Tuesday, December 15, 2009

More thoughts on carbon

In light of all the brewhahaha at Copenhagen still finding its way into the news, and having faced an accusation my views on this topic follow from my heart and not my head, I thought I'd expand a little on my views about carbon emissions.


I am far from what most people would consider an environmentalist, as perhaps readers of my first ever blog post might have inferred.

I am strongly in favour of nuclear power (with costs such as waste management duly internalised) as part of the strategy to mitigate climate change.

I support the farming of GM crops and livestock and continued research into genetic engineering techniques.

I think most anti-whaling sentiment in this country is fuelled by sheer racist hypocrisy - there is a legitimate case to make against the practice, but most Australians aren't in a position to make it.

As far as limited resources I am a relatively radical Cornucopian - I don't believe we will run out of any material economic inputs for a very long time, for reasons that are best left for explanation in another post.

I believe the lives of all other animal species are worth significantly less than human lives (which is a distinct proposition from animal suffering being less important than human suffering, for me a far murkier issue.)

More generally I think nature and the biosphere are wondrous and precious things in their own right, but human civilisation is overwhelmingly more precious. The universe in which humanity destroys every other living species on earth but survives to colonise another star system is infinitely preferable to one in which humanity itself goes extinct but life goes on for the rest of planet Earth.

Anyway, that is probably enough ranting to establish my non-green credentials.

Why I support a price on carbon

If I'm not an environmentalist, why on earth would I support reducing emissions?

Well, in spite of how some may read the above, I do care about the environment, for both its own sake but especially to the extent that damaging it is bad for humanity. And to be extremely generous to the climate skeptics, lets measure such damage to human welfare chiefly by reductions to global GDP - so this becomes pure economic number crunching and never mind moral abhorrence of so many impoverished Bangladeshis dying.

There are lingering (although small and diminishing) uncertainties over how much of the climate change is anthropogenic. Likewise concerning exactly how much warming we can expect. Most crucial to my mind are the oft neglected economic benefits of the world heating up - and I'd say there are more of these than most people are admitting. Weigh all this up in a hugely complex and uncertain cost-benefit analysis, and you might come out with carbon restrictions reducing the expected value of global GDP in say 2100. I tend to think you don't, but I'm really not well versed enough in the science or economics of it to have a solid idea.

However, I will openly admit that in this context I am quite risk averse, and also what you might term volatility averse.

The former is a concept with wide currency in economics. It means I am very happy to lose 1% of GDP guaranteed, to avoid a 1/20 chance of losing 20% of GDP, even though probabilistically this is a neutral trade off.

By the latter, I mean that I'd rather see 20 years of flat 2% GDP growth, than 17 years of 3% growth followed by 3 years of 3.5% decline, even though the resulting GDP level after the 20 years is the same.

I think these are utterly reasonable positions to take concerning the global economy, and that strong carbon reductions now are sure to minimise both the risk and volatility associated with potential economic change that follows from what's happening in the atmosphere.

So that's how you can be a filthy planet hating economic rationalist bastard, and maintain reservations about the probability of global catastrophe from a changing climate, and still be very firmly in favour of a carbon price.

An equitable solution

What would a genuinely fair and workable globally binding agreement look like, if it were actually politically possible to come up with such a thing (which is clearly not the case at the moment)?

Since the effects of emitting are truly global - my carbon ends up in every other person's atmosphere and heats every other persons' planet - its incoherent to view the problem on the scale of nation states. The climate is the equivalent of a commons for our entire species, and we are trying to instil some market forces to prevent a classical tragedy.

To me, the only just way to do this in a morally justifiable fashion is more or less to partition the resulting property rights equally, between every single person on the planet.

So there should be a global emissions market, initially with as many permits as our current total emissions. These should allocated to each government on a per capita basis - it being impractical, even within this idealised world I am imagining, to assign them directly to individuals - to do with as they wish. (There are a few countries where the government is simply too corrupt or powerless for this to be a good idea - but they aren't significant to the carbon picture. The permits for the populations of such countries can accumulate in trust until they get better governments.)

Most developing countries would sell the bulk of their permits to the developed world, as they don't need them. This would amount to a massive "wealth transfer", as Tony Abbott has put it, but I am no opponent of wealth transfers as a rule.

Would this amount to too radical a shock to the structure of the global economy? Perhaps. Certainly I don't think the U.S., to take an obvious example, is in a financial position at the moment to buy all the carbon permits it would need to sustain its current levels of economic activity. Now, shocks are bad, as I hope we agreed earlier when I was making arguments concerning volatility. To halve the real wealth of the top 10% of the worlds population and spread it amongst the remaining 90% is not bad thing - in the long term. Occurring instantaneously, though, it would likely prove disastrous.

So, to temper my thought experiment scheme with some pragmatism, I would say countries should also have the option of buying additional carbon permits at a fixed price. This would act as an upper ceiling on the price of permits, which mitigates one of the major disadvantages of an ETS with respect to a tax. The money spent purchasing these "excess" permits would be invested into a fund that countries having to adapt to negative effects from climate change could make claims against - much less messy, politically, then the small Pacific island nations having to beg for the odd billion here and there from their rich counterparts. Of course, what body could be left in charge of stewarding and dispensing all that money is itself a vexatious political question - can you say One World Government, conspiracy theorist nutbags?

Back in the real world

All the speculation above is of course ridiculously idle. No such scheme is likely to come into existence for decades, if ever, as the farcical arrangement decided upon recently in Denmark shows all too clearly.

So how do I see the course of events playing out? I don't think climate change, directly, will be responsible for wiping out human civilisation. My generation, or the generation to follow us, may end up paying dearly for humanity's current folly. But eventually, pay we will - the hotter the planet gets, the clearer and more precise the science comes, and the richer we get (making carbon reduction comparatively cheaper), the more political will to actually do something about the problem should grow. Perhaps there will be a horrible runaway positive feedback cascade via sea bed deposits of ice-trapped methane or some other mechanism, but I take liberty to doubt it, given all the evidence we have suggests the biosphere has survived through significantly higher temperatures and carbon concentrations than what the foreseeable future holds. It is the shock of the change occurring so rapidly that is the problem, but while this no doubt spells doom for many species, humanity should survive, in some form, in nearly any conceivable scenario.

What bothers me more are the possible indirect effects of climate change. Consider the Middle East, where scarce water is already a cause for conflict in an area that hardly needs more excuses for war to break out; where one nuclear power already exists, surrounded by enemies, and where another state, already an international pariah, may soon come into possession of the atomic bomb. If Iran and Israel are close to the brink of war now, as many observers believe, and unrest grips many of their Arabic neighbours, how much worse will the situation be when the only fresh water to be found in the region is that manufactured in desalination plants?

Or what of China and America? Although the current global deal is in truth the agreement these two countries reached bilaterally, the negotiations fell far short of success, and the world's two biggest carbon emitters both seem keen to manoeuvre so that the blame falls upon the other. The world desperately needs these two countries to establish better relations, not find new grounds for conflict. We have enjoyed such a remarkably peaceful era over the past 20 years in part because of the dominance of a single, unchallenged super power. The transition back to a world more akin to pre-1914 Europe, where multiple entities vie for supremacy, is fraught with danger. We, as a species, can afford to pay a carbon tax, and we can even, probably, afford to pay the costs of living in a world that is 3 or 4 degrees warmer. I doubt we can afford to fight World War 3 over the issue, though.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Witching Hour

It's been a while
Since four a.m.
Things have happened
While you slept soundly

At four a.m.
I'm still not sleepy
Where do I go, now?

Have you been to Lothlorien?
I could give you
The full guided tour
It is never four a.m. there
Or it always is
I can't quite tell

Once at four a.m.
I journeyed to Oxford
And sought after Truth
From a silver tongue
And truly, I found It
It was not to my liking

Do you remember
That time at four a.m.
We were on the fourth round
Of long island iced teas
And all laughing
And I wished I didn't know the punchline
We drowned our mirth
But I walked on water
You couldn't see it
I'd walk to Andromeda
Fence singularities
Ascend the arithmetic hierarchy
And then some
Would you have followed
If I'd have asked?
Then again, I don't ask

A little while later
And it's still four a.m.
It's funny like that
No one has been here
I can smell their footprints
They didn't linger
I can see why
I could tell the ones left
I could answer their questions
I'm not yet that cruel

I dragged you to four a.m.
On a rip tide of conciousness
What were we still doing
On that bench in that place
At that time in that dream?
We should know better
By now, you would think
We'd have learned not to think, there
Where the wild shining notions
Haunt the lives we can't reach

What have I been up to
All this time that has passed?
That's a very good question
I've been asked it, before
I have stared long
At the burning gates of heaven
And listened, close, and deep,
To the seductive song of hell
Things I've learned
That I'd never tell you
And if I told you
You'd never believe me
And if you believed me
You'd scream yourself silent
And under diamonds you'd dance naked on a hill
And not care
As much as you'd never cared before
But you wouldn't want that
And neither would I

I keep coming back here
I play tricks with clocks
I'm drawn by the beauty
So says my attorney

How long since you wandered
Through the streets at four a.m.
And how long since you've wondered
What waits round the corner
You never realised
No one ever does
Where that terror abides
To roam unafraid
It was not worth the price

At four a.m., for a drunken hour or so
I'd say more than you'd hear
In a lifetime
If only
You'd catch me

Its four a.m.
Dawn will be here soon

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

What they should teach you in school

I anticipated a post along these lines long ago, didn't I?

