Categories
society

On the Government and the Theory of Democracy

Before elected government, there were still governments. In many places it was by the wealthy, by the church, by divine right and that was the only right. There, law was based on status—blood and force and prophecy of who could pull a sword from a stone.

And then came the idea of natural rights, that everyone should be treated with a certain respect because we are alive and that is enough status by itself.


When we speak of democracy, we’re talking about a sophisticated cycle:

  1. People choose their government.
  2. The government performs for a time.
  3. People reevaluate and repeat step 1.

This kernel of scientific government is essential to progress and to maintaining a functioning society. It attempts to strike a balance between unfettered change and conserving the old. It sets a cadence, it gives a ritual, it provides a path forward.

Those who stand in opposition to democracy are standing opposed to the basic educational loop by which we can improve society. They propose something like:

  1. People don’t choose their government. The government is whoever can grab the reins and kick everyone else off.
  2. The government does whatever the fuck it wants. (To be fair, it could be good, but if it isn’t there’s no recourse.)
  3. Ashes, ashes. We all fall down.

Then, maybe, the survivors build something out of those ashes.

But the tried-and-true loop of democratic government is superior, adaptable, dependable. Only it has a flaw. Its flaw is that we have to give up our power and we have to trust that the people will make good decisions over time. Not every time, but that on average the decisions will be better than a dictator’s, better than a business’, and better than any minority interest of any kind, religious, ethnic, whatever.

And that requires the people have a say. But there are those who are afraid of what we have to say to each other. On both sides.

Many fear the racism, the batshit conspiracy, the anti-religious zealotry of so-called Christians. Others fear the cancel culture, the spectre of communism arising from greater social welfare programs, and culture that’s not aligned with their values or tastes.

But that’s society, and that’s what we have to work with. Fear. That we might fuck it all up, and ruin it all, and be left with ashes. But, for all the resistance to Donald John Trump, the conservatives of this country have not admitted that America trusted and allowed for such a grave mistake. We afforded this ruin, including thousands upon thousands who have given up their lives to a virus that this supposed leader did not prepare to act against and that he has largely neglected to manage.

We know our lives may be lost to blunders of impetuosity by our fellow citizens, but we still believe in the cause that over time, on average, we will do better by voting, by choosing. That the flaw that allowed Donald John Trump to exist as a candidate, and then as an elected president, is the same flaw that makes our system work at all. That yes, we can fuck it all up. But no, we do not want to fuck it up, and we will strive to learn the lessons and avoid the mistakes and purge the corruption and right the ship and sail into the bloody sunset!

Anyhoo. The election is in ten short weeks.

Categories
society

How High Should Taxes Be?

70% on the ten-million-and-first dollar? A wealth tax? How high should we tax the wealthy?

First, why do we tax at all? The theory of taxation is that, contrary to those who call it theft, taxation is payment of debt. By virtue of the services rendered, the tax is how the services are paid for. Larger earners, conducting more commercial activity, using more of the legal system, shipping inspection, and so forth, are to pay a higher percentage due to their higher rewards and higher use.

Economists get into the effects of tax more than the reasons for it, or the fairness of it. Things like the Laffer Curve are drawn up, to theorize that taxation matters a lot and that government revenue can be equal at very different places along the curve, while private spending and overall economy can be very different. Politically-embedded economists thus focus on an apolitical, theoretical system to make a political argument.

But the woman waiting for a bus to take her to her minimum-wage job isn’t rewarded by such abstractions. She knows that the nominal rate and the effective rate are about the same for her, while they are a Grand Canyon apart for those who can afford a team of accountants. She knows that she could pay 100% of her whole life’s wages and never pay as much as some of the wealthiest should in a single year.

None of which answers the question of how high taxes should be. The ultimate answer to that query is that nobody knows, and unfortunately, we’re not planning to find out. The answer to how high taxes should be is that we should adjust them continuously, and find out based on the experimentation. That we have the knowledge and ability to do so, we lack only the political will.

