The St. Petersburg Paradox

I’m in more of a mathematical mood right now, so I’m going to cover a piece of abstract mathematics.  I want to talk about the St. Petersburg Paradox.  While a famous problem, you can wikipedia it for more information if you like, here’s a short summary.  Imagine we have a game of flipping a coin.  Starting at $1, every time the coin lands heads, you double that amount.  When it eventually lands tails you win however much you have earned so far.  How much should it cost to play?

Now I very much enjoy this problem in a pure mathematical sense, but Daniel Bernoulli, the man who invented it, apparently took the mathematics of this problem rather too far.  Bernoulli noticed, as the more astute among you probably either deduced, or probably already knew, that the game’s expected value is in fact infinite.  This means that no matter what the cost to play, you should always accept.  However most common people wouldn’t pay even $50 to play this game.  Bernoulli deduced from mathematical bases a utility function of the game which would explain this behavior using a logarithmic idea of value.  He supposed that people’s valuation of money decreases as the amount of money they possess increases, or to use another term, he proposed a diminishing marginal utility function for money.  While this approach, I guess, works, the even more astute among you will have noticed that this doesn’t actually solve the paradox.  You can just have a game’s payoff function that uses the inverse of whatever utility function and still end up with an infinite payoff that nobody will take.  Other mathematicians have wrestled with this problem, and so far the conclusion, as far as I am aware, is that utility must be bounded in order to resolve this type of paradox.

Now, I am not a professional mathematician, but I believe that I have solved this paradox.  SImply put, all these mathematicians have been assuming that people have the same conception of reality that they are working with; a mathematical one.  These mathematicians have assumed that people think of money as a number.  That seems obvious, right?  Money is measured numerically.  Well, yes, but the fact that different people have different ideas of what money or other commodities are valued at means that it isn’t a number.  Numbers are objective, inherently.  Two people must categorically agree that a 7 is a 7, it always was, is, and will be 7, and that 7 = 7, which also equals 6 + 1 and an infinitude of other identities.  However we all know that two people might have a differing opinion of various exchanges, such as $3 for a mango, for example.  Someone who loves mangoes might buy at that price, someone who doesn’t, won’t.  So we can’t say that $3 = 1 mango in the same way that we can say that 7 = 7, even if all mangoes in the world were always bought and sold for that price.

The issue here is that these mathematicians, while brilliant direct deductive thinkers, think of the universe in a flatly rational way.  While this is probably the best single perspective through which to view the universe, it fails when dealing with people that lack a similar rational strictness.  Have you ever been beaten by someone at a game you were clearly better at, simply because the other player just refused to play “properly”?  This happens all the time in poker and numerous gambling or card games.  In games like chess this rarely happens because in a game of perfect information, “proper” play can be categorically proven to be superior during the game itself.  If it would result in a bad situation, then it isn’t proper play.  Where information is limited, “proper” play might land you in situations you couldn’t predict or prevent.  Anyway, a more textured view of the perception of the universe would allow for nonlinear and unconventional conceptual modes for perceiving the universe.  For example, perhaps a certain subsection of people conceive of money like power.  The actual number isn’t as relevant as the power it holds to create exchanges.  The numbers are negotiable based on the situation and on the value sets of the parties involved  So the St. Petersburg Paradox could be equally resolved by saying that power doesn’t scale in the same way that money does.  If you offered someone a utility function of power, it would mean nothing.  Power is not infinitely reducible: the ability to do something doesn’t blend seamlessly into the ability to do something else.  The atomic unit of power is much larger than the infinitely fine divisions between any given numbers.  Having ten very small amounts of additional power is also not the same thing as one very large new executive power.

