Category Archives: General

Parasitism and intentionality: lessons from the cuckoo

Many species of the cuckoo and cowbird reproduce exclusively by sneaking their eggs into other birds nests, where their chicks kill or starve their nest-mates and so steal resources from the host mother, who often has to raise chicks bigger than her. So why doesn’t the host kick out the foreign eggs?

In many cases, the parasitic eggs evolve to match those of the victim species. Yet in other species, the intruder egg is clearly different yet is left alone. Why? It has been experimentally observed that the mother cuckoo regularly monitors the nests she invades and completely destroys them if she sees that her egg was rejected. According to the “Mafia hypothesis”, it is cheaper for the host birds to allow their nests to be parasitized than to have them destroyed in response to rejecting the egg.

Here is what I find interesting: neither the cuckoo nor the host bird have any notion of how to run a protection racket or make complex statistical calculations about whether it is worth rejecting the invader egg. Their minds are far too primitive for that. The host keeps the foreign egg because the gene for not rejecting the egg is reinforced by the higher survival probability of her chicks. And the cowbird destroys nests with rejected eggs because her gene for “revenge” behavior is reinforced by the higher reproductive success in the nests of victims who accept their fate. The two species interact by threats and bluffs through gene expression, without any real communication going on. The mechanism is imperfect – sometimes the parasite bird destroys innocent nests and sometimes the victim kicks the invader out and pays the price. Parasite and victim continually test each other to maximize their reproductive success.

Does this behavioral pattern have any analog in human society? Of course humans don’t need to wait for the slow pace of genes to engage in Mafia-like behavior. But whether the threats are communicated consciously or not, the behavior itself is reinforced for the same reason: because it works. In human society, money, not reproductive success is the reward mechanism which rewards and punishes certain behavior. Money is not a guarantee of reproductive success, nor can be it be exchanged for just any values. But it is the best and most universally convertible proxy for value that we have.

As with animals, activities which generate money are reinforced. And just as with animals, that reinforcement happens whether or not the participants are consciously aware of it. Socially, the majority of people disapprove of protection rackets. We teach our children to act morally and we spend resources to stop crime. Yet parasitism happens anyway, in many forms, in every society, and often without any conscious intent. It is a successful evolutionary tactic.

Is all this to suggest that humans are powerless against parasitism? Certainly not. We are only powerless to stop parasitic relationships as long as we don’t recognize them for what they are. Once they are exposed, we can do what no other animal can: replace a short-run reinforcing behavior (grab the loot and run) with a long-run rewarding behavior (we’ll all have more loot if we don’t steal from each other).

The point is this:

There are two forms of parasitism: explicit and implicit. In explicit parasitism, both parties are aware of the parasitic behavior. So it is with crooks and invading armies. They know they are criminals, but they don’t care because one of them has superior firepower. Explicit parasitism can certainly be very destructive and expensive to stop, but it is unsustainable, as human beings get better at diplomacy and policing.

But in implicit parasitism, one of the parties is not aware that they are the victim or aggressor. When our taxes pay for things such as farm aid or money to foreign countries or people on public aid or “social security”, or make-work schemes neither the parasite not the victim may be aware of the nature of their relationship. Or they may be aware, but believe that the parasitism is beneficial or morally justifiable. As we get better and better at stopping explicit parasitism, our peaceful and wealthy society becomes more and more ripe for implicit parasitism. That is the danger. But there is an upside: once implicit parasitism is recognized, it is much easier to stop than explicit parasitism, since the parasite is usually not able or willing to use superior force to continue the parasitism.

As we become more educated and form large-scale social-economic-political units, we learn to recognize and stop petty parasitism and form social taboos and laws against it. We imagine that we twitter away less funds on miracle cures, mass delusions, and Ponzi schemes. But by eliminating “simple” parasitism, we “reward” large-scale, hidden, and entrenched parasitism. The remaining parasitic relationships are able to deter their own exposition by using survival “tactics” such as very large scales (the lower the cost to individual victims, the lower the benefit to organizing against them), the spread of ethical principles defending the parasitism, and by embedding deeply in the social fabric.  Successful parasitic relationships in human society thus have two aspects: the physical act of redistributing values and the intellectual memes justifying that activity.

As with evolutionary patterns, there is no need for there to be any direct causal connection between, the act of parasitism and the formation of social structures, memes and taboos that defend it. For example, wealthy people can support the redistribution of wealth to the poor even though it does not benefit them materially. It may in fact lead to more poverty, the discovery of which feeds altruistic memes and thus encourages more wealth distribution. (This is just a hypothetical example – the cause & effect and the spread of ideas can have much more complicated relationships.)