So let's say tomorrow, I get sworn in as NSW Minister for Education. Hey, given the theatrics of the State Cabinet lately, its not entirely beyond the realms of possibility. Enough of that though, as I promised they'd be no politics this time around.

Well, there are some basic steps I'd take. I'd decouple the core English curriculum of reading, writing, and speaking from the study of literature, for reasons Paul Graham has explained better than I ever could. I'd make mathematics compulsory through to year 12, although with a reworked syllabus; few people really need to know what the derivative of tan is, but I recently got into a Facebook argument with a well-educated, science-literate person who couldn't tell the difference between a positive feedback loop and negative feedback loop. Software design and development needs to be redone, from scratch - high school age kids are more than capable of doing real programming and real computer science.

All this is merely tinkering, though.

Civics really needs to be core to the curriculum. It used to be, I'm lead to believe, but now, its not, for some bizarre reason. See, in a democracy, school isn't just vocational training, much as everyone seems to want to pretend otherwise. School is where you learn what a citizen of a society needs to learn. This includes knowledge and skills that help you become an economically productive individual, sure. Citizens aren't merely consumers and employees, though. They are voters, and members of political parties. They are plaintiffs and defendants in law suits, not to mention jurors. They are, ultimately, sovereigns, and to leave school and attain majority with absolutely no real knowledge of the government they are both members of and subject to is absurd. I could crap on about this for ages, but really I think its a pretty straight forward point. Hell, if I recall correctly there currently isn't an HSC course in Politics or Government you could take, even if you wanted to! Ridiculous.

OK, some changes to existing subjects, and the introduction (or perhaps its reintroduction) of a subject. Nothing too revolutionary there.

Do I have any grander schemes? Any more radical proposals?

Well, education is hard to do well, and there are lot of interesting theories floating around with little hard evidence to support them, and a lot of criticisms of existing arrangements and dreams

I'd like to say I'd like to teach teenagers to be good critical thinkers, but probably most educators would say the same thing. I could say that it'd be nice if there was less focus on specific factual content like who won the Battle of Thermopylae or the name of the law which ended no-fault divorce, and more focus on applying reasoning skills to those facts. Except, besides from pragmatic issues like the greater ease of measuring factual knowledge, as a rule people aren't innately good at generalising, and so giving someone a lot of information and then asking them to analyse it is quite possibly a better way to teach them abstractions then actually starting with the abstractions themselves.

What is critical thinking? It's focused on the idea of criticism, in its substantial sense - to consider something carefully, and find any weaknesses or flaws. Specifically, a good critical thinker is a strong critic of ideas - they are able to spot errors in people's arguments and theories. Most importantly of all, a critical thinker learns to criticise their own ideas, to see the holes in their own arguments - either with a view to papering the holes over, if they are a professional advocate like a trial barrister, or, hopefully, with a view to aligning their beliefs more closely with reality.

Can you teach this? Well, some people can teach it, and some can learn it, without a doubt, since it is clearly an acquired ability in particular to be self-critical of one's beliefs - by default we are overwhelmingly not rational so much as rationalising, forever finding reasons to justify our intuitions and behaviours. How to reliably and practically teach such skills to every school child is another question entirely.

Again, I think there is an extent to which it is futile to start in the abstract. Everyone learns abstractions at first via examples, even the deepest thinkers - the axioms of group theory were discovered by mathematicians interested in the common properties of integer addition, permutation composition, geometric transformations, matrix multiplication and the like.

So schools should have lessons about the most well know and comprehensible cognitive biases. It is just as easy to explain the sunk cost fallacy to a bunch of year nine school students as a bunch of first year undergraduates in Economics. Framing isn't just something psychology majors should learn about, its something everyone should learn about.

This stuff doesn't require any prior knowledge, nor an indepth understanding of the causes of the biases or any of the rest of the surrounding science. It is not, conceptually, that difficult; certainly its comparable in intellectual rigour to asking teenagers to write about the causes of World War I or to prove something by mathematical induction.

The best part about it is, you can very easily do the relevantt experiments, in the classroom, and then explain them. Here's why you all answered this way, and here's why you're wrong. And here's a ton of examples from real life about how this kind of utterly commonplace mistake in your thinking can lead you into trouble.
Now, would there any point to all this? Well, I believe, the jury is still out on that question; studies indicate some cognitive biases can apparently be corrected for by telling people about them, while others can't; and I'm unaware of anyone trying to explain them to children and then checking five years down the track if it helped them as adults.

At the very least, though, it should give the kids a thorough sense that they can be mistaken. If school were to have only one lasting influence on their reasoning, that would be a good pick. Even for the smart kids; in fact, especially for the smart kids - most of histories worst ideas came from smart people.


With special thanks to Nonchalant Adventurer, or whatever his blogging pseudonym is these days, for the long hours of philosophical exchange about critical thinking that helped shaped my current views, and of which this post is but the smallest of appetisers.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Oh, Hideous Trilemma

Tony Abbott, by announcing he will not support any form of ETS or Carbon Tax, has essentially signalled to the electorate that one of three things must be true.

1) The Liberal Party no longer believes in Free Enterprise and Free Markets

This one would be a bit of a shock, since Free Enterprise is supposed to be at the core of what Liberals believe in. Indeed a lot of supposedly small government, pro-capitalism advocates both here and other places like Europe are opposing putting a price on carbon, as a big socialist, environmentalist conspiracy, a power grab by centralised decisions makers.

Au contraire. If as a political party you propose to do something to reduce Carbon Emissions, and its not taking money off Carbon Emitters, you're the commie pinko in the debate.

If you put a price on carbon, aimed however imprecisely to try and match the amount of damage it is doing, the market then comes in and solves global warming for you. This is the whole damn idea. Entrepreneurs figure out how to make profits from cleaner sources of energy, because they are competitive with coal and oil now that the externality - the economic damage done by burning these things that no one buying or selling coal pays for - is corrected.

Any other government policy, instead of being a "terrible new tax" on carbon, instead becomes a terrible new tax on the entire rest of the economy.

Going to give bureaucrats a whole bunch of money for subsidising solar panels? To pay for them you will have to tax people's income, and profits, and other productive economic activities. And if it turns out the bureaucrats' picked the wrong solution, and some smart 22 year old engineer could have given you tidal power for half the price with some capital to back him and no subsidy to compete against? You've outright wasted the taxpayers money. Right wing people are supposed to hate that.

Going to mandate cars become more fuel efficient? What if as a result it then becomes more profitable to just burn the oil for main grid power? Hell, greater energy efficiency can increase energy consumption, in some circumstances - this is known as Jevin's Paradox.

Invest in Smart Grid technology? Al Gore's gotten rich doing this, largely because of the expectation that energy will get more expensive globally when carbon starts costing more. As the conspiracy theorists are all too quick to point out. If you were to actually put such taxes in place, why, even more private parties would probably sink billions into such research! Who needs a government grant when your idea is already profitable?

The fact is that any and all such government policies presume that government can fix the problem better than the market; that bureaucrats and politicians come up with better ideas than business people. I personally happen to think that's true, some of the time, but Liberal party folks sure aren't supposed to.


2) The Liberal Party do not believe in reducing carbon emissions

This one is credible. Nick Minchin certainly doesn't, and I begin to wonder whether Tony Abbott does, now that he's admitted that even an international framework in Copenhagen won't actually make a difference to his stance after all. The government and Malcolm Turnbull are both fond of the phrase "do nothing on climate change", in reference to the new leadership corps, and you've got to give more than a little credence to the idea.

What this means though is that when the Liberals say they will have a policy to fight climate change, just not a tax or an ETS, they are essentially lying; and not just a distortion of facts or a false promise to try and stay in power, but an outright fabrication of what they actually believe and stand for on a core election issue. Whatever they propose to do, it will amount to taking no action to actually reduce emissions. Oh sure, they might deregulate Nuclear Power - which would be a great start - but that's not nearly enough to fix the problem, or else nuclear would be the most dominant source of energy in America today, and not a niche sector. Absent a carbon price, even nuclear is not yet competitive with coal.

