Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy (premature) New Year's!

That is all.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Setting circular anti-IP cliches straight

In a recent discussion on intellectual property (IP) on the Mises blog, I saw Stephan Kinsella advancing (again) a circular argument against IP: that it claims rights in already-owned property. But he very dispute is about which ownership rights people have in property!

I know what you're thinkin: "meh, dog bites man ... what else is new," right? Well, what's interesting is that my standard foil, Peter Surda, actually agrees with me that this specific point is circular, even as he generally agrees with Kinsella in his opposition to IP. Here's what Kinsella said in response:

Peter, I don't think it's circular because our view of property rights is grounded in a Lockean homesteading view as applied to scarce resources. Under that view you can perform any action you want so long as you do not invade the borders of (i.e., change the physical integrity of) another's Lockeanly-owned scarce resource, without his consent. How is this circular?

What follows is my response on the blog, with some hyperlinks for context:


The circularity lies in your assumption about which rights you gain by doing how much homesteading, and it is in no way obvious how the rights must work the way you think they do.

Say I homestead a plot of land. How far above and below does that homesteading entitle me to? Yes, you can justify a specific amount, but that's the point: you have to justify why your rights extend to that boundary (abstract or otherwise), not just assume that your land ownership implies ownership of the airspace through which planes fly, and then argue that "airplanes necessarily violate the property rights in already-owned land" ... which, when you think about it, is pretty much what your IP case is.

But that's just the beginning: does homesteading the land entitle you to block (non-nuisance) concentrated sound waves from passing through your land (e.g. ultrasound)? And of course, back to the ol' chestnut: does the land ownership entitle you to block every single frequency of the EM spectrum passing through?

Now, there are many cases where you can assume that homesteading entitles you to certain rights. However, here, the very debate is about which rights you are morally entitled to by virtue of homesteading what. And in that case, it is in fact circular to assume a certain level of homesteading-based rights, since you're trying to prove what the homesteading-based rights are in the first place, which people dispute!

Note that since this is the central argument of Against Intellectual Property, its circularity isn't very encouraging when judging its merit as an argument against IP.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Silas Barta, information theorist by night

UPDATE 12/17/09: Steven Landsburg, after responding several times in the comments section here, posts a defense of his position on his blog, although without mentioning me or Bob Murphy. Hey, I can understand: if I were in his position, I'd hide the existence of me and Bob too!


Bob Murphy invokes my expertise on information theory to criticize (yet) another bizarre argument from Steven Landsburg, that the natural numbers are more complex than human life. Here's the mistaken part of Landsburg's reasoning:

...the most complex thing I’m aware of is the system of natural numbers (0,1,2,3, and all the rest of them) together with the laws of arithmetic ...

If you doubt the complexity of the natural numbers, take note that you can use just a small part of them to encode the entire human genome. That makes the natural numbers more complex than human life. Unless, of course, human beings contain an uncodable essence, like an immortal soul

Naturally, I don't necessarily agree with the broader theological points Bob makes in his reply, and such issues will remain even scarcer on this blog than on his. However, I will expand on point I made in discussion with Bob.

The error in Landsburg's line of reasoning is: the fact that you can use instances of X to build Y does not mean X is more complex than Y. Just the opposite, in fact: in order to describe Y, you must describe X as a substep. Like in the analogy I gave, you can use bricks and mortar to build a house, but that means it's the house that's more complex. To fully specify the house you must describe not only the bricks and mortar, but the form they take as a house -- how they're supposed to be put together.

As for arithmetic and natural numbers, it's their lack of complexity that makes them so useful. By appealing to it, you can make sense of a diverse array of phenomena. The more complex arithmetic were, the less helpful it would be in making sense of things.

Just to be clear, this doesn't mean it's easy to learn math (different people have different problems in different topics and levels), or that you can't do anything complex with math. The point is that no amount of complexity produced in using arithmetic could ever imply arithmetic's complexity, for the same reason that no matter how complex a house you make with one kind of brick, you can't make the brick more complex.

But of course, Landsburg's errors don't end there. He wants to go so far as to say that by merely encoding the genome in base 4, you've described human life. That's certainly the impression people get from discussions of DNA in the popular media and movies like Jurassic Park. Hey, all you need is a string of letters made up of A,G,C,T, and you've described someone completely!

To put it mildly: that's not how it works. First of all, you need to say what the letters actually mean. And then, even if you know that much, all you have are empty labels -- suggestively named LISP tokens. So you know that C is cytosine? Okay, but what's that? Now you need to describe where the carbons and nitrogens and oxygens go to make up cytosine. But wait -- what's this "nitrogen" thing, anyway? And so on.

Don't worry -- the process terminates: once you've described the generative model that puts all of these concepts together in a way that yields a description of human life as its output.

Needless to say, you're using more than a few integers by that point!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

World's newest space agency: Reuters

I normally don't pay much attention to photo credits, but I had to do a double-take on this one. An article in the Telegraph has a satellite picture of the sun. Of course, to get that kind of picture, you have to get pretty close, exist in a high temperature environment, and have photography equipment capable of significantly attenuating the EM radiation thrown off from the sun

And who do they credit for the photo? NASA, right? No, we get:

Professor Henrik Svensmark argued that the recent warming period was caused by solar activity. Photo: REUTERS

Um, yeah dude. I think Reuters got that photo from someone else. With the budget cuts the media have had to make in the past few years, they can only afford near-earth satellites. Deeper-space probes are just out of the question.

ANYWAY, since I haven't posted on Climategate, or for that matter, anything in a while, here are my thoughts: It's absolutely disgraceful, the way the scientists in question have acted. Disclosure of your data does not mean that skeptics get to go on a multi-year scavenger hunt to find your raw data and then play guessing games about which sources you threw out and why.

The very fact that you have to make a post like this one in order to summon forth all the data is proof that you weren't being transparent enough.

There's also clear evidence that the scientists didn't seem to understand that you can't contort one data source to look like another and then call it two independent sources of data. Eric S. Raymond has done a tremendous job at exposing the tricks in the code, which explains exactly why the insular climate science doesn't want critics poring over their work

Oh, and just a hint: when you only allow people you approve of to review your work, that's not science.

PS: Recall that my outrage at many libertarians has been to their reactions *conditional* on AGW being real, and that outrage remains.