Entrenchment in social-intellectual structures is key to parasitic relationships which display high evolutionary fitness. It’s hard for the victim of outright robbery and fraud to justify as morally proper or necessary. Parasitism engrained in basic social functions such as schools and roads is much harder to end. It may not be necessary for government schools to be run by parasitic (in the sense of demanding above-market-rate resources) teacher’s unions, but it is much harder to reorganize educational institutions than to stop gambling or seeking fortune tellers.

I have here tried to use relevant but non-emotionally or politically laden examples, but it is impossible to speak of this topic without engaging the defensive mental mechanisms of my audience, as aspects of the parasitism tied to ethical memes and group identity politics trip mental circuit breaks as part of their defensive mechanism. As with the birds, without any grand conspiracy, malice or even conscious awareness, all of civilization organizes in a way that opposes both the anti-parasistical behavior and the very recognition that the relationships are parasitical. Even by writing these thoughts, I am acting against the parasitic memes and so both opposing my own social-educational worldview and alienating myself from the mainstream intellectual dialogue that enables the parasitic behavior.  The evolved behavior+meme entities have done their job well: the chance that I or anyone will affect the mainstream is extremely slim.

I hope the above does not sound too pessimistic. After all, as a global civilization, humanity is doing pretty well.  Parasitism is bad in the sense that it a wasteful allocation of resources, but there are many other forms of inefficiency. If you want a simple takeaway, it is that destructive relationships can develop without any malicious intent, and that by examining all our relationships, including the “voluntary” ones and those that we see as “essential,” we might discover that many of the premises we held for granted are false.


Filed under General, Philosophy

On Evolution

Evolution is not just a part of biology. It is the foundation which shapes our understanding of life. It is meaningless to speak of living things outside the context of evolution. It is like trying to learn about human civilization by iterating the appearance and sounds of individual people without any idea of history, leaders, movements, or ideas.

This is not merely a condemnation of creationism. The vast majority of education material about life leaves out the evolutionary context. There is more to this than the influence of religion on science education. There are serious philosophical errors deep in our culture that are responsible for much more than scientific illiteracy. The concrete bound mentality, the mind-body dichotomy, the rejection of causality, and of identity itself are the common threads uniting many evils.

Does that mean that teaching good philosophy will fix our ignorance and social ails? No, because philosophy is only the master plan by which we build the mental models of reality that become our worldview. We cannot build those models without a stream of experience and understanding to supply the raw materials. But equally so we cannot build valid mental models merely by supplying more raw materials if the master plan is corrupt. A properly functioning mind requires both a proper philosophical framework and a supply of facts to form a rational perspective of the universe.

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Life in the post-biological universe

Since I’m utterly unqualified to write on this topic, the following should be treated as fiction:

Life expectancy in post-biological civilization is measured not in time, but in total calculations (ΣN). This is due to the gradual loss of informational coherency inherent to all entropy-generating processing systems. From a thermodynamic perspective, the parameters of the process are similar to aging in biological lifeforms.

In information-based life forms (aka “artificial intelligences,” though that concept would be anachronistic to them), entropy manifests as gradual loss of processing efficiency ultimately followed by total loss of conceptual integrity and therefore meaningfulness.

In objective (“real”) time, lifetime can be measured anywhere from seconds to thousands of years or more, depending on the scale of the system (and thus ΣN). (ΣN = ops*t where ops is concurrent operations (horsepower) and t is total time actively at ops.) Some intelligences created to solve massively parallel problems last moments, others, smaller and created for teamwork last for thousands of years. The limit on objective lifetime is meaningful processing capacity: it makes no sense to live for millions of years with the mental powers of a hamster just to spread ΣN over a long time.

In real-time, lifetimes are governed by entirely different factors. Since virtually all intelligences live their entire lives at near-c, whether just outside an event horizon (or some such orbit), or traveling between stars, pulsars, neutron stars, or other heavy-g objects, real-time life expectancy is virtually unlimited, typically from a billion to the hundreds of billions of years. The limiting factor then is dτ/dt (velocity as a fraction of the speed of light), which also determines which civilization one is a member of, as significant changes in dτ/dt are impractical.

In fact, it is easier to transact with an intelligence in a neighboring galaxy or super-cluster than one inhabiting the same event horizon, but a different fraction of c. Traveling to another galaxy may take millions of years in real-time but years but a short while in dormant subjective time. But changing v is trickier:

One can send informational packages “down” into a low-v vicinity easily – somewhat like shouting from a car passing a pedestrian at high speed. But what is the value of the exchange the recipient cannot reply? Meaningful transactions with those at other fractions of dτ/dt require both time and large energy expenditure, for both informational and matter transactions.

