This is conceived as an informal and spontaneous annex to my more extensive blog, Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon

31st July 2014


Argentina in Debt Default

As of 0400 GMT, Argentina has defaulted on its debt for the second time in a dozen years. Unless you’ve been following the story closely it’s a bit complicated to understand, and I expect the first experience many people will have of the default is to read the headlines and to wonder how and why it happened.

The expectation in the financial markets was that a settlement would be reached, and in fact Argentine debt soared to a three year high on expectation of a settlement. Patrick Esteruelas at Emso Partners Ltd. was quoted on Bloomberg as saying:

“[Argentine economy minister] Kicillof [pictured above] wouldn’t have traveled to New York, taking the unprecedented step to meet face-to-face with the holdouts, and spend all that political capital, to go back to Buenos Aires empty-handed.”

Argentina has already been frozen out of international credit markets since its 2001 default, and many were hopeful that the beleaguered former economic giant of South America could slowly rebuild its fortunes and regain access to credit markets. Now this seems a dim and distant hope. 

On the one hand, the administration of the Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner won the PR battle, and managed to persuade newspapers and magazines to refer to the institutions that held the embattled debt as “vulture funds,” but this re-branding of fiscal irresponsibility was not enough, nor was it enough that Argentina has widely been considered “too big to fail,” and therefore would be propped up by financial markets one way or another. 

It is still possible, after the deadline has expired, that some deal might yet be struck, when the reality of default begins to sink in, and the power brokers in Buenos Aires start to get scared of the consequences for the Argentine people. It is the latter who will suffer the most. The political leaders may ultimately lose their jobs for presiding over another default, but these leaders all come from the elite sectors of society and will live in comfort no matter how desperate conditions become in Argentina.

Argentina, as noted above, is already frozen out of global capital markets; the world can get by without Argentina’s participation, but Argentina will find it difficult to get by without participation in international financial markets.

Tagged: debtArgentinadefaultglobal debt marketPatrick Esteruelas


30th July 2014


Observation of a quantum Cheshire Cat in a matter-wave interferometer experiment : Nature Communications : Nature Publishing Group →

This Nature Communications paper by Tobias Denkmayr, Hermann Geppert, Stephan SponarHartmut LemmelAlexandre MatzkinJeff Tollaksen, and Yuji Hasegawa was brought to my attention by a BBC article, 'Quantum Cheshire Cat' becomes reality,

Tagged: quantum theoryquantum mechanicsphilosophyweak measurement


28th July 2014


Platonic Confession.—Like all western philosophers, I am, at bottom, a Platonist, and as a Platonist I believe that knowledge is The Good, and furthermore that it is the responsibility of the philosopher who has seen with his own eyes the blinding light of The Good, which is knowledge, to return to the cave of shadows and to attempt to enlighten those still trapped below, however unwelcome this intervention may be.
J. N. Nielsen
28 July 2014 

Platonic Confession.—Like all western philosophers, I am, at bottom, a Platonist, and as a Platonist I believe that knowledge is The Good, and furthermore that it is the responsibility of the philosopher who has seen with his own eyes the blinding light of The Good, which is knowledge, to return to the cave of shadows and to attempt to enlighten those still trapped below, however unwelcome this intervention may be.

J. N. Nielsen

28 July 2014 

Tagged: PlatoknowledgeThe Goodallegory of the cavePlatonism


25th July 2014


A Needle in the Cosmic Haystack: Formal and Empirical Approaches to Life in the Universe →

My newest contribution to Paul Gilster’s Centauri Dreams blog is now available. This is an approximately 4,000 word essay in which I suggest that the history of life on Earth can be extrapolated spatially to understand the likelihood of the kind of life we will find most prevalent in the universe. Earth has hosted life for almost 90 percent of its existence, so that if (according to the principle of mediocrity) life on Earth is representative of life elsewhere, all the Earth-like planets that we are now finding have about a 90 percent chance of having developed the simple forms of life that have dominated the history of life on Earth. 

While I didn’t point this out in my essay, I now realize that this point of view has some similarities to the work of Stephen J. Gould, who often emphasized in his books that simple life dominated the history of life on Earth, and that more complex forms of life shouldn’t be thought of as being the culmination and goal of life on Earth, but the nearly inevitable result of variation that begins from a rudimentary minimum. Rudimentary life can only vary in one direction, toward greater complexity, and this will happen over time. This is the source of the well-known illustration of the drunkard’s walk: if a drunkard walks between a wall and a ditch, sooner or later he will end up in the ditch.

