Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Financial Times on Torture

Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal says

Tyler Cowen (where does he ever find the time?) alerts me that the extremely sharp, thoughtful, and witty Clive Crook now has a weblog.

Generally, when something is agreed upon by DeLong and Cowen, I'm likely to find it of value, and so I've tentatively subscribed to CrookBlog. Okay...but in reading a few entries, I find myself stuck on | Clive Crook's blog: It depends what you mean by "torture":

If anything is torture, simulated drowning is torture. If you need to remind yourself what waterboarding entails, read how the Khmer Rouge did it...Which principled defence of "aggressive questioning" permits simulated drowning but prohibits thumb-screws or the rack?

But I don't need to read how the Khmer Rouge did it. I can watch it performed the way that the Americans do it, as done to a Fox News guy named Steve Harrigan.

So okay, I know what it is. Is it "torture"? Well, gee. Yes, it depends on what you mean by "torture", and some people -- knowing what waterboarding is -- will include waterboarding within "torture", and others won't. What I'm looking at, though, is Crook's If anything is torture, simulating drowning is torture.

This strikes me as fundamentally unserious. Waterboarding is an unpleasant experience which some not-obviously-insane people volunteer for, and don't seem to regret afterwards. (So far as I know, this line excludes both thumbscrews and rack.) We can draw the "torture" line to exclude such things; in that case waterboarding won't be torture, and yet I think we'll have a quite intellectually and morally coherent view of what torture is (and why, in a morality which tries to pay some attention to the Golden Rule, we don't torture.)

I imagine we can also have an intellectually and morally coherent view of torture which does include waterboarding, which we therefore don't do. Maybe we can have an actual discussion of it. However, the post I'm linking does not seem to rise above the "if anything is torture" level. So I have to start my reading of CrookBlog with a down-check on credibility within some domain of discourse whose scope is yet to be determined. That's okay; there are major places where I down-check DeLong, and yet he's still worth reading. But still, it's not a good start, and I read too many blogs.

or maybe not? hmmm..

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Monday, October 29, 2007

On Legitimacy

I see that Randy Barnett is recapitulating his Lost Constitution book as a response to Leiter on Originalism:

(1) In Restoring, I begin by denying that the legitimacy of a constitution of the sort that governs a territory like the United States could ever be grounded on the "consent of the governed" because such consent is and must always be a fiction. If such a constitution is ever legitimate at all (and perhaps none can be), it must be because it is warranted in imposing its commands on nonconsenting members of the public.

It's funny how much of his later argument I find convincing, after totally rejecting this starting point. I don't believe that either consent or legitimacy are binary values.

No government is totally consensual or non-consensual, no government is totally legitimate or illegitimate.

Considering that the whole point of government is that it requires that you change your behavior, "the consent of the governed" is never 100%, but that doesn't make it a fiction: consent is not always additive because we consent to different things. Every government, even a thugocracy, is somewhat consensual. In the absence of Madison's angels, no real-world government can be fully consensual -- and if we had such angels as citizens, then Madison correctly points out that no government would be needed. A maximally legitimate government is one for which any change would make it even less legitimate -- less consensual -- than it is. Anarchy is pretty much the least consensual form of "government" for the simple reason that practically nobody consents to it; government by (consent of) "We the People" (via representatives picking metarules by which to pick rules) is necessarily far from perfect, but it's probably better -- more consensual -- than any of the alternatives.

And that's why we should pick it. (So am I ready to define "more consensual"? Absobloominglutelynot. I know it when I see it, except when I'm not sure, or when I'm wrong. But consent is weighted, in some sense: if you come up and hit me in the nose, to which you consent and I do not, then that's a whole lot less consensual than if the nice policeman stops you, to which I consent and you do not. If you claim that you don't believe this, I am skeptical about your disbelief.)

And yet Barnett goes on to derive presumptions of liberty and all kinds of good stuff which I also find to follow from my very different premises. This may indicate that I'm being convinced, and perhaps even that he's being convinced, by something other than the ostensible basis of argument.

