Strange Loops - Blog Archive: April 2005
Strange Loops Journal Archive: April 2005

Blog || Politics || Philosophy || Science || Fiction || Quotes

Making Congress Actually Read the Laws It Passes
April 11, 2005

It has been reported that often Congresscritters do not even read the entirety of the laws they pass. They go on summaries by staff or lobbyists or media, or just vote how their party wants, without even seeing all the details of the law (let alone trying to find out how it might alter other statutes from a legal perspective).

Downsize DC is a campaign to force lawmakers to read the laws they pass in order to streamline bills down to only what is really needed in an attempt to curb the bloatification of the federal government beyond necessity. Among the ideas in their draft legislative proposal: make Congress read the bills aloud in session, a seven day waiting period between hearing a new law and voting on its passage, and public notice of proposed laws and their details before they are voted on.

Seems like an interesting idea. I do not know if it would actually tackle the problem at hand or if legislators would only find other ways to avoid being responsible, but it does at least appear like it would help keep things a little more in check to some extent. As the site mentions, bills would likely become shorter and clearer, not trying to change too many barely-related things at once (i.e. amendments tacked on that have nothing to do with the initial or main purpose).

In addition, I really like the idea of making bills publicly available previous to the voting so that if an amendment tries to slip something crazy in, likely some voter out there will notice it and bring it to public attention in time for public outrage to make Congress think twice. No more slipping controversial provisions into unrelated bills late in the game to avoid public outcry until it is too late.

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Hegel in 22 Minutes
April 11, 2005
If only I had known about this when I took that pesky seminar on Hegelian philosophy last year. Squashed Philosophers offers the most important summary and excerpt info for various great thinkers to get at their most important ideas and quotes while ditching a lot of the wordiness. A fun site to browse, and not unuseful for brushing up on some forgotten details.

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How Do You Talk To Aliens?
April 11, 2005
I have written previously about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and communicating with them if we ever find them. One possibility mentioned there was sending a big one-way message to another planet, like an encyclopedia of all human knowledge. By restraining ourselves to a one-time, one-way message we avoid the time limitations imposed by the vast distance between solar systems (even information traveling at the speed of light will take years to go back and forth for conversations, perhaps longer than human lifetimes).

The question is how such an encyclopedia (or other one-time communication) should be designed so that the aliens can actually understand it. They will not speak English and likely will not know to translate radio wave signals into the same sort of audio that a hand-radio here on Earth does. Scientists have attempted to come up with as universal and non-anthropocentric a solution to this problem as possible. One early attempt was made with the Pioneer 11 mission, which attached to the ship the plaque pictured below in case it eventually somehow stumbled upon an alien civilization (chances: way less than slim considering the tiny size of the ship in the immensity of space).

The plaque attempts to represent the hyperfine transition of hydrogen (which would happen in any part of the universe and probably be known by any advanced scientific and technological intelligence) in order to set up a unit of length - the wavelength of this transition.

Built on that, with various scaling, are pictorial representations of the spaceship itself, a human man and woman, our solar system, and the relative position of our sun to the center of the galaxy using the location of pulsars (which could be seen from elsewhere).

The pictures make some sense when they are explained to the reader. For example: the lengths of the lines at the middle left show the relative distances of the pulsars to our sun and a mark at the end of each line gives the Z-coordinate perpendicular to the galactic plane. Ticks above each planet in the layout of our solar system give the distance to the sun in binary. The humans are drawn against an enlarged portion of the image representing the ship in order to establish scale. The ship itself is attached to the representation of Earth by a line to show that it came from Earth.

But simply looking at the picture, how many humans could identify its meaning? Almost none of the human scientists originally shown the message could, so what is the chance an alien species would? Creatures evolving in such a different environment would likely not think or perceive exactly as we do. If they have a sense that might be called vision, it likely is not the same as ours. After all, consider the difference between our vision and that of a squid or a bat. It is almost silly to imagine that they would think pictorially in the same way we do (interpreting scratches on the plaque as geometric lines, when they might perceive and put together their perceptions under a different geometry than ours, e.g.).

Studying the problems of the Pioneer plaque might help understand the anthropocentric pitfalls we run into in trying to design a message for a species about which we know nothing but that it is intelligent and technologically advanced enough to receive our signals. So how then do we go about transmitting ideas and knowledge to an extraterrestrial intelligence?

