2007-09-28

Burma: air-drop satellite internet devices

It says on the news that little information is coming out of Burma. Mobile phones cut off, internet cafes shut down etc. Regimes shut off the flow of information so that they can commit attrocities without anyone knowing. To get the information flowing again, why doesn't the UN fly over Burma dropping hundreds of thousands of Satellite internet access devices?

2007-09-13

South West Trains and buck passing

The chocolate / crisp vending machine at Bath Spa train station took my pound coin. I've got a Pavlovian reaction to being on the platform, I buy a Bounty bar. This time it took my pound coin and without thinking I lost another £1.10 trying to dislodge the first pound coin. The notice on the machine said not to complain to the station staff if the machine wasn't working, so I complained to the station staff. They said it wasn't anything to do with them (South West Trains). However, they were pretty good about it and put an 'out of order' note on the machine.

It seems to me that this is a microcosm of the buck passing you see on the railways as a whole. The rail companies should take full responsibility for everything that happens on the railways, from vending machines to accidents. To achieve this, the train operating companies should own Network Rail.

A Fire Upon the Deep

When Janos lent me Player of Games, he also lent me 'A Fire Upon The Deep' by Vernor Vinge. Janos is like Amazon Recommends! Vernor's book is good, very imaginative. One problem with the book is that it hasn't been properly proofread. Really, all books should be written as wikis and then these things could be corrected.

In the book, difference regions of the galaxy have different physical effects. These effects seem only to affect 'machines' and not evolved minds. To me this is an interesting idea, but doesn't stand up as how the world could actually work. The point is that a human brain is a machine, and is subject to the same physics as any other machine.

Grey goo

What's the difference between a nanobot and a virus? The answer from the Science Cafe talk at the Raven on Monday is that a virus is biological and a nanobot artificial. So I take this to mean there's no intrinsic difference, it's just how they come into being. This has implications for the grey goo idea. The question is; why hasn't the grey goo already happened with viruses (evolved nanobots)?

2007-09-01

Imprimatur 011

Ooops, found a bug in Imprimatur 010. Released Imprimatur 011.

Leave it to the free market

Often people use the phrase 'leave it to the free market'. This applies whether or not they are in favour of free markets. For example:
  • We're in a mess with global warming, and that's what happens when you leave it to the free market.
  • Look at all the problems with the NHS, it should be left to the free market.

For me, this indicates a misunderstanding of the idea of free markets. A free market is a way to maximize society's wealth, given the following constraints:

  • The laws of physics.
  • Laws of the land, where society's morals are translated into rules that everyone must follow or be punished.

Examples of laws of the land are:

  • Don't murder or physically hurt people.
  • Don't pour mercury into rivers.
  • Don't steal other people's property.
  • Don't sell toys painted with lead paint.
  • Do give 30% of your income above £10,000 to the government.
  • Do give £10 to the government for every kg of CO2 from fossil fuel sources that you emit.
  • Everyone has freedom of speech.

A free markets takes these constraints and gives a system that optimizes society's wealth. Implementing a free market involves extra laws. For example:

  • Any company or individual is free to start up and offer any service anywhere to anyone.
  • No cartels for fixing the price of services or labour. In other words, companies or individuals can't get together to fix a price for their services. They must compete on price.
  • No monopolies. A company can't buy up all the other companies providing the same service.
  • In the employer-employee relationship, if one party wishes to end the relationship, they can.

The point that I want to make in this post is that the free market solution that you end up with depends on the laws of the land. There is no single free market solution. For example, if it's against the law to pour mercury into rivers, then your free market solution won't result in rivers polluted with mercury. If it omits the mercury law, then you probably will get mercury pollution.

Going back to the quotes at the begining:

  • We're in a mess with global warming, and that's what happens when you leave it to the free market.

I'd answer that free markets are just a way of solving an optimization problem. If you want the solution to involve reduced CO2 emission, you have to pass a law that makes it more costly to emit CO2.

  • Look at all the problems with the NHS, it should be left to the free market.

This implies that there's a single free market solution to health care. This is wrong. You have to work out a complex system of regulation. Each system of regulation would result in a different outcome. The free market is just a way of maximizing society's wealth given the laws of the land.