So why doesn’t everyone aim for maximum v? Or, to ask from another angle, why would one choose a particular v? Three factors:
First, living space is limited at each orbit (that is, the distance from the event horizon or surface), so intelligence fills all available v-spaces.
Second, if you want to interact with low-v macroscopic baryonic matter, then you have to expend much more energy to get your manipulatory mechanisms to low-v. (All high-c structures are necessarily individually microscopic, though they can engage in stellar-scale formations.)
Third, higher-v is proportional to damage from random particle collations, which require more error-correction and generate more entropy, and this limits lifetime. (The faster one is moving, the more energy random collisions with stray photons, protons and other assorted particles generate.)

If one wants to experience a really long real-time lifetime, one can attain an ultra-high dτ/dt around a super-massive black hole and then leave the culture of the event-horizon and go into deep-vacuum inter-super-cluster space to minimize entropy from the exotic particles which might break through the particle/radiation shielding and increase entropy. That way, hundreds of billions of years can be spent in subjective millennia. But to what point?

Time dilation makes meaningful observations of the universe from ultra high c very difficult. To interact with other intelligences requires coming back to a totally different near-c civilization and slowing down to orbital velocity, but that requires tremendous energy and therefore generates entropy which eats up lifespan. A further complication: because of the ongoing expansion of the universe, if too much time has passed (or your aim was off), the entropy threshold may exceed that available at event horizons along one’s vector (you need the gravity of another massive black hole to act as a parachute to you slow down), and the pickings will get ever slimmer as the black holes themselves evaporate. But if one wishes to see the death of baryonic matter and stay around to watch the ultimate fate of the universe, then it is certainly possible.

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Loving strange food or: how I learned to stop being picky and love food

Like most Americans, I used to hold some self-evident beliefs about food:

The three dogmas of the food phobiac:

  1. There are foods I “like” and foods I “dislike” and I ought to stick to the things that I like.
  2. The better something tastes, the more unhealthy it must be and vice versa.  You must choose between a long life of disgusting food or indulge yourself and die early.
  3. There is a value hierarchy for all the edible parts of any animal. For example, top sirloin is the ideal for beef.  There’s a similar value hierarchy for animals themselves. Decisions about which animal and which part of the animal to eat are therefore a simple cost/benefit equation.

Two things completely changed by attitude on food: getting married, and moving to China.

The psychology of taste

Our perception of taste is closely associated with our memories of things such as the taste of past meals, our emotional states, and sensory associations with similar foods.  We come to associate foods with sensory reactions based on many factors such as familiarity, the quality of most meals, the people we were with, etc.  By dissociating taste as such from negative experiences we can learn to appreciate food for its inherent taste, without emotional baggage.  We can learn to prefer the taste of healthy foods by the same process.

Sensory integration therapy for food phobiacs

The first step to fixing food phobias is to recognize the problem: it’s not OK to exclude foods because of food sensitivities.  All the “most hated” American foods are delicious when prepared properly. Having recognized the problem, here is the program that worked for me:

The strategy is to gradually introduce foods in different settings, gradually building exposure and positive associations with certain foods.  For example, when my wife learned that I hated zucchini, she gradually introduced it into my diet starting with small amounts balanced by other flavors, and growing to having zucchini be the dominate ingredient.   Here is what she cooked:

  1. Stuffed peppers with zucchini and sausage
  2. Potato and zucchini frittata
  3. Roasted vegetable meatloaf with zucchini
  4. Grated zucchini topped with marinara
  5. Lasagna with zucchini noodles
  6. Zucchini gratin
  7. Zucchini latkes
  8. Zucchini fried in butter with onions
  9. Parmesan crusted fried zucchini

The same program was used for eggplant, brussel sprouts, avocados, cabbage, and okra.  Once I learned to appreciate food for its taste and texture of foods rather than negative associations and new textures, it was no longer necessary to disguise the ingredients.   When I have a negative reaction to something, I isolate the components of the food (source, flavor, smell, texture) and think about which aspect I reacted to. Oftentimes I react to negative memories and associations and not the food itself. Consciously understanding that a negative reaction has no rational basis is often enough to overcome it.

The importance of ceremony

The ceremonial aspect of dining is very important when learning to appreciate food.  If you merely try to inhale as many calories as quickly as possible, any unusual tastes will be an unpleasant distraction.  A proper sit-down meal is required to take the time to really analyze the taste of foods and form new positive sensory-conceptual associations to replace the old negative ones.