Chess Grandmaster John Nunn attempts to tackle part of the problem here. He conjectures that because they can receive and interpret our radio signals, they must have some sort of information processing system - in some sense a computer, though likely very different in physical implementation from our own. If we can get them to grasp the few simple logic gates that underlie our own computers, he suggests that the aliens will be able to reconstruct something that functions just like our own computers, even from vastly different materials. He cites the Church-Turing Thesis, which effectively states that any computer can run any algorithm, or as Nunn stretches it: any computer can emulate the operation of any other.

Assuming he is correct, once we got around the problem of explaining our logic gates (certainly not easy, but probably no harder than trying to communicate our sun's distance from the center of the galaxy, as the Pioneer plaque authors did) and they grasp that we want them to emulate a computing machine that can run a program we write, then we can send a program of whatever size and complexity we wish (they need merely load the instructions as they come in).

The sort of program he suggests sending is an artificial intelligence (once we have built or evolved them). An AI could be programmed not only to hold all the knowledge we have stored up and wish to send, but also to adapt to the situation it finds itself in and act as a sort of representative for Earth. A program can be easily transmitted at the speed of light whereas an actual human representative cannot. This seems to allow for the most efficient one-way, one-time communication until many years or lifetimes later when a return signal could reach us.

Of course, I am not sure Nunn's solution has less assumptions than that of the Pioneer plaque's authors. How to communicate the workings of the logic gates on which our computers are built might not be easy - even if they have the concepts of a computer and build their information processing systems on universal mathematico-logical operations similar to our own, how do we make it clear in the first place that that is what we have sent them?

Nunn suggests that it might take a long time for them to analyze our message and deduce its meaning, which sounds reasonable until you imagine humans trying to decode some arcane, mysterious message from aliens. If it were not obvious in a relatively short time, the real meaning would likely be flooded over by countless other crazy hypotheses and there would be too many possibilities to try them all out.

Perhaps, though, we can eventually come up with some way to be more clear what we are suggesting they do with the information. Once this initial hurdle is cleared, feeding the transmitted program into the computer should not be a problem. However, Nunn virtually ignores a major problem with his idea. Once the AI program is up and running, what exactly is its user-interface going to be like? Certainly it will not prompt the aliens in English (or else we would not have had the communication problem in the first place), but then how will it interact with them? It appears things are actually back at square one.

The only thing I can think of is that whatever way we found to make clear our intentions for having them put together the computer would give enough of a communication basis on which to start off some other very simple communication which is independent of the input-output interface (their information processing systems may be able to emulate our own as far as computing any algorithm and thus running any program, but they surely will not have pixel-displaying monitors like our own). At least once some basic start has been made, an intelligent enough AI could theoretically keep adapting to their attempts until it was able to establish a workable method of more in-depth communication.

While the suggestion of sending an artificial intelligence program in the end does not actually get around the initial problem of establishing the simplest communication (getting from a radio signal to meaningful symbolic information), it does seem to present a more thoughtful and useful alternative to just broadcasting a larger and more complicated version of the Pioneer plaque (i.e. Encyclopedia Earth). Whether the AI would fairly represent our own intelligence and civilization is another question, but surely it will come closer than a static 'book'.

Of course, Nunn suggests another reason why we should send an AI program: it could bargain and trade with the alien species in what he suggests is the only viable interstellar commodity between two civilizations which are merely broadcasting to each other over vast distances and not actually meeting in person: information. We share certain parts of our knowledge in exchange for their verification to the AI that they have broadcast some of their knowledge back toward Earth to eventually be received by us.

This entire notion of Nunn's seems absurd though. He thinks that our knowledge could be encrypted in such a way that only the AI could access it to dole it out as necessary. Perhaps that is so, though I suspect a sufficiently advanced civilization might be able to break our own attempts at encryption since we are handing them the source code to the tool that does the decrypting. However, even if things could work as he suggests, there is a fundamental flaw in his premise that knowledge is a viable commodity.

Any other civilizations out there will have come about at different times in different solar systems and the chance that any species we communicate with has been around for roughly the same amount of time as our own civilization is miniscule. Look how much we have adapted and changed in just the few decades since radio technology was invented: imagine how we will change in a thousand more years if we do not destroy ourselves. Surely an alien civilization which has been technologically improving for thousands or even millions of years longer than us will be far beyond our own in terms of scientific knowledge and the like. Given our own youth (a mere newborn civilization in the cosmic scale of things), it is of course most likely we would be the younger of the two if this communication happened anytime relatively soon.