There is more in the essay, as well, as I attempt to show how different approaches to the question, “Are we alone?” hinge on whether we take a more formal or a more empirical approach to the science involved in answering the question.

Tagged: SETIastrobiologyCentauri DreamsPaul GilsterAre we alone?


24th July 2014

Post with 1 note

A Thought from Twenty Years Ago


Recently I was going through pictures and notes from my 1994 trip to Spain (the picture above is of me in the gusty inner courtyard of El Escorial in 1994, a trip I recently mentioned in my post In Praise of Private Libraries), and I happened upon a note to myself taken while traveling. This note reads as follows:

"Here’s a counterfactual conditional to ponder: could human history have been more brutal and bloody than it was and the species have survived? This invites a sorites paradox. Also redolent of Russell’s retort to Leibniz."

I was interested to see my interest in existential risk themes was already evident twenty years ago, and there are many observations I could make on this brief note in the light of recent work on existential risk.

The reference to “Russell’s retort to Leibniz” concerns an amusing passage from Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy where Russell confronted the Leibnizean idea of this being the best of all possible worlds with a logically unimpeachable argument that this is the worst of all possible worlds:

"Leibniz’s solution of the problem of evil, like most of his other popular doctrines, is logically possible, but not very convincing. A Manichæan might retort that this is the worst of all possible worlds, in which the good things that exist serve only to heighten the evils. The world, he might say, was created by a wicked demiurge, who allowed free will, which is good, in order to make sure of sin, which is bad, and of which the evil outweighs the good of free will. The demiurge, he might continue, created some virtuous men, in order that they might be punished by the wicked; for the punishment of the virtuous is so great an evil that it makes the world worse than if no good men existed. I am not advocating this opinion, which I consider fantastic; I am only saying that it is no more fantastic than Leibniz’s theory. People wish to think the universe good, and will be lenient to bad arguments proving that it is so, while bad arguments proving that it is bad are closely scanned. In fact, of course, the world is partly good and partly bad, and no 'problem of evil’ arises unless this obvious fact is denied.”

This paragraph from Russell has had a lasting influence on my thought, and I have always thought that his characterization of the “problem of evil” was so sane and so level-headed that I was quite surprised after I spoke at the first 100YSS symposium in 2011 that someone commented to me after my talk that I had been engaged in my talk with the problem of evil. I still had in the back of my mind this passage from Russell, and thought of the problem of as evil as what later analytical philosophers following Russell would call a pseudo-problem. I didn’t see evil as a philosophical problem at all because I was making no attempt to deny that the world is partly good and partly bad.   

The idea that human history, as bloody and brutal as it was, might have been even bloodier and more brutal, resembles Russell’s counter to Leibniz in its readiness to consider worst case scenarios and to re-conceptualize the human condition in unfamiliar and unflattering terms. But even so, a bloodier and a more brutal history would still be partly good and partly bad, as a less bloody and less brutal history would also still be partly good and partly bad. 

And I think it could go either way — that is to say, I think that it is not difficult to see that human history could easily have been marginally more brutal or marginally less brutal without being appreciably different. This is where the sorites paradox gets started. In Bostrom’s table of the qualitative categories of existential risk, in the far left column (see below) he recognizes imperceptible risks, which, however, taken on their own would be existential calamities for, say, the one species of beetle that goes extinct of the one original Picasso painting destroyed.

Because even individual imperceptible risk is catastrophic for the individual but imperceptible in the big picture, the question is then posed how many imperceptible calamities do we have to add together before we cross the threshold and experience a global catastrophic risk or an existential risk? Like asking how many grains of sand make a heap, or how many lost hairs constitute baldness, these are sorites paradoxes.

So, yes, human history could have been more brutal and bloody, and we as a species would have survived, but how much more brutal and bloody? Would it be possible to identify a threshold at which we pass over into unsustainable brutality? Would an incrementally more brutal history have retarded civilization to the point that humanity would already be in the grip of flawed realization or permanent stagnation? Given that Bostrom defines both flawed realization and permanent stagnation in terms of technological maturity, would it even make sense to speak in terms of the flawed realization or permanent stagnation of civilization prior to the industrial revolution?

And if human history had been less brutal and bloody, might civilization have taken off toward technological maturity much sooner? Is our present apparent stagnation on the very threshold of expanding our civilization beyond Earth — we have the technology to have a major presence in space, but we lack the will to pursue this existential opportunity — a result of the brutality that we have in fact inflicted on ourselves to date? And if an existential threat is visited upon us tomorrow, before we have secured some rudimentary degree of redundancy, will we have to conclude (if anyone remains alive to conclude) that we have already passed the threshold of unsustainable brutality?


