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Is free trade a trolley problem?

This is my first post-election post and while I do feel like I’ll have plenty to talk about down the line, for now I want to touch on a single thought that jumped into my head.

We understand that part of Trump’s appeal was that he is anti-free trade. He wants to undo free trade agreements like NAFTA, TPP etc.

(I’ll note here that I generally favor free trade though I don’t have particularly thought out reasons for this. I generally like simpler rule sets for things and nothing is simpler than “free.”)

Let’s also revisit the moral thought experiment called the trolley problem. Philosopher Joshua Greene describes this in his book “Moral Tribes”

A runaway trolley is headed for five railway workmen who will be killed if it proceeds on its present course. You are standing on a footbridge spanning the tracks, in between the oncoming trolley and the five people. Next to you is a railway workman wearing a large backpack. The only way to save the five people is to push this man off the footbridge and onto the tracks below. The man will die as a result, but his body and backpack will stop the trolley from reaching the others. (You can’t jump yourself because you, without a backpack, are not big to stop the trolley and there’s no time to put one on.) Is it morally acceptable to save the five people by pushing this stranger to his death?

Fundamentally, the trolley problem asks whether it is all right to sacrifice one person to save five, or, more broadly, whether the interests of the many outweigh the interests of the few.

The complaint from a subset of Trump voters is that free trade agreements took their jobs away. This New Yorker article examines some of the details of all this.

“…economists agree almost unanimously that free trade boosts a nation’s overall welfare. In March, 2012, when the University of Chicago Booth School of Business polled a panel of economic experts, fifty-six per cent agreed and another twenty-nine per cent strongly agreed that “Freer trade improves productive efficiency and offers consumers better choices, and in the long run these gains are much larger than any effects on employment.” But even within the precincts of orthodox trade theory (which is not, I am told, the whole of economics), free trade is acknowledged to have a downside, too. In June, 2012, half of the same panel of experts agreed and another thirty-three percent strongly agreed that “Some Americans who work in the production of competing goods, such as clothing and furniture, are made worse off by trade with China.” The professional consensus among economists, in other words, isn’t that free trade helps everyone; it’s that free trade so benefits the country as a whole that the government should find it easy to compensate the subset of citizens hurt by it—those who lose their jobs because workers abroad displace them.”

So, free trade is good for society as a whole, but there’s definitely a group that it screws. If no meaningful help is offered to people (and little is according to the article and others I’ve read) it should be no surprise that they will demand change.

What intrigues me here is that this election seems to drag a boring thought experiment out of the halls of academia and into the real world. The trolley problem asks about the morality of sacrificing the welfare of a few for the welfare of many. And that’s exactly what we face with the issue of free trade.

Of course, it’s more complex than that. How do we measure these benefits to larger society or these deficits to smaller groups? How do we measure economic pain? Merely in dollars and cents? Or do we try to factor in ethereal elements like dignity, pride and self-worth and even unintended consequences? Some liberals are doubtless now feeling that if free trade means that the people you sacrifice then vote in Donald Trump, it’s not worth it.

(Another point to keep in mind here: Democrats did have an anti-free trade candidate, Bernie Sanders, and there’s a lot of evidence that he could have bested Trump.)

On a final tangent, in a later paragraph, the New Yorker article argues that merely throwing money at Americans screwed by free trade doesn’t solve the problem.

Even if a welfare program like the Trade Readjustment Allowance were amped up, it’s not likely that this population would become meek and grateful. They’re aware that the socioeconomic élite—lawyers, financiers, and consultants—profited mightily from the economic changes by which they were dispossessed over the past couple of decades, and I suspect that they don’t want to be the objects of such people’s charity. They want their dignity back. They want to be what they once were: workers, an independent source of economic value, ambivalently regarded by and even somewhat menacing to the upper class.

This struck me as it’s very similar something I wrote many months ago in a post entitled “Explaining the Appeal of Donald Trump.”

The standard liberal nostrum for economic poverty is basically handouts. And many on the left feel exasperated that the very people they are trying to support are fans of Trump. What I think the left doesn’t get here is that people take their definition of self very seriously. They don’t want to think of themselves as peasants begging the system (who would?), they want to think of themselves as self-sustaining entities.

Had Hillary Clinton read my blog post and integrated its wisdom, I suspect she would be President right now.

Are emotions the necessary antidote to reason?

