Myhrvold’s Terrorism Paper

Nathan Myrhvold released a lengthy paper analyzing the technological nature of terrorism and critiquing the American strategy of counterterrorism thus far. I particularly liked his Richter-scale for ranking potential threats. In his paper, Myrvhold suggests a far more proactive policy of investment in counterterrorism R&D. He concludes by stating that, in the likely event that his advice isn’t followed, it’s more likely than not that we will see an attack within the next decade that kills 100,000 – 1,000,000 Americans.

I think he’s correct about the nature of the threat, and I think he’s correct in his prediction. More worryingly, I think he’s right about the political constraints that make proactive measures very unlikely. However, I’m concerned that his prescriptions focus too much on the technology angle, to the exclusion of the domestic policy angle.

Joe Studwell’s “How Asia Works” is one of the best economics history books I’ve read. It’s as if Studwell sets out to prescribe the cure for the disease described in “Confessions of an Economic Hitman“, and succeeds brilliantly. The cure he prescribes dates back to Meiji-era Japan and German economist Friedrich List. The antidote explicated by List was applied successfully by Japan, South Korea, and modern-day China. Ironically, the antidote was forcibly administered by Americans, in the first two successful instances — in the case of Japan, by General MacArthur.

The first rung of the development ladder prescribed by List (and successfully implemented in Japan, South Korea, and China) is “land-tenure policies that support smallholder farmers”. Studwell compellingly argues that, without this first rung, no country has ever reached the higher rungs of development. Ever since the dawn of agriculture, the inexorable trend is for rent-seekers to capture an increasing share of the value, and eventually enslave 90% of the population in serfdom. This is the topic of Perkins’ book (and the genesis of what we call “bullshit jobs” — a topic for another post). But in the case of MacArthur (and List), the antidote was clear: land-tenure polices that redistributed land from rent-seekers to smallholders, resulting in full employment and skin-in-the-game for everybody. Overall profit drops, but individual productivity skyrockets.

When we fail to follow List’s (and MacArthur’s) advice, we see exactly the situation that Perkins predicted. Studwell holds up the Philippines as an example of a country that did a particularly poor job of agrarian reform (echoing the often-hilarious accounts in “Sons of the Yellow Emperor“). The rent-seekers capture government, and the fringes fall away and become sympathetic to “terrorist” groups like Abu Sayyaf.

The necessary reforms are unlikely to come from within, and simply forcing countries to become “democratic” isn’t the answer. But imposing these policies from the outside has been successful in the past, and would be a better use of our influence.

Reverse Solipsism

In the previous post, you were challenged to convince yourself that real people are imaginary. But most people would rather do the opposite. Most people spend a lot of time convincing themselves that imaginary people are real.

The imaginer mistakenly imagines that his imagination is fully under his control, so he assumes that imaginary people will be more pliable and pleasing than the pesky people of the real world. Even if he knows the imaginary people aren’t real, he wants the imaginary people to seem as real as possible, because he can get almost the same feeling as if they were real.

This is the basis of Harlequin romance novels, porn, and all sorts of other fantasy. But for at least 4,500 years, we have realized that reverse solipsism is self-destructive. The Epic of Gilgamesh introduces Lilu and Lilitu, who symbolize the temptation and consequences of replacing real human relationships with the imaginary. The very best modern telling of this story, in my opinion, is “Descent Into Hell“, by Charles Williams.

Of course, for people with means and a modicum of wits, there is a way out. You simply need to imagine the sort of people you want in your life, and then find an efficient way to filter through the 6 billion candidates on the planet to surround yourself with real people who do exactly what your imagination wants them to do. You want them to have the same hobbies as you? No problem. You want them to be supportive of almost everything you do? No problem. The numbers are large, so it’s simply an assortative matching game.

Everyone plays this game. If you’re in relationships with people who do mostly what you would have wanted imaginary people to do, then you’re probably skilled at the assortative matching game. And if you’re not, you’re probably playing the assortative matching game, but just not winning.

