How to visit Aliens

Here’s a short guide to visiting extraterrestrial life:

– Figure out how not to die: Shouldn’t be too hard, our civilization is simply too ignorant – we barely started learning a thing or two about biology. We didn’t even know how many protein coding genes we have: The Human Genome Project thought they were a 100,000 genes only a few years ago! The modern computer must have seemed utterly unattainable a technology barely a few hundred years ago.

– Prevent / Survive internal shocks: Nuclear war, extreme environmental degradation, shocks to the global climate & ecosystem. As long as crops survive our civilization should be fine. Massive starvation tends to disrupt things. You can’t eat computers, and crops are surprisingly difficult to replace by any other kind of technology but farming.

– Create defenses against external shocks: Supernova explosions, comets and large asteroids. Supernova are probably harder to protect against. Best option might be to use the world itself as a shield, and hope that a small group will survive.

– Figure out near-light speed travel: We don’t actually need to go at light-speed, near-light should be possible. Regenerative shielding to protect against the repetitive tear & wear of interstellar travel might be the hardest part. Make sure to bring entertainment. Nuclear energy should be sufficient for our extra-energy efficient space ship.

– Visit planetary systems at red-dwarf habitable zones: They simply stick around for longer as stars due to the slow fusion rate. The downside is less energy production and smaller habitable belts. Thus one might want to make exceptions for particularly promising Sun-like systems as well.

… or, they might just find us first.


How do we know that our world is real?

We don’t,  but this world seems to be my most persistent illusion ~ hence it is worth exploring.

Nonetheless, it does not merit to be taken too seriously. One counterargument many people offer is that consequences are more “severe” in the real world. It wouldn’t be hard to engineer a video game with severe consequences — it is trivial to program a defibrillator to function when a person “dies” in an action video game. Just accept the “force feedback” wheels as a more complex proof-of-concept.

Life must seem very severe to an average citizen of North Korea,  but that is every bit as engineered as the easier life afforded by the “developed” world, which is essentially arbitraging inadequately priced natural resources for the past two centuries.  Imagine you’re in an island, and you’re cutting down all the trees for energy, and using the clean pond of fresh water also as a toilet & dumping ground. The world is essentially such a closed system, and if we priced these goods adequately our GDP might just go POOF!

But let’s go back to the answer: This world seems to be my most persistent illusion ~ hence it is worth exploring..

Distraction 1: Ergo, It is worth doing science – even if science is not objectively objective, whatever that means, I’ll take airplanes, imatinib, electricity, and wifi as sufficient proof of worth.  If philosophers are merely making sociological observations regarding the practice of science, well, that’s a sad state of affairs (I’d really like to come back to this topic with a book level answer, although I have my suspicion that it is no more worthy of debate than convincing literal minded folk that water cannot really turn into wine and so on. The rigor might be wasted.)

Distraction 2: There is an also argument to be made within the above answer, for playing video games guilt free.

Reality Distortion

Economics Tidbit: Exports

Guess which one of these countries exports the most:

Russia, Spain, Italy, South Korea, Netherlands, Canada, India, Brazil, Australia, Switzerland.

The answer is the Netherlands, and it’s surpassed only by China, Japan, Germany, and the U.S. (It is expected to surpass France this year or in the near future according to the economist.)

Also, despite having one of the highest population densities, the Dutch are also the third largest exporters of agricultural items in the World after the U.S. and France. Both of these facts were a surprise for me although I knew that the Dutch exported a lot, including flowers.

Agglomeration Effects & Implications in Science Funding

Many historians, economists, and casual observers have noticed that industries tend to cluster. There is a cluster of coppersmiths in Baščaršija, Sarajevo,  car makers in Detroit, and filmmakers in Hollywood. Perhaps the best known recent sectoral cluster Silicon Valley.

The mathematical theory of agglomeration has been developed over the second half of the century by many economists, and prominently, by Paul Krugman. More recently, Edward Glaeser has shown that certain cities are also illustrate this effect, expounding on the formation & importance of social capital in urban areas.

Paul Collier, in his book The Bottom Billion makes use of insights gained from this work to partially explain, why it takes so long, despite much lower wages, for industries to relocate from high-wage countries to low-wage ones ~ and how once the shift begins, it continues in an accelerating fashion until the transfer is complete & a new equilibrium reached. We will leave it for a future post to examine this argument in detail as well as investigate the parallels between this and the concept in the theory of evolution called punctuated equilibrium.

When governments distribute money, they often tend to take misguided attempts at redistribution of industry through funding & grants. The Soviet Union serves as a reference point of just how bad this can get. The World Bank, in its World Development Report for 2009 Reshaping Economic Geography provides a nuanced analysis of the harms of redistributive policies, and how to do it right (Instead of jump-starting particular industries at backwards province X,  fund education & health, and improve transport links).

One great harm of misguided redistribution is the creation of inefficiencies. The reason a private investor usually shuns province  X and prefers to invest in province Y is that the later investment promises a greater rate of return. A government induced misallocation of capital to province X, therefore, results in a suboptimal investment and thus suboptimal growth.

