Study their behaviors. Observe their territorial boundaries. Leave their habitat as you found it. Report any signs of intelligence.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Paul Ireland: Your Voice on the California LP ExCom

A year ago, Paul Ireland asked California LP members for the "honor and privilege to serve" them on the LPC Executive Committee. Mr. Ireland was tasked with many assignments this year, and has left his mark on the party. Any LPC task force would be lucky to get Mr. Ireland to work for them. His work greatly impacts the party, and his worth to the LPC defies measurement. His full capabilities have only been recently discovered, and one can not say enough good things about him. The quality of his work is well known, and his usefulness to the LPC is self-evident. Many in the LPC wonder at the extent of his knowledge. Always willing to take risks, Mr. Ireland has built a record that sets him apart from his peers. Many in the LPC point to him as an example, and his performance demonstrates the importance of electing competent leaders. The possibility of electing more party leaders like Mr. Ireland should be discussed immediately. He shows potential for unbounded improvement, and there is no doubt what future role he should play in the LPC's leadership.   Appended below are some of the statements Mr. Ireland has made over the last year, along with the names of some of the LPC officers and candidates who have criticized him. If Mr. Ireland's statements speak for you, then please vote to re-elect him this weekend, and consider voting against those who have criticized him:
  • 2005-09-29  Mark Stroberg, co-founder LPC Peace Caucus
  • 2005-09-29  Ted Brown, LPC Executive Committee Member
  • 2005-09-29  Allen Hacker, LPC Executive Committe Member
  • 2005-10-01  Joe Cobb, past Chair, Orange County LP
  • 2005-10-01  Lawrence Samuels, Northern California Vice-Chair
  • 2005-10-01  Mark Selzer, Southern California Vice-Chair
  • 2006-01-01  Pam Brown, PhD, State Senate District 20 candidate
  • 2006-01-31  Stephen Cicero, Secretary, San Diego LP
  • 2006-02-07  Brian Cross, past Chair, Orange County LP
  • 2006-02-12  Jay Eckl, co-founder LPC Peace Caucus
  • 2006-02-17  Geof Gibson, State Assembly District 78 candidate
  • 2006-02-18  Bud Raymond, State Senate District 26 candidate
Statements by Paul Ireland:  
  • 2005-02-11 on the Libertarian Yahoo Group: "I don't care if Saddam Hussein personally murdered 100 million men, raped their wives, boiled their children in oil and ate them on live television. What happens in their country is a matter for their people to deal with and not ours.  I don't care if Iraq invaded Kuwait and every other nation in the entire middle-east [...]"    
  • 2005-02-12 on the Libertarian Yahoo Group: "I know more about the U.S. Constitution than most Supreme Court Justices."   
  • 2005-08-09 on LPCalPeace to fellow LPC ExCom member Allen Hacker: "Grow a spine Allen.  Stop being a little coward."    
  • 2005-09-24  on the Libertarian Yahoo Group to fellow LPC ExCom member Bruce Cohen: "you're a sleazy, slimey, worthless, scumbag who is worth less than a ton of dead rats in a tampon factory"    
  • 2005-09-29 on LPCalPeace about LPC Chairman Aaron Starr: "I've been watching the television news talking about the fires up in the Calabasas area, and as much as I hate to see people suffer, the thought of Aaron Star burning to death in a fire or losing everything he owns warms the cockles of my heart.  I only wish a few of his pals would go there to try to save him and suffer the same fate."    
  • 2005-09-29 on LPCalPeace about seven fellow members of the LPC ExCom: "I freely and happily wish death on those who are the enemies of freedom and especially those who have made themselves into my enemy.  Here are just a few of the people the world would be much better without... [...] Bruce Cohen, Aaron Star, Sandor Woren, Brian Holtz, Art Tuma, Kevin Takenaga, Mark Johnson, M Carling, Allen Hacker, Willard Michlin"    
  • 2005-09-29 on LPCalPeace: "Sorry if you find it distasteful, or rude, but these are my feelings. If anyone on that list suddenly died, I wouldn't shed a tear.  In fact for some, I'd be compelled to throw a party."  
  • 2005-10-01 on LPCalPeace about fellow LPC ExCom member M Carling: "He's our very own little Napoleon."     
  • 2005-10-17 on the Libertarian Yahoo Group: "That's great news.  I only hope we can get more non-libertarians to leave the party.  I only wish [Nancy Lord] had taken Bruce Cohen, Derek Jenson, Brian Holtz, Aaron Star, Sandor Woren, Brian Holtz [sic], Art Tuma, Kevin Takenaga, Mark Johnson, M Carling, Allen Rice, Bob Giramma, and Dan Wiener with her."   
  • 2006-01-31 on LPCalPeace to LPC Platform Committee member Brian Holtz: "You're a dishonest little weasel caught up in his own pseudo-intellectual self-absorbed nonsense. [...] You are my intellectual inferior and always will be. [...] You've made yourself look like even more of a fool. [...] You're not worthy of any response from me at all, but I do it only to show everyone what a moron you really are."   
  • 2006-01-31 on Minarchists: "Nothing inside the body of a person has any rights.  Not even if it were a fully sentient being capable of communication begging to be allowed to live. [...] Until the moment the fetus is removed from the womb, it is has no more human rights than a brick."    
  • 2006-02-14 on LPCalPeace to fellow LPC ExCom member Allan Hacker: "It's a shame that you're too fucking stupid to get it, but that doesn't change the fact that it's true."   
  • 2006-02-17 on LPCalPeace to fellow LPC ExCom member Bruce Cohen: "You are a shifty, two-faced, untrustworthy, back stabbing, con artist without an ounce of credibility.  You are beneath me in every possible way."