Or then again, maybe not.

update: Barnett now points to Solum on Leiter (and Me) on Originalism:

The truth of semantic originalism, by itself, has no normative implications. Even if the semantic content of the constitution is the original public meaning, it could be the case that constitutional practice should deviate from that meaning. For example, one might argue that precedent should trump the original public meaning. Or one might argue that the difficulty of constitutional amendment so undermines the democratic legitimacy of the Constitution that the political branches are justified in “amending constructions” that give the text new and different semantic content. Or one might believe that the constitution is so undesirable or unjust ...

As a simple-minded geek, I think that Solum is using the same oversimplification that Barnett does: I would say that semantic originalism (original public meaning) has no normative implications in a predicate-calculus prove-true-or-false sense, but that it has normative weight in that the original public meaning is what was agreed/consented to at the time, and times, of the agreement and its subsequent amendments. That's where consensuality comes in. Other issues (including justice, not always separate from consensuality) come in too, of course. I would like to disagree with Solum (and Barnett, I think) about constitutional underspecification, especially vagueness, in that if the original public meaning is vague, then surely (I wish) it does not constrain, so anything goes within the range of vagueness. Unfortunately, I can't do that, because the clear non-vague original public meaning of the 9th Amendment says that there are "rights" -- constraints on Congress -- as a part of this stuff that we're consenting to, that are not enumerated. The resolution of this underspecification in particular, and perhaps vagueness-underspecification as well, is clearly not being left to Congress and presumably not to the Executive either; it's gotta be a judicial function. I really don't like that, but maybe it was the best available option and, gee, what can I say? It's what they consented to, and I have no clarifying amendments to suggest.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Self-experimentation, dental care, health-care policy

As I mentioned in a self-experimentation post, I've been following Seth Robert's recommendation of flaxseed oil for calorie management (because the diet was so strange, but explained so plausibly, that I wanted to try it despite not being actually overweight, and I did lose weight) and I was interested in his series of gum inflammation (and other omega-3 factors) posts. I don't have a major problem there either, but I have had a problem in the past -- a root canal thirty years ago which had to be redone, with gum surgery, fifteen years ago, leaving a plastic-on-gold-on-tungsten implant. It kept getting moderately inflamed, then less, then more; a common discussion topic after tooth-cleaning. Lately it hasn't been a problem; today I was very conscious that there just wasn't a problem. And my eldest son, who has had a problem, recently wrote that his "one gum, which was the only one that bled regularly with flossing, has almost completely stopped. i don't know if it's the flaxseed oil, but it sure could be. the big test will be the next dentist appt...".

Systematic self-experimentation does not appeal to me; I'm just not sufficiently obsessive about data collection. But I'm very glad there are people like Seth Roberts in the universe, and I'm hoping that improved technology will gradually increase their number and effectiveness. If I were In Charge, there would be basic health-care vouchers for everyone, and expanded vouchers for everyone willing to sign up for data-collection services, and big cash prizes for donations of patents (to an open-innovation patent protection fund) to make that collection easier. I would like to have lots of us live long enough to outlive the whole idea of "aging".

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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Rodrik on Development

I've been reading Dani Rodrik's blog and now his current book, One Economics, Many Recipes. He is lots more enthusiastic about government than I am, and mostly I feel battered in that he is mostly making a good case for stuff that I'd rather not believe: sometimes interventionist government works better than minimalist government. This makes my worldview more complicated than -- as a laygeek interested in economics and specifically in development economics -- I want it to be. I see in Arnold Kling's review that he (albeit not a laygeek) feels more or less the same way, which is not a big surprise -- my views often overlap with his.

However, I'm still feeling bothered by the book's start, right on page 1 of the Introduction:

ON A VISIT to a small Latin American country a few years back, my colleagues and I paid a courtesy visit to the minister of finance...a detailed PowerPoint presentation on his economy's recent progress...listed all the reforms...Trade barriers had been removed, price controls had been lifted, and all public enterprises had been privatized. Fiscal policy was tight, public debt levels low, and inflation nonexistent. Labor markets were as flexible as they come. There were no exchange or capital controls, and the economy was open to foreign investments of all kind. [sic] "We have done all the first-generation reforms, all the second-generation reforms, and are now embarking on...
...Alas...The economy was scarcely growing, private investment remained depressed...poverty and inequality were on the rise. What had gone wrong?