I’ve been reading a rather dense, philosophical book called “Freedom Evolves” by Daniel Dennett. I’m not sure how much I’m getting out of it but it does have one interesting nugget worth reporting on.

To understand this nugget I have to first describe our general view of reason and emotion. This view is that reason is sort of the antidote to emotion. Men’s emotions run wild and a stern application of reason is necessary to “talk them off the ledge.” (You see this point brought up often during this contentious election cycle.)

The view intimated the Dennett book is that, in fact, emotion is a cure for reason. Evolution “created” emotion to ward of the potential dangers of reason.

What do I mean? Well let’s say you were captured by some fiend and he asked you to make a choice. He was going to kill one person and that person could be your son or some guy in China whom you’d never met. A person operating on pure reason would have trouble with this decision. He or she might factor in the relative ages of these two people, deciding who still had the most life to live. He or she might try to take a guess at what productive things each potential target might do in their lives in order to ascertain who was the most valuable person.

An emotional person (e.g. the rest of us) would say “kill the Chinese guy.” We might be torn about it, but I think that’s the decision most of us would ultimately make because we would would have a strong emotional connection to our child and very little emotional connection to a stranger. (This brings to mind Peter Singer’s “Drowning Child” thought experiment.)

This idea—that emotion helps us make decisions—ties in with the work of Antonio Damasio. In his book, “Descartes’ Error” he described people who, due to some pathology, had lost their ability to really feel emotions. As a result, their decision-making abilities went in the toilet. I think Damasio described a fellow who was fired from his work because he couldn’t prioritize tasks. The boss would tell the guy to finish a report and he would miss the deadline because he spent 8 hours arranging staplers. He could not prioritize because every option had equal emotional “weight” (and that is to say, none.)

This also ties in with some fears I’ve seen expressed about artificial intelligence. The concern is that A.I. might be programed to do some task like construct a new kind of material and then decide that human bones are the best source for this new material and therefore the A.I. would instigate massive genocide to farm for human bones. It would do this because it would operating using only logic and no emotional weighting. (I’m using a vastly simplified example of this fear, but you get the drift.)

Data as music

I stumbled across an interesting article discussing how scientists are rendering data in musical form. This, apparently, allows them to sense patterns in the data they might otherwise be unaware of.

Scientists can listen to proteins by turning data into music

Transforming data about the structure of proteins into melodies gives scientists a completely new way of analyzing the molecules that could reveal new insights into how they work — by listening to them. A new study published in the journal Heliyon shows how musical sounds can help scientists analyze data using their ears instead of their eyes.

The researchers, from the University of Tampere in Finland, Eastern Washington University in the US and the Francis Crick Institute in the UK, believe their technique could help scientists identify anomalies in proteins more easily.

“We are confident that people will eventually listen to data and draw important information from the experiences,” commented Dr. Jonathan Middleton, a composer and music scholar who is based at Eastern Washington University and in residence at the University of Tampere. “The ears might detect more than the eyes, and if the ears are doing some of the work, then the eyes will be free to look at other things.”

If you don’t fully comprehend what this all means, well, I’m right there with you. But one can easily envision a way that different values of data could be thought of as steps away from a average value, and those steps could be represented as a musical scale. So really large musical leaps would indicate major deviations from an average.

And here’s another article also about data being transformed into music. I guess this is a “thing.”

Detecting patterns in neuronal dendrite spines by translating them into music

There’s some example of this “dendritic spines as sound” music here and it’s pretty unappealing. (Part of the problem is that it’s rendered with hideous midi instrumentation.)

What separates man from machine?

I just finished an article on computers writing music which got me thinking about computers thinking. (Thinking being a big part of music writing.) When humans compose music, or write stories, or do any artistic pursuit, we are consciously processing our decisions, deciding to do this or that or try this or that idea. If computers can start to replicate these processes, they would be doing them unconsciously. (Unless we want to consider, as some have, that computers are conscious in some weird way, but that’s a debate for another time. For now I will presume they are not conscious.)

So let’s think about this. Let’s say I’m writing a story about a character named Bob who drives his car a lot. In my mind, Bob is a person and his car is an object an I shuffle them through various scenarios that create tension in fiction etc. How would a computer approach writing a story about Bob and his car. (Computers writing fiction is not that far off.)