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Runaway Consumerism Explains the Fermi Paradox?

I would like to see people get more quantitative in their handling of the Fermi Paradox. The Drake Equation is too constraining to let us give probability estimates for all the various possible explanations of the "paradox". The Wikipedia article on the paradox gives a workable taxonomy of possible explanations, so next we should assign probability estimates, in a way similar to my analysis of explanations for the gospel evidence. Meanwhile, here are some notes I made in 2001:

1. Aliens among us. No, UFOs are not aliens.
2. Apocalypse. No, since we are only a few centuries from beginning to explore the entire galaxy through self-replicating intelligent probes, it seems unlikely that *no* intelligent species could do it.
3. Chariots of the gods. No, we have no such evidence.
4. Isolation. Yes, low density of intelligence is part of the answer.
5. Quarantine. No, aliens could not mask all electromagnetic evidence of their existence.
6. Aggressive aliens. No, this doesn't explain why our ecosystem hasn't been scouted and obliterated.
7. Anthropic. Yes, that we are among the early birds is likely to be part of the answer.
8, 9, 10. Stay at home. No, you can't expect that no aliens would ever launch a self-replicating probe.
11. Transcendence. No, there is no credible evidence for transcendent modes of existence, and there are strong arguments against them.

Since then, discussions like the following have somewhat increased my estimate of the relative importance of the stay-at-home factor, even while not contradicting the point that it only takes one civilization to start the expansion.

Runaway consumerism explains the Fermi Paradox
by Geoffrey Miller

The story goes like this: Sometime in the 1940s, Enrico Fermi was talking about the possibility of extra-terrestrial intelligence with some other physicists. They were impressed that our galaxy holds 100 billion stars, that life evolved quickly and progressively on earth, and that an intelligent, exponentially-reproducing species could colonize the galaxy in just a few million years. They reasoned that extra-terrestrial intelligence should be common by now. Fermi listened patiently, then asked simply, "So, where is everybody?". That is, if extra-terrestrial intelligence is common, why haven't we met any bright aliens yet? This conundrum became known as Fermi's Paradox.

The paradox has become more ever more baffling. Over 150 extrasolar planets have been identified in the last few years, suggesting that life-hospitable planets orbit most stars. Paleontology shows that organic life evolved very quickly after earth's surface cooled and became life-hospitable. Given simple life, evolution shows progressive trends towards larger bodies, brains, and social complexity. Evolutionary psychology reveals several credible paths from simpler social minds to human-level creative intelligence. Yet 40 years of intensive searching for extra-terrestrial intelligence have yielded nothing. No radio signals, no credible spacecraft sightings, no close encounters of any kind.

So, it looks as if there are two possibilities. Perhaps our science over-estimates the likelihood of extra-terrestrial intelligence evolving. Or, perhaps evolved technical intelligence has some deep tendency to be self-limiting, even self-exterminating. After Hiroshima, some suggested that any aliens bright enough to make colonizing space-ships would be bright enough to make thermonuclear bombs, and would use them on each other sooner or later. Perhaps extra-terrestrial intelligence always blows itself up. Fermi's Paradox became, for a while, a cautionary tale about Cold War geopolitics.

I suggest a different, even darker solution to Fermi's Paradox. Basically, I think the aliens don't blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they're too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don't need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today.

The fundamental problem is that any evolved mind must pay attention to indirect cues of biological fitness, rather than tracking fitness itself. We don't seek reproductive success directly; we seek tasty foods that tended to promote survival and luscious mates who tended to produce bright, healthy babies. Modern results: fast food and pornography. Technology is fairly good at controlling external reality to promote our real biological fitness, but it's even better at delivering fake fitness — subjective cues of survival and reproduction, without the real-world effects. Fresh organic fruit juice costs so much more than nutrition-free soda. Having real friends is so much more effort than watching Friends on TV. Actually colonizing the galaxy would be so much harder than pretending to have done it when filming Star Wars or Serenity.

Fitness-faking technology tends to evolve much faster than our psychological resistance to it. The printing press is invented; people read more novels and have fewer kids; only a few curmudgeons lament this. The Xbox 360 is invented; people would rather play a high-resolution virtual ape in Peter Jackson's King Kong than be a perfect-resolution real human. Teens today must find their way through a carnival of addictively fitness-faking entertainment products: MP3, DVD, TiVo, XM radio, Verizon cellphones, Spice cable, EverQuest online, instant messaging, Ecstasy, BC Bud. The traditional staples of physical, mental, and social development (athletics, homework, dating) are neglected. The few young people with the self-control to pursue the meritocratic path often get distracted at the last minute — the MIT graduates apply to do computer game design for Electronics Arts, rather than rocket science for NASA.