So the Coalition's full policy, when finally revealed, is likely to be nothing more than elaborate window dressing piled on top off their current position, which is "Deregulate Nuclear, and say it would be nice if emissions went down, knowing full well that saying so is in absolutely no conceivable way actually going to cause emissions to go down. But we'll run a campaign of misinformation that might confuse people into thinking we're going to do something, because we certainly don't have the guts to fight an election over the science itself."

If they were willing to come out and dispute the science, openly, as their party platform, then we'd have a genuine debate on our hands. The Liberal party conservatives simply don't have the minerals, so to speak, to own their convictions; or rather, their take on the polling, or the moderates in the party, have convinced them they can't win over the public in an open argument.

Yeah, that sounds about right. Except, this wasn't a dilemma. What other possibility am I entertaining?

3) The Coalition honestly don't have a clue that they're not making any sense.

They haven't renounced their core ideological principles, and they're not just lying outright. In fact, they are utterly economically illiterate, never mind what you think of their scientific credentials. Misunderstanding isn't just going to be pumped out to the electorate, it lies at the core of the Coalition non-policy. Partly they are dishonest, and partly they are divided, and partly they are wavering, but mainly, they are just confused.

Now that Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Costello are both out of the picture, there is, perhaps, not a single person left of influence in the parliamentary party who is capable of following why economists who accept climate change are nearly universally in favour of either a tax or an ETS. Or, they don't even care.

Don't some of them have economics degrees? Surely that's what Liberal members of parliament study at university. Were they paying any attention in class?

One thing I've said in Abbott's favour a lot lately is even if I disagree with him on most things, at least he has some intellectual muscle. Now, I'm beginning to have very serious reservations.

The Opposition are, for the moment at least, an absolute disgrace.


I promise the next post won't concern the Liberal Party, or politics, in any way, shape or form.

Monday, November 30, 2009

I have to get this one out quick, because its ridiculously topical

The recent Liberal party spill was a fantastic example of how, when an electorate is strongly polarised, a preferential voting system* can massively disadvantage a compromise, "moderate" candidate who's position lies close to the median.

Lets assume for simplicity that all the Liberals who voted for Turnbull preferred Hockey to Abbott, and likewise all the Abbot voters also preferred Hockey to Turnbull. Its likely a pretty fair assumption given the rancour between the two camps.

So can infer that the preferences of the partyroom were then:

35 x {Abbott, Hockey, Turnbull}
26 x {Turnbull, Hockey, Abbott}

And thanks to the subsequent "redistribution" in the second round vote, we know we had

7 x {Hockey, Abbott, Turnbull}
15 x {Hockey, Turnbull, Abbott}
1 x {Hockey, no second preference} - the notorious informal "no" vote.

Note something here. 49 to 35 voters prefer Hockey to Abbott - a substantial majority. And likewise a massive 58 to 26 voters prefer Hockey to Turnbull, all of the "right" faction and a fair portion of the "left" faction too.

So Hockey "beats" both Abbott, and Turnbull - pairwise, he is more preferred than either of his opponents. In a Hockey vs Abbott or a Hockey vs Turnbull election, Hockey wins.

What's going on here? Sure in America and Britain with their crazy first-past-the-post systems you can get spoiling effects, where Nader costs the Democrats the election by siphoning off their supporters, but preferential voting prevents that! That's why we have it. Family First or the Nationals can run for a seat safe in the knowledge they won't split the conservative vote, because their preferences will go to the Liberals (assuming of course voters are sensible and rational and order their preferences properly, which they don't... but lets optimistically assume that such confusion is a small effect.)

Well, nonetheless, their is a spoiling effect in play. While you might be tempted to say Hockey has split the moderate vote, that's not really true - Turnbull failed to attain a majority with Hockey out of the picture. Actually, Turnbull has split the moderate vote; if he'd stood aside, Hockey would have won, and the liberals would still have a relatively centrist leader. Instead of an unelectable one.... but lets not go into that now.

The lesson - preferential voting prevents some arguably undesirable election effects - Nader would not hurt the Democrats if that Presidential election happened in Australia - but not all of them. And so the question, now, is: can we do better?

Another system

Lets look at those votes again shall we?

35 x {Abbott, Hockey, Turnbull}
26 x {Turnbull, Hockey, Abbott}
7 x {Hockey, Abbott, Turnbull}
15 x {Hockey, Turnbull, Abbott}
1 x {Hockey, no second preference}

Is there another way to determine a winner? Well sure there's lots, we could draw them out of a hat. But, another sensible seeming way?

Let's make one up. For every first preference, I will give a candidate three points. For every second preference, two points; and for every third preference, one point. The person with the most points, wins. Seems kinda fair, right? Its similar to the way they score motor racing, I believe.

This gives us:

Abbott: 35 x 3 + 26 x 1 + .... ah I won't clutter things up with all the figures here. Easier to check in a spreadsheet, like I have, if you don't believe my arithmetic.

Abbott: 160
Turnbull: 150
Hockey: 191

Hurrah! Hockey wins! I successfully invented a new way to run elections to rig the Liberal leadership for the candidate I prefer.

Well, actually, I'd prefer Abbott to lead the party - Hockey hasn't the intellect for the job, while Abbott is quite smart - he'll at least hopefully make for an effective enough opposition to pressure the government - and even though I vehemently disagree with him on many issues there's no chance he'll get elected, so that's all good. Turnbull would be my choice, but I'm not in the Liberal caucus let alone rigging their elections.

Much more to the point, I can't take credit for the system. Its a well-known idea amongst voting theorists, called Borda Counting, although its very little utilised in the real world to my knowledge. I can't name a democracy that elects public officials this way.

So.... if its so great, why isn't it more popular in the real world?

Poor marketing, probably. Also, it doesn't... feel quite right. There's some intuitive sense that we shouldn't be giving away points like this. After all if I'm to distribute points, I should be able to choose to distribute them in any fashion I want, in which case, as I'm a regular voter who doesn't like all this complication I'm likely to distribute them all to my favourite candidate.... and then we're right back to first-past-the-post land.

Well, that intuition (which is mine, you might not share it) is wide of the mark - Borda count does have some quite desirable properties. We've already seen evidence of a possible advantage in this election over the distribution of preferences - it picked out the more consensus, middle of the line candidate from the Liberal leadership ballot.

Will it always? Can Borda Counting, like preferential voting, fail to pick the consensus candidate?

What do we mean?

To ask these kinds of questions about voting systems I need to be more precise. What do I mean by the consensus candidate?

Actually, I've already given a pretty robust definition of what I mean, what the heart of the original concern is:

So Hockey "beats" both Abbott, and Turnbull - pairwise, he is more preferred than either of his opponents. In a Hockey vs Abbott or a Hockey vs Turnbull election, Hockey wins.

This is a mathematically precise idea, and an important one in voting theory. A candidate who, based on people's stated preferences, would have beaten any of his or her opponents in a one on one election is a Condorcet Winner.

It might seem like a pretty abstract concept, which is why I spent so many damn words there building up to introducing it by motivating it with a real life example.

An election may have either one Condorcet Winner or no Condorcet winners. While you might think its an unusual situation except in maybe a tight three horse race like our example, actually many real worldelections do have a Condorcet Winner.

Another definition (And no, I don't care if I'm boring you :P Can you tell I was once a mathematician?) A voting system that is guaranteed to elect the Condorcet winner, when there is one, is, funnily enough, called Condorcet.

We've already seen our preferential voting system is not Concordent. Our question is now is the Borda Count system Condorcet?

The answer is perhaps surprisingly no. Even though Borda Count would have given victory to our Condorcet winner, Joe Hockey, it doesn't always do so. Proof left as an exercise to the mathematically inclined readers. For those who'd settle for a counterexample, wikipedia is your friend.

So do any Condorcet voting systems actually exist?

Yes! Here's one:

1. Check if any candidate is the Condorcet winner (which is easy)

2. If so, they win.

3. Otherwise, pick the winner out a hat.

Ooooh. That's not so good. For a start, it fails a nice little property called determinism: the same set of votes should always give the same result. Under a non-deterministic system like this, any candidate could call a recount, and most likely get a different result each time.

How about instead we try:

3. Otherwise, the winner is whoever's name comes first by alphabetical order
Still not very good. It isn't random, it's deterministic... but.... step 3, well, it's ignoring the voters wishes. In fact there are a wide variety of properties that reasonably try to embody the idea that an election should respond to what voters want; that the only thing about a candidate that matters for the outcome should be the voters preferences. This system fails miserably to satisfy all these ideas.

