Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

I'm currently reading the above-named book, by James Scott, and can already strongly recommend it for those who like that sort of thing.  The online reviews (including, I suppose, this one) probably tell you as much about their authors as this book: you'll find everything from "a call to respect and incorporate disenfranchised groups in reform plans" to "Hayek rediscovered from a anarchist/Marxist perspective".  For me it is most reminiscant of Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, which I mean as high praise.  Once you get through the foreword (20 pages, followed by a couple hundred pages of case studies, then a closing argument) you start seeing the patterns he describes everywhere.

Short form (which will not do it justice): he describes a class of political movements he names "High Modernist", which aim to optimize society along scientific principles.  He then goes through the common failure modes of such movements.  They operate from a simplified model of the world as a consequence of central planning ('Seeing like a State'); not only does this cause bad decisions, but it often forces society, environmental, and economic functions into a dangerously simplified structure just to make it intelligible to the state.  Further, the scientific justification for state action is inherently anti-democratic, and the need to restructure implies a powerful state.  Unless civil institutions are exceptionally strong, it's very likely that this combination will result in capture of the scientific and state establishment by self-seeking, blame-avoiding, or merely power-hungry interest groups, which can cascade in a feedback loop with the problems due to bad information and difficulties with the original model...

Anyhow, just reading this now I'm seeing it everywhere (which will, I expect, fade a bit in time).  Not just, say, the Great Leap Forward, or your least favorite social program, but the eugenics movement of the early 20th century.  Things like "free-market Globalization"(which, in principle, I favor) and the EU have more than a whiff of these patterns, too; it's not purely a critique of leftist economic projects.

math puzzle

Right, we've wasted far too much time on this at work, so I'll inflict it on the rest of you:

Phil walks into a meeting holding a bag of red and blue balls.  He reaches in and randomly pulls out 4 blue balls.  "That's interesting," he says, "The odds of getting four blue balls was exactly 1/2."

How many balls of each color are in the bag?

Finding an answer is not too difficult; proving it unique has so far eluded us...

Starcraft II

I've now had the (long-awaited) Starcraft II game long enough to finish campaign mode and play a couple of PvP games; my general impression is quite good, and anybody reading this who plays should look me up. :)

Some disorganized observations:

I like the persistent upgrades in the campaign - it seems like that adds considerable replay value, and it reduces the pure episodic nature of the campaign.  There's also a nice mix of objectives - some missions are straight-out fights, some are purely offensive or defensive, and others had more complicated targets (a series of moving trains?).

I think the unit balance is, if anything, better - it's complicated in that, during the campaign mode, you have access to all the new units, plus all the units from SC1.  In PvP mode, it's somewhat reduced from that, and if anything the unit specialization from SC1 is even stronger - it seems hard playing as Terran to avoid building all three major production structures (Barracks, Factory, Starport) without leaving a hole in your force mix.  It feels like all three races are stronger - which is nonsensical, of course, but is nonetheless a plot-appropriate and enjoyable feeling for a player used to SC1.
The auto-match for PvP works pretty well so far.  The only problem is that in the newbie league I decided not to opt out of yet, the maps are designed to prevent rushes.  The predictable result is that half the players are executing highly-optimized air rush builds, and doing so badly, while neglecting all land defenses.  This would not appear to be encouraging good habits...

Scurvy, Science, and a boatload of FAIL

 If you haven't read Maciej Ceglowski's brilliant blog post from a couple months back  on the history of scurvy, you should go do it right now.

He got curious when reading about how Scurvy was a problem on so many of the Artic/Anartic expiditions at he beginning of the 20th century.  Wait, scurvy?  Yes, scurvy.

Now, I had been taught in school that scurvy had been conquered in 1747, when the Scottish physician James Lind proved in one of the first controlled medical experiments that citrus fruits were an effective cure for the disease. From that point on, we were told, the Royal Navy had required a daily dose of lime juice to be mixed in with sailors’ grog, and scurvy ceased to be a problem on long ocean voyages.But here was a Royal Navy surgeon in 1911 apparently ignorant of what caused the disease, or how to cure it. Somehow a highly-trained group of scientists at the start of the 20th century knew less about scurvy than the average sea captain in Napoleonic times. [Robert Falcon] Scott left a [South Pole] base abundantly stocked with fresh meat, fruits, apples, and lime juice, and headed out on the ice for five months with no protection against scurvy, all the while confident he was not at risk. What happened?… In the second half of the nineteenth century, the cure for scurvy was lost.


the MacLeod Hierarchy

Ladies and Gentlemen, I think the Nobel Economics committee can take the next year off. This analysis of organizational dynamics is the most fascinating, and cynical, thing I've read in quite a while:

Sociopaths, in their own best interests, knowingly promote over-performing losers into middle-management, groom under-performing losers into sociopaths, and leave the average bare-minimum-effort losers to fend for themselves.