People can link together abstractions and concepts in many, many different ways.  For example, some successful investors say that instead of looking at your money like it’s your fruit, look at it like your bag of seed with which to grow more seeds.  True, you’re going to have to sell some of those seeds to get what you need, but its purpose is to grow.  As you accumulate more and more, the amount you can draw off increases while still maintaining useful volume.  This gives a completely different outlook on money, and will generate different decision behavior than looking at money as something to be spent as it is earned.  This same principle can apply anywhere at all, because in order for something to exist in your perceptual map, you have to think about it.  You might think of movies like books that have been converted, like picture books, like snatches of real-life experience, like a sequence of scenes strung together like string being tied together, or like a strip that runs through its full length in only one direction the same way every time.  There are other possibilities of course, but that’s as many as I could think of while I was in the process of typing this post.  This is only looking at a small slice of the possibilities of conceptual remapping (analogues and analogies, specifically) but other forms would require a great deal more explanation.  I think you get the point though.

Back to mathematicians and the St. Petersburg Paradox.  The paradox only exists if you look at utility in the mathematical sense.  There exist models, such as the one that “common sense” seems to indicate, that don’t see a paradox.  These models instead see a game that has a sliding scale of value and beyond a certain point the value is zero (or negligible).  This gradual fading of value is responsible for the probable effect of many people deciding to play the game at differing values.  I don’t think even the most hardcore mathematician would play the game for $1 million a round, even though it will eventually pay for itself.  The utility solution fails to take into account the common sense evaluation of time and effort as factors in any given activity.  You could factor in such an evaluation, but you would probably then be missing something else, and so on until you have built up a complete map of the common sense and shared perceptual map of the most common conceptual space.  But then you have duplicated the entire structure you’re attempting to model and created a simulation instead of a simplification.

On simulations and conventional models, we currently use both.  Our simulations, however, tend to be based in the real world, and we refer to them as experiments.  This is how we collect evidence.  The problem with the natural universe is that there is such an unimaginable profusion of activity and information that we can’t pick out any particular aspect to study.  An experiment is controlling all those other extraneous factors, or removing/minimizing them from a confusing universe so we can focus on a single test.  Once we have our results from that test we can move on to test another part of reality.  Eventually we will have built up a complete picture of what’s going on.  Simulations are data overkill from which we can draw inductive conclusions because we don’t understand all the underlying mechanics.  Models are streamlined flows, as simple and spare as possible, which we can use to draw deductive conclusions.  For example, the equation for displacement for a falling object [dp = v0*t + (1/2)a^2*t] is a simplified model, subtracting all other factors than the one being considered, allowing us to deductively conclude the displacement for any values of v0, t, and a.  Mathematical conclusions are a sequence of deductive operations, both to make mathematical proofs and to solve/apply any given instance of an equation/expression/situation/etc.

Our minds operate on the most basic level using models primarily, and simulations second.  This is because most of the time, a model is close enough.  You don’t need to include every factor in order to get an answer at sufficient precision.  You don’t have to factor in the time, the temperature, or the quantum wobble of each atom in a baseball to figure out where it’s going to land.  If you wanted a perfect answer you could simulate it, but you can get it to an extremely high level of precision by simply ignoring all those marginal factors.  They are not worth computing.  Now we are beginning to factor in the distinction I’ve brought up before between algorithms and heuristics.  Models are often heuristics, and simulations are often algorithms.  Models can include algorithms and simulations can include heuristics, but on the whole a simulation (given correct laws and good starting conditions) will algorithmically compute exactly what is going to happen.  A model, on the other hand, is a much more efficient process that throws away data in order to make calculation simpler.  Usually a lot simpler.

Now I am willing to bet that some readers will be confused.  I just said that simulations need the right laws and starting conditions- isn’t that the same thing as a deductive process needing the right logical framework and initial premises?  Well, yes.  That’s because a logical construct is a simulation.  However, it is a simulation constructed using information already stripped of extraneous information by creating a model of it.  The line between model and simulation is not black and white- they are simply approximate labels for the extremes of a spectrum, with conflicting ideals.  The perfect model is one law that determines everything.  The perfect simulation is a colossal, gigantically massive data stream that represents everything, down to the last spin on the last electron.  This is also where we get the fundamental distinction between philosophers: the conflict of rationalism versus empiricism.  The rationalists believe the model to be the “one true philosophical medium” and the empiricists believe it’s better to use simulations.  The tricky part is that in order to construct a simulation, you have to have models to run each of its laws and each of its elements.  In order to have a model, you have to have a simulation to draw patterns from.  So we have an infinite recursion where rationalists and empiricists are chasing one another’s coattails for all eternity.  Fortunately, most people who have thought about this much have come to more or less the same conclusion, and figured out that rationalism and empiricism go hand it hand quite nicely.  However there is still a preference for choosing to understand the world through one mode or the other.

