Thursday, July 21, 2011

Toward a Physical Measure of Utility

"Electroencephalographic Topography Measurements of Experienced Utility", emphasis on experienced. Pedroni A. et al, The Journal of Neuroscience, 20 July 2011, 31(29): 10474-10480. The response they measured unexpectedly increased disproportionately increasing reward, i.e. it did not demonstrate diminishing returns but rather the opposite.

A measure of the mismatch between decision and reward utility, and understanding its biological basis and how it differs between individuals, would be excellent for psychology as well.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

If There Were a DEA and FDA For the Software Industry

[Note: Aaron Agostini responded critically to this post at his blog, A Polite Gunfight.]

Imagine if, long ago, we established not only an FDA for drugs, but also a parallel agency for software. The software industry's FDA would exist in order to protect computer users from bad programs - harmful, or low quality - and would require central approval of every single program writter. Of course this would produce grumbling for software engineers who just want to make a living, but the arrangement would indeed allow software-FDA to stop nasty malware before it made it onto the market.

Unfortunately, software-FDA then becomes inconsistent and over-conservative - always more reasons to say no than yes - and hurts computer users in the long run by decreasing the number and quality of programs available to them. For example: programs released back in the 1980s, even if they slowed your computer down and crashed all the time, would be allowed to remain by an unspoken grandfather agreement (too messy to recall them or investigate them now!) The old-school software makers would certainly not rock this boat, and the newer software companies wouldn't speak out for fear that they would be punished by software-FDA. The rules that you had to follow when developing software would be so byzantine that software companies would have to hire their own legal experts, who are expensive and say "No" a lot to developers' plans. Needless to say, it would be very hard for small software companies to survive, and software would cost more for consumers.

Above: A well-meaning officer from software-FDA confiscates a computer running Linux. Consumers don't understand it well enough and may harm themselves. Software-FDA also needs to protect the public from possible QC problems with open source software.

Meanwhile, new programs would be scrutinized even for infrequent damage, i.e. to one out of a thousand computers, and if the programmers couldn't explain exactly how the programs worked in every situation, they wouldn't be allowed to sell them. (Nobody knows how the old programs work, but they're still allowed to be sold; and certainly nobody is allowed to make an informed choice about the acceptable risk to them. The software consuming public doesn't understand enough to make these decisions.) Investors in new software companies are scared off by any program that shows real innovation, and the number of programs released per year starts to drop. Finally, the software-FDA does allow computer technicians to sell programs to consumers for uses other than for what the programs are specifically approved to do - even though software-FDA clearly doesn't trust these same technicians to evaluate whether the programs should be on the market in the first place. But people get used to this crazy inconsistency, so hardly anyone says anything.

And there would be a whole other government agency (the software-DEA), for the worst programs of all. There are certain programs, software-DEA says, that are SO BAD that they don't trust ANYBODY to use them responsibly - consumers OR computer technicians - so they put people in jail for buying and using them. Software-DEA even puts people in jail when these programs harm only the consumers' own computers, by their own consent. In fact software-DEA keeps putting people in jail even when some of the programs have been conclusively shown by computer scientists NOT to harm their computers. Not surprisingly, a black market will form around these programs, some of which are fun to use and pretty safe, and software-DEA will say, completely bass-ackwards, this proves these programs are bad, and must be kept illegal.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Refine Your Taste, Pay the Price

I argued previously that the main benefit of drinking wine is the ability it confers on you to signal your cultural refinement. At the end of the post I stated the reasons for intentionally destroying one's taste in wine:

I apply the same dismissal to wine as I do to sake. I've come to the conclusion that intentionally refining one's palate is a form of masochism that any self-respecting hedonist should reject. Why the hell would I ever deliberately make my palate more difficult to please? By developing your taste, you're intentionally making your marginal unit of pleasure more expensive - you're making yourself more difficult to please. If you have a bad case of wine signal-itis and you enjoy announcing to dining compatriots all the flaws you've found in the wine on the table in front of you, you might put it in perspective this way...That's why I'm intentionally letting what little refinement I've achieved go fallow, and I automatically order the cheapest table wine on the menu. Or I don't, and get a Coke.

Of course the counterargument is that if your ability to signal results in increased attraction of mates, business partners, or some other benefit, it may offset the greater expense of achieving the same hedonic experience.

So it was with some amusement that today I read about how Seth Roberts did the opposite - he inadvertently destroyed his enjoyment of sake by greatly refining his taste - all in a single day.

