Random Numbers

The power of utter randomness. Given time, any and all processes and information can be duplicated exactly. However, the larger and more precise the process, the less probably the duplication will be. However, what if you consider a sequence where it isn’t random? What if you consider a sequence designed to efficiently produce a specific sequence in random fashion? Does this have broader implications for encryption, compression, or encoding? Does this mean that intellectual property is contradictory and unethical? Do random numbers have some critical functional significance for human intelligence, or the workings of the universe?

Randomness is perfect noise; chaos. Infinite randomness therefore includes all possible strings of information. All possible strings of information therefore includes all specific strings of information- movies, books, classified documents, you know whatever. As the categorical example goes: pi is normal. Therefore, everyone who converts pi to decimal or binary form has just infringed on every copyright that exists, has existed, and ever will exist simultaneously. You just pirated every state secret, every bit of juicy, dripping tabloid scum, and every grand work of art that will ever exist. True, we don’t know pi is normal but if the logic holds then any noise-generating algorithm will work just as well. Any process that is normal, or generates perfect noise, or can in any other fashion be used to reproduce copyrighted works, must be banned.

Of course this is bullshit. If you banned the creation of random numbers… I don’t even want to think about it. “Seven.”

“Why did you say seven?”

“I don’t know”

“Alright sonny, you’re coming with us. We’re going downtown.”

Theoretically, the more unlikely someone else is to duplicate a specific string of information then the more right the “creator” has to it. It’s extremely unlikely that a noise algorithm will reproduce, let’s say the movie I Am Legend, in a *timely* manner. However, a noise algorithm would reasonably quickly produce the ASCII code for the word “orange” or perhaps a short sentence. So you can’t copyright the word “orange” or the number 7, but you can copyright I Am Legend. Theoretically.

However, this model is fraught with issues. Firstly, does that mean that I have more right to my 1000-page book than I do to my 100-page book? A random number generator is exponentially less likely to produce a longer or more information-dense work. Does this mean that any work less than X bits in size is open source, but greater than X is closed-source?

Next let’s try the argument from economics. There exists a commodity that can be reproduced for no charge. What is the cost of this commodity? That’s a good question, yes indeed. If you’re the one selling it, obviously you’re looking for a reason to charge for it. Much of the time, even the most basic commodities have costs associated with them: the sale of water involves a physical commodity that had to either be pumped to your house, or bottled in a plant. A piece of paper had to be created from lumber, etc. etc. However, information can be duplicated for absolutely no charge. We’ve been doing this since the dawn of civilization. How do you teach a baby a language? You can hire a tutor, but then you’re not paying for the information, you’re paying for the tutor’s time. Now this is where things seem to get a little grey; what happens if you buy a book. You’re buying a bunch of paper with a cover, and some ink in interesting shapes on the pages. The book cost money to produce, undoubtedly. Here’s the crunch: some books, let’s say book A and book B are of equivalent page length, equivalent cost of physical production, and have the same quantity of information. This is not to say they have the same content; only that if you converted them into binary they could each be represented by the same amount of data. But somehow, one book sells better than the other. The people selling the book will clearly say, “look, look, everyone wants book A because the information in it is more valuable!” And then because book A sells more, the vendors will charge more for it; supply and demand. Seems logical, right?

The fact that A sells better than B does not indicate that information contained within A is intrinsically more valuable than B’s. It does not logically follow that information has fiscal value in consumer terms. What if B is written by a genius philosopher who will remain undiscovered until three hundred years after his death, and his book will be widely hailed as one of the greatest works of all time for enlightening humanity. As a case, that situation in no way conflicts with A selling better than B. As a matter of fact, I’d say the true geniuses are the ones so far ahead of their time that nobody in their time will buy their stuff. Works of quality are generally superseded by what is “popular”- this is an obvious, and also common sentiment.

The fact of the matter is that there is quite a lot less money to be made selling things like books and movies than the industry has been predicated upon. Another fact of the matter is that virtually all of that little money to be made, in a naturalistic system, would end up in the hands of the creator(s). Such industries are disgustingly contorted and inflated to maximize revenue. They have no qualms about hyping, sensationalizing, and swamping anything that they need to to maximize income.