How does all this apply to the original issue of the St. Petersburg Paradox?  So we have mathematicians who are definitely rationalists- I imagine there aren’t many professional mathematicians who are empiricists.  And these mathematicians construct a model that represents a certain behavioral set.  Their problem, however, is that reality doesn’t actually support the conclusion they are saying is the most rational.  So they change the model, as they should, to better reflect reality.  All well and good.  Their problem, though, is that they are actually doing their job backwards in one concealed respect.  Implicit in their model is the idea that it is the case in the simulation they are describing that the population they are describing has the same conceptual map that the people who created the model did.  I am aware that I could have simply said we have some ivory tower mathematicians who are out of touch with reality, but I wanted to cover in-depth what the disconnect with reality is.  They are correcting their model by making it better reflect empirical reality in one respect, but in so doing they are simultaneously doing the same in reverse by assuming things from their meta-models onto reality.  We have rationalism and empiricism, simulations and models, inductive and deductive thinking, all chasing their dance partner around.  But the most vital thought is that the process must only go one way.  You must always push forward by correcting both to better fit the other in reality, rather than working backwards and assuming things onto reality which are not the case.  If you do this, and then entrench your position with a rationale, you are screwing up your meta-model of reality.  And, like a monkey with its hand caught in a banana trap, the tighter you squeeze your fist the more surely you get stuck.  For every ratchet backwards on the progress ladder, you get more and more firmly stuck in place, and it even gets harder to continue to go backwards.  The wheel spins one way, it grinds to a halt in the other.

The Dramatic Trick of Equality

Equality sounds like such a fantastic concept.  It can readily be phrased in altruistic terms, and decrying generosity never seems like a malevolent tactic.  However, fundamentally, you can’t want everyone to be equal without tacitly accepting the presence of evil.  In this essay, and by essay I am using the word etymologically derived from “to try”- I’ll try to shed a little light on the most widespread perversion of absolute morality. I am talking about the first and foremost false argument from morality in modern society.

First of all, what exactly do I mean by equality?  I think the easiest way to outline equality is to represent its opposite- a situation where the few possess the vast majority of the resources, and the many are thereby deprived.  Sounds difficult to support, doesn’t it?  But what if I said that that particular phrasing is merely a trick to more or less force you into accepting the proposition.  Something like how you can ask someone if they’re “for world hunger” and if they say yes you cook them alive, and if they say no then you force them to donate massive amounts to charity.  It is possible, however, to dislike the fact that in the world’s poorest countries many people are starving to death while at the same time putting your money to better use.  And this is certainly not being hypocritical- as a matter of fact foreign aid is nothing more than a tool used by the greater nations to obliterate the economies of the less fortunate.  To support sending money and goods to poorer nations is to cause world hunger and poverty, in the most direct sense.  Sure, it seems illogical that by sending them food you are causing them to starve.  But consider for a moment if a bunch of aliens were to arrive in the United States and start dropping super high-tech cars, no charge, for anyone who wants one.  The American car companies would be livid, at least until they went broke.  In fact these hypothetical aliens wouldn’t even need to drop very many alien tech supercars to put impossible strain on the American car companies.  The same process would hold true with food, if the aliens were to provide some form of very desirable food commodity, free of charge- American farmers would be roasted alive.  The issue with that example is that such alien food would have to be in extremely high demand relative to current food products, which isn’t really possible in the food industry.

