Archive for December, 2007

Götterdämmerung Capitalism

When capitalism is working well, it unleases the creativity of everybody in society. Because capitalism specifically rewards people who do what other people want, and because it gives everybody the freedom to try and fail, the effect is that society as a whole gets steadily better at giving people what they want.

Of course, that was a simplification. Capitalism provides rewards in the form of money. Doing what other people want is one good way to get money, and that is the strength of capitalism. The weakness of capitalism is that there are other ways to get money, and the freedom required to make capitalism work also permits those other approaches to occur.

These problems arise when a small number of people make money by doing things that a majority of people do not want to happen. One myth of the market economy is that these things can not happen, or at best can only happen on a very temporary basis. But of course that is false. There are two obvious continuing failures of this sort.

The first occurs when costs are not properly accounted for in the market. The most obvious effect here is environmental: for example, Maxxam Lumber, in which the market capitalization of the owner of an old forest became less than the market value of the lumber. Thus, the forest was cut down. If the value of the forest had been counted as more than the value of the lumber in the market, this would not have happened. Another example is computer security: the costs of insecure software are borne by the customer, not by the maker of the software. Since the customer does not have the expert knowledge required to identify secure software, and since writing and testing secure software is more expensive, the effect is that software is insecure. If the security costs fell on the software maker rather than the software customer, software would be secure.

Another obvious failure mode of capitalism is insider trading. By exploiting private information and manipulating public information, a small minority can make enormous profits at the expense of a large majority. For example: CEO salaries. For another example: capture of regulatory agencies by the industries they regulate, which shows itself most obviously in the cycling of people between low paying government jobs and high paying lobbying jobs.

There are of course ways to correct for these issues. And no known social system is perfect. But with capitalism, the same characteristics that make it good for society when it is working well make it hard to control when it is not working well. Just as people have a strong incentive to do what people want, they have a strong incentive to beat the system when possible. Their interest in beating the system is going to tend to make them move faster and think harder than the people trying to stop them.

Götterdämmerung capitalism is what we get when the accelerating efforts to beat the system get ahead of the regulatory efforts to fix the system. We get a system which moves so fast that it destroys itself. The interesting question for today is how fast we are headed in that direction, and which side is going to win.


C++ Threads

I went to a talk by Hans Boehm about threads in C++. He was mostly discussing the plans for the future C++0x standard. He said it was important to get threads right, even though they are hard to use correctly, because they would most likely be the base for any other multi-processing paradigm. That seems reasonable from a language design perspective.

C++0x will include a memory model designed to support threading. There are two main restrictions on a compiler.

The first is that speculative stores are forbidden: the compiler may not generate a store to a memory location which could be accessed in another thread unless the program unconditionally stores to that location. This permits a program to execute code which only conditionally stores to a global variable if a lock is held. Permitting a speculative store would mean that the compiler could change the variable without holding a lock. The variable would only be changed to the value it apparently already has, of course, but in a multi-threaded program the variable might have changed after the value was loaded.

The second restriction is that accesses to fields of structs which are not bitfields may not be grouped together. The intent is to permit separate locks to control different fields of a struct. The compiler is still permitted to group bitfields; otherwise it would be impossible on most processors to change a bitfield value at all. This does mean that on a processor which does not support byte stores, such as the early Alphas, or the MorphoRISC1, byte fields in a struct must be padded to the minimum store size.

The memory model will forbid moving instructions from before a critical section into the critical section. However, instructions may be moved from after the critical section into the critical section. Naturally, instructions may never move out of the critical section.

He briefly discussed the general concept of a data race. If two threads access the same variable without a lock, then in all possible execution paths there must be a single assignment which sets the value to be read. Since threads can execute in arbitrary orders, that single assignment must precede a lock acquired by both threads, or must be done before the threads start, or something like that. If there are two possible assignments before the access to the variable, the program is undefined.

C++0x will provide atomic types which are essentially always accessed via locks.

These ideas help formalize the threading model, to make clear what is permitted and what is not. But they don’t help programmers write correct code. They mainly help compiler developers coherently explain what code is permitted and what is not.


Kim Stanley Robinson

I saw Kim Stanley Robinson speak today. He gave a good talk on climate change, which was of course the subject of this most recent trilogy of SF novels. He said a few things which I thought were interesting.

He gave an interesting definition of ideology which unfortunately I don’t remember precisely. He said, quoting somebody else, that ideology is our intellectual relationship with reality. That is, our ideology is what we use to perceive the underlying reality. He intended this as a way to avoid getting into discussions about “your ideology or my correct view.” Everybody has an ideology.

This is obviously true in the Kantian sense, and it is also true in the more familiar sense that we pay attention to the things we care about. In these terms, ideology is what we use to repress cognitive dissonance. Robinson compared ideology to spectacles: the best ideology, in his mind, is the one which distorts the least.

He also mentioned one of the key problems of capitalism, which is that external costs are not accounted for in the system. His example was carbon use, though of course there are many others. Environmental costs are generally made external, and thus nobody has to pay for despoiling the environment. He described this as borrowing from our grandchildren, who will have to pay back this debt. Of course the human race has always done this. But our modern capitalism has a voracious appetite for finding things which are underpriced and turning them into cash, so the effect of not including the full price for environmental goods is to accelerate their use.