For books, all the publisher is providing is the paper and printing services- but somehow they make all the money. The Book Industry Study Group says the book industry encompassed a net revenue of \$34.59 billion in 2005, and will reach \$40.4 billion by 2010. Para Publishing disagrees, saying the industry’s net revenue is \$34.63 billion, and goes on to claim 2.3 billion books are sold each year. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but 2.3 billion books goes into \$34.5 billion 15 times, so the average book cost \$15. The printing cost for said book, shall we say, is not \$15. It is, unsurprisingly, remarkably difficult to find good data on the cost of physically printing a commercially distributed book. But culling from a dozen independent print companies’ websites I’ve concluded it probably costs about \$4 to \$5 to print a \$15 book. Printed in bulk, the price per unit must drop, hence the profitability of being a publisher. But the insane 3x to 4x price increase is justified only by conceptual wrangling.

For movies, the discrepancy is even worse. A modern movie is a multimillion dollar undertaking, funded by an elite core of wealthy, professional publishers. It just doesn’t cost that much to make a movie. What happened? The nature of a movie is that once created, it becomes profitable for each theater seat sold afterward, and for each disc sale. A theater seat is a fairly simple commercial exchange: you are paying for the use of the screen, and your seat. They can charge based on the number of people interested, at a slight but steady profit. Because of the nature of theater sales, a movie that goes box-office is going to get millions of viewers, and there are huge revenues to be made. This caused moviemakers to anticipate, enabling them to increase the cost of their movies thinking to make them better and win a bigger slice of that enormous theater-seat pie. Advertising is devastatingly effective at promoting movies in such an environment, and huge advertising budgets are a no-brainer. Pretty soon you see bad movies wasting millions, and people watching them anyway because they’re so heavily advertised and there are few truly great movies created anymore. A disc, too, is fairly simple. They made something that you want to own. However, in both cases “the movie” is adding some imaginary value. A DVD costs only cents to make, plus a few more cents of some disc burner’s activity. That’s all you’re paying for. Plus the box, the package, and the profit of the seller. However the enormous cost of producing the movie left a huge burden on the producer, on anyone the producer sells the rights to, and ultimately that price falls on the consumer. In order to justify their overcharging- which they can no longer stop by their own volition- they start pushing legislation around. At the end of the day, they’re selling you information. Information which they have to protect as an industry through legislative artifice to maintain their profit margins.

Government can easily, in a breath, do that. It is critically important that we avoid that type of policy, and follow a rational, sensible, and flexible mode of thinking, particularly about such matters of import. We need to be a force for change, pressuring companies to continue to work for us, to press them to change with the times. It’s a war; they want to take advantage of us, and we want to take advantage of them. If all goes well, we’ll be evenly matched and meet in the middle, each getting a fair deal.

Value: What is Money, Anyway?

Money is an interesting abstraction because in and of itself it means nothing: it’s merely the representation of value based on faith. In fact, faith is the critical component of money, in that if everyone spontaneously lost faith in a specific currency, then the value of that currency drops to nothing, instantly. Where does this abstraction come from, and why can it persist in such a stable manner? What is the ethical utility of money, and how valuable is money anyway? What is the import of an economy? Do ethical laws apply to economic systems? What is the concept of money, after all?

Money is, simply put, liquid value. It is value that is not bound to a specific form, that may be freely assigned and distributed. Money is a carrot to motivate people to do productive work for others, knowing that they can in turn use the same money to motivate others to do the same for them. Money acts as a catalyst, enabling a self-organizing system of human effort to function where each person is trying to maximize their own value from a finite quantity of money. So, if a person who likes apples more than oranges is going to be charged \$5 for either, they’ll take the apples. Also, the desire to acquire more money drives forward progress as the consumer backlog justifies increasing expense. What do I mean by that? A company selling a product for a small profit that millions of people buy has more money with which to provide more of that product. Overall, it’s an extremely elegant system, more or less an extension of the process of natural selection into terms useful for memes-with-hands. Or, intelligent entities capable of manipulating the world around them.