Now the issue with such discussion is that the last paragraph was an argument from effect.  They have their place, but arguments from morality are much more significant.  Fundamentally, an argument for equality needs to prove that everyone wants some x, and also that the redistribution of x is morally acceptable.  The most common equality argument is about economic inequality.  In such a case, the proponent makes the case that everyone wants money- which is for the most part valid- and that the redistribution of money is morally justified.  Their problem is that clearly this structure of argumentation doesn’t hold up to generalization.  For example, I propose that everyone should have an equal number of pet snakes.  Everyone wants snakes, and the redistribution of snakes is morally justified.  Clearly false.  OK, how about a more controversial example?  Everyone wants… women!  No, not going there, just joking.  A more realistic example: food.  Everyone wants food, and the redistribution of food is morally justified, therefore a third party should decide what food you get.  None of these arguments hold, but for some reason many people are willing to make an exception for money- even putting aside for the moment that “redistribution” as a concept is essentially never justified.  If it was voluntary then it would be called a “gift” and if it’s not voluntary then you’re using coercion backed by violence.

Equality contains within it the vampiric seeds of parasitism and violence.  In order to ensure equality, guess what you would have to do?  Worse, who says we all want the same thing?  In the above example, not everyone wants to own a pet snake.  If you want a pet snake then you can see to it yourself.  Creating a committee for the allocation of pet snakes is the absurdist end of the spectrum, and would clearly fail.  But why should other committees function any differently?  Basically the idea of a committee is that a central organizing party can distribute better than each individual’s own time and effort- which is of course nonsense.  If it were the case then such committees would appear everywhere, take over the stock market, and rule the world economy.  Which doesn’t happen precisely because the committee can’t outthink the market.  So those with a little power will do their damnedest to put more resources under the sway of a committee because then, to some extent, they control a few more resources.  So, basically, if you’re arguing for equality, you’re saying that a centralized agency is the best method of achieving equality because otherwise those who want more of any specific commodity, or for other reasons are better able to acquire certain commodities will end up with more of those commodities.  Naturally gifted artists will take up art, those who own profitable farming land inherited from their parents will use it for farming, and those who want pet snakes will be prepared to pay more for them than people who don’t.  But, because we must avoid the accumulation of too much artistic ability in any one person, or of too much production capacity in one property, or in too many pet snakes per household, we need committees X, Y, and Z.

So this brings us to power.  Power is not just desirable for equality by redistribution, it is fundamentally necessary.  If nobody has the power to actually redistribute resources, then it can’t happen.  And if everybody has the power to freely redistribute resources then a couple greedy people will simply take everything else for themselves to squabble over for all eternity.  So, says the pro-government debator, we must have some people with the power to redistribute resources, and some people who don’t.  This is a very key point.  So you’re saying that in order to produce equality of resources we have to produce a large disparity of power.  To me, that sounds just silly.  However there are many people who would just nod and go “yeah, that makes sense.”  Well, what exactly is power?  Power is the ability to get what you want despite resistance.  The more resistance you can overcome, the more power you have, by definition.  Now, note the critical second piece.  Power is the ability to get what you want despite resistance.  This is clearly a necessary component because otherwise the forces in question would simply be inexorable in one direction or the other.  And please don’t give me any of this crap about power gives you the power to get something you don’t want, because if you’re intentionally aiming for what you don’t want you are A) stupid, and B) getting what you were trying to get- which is what you wanted in the important sense.  Power therefore necessarily provides indirect control over anything which you might want- we can consider it like an even more universal form of currency because it necessarily includes whatever powers currency can bring, as well as others.  The power to make decisions affecting others provides a very special kind of resource- politicians enjoy this kind of power all the time- others will pay you to make decisions in their favor.  They will give you resources so that you will say a few words and endow them with even more resources taken from third parties.  By giving power to anyone, you break your original goal of equality in absolutely irrevocable terms.