Around 1900, most inventions concerned physical reality: cars, airplanes, zeppelins, electric lights, vacuum cleaners, air conditioners, bras, zippers. In 2005, most inventions concern virtual entertainment — the top 10 patent-recipients are usually IBM, Matsushita, Canon, Hewlett-Packard, Micron Technology, Samsung, Intel, Hitachi, Toshiba, and Sony — not Boeing, Toyota, or Wonderbra. We have already shifted from a reality economy to a virtual economy, from physics to psychology as the value-driver and resource-allocator. We are already disappearing up our own brainstems. Freud's pleasure principle triumphs over the reality principle. We narrow-cast human-interest stories to each other, rather than broad-casting messages of universal peace and progress to other star systems.

Maybe the bright aliens did the same. I suspect that a certain period of fitness-faking narcissism is inevitable after any intelligent life evolves. This is the Great Temptation for any technological species — to shape their subjective reality to provide the cues of survival and reproductive success without the substance. Most bright alien species probably go extinct gradually, allocating more time and resources to their pleasures, and less to their children.

Heritable variation in personality might allow some lineages to resist the Great Temptation and last longer. Those who persist will evolve more self-control, conscientiousness, and pragmatism. They will evolve a horror of virtual entertainment, psychoactive drugs, and contraception. They will stress the values of hard work, delayed gratification, child-rearing, and environmental stewardship. They will combine the family values of the Religious Right with the sustainability values of the Greenpeace Left.

My dangerous idea-within-an-idea is that this, too, is already happening. Christian and Muslim fundamentalists, and anti-consumerism activists, already understand exactly what the Great Temptation is, and how to avoid it. They insulate themselves from our Creative-Class dream-worlds and our EverQuest economics. They wait patiently for our fitness-faking narcissism to go extinct. Those practical-minded breeders will inherit the earth, as like-minded aliens may have inherited a few other planets. When they finally achieve Contact, it will not be a meeting of novel-readers and game-players. It will be a meeting of dead-serious super-parents who congratulate each other on surviving not just the Bomb, but the Xbox. They will toast each other not in a soft-porn Holodeck, but in a sacred nursery.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

It's The Incentives, Stupid

Fellow San Carlos K-8 parent Susan Jones writes

It's the Funding, Stupid. Full stop. End of story. There is no bigger issue that the school district needs to address than How-The-Heck-Will-We-Get-Significant-Moolah into the school coffers. I'm talking big money. Millions. We need more money to retain our best teachers.

I don't agree that higher pay for even our worst teachers is in fact the least stupid way to retain our best teachers.

K-12 education in America just needs one reform: put adequate tuition dollars in the hands of parents, and let a thousand K-12 startups blossom. Can you imagine the customer-focused entrepeneurship of a Dot Edu Explosion sparked by de-socializing K-12? Can you imagine if the bottom-percentile tenure-and-pension-seeking unionized civil servant educators had to compete with school startups fighting for market share and staffed by teachers whose stock options depended on parental satisfaction with student achievement? Can you imagine if our best teachers got five-figure annual bonuses, without regard to where they stand in the union tenure pecking order?

The government should of course provide mandatory standards and safety-net assistance for things like education, food, and shelter. But this no more requires government ownership of schools than it requires government ownership of supermarkets or dormitories. You "get what you pay for" only if the people you pay know you have the option of paying someone else.

K-12 education is too important to be a government monopoly, but government schools have 89% market share because 100% of their potential customers have to pay for the product even if they consider it too inferior to actually use. K-12 education is also too important to be a charity, and yet the government monopolization of this industry leaves every school's PTA doing constant fundraising. My children's education is important, but not any more so than their nutrition or their healthcare or their physical safety. Nevertheless, our local supermarket doesn't conduct silent auctions to raise money so that the food there will be safe and nutritious. And our doctor doesn't run bake sales to make sure he has up-to-date medicines and instruments. And our airline doesn't organize car washes to make sure the wings don't fall off when we fly off to visit the grandparents. There is no sound economic argument for the K-12 industry being a government monopoly, and its status as a monopoly in America is simply a historical accident. The post-secondary education industry in America is much closer to a free market, and (surprise!) post-secondary education in America is the best in the world.

In the absence of reforms that put tuition dollars in the hands of parents, any extra funding intended to retain our best teachers should be aimed exclusively at our best teachers through merit pay. Instead of giving more to the school fundraiser du jour, I'll be donating anonymously to the kindergarten teacher(s) that I most want to still be there when my two younger kids enter school.

For a 3-page survey of the economics of education, see the article from the Concise Encyclopedia Of Economics at For a 12-page overview of how to improve K-12 education in America, see the Cato Institute's Policy Handbook chapter at See also the Reason Foundation's 2005 primer on K-12 education in California at For my previous postings on education, see here and here and here. For my candidate statement in the 2001 San Carlos School Board race, see here.

P.S. No discussion of education should fail to note that what parents do with their kids outside the classroom will always be the biggest differentiator in their children's education.