Imponderables, partially pondered.

Derek Abbott has a hobby of collecting Imponderables. Interesting or unanswered questions. Many of them require specialized knowledge, or more rigor than I’m prepared to put into them at the moment to attack them properly, but here are a few of my thoughts on some of them.

Information theory: Imagine you are an alien from a totally different world – so different that even the building blocks of life are completely different on your planet. Now say that you land on planet Earth. You find three huge sheets of paper (i) one containing English text (ii) one listing a DNA sequence and (iii) one listing a computer program. You have no idea which is which, but you recognize you are looking at ordered bits of information – three very strange and different languages. The question is, using statistical principles and principles from information theory can you (the alien) detect any fundamental differences between the three sheets of paper so that you can distinguish between a human language, a machine language and a biological coding language? Or is it in fact impossible to distinguish them in principle?

Are we talking C or Haskell? Information theory could tell you the level of structure and redundancy in each. My guess would be that entropy could be measured and would go DNA > English > Computer program. No real idea though.

Convention: Why do clocks go clockwise?

I’ve read that this is because clocks were invented in the northern hemisphere and the hands were intended to bear a similarity to the motion of the sun. Pointing south, they go from east to west.

Ethics and Law: Imagine you have been sentenced to jail for 50 years for murder. But you are really innocent (someone set you up). You serve your sentence and when the 50 years is up, you are so angry that you kill the person who set you up. The question is: should you go to jail for a further 50 years or have you already served your sentence in the last 50 years?

On the one hand society owes you 50 years and if it realizes (you find some way of proving your innocence once freed) it should pay you back that time as best it can, on the other hand, I don’t believe that it is appropriate to be able to serve sentences in advance, otherwise anyone who had suffered oversentencing can hold the rest of society to ransom for the rest of his life. Someone could check themselves into prison for beating their wife, and when they got out, threaten the wife with beatings for the rest of her life. Allowing people to receive sentences for crimes they have not yet done, ignores the fact that the threat of committing a crime at some point in the future can also be a terrible curtailment on societies freedoms. In economics, companies can offset debts that may or may not be called in, society would have to do the same with crimes. The purpose of the 50 years sentence, justified or not was to teach not to murder. If someone comes out and immediately murders, then it was unsuccessful, and another sentence is appropriate.

Philosophy: What is truth?
Philip K Dick: Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.
Truth is an expression of reality. People express reality by speaking or acting, nature expresses its reality by being sensed. Since we are incapable of fully expressing reality, any truth that we encounter will necessarily be partial. There is also the danger that any expression will reduce the ability of the mind that receives it to comprehend truth beyond the boundaries of that expression, or around it’s edges. I believe that’s why many mystics find it safer to define the things that are not true rather than run the risk of actually describing truth.

Law and Sociology: It could be argued that when we lock someone in jail for a crime, we cut them off from society and inevitably interfere with any possibility of normal social development of that person, and therefore perpetuate their condition. If the person is a danger to society, is there an alternative?
Although the argument might be accurate, the premise is wrong. Their normal social development so far (they were previously not cut off from society), led them to crime. Since their normal social development was harmful to society (and probably to them), it is sensible to argue that the kind of development most beneficial to them (and society) in future would be different to their “normal”. It’s the exact opposite of perpetuating their condition that is the intention. Is there an alternative to removing someone who is a danger to society from society? Yes, society can simply accept the cost of the crime and absorb it. I think this is a good idea in only a few situations (cycle of vengeance type problems). This doesn’t mean that jail is the best way of changing what is normal for their social development though. Perhaps a loving family environment may be better, assuming that that is not the environment that led to their current social development.

Philosophy: If there were no evil in the world, would good cease to have meaning?
Good would not cease to exist, but if there were nothing to distinguish it from, the word itself would lose meaning.