For example, we could start with the current tax rates, and make half-point adjustments to all brackets, or add new brackets and adjust those too. As long as the timing is regular and the adjustments are gradual, we can account for a lot of the noise. As long as we are willing to tweak the rates based on current conditions, lowering taxes in recessionary times, raising them in times of health, the slow and methodical march of the tax rates could yield us with something better than arguing will.

The interest rate already works this way. Is it not time for the tax rate to join it?

Categories
earth

Pruitt’s Data Rule and Deep Learning

(Soon-to-be former?) head of the EPA Pruitt has proposed a public data rule (RIN 2080-AA14). This could be a good rule, but it really depends on the implementation. This post focuses, briefly, on the implication for deep learning science in such a rule.

Briefly, deep learning takes normalized, record-based data and creates a mapping from input data to some per-record output determination.

Think of a phone book (the data) with individual listings (the records) and then some determination you want to do on those records. It could be something very simple (last name has n vowels) or something complicated.

The data itself may be public, but depending on the implementation of the proposed rule, making this secondary data public in any meaningful sense may be very difficult.

There are several challenges. One is simply the amount of records that may be used. Another is the trained network may be proprietary or non-portable or even dependent on custom hardware. There may also be situations where several neural networks act in tandem, each derived from a bulk of training data (some of which may itself be output from other networks), which would further complicate the data access requirements.

But there is also the question of whether the output would be public, even if published. Normally data is public when the individual measurements are available and the methodology behind those measurements is known. But there is a reasonable and inevitable blindness to the internal workings of deep learning. Trying to explain the exact function the machine has derived is increasingly difficult as complexity increases, and even if all the inputs and outputs are public, the transition function may be obscure.


Which isn’t to say that data, methods, and findings should not be replicated, peer reviewed, and subject to introspection. The EPA should, for example, draw a stricter line against carbon fuel companies and other chemical companies, requiring that more of their filings be public.

In the case of deep learning, not for the EPA’s sake, but for the sake of science itself, better rules for how to replicate and make available data and findings are needed.

Others have already pointed out the difficulty of studies predicated on sensitive personal data like medical records. But there is a general need to solve that problem as well, as the inability to examine such information may block important findings from surfacing.

This is similar to the fight over minors buying e-cigarettes online: opponents of e-cigarettes act as though there is a particular, nefarious plot by vendors, but we do not have anything close to a universal age verification system. Better to develop one for all the tasks that require it.

And so it is with the EPA rule: Congress should draft a law that allows all scientific data used by the government to be as public as is possible.

Categories
society

Why Space Matters

Sometimes people question the value of science, like whether it matters we now have confirmation of liquid water on Mars. I often question the value of celebrity gossip, so it’s not a sufficient answer to simply reply, ‘Because, science.’ What would a possible future benefit from knowing more about space and other planets look like?

To answer the celebrity issue, maybe if you learn about a celebrity’s allergies you could stop them from eating something they shouldn’t and going into anaphylactic shock. But good luck with that.

In the case of water on Mars, it helps with planning for future missions to Mars, but can also let us learn about the types of worlds that can exist. Down the long road of the future, we might be quicker to figure out a similar planet is similar if we know more about Mars, just like if you know a lot about one actor, you might extrapolate information about another.

But more than that, a lot of the science and engineering from studying space are in figuring out “how do we figure out X?” We have some scientific question and we can’t just scratch off a lottery ticket and see what the answer is. We have to feel our way to the answer through a lot of obstacles.

In the case of water on Mars, we could have just sent a giant bomb full of color-changing-when-wet tablets to mars and blown it up, dispersing them all over the planet. But that would have put a bunch of those chemicals all over the planet, potentially ruining future explorations, and it might still not have given us the real answer, depending on when and how the water flows.

Instead, they sent a vehicle with a decent number of tools and sensors, including cameras, to look around, feel around. That meant doing a lot of work, including designing and building the rovers, which includes how to power them, how to get them to Mars, and how to get them onto the surface. A lot of those issues being solved helps build the next one better, and it also tells us where we need better technology.

Okay, okay, a lot of boring science stuff. Who cares? People on earth have other stuff to worry about.