54'40" Was Fought: Alternate History #3

Previous entry in the alternate history series: The Alternate vs. Actual History Test.

Next entry in the alternate history series: Colonial Megafauna.

Added later: information about why the border between post-Mexican-War Mexico ended up where it did, and what an alternate "lesser" Mexico would have been like if the border had ended up even further south - and what the American Civil War might have been like if Sonora, Coahuila, and Chihuahua had been absorbed and admitted as states.

We're fortunate that today the land border between the U.S. and Canada is the longest undefended border on the planet. But there was an actual U.S. invasion plan for Canada for the 1920s and 30s, in anticipation of U.S. and U.K. interests' running afoul. (H/T Luke Muehlhauser.)

[Added later: guest-blogging at the Daily Dish, Alex Massie shares my rather pessimistic view of American military's chances against the British in the first half of the nineteenth century, specifically discussing the War of 1812.]

Keeping in the military mindset of the previous century, the U.S. planned to capitalize on its proximity and its access to the interior of the continent. The same considerations were likely what brought a reasonable end to the War of 1812. The British knew the U.S. couldn't match them on the seas, and demonstrated this by burning selected targets in Washington after sailing right up the Potomac, in retaliation for the American burning of Toronto. But they also knew that a military campaign to conquer the American interior was hopeless, and this is what the later War Plan Red capitalized on. Of course, fortunately (in the most perverse possible sense) World War II occurred and stopped a second War of 1812, and suddenly the idea of invading Canada – or the idea of worrying about British troops more than Japanese troops – seemed absurd. Britain was fighting for its life and there were friends of Britain's enemies bombing American territories.

There are actually several interesting but terrible ways that the U.S.-Canadian (and –British) relationship could have turned out much worse than it did as a result of war. The first is the possibility of a nineteenth century Canadian war. Immediately following the War of 1812 some admirably cool heads prevailed in London and Washington, and an agreement was made to co-develop the Pacific Northwest. (You will look a long time in world history for agreements between competing powers as rational as this one.) Then of course came the end of the agreement, with the 1845 slogan "54'40" or fight". (54'40" is the southern border of the Alaska panhandle. The U.S. was essentially demanding all of BC, and the southern half of the prairie provinces to boot.) Had this led to war, it is very likely that it would've meant a sound naval defeat for the U.S. that had major territorial implications, since most settlement and trade in the Oregon Country at that point moved by river. Oregon Country was far enough from Washington that it would effectively have been a foreign war for both countries along the coast and rivers; in those circumstances you'd be a fool to bet against the nineteenth century British Navy. A worst case scenario would have meant the Americans losing the entire Oregon Territory, all the way back to what are today the American northern Rockies. The U.S. would certainly not have held the coast, and would not have held the Columbia. (Don't even try to tell me they could have held the Fraser.) As a result the northern Rockies could well have become an international boundary, just like the Andes on the other American continent. Yellowstone would have been on a hostile tripartite border.

Also keep in mind that, in actual history, the U.S. was scheduled to fight Mexico the following year, gaining such familiar territories as California and Texas. With a military demoralized and battered by the British, and likely a new administration elected that was far less interested in expansion, it's hard to argue we would have started the Mexican War when we did, or at the very least had fewer gains. Our border with Mexico after the earlier Florida purchase was the Arkansas River, which cuts through Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado, so substantial chunks of the southwestern Midwest would also not have been gained. It's also less much less likely under these circumstances that the Alaska purchase would have occurred; it almost didn't as it was. Sadly New Kamchatka would not have been able to produce beloved governors and Vice Presidential nominees for the far-away American capital. Consequently, Going to war over 54'50" could very likely have meant the U.S. lost its entire Pacific Coast. Worst case scenario map below, with international boundaries darkened and changed sub-national territories named.

In alternative histories, the best-known rendering of a U.S.-Canadian war was in Harry Turtledove's Southern Victory series, where in 1914 the Confederacy allies with England and the Allies, and the North comes in with Germany and the Central powers. The Central powers win, the U.S. pushes the U.K. completely out of Canada, and sets up an independent Quebec as a client state.

As an aside, my favorite part of the War Plan Red article: "The best practicable route to Vancouver is via Route 99." I hope no one got paid for that. That's not war planning, that's buying a map at a gas station. Or being a Seattle commuter.

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The alternate vs. actual history test

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