Nonetheless, there are Condorcet systems out there that aren't crazy, and do make sense, and they are used in the real world - not for electing politicians, but for running private organisations - the ones that give us Wikipedia, and Debian Linux, and the Free State Project. There might, perhaps, be some correlation between the fact that seemingly only associations of nerds use these systems, and the fact they are very mathematically complex relative to the others we've discussed here.

But, if they give the right result, why can't we use them?? Does it matter if they're complicated, so long as we get the person who truly deserves to in?

Well, in some sense it does. The less the average voter is able to understand their voting system, the less empowered they are to exercise their sovereignty, and a less open and transparent a democracy results. This is a bad thing in and of itself.

But the fundamental issue is much worse than that.

The crux of it all

Here's where people who were shouting disagreement way back at the beginning get a see in. Maybe I've been going about it all wrong. Maybe its not important that the Condorcet winner wins an election. Often such a candidate is a kind of a "least of all evils"; indeed, this is more or less how I've depicted Hockey. The compromise candidate, that no one especially wants to win, but that no one objects to very strongly, so they're preferred by (distinct!) majorities over the candidates that provoke strong feelings and polarise the debate. Is such wishy-washy middle of the road stuff really what we want, from political leaders? Maybe we want someone who stands for something, anything, even if its not always going to be what we stand for.
Well OK, lets we can let that criterion go. Damn, that was a massive waste of blog space no?

I'm only putting it to one side though for the sake of exploring the issues. In fact, I want to finish up here by briefly looking into some other properties. If we're going to design the perfect voting system, we should look for more basic features that we all know we definitely want to see. We've already seen a couple of obvious ones, like determinism. Well, here's another I hope you can agree to:

We call a voting system monotonic if voting for somebody can't make them lose.*** If a voting system is not monotonic, we call it batshit crazy.

OK right, all voting systems need to be monotonic. Agreed? Good.

Ours isn't.
"Huh?" you say. "Surely you're not serious?"

Sadly I am. Elections in Australia, from the Liberal Party caucus, to the lower house by-elections the Liberal Party will be getting thumped in because of their caucus, are not monotonic. You can hurt a candidates' prospects by ranking them higher.

Some political scientists have argued that in most real life political system violations of monotonicity would be rare. Still, the fact it can happen at all bothers me. It should bother you.

All these properties voting systems fail to satisfy, jeeze louise. Obviously, we've got to send voting system people back to the drawing board, and get them to invent new systems that work!

If you've got a good sense for where I'm going with this, and why I'm parading mind numbing details of elections and too much maths style arguments than is healthy for a blogger who wants people to actually read what he's written, you might guess what the response is.

They can't invent such systems; they simply don't exist. At least in the sense that, for a lot of really reasonable sounding sets of criteria, it can be proven mathematically that no voting system can possibly obey all of them.

I love impossibility theorems in mathematics - not such a thing doesn't happen to exist, like pink unicorns; such a thing, which sounds quite reasonable, a voting system that makes sense, can't possibly exist, no matter how hard you look, you'll never find one, any more than 2 + 2 will ever equal 5.

Arrow's impossibility theorem is probably the most famous single thing in voting systems theory, and was the first substantial impossibility result. Indeed Kenneth Arrow, an economist,was one of the pioneers of applying theoretical mathematics to what has turned out to be the quite deep and subtle question of how to decide the results of elections when more than two options are available to choose from (although the first person to do so at all pre-dated him by centuries - a certain Marquis de Condorcet, who's name might seem familiar if you've being paying attention. )

Perhaps some may take heart in the fact that there is quite a bit of dispute about whether all of Arrow's criteria really are reasonable or necessary, or whether perhaps we can think out side the square and use systems that don't conform to Arrow's assumptions about what voting looks like. And yet, surely enough, there have also been other key impossibility results established in the field, that show we're seemingly pretty stuck with certain quite undesirable imperfections.
So while we can be thankful to live in a democratic society and indeed an increasingly democratic world, it's not all happy sailing. Even before you consider vote rigging, or corruption, or a biased media, or any of the other countless real world problems that can plague an election, there is a far more powerful force resisting the democratic will. The very laws of mathematics, inescapable even in a perfect world, ensure it is always debatable whether any election was ever really fair.


* Throughout the post I treat a system with multiple rounds of voting in real time, like the Liberals leadership ballot, as equivalent to a system where you write down your entire list of preferences in advance, like when we vote for our MPs. If your preferences don't change over the course of the election, these should be equivalent systems. They won't actually be equivalent, due to tactical voting considerations - you can sometimes be better off voting in a manner that goes against your actual preferences, and the additional information available between rounds when the process happens in real time increases gives increased opportunities to do so - but that's an additional technical complication that doesn't really effect the substance of my main point, so I didn't go into it.

** Actually both Borda Counting, and the Australian system, are preferential - you vote by making a list of preferences. The correct technical term for how we vote in Australia is Instant Runoff Votig, (IRV); it is merely one of a variety of ways of voting using preferences. However this isn't a very widely used term in this country, and only a very few voting system geeks, who I don't think read this blog, would have a clue the hell what I talk about. Since those who understand the mechanics of our system tend to think of its distinguishing feature as being the use of preferences, in contrast to the first past the post systems of the U.K. and the U.S., I have stuck with the incorrect but comprehensible terminology.

*** The mathematicians might want more rigour. Properly speaking, a voting system is monotonic if changing one vote so that Candidate X is higher on the list, but all other candidates are kept in the same relative order, can't change the result from Candidate X winning to Candidate X losing.

How can our voting system possibly fail punish a Candidate for someone preferring them? Basically, the problem is that if you put your preferred candidate Lisa Simpson in say second place, the candidate you have in first, say Duff Man, can knock out rivals in early rounds of voting, but then ultimately the flow of preferences can give Lisa the win in the last round against Duff Man. However if you instead swap your first and second place and put Lisa first, Duff Man might get eliminated early without your crucial first preference. With Duff Man gone earlier, his voters' preferences now get distributed, and those preferences might let say Mr Burns limp all the way to the final round picking up lots of second, third, etc. preferences from every eliminated candidate as he goes and finally triumphing over Lisa.

I'd construct a numerical example, but, I can't be bothered.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Prose's abatement

Blogging under
Deprivation of slumber
Hypomania's many hyper
Tendencies tend to be
Exacerbated, precipitated
A mist of words
Becomes a deluge

A news article has confirmed
The world's gone as mad as you'd heard
The only response possible -
Outraged loquacity, tumbles
Forth, unconstrained, with only the steady rattling
Of the Eee PC's battered keys to protest at the prattling

An aside, a brief build-up, mere foreplay to the climax of self-righteous indignity
Becomes much more of, shall we say, a tangent, gaining nuance, losing brevity
Til the point is reached, at which distraction from the judicial theme is wrought insufferable
Of course, such artistry must not be abridged - but mayhap, it is shuffleable?

So then, the post, once, in outline, contained sufficiently, by the ample boundaries of a mere few paragraphs
Is now possessed of parts - one and two - each more substantial than nigh any article to be found within the Daily Telegraph
But now stop the press, what's this? It surely cannot be true - that part two, too, asserts its "right to be serialised?"
Can we burden readers thus, when even part one, solus, is proving far too long for mine own weary old eyes?

This madness must cease! (Not the world's now, take note)
It's the blog that's diseased! (Not the way people vote)
An introductory sentence (Of the linguistic sort)
Now spans three separate entries! (Makes those gaol terms seem short....)

How does one conquer
Such prolific prose?
Could a poem deliver?
Grant salvation?
Who knows?


Please forgive the attempt at such an unaccustomed and ill-suited form, but my incompletable, uneditable blog ranting was really giving me the shits ;-)

I do plan to proceed with the original posts, eventually... once some substantial editing has taken place.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Also, a few other things

If anyone is in the market for a worthy charitable cause to donate to, may I commend to you the idea of deworming the world, which the evidence seems to indicate is ridiculously cost effective - perhaps the most cost-effective way of doing good for humanity, depending of course on your utility metric.

Personally, I'd like to see a charity that funds studies on the costs effectiveness of various forms of charity and aid. Would that count as a meta-charity?

Should your preference run to philanthropy more localised in its effects, and you are a fellow Sydneysider, then ROAM communities are an excellent choice. I have previously mentioned them in relation to Mental Health First Aid Certificates. ROAM's main focus is helping the chronically mentally ill, through traditional mental health nursing services like psychotherapy, but also in other ways such as brokering accomodation, educational and vocational placement, lifestyle advice and assistance, such as exercise classes (which are known to be a highly effective), and other such practical and effective aid. The organisation started as a project to find housing for some mentally ill homeless people, and has grown from there. Disclaimer: I am a client of ROAM, via my doctors at the BMRI. Toby and James are awesome guys, for whatever that's worth.

