And it’s then that you realize that selling desolation for money was exactly what they were doing until the 1970s when the mine there was shut down.

Before Shamokin, we imagined that we’d stop in the next town to get my son ice-cream or something. We did not stop. One look at the extremely sad downtown convinced us that we were not going to have our baby playing around on the median strip eating clinker and playing with crack needles. Maybe the next town, we thought. Or the next one. Or the next one. Etc.

Maybe this sounds dreadful. Maybe I’m revealing some kind of horrific middle-class bias by admitting this. But my point is not to run down Shamokin or anyone who lives there. My main point is this: what on Earth is going on in Pennsylvania that there are such weird discrepancies of prosperity, in towns that really don’t have that much difference between them?

Coal country stretches for miles and miles. And it’s really very incredibly grim.

So what I’m left with at the end of the weekend is confusion. How does this place work? What stops the people in Shamokin from moving west about thirty miles and starting over? How does everyone in Amish country keep their business afloat? Why doesn’t the state have some kind of tax code that inspires revitalization? After all, a lot of those doomed little towns could be quite pretty with the right attention.

At the very least, you could try convincing hipsters to move to coal country and make the place ironically awful. Sort of like the Pabst Blue Ribbon of real estate.

In any case, I’m left confused. To my mind, Pennsylvania isn’t one state. It’s at least two. Or maybe just one but run by evil wizards. Can anyone help me out here?