Well, computers would never really be aware of Bob and his car. Ultimately a computer is simply turning the states of millions of transistors from on to off or vice versa. Bob would essentially just be several bytes worth of data, data simply being a collection of transistors in various states. All words—nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.—are simply data captured by the state of transistors. The point being the computer never really knows the meaning of the words. At best it “knows” the flow of electricity (and even that statement is a stretch.)

Essentially, computer programs map symbols (letters, music notes, patches of color, etc) on to these transistors. And then they manipulate these mapped symbols to do various things, one of which is to create art. The symbols only have meaning to the audience, which is us humans. In a sense, a novel writing by a computer could be said to not exist until a conscious human reads it.

So what makes us different from computers? We are conscious, obviously, but also these symbols have actual meaning to us. The word “Bob” can have an actual meaning, referring to particular guy, fictional or not, who has various behavioral tendencies, characteristics, a certain appearance etc. To us, Bob (the word) can represent a real person. We can map symbols to ideas/concepts/entitities.

And yet, our brains work in a way pretty similar to computers. Our neurons are powered by electricity and we, in some weird way, hold information in our synapses. So why do we humans experience meaning when computers don’t?

I dunno…

Has Portlandia sold out?

Discerning readers may know that there’s a show called Portlandia out there. It’s a sketch comedy show set in the Oregon city of Portland (duh!) and it seems to both cheer and ridicule the alternative/hipster culture of the city.

The show stars Fred Armisen from Saturday Night Live and Carrie Browstein, singer/guitarist of the riot grrl group Sleater-Kinney. Brownstein is probably a big part of why it took me a while to watch the show and I’ll tell you why.

Years ago, in the early 90s, I lived in the town of Olympia Washington for a year. Oly is where Sleater-Kinney formed (indeed, I actually lived on the street from which the band takes its name.) Oly was, at the time, a hot bed for a certain type of punk rock generally affiliated with anti-establishment thinking, feminism, anti-capitalism and the usual stuff. The scene there also hated the heavy metal music I’ve always been a fan of and therefore they were my enemy.

Actually, that’s not quite true. I had plenty of friends in the punk community there and probably went to shows at the various punk clubs two or three times a week.

That said, I did have enough interactions with the more self-righteous elements of that scene to conclude one thing: they did not have a sense of humor. So, when I heard that an icon of that scene, Brownstein, was involved in a comedy show I just presumed it couldn’t be funny and I ignored it.

Eventually, however, I did watch Portlandia and discovered that it actually is quite funny; a lot funnier than Armisen’s alma mater, SNL, is these days. Not only is it funny, it tends to use the same self-righteous punk rockers and ultra-liberals that I detested in Olympia as its targets.

(I should note here that I’ve softened a bit in my hatred of these types and am willing to concede they have some legitimate points in their criticisms of mainstream culture and American foreign policy. But that’s another blog post.)

As I watched Portlandia, however, I became a bit curious at how Brownstein, who, as far as I can tell, is neck deep in the very culture the show lampoons, justifies the show’s attitude. And I suppose I could get on the web and figure this out, but I’m not that curious. Nonetheless, this general thought popped into my head when I came across the following link.

Feminist bookstore from “Portlandia” cuts ties with show

The bookstore In Other Words, featured on “Portlandia,” announced on Wednesday that it has cut ties with the show, CBS affiliate KOIN reports. 

The bookstore said filming the show left its business a mess, staff mistreated and neighboring businesses sometimes forced to close for a day “without warning.”

The Portland store, In Other Words, initially enjoyed the publicity, reports the Associated Press. The 23-year-old nonprofit has faced financial struggles and is currently running a fundraising campaign to help stay afloat.

“It was also a direct response to a show which is in every way diametrically opposed to our politics and the vision of society we’re organizing to realize. A show which has had a net negative effect on our neighborhood and the city of Portland as a whole,” the bookstore said, according to KOIN. 

On the show, the book store serves as the setting for a similar store run by two humorless lesbians who inadvertently deliver laughs. It’s a great example of how the show, to my mind, makes fun of the very culture Brownstein is from.

A little more digging revealed a story covering the controversy generated when Armisen and Brownstein had made an ad for clothing company Old Navy. Some of the comments responding to the article include…

Old Navy is about as un-riot grrrl as you get. Sad. She just shit on her legacy for a paycheck. I guess she doesn’t care about grrrls in Chinese sweatshops.