There is something repugnant about this game, though. Is it really any less self-destructive to seek out and use real people, rather than imaginary, to incarnate your fantasies? In fact, it seems that this game is just as self-destructive, and commits double harm by harming the other person. It’s reverse solipsism with massive collateral damage.

Some amount (maybe a very small amount) of assortative matching reverse solipsism is healthy and defensible. But my intuition is that excess and harmful assortative matching is endemic to human nature, and that it is worthwhile to consider countermeasures to guard yourself from falling into the trap. When it comes to countermeasures, I don’t have the answers. One tactic is to sabotage your own assortative matching process at times, so that you’re left to deal with people who most definitely do not incarnate your imaginary ideal. Another tactic is to fix your imagination so that it doesn’t require you to filter out so many people. But who knows?

Puzzling About Solipsism

I’m not sure how to frame this.

Imagine that you’re talking to someone about imagination, and you exclaim, “I’m not even convinced that you are not a figment of my imagination!”. Now, it is easy to imagine saying something like this. But can you imagine saying it convincingly?

The best way to sound convincing is to be convinced. And since you’re simply trying to convince yourself and the listener that solipsism can’t be ruled out, it ought to be easy. And perhaps it is easy. Most people can probably imagine it being easy.

But you would also be able to easily tell the difference between rehearsing the statement to an imaginary person and making the statement to a real person. That is, you wouldn’t feel any urgency to also convince yourself that you were unable to tell the difference between the two activities, while convincing yourself that solipsism can’t be ruled out.

This itself is not very puzzling. Rehearsing and performing are two separate things, whether your target is an imaginary person or real. And you can rationalize the difference in other ways. What is puzzling is the fact that people so naturally straddle this fence. It’s practically automatic.

I want to get a firm grasp of that process. What happens in our brains that allows us to so easily hold conflicting public and private truths while being convinced of both? What is the mechanism? And why is it so natural? What are the factors that might cause this split to be more or less easy to achieve?

Maybe it’s linked with the way that our mirror neuron system is able to tell the difference between our own face in the mirror and the faces of others. Or maybe it’s linked with the way the frontal lobe continuously inhibits mimicking behavior. We probably just don’t know.


One of my favorite poems about the intersection of memory, identity, and death is “Remember” by Christina Rossetti:

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,

Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.

Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand

It will be late to counsel then or pray.

Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,

Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

The poem starts out like the typical sentimental lover’s poem. But it veers breathtakingly with, “Yet if you should forget me for awhile…”.

The typical poem about death focuses on the transition between building memories with the beloved, and the point when new memories of the beloved are impossible. But Rossetti suggests a more important transition that might take place after the transition to the “silent land”. To paraphrase, “If you fail to remember me unceasingly after I’m gone, it is better to not remember me at all”. The treatment in Tuesday Morning is not as explicit, but could be interpreted the same way:

Turn your face from me
And I will cover myself with sorrow
Bring Hell down upon me
I will surrender my heart to sorrow
Bring Hell down upon me
And I will say goodbye tomorrow

But I knew that you
With your heart beating
And your eyes shining
Would be dreaming of me
Lying with you
On a Tuesday morning


This post is a rough sketch, triggered by a recent conversation with a friend about continuity of personal identity. Speculations about personal identity are typically triggered by the death of a loved one, or by some other intense damage to a relationship. Some of the issues involved are well-tread and boring, while others are more interesting.

1) Regarding the question, “What constitutes personal identity?”, the arguments are relatively boring to me. IEP outlines the basic arguments nicely. Parfit tries to sweep them all aside in one particular way. Nagasena and the Buddhist concept of Anatta try to sweep them all aside in an entirely different way. All of them are boring.

2) When people are contemplating these things, they are usually concerned with two completely separate but related questions: A) Is there a mechanism by which my consciousness might always be permitted/forced to awaken from sleep, or must/might my life eventually be extinguished forever? B) Between the periods of sleep, what constitutes and shapes who “I am”?