So we could start a priori from the libertarian perspective, or we can follow through on the logic of equality until we reach the problem of the application of power.  This contradiction then leads us to conclude that the only true form of equality is where everyone has the same level of power- which necessarily precludes the existence of a government.  Or, you can say that it is justified to have a rich, powerful elite in the government, but then you’re contradicting your original argument for equality.  You can factor in whatever tricks you like about elections, but then you run into the problem that an election consumes resources- so campaign donations from the rich and from interested companies or special interest groups only gives them a fully sanctioned avenue to use political power.  You cannot escape the integral relationship between power and resources.  Power, that primal feeling of dominance, is corrupting because in evolutionary terms it’s incredibly advantageous to be corrupt as hell!  Using nothing but a word to get free resources?  We’re programmed to seek such a position, it’s so ingrained in us.  Not only that, but we’re programmed to enjoy it, and then we’re programmed to be corrupt.  Power is liquid resources in a way that money can only numerically imitate.  So it is absolutely impossible to mandate equality, and any attempt to convince you otherwise must quite obviously present itself to you as an attempt to convince you with empty, generous-sounding contradictions that appeal to your humanity so that they may take your money, and your freedom.

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.

I could go on about the music industry, but that horse is dead. The RIAA was purporting an unstable market model from the beginning, and it was only a matter of time before someone figured that out and cut them out of the picture. Change is painful, both to individuals and to industries. Uncertainty clouds our judgment more than it should. With the advent of TiVo, companies started with that knee-jerk response of “how can we protect our ads?” before realizing that, you know, the old ad model was just dead. New systems with new possibilities opened up. Viral advertising over the internet, for example. Making ads entertaining to watch, so that consumers would actively seek them out. With the music industry, they just need to figure out that music costs nothing to distribute. In Rainbows demonstrated the new model, and that’s just how it’s got to be. In the music industry’s case, we’re proposing to the T-Rex that they should just lay down and die because the new, superior species is here, so of course they’re not going to. They’re going to fight to the last breath to keep that money rolling. But they’ll lose eventually. Whoever’s running the US government needs to figure that out and hasten their demise instead of making it a protracted and difficult death. I can conceive of few legislative insanities quite as insidious as using American taxpayers to burden American consumers. The problem with government is that impossible, insane things can be decreed, and cause countless cascading fantastic effects. Take a lesson from Mao Zedong and don’t decree that “steel production shall be tripled in five years”- it’ll be done in the technical sense, but every conceivable aspect of every facet of every nook and cranny of your country’s people, economy, and society will be destroyed to meet an imaginary technicality. Millions starved, technology was shot, and all the money evaporated.

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.

The Penny and Currency

Why do we have pennies? Here in the United States there exists a denomination of coin that is worth less than the impure copper it is made from. Obviously those enterprising enough to figure this out, and just devious enough to break laws nobody cares about, have already started melting pennies down and selling the product for a profit.

To reach a more practical point, why do we even have change? Why bother with all this nickels and dimes and quarters nonsense?  If you want to use less than a whole dollar, then simply have smaller bills.  A paper bill weighs less, and consumes less space than a coin of a fraction of its value.  You would think that a smart currency would have the paper represent the less valuable denominations, and the metal the more valuable ones. But no. In any case, the modern economy is built so solidly upon faith money that the physical metal is completely unnecessary, a relic from the days that the metal was actually valuable and you were quite literally trading a specific quantity of it for a good or service. In fact, in modern times the coin has a deleterious effect on the economy. How many people actually spend their change? How many lose their coins or simply allow them to collect in sofas or nooks and crannies?  The definition of a healthier economy is one where more money is moving around, the common position of economic slowdown being a state where everybody is choosing to conserve their assets because the field seems to risky at the time. But every time a customer buys an item that doesn’t come out even, they are saddled with coins that complicate the situation because they are annoying to get rid of. (that exists?) says the US Mint produced 8.7 billion pennies this year, or $87 million. I would bet a dollar to a donut that the vast majority of that coinage will be involved in at most three transactions in its average of about 25 years of life (  One; from the mint to a company. Two; from the company to a customer paying in cash. Three; it’s 25 years, so it must change hands at least one more time, whether from being saved up and used in place of cash, or fed into an old vending machine- current ones won’t accept pennies.