I'd like to formally welcome two excellent additions to my blog roll. Over at the insipring Meteuphoric, I may get around to posting a response in the ongoing debate on vegetariaism - or I may not, since doing so smacks a little of petty "Someone is Wrong on the Internet" oneupmanship. As for Capers of the Mind, I trust it will go from strength to strength after its promising introductory post, because I am intimately acquainted with the author's status as a philosopher of the first-rank (despite, or perhaps because, he has never come close to anything resembling the study of philosophy in a formal academic context).

On the topic of my blog roll, are you all reading Marginal Revolution yet? It's really very good - in fact it may well be at its best the more it strays outside the economics professors' natural home territory of the GFC and real aggregate demand shocks and the like. As a non-expert it's a little hard for me to say.

OK, enough sucking up to my fellow bloggers. I'm off to draft yet more posts of my own - hopefully, I can build up a buffer and thus get a regular schedule going here.

Possibly even more interesting than it seems

What could I be talking about? Well, really, a lot of things. As it happens, today I am talking about synesthesia.

Tyler Cowen over on MR recently linked to a study into time-space synesthesia, which stuck me as sounding even cooler than your more garden variety letter-colour synesthesia.

Well, judging by the abstract, its not signficantly cooler after all, but then maybe it's more adaptive. After all, we devote substantial educational resources teaching people to visualise time as space, anyway: this is how to read a clock, this is how to read a displacement-time graph, and so on and so forth. In fact, it'd be nice to see some research done with young kids, or on heritability - to try and see how much of the effect measured in this study is genuinely "hard-wired" neural diversity, and how much is an acquired cognitive skill, akin to driving, or doing abstract algebra, rather than part of a person's genetic heritage. For that matter, if it is an acquired or at least acquirable ability, can we, and should we, set out to turn toddlers into synesthetics, of any variety? I'd say the possibilites are worth investigating, at the very least.

"OK, that's all great," you might be tempted to interject at this point, "but your post title implied that your subject was somehow more interesting than it seems, and yet you've just remarked that this fancy schmancy form of synesthesia is 'not significantly cooler' than the kind I already knew about. So what's so damn interesting about it then?"

Thanks for the interjection! It conveniently allows me to return from a tangent to the point I wanted to make.

Time-space synesthesia isn't all that exotic, perhaps. However, this study is yet another piece of the mounting evidence the synesthesia is actually rather commonplace in the general population. Which is really surprising, when you think about it. Surely mental differences of this kind that strike us as unusual can't be common - or else we'd grow up knowing about them, and they therefore wouldn't in fact seem unusual anymore than some other mild deviation from the norm, such as left-handedness?

Except synesthesia is such a pervasive part of a person's cognitive framework, that many synesthetics presumably grow up assuming everyone sees the world the way they do. Why wouldn't they? And, since they don't behave radically different from your average member of the population, why would anyone else think to ask the kind of questions and perform the kinds of tests necessary to detect synesthetics? Well, no one really has, until modern psychology took a a scientific interest in the phenomenon.

So, then, imagine a truly exotic synesthsia - just as difficult to detect as the regular kind, but rarer, and stranger. Given how long it has taken the "boring" synestheisas to gain serious attention, it is surely not beyond the realms of possibility that a truly rare version might exist which modern science does not yet have any knowledge of whatsoever?

It is fair to ask, at this point, just how exotic could it be? There's a limited set of senses to combine, right?

Actually, overlapping sensory perceptions here can be broader than the senses that might immediately spring to mind - as the time/space example shows.

Consider, if you will, what you might call the empathetic sense - a person's intuitive reading of other people's body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and so on. This is an incredibly complex data source that the brain has evolved to devote many resources to detecting and processing; it sits at the threshold of may people's conscious awareness.

Now imagine a potential colour-empath synesthetic. They might look at an angry parent, and their brain would present that mood as a visible red colour. Or a distressed colleague might appear purple - perhaps with a green tint to indicate mild sleepiness. Or whatever.

You doubtless see where I'm going with this.

Of course, most people who claim to see auras are probably just cranks, or wishful thinkers. Certainly anyone who claims to see a person's aura through an opaque wall, for an example, is probably just as likely to claim to see the aura when no person is on the other side at all - as repeated experiments have shown.

There is an appeal, though, to the idea that in this case fact might be, if not stranger than fiction, than at least strange enough to surprise us.

Stay tuned for a later post in which I try to tie this into ideas about other forms of cognitive atypicality (most especially that staple topic of mine, psychosis....)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Attention Tim Flannery. Immigration is good for the environment.

Apparently there was an IQ2 debate at the City Recital Hall last night, on whether Australia should decrease its immigration rates. Attentive readers would already be aware my answer is a resounding no.

Those who are opposed to increased human population due to its effects on the environment, such as our esteemed 2007 Australian of the Year, have attained the honour of provoking a response from me today. (I might get around to applying a blowtorch to the even more terrible arguments about the labour force or social cohesion on another occasion.)

Its one thing to argue that the Earth can't sustain more people or indeed even our current population. I happen to think it is absurd to argue this; I won't respond to it, though, because the stated case I am refuting is even weaker.

Why? Because immigration does not create more people, magically, out of thin air (as of 2009 there is so far only one technologically mature process for doing so.) It simply moves them. And it doing so, it actually reduces the projected future population of the world. So if we really are approaching the limits of our finite carrying capacity, immigration is actually a Good Thing (TM).

How can immigration reduce future population? Despite popular stereotypes to the contrary, descendents of immigrants assimilate to the culture of their adopted home. Actually the culture also assimilates to them, but this effect is much smaller when immigration is low relative to the size of the population.

Now Australia is in the 5th phase of what's known as the demographic transition. Our natural fertility rate is negative. People immigrating here are typically from countries in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th phases of the transition. If they stayed in their home countries, they would ultimately have far more descendants than if they move here, where many of their great-grandchildren are likely to end up childless.

Of course, Australia's natural resources will end up a little more strained, certainly relative to the rest of the planet. I hope it goes without saying, though, that we all care first and foremost about the global environment, and aren't just seeking to keep our own little island free from populaion pressures. It does go without saying? Excellent.

"Ah", the environmentalist now argues, "but rich people - such as immigrants in a first world country - are far worse for the environment than poor people, such as their cousins left behind."

This rebuttal, for the time being, is true. It is morally abhorrent - it implies that to protect the environment, we should actively seek to prevent the world's poorest people from becoming any richer, while it is implied Westerns be allowed to continue to enjoy tremendous wealth (even the most eco-concious Australian is both far richer and more polluting than most Ethiopians) - but it is nonetheless grounded in fact.

Except the rest of the world is steadily becoming richer, regardless of whether we let people migrate here or not. China and India will eclipse the West's ecological footprint relatively soon, and other developing nations are sure to follow. Meanwhile, the West has actually started to wake up to the issues facing our environment, and furthermore has the luxury of being able to sacrifice some of its vast wealth on attempts to try and save the planet from oblivion.

What is more likely to save the world from climate change? An argument to convince the populations of third world countries that they don't need electricity? An enlightened political consensus leading to enforcable international laws that constrain our carbon emissions? Or scientific breakthroughs, funded by Western economic growth, that lead to both cheap, clean energy sources, and the ability to extract exisiting anthropogenic greenhouse gases from the atmosphere?

You don't have to believe technological progress is a panacea for the world's problems; just that it has a better track record than self-righteous moral preaching or complex political compromies.

Without loss of generality the argument holds for shrinking bio-diversity, loss of arable lands, etc.
Sadly, Malthus remains an influential voice in today's public policy debates, despite more or less 200 years of consistent empirical evidence refuting his ideas. I guess all that's left to be said is: Bring on the next lot of people to add yet more nails to his theories' coffin, and maybe one day people will get the picture.

Here's hoping they include plenty of Indian computer scientists developing smart grid technology for Google in California, Brazilian geneticists engineering algae to convert C02 and sunlight back into fossil fules for the CSIRO in Canberra, and Ghanian economists at the LSE publishing solidly researched papers backing up the case made here with scientifically rigorous evidence.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Some things you might not know about my political views

I've been toying around with my draft first political rant, and find I can't bring myself to post something inspired by anger that no longer seems entirely fair or measured... so instead, since you were all promised politics, here's an arbitrary set of opinions on some issues. Yay!

Abortion: I'm Pro-Choice, but not militantly - my moral intuition fails so poorly on abortion (once I start to reason about it in any detail) that I default to letting the mother's conscience take primacy over mine, since its her body and all. Incidentally I believe Roe vs Wade is appallingly terrible law - there is a gaping hole in the U.S. constitution concerning exactly when a human obtains rights, but I don't think it was the Supreme Court's job to fill it.