But if and when we find out a big rock is on a collision course with earth, you’ll probably care, right? They’ve hit us before, and sooner or later we will probably have to deal with the prospect of an impact coming our way. Space exploration is an insurance policy. The more we know about space and getting up there and working up there, the better our chances at dealing with something that could make us all have a really, really bad time.

Categories
science

Religion’s Compatibility with Science

In very broad strokes, religion can be compatible with science. But you can’t really take the details of current religious texts too seriously (barring extraordinary evidence emerging). So what does it mean for someone to “follow a bible” and still believe in science?

Take creation myths, for example. Can you believe a deity created man directly? Can you believe in a great flood? Miracles? Not really, at least not entirely. Science has a pretty detailed map of how man developed, contradicting creation myths. Barring evidence, creation myths are the opposite of science. Same with the great flood. While it sounds like a heavily watered-down account of a mass extinction, unless ancient scientists had their accounts heavily bastardized, it’s just another myth.

As for miracles, science rejects them absolutely. A miracle to science is either a false account, a major coincidence (low-probability event), something that is not yet understood, or some combination of these. Science rejects the genuine meaning of the term, though. That’s something like, “an event that defies coherent reality entirely in favor of the whims of some preternatural scheme or order.” If reality makes sense at all, it must be consistent. Half-assed realities make for bad avant-garde films that inevitably punt on so many details as to make them unwatchable.

Can we even believe in an agent infinite in time?

Maybe. We know the universe has a long lifetime, if not infinite. We know some things about what it really probably means for something to exist in time. Namely we know it changes. Time requires change, insofar as the thing itself must change, or at least its surroundings change relative to it.

So there may be some specks of dust in the universe that are almost its age and have not changed, except their position has. Their environment has.

Can the same be said of a deity? Could a god exist in rigid, unchanging form? And, if so, what does the fact of the universe changing do to the properties of that god?

Books like the Christian bibles depict their gods as having emotional states. That would require some sort of change. A common claim in religious debates is that gods and deities are timeless, but that would seem to preclude interactions. A modified argument might state that gods are over time, or beyond it, but can still act within it. But acting within it is still a temporal change.

Rigidity is not obviously a feature rather than a bug, either. The ability for change is one of the greatest forces science knows. The principles of evolution are surely too powerful to be ignored by a deity, and yet there are many theists that deny the power of evolutionary systems (which, so far, it appears all systems are).

When you have a good grasp of the reach of science, what room is left for gods? Some does remain. Sustainable religion is something more akin to a moral code. But even that is chewed by science, so that it must not make proclamations against behaviors without reason. What remains is the ideal of a being having greater insight and cognitive capacity than man making moral decisions based on more-perfect knowledge.

Religion is about 1% compatible with science. When you strip away its historical inaccuracies, its prejudiced pseudomorality, what’s left is mostly something like the Golden Rule or a bit of sentiment about man’s place in the world being to do good and be kind.

And what of a personal relationship with a specific deity or deity-proxy? As long as it stays in the confines of your skull, it’s your business. Unless science can see it, you probably won’t get the benefit of the doubt from the science-minded anymore than someone that claimed to be in telepathic contact with extra-terrestrials. But if it gives you joy to play hyper-chess with Gleep-glorp, and you’re not harming others or blocking their rights, don’t let us stop you.

The notion of trust in a god is still interesting. Due to the superstitious nature of man, having trust is important. In a world where governments, institutions, individuals, and systems can and do break down, having a trust that some fabric is forever unstained appeals to us. But that trust often ends up in the hands of religious zealots. And they, in turn, often cause or contribute to the very calamities that the trust is meant to protect from.

Religion is a nice social activity. If treated as such, rather than as a lifestyle that dictates behavior, it is fine. 99% of the time, that’s all it appears to be used for. Folks, aspiring to be better, getting together and helping each other. That’s wonderful. It’s only when it becomes a cause for mob ethics, anti-equality, and the like, that it really starts to be a problem. And most of those behaviors are provoked not by religion, but simply use the religious groups as their shield.