This opening created, for me, a tension for which I have not yet seen a resolution in the book; I'm not nearly done, but I don't see it indicated in Kling's review either, or when I follow up the obvious terms -- "corruption", "transparency", "bureaucracy" -- in the index. It sounds to me as if Rodrik is reporting that the minister of finance told him they'd done all the reforms...except for reform.

[[personal background: I grew up largely in Latin America, with a dad who was trying to assist businesses large and small, from the early 60s when he ran the Veracruz shipyard for Baltimore Shipbuilding and Drydock, the mid-60s lumber mill in Nicaragua, the late 60s and 70s as a "project engineer" for dams and road and shipyards for the Interamerican Development Bank in Colombia, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, and so on to his death in the late 80s; he was always trying on the side to help little businesses get going. (This was his peculiar version of Quakerism.) He kept saying he was going to write a book about Latin America's failures, but I think in the end it would have been a less abstract, more dramatized version of parts of De Soto's Mystery of Capital but without de Soto's central real-estate insight; it was all about corruption, lack of transparency, and bureaucracy.]]

I look at Transparency International's corruption perceptions map and wonder which Latin American country Rodrik could be talking about: Chile is pretty good and Uruguay is not bad, but Chile's been growing pretty fast (and is pretty big, anyway) and Uruguay isn't privatized, so I guess by my standards (especially in the light of Uruguay's poor commercial (small-biz) characteristics) their respective growth patterns, and those of their neighbors, are not terribly surprising.

I remember Dad talking in 1970 about helping somebody set up a small export (leatherwork) business in Montevideo; the basic forms took more than a year, stopping at several dozen desks, even with him pushing them along as if the IDB (or BID, if you speak Spanish) thought they were important. Without that help they would have simply failed -- not necessarily from corruption, but from bureaucracy.

That's been my model of Latin American government all my life: any given government will have a lot of honest people in it, but the net effect will usually range from actively predatory down to parasitic, with the exception of Chile. (Mexico is not an exception, but has benefited and suffered in various ways from proximity to the US -- I'm thinking of legal immigration, illegal immigration, and the drug trade as well as legal trade and a few invasions.)

I'm not saying that government has to be a baleful influence. In the US, my plumber is a business, the carpenter is a business... -- I'm a business and a half (half of a partnership) duly registered for small fees with the county clerk. The Small Business Administration and Federation of Small Businesses are not perfect, but my feeling is that they are actually pretty good. The US overall has a pro-growth government, in many ways, and I'm fairly comfortable with that kind of interventionism -- but mostly that's a kind of interventionism that has to do with constantly adjusting the regulatory barriers that keep businesses from getting too predatory, rather than assisting them (and bureaucrats) in being predatory. I do get muchly less comfortable when it tries to intervene in favor of specific industries, areas, companies, people -- there you get massively harmful rent-seeking as with our agricultural subsidies. Still, there are some government interventions which may make sense, and Rodrik argues effectively. Mostly.

However, I'm not comfortable with Rodrik's starting point; it struck me as pretty strange.

(Well, maybe not.)

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Stemcell cyborgs

Yesterday morning I thought about the fact that I hadn't been doing exercises at all consistently since going to Greece for my eldest son's wedding in July. July? Ulp. So I did my forty pushups and forty situps and walked steadily (instead of trotted) up and down the front stairs for half an hour and did twenty pullups and weighed myself, at 180.8 pounds. Not good, not terrible. But while I walked, I thought about Aubrey de Grey's Ending Aging which I'd just read over the weekend. Hmmm...

Suppose that my exercise and not-too-terrible diet and ordinary medical care manage to keep me going into my mid-eighties, thirty years from now; all four grandparents lasted that long, although my parents did not. de Grey thinks that by then, we'll have found therapies for each of the major categories of aging-damage, so that I may feel no older than I do now... He concedes that some problems will be harder than others, and that we will still be headed downhill, but he thinks that the early treatments are likely to give us enough extra years of (active healthy) life that we can afford to wait for the solutions to the harder problems; lasting another thirty years may thus be good enough for "eternal youth."