Law: Many paradoxes in law arise because law is black & white and real life is a continuum of grey. Law takes continuous variables and sets a threshold or boundary. Either side of the boundary is 1 or 0, ie. right or wrong. Is this for convenience because we have no better way or is there a deeper reason? If it is a matter of convenience, can we someday use technology to evaluate all the main variables and produce continuum based laws? Could we trust machines? Would it be fairer than binary laws?
Law is not binary. We already have continuum laws. Every law is required to be applied by a person to situations. Whether or not to apply any punishment in a given situation is at the discretion of a person, and how much punishment is also at the discretion of the judge. Since there are innumerable kinds of situations, situations can arise that were not forseen when the law was created, only a machine capable of understanding the intent of the law and the new, unforseen situation should be trusted (reduces to the Strong AI problem). A fundamental principle of fair laws is that those they apply to should be easily able to understand them.

Game theory: If a country has the capability to fire a nuclear missile at New York city, then conventional game theory seems to tell us that New York should point a nuclear missile at the other country. This creates a stalemate, so that no actions are taken and we are all safe. However, straight game theory needs to be expanded to include error analysis. The question is what if a nuclear missile was fired at New York and was said to be by mistake? What is the best strategy for New York now? From a game theory point of view, should New York still strike back? Also there are two possibilities to consider: the declared mistake could have been genuine or a bluff. Also another related question is that if the missile is intercepted whilst in the air, will the resulting explosion create more deaths and than if the bomb was allowed to hit the ground?
Perhaps the residents of New York should estimate the likelihood that their enemy will trigger the bomb by mistake, and ensure that their bomb has an equal margin of error. This gives the aggressor an encouragement to decrease the error for their bomb (because New York assures them that it will match any demonstrable improvement).

Extra: Irresistible force meets immovable object
Forces cannot be resisted by objects, only by other forces. So an irresistible force is simply any force not balanced by another force. The only immovable objects that can exist are frames of reference, or objects defined to be at the center of a frame of reference – a perceptor. An unbalanced force meeting an immovable object happens every time I drive a car, and what happens is that from the forces point of view, the immovable object moves (it must, unbalanced forces are defined to accelerate), and from the immovable objects point of view (my frame of reference), the rest of the universe moves.

links for 2006-12-16

Modding like it’s 1600

One of the most remarkable media players in the world is the xbox media center, homebrew software for the xbox. Sadly it requires a mod chip to run it, as microsoft have code in their console to ensure that only programs vetted by them can run (although see this article for a detailed, but interesting read about the mistakes Microsoft made).

So, what do you do when your friend comes round for a mod chipping party only to discover that your trusty old soldering iron has given up the flux?

Tealights. We should really have made them ourselves from animal fat to be properly hardcore. At least that was my claim, until I was emphatically informed that nothing done with tealights can be considered hardcore.

xboxtealightXBox modding old skool

links for 2006-12-13

Economically Free

The existence of a free market does not of course eliminate the need for government. On the contrary, government is essential both as a forum for determining the “rules of the game” and as an umpire to interpret and enforce the rules decided on. What the market does is to reduce greatly the range of issues that must be decided through political means, and thereby to minimize the extent to which government need participate directly in the game. The characteristic feature of action through political channels is that it tends to require or enforce substantial conformity. The great advantage of the market, on the other hand, is that it permits wide diversity. It is, in political terms, a system of proportional representation. Each man can vote, as it were, for the color of tie he wants and get it; he does not have to see what color-the majority wants and then, if he is in the minority, submit.

It is this feature of the market that we refer to when we say that the market provides economic freedom. But this characteristic also has implications that go far beyond the narrowly economic. Political freedom means the absence of coercion of a man by his fellow men. The fundamental threat to freedom is power to coerce, be it in the hands of a monarch, a dictator, an oligarchy, or a momentary majority. The preservation of freedom requires the elimination of such concentration of power to the fullest possible extent and the dispersal and distribution of whatever power cannot be eliminated – a system of checks and balances. By removing the organization of economic activity from the control of political authority, the market eliminates this source of coercive power. It enables economic strength to be a check to political power rather than a reinforcement.

— Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom

links for 2006-12-12