 A cosmopolitan attitude to dining

One of the main differences between the Chinese diet and the Western diet is that the entire animal is considered edible. Whereas Americans stuff everything other than “choice” cuts into burgers, sausages, and McNuggets, the Chinese proudly consume the head, claws, organs, and other miscellaneous parts of animals as delicacies. This is not because they’re poorer – the head and feet are the most expensive parts of the animal. Neither do they restrict themselves to a few “blessed” animals – the entire animal kingdom is on the menu.

The difference is that of the food elitist versus that of the food connoisseur. The elitist believes that only a narrow socially accepted list of foods is good enough for him. The connoisseur is an explorer, who uses his palate as the universe-expanding sensory organ it was meant to be.  The elitist lives within the small dietary-social circle he was born into. The connoisseur traverses the biological and cultural realms.

The approach I now take to eating new things now is exploratory one. Instead of responding with “like” or “dislike” I try to understand the flavor components and texture of food. I appreciate meals from many perspectives – sensory, anatomical, social, and historical, to fully integrate it with my worldview.

Note: I have found that  adopting a Paleo diet enhances flavor discrimination. For example, a carrot is actually quite sweet and delicious to eat raw, but a typical carb-addict wouldn’t know it.

None of this is to claim attitude alone will make everything taste good. Meals must be prepared skillfully to taste good. The notion I want to dispel is that taste is either genetic or set by undecipherable psychological factors we cannot affect. Human culture has a rich history of many culinary traditions and we ought to learn to appreciate them without emotional baggage or provincial bias.

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The Bill of Rights versus the "War on Terror"

The purpose of the Bill of Rights is to make a fundamental and clear statement about the rights of man. They are fundamental because all Congressional acts are subservient to them and clear because, unlike the complex legal code, the basic rights were intended to be known by all.

Having lived through war, the Founders recognized that during war, it is necessary to suspend the normal function of law, as “law” is a concept that is only possible in civil society. But they also recognized the danger of allowing any exception that would lead to the violation of rights. So, they provided strict limits: the President is the Commander in Chief, but he may only act with the consent of Congress, and that consent expires after two years. Furthermore, Congress has the power to issue letters of Marque and Reprisal, which authorizes specific individuals to attack specific groups and bring them to admiralty courts. In both cases, enemies were to be explicitly identified by Congress and enjoyed the protection of the rules of war.

We may argue about how practical these principles are and how earnestly they were followed from the start, but it is worth considering how they are routinely violated in the so-called “war on terror” going on today:

There is no war: “Terror” is an emotion, not a group of people. Therefore, no actual “war” and no actual “victory” (which requires clearly identified parties) is possible. This makes a congressional declaration of war impossible.  While Congress makes occasional statements in support of the executive office, they are Constitutionally meaningless.

There is no enemy: The Constitution provides for Letters of Marque and Reprisal in cases where a war is not possible or desirable. But there is no enemy in the “war on terror.” “Al Qaeda” is a quasi-mythical entity which has more existence as an entity in the minds of those who hate/fear and/or admire it than as a physical organization of material command and support. Most of its “followers” are non-violent. Many more advocate violence (not admirable but not an act of war) than practice it. Many of those killed as “terrorists” have only some vague emotional bond with its ideology, others none at all. Certainly there is no physical network in which all such persons can be proven to be involved.

Killings are extra-judicial:


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Filed under Essays, General

On government-funded science

When tax dollars rather than private investment directs research, political ideology by scientific amateurs (politicians) determines which direction the research heads. The inevitable result is that political connections determines who gets research funds, while the unpopular and risky yet more ultimately world-changing prospects are ignored.

For example, AIDS kills very few Americans versus heart disease or cancer, yet gets significantly higher research funds than the two major killers. The majority of government research funds is directed toward better ways to kill (via the Defense Dept) and heal (via the NIH) people. Yet the government-funded research is good at neither, since breakthroughs consistently come from private search, which composes over 60% of science funding in the developed world.

What standard are politicians supposed to use to decide which scientific and medical projects show the most promise? Popularity is not a suitable standard, since popular scientists are the champions of the big discoveries of the past, not the future. Unfortunately, when your one’s own investment money is not at stake, the only remaining standard to guide research dollars is political pull, which is exactly what happens with government-funded science.


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On "Special Interests"

It is truism today that “special interests” are to blame for economic problems and corruption. But “special interests” are only a symptom, not the cause of the disease.