3) In my experience, most people place the highest priority on question “A”: Can/must the personal identity survive indefinitely? Some people want their personal identities to persevere forever (e.g. perhaps going to heaven, or perhaps cryogenically freezing their brains in hopes of eventually becoming uploaded to new computerized bodies), while others find hope in the concept of eventually extinguishing their personal identities (e.g. escaping the cycle of Samsara and attaining Nirvana). In my opinion, this question is quite boring, though. You don’t get much say in the matter, and if you do, your only influence over the matter is by answering question “B”.

4) We know a lot about question “B”, and we know that memory has a huge role to play. This side of the silent land, who you are is largely a function of your experiences and how you remember and interpret those experiences. Who you are is determined by (to use Rossetti’s metaphors) the people who held your hand, the people who told you of the future they’d plann’d, and the times you’d half turned to go, yet turning stayed. Regardless of how you answer question “A”, it’s how you answer question “B” that determines who you are when you cross the boundary into the silent land.

5) Based on the conclusions of #3 and #4, I think it is a mistake to focus on question “A”. However, some might protest that question “A” is the question of paramount importance, because they imagine that a specific answer to question “A” (e.g. uploading your brain to an immortal machine; or conversely, a perpetual transmigration of souls) would render irrelevant any concept of a transition to the “silent land”. In other words, they imagine that if they are immortal, then they always have the chance to reverse whatever course they are on and move their identities in a positive direction. This seems intuitively plausible, since we wake up fresh each morning and can choose each day to move our lives in a positive or a negative direction. To such people, it is absurdly arbitrary to posit a day when you awake and “it will be late to counsel then”. However, I find this argument to be likewise boring. Regardless of whether you wish for the singularity and whole-consciousness uploads, eternal transmigration of souls, or simply hope for life extension that allows you 10,000 years of new days rather than 100 — it is probably wishful thinking to assume that no persons will be trapped in local minima. If the answer to question “A” wants to render question “B” inferior, a lot of work needs to be done, and nobody has done that work.

6) While some questions are more interesting than others; all of these questions are relatively boring to me, and seem to be fueled by wishful thinking and narcissism. The more unique and interesting question is that posed by Rossetti’s second transition. Regardless of the mechanism of personal identity, let us assume that some persons get stuck in local minima or maxima and cannot budge their identities from a sticking point. Is this the end of the story? Or is there another factor in play? Once the person has been sucked into the stable state, can a moment of forgetfulness change the state? And whose forgetfulness, and whose state?

I don’t intend to explore that question here. Books could be written about question #6 alone. Books have been written about each of the other questions, too. My purpose here was just to explain the way I frame these issues in my mind, and where I see the most interesting puzzles to be.

Kathy Griffin is Right

Kathy Griffin has ascended as a professional idol/actress, and has finally earned enough praise and worship to get a little graven image of her own.  Upon accepting her statue, she said “nobody had less to do with this than Jesus”.

“Christians” are outragedOutraged, I tell you!!!

I am sure that she probably intended to say, “nobody had less to do with this than God”, since that’s the truth, but she didn’t want to get her head chopped off by an Islamist.

Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all hold idolatry to be the gravest sin.  Prohibition on idolatry comes before prohibitions on lying or murder in the ten commandments.  The “map is not the territory” and “don’t worship the map” are the first and second commandments.

It is utterly absurd for these actors, many of whom are increasingly made of plastic themselves, to gather little statues in the name of Abraham’s God.  Kathy Griffin clearly understands this.  Her comment was not only true, it was bold and courageous.  She even made a comment about worshipping the statue, just in case you didn’t understand.

I wonder how these militant evangelicals would feel if a confessed serial killer said, “nobody has less to do with my murders than Jesus; suck on this, Jesus!”  Lauren Green of FOX News would probably rant about how Jesus made it possible for the killer to have liberty, so Jesus should get all the credit for the murders.

The defensive response reminds me of the “Leave Britney Alone” post.  Is Lauren Green really serious, or is this a prank?  Could it be that Kathy Griffin is the one who actually understands, and Lauren Green has become like the statue, “with eyes but cannot see, and ears but cannot hear”?