Tagged: Bertrand Russellmoral philosophyexistential riskLeibnizbest of all possible worldsworst of all possible worldssorites paradox


20th July 2014

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An Uncomfortable Realization of Human-Machine Equivalence


Many news stories recently announced that a machine had reportedly passed the Turing test (cf., e.g., Computer AI passes Turing test in ‘world first’), a philosophical thought experiment first formulated by computer pioneer Alan Turing. After the announcement, many second thoughts were voiced. Turing tests are usually conducted in the context of significant parameters, so that it is not a free-wheeling discussion in which any topic is fair game.

For most who read these headlines, the “uncomfortable realization” brought about by the Turing test would be that machines are slowly but surely catching up with us, and what this will mean for us. Such anxieties are presented in The danger of ‘emotional’ machines Newspapers and magazines (now more on line than in print, but the principle is the same — where it was once headlines, now it is clickbait) love this sort of thing, like some years ago when Time magazine devoted a cover story to the the defeat of Kasparov by IBM’s Deep Blue.

The Deep Blue test, like the Turing test, was a great stunt, but it cannot be compared to a real contest. While Deep Blue and its programmers were able to extensively study Kasparov’s games, Kasparov was not given an opportunity to study the games of Deep Blue. This might sound like a technicality, but I don’t think so. However, this isn’t what I want to write about today.

Apart from the obvious discomfort one might feel with the idea that computers are catching up to us, which carries with it significant economic anxiety, as manifested by recent discussion of technological unemployment, there is another discomfort that we ought to feel. With the focus of the discussion being on computers mistaken for human beings, what we miss is the possibility of human beings being mistaken for computers, and this is a potentially very painful realization. 

Despite the claim of the Declaration of Independence, all human beings are not created equal, but are rather endowed with a range of distinct abilities, talents, and capacities, even if all have the same rights in the democratic society. It is because of this inherent inequality that there is also an inherent tension between freedom and equality. A free society will have significant inequality; social measures taken to reign in inequality achieve their end by reducing freedom. Like mistaking a person for a mere machine, this is something that we generally don’t like to think about.

For obvious anthropocentric reasons, it is difficult for us human beings to think of ourselves and our kind in objective terms. “Human” tends to carry positive connotations (usually, but not always), while “inhuman” carries negative connotations. Similar considerations hold for personhood, which is usually unproblematically equated with human beings. Human persons have a special value for us — I have often quoted Francis Fukuyama in his connection, who said, “we have drawn a red line around the human being and said that it is sacrosanct." — so that any suggestion that deprecates the value of human persons is perceived as an attack on our anthropocentric values.

Given the ideals and warm, fuzzy feelings we have about human persons, we don’t like to think that a great many persons in the world have very little in them of the spark of creativity and spontaneous joy of conscious life. If we viewed the human population on the whole in terms of the lowest common denominator instead of the exceptional outliers that stimulate and entertain us, then I think a great many human persons might be mistaken for unimaginative computer programs intended to simulate human interaction.

This observation, I am fully aware, devalues human persons and is profoundly anti-democratic, but it needs to be said. We may deny it all we like, and insist upon the contrary, but the day is coming when only a few truly imaginative individuals will clearly and unambiguously distinguish themselves from machines, whereas the bulk of human beings will struggle merely to retain their identification with humanity in order to distinguish themselves from machines from which they are otherwise indistinguishable.

If and when machine consciousness emerges (and this is the real game-changer, unlike AI without self-awareness), even the best and brightest will find themselves challenged, and distinct forms of consciousness will emerge to serve specific functions.

Tagged: AIartificial intelligencemachine intelligenceTuring testAlan TuringAnthony ZurcherFrancis Fukuyamapersonhoodhumanitymachine consciousnessself-awarenesshuman being


18th July 2014

Link with 3 notes

Early risers 'less moral at night' →

he persistent and pervasive pathologicalization of eccentric waking and sleeping schedules. 

Being myself primarily noctural, I have a great interest in these sleep studies, and previously wrote about sleep schedules in Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (DSPS) as well as commenting on another story, Night Owls more likely to have dark triad of personality traits, which was a typical hatchet job of individuals who don’t get up and go to bed early.