So that’s $8.7 million that isn’t going to move around too much. But there are also, of course, plenty of pennies that were not minted this year that could easily have been made in cash instead and be flowing freely as the dollar. again says the US Mint has produced over 288.7 billion pennies to date.  Let’s call it 290 billion, which translates into $290 million in cash.  And most of those have existed in limbo for decades, lost or stashed.  Ignoring other coins completely (who uses nickels?  Dimes?), that’s a lot of money.

So what’s the alternative? The obvious, though perhaps ridiculous solution is to simply use bills for small denominations of money.  You could have a one cent bill as easily as a coin, and it has the decided advantage that it would be worth more than the paper it’s printed on.  Though that’s still a waste of time to use a denomination so small. I don’t care for 99 cent purchases just because it’s a sleazy but ubiquitous psychological trick to make you think it costs less when really it’s only a penny. Interestingly, despite knowing better, it certainly still has a psychological effect on me. It doesn’t matter if you are aware that they are trying to fool you, it still seems like a larger difference than a penny. So just print whatever denominations are useful. I am inclined towards a 10 cent bill being the smallest available denomination, utilized as $0.1 instead of all this cents stuff.

Second, more interestingly futuristic, alternative. A cashless economy. The real problem with such a system is that most people are accustomed to the current mode of credit use where the card is for taking point-of-purchase loans. While profitable for the card company, this is an economic lunacy on par with shooting those who buy candy. “Would you like a hot dog?” “Sure, I’ll take a loan.” Egad! Loans are great for capital management, banks, investment, and all that good stuff. But truly there is no call to be taking out loans every other hour. A debit card embodies one aspect of the necessary functionality for a universal cash card, but lacks the others. The first requisite element is two-way transfer. You need to be able to use your card, point of purchase, to either spend or acquire money. The card then becomes a slim wallet containing as much money as you happen to want on hand.  Provided you have it, at least. Though you could conceivably set it up to take out loans on demand, so it acts like a credit card when you want (if this gets rolling, loans will be deviously arrayed, watch it). Secondly, the card needs to have its own contact mechanism. That is to say that you can’t need to have a cash register swipe machine present at every transaction. Whether this is by wireless network, contact through your cell phone, or whatever, the mode doesn’t really matter. The card itself needs to have the functionality needed to make any transfers the bearer desires. And lastly, sufficiently advanced security such that a card-user can be quite sure that the money they are carrying in their virtual wallet is more secure than cash they might be carrying in a physical wallet. A combination of factors such as fingerprint verification, proximity RFID tags, and conventional bank methods would mean a mugger would be quite simply out of luck. A cashless economy gets that extra little oomph that is currently lost simply to stupid currency flaws.

On Language

Language is the greatest example of how we have saddled ourselves with a ridiculous system which no rational entity could possibly concoct. English is by far the worst offender- and the poem The Chaos makes this point very well indeed on the counts of spelling. It’s incredibly irregular in pronunciation: with each letter having many potential ways to pronounce it, some vowels as many as 20. The methods of conjugation are random at best. See, seen, saw, but been, was, were? Go is to went as eat is to ate? Eaten? Eated? Every rule the language has is broken repeatedly. And then the lexical inventory is confusing and abstruse. Why does a ship carry a cargo, but a truck’s load is called a shipment? And even if you can get past all that, the language is often not particularly clear. Though some will say that ambiguity is what enabled Shakespeare to write such masterpieces, that’s a fairly weak reason to saddle everyone with a ridiculous mode of communication. In any case, all its eccentricities make the English language virtually impossible to learn. And once you have, you’re wasting a huge amount of brain hardware that might be better spent actually thinking. All natural languages are like this to some extent, but at least Romance languages have rigorous verb conjugations, and are mostly phonetic.