Carrie & Fred officially off the artistic role-call. What, Portlandia wasn’t making you enough to live on, had to become corporate shills too? You f#cking whores…how very “Punk Rock”.

Now, these comments deliver all the self-righteous fury I associate with the north west punk scene. That said, I can’t help feeling they have a point. Brownstein’s actions do seem at odds with her ethics. (Not Armisen, who to my knowledge has never claimed to be anti-capitalist etc.)

It should be said that humor is complex. You can applaud a culture or idea while simultaneously holding it up for ridicule. And “Portlandia” may not be making fun of the ultra-stringent ethics of certain Portlanders, as much as it is the stern seriousness with which they apply those ethics. It’s perfectly reasonable, in my view, to have the attitude that we’re all figuring this life thing out and maybe we should be willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Exactly what punk rock puritans don’t do.

Anyway, that’s my take. We just started watching the new season of the show on Netflix and it feels like one of the best ever.

Do we think the way we think we think?

In the Alan Turing biopic, “The Imitation Game,” there’s a moment when an interlocutor asks Turing, a math genius, “Can machines think the way men do?” As Turing answers it becomes apparent there were really two questions in that query. One is, “Can machines think (at all)?” Second is “Can machines think in the manner of men?” (For the record, Turing’s answers are yes and no.)

So how do we humans think? I think (ha ha) that we believe we largely think in a sort of logical fashion, almost like a series of programmatic steps. We may think, “I’m hungry. I should go to the store to get a sandwich. It’s hot out so I will take the car.” And we do often think this way though we don’t really “think out” all the dialogue. For this kind of thinking we are largely consciously aware of what’s going on. We don’t suddenly find ourselves buying a sandwich for no reason.

But we are also aware that some of our thinking is subconscious. We muse upon a problem, decide to put it away or “sleep on it,” then suddenly a day later the answer appears to us magically. (I solved a particularly pesky VPN issue this way years ago.) It seems clear that some part of our brain was working on the problem without us being aware of it.

Buried in the dialogue in the Turing film is, perhaps, the idea that machines, specifically computers, can’t consciously think. They’re thinking is more like our unconscious processing.

Let me throw in an added complexity. Let’s say a guy looks at a beautiful woman and says, “I’d sure like to have sex with her!” It would appear he wants sex, as everybody does, and his brain is voicing a thought that occurs to him upon the appearance of a attractive mate. The thinking is all conscious. But we humans also have the idea of evolution and the notion that what really drives us is our cells’ desire* to pass on their genes. According to this idea, somewhere along the line there’s some kind of information processing (something like thinking) that says, “Ah, here’s a chance to pass on our genes. Let’s dupe this guy into thinking he merely wants to put his penis in this attractive female.” So there’s two levels of “thought” here—the guy’s conscious thought and some weird level of informational processing occurring well below the brain.

* Of course, we don’t really think cells are conscious in such a way that they can have desires. But on some level cells are driven to the goal of duplicating themselves.

Anyway, I don’t what to make of all this but thought (ha ha) I would put it down.

Terrorist Drones

I continue to track Scott Adams’ blog to view his predictions about Trump. But today he tackled a different subject and he made note of something I’ve thought about myself.

Another key part of my prediction is that the Caliphate will start to weaponize hobby-sized drones for attacks all over the world.

Drones, these little miniature helicopters that are popping up all over the place, seem the perfect vehicle to lob explosives into crowds of people. I’m not talking about the rather small drones you see at the park, but the kind of drones that can have cameras mounted on them, or the kind Amazon is testing for deliveries. If it can carry a package it can certainly carry a bomb. And if the sky is awash with Amazon drones how will we tell the legal drones from ones delivering death? (There may actually be a way, in fact, I presume there is, but it complicates things.)

I think the bigger picture here is this realization: for every new technological advance from now on, we need to ask: how could this be employed by terrorists? Certainly robots and drones have obvious implications for terrorists. So too do advances in the biological sciences like the designing of virus in a garage laboratory. And what can people create with 3d printers?

On a side note, recall that it was the Japanese in WWII who first utilized drone bombs.

The power of the road

I recently took a trip that involved a lot of driving, going from San Diego to Portland and back. We took a leisurely pace, not driving for more than 5 hours or so in a day. But I found the whole experience quite calming. I’ve always found something almost hypnotic about long drives on the freeway.