Since the other civilization is likely much more advanced than us, it is laughable that we would have much to offer them in terms of bargaining knowledge for knowledge. Consider how out of date our knowledge will be to ourselves in fifty years time - if it takes fifty years to send our signal and fifty years to get back their response, what we had to offer will be old news and it is doubtful it will be worth any of their knowledge which would be useful to us one hundred years later. I think in all honesty we have to assume that if we are going to get any knowledge from them, it will be a choice made based on their own benevolence (or other motives) and not because of the knowledge we can offer.

Should the entire AI idea be scrapped them? Of course not. For one thing, there might just be benevolent civilizations out there. Our own history shows how quickly a technological civilization can gain the power to destroy itself (nukes and pollution now, perhaps nanotech grey-goo overrunning the planet before long), so it is plausible that those civilization which can successfully find a way not to destroy themselves have found a way around the simplistic malevolence and greed that would closed-fistedly keep a tight grip on all knowledge.

More than that, though, it is arguable that it would be worthwhile to share our knowledge and thoughts and collective experience with another species even if it is not going to send us back new technology or scientific information. There is something amazing about sharing and communicating with another intelligent civilization in the first place which is valuable in and of itself.

Imagine if you were one of only a few disparately located humans stranded on islands across an uninhabited Earth. Would you not find something rewarding in sending out a message in a bottle and knowing it will reach someone else, even if you never meet them in your lifetime, even if they are unable to send you back food or tools in exchange?

To share and communicate with an intelligence which evolved half way across the galaxy seems vastly more amazing. So sharing our knowledge freely does seem a reasonable direction for our attempts at interstellar communication to move in once we have developed a reasonable artificial intelligence.

Of course, if this is such a logical solution to the problem of talking to extraterrestrial intelligences, no doubt other civilizations more advanced than our own will have stumbled upon the idea (if not a better one, that is) and will send or have sent their AI blueprints our way (depending on whether they know of us yet or are just sending out a blanket signal).

Which means if we get a message from the stars it likely will not just be a simple hello like the Pioneer plaque, showing the shape and size of their bodies and what solar system they come from (the latter information probably being obvious for radio or light signals). Instead it might be a method for constructing some sort of technology for establishing instantaneous communication with a representative from their solar system.

Finding any such signals which are aimed at us and arriving right about now - let alone deciphering them - is another problem we will have to tackle when we get to it, but for now the search for a clear communication signal among all the static is still going on.

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Impromptaiku For a Spring Day That Doesn't Feel Like Spring
April 04, 2005
Winter morning bliss:
Sleeping late and slipping on
Drier-toasted sweats

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Is the FDA Past Its Expiration Date?
April 04, 2005
Someone suggested to me recently that the FDA should be privatized because it moves so slow and keeps people from using drugs that might help them until enough tests are run on the drug. With a private FDA, the pharmaceuticals industry would self-regulate, and those consumers who wished to risk taking untested drugs would be free to do so (since the FDA would have no legal authority) while everyone else waited for the report.

To some extent this sounds reasonable. I generally follow the principle that "that government is best which governs least," and prefer the government stay away from dictating our behavior when it will not hurt anyone else. Government intervention in our choices of things which might risk our own health but not hurt anyone else is an infringement of freedom that seems prima facie unnecessary.

The problem is that as the system stands right now privatizing the FDA will not necessary increase our freedom. It seems like a private FDA would quickly become a shill for big corporations. Look at current drug testing practices: some companies today sponsor studies by universities (who definitely need the grant money) under carefully written terms and conditions so that if the results look bad, they can keep the research to themselves and legally bar the researchers from publishing the results (to protect trade secrets). With no regulatory agency at all things would likely just get much worse.

To expect an industry like big pharmaceuticals to regulate itself is a idealistic dream of capitalism. Unfortunately corporations do everything they can to get around the laws, bending them as far as possible in order to maximize profit. Remove the laws and they will seize most any opportunity they can in order to continue increasing profit.

Now one might argue that people will stop supporting companies that screw them over, but that does not seem to be the case. Companies screw people over today and people still go back to them. Some of the worst and most abusive companies are the most financially successful. Right now they try to work within and stretch the laws while maximizing profit. In the absence of legal oversight they will be able to do even more damage while more effectively hiding it.

Currently if a company is found doing wrong and gets a bad reputation, it can go through some legal loopholes to dissolve and then start up a new company with a new name - but still the same company - and keep doing what they were doing before. Without the regulation they will still be doing the same tricks but worse.