The solution is to design a better language. And the bar is not high. All that’s necessary is a language that is regular, and clear. An excellent endeavor to this effect is already created, check out Lojban. However, the possibilities for language are limitless. To give an example of the immense possibilities for language, check out Bogomol. But please ignore all the fluffy stuff about alien races. That’s just fiction the author wrote for fun. Unfortunately, creating languages has been associated with a special case of geekbrain syndrome involving orcs, elves, and fantasy worlds. So the practice of improving how we communicate, and even how we think has been ignored. Imagine a language precisely constructed to provide the fastest, most logical and accurate thought process possible. Imagine one that enables the most creative, associative, and innovative thought process at great speed. These would be wonderful tools to be applying all the time. Considering that you think more or less continuously for your entire life, a significant speed improvement (say, fifty times) yields fifty times more thought per person. Imagine the differences in society if 300 million Americans all did that.

On Walking

How we walk is a perfect example of a system that nobody has thought to challenge. Why not? Because that’s how we’ve always done it. QED, the current method is the best possible. I’m going to prove that false, and selectively supply information culled from a third party source linked at the bottom of this post to provide a better method.

The basic problem with the current mode of locomotion is the reliance on the shoe. Though humans evolved to deal with the ground barefoot, it seems an obvious pain-reliever to put some protection underneath the sole. However, the natural human mode of walking is intended to deal with the ground by first “testing” the ground to see if it’s safe to tread there using the front of the foot. With shoes on, however, this test is discarded and we begin to walk with the heel. When you walk barefoot, your walking mode switches hugely. You start to walk with bent knees and relaxed calf and thigh muscles. The arch of the foot is used to effect to lift the back of the foot, and the toes are used to provide forward stability. Moreover, your center of gravity is shifted forwards. This is to greater effect when running, so you are in effect falling forward slightly to propel yourself forward.

Naturally, the foot is an excellent shock absorber when walking with the front of the foot, because the ankle converts the jarring upward shock into rotational force, which the heel and achilles tendon steady. When walking with the heel- Anthropik calls this “cow walking,” which I quite like- this jarring upward force is carried directly up through the heel, ankle, and leg. Apart from long-term health concerns, hip and back pain, and arthritis or osteoporosis of legs or hips, the major problem that this produces is is a greatly reduced ability to walk or run. Each leg has to move farther to place the heel vertically underneath the leg, and then the fact that it is vertical, with knees locked, causes the shock to extend all the way up the leg and to jar your internal organs. This tends to manifest itself as a stitch in the side, when the liver or kidneys are knocked around too much. Also, the natural tendency for right-handed people is to breathe in when the right foot hits the ground. This especially aggravates the shockwaves to the kidney since it faces heightened internal pressure from above as well, resulting in a stitch in the side after you’ve run hardly a mile. Shoeless societies such as the Kalahari Bushmen or Navajo indians appear to be impossibly good runners. Bushmen hunters run for days continuously to catch a gazelle- the creature collapses from exhaustion (four-legged runners may be faster, but when they run they constrict their lungs and can’t breathe as well). And Bushmen do this regularly, unlike marathon runners.

Humans are natural-born runners. We can run for longer than any other creature alive. Ostriches are exclaimed in National Geographic to be able to run at 40 mph for up to five hours. Humans can run at 10 mph for up to three days. Obviously, there is conditioning and fitness required on top of just being human, but those Kalahari Bushmen don’t lift weights or run around a track. They hunt a gazelle every few days just to eat.

More depth on the subject, including physiological deformity as a result of common walking practice, and seemingly extreme physical feats of shoeless runners dismissed as commonplace in shoeless societies such as the Native American Indians, can be found here.

On Methods of Thinking and Education

Thinking is something that we all do all the time. But everyone I talk to exhibits no concern and no care for their own personal thinking processes. Forget the obvious issues such as jumping to conclusions, implicit assumptions, illogical association, invalid cause and effect, fallacious reasoning, and other more formal thought misfires which are ubiquitous. I am also referring to the most basic functional processes which we take for granted, and the dramatic cumulative effect such small effects have if you apply them across an entire society.