So why is this? I think there’s something substantially different about your experience on the road as compared to day to day. What is your day to day existence? For most people, myself included, there’s a lot of repetition. I get up in the same bedroom, eat breakfast in the same kitchen. Go off to various coffeehouses or parks to work. I see a lot of the same stuff day in and day out. But when you are driving, the scenery—the visual input—is always changing. Your round a bend and here’s a lake you’ve never seen before. You take an off ramp and here’s a little town that’s totally new. You are bombarded with constant new stimulus. And for the most part, it’s quite nice—pleasant nature, small towns, etc.

My theory is that this gentle stimulus has a calming effect on your brain. And this is ultimately what we’re after when we travel, this combination of the new and the pleasant. Very few people take vacations to war torn countries after all.

I suppose this kind of stimulation could be a goal of VR technology. Strap on a headset and you could be in outer space, the medieval past, heaven or who knows where else.

The immigration question

So, not long ago I used the topic of immigration as an example of a political debate that was very hard to unravel. Is immigration (illegal or otherwise) good or bad for the U.S.? I read a bit on the topic (for about an hour) and discovered a dense mush of opinions. It was very difficult to get a straight answer.

Today I stumbled across an article that claims to have an answer. The author claims that immigration does hurt low income workers who compete with immigrants for jobs, but benefits employees who can press for lower wages.

Here’s a key paragraph.

The fiscal burden offsets the gain from the $50 billion immigration surplus, so it’s not too farfetched to conclude that immigration has barely affected the total wealth of natives at all. Instead, it has changed how the pie is split, with the losers—the workers who compete with immigrants, many of those being low-skilled Americans—sending a roughly $500 billion check annually to the winners. Those winners are primarily their employers. And the immigrants themselves come out ahead, too. Put bluntly, immigration turns out to be just another income redistribution program.

Do I buy it? It’s definitely the clearest documents I read on the subject. I suspect there’s more to the quagmire (and the author has a whole book on the topic) but maybe it just got a bit more transparent.

Thoughts that pop into our heads

Having finished Sam Harris’s tome on meditation, “Waking Up,” I’ve decided to re-read the first Ekhart Tolle book, “The Power of Now” which explores similar themes, albeit from a point of view Harris would probably criticize as unscientific (although Tolle largely avoids ethereal, new-agey content.)

Both Harris and Tolle would say, I think, that our “self”—the entity with particular likes/dislikes, political beliefs, favorites movies etc.—is nonexistent. And most of the dialogue running through our head is basically just noise caused by the mental tics of the brain. Both books are about getting that noise to silence and to experience a more pure form of consciousness.

Of course, that’s contrary to how most of us view ourselves, including me. I operate (most of the time) on the assumption that those voices in my head are me. But I had an experience while reading Tolle’s books that gave me another way of looking at things. I was reading a section where he was making a point about why we shouldn’t look to our past or our future (or possible future) to define ourselves. I put the book down and thought something like, “Got it. No more looking.” Into my head popped the words “I know that I’ve been tooken.” These are drawn from the Hank Williams song “Hey Good Looking” which has a verse that says:

No more lookin’
I know that I’ve been tooken

It’s one of my favorite lyrics and one I’m familiar with since I sing the song often.

The thing here is that I was aware that “I” wasn’t thinking the lyrics, they just kind of popped into my head (because I happened to think the first part of the lyric.) So maybe we need to make a distinction between thoughts that you feel that you are the author of and thoughts that just sort of appear there. We’re all familiar with this second kind of thought. For example, if I say, “The early bird…” you almost cannot avoid hearing “gets the worm” in your head. It just pops up.

I think Tolle and Harris’s argument is that most thought is of this variety. Your brain or mind is doing some processing and the words just pop up. You think you are the author of these thoughts (unless you are schizophrenic and feel disconnected from the voices in your head) but if fact, the entity saying these things is not you. Rather, you* are the person hearing them.

*To reinterate a point, both authors would ultimately say there is no “you.”

I also feel these “thoughts that pop into your head” instances aren’t that different from another common occurrence. Say someone walks up to you and says, “Can you show me how to get this printer working?” You launch into a spiel about how frustrating the printer is and how you have to set it into this mode before it will print in color, blah, blah. But you don’t really plan this spiel out, it just kind of pours out of you. You direct the larger themes and points, but it many ways it just seems like the words are being handed to you. Again, perhaps it’s not you doing the talking, but rather “you” doing the listening.