The career of the loser is the easiest to understand. Having made a bad bargain, and not marked for either clueless or sociopath trajectories, he or she must make the best of a bad situation. The most rational thing to do is slack off and do the minimum necessary. Doing more would be a clueless thing to do. Doing less would take the high-energy machinations of the sociopath, since it sets up self-imposed “up or out” time pressure. So the coasting-loser — really not a loser at all if you think about it — pays his dues, does not ask for much, and finds meaning in his life elsewhere.


A loser who can be suckered into bad bargains is set to become one of the clueless. That’s why they are promoted: they are worth even more as clueless pawns in the middle than as direct producers at the bottom, where the average, rationally-disengaged loser will do. At the bottom, the overperformers can merely add a predictable amount of value. In the middle they can be used by the sociopaths to escape the consequences of high-risk machinations like re-orgs.


Dastardly as all this sounds, it is actually pretty efficient, given the inevitability of the MacLeod hierarchy and life cycle. The sociopaths know that the only way to make an organization capable of survival is to buffer the intense chemistry between the producer-losers and the leader-sociopaths with enough clueless padding in the middle to mitigate the risks of business. Without it, the company would explode like a nuclear bomb, rather than generate power steadily like a reactor. On the other hand, the business wouldn’t survive very long without enough people actually thinking in cold, calculating ways. The average-performing , mostly-disengaged losers can create diminishing-margins profitability, but not sustainable performance or growth. You need a steady supply of sociopaths for that, and you cannot waste time moving them slowly up the ranks, especially since the standard promotion/development path is primarily designed to maneuver the clueless into position wherever they are needed. The sociopaths must be freed up as much as possible to actually run the business, with or without official titles.

SDI: Money well spent

From the WSJ:

[ ...] Nathan Myhrvold, a former Microsoft Corp. executive who now runs Intellectual Ventures LLC., a company that collects patents and funds inventions. His old boss, Mr. Gates, had asked him to explore new ways of combating malaria. At a brainstorming session in 2007, Dr. Wood, the Star Wars architect, suggested using lasers on mosquitoes. [...] A mosquito hovers into view. Suddenly, it bursts into flame. A thin plume of smoke rises as the mosquito falls. At the bottom of the screen, the carcass smolders.

Treptoplax fully supports development of the proposed technology, on the grounds that it is awesome. From updates elsewhere, I see the idea is that a production model would merely blind the mosquitoes, and thus could make do with a laser in the same class as a DVD player: that would seem to make mass-production of this at least conceivably feasible. I, for one, would however be willing to pay a significant premium for a version that did, in fact, actually cause mosquitoes to burst into flame.

What I really want to know, though, is whether they invite Dr. Wood to all their brainstorming sessions.

"What can we do to limit high-school truancy?"
"Guard school exits with automated lasers!"
"Clean water supplies for the 3rd world?"
"Sterilize the water with lasers!"
"Insider trading?"


paging Hugo Drax

I am pleased to note that the must-have accessory for the eccentric dot-com zillionare mogul is no longer the 100-foot yacht, but a private space program!

Currently in the lead would be SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, who made his gazillions starting PayPal and selling it to Ebay.  They are building a family of boring but cheap traditionalish boosters, and have already reached orbit with their smallest model.  (Musk's other current projects are the Tesla Motors electric car company and Solar City home solar array company; he would appear to have escaped from a Ayn Rand novel.)

Cloaked in lane two, we have Jeff Bezos' (of Blue Origin.  We know that they tested a large VTVL craft a year or two ago, and that they have an engineering facility in Seattle and a manufacturing/launch test site in Texas.  Also, they have a coat of arms, with turtles.  Outside that... (shrug).

And last we have the darkhorse crowd favorite, John Carmack's Armadillo Aerospace.  Their budget is at least an order of magnitude lower than the others (which is to say, in the low 7 figures), and most of their work to-date has been volunteer labor while John continues on his day job as lead coder for ID sortware (is that Doom 2 or Quake 4 now, I forget?).  His frequent blogging is tremendously entertaining: Feburary's 'Lessons learned' included "Use the right bolts." and "Set up our big 1600 gallon fire tank with two fire hoses so we can cover both sides of a fire simultaneously."   It's easy to dismiss them because of their small scale, but they've made something of a virtue of it, ruthlessly maintaining simplicity while gradually adding capabilities and reliability - they now have single-stage rockets that can take off, hover for 2 minutes and land quite precisely.  They even have a mad but not obviously infeasible plan to scale up by building a massive array of cheap modular rockets (RAIR?)...

it's never lupus

One of the great things about my job is how much, on a good day, it resembles an episode of House. But, you know, with less blood and screaming because we have computers for patients.

The amusing thing is how often the principles in TV show medicine apply. Dr. House can tell us a few things it's good to remember: Collapse )