If people find out some big drug company is doing something horrible, the company can switch its name or start selling through a different subsidiary, and the average consumer has no clue of the connection and still financially supports the company that he thinks he is boycotting. It is almost impossible to research and keep up with all this information in our fast-moving society these days; and it is certainly impossible for a single individual consumer to do all the research needed to follow what products are okay to buy and support and which should be avoided.

So while it is true that government regulation of what medicines we are legally allowed to purchase and use is an infringement on our freedom, it seems like privatizing the FDA - essentially doing away with it as a regulatory agency and turning it into a public relations machine - would in the end lessen our freedom. We would become trapped by corporations (who spend billions every year on market research to learn just how to coerce consumers into buying their products).

Is government by government worse than government by corporations? If you end up a slave to the system either way, you are still a slave and it becomes a matter of semantics whether the people ruling you are called a 'government' or not. You are still being ruled. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it:

"I do not wish to remove from my prison to a prison a little larger. I wish to break all prisons."

As the system is set up right now, private companies will not self-regulate, and complete non-regulation of all business will lead to a much worse prison than what the official government puts around us. Ideally we should find a system where government is not necessary at all, but while our social system is still full of these sorts of problems, the next best thing is simply minimizing government so that it provides the needed benefits without bloating up and trying to interfere in every aspect of our lives.

It seems to me that regulating drug companies is one of those things which we are better off with for the time being, which actually leads to more freedom for us as citizens and consumers in the long run by giving us relatively reliable information on which to base our medical decisions instead of being trapped into making decisions with only the information that corporations choose to selectively release.

So then what about the claim that the FDA moves too slow, that it should release new drugs into the market faster? As annoying as it is to have the leviathan move so slowly, it seems vastly preferable to allowing it to make sudden jerks in one direction or the other. By moving slowly, it ensures that a fad product or a media-blitz'd product cannot get widespread on the market and do huge amounts of harm before anyone realizes it is unsafe. That takes tests and trials, and those take time.

Given the current state of our society a slow FDA is certainly better than no FDA, as argued above. But is the slowness really such a bad thing? To me it seems analogous to Congress's slowness. People complain that the U.S. government cannot get any real change done without waiting years or decades, that it cannot respond to new developments or fix problems quickly.

That sounds bad until you look at history and realize the potential for major problems when a government is allowed to make big changes quickly. Consider how easily representatives fall into line when there is some national fad, panic or paranoia. Take for example the fast passage of the huge Patriot Act (which changed many important statutes) days after September 11, 2001 without time to consider its far-reaching effects or constitutionality. If that seems problematic, imagine if the system had had no checks to slow things down when the executive made a power grab during the emergency, if there was little chance of undoing bad laws after they were passed.

Instead, today heads are cooling off and a lot of representatives and judges are realizing the mistakes of the too-broad Patriot Act and are trying to swing things back a little more toward balanced. It is precisely because the system is set up to move slowly, not to pass legislation and fix things quickly, that security fears did not compromise liberty as far as they could have - and the reaction certainly could have been worse, considering how much further many critics thought the government should go in the wake of that disaster.

In the same way that a slow Congress protects against large, swift changes in government which could lead to abuse, a slow FDA protects against corporations pushing new, potentially unsafe drugs onto the market without adequate information. It may mean decreasing our options in the short term by keeping a promising new drug off of the market, but in the long run it keeps the drug end of the medical system running in a stable manner so that we can get safe drugs at all, which in the end seems worth the trade-off.

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Sin City
April 04, 2005
Saw the new movie Sin City last night. It is based on a well-liked graphic novel I never got around to reading, so I went in pretty much blank on what the movie was about. It has a sort of surreal noir feel to it in terms of visuals, character development and dialogue. This part started out a bit jarring (almost comical) but by the end it seemed to fit perfectly with the film that had developed.

I am tempted to describe the movie as half-way between a bloody action flic and a gritty detective drama, but really at its heart it is just a story of revenge following some interesting characters in a dark setting. Those characters were exaggerated just enough to fit the strange, noirish mood, but not so much that it slipped past surrealness into implausibility.

The movie is definitely full of violence - gunfights, beheadings, torture and blood-spurting - but much of the blood and gore is done in white (going along with the selectively black-and-white filming, where color only shows up here and there to really make things stand out). This serves to dissociate the viewer from the violence and contributes to the surreal feeling of the film. What would have surely been disgustingly overdone violence in a movie filmed normally actually seems right at home in this film.

Sin City is definitely worth checking out if you can handle a little violence and are looking for something that really stands out as unique among the repetitive trash that often seeps out of Hollywood. It is well-shot, well-written and quite entertaining.

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