Gore’s Cult of Reason

Al Gore’s latest book is called The Assault on Reason, and he makes the case that “Reason” alone is worthy of our praise and adulation, and furthermore is under assault by bad people who worship foreign Jewish gods.  Amazon sells it in a bundle with “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything”.

This kind of moronic thinking is epidemic in society today.  Leaders proclaim that some conceptual label like “religion” or “reason” is innately good or bad, and attract large followings of militant people who are smug in their belief that they are “above” the ignorant superstitions of the past.  It’s exactly what Yeats meant when he said “the worst are full of passionate intensity”.

If you believe that reason is under assault by religion, do not read on.  Passionate intensity requires conviction that you are correcting a past of dark errors, not repeating the tired old mistakes of thousands of years.  A careful look at history may shake your faith in the god of reason.

The deification of “reason” is at least 2,000 years old.  Plutarch is one of the most famous essayists in western culture.  He was one of the first to advance the arguments that religion is a result of superstitious people trying to explain things that they can’t understand.  As incomplete and unimaginative as this is (I could likewise argue that “reason” was invented by people trying to rationalize things that they knew they shouldn’t be doing), it’s been taught to elementary schoolkids ever since. 

But at least Plutarch was more honest than today’s militant atheists.  For starters, he acknowledged several other factors in the formation of religion.  And most importantly, he didn’t argue that reason was somehow different from other things people believe in.  He was a high priest of Apollo, and Apollo was essentially intellect deified.  The ancient Greeks were smart enough to realize that *anything* you place faith in is a god.

At the end of the French revolution, when the French set out to “de-Christianize” France, they decided to worship “reason”.  Again, they set a standard of honesty that would put today’s atheists to shame.  They explicitly declared a “Cult of Reason“.  If you are going to run around saying that something is by it’s very nature good, deserving of your sacrifice and praise — at least have the honesty to admit you’re making a god of it.  Especially when you are going to elevate it above other gods, as the French did, don’t pretend it’s not a god.

Now, I am not saying that reason is a bad thing.  Reason can be used for both bad and good, just as religion can.  But elevating reason to the status of something infallible is pretty superstitious and ignorant even by ancient standards.  Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali made this case quite lucidly 1,000 years ago.  Reason is limited and fallible, just like religion is.

Proving that reason is not infallible doesn’t even require faith.  You can prove it with reason, as many throughout history have done.  Like Plutarch, Ghazali realized that life is full of uncertainty, and that the real enemy was “passionate intensity”.  Both Plutarch and Ghazali recognized the limitations of reason, and were happy to coexist with faith.  After Ghazali died, the “Cult of Reason” people in the Islamic world provoked an escalation that sounds a lot like Al Gore today:

“Soon the Islamic rationalists were hard at work exterminating all traces of revealed authority by making faith subordinate to reason, while the blind faithful attacked the very core of this new threat by attempting to exterminate reason.”

Today’s misguided cult of Apollo meditate on the supremecy of their god, “reason”, and fill themselves with a righteous indignation.  They set off with passionate intensity to rid the world of dangerous unbelievers.  Since such blind faith in reason is unreasonable, it’s no mistake that the passionate intensity is coming mostly from demagogues, actors, washed-up molecular biologists, and others with no credentials in either reason or faith.

It says something about our culture, that so many rush to the bookstores to read this superstition, yet nobody has time today to read Al-Ghazali, Plutarch, or Petrarch.  Wisdom is the true scorned artifact of the past; today we prefer passionate intensity!

New Favorite Hacker Quote

Alec Baldwin, talking to an answering machine: “You have humiliated me for the last time with this phone”.

There certainly is humiliation and a phone involved, but I think that statement was just the start.  Alec Baldwin, didn’t you promise to leave the country?  There is no reason for an answering machine to put up with such abuse, there are plenty of guys out there.

Are You Vice Neutral?

Although the former Vice President uses more energy at home in a month than the average American household uses in a year — and more than the average village in the developing world uses in a year, his handlers want us to know that he “walks the walk” and “practices what he preaches” about energy conservation.