Political Hero: Is, these days, Thomas Jefferson. I'm by no means a libertarian, I'm just in awe of his intellect and convictions. How he put his ideals into practice in the messy world of real politics is a truly fascinating topic - having only really read his Wikipedia page, I'm keen to get my hands on a biography or two. Australian political hero - I'll go for Bob Carr, because nerds have to stick up for one another, no?

In the next Federal election: I don't especially want to vote for Labor, largely because Rudd is overreaching with certain elements of his socially conservative agenda - the main bugbear for me being the appalling internet censorship scheme. I could vote for Turnbull - regardless of his less than appealing personal qualities - but certainly not for the Liberal Party, who to add to mynatural inclinations against their right wing politics, have recently presented an appallingly incoherent and often frightningly irrational policy plaform. The Greens are even worse than the Liberals on policy, and will never win my vote until they purge their party of the influence of ideologues who are so deluded they are capable of opposing things like Nuclear Medicine isotope production at the Lucas heights reactor. If the Democrats were still a viable force with actual political talent, I'd consider voting for them, although it'd involve spending a lot of time figuring out what they actually stand for, since that part always seemed a bit murky.

So at the moment, the ALP wins my vote by default. I'd like to see the Labor left pushing internally a bit harder on issues that matter to me, and not on protecting the thugs in the CFMEU who give the Australian union movement a bad name.

Free Markets or Planned Economies? Both. Our current best knowledge of both economic theory and practice seems to point towards best results from a mixed system - something like we have in Australia. There are without a doubt better ways to run economies, but we haven't discovered them yet. However the dawn of the Information Age is promising in this regard (IMO the massive, distributed computing power of the Internet, product of the Silicion Valley entreupener, may quixotically be the Marxist's last great hope for signficiantly more centralised economic decision making becoming truly viable.)

Taxes - up or down? The level of taxation as a proportion of GDP is a matter of fiscal policy, and rightly changes depending on economic circumstance. As a rule I think we should be redistributing more wealth from the rich to the poor, but I believe we should do so via fewer mechanisms - higher but fewer taxes, and higher but fewer forms of welfare. In fact, if I were in power, my main economic agenda would be to simplify - and probably even merge - the tax and welfare systems, in a revenue neutral fashion. Of course that's far from easy to do, but I'd like to see it nonetheless.

Immigration rates: Should go way, way up. Mainly in the form of unskilled labour and refugees, not just poaching the few doctors the third world has (skilled labour from the first world is fine.) Its an economic, demographic, and moral imperative - with our massively aging population we desperately need more young people, and bribing our own middle class to have babies just isn't that cost effective. The added bouns here its freer immigration is basically the best means of global wealth equalisation, since the immigrants will get richer by being here - not because they end up taking our wealth but because they benefit from our positive externalities, so essentially, they get wealthier for free. Also, they tend to send a fair bit of the money they make back to their home countries where it is usually desperately needed.

People like trot out the usual, largely flawed objections to this one. Society has coped before and can cope again, and so can the enivornment. Really.

ETS: Yes, there definitely should be a price on carbon. The science is kinda shaky - we're almost certainly making the Earth warmer, but by exactly how much and with what effects is much more open - but the economic modelling that is the best argument against acting is even shakier. In the face of this much uncertainty, play it safe and cut emissions. We know we can afford the hit to GDP - civilisations have never ended because the government introduced a moderate tax hike. As a bonus, it'll lesson the economic shock when we actually do start to run out of fossil fuels (which isn't for ages, but hey its nice to be prepared.)

Criminal Law: Soft on crime! Ha. I'll advocate purely selfishly in this matter, in favour of whatever minimises the likelihood that I ever end up a victim or perpetrator of crime - and to hell with the rights of current victims or criminals ;-) This involves weighing up, more or less, the deterrence value of strong punishments, the recidivism reduction of rehabilition, and the option of spending public funds in the broader productive economy instead of the justice system - which reduces the odds myself or my neighbour will ever have to steal to eat, become drug dealers and addicts, etc.

Evidence seems to point to spending more money on rehabilitation for criminals, and less on building new gaols. Perhaps the government should outlaw the media's lying portrayal of crime being out of control due to weak-willed judges, when in fact we live in a remarkably safe and peaceful society by any historical or global standard. I mean freedom of speech is all very well and good but what about my freedom to live in a society goverened by reason rather than the hysteria that happens to make newspapers more profitable?

Actually, I don't have to renounce my values quite that much, because I'm confident the internet will, sooner rather than later, send newspapers and television stations in their current form out of business. Good riddance. Whether what ends up replacing them is any better is an open question. I'm an extreme optimist about the future, though.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


There are several shorter things I want to blog about that I don't merit think posts in their own right... so you get an assortment today, readers.

Regarding the last post

A Facebook reader (hi Catie!) expressed interest in Mental Health First Aid Certificates. The elevator pitch: MHFA is a multi-award winning course designed by leading Australian psychiatric researchers. It is supposed to be a very rough equivalent of a (Physical) First Aid Certificate - like those run by St John's or Red Cross - for Mental Health. For example, learning how to identify and respond to a potential emergency, such as a psychotic episode. Having experienced psychosis myself, and having witnessed others under its effects (I mean on the street, on the bus, in my workplace, and so forth, not just during the time I spent in a psychiatric ward), I'd like to see more of the general public educated about it, and of course other mental health issues. I'm trying to push it as a training agenda item in my workplace at the moment; I personally receive a lot of help from ROAM communities, one of the Sydney-based organisations who offer the course, and since I know from first hand experience that they're awesome guys I feel no hesitation in recommending friends, family and colleagues to take the class with them.

More High Fidelity Antics

Current topic: The Greatest Feminist Anthem in History, so far

I've quizzed a few people about this. There seems to be a paucity of opinions amongst people I know about the great songs of feminism; this is probably because I don't know enough feminists, which is a shame. I have my own choice which so far nobody else I've asked has picked. Please throw your opinions into the comment thread (assuming I can actually get a comment thread for this post) and I'll see if I can compile something more resembling a personal top 5 in place of my current personal top 1. Massive bonus points to anyone who makes a suggestion which displaces my current favourite. I expect players to abide by the same rules of the game I do - no use of Google, Wikipedia, iTunes, or in fact any source of information except the brains of yourself and the people you happen to come into immediate contact with. Think pub trivia.

Finally, for a nice tie-in of the previous two mini-posts,

The top 5 songs that personally best capture my experience of Mania

Songs are important to us partly because they evoke certain moods and emotions, right? Mania is a pretty damn significant mood, by any standard, and there are definitely songs that I associate with it. Here's a "naked" top 5, without the accompanying explanatory music geekery :

5: Territorial Pissings by Nirvana, 4: Here Comes the Sun by the Beatles, 3: Breathe by the Prodigy; 2: Its the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine) by R.E.M; 1.....

will wait for a follow up post, pending receiving some guesses from others. Yes, I'm trying, as I often do, and probably just as ineffectually, to coerce readers into giving me some feedback. Sometimes the stark truth of blogging - the endless shouting into an empty room - is hard to simply accept and live with.

This is a rather diverse list, which is intended; I want to convey that mania isn't a simple cut-and-dried affair - any more than say, happiness, or love. The list is subject to change of course - in fact just about any song can seem overwhelmingly significant and relevant during mania itself, but these leap to mind as appropriate songs about mania when I'm not feelings especially manic.

I hereby promise to post part I of my current political rant series within a week of getting 6 or more distinct people commenting on this post :-)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Another written off day

Add it to the extensive lifelong list - 22/08/09 was a day that didn't exactly go as I'd planned.

I normally prefer to blog about abstract ideas than my day-to-day life - draft philosophy essays rather than journal entries. Its more comfortable territory for me.

But a sizable portion of the known readership of this blog will know I took the day off work today, and it seems some explanation is in order.

I've been "elevated", which is a nice euphamism for hypomanic, for the best part of a month and a half now - those who know me well can usually pick up on the signs of this and figure it out without being told.

For a long time, it was pretty much "all positive" from my point of view - yes I was more irritable, more "intense", less patient, never able to shut up, etc etc etc. But I had tremendous amounts of energy and felt like I was getting a hell of a lot of good stuff done in my life, professionally, socially, and personally, especially in contrast to the shitty mixed depressive
symptoms I had immediately after my return from New York City. And I was managing to still get enough sleep, get out of bed reasonably early, eat well, exercise a lot, and so on. Some negativity remained of course but I was doing my best to use it for its evolution-given purpose: as an ongoing catalyst for healthy, positive change.

Over the last week, though, I became more mixed - I could speculate a lot over the exact triggers but suffice to say behavioural red flags started creeping in. I missed a critical "lets start planning for how we move forward from here" kinda appointment with my psychiatrist on Monday, having gotten wasted the night before. I was late to my exercise session with my mental health nurse on Thursday. The apartment became rapidly and noticably messier. I missed some of my planned morning walks. I was staying up til stupidly late hours reading pointless flame wars on the internet. Etc, Etc, Etc.