Okay, I can see the pattern, and I can see some plausibility in each of his SENS solutions, but yesterday as I walked, I was thinking about alternatives.

de Grey's view of what I should be, several decades from now, seems to involve switching off all cell replication (as the one sure way to stop cancer) and then to introduce controlled cell replacement via embryonic stem cells every ten years or so, plus when you want to generate a baby; he goes on a bit about the inferiority of adult stem cells for the general problem. I think this is a bit of a problem in that the current embryonic cells naturally have the DNA of the embryo:

After receiving umbilical cord stem cells to replace bone marrow as treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Greg Graves temporarily had three different sets of DNA.
I'm skeptical about gradually replacing my cells with all kinds of DNA. de Grey has possible solutions, but I don't think they're necessary: as of last June,
Three teams of scientists said yesterday they had coaxed ordinary mouse skin cells to become what are effectively embryonic stem cells without creating or destroying embryos in the process.
So it ought to be possible to generate stem cells for me that are really my stem cells, and stem cells for you that are really yours. How (and when) to replace bad cells with good ones? de Grey's program is not impossible, but I would rather think of four levels of replacement: cell-at-a-time, tissue, organ, and whole-body.

The whole-body replacement is what you see in Scalzi's science-fiction novel Old Man's War: you grow a new body and "upload" your consciousness to it. (This is also seen in some science fiction of the 60's or earlier; see Ben Bova's "Call Me Joe.) It's not impossible, and if we upload to higher-speed processing we may find lots of amusing changes, as in Accelerating Future's claim:

Mind uploading will make space travel useless. If my mind is running at a million times human speed, then the Moon, Mars, and Proxima Centauri look far more distant than they were previously. It becomes pointless to visit them.
Well, I think that I think that that's an implausible view of what uploading will amount to, based on an essentialist view of what a mind is, but in any case it's not an issue here: if we get that kind of uploading, then aging is irrelevant.

Organ replacement is possible for everything except the brain; cell-at-a-time or tissue replacement is possible for any tissue (with the caveat that cell-at-a-time replacement may need extension to handle intercellular connections and debris). If you replace old bad stuff with new good stuff, and find/destroy cancers as well as bacteria and virus invasions, then you can last indefinitely. I believe Current stem-cell treatments are of the cell-at-a-time variety, but tissues and organs can be grown on spider-silk scaffolding or, eventually, simply printed in 3D.

My belief is that continuous maintenance will work better than occasional updates, because a continuous-maintenance system can also help handle infections and injury repair. Imagine a microbot, about the size of a cell, with a few fixed functions. It carries a squished stem cell to the targeted tissue, through your circulatory system (or through tubes made of spider-silk or woven nanotube fibers which run alongside your circulatory system, forming a scaffolding through your whole body which turns you into a sort of a cyborg, though perhaps not very --how cyborgy you are depends on whether that scaffolding is dynamic, and how much information it carries, and what wavelengths it picks up wifi on, and so forth). The microbot drops its cargo as it collects a cell for disposal, and goes on back for more -- I'd propose that the stem-cell center for cyborg operations should be right around the heart, for obvious reasons. Selection is pretty random: about a tenth of one percent of your cells get replaced each day, giving each cell about a 693-day half-life. If a cancer starts to grow, or if an infection goes beyond the capacities of your regular immune system, or even if you get a bruise... then there will be a whole lot of bad or damaged cells in one place: some microbot will detect them very early, and you'll know what and where they are; cyborg healing should be pretty quick.

Or then again, maybe not.

upd: fixed half-life to be ln(2)/0.001 days; 1.001^693 =approx 2.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Wind Power

I do mostly expect over-the-rainbow solar power (whether stratospheric, as I've suggested before, or space-based in the High Frontier tradition) to become a dominant power source, but in the early stages I see lots of room for wind. Today I see a vibration-based wind generator :

a magnet mounted on a vibrating membrane simply oscillates between wire coils.

Looks good, and reminds me that a few months back, while reading about thermoacoustic Stirling cycles, I remembered a science-fiction story I read forty years ago. The story is about an archaeological expedition studying a long-lost alien civilization on a windy desert planet, and the expedition ends up being saved (spoiler alert) by the discovery that the millions of noisy wind harps that are driving everybody crazy are actually piezoelectric generators, producing electricity from the vibrations.

So I'm imagining a sun/wind combination on your roof: as long as the sun is out, we have thermoacoustic vibrations to generate power (with potentially pretty good efficiency), but when a storm blows on by, we get the same vibration frequency from an array of Aeolian harp-strings.

Or then again, maybe not.