Now for the tough questions. What is the value of a human life, in monetary terms? Is it priceless, or completely without price? Or is there indeed a specific, perhaps flexible, though probably quite high, quantity of money which is “worth” one human life? To answer this question, I’m going to back up and start considering time. Let’s just say that there is a society that has invented a device, call it a radiation gun, that can subtract a very precise amount of time from someone’s lifespan. In this society, there are no diseases, etc. etc. that would end your life before your time is up, so people live for a pretty long time, let’s say 100 years. Now this radiation gun is completely painless, so they have concluded that its use is the only ethical form of punishment, compared to torture or imprisonment, for example. If someone would be jailed for five years they can just zap them for five instead. Therefore, a life sentence is equivalent to a death sentence (it just sounds so much nicer in real life). Presumably, with such a punishment everyone would be deterred from committing crimes considering that they would have value directly and unequivocally subtracted from their life. So a 100 year sentence is exactly the value of one human life. A murderer’s penalty, for example, is derived from the age of the person murdered. If you murder someone who is 50 years old, you’ve deprived them of 50 years, so the government deprives you of 50 years. The quantity of punishment relative to the 50 years of damage isn’t really relevant: the point is, there exists a “just” punishment for such a crime.

This is an interesting situation in and of itself, but I’m going to transform it into a money economy to keep on topic. So, an unfortunate side effect of this system is that people who are 99 years old can pretty much do whatever they want- the maximum punishment they can be dealt is 1 year. But now, lo and behold, they’ve invented an opposing radiation gun that extends the subject’s life a very precise amount of time.When you work, providing value to other people, they can extend your life based on the value you provided to them. Let’s say that you work as a politician, and you prevented a war, saving let’s say 1,000 lives of an average age of 50. In return for your efforts, you get 50,000 years of life in return. Basically, that gives you free license to kill 5,000 people and you’ll be back where you started, having a “net effect” of zero on the value present in the society. So the penalty is no longer truly just, because someone with 50,000 years of life has essentially nothing to lose. This is the analogue of having all punishments reduce to a simple fine, where there are millionaires in society.

A man walked up to a woman and asked her, “would you sleep with me for \$1 billion?” The woman thought seriously about this for a second, figured he wasn’t that ugly, and said “Yes, I would sleep with you for \$1 billion.” The man replied, “OK, would you sleep with me for \$10?” The woman’s face turned red and she screamed “Of course not, what do you think I am, a whore?” The man said, “We’ve already established that, we’re just haggling over the price.”

So, for your day job, would you press a button over and over again, all day, every day, for \$10 an hour? Probably not. \$100 an hour? Most would. \$1000? In an 8-hour work day that’s \$8k a day, or \$40k a five-day workweek. Times 52 weeks that’s \$2,080,000. Over \$2 million a year. Of course, I’d be a bit smarter and pay some schmuck \$20 an hour to hit the button instead, but that’s just me. There exists some point at which you will accept the most boring job ever, where is it? Does it change the situation to get paid by button press? \$1 per button press at 1 press per second is \$60 per hour, and the harder you work the more you get paid. While we’re on buttons, how about this. What if you’re faced with a button, and you get paid \$1000 for every time you hit it. However, there is also a one in a million chance that someone will die each time you hit the button. You’ll never know if someone actually died or not, but your expected value says you could hit that button 1 million times with reasonable certainty that you just killed someone (and pocketed \$1 billion). One mind-trick you’ll need to mind regards the insignificance of very small probabilities. There is an illusion to thinking that because it’s a 1 in a million shot, you could hit the button a few times the event has an insignificant, or illusory zero, probability. Now, would you hit the button at \$1 per hit, but certainly kill someone? Hopefully not. If so, let’s hope like hell you never work in a nuclear silo or a hobo with a bone to pick could bribe your sociopathic ass.

Now for the tough one. What if you are presented with a button that will give you \$1,000, and the button is not labeled for the exact probability, but it does say that the likelihood is “very small” that someone will die. I am reluctant to add some sort of standard as to what “very small” means because then it’s easy- you just figure it’s as bad as it gets, but just to share my scale for what I think “very small” means, it means very, very unlikely, but not astronomically unlikely. Would you press the button for \$1 million a hit?