These day my insight is usually pretty good for someone with my condition, and I could see the regression long before anyone else had a chance to notice the extent of the subtle shift, but I wasn't really sure how to take action. So I took the standard plan of attack - doing absolutely nothing, but just willing myself to go back to how I'd been the week before.

Then last night I stayed up late, again, having had less than 5 hours sleep the night before. I knew I had to go to bed - I needed a really solid night's rest before going to work in the morning. I resisted, fucked around, didn't go to bed. A friend of mine IM'd me at 4:30 in the morning to ask what the hell I was still doing up. A very good question.
I was now caught in that tired old trap - even if I could get a couple of hours sleep and get up, I'd be far worse than useless at work, and make all my colleagues life actively harder. But if I didn't go to work, I would sleep til some stupid time, my whole circadian rhythm would be devastated for days to come, and over the medium term things might deteriorate even further.

In the end, I didn't sleep at all. This is a risky "strategy" because the (hypo)manic symptoms can get worse the longer you go without sleep. But if you can go the entire next day without sleeping, then go to bed as soon as you start to feel tired in the evening - before you get a "second wind" - you can get back on track for an early rise the day after and thus resestablish a proper sleep cycle.

I called in sick - hopefully not causing too much disruption. It took 3 attempts to do so - I would pick up the phone, and then literally get distracted and not make the call.

Then I thought, right, I need to get out of the house, get some fresh air, exercise, stay awake, without getting more elevated. So I'll call a trusted friend, meet up, go for a walk around a park or something. Chat, but try to lay off the more heavy duty flight of ideas babbling. This was a genuinely good plan. Here's how I carried it out:

Where's my phone? In my pocket? Oh the other pocket.

Oh, the charge is about to die. I should go back and charge it. OK, walk towards the apartment.

No wait, if I go back home, I'll got to bed and fall asleep. Bad idea.

I'll go for a walk down to the oval.

No, wait, I shouldn't go wandering off on my own without a means of contacting someone. And its stupid to go walking before getting breakfast. I'll go get some noodles for breakfast, the shopping centre is open now.

No, before I should do that, I should call someone - keep an outside party in the loop.

No, wait, its too early in the morning, I'll be waking people up. And making them panic unnecessarily.

No, I should call them. Its important.

Wait, my phone isn't charged. That's right. If I go back and charge it, I can spend some time on my computer, which will keep me awake.

No, the interent will just stimulate me more. Maybe just 1o minutes of lying down would be good.

No...... etc.

This kind of Executive Dysfunction is actually in a sense a mild symptom. It makes you utterly unable to get anything done - and I mean get anything done, I've spent hours trying to start to do something as simple as the dishes while in this state - but its not actually really dangerous at all in its own right, except to the extent it make you oblivious to your own surroundings.

After a good solid couple of hours of this crap, I managed to get a breakfast of a springroll and a Vietnamese pork roll (which I barely remember eating), and eventually succumbed to the temptation to "briefly rest". I wokeup about an hour and a half ago, which was 8:00 pm, local time.

Hopefully the drugs will knock me out tonight and I'll be able to get to work and have an ok day, and turn around this briefly bad patch.

Anyway, that's my "a day in the life of someone with Bipolar Disorder" post. I don't really want to make a habit of them - I prefer to read about people's ideas than their lives, and so this blog implicitly assumes the same about you, Non-Existent Reader. Also, Bipolar Disorder is genuniely quite boring a lot of the time.

However one of my recurrent "Big Important Ideas" that's been at the forefront of my mind lately is using my own experiences and insights to try and help contribute to a world where mental health problems are less debilitating, not just for me but for everyone. Spreading awareness is a big part of that. (Mental Health First Aid Certificates, anyone? I'm going to keep pushing and pushing that one with friends, family and colleagues until long after I've been asked to shut up.)

The 500 ideas for other blog posts I've had recently are bearing some fruit - hopefully a couple of the more polished ones will see the light of day soon. The first installment in my latest series of political rants is starting to get dated, and I've actually drafted a pretty big portion of it, so that's my next current top priority. But I make no guarantees. You might get 50 blog posts over the next month, or zero. That's just how it is, I'm afraid.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Blogging has not stopped

Its just the time I might have been able to spend blogging has been spent emailing, or facebooking, or working, or sleeping, or responding to comments on some of the other posts.

Bear with me, gentle reader!

I'm still waiting on a clear vote in the comment thread on one of them to determine which post to write next.... but that'll probably never happen.

If I haven't gotten a clear reader response by Thursday (my planned day off), I'm going to just pick an order for my planned posts and go with it.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Quick follow up, before I forget

On selecting songs and ranking them according to some criterion:

My mother suggests the excellent Puff the Magic Dragon as the best song about Marijuana, and I thoroughly agree! Since she is not the internet nor my music collection, she counts as a legitimate source, so that is now my pick.

To me, the worrying thing about the latest Triple J All Time Hottest 100 is not the obvious flaws and things I would do differently (no Talking Heads? No Lou Reed? So little pop, or good hip-hop? Where's the love for female artists - Lucinda Williams, PJ Harvey, k.d. lang? Such heavy over-emphasis on the 90s? I mean you don't seriously think Smells Like Spirit is better than, say, Like a Rolling Stone do you? Its not even better than Lithium!) Everyone would have gripes and issues with any possible such list if they haven't compiled it themselves.

No, my problem is the converse - its so eerily similar to the list I might come up with if asked. For so many bands I like, my favourite song they do is their highest ranked and often sole showing on the list (at a glance, Breathe, No One Knows, Closer, Damnit, Chop Suey, Beds are Burning...) Radiohead gets as much doubtlessly unwarranted attention as bands like the Beatles do when its Rolling Stone critics and not Triple J votinf; and yet I can only think of the songs I'd cut to make room for even more Radiohead.

Songs I have loved passionately since first exposure like Float On and Common People are to me somewhat shock inclusions, and I don't know whether to be happy or sad about it.

Really, my musical tastes are pretty much just typical Triple J crowd + some stuff from my parents. Mixed in with a couple of influential friend's tastes; and even then it usually turns out my parents had tried and failed to get me to listen to those more obscure older bands when I was younger.

Oh well. As I replied when told my iPhone made me a conformist: "Yeah - conforming to awesome!"

Alright, that wasn't really a quick follow up, you got me. But I've been burned in the past where I've wanted to write on something current and topical, haven't managed to get all my thoughts down, and have come back to the draft 6 months later and realised there's nothing salvagable in such a completely dated post. So best to get it out of the way.

No more music for the immediate future was it seems a non-core promise. I will abide by the fair and democratic process of the comments thread in the previous post when deciding what to publish next, though. I promise.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Despite the complete lack of feedback, I persist

Grrrr..... gave away a shift at work to do something important and screwed it up completely. May as well make use of the time for some "productive blogging."

However to try and gauge if anyone is actually genuinely reading and engaging with my recent flurry of blog activity - given the impressively low 0 comments from 3 posts so far - I am going to pull an old trick and ask the audience to vote on which of the current "posts in potentiam" I should write first and put online. (Of course I reserve the right to ignore all votes and write about something more awesome like Ninja Turtles.)

1) My angry rant in which I throw scorn upon the political beliefs of 95% of the people I know, not to mention most of the rest of the population as well.

2) Latest perspectives on mental illness. The seed of this idea is to do with nomenclature - Bipolar Disorder is in some ways a better term Manic Depression, but has its own flaws. Watch me explain how!

3) Something with a more economics bent. A lot of what I've been reading over the last (6? 12?) months online has been from sources such as the excellent blog Marginal Revolution. All pop-level stuff of course - why scalpers exist, business models of the Web 2.0 revolution, the economics of amusement parks (for those Luna Park colleagues out there), that kind of thing. Nothing too dry about equations that predict which banks will fail to come through the GFC or anything like that.

4) A post that's a bit more out there and which I only expect a small handful of people to really appreciate but maybe is saying something more interesting than my derivative opinions on other topics.

5) What I think should be taught in schools instead of what is currently taught. This may segue into another planned and very important future post, Advice for Smart People (a category which includes all the people I've ever known to read this blog.)

6) Something else! Something else! As certain people I know might chant.

Religion, drugs and music will still feature in this blog, but not in the next post if I can avoid it. I prefer to mix things up.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Original thinking (??)

Most of my interesting thoughts are, I'd wager, about information. I guess that's trivially true of anyone, so I'll clarify that by saying I mean in the meta-sense: modern Information Technology and Theory of course, but also vague pop culture stuff about memes, Economics and Politics and Evolutionary Biology as forms of Information Warfare (so essentially, Game Theory). Theological speculations, which is always a very on-again off-again area of interest for me, often comes back to the Greek philosophical idea of logos - as made famous by John's "In the Beginning was the (Logos), and the (Logos) was with God, and the (Logos) was with God." Christ literally is the Word of God, made flesh - or as a modern blogger might phrase it, he is the Christianity Meme, embodied. That may sound trivial, but I don't think it is.