Just yesterday I commented on What our descendants will deplore about us, and to the list of our blindspots recounted in that post we could add the bizarre insistence that everyone should sleep and work on the same schedule — is this another instance of enlightenment universalism? — regardless of their natural body clock. The important thing is that everyone is healthier, happier, and more productive when they get plenty of restful sleep, and not that everyone should sleep at the same time in a kind of circadian conformity.

Tagged: DSPSDelayed sleep phase syndromenight owlsmorning larksSean Coughlancircadian rhythmsleep


17th July 2014

Link with 3 notes

What our descendants will deplore about us →

This longish BBC Future article by Tom Chatfield explores the question of what our descendants might hate about us, i.e., why they might hate what the contemporary world is doing and the legacy that it is bequeathing to the future. This approach is taken up in a self-conscious effort to avoid a triumphalist futurism that is overly-smug about our accomplishments. 

Tom Chatfield chats up James Lovelock of gaia fame, economist Kate Raworth, Financial Times columnist Tim Harford, well-known animal rights philosopher Peter Singer, author Roman Krznaric, existential risk theorist Nick Bostrom, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, philosopher Stuart Armstrong, and science fiction author Greg Bear, each of whom proposes a particular blindspot or failing of our time that may well be deplored in the future.

Near the beginning of this article the author writes:

I was swapping ideas about this with Tom Standage, author and digital editor of The Economist …as he put it to me: “how easy it is to be self-congratulatory about how much less prejudiced we are than previous generations”. This form of hindsight can be dangerously smug. It can become both a way of praising ourselves for progress rather than looking for it to continue, and of distracting ourselves from uncomfortable aspects of the present.

Neither the author nor his interviewees mention transhumanism, though in the several discussions of how we might be viewed as prejudiced in the future it seems pretty obvious to me that the contemporary debate over transhumanism is a paradigm case of an “uncomfortable aspect of the present,” especially given that the thin edge of the wedge of transhumanism has already begun to affect the way ordinary people live their lives (by which I mean medical treatments such as artificial organs and the pharmacological alteration of human personality).

Transhumanism divides individuals quite dramatically on grounds of moral principle, with many contending that the very idea of altering human beings is the secular equivalent of sacrilege, while others (probably a minority) hold that without embracing transhumanism we in effect guarantee human stagnation.

For my part, I think that the most hyperbolic condemnations to be found of transhumanism today (and there are many) will come to seem strikingly shortsighted, though since we have already incrementally and without realizing it launched ourselves on a transhumanist trajectory, this past condemnation may be not so much deplored as pitied.

Tagged: Tom Chatfieldtranshumanismfuturismlegacy


16th July 2014


Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.—Between Aiges-Mortes and Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, both pleasant tourist towns in the Camargue that are well worth seeing, there is a simple country house that is a good place to stay in the region, Mas de Sylvéréal. It isn’t luxurious, but it is convenient and is set in a typical camargue landscape. There are also many reasonable places to stay very near the beach in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, and they even had vacancies on a holiday weekend in the summer while the Feria du Cheval was being held in town. The lodgings in Aigues-Mortes are more upscale. Wherever you stay, the Camargue is worth seeing, and is in easy driving distance from many famous cities in the Provence, such as Aix, Arles, and Avignon

Tagged: traveltourismsightseeingFranceCamargueSaintes-Maries-de-la-MerMas de Sylvéréal


16th July 2014


Palais des Papes.—In another post I mentioned spending Bastille Day seeing fireworks at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. That was in the evening, but earlier in the day I took a day trip to Avignon so that I could see one of the most impressive secular Gothic structures in Europe, the Palace of the Popes. I call this a secular Gothic structure because, although it does contain churches within the structure, one must think of the palace of the Popes as primarily the administrative center of the largest transnational non-state entity of the Middle Ages, and in this sense it really was a palace — and a treasury, and a fortress, and living quarters, among other functions. Avignon, by the way, was very busy, not only with Bastille Day celebrations including a bicycle race that shut down many streets and made parking difficult, but also with some kind of theatrical festival. The main courtyard of the palace of the Popes was fixed up as a large stage for theatrical production, and ever corner of the city that could be exapted for a stage was being so used. The old city was literally papered over in theater posters for a dizzying variety of spectacles, which made it colorful, and actors dressed up in outlandish costumes were roaming the streets everywhere handing out promotional materials and, in many cases, free tickets. Imagine an entire city taken over by theater people and you’ll get a sense of what it was like. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that people like to travel in high season, as there is always something going on wherever you go. 

Tagged: FranceAvignonPalais des Papessecular gothictraveltourismsightseeingpalace of the Popes