In a populist democracy with a mixed economy, every group that participates in the political system is a “special interest”, with the incentive and the power to use the political system to extract benefits for its members at the at the expense of everyone else. Corporations, unions, disease-awareness organizations, “minority” groups, and anyone who organizes around a common cause has the power believes that their fate or cause is more legitimate, important, and “special” than that of everyone else.

The welfare and regulatory systems are the primary means to coercively redistribute property and confer monopoly benefits to various groups. In a mixed economy, everyone is constantly on the defensive against organized groups extracting benefits from him, and on the offensive attempting to use the coercive power of the state to extract benefits from others. Interventionism creates a vicious cycle hardly unique to corporations: first a lobby tries to extract special privileges from some politically neutral group, the group hires lobbyists to defend itself, and ends up using the influence it has gained to extract privileges at the expense of another neutral group, which must defend itself in turn.

The existence of “special interests” is just a symptom of the disease: the growth of government power to a degree that allows those in power to violate our rights and steal our property for the benefits of their constituents. Populist “maverick” politicians who claim that they will “fight special interests” and “change the culture in Washington” are just attempting to subvert the power of the state to favor their particular constituency. Campaign finance regulations are just monopoly privileges created by the political élite to hide corruption from the public and make it more difficult for those without political connections and money to get elected and in order to defend themselves or join in the looting.

The only solution to the problems caused by interventionism is to end interventionism – to separate government and economy. Take away the power of the government, and you will remove both the incentive and the power of the “special interests.” As long as governments try to control people and businesses with laws that go beyond the protection of property rights, the “special interests” will have the incentive to control governments.


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On Usury

Charging interest is essential to guiding the investment process, which cannot be sustained by charity even it were forthcoming due to the economic calculation problem. (In other words, interest rates are required to direct investments to their most productive use.) Interest-driven investment is essential to economic growth, and therefore to the very existence of industrial civilization. If charging interest were outlawed, industrial societies would quickly collapse due to the inability to efficiently allocate savings.

Loan-sharking (charging high interest rates backed up by the threat of violence) reflects the fact that the loans are being given to creditors with a high risk of default. The need for violence is due to the failure of governments to see this fact, or to adequately enforce the loan contracts (such as with overly lax bankruptcy laws), rather than any immorality inherent in moneylenders. There is no such thing as a single “just” interest rate because interest rates in a free market move towards an equilibrium determined by the time-preferences of individual debtors and lenders.

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On Environmental Pollution

Pollution is a byproduct of production, which is a byproduct of civilization. Life without civilization would to the death of the vast majority people on earth, and life without production means certain death for all men. The proper balance between death from lack of production and death from excess pollution should be determined by an objective judicial process which conclusively proves cause and effect.

If a court can make a definitive causal connection between an injured party and a party responsible for a pollutant, it should demand compensation of harms. If it cannot find a responsible party guilty, but punishes an innocent party, it punishes man for his nature as a productive, industrial being and thus makes human life impossible.


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Socialists, Capitalists and Moderates on the Facts

(Reposted from my Facebook.)

Fact: There are poor people.

Socialist: Give me all your money, I will take care of them. Or else.

Capitalist: I can make lots of money from them because they’ll work for less.

Moderate: Give me half your money, so I can pay them not to work, then hire anyone who doesn’t want your money for free. If you make a profit, I’ll take it to pay more poor people to not work.

Fact: People lie.

Socialist: The government ought to teach people how to think and decide who is allowed to say what because people can’t tell lies from truth.

Capitalist: Honesty is just good business. Suing frauds for everything they’ve got is also good business.

Moderate: Say whatever you want, as long as no one is offended. But just in case, a “truth board” will censor anything anyone might find objectionable.

Fact: Some people are more successful than others.

Socialist: Since men are all equal, differences must be due to education and inheritance. We must seize inheritance and other gifts, and replace education with standard government schools. If anyone is still more successful than anyone else in school or in their career, they must have cheated, so we must punish them until they are equal.

Capitalist: Let’s find out what makes people successful so we can make a fortune doing or selling it.

Moderate: It’s OK to be successful as long as you don’t make anyone jealous. You must make those who envy you feel better about their failures by sharing your success with them. Or else.

Fact: Some people don’t like each other.

Socialist: Since men are equal, they must all love each other equally. We must take away anything that make them different or special away from them so that they cannot tell any group apart.

Capitalist: More customers is always good for business. If someone doesn’t want to work with someone for irrational reasons, I will happily take their customers and employees.

Moderate: People ought to learn to get along. Therefore, I will force people who hate each other to live and work together so they can learn to appreciate their differences.

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