Another economic problem he mentioned is that we tend to focus on having a highly productive economy rather than on giving people a high quality of life. Of course they are related, but they are not the same. He suggested that we dislike France in part because they emphasize quality of life more highly, such as the slightly shorter work week. Of course this may be changing under Sarkozy. Although he didn’t mention it directly, this is related to the globalism straightjacket that Thomas Friendman used to talk about. Friedman suggested that there was only one possible way to run an economy—as Thatcher famously said, “There is no alternative.” But of course that is false. Even to say it is to see that it is false. Yet many people seem to believe it.

The last point I’ll mention is that he described himself as, when it comes to climate change, an intellectual pessimist but a willful optimist. That is, he wills himself to believe that things can still work out. I can sympathize with that point of view. In particular it is most likely the only way to avoid fatalism.

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Old Fogeys

It’s proverbial in our society that you get more conservative as you get older. I mean more conservative in the traditional sense of wanting things to stay the same: this should not be confused with some platforms of the Republican party, which seeks radical changes in various areas (government reduction, government support for religious institutions, military adventurism).

Is this a characteristic of human nature, or is it specific to our society? I don’t know. It’s been around for a long time in European society—one can read texts about the folly of youth from hundreds of years ago. I don’t know whether the same idea is present in other societies—for example, is it present in societies with a tradition of venerated ancestors?

From my personal experience, people get more conservative because they get more responsibilities. When you have children to look after, it is no longer possible to drop everything to pursue your ideals. You have to act within a set of constraints—hopefully willingly adopted, but constraints nonetheless. You worry about what will happen in the future to your responsibilities. You have an idea what will happen if the future is like the past. And so you become more conservative—you seek to keep the future looking like the past.

Today, other than children, the most common responsibility is debt. Wide-spread personal debt is a relatively recent invention (remember The Death of a Salesman). When you are in debt, you must maintain a steady income, and you become less willing to risk that income. That makes you more conservative.

Of course there are many exceptions to this general rule. It is also proverbial that some men walk out on their families and their debts and never return. But they are a minority, and they are generally felt to have behaved badly.

I think this tendency of debt to cause conservatism partially explains the oddity that many people on both the left and right follow policies that are not to their economic advantage. I’m thinking of Thomas Frank, who, in his book What’s The Matter With Kansas?, argues that poor people should not support the Republicans because their policies will leave them worse off; however, he fails to note that many rich people support the Democrats (e.g., the cliche of limousine liberals) although their policies will similarly leave them worse off.. Poor people, in debt, prefer a more conservative approach, even though it leaves them in debt. Wealthy people, with no debt, are more willing to experiment with societal changes. Naturally this is not a hard and fast rule: many poor people are left-wing and many rich people are right-wing. This is just a minor influence, if it exists at all.

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Israel and Palestine and Annapolis

It’s nice to see the Bush administration doing another quick flyby of Israel and Palestine. Getting them to agree to end the conflict, and getting the rest of the Middle East to feel that the Palestinians were treated fairly, would make us far safer than even the best possible invasion of Iraq could ever have done. Unfortunately, it is fairly likely that this will be like the earlier Bush administrations flybys, and be forgotten in a few months.

In his book “Dark Hope,” David Shulman describes an unbelievable scene of an Israeli settler poisoning Palestinian sheep and goats. The goal was to force the Palestinians to move from their homes, continuing the long process of displacement and separation that has happened since the 1967 war. There will never be peace as long as Israel continues to permit the settlements to exist, and continues to support them by protecting their roads across Palestinian territory. That is obvious.

Similarly, it is obvious that there will never be peace as long as Palestinians carry bombs into Israel or launch missiles at Israel.

If only we could just get out and leave them alone to fight over their desert.

I really think that there will never be peace until the Palestinians are prepared to use determined nonviolent resistance. I don’t see how anything else can work. Even though everybody understands exactly what a final settlement will look like, none of the leaders can get there from here. A nonviolent resistance would force the Israelis to move forward. Violent resistance forces them to move away from any peaceful settlement. No resistance retains the status quo.

If that doesn’t happen, the general form of the future seems to be shaped by a simple fact: most Israelis can leave; most Palestinians can not. Therefore, conflict will continue, Palestinians will continue to attack, there will eventually be Israeli massacres of Palestinians (in all conflicts to date far more Palestinians have died through accidental shootings than Israelis have died through terrorist bombings), the Israeli moderates will leave, both sides will become more fanatical. Eventually somebody carries an atomic bomb into Tel Aviv, and Israeli forces kill or deport all the Palestinians. It’s very hard to be hopeful. We need Nelson Mandela, but nobody over there is even close. Or even trying to be.

I did think of one idea. The U.S. should go into the Palestinian territories and offer $1 million to anybody who can prove their ownership of land now inside Israel, in exchange for the deed and a videotape in which they abandon their claim. There would be plenty of forgeries, but that’s OK; it would only have to be done once, and it would be comparable to the billions of dollars that the U.S. gives to Israel very year. If this were done well, it could defuse one of the sticking points of any agreement: the issue of Palestinian’s right of return to their ancestral homes. Unfortunately, the chances of this happening are zero.

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