Alright, so I think I have established the fact that life has a monetary value, and even though we can’t know precisely what it is, we can agree that it is very high. To provide a more fundy-friendly proof, aren’t there things a person would willingly give their life for? What if you offered someone the chance to give up their own life, offering them the chance to cause, as a direct result of their sacrifice, all the hungry and homeless children of the world to be fed, clothed, taken care of medically, etc. etc. If even that’s not enough, let’s say that there’s a universe full of people, trillions and trillions of people who you can save from suffering. There probably exists some number of people in some degree of suffering that you would be comfortable giving your life to stop. Sounds good, right?

I tricked you. You just made a human-life-to-monetary-value exchange. You just sacrificed a human life to accomplish something that could have been done with money exclusively, even if it took a trillion dollars. If you’re still not convinced that there exists some finite value to human life (so long as the life is of finite length, but that’s a different issue) then consider the alternative- you’re saying that your life is of infinite value. And presumably that everyone else’s life is infinitely valuable as well, otherwise you need to leave right now for a being a narcissistic, contradictory, braindead psycho. You can grab a beer with your sociopath pal who works in the missile silo. If that is your premise, then do you include animals in your definition? If “human life” is of infinite value, you must then define what exactly human life is, and where the cutoff between infinite value and non-infinite value lies. If you go so far as to say that all life is infinitely valuable, that each individual microbe is of infinite value, then macroscopic life as a whole is morally depraved. Our immune systems kill countless infinitely valuable microbes, just to sustain one creature’s life, and we may never be forgiven for our depravity because it is fundamental to our nature- we are colossal, fiendish, unstoppable microbe-killing machines. If you can accept that as a conclusion, congratulations! You are beyond help! You have transcended reality, and are destined to spend the rest of your days eking out a naked, parched and blistered desert living on shrooms and mud, but fortunately you will be so delusional by that point you’ll think you’re in Paradise.

Now that we’ve established that money–>value in the same way that time–>value and life–>value, we can move on. This post is getting lengthy so I’ll try to be quick. Basically, we have established that when you start dealing with large quantities of value the conventional models distinguishing different flavors of value don’t hold. However, we have not concluded that the fundamental laws of ethics do not hold for large quantities of value. At no point in this post am I claiming that, say, large oil companies are off the hook because they’re dealing with such a large amount of money. An economy, such as one of a large industrial nation, is a perfect case where we see a very large amount of value moving around on a daily basis. Now, is the disruption of an economy an ethically reprehensible act? Consider: we’ve established that a human life is worth a specific, very large amount of money. So isn’t the converse also true? That an astronomically large amount of money is equivalent to a human life?

You will not find a stronger advocate for the individual than myself, but the ethical judgment of the individual should reflect the greater good. What do I mean by this? If I, as an individual, am called upon to decide: the quadrillion children’s candy bars, or the single person, I exercise my own ethical judgment and pick the children. There are many, many people who would like to trick you into thinking that the “greater good” implies doing what they tell you to, and that you should sacrifice so that everyone else might benefit. The truth is, when everyone sacrifices- usually in economic terms- everyone is worse off than before because everyone has sacrificed. That seems pretty obvious to me. However, when each individual is presented with a choice they find advantageous, and they take it, that’s to the benefit of one individual and therefore to the greater good in a small but oh-so-significant degree. I am now speaking of the meta-ethical level on top of an individual making ethical choices. Each person deciding on their own to subsume their own desires in the interest of the common good is an entirely different situation to where each is called upon to “sacrifice.” By definition, the greater good is the greatest good to the greatest number. Therefore, the greatest number should expect to see the greatest good if that is in fact the goal.

The illusion I am highlighting is this perception that “all of us are sacrificing for the greater good, but each of us is not in it.” This is the Democrat dark side in the same way that neoconservative fascism is the Republican dark side. We’re operating with a fundamentally polarized, false dichotomy. We’re missing something. That something is the simple fact that value is universal and that the only way anybody is going to see more of it is by going after it. Be an individual: be valuable, use rational ethics, and have the strength to follow them. You, yes you, are a part of that greatest number. You can expect to see that greatest good coming your way, but the only one who will guarantee it to you is yourself.

Paradoxes are interesting phenomena, and they can give us great insight into exactly how we err in interpreting our perceptions about reality. But how exactly do we approach paradoxes to learn about the nature of our perception?