For example, remembering something. Has it occurred to anyone how prodigiously inefficient the process of recall is? First of all, there is no guarantee of success, and that is a separate issue that needs to be addressed. Also, in order to reliably recount information at a later date with any degree of accuracy, memorization requires a huge amount of time and energy to accomplish a task that should not actually be very difficult. From what I’ve read on the subject of memory, the best tricks we have were created by the ancient Greeks. Are you telling me that our mode of thought has not advanced at all in three thousand years? That we have spent so much effort and energy inventing new gizmos, that not a single erg of creative juice has been directed towards improving our ability to invent new gizmos?

This produces a host of insane problems. Firstly, the education system. It does not take twelve years to master the disciplines covered in American high schools. Unless you’re retarded, it does not take five years to learn how to read, write, add, subtract, multiply, and divide. The years where you are most able to continuously absorb new information are instead devoted to inane repetition, and mindless mental drilling into the heads of students who are quite capable of understanding in one or two iterations. Complaints about students being unruly and wild are justified. But they are unruly and wild because they are bored out of their minds!

For example, most universities follow the quarter system. That is to say colleges cover the same material in one quarter that a high school covers in one year. So seniors in high school are instantly sunk up to their necks in a system that proceeds four times as quickly as the one they are used to, and that material is of a much more complex nature than the “fundamental” material they had been working with for years. But college students are notable for their passion in the subjects they study, and they apply a special youthful energy to their jobs as well. They are hardly overwhelmed.

I would be forced to agree with Benjamin Franklin, who originally posited the idea that all the necessary education in the fundamentals necessary to be a functioning member of society can be covered in three years. Not twelve. Three. Benjamin Franklin’s idea outlined a “civic education” for those three years, and the technical education would extend indefinitely past that. I change that to make it strongly resemble the current system, only much faster. And I make a slight modification to add a prequel year of kindergarten/preschool education to provide additional background in reading, writing, and other tools necessary for the other three years such as study skills, mnemonic devices, and a general “how to use your brain” course. So starting school at age 3 or 4, and finishing at approximately 7 or 8. After this, schooling becomes optional provided that the education requirements do not change. They would, but that’s a separate issue. After completing this high school equivalent education, programs in the area allowing for an additional four years of schooling at the same rate as before- an undergraduate level education- could be taken. Upon completing that at about age 12, students could theoretically be ready to head off to college. The difference is, they would have completed a four year college education already.

Does that sound crazy?

Why not begin college when the brain is at its maximum learning capacity? The learning capabilities of the brain begin to decline at around age 20. Homo sapiens’ extended juvenile period is explicitly evolved to enable us to learn at greater speeds for longer. Other large mammalian species are fully mature in most senses within one year, and lose their enhanced malleability of mind.

Those who ask “are students mature enough to leave the house at a younger age?” are sorely misleading themselves. Youth are only “less mature” because of societal pressures to keep them that way, by expectation. Youth among, say, the Bushmen are fully mature at age 13 or so, and given the responsibilities of a man or woman in taking care of the tribe. In modern culture, psychological neoteny is considered the norm. A century ago, children were allowed and even expected to roam around half the countryside. Now, most children are forbidden from leaving the house or the immediate environs- a leash averaging 30 feet. There are disturbing parallels to a parent warning their child not to play with their chemistry set and the label on the side of microwave dinners “CAUTION: package may become hot when heated.” Psychological neoteny is perpetuated on many fronts; the schools, the parents, the workplace, the commercial sector, and the government. Increasing dependence, increasing need for assistance, supersimplification, and increasing periods of education all go hand in hand. Memory difficulty leads to extended, inefficient schooling, which leads to psychological neoteny as students as old as eighteen are treated like children.

The root cause is a single fundamental issue: the difficulty with remembering due to absurdly inefficient memorization processes. If methods, even ones as primitive and cumbersome as the ancient Grecian loci method, were taught in before entering mainstream education, the time required to learn would decrease enormously. Even without it, school should be able to be shortened by a factor of four. With it, or perhaps with the invention of newer, superior methods, it could be shortened still further. If you doubt this is possible, you sorely underestimate the power of the human mind. Look into memory techniques: you will be amazed.