Now let’s switch our attention to science and science funding. There is also an agglomeration effect in the sciences – not only across them, but also across  scientific “verticals”  – the subfields of basic research.  To give an example,  Boston is not only a big hub for biotech companies and hospitals, but also genomics research. The social capital effects Ed Glaeser observes are very much at work here.

Most science funding, unlike the case for private start-up companies, comes from the government. Thus the NIH & other government forces have to decide what is capital efficient, and face a variety of funding choices. One particular mechanism of funding is the creation of “Centers of Excellence” with the aim of concentrating resources in a specialty and well, create “excellence” (i.e. publications & discoveries).

Thus one can imagine that many universities would like to host these centers of excellence within them. The government often tries to “spread the love” and try to fund geographically disparate locations, partly to satisfy political pressure groups. Although at first sight it might seem that the “fair thing to do” is to require each application to be solely judged on individual merit and compared as if in a void with other applications.

On the other hand, consideration of agglomeration effects will soon make it painfully clear that, a slightly less competent application coming from a school within a great cluster in the area will provide a much greater rate of return than a blue-sky proposal from a slightly better proposal with no support network.

An economist PhD student should study the misallocation of science funding due to a lack of rigorous consideration agglomeration in government policy. This represents a market failure, might explain why the U.S. science industry has one of the highest ratios of $/citation, and holds great promise of accelerating the rate of scientific return.

Indeed, better policy in this area might one day save your life.

On ‘Self Awareness’

It is often said that what makes humans different from many other animals (but, the controversy regarding Hauser notwithstanding, not all animals) is “self-awareness”.

Philosophers have debated what exactly this nebulous concept of ‘self-awareness’ is to a great degree, and I don’t intend to get into a detailed dissection and impress upon you an exact definition.  I’d rather unleash upon you my pet ideas about how humans came to possess it. I don’t mean this to be in any way scientific. It is merely a rather boring story.

Even cellular life has ‘pre-built’ mechanisms (i.e. not learned within the lifetime of an individual cell) to receive information from its outside world and act upon it. Dictystelium moves towards folic acid,  many eukaryotes can sense nutrient concentrations and change their metabolisms accordingly, and so on.  Here is a time-lapsed video (each frame is ten seconds apart in ‘real life’) I shot while an undergraduate that shows the movement:

So from very early times in the history of life on Earth, not only did organisms receive data about the world, but they have attempted to make sense of it and change their behavior accordingly.

This happens in a rather sophisticated fashion in mammals ~ we benefit from many different input mechanisms of our surroundings, and our previous exposures to stimuli leave traces (which we call memory).   Most mammals are also equipped with an innate theory of physics, we have certain expectations of things to withstand our weight, for things to fall a certain way, for water to flow, and so on. This is very useful as one can imagine ~  this will prevent unnecessary drowning,  deadly falls from trees, difficult jumps that might result in injury. On the upper side, to have a certain idea of where the movement is heading helps hunting moving things a great deal.

When it comes to humans, psychologists have a great amount of fun watching toddlers explore the world & develop their theories of how their physical surroundings work.

Just as mammals developed expectations of inanimate (as in, not alive) objects,  eventually we developed expectations of animate objects as well. The bear expects the fish to jump, many animals can distinguish between individuals in their family, and have some sense of whether they’re in a violent disposition or friendly disposition. Animals communicate to each other the location of predators and prey and so on. Predators can tell the wounded from the healthy.

Perhaps most importantly, all mammals have children,  and many take care of them, and take an interest in their survival. This is perhaps the single most beneficial aspect of being able to have an innate theory of living things ~ A lion mother, by instinct, has a model of how the cub will behave ~ she expects the cub to get hungry, can tell when they’re sick or thirsty, aims to teach hunting, and so on.

Humans, like many other social mammals, developed innate theories (i.e. models of behavior) of other humans, just as we have innate theories of rivers, rocks, and mountains. This helps keeping track of others in our tribes, and be attentive to their needs.

Self-awareness is simply our model of ourselves. This model is no different than our model of anyone else, except we strongly identify with it, and think of it as “ourselves” ~  in other words,  when you say “I”,  in fact you’re thinking about this model.  Part of this strong identification is realizing the “special” nature of this model – we can associate raw stimuli and emotions with this model to build subjective histories, whereas our stories about others do not benefit from direct feeling, even though they might show their emotions to us.

This creates a very interesting feedback loop. This argument should not be confused with its converse –  i.e. I’m not saying that your existence is an illusion.  One would still exist without having a model of their being ~ just like your cat would continue to exist without any representation of herself in her head.

Rather, I’m positing that,  the minute that the folic-acid sensing cell has a model of itself  just like it has of the folic acid, it becomes self-aware.

Yeast “reasons” with glucose levels. It has a certain expectation of immediate future depending on current status, and changes metabolism accordingly. We, on the other hand, one would hope, would reason with ourselves.

In a future post I’ll explain why I like this pet idea:  If self-awareness is merely an innate model of ones own self as opposed to Joe, then through self-examination, observation, and rational thought, one can improve this model – i.e. one can reach to a better understanding of self!  This I find to be a very optimistic place to be, not to mention it vindicates Socrates’s dictum (and a great many other philosophers..) of knowing yourself.