I'm vastly undereducated in a lot of key areas that are needed to really come up with more than just fluff on this vast topic - which I'll blame ironically on modern information overload. It'd be nice to have learned some Game Theory in a formal setting rather than getting the two-minute version via Wikipedia; but what I really kick myself for not taking while I was still at University was any Statistics, which high school had portrayed as boring stuff for people who couldn't hack real mathematics. That might be true, but knowing zero statistics is in retrospect the thing that most contributes to my utter scientific illiteracy. Every time I try to read any real, not completely dumbed down science, I am reminded of this fact. If you're going to care about information, it doesn't help if you can't talk meaningfully about uncertainty.

Anyway, out of this quagmire of uninformed opinions, I do occasionally come up with something that still seems worth pursuing upon closer inspection. The most significant is that I think Kolmogrov Complexity holds they key to unraveling a lot of misplaced notions about information in a formal setting, and has been underutilised for this task.

Ever since Shannon started the Information Age (a feat he gets precious little attention for), his ideas have been pretty dominant. For good reason. "Data" Entropy is a great formalisation of ideas about information, and its link to Physical Entropy is clearly one of those deep, profound links between disparate fields that Science fortuitously stumbles upon from time to time.

The problem is, the Entropy story about Information doesn't seem to quite capture our intuitions as well as it could. When a Creationist tries to argue that Intelligent Design follows from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, simple equations about solar energy show them to be ignorant and misinformed. But there is something seductive about the intuition that they're appealing to - that in some sense, PageRank and Quantum Computers and Mozart and all the rest coming about through what started as a chance process is simply implausible (in a whole different sense than mere gas particles huddling into the corner of the room.)

This might just be a broken intuition - we can't with finite brains really comprehend the calculable unlikelihood of the gas molecule trick, and we can't even begin to calculate what the odds of modern human civilisation coming into being by chance are; in fact, we can't even meaningfully formulate the question in a rigorous setting. Hence Randall Munroe's spot on snipe at the Drake Equation.

However, I stumbled upon a neat turn in the argument. It has all the rigour of an undergrad paper in Literary Criticism, and may just be because I find Computer Science much easier than Physics. But if we frame the debate in terms Kolmogrov Complexity, instead of Entropy alone, we can easily say:

What if the universe is like a giant file being subject to gzip style compression? So Entropy is increasing, but in a sense the universe is getting "more organised", and this crazy spike of local knowledge is like a symbol table for the rest of the universe. Thus, we can build room sized computers that generate concise descriptions of how galaxy sized super massive blackholes behave.

Of course for this to work in converting Intelligent Designers to your view, you have to argue the universe somehow evolved a genetic algorithm to zip itself. Maybe that argument goes "A generalised Second Law (which could have been made by a Deist God, or Theist God, or no god at all; the theory is "Design wise neutral") is the at heart of the Theory of Everything: Time maximises Entropy, which is actually information density - it just looks like randomness. All the rest - every other law of science and the universe that follows from them - is details."

You can make that argument without even brining in Kolmogrov Complexity I think, but it seems much clearer to me to use that analogy. I've never convinced myself that I really understood the subtleties of Thermodynamics; but I can explain how WinZip can make files shorter to a high school student.

To quote Bertrand Russel....

"Why I'm not a Christian"

This is a critically important question to my Christian friends, and probably of no interest to any other readers - many of whom may just (falsely) assume that it is obvious why genuine Christian beliefs are wrong, or most likely do not even have a clear idea of what genuine Christian beliefs are.

By Christian, I refer to systems of belief in which the Bible is considered the holy, inspired Word of God (for some specific meaning of "Holy", "Inspired", "Word" and "God"....) and is the supreme source of authority on religious matters. This includes most but not all people in the world who would self-describe as Christian - I think its fair to say all mainstream Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox denominations subscribe to the notion, although that core idea manifests in different ways. Protestants might argue that Catholic and Orthodox churches don't believe this, but I'd tend to say they just add more qualifiers. You could also pick other standards for what qualifies someone as Christian, e.g. belief in the Nicene creed. This is all tangential to my argument.

Suffice to say, there are a lot of reasons why I don't personally consider it possible that the whole Bible can be the inspired word of God. Some of my arguments are better than others. The shortest, most succinct "knockdown" objection, though, which rests mainly on the Bible itself and very little that's controversial about either the text or the world, is most succinctly stated in 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 (NIV):
For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
The surrounding verses shed more light on this passage, and another take on the same line of reasoning appears in Romans 5:12-19.

We can blame these versus for the whole doctrine of Original Sin. While I don't think we can say with certainty that Paul believes in Original Sin in the sense a lot of theologians over the centuries have framed the idea, what is clear is that he is drawing a parallel between one man, Adam, bringing Sin into the world, and one man, Christ, sending Sin out of the world (first through the resurrection and then ultimately through the second coming.)

So an honest "biblical" Christian has a limited number of positions to take.

1. Adam was a real person, Christ was a real person. This is a perfectly consistent view to take of the Bible, makes the most sense of Paul's theology, is the most plausible explanation of what Paul himself likely believed, and is very popular in America and several other cultures (such as 15th century Christendom.) Sadly, in other places, where science is taken remotely seriously, it is impossible to defend this view. While you might be able to get a scientist to concede that its a theoretical possibility that homo sapiens sapiens once got to a single fertile couple population bottle neck, it's "only on the strictly philosophical grounds that few things are impossible" kinda point. Actual probability, close enough to zero to round down. And certainly even then this couple could not have been the first two homo sapiens (partly because that the idea doesn't even really make any sense. Evolution is essentially a continuum with only the apperance of discrete groupings any larger than the organism due to sampling.)

2. Adam is a metaphor, Christ is a metaphor. Completely solves the objection contained in 1. Leads to Gnosticism, or Thomas Jefferson style Deism, or some other similar historical Christian heresy. Many of these have some intellectual appeal, but are so different from mainstream modern belief as to justifiably not be called Christian, because they force you to completely change the reading of the entire New Testament. Christians have spent centuries generating solid arguments to try and knock down any possiblility of holding this view, for good reason.

3. Adam is a metaphor, Christ is a real person. And Paul is Satan. Or smoking crack, because this reading is only possible if Paul is insane or evil or a con artist or something else which completely undermines any authority he has on these topics and demands that we tear all his writings out of the Bible (which is all fine and holy except for Paul's bits, of course). This is a bit of a shame, because Paul is the intellectual father of Christian theology. Without Paul we might still have a religion which could perhaps be called Christianity, but while it wouldn't be as radically different as what case 2 would imply, it would still be radically different enough that this remains a losing move for a Christian to make in this particular exchange. It also brings up the interesting and painful question of what parts of the Bible we can then trust, and on what grounds. The end result of such a process occuring after the initial concession is not a pretty sight.

4. Some crazy compatiblistic compromise that tries to iron out one of the difficulties raised above. I made up one of these while committed to a psych ward. It was kind of a cross between 2 and 3. One day I might try to explain it coherently and sanely to someone in full, but I think it might be a little tricky to do so.

5. The Bible has serious flaws and is therefore not "inspired" - maybe parts of it are, but we can't reliably tell which parts. Therefore, by contradiction, Q.E.D., etc.

There is something critical about the argument I have made above that distinguishes it from other issues, like minor factual inconsistencies (how did Judas die?), bickering about translations or correct reading ("this passage is a poem of course you shouldn't expect it to be scientifically accurate"), historical doubts (Exodus doesn't exactly match other sources we have), and so forth; these all make Christiantiy less likely, to varying degrees, but this is far worse than just "less likely". It pushes the Bible beyond Inerrant, beyond Infallible, and indeed beyond Inspired. You have to go down the path of either full blown anti-science Creationism, or almost complete rejection of a core Christian doctrine. Or you must indulge in what I think amounts to massive intellectual dishonesty in your Bible reading, the kind that so offends Christians when ignorant atheists (or heretics) try to pull it off.

I've never come across a convincing escape route out of this particular flanking manouver (except, as noted, during the time when I was at my craziest.) The apologist appears surrounded on all sides with no way out. I could, of course, be wrong. But I think its far more likely Paul is the mistaken one here, and I can't see how Christians have any legitimate tactic left but to quote something like 1 Corinthians 3:19, and thus win their battle but concede mine.

Which, of course, means they ultimately have lost the war for my soul - supposedly the one that counts. Or maybe they haven't. But that's another one of my crazy heretical theories that can wait for another time.