If you want to be a lion of righteousness like he, here is how you do it.  First, identify something you have done which reduced energy consumption.  Ignore anything that increased energy consumption; only talk about your virtuous actions.  You can proclaim “We all do our part!  My energy use would be much worse if I had not moved a smaller TV into the poker room!”

Next, buy virtue from someone else.  Spend just as much money as you need to “offset” your carbon usage.  It’s like one of those wonderful old Catholic indulgences.  When you are “cabon neutral”, you can run around preaching to the 99.99% of the world who use less energy than you.


Maybe the point isn’t about being virtuous, after all.  The American economy has some serious problems, not least of which is the fact that our national debt is underwritten by the Chinese.  When the growth slows, it’s going to hurt to have all of those American dollars sitting in Chinese banks. 

But all is not lost.  China is now the biggest carbon source on the planet, and the carbon debt equation between our two countries is quickly changing.  We are working hard to make sure that Chinese people can get beef and milk domestically, rather than import it.  Cows generate a lot of carbon, and we would rather have that carbon count against their debt.  Same with cars, heavy industry, and power generation.  I bet that by the time we figure out the proper formula for “carbon credits”, it will magically work out so that all of the money they lent us was just a down payment on their carbon debt.  They are very fortunate there is a cleansy nation like us around to help erase the putrid pollution.


But why stop at “carbon neutral”?  The idea of indulgences is profound.  No more hiding the right hand from the left — let the right hand wash the left, and the left wash the right!

I propose that we strive to be “vice neutral”.  If you beat your wife, just contribute to the abused children fund.  The guy who beats his kids will contribute to the battered wives fund, and it all balances out!  Do you use bookies who murder people?  No problem!  Just donate some money to build a playground in your neighborhood!

The more the money flows, the more washing is going on, and the better off we all are.  In fact, we could have whole markets to hedge and speculate on major moves in the vice-cleansing indices.  You could make a career simply managing the flows of cleansing cash between the left and the right.  The leaders of the nations could monitor the indices to ensure that all of the vices stayed truly balanced in harmony.

And, of course, such a system inherently favors the virtuous west.  It may be true that Seattle is the world’s biggest port for human trafficking, and Europe and America are great purveyors of depravity.  But they have slave labor and beat their women.  By the time their women make it over here in a shipping container, it’s almost like the streets are paved with gold compared to where they came from.  Yes, vice-neutrality will work out very well for us.

Revenge of the Tidols

Titles of nobility were tools created by powerful families to keep wealth concentrated within a genetic line.  The precise mathematical formula for optimal inbreeding was embodied in the descending hierarchy of rank.  For a thousand or more years, wealth and genetic ambition have fed the golem of nobility, and at last the golem has broken free and is rampaging around the city.

It’s amazing to see that a man would undergo a sham adoption just to claim the title of “prince”.  Stranger yet that a woman who made a living selling false appearances to others would give this imposter half her wealth and enter a loveless marriage just to be called “princess”.  But utterly surreal is the woman who made a living pretending to be someone who pretended to be someone else.  Through her, wealth intended for genetic lineage took a life of its own and helped motivate her bizarre quest to be adopted by the sham nobles and called “princess”.  Her daughter might have been “princess”; both daugter and granddaughter of the same man; and her son a “prince”.

How senseless.  Michael Jackson, as wacky as his is, had more sense than this.  He simply named his son “prince”.  That artist with the big guitar named himself “prince”.  You can even mint yourself a URI and become King of San Francisco.

I think this was one lesson of the “pied piper” story.  The young mother at first claims she’s doing it “for the child”, no doubt with ample encouragment and “moral support” from opportunistic men.  But when it comes time to pay the piper and make good the bargain, she has a choice to make, between the lifestyle and the child.  Outliving the original child, a new child whose presumptive father would rather be cuckolded than risk the inheritance, and friends to whom adoptive nobility is more important than genetic right of succession.  The 50-year ambush becomes the 100 year ambush.  Soon the children are slaves to the ambush.