Saturday, July 17, 2004

Spammed by Maxwell’s Demon

What we think of as the norm is, after all, just what we’re used to. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, if some oddball thing we happen on turns out on closer examination to be exemplary. Since our existence is only possible because we are located in the bull’s eye of a nested set of improbabilities, inductions on everyday experience are risky. The Firesign Theater may be overstating matters to claim that everything you know is wrong, but everything is certainly likely to be anomalous. Many of the regularities we mistake for laws of nature are just ground rules and only apply in this one ballpark and then only for the duration of a game that may be called at any time for bad weather. I’ll mention some highfalutin instances in a moment, but the phenomenon is already captured by the puzzled look of a soon-to-be run over pedestrian who doesn’t understand how a taxi could be bearing down on him since the light is red. And then there’s the case of the extremely virginal girl I knew in high school who, when informed that her best friend was pregnant, cheerfully informed everybody that there must be some sort of error since her friend wasn’t married. Unlike Janet, Leibniz wasn’t, so far as I know, a Christian Scientist; but his belief that all curves have simple formulas has some of her endearing na├»vite. It could not last, not for Janet, probably, and certainly not for the mathematicians, who having laboriously defined a few pathological functions in the 19th Century had to admit by the 20th that almost all functions are pathological and that the exceptions are the rule.

What I’m talking about only seems to be a rare pattern. Some more examples: in ordinary life, we assume that knowing more about what’s going on in some competitive situation will improve our chance of prevailing. That expectation may or not be valid in these parts and for the nonce, but it certainly can’t be generalized. Years ago, the game theory folks devised games in which having more accurate information puts a player at a disadvantage. Subsequently, they realized that these monsters were not curiosities at all. Having more information turns out to be disadvantageous in most possible games. Again, Kurt Godel proved the existence of propositions whose truth could not be decided by deductions from the axioms of the system in question. Naturally, it turns out that essentially all possible true propositions are in this set.

Many apparently general procedures only work under very particular circumstances. One example is the simplex method of solving linear programming problems, the single most commonly used operation’s research technique. The simplex method is the means by which an enormous number of governmental, business, and military decisions are made because it can often quickly find the best available solution to real-world problems. But the method, which works splendidly in practice, shouldn’t be that efficient. Tested on randomly generated inputs, it takes a long time to find the answer. The utility of the method depends on something about our world and how we deal with it. Which really shouldn’t be too surprising. We know that the performance of other optimizing techniques also depends on the circumstances. It has been clear for a long time that natural selection only works in a small subset of possible environments; and, more generally, the efficiency of any learning algorithm depends on what there is to be learned. We can’t know in advance what method to use. It’s not just that it’s better to be lucky than good. You’ve got to be lucky to be good.

Meanwhile. All of these thoughts were occasioned as I set about the task of deleting a day’s worth of emails for advanced degrees, penile enlargements, photos of hot middle aged women, real estate deals, and work-at-home schemes from my computer. I suddenly realized that the spammers aspired to be Maxwell’s demons, agents that make a profit without doing any work. As you’ll recall, a Maxwell demon is a character in a thought experiment. The demon, acting as a gatekeeper between two gas-filled chambers, lets fast molecules go from left to right while only letting slow molecules go from right to left until one chamber is much hotter than the other. In this fashion, in apparent disregard of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, a temperature difference is created that can be used to drive a piston. The demon gets something for nothing, exactly what the Viagra salesmen are trying to get.

Now a Maxwell’s Demon is not really possible if only because it costs something to find out about the velocity and location of the particles and compute when to open or close the gate. But one of the reasons it costs to do the computation is rather subtle. Holding the intermediate results of your calculations in your head isn’t so expensive, but you not only have to remember things. You have to forget them, and that requires extra energy. When I encountered this argument years ago in an article in Scientific American, I never expected that it would turn out to have a real world application, but it does. It explains how the computer spammers succeed. They can impersonate Maxwell’s Demons by finessing the energetic costs of forgetfulness. They aren’t stuck with the vast amounts of garbage information they generate in the course of their operations, but only because they can get us to take out the trash for them.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Malpractice, Good for Everybody

Vilifying John Edwards as a trial lawyer hasn’t worked very well for the Republicans, who seem to have misjudged to what degree the public shares their visceral hatred for personal injury attorneys—in their innocence, many Republicans simply do not realize how much their version of common sense simply reflects their class interests. It isn’t that very many thoughtful people think that expensive lawsuits and occasional lottery-scale payouts are a rational way to curb the greed and arrogance of corporations. It’s just that in our dysfunctional system, random legal remedies are getting to be the only check on the power of money. If regulators won’t regulate, if legislators won’t legislate, if journalists won’t denounce, what else? In a nation of people on the take, the worst excesses can only be moderated by other people on the take. Why the enormous amounts of money some lawyers make from injury cases upsets the Republicans beats me. Aren’t they the party in favor of enormous rewards for dubious services? In red-state, red meat America, the Land of Betting on the Come, high rolling is as honorable as holy rolling. Junk politics, junk bonds, junk religion aren’t that much different, or less profitable, than junk lawsuits. If it pays, it’s patriotic. So why the hostility to shysters by folks who love CEOs?

By the way, if you really wanted to cut down on frivolous injury lawsuits, the obvious first step to take would be ensure that everybody had a guaranteed access to decent health care since a huge proportion of suits begin not out of the prospect of a big payday but out of fear of being ruined by medical expenses—at the outset, all the scalded lady wanted was enough money to pay her hospital bill. An efficient, universal health care system is out of the question, however, since it would lower the profits of the medical industry and put untold thousands of insurance company bureaucrats out of work. Anyhow, and this is the obvious consideration that never seems to be considered, the malpractice suits have their good side for the health industry. Because of the endlessly hyped threat of lawsuits, the doctors and hospitals are obliged to practice defensive medicine and order a host of expensive tests and procedures, most of which are not performed pro bono. I’m not aware if anybody has done the arithmetic, but do we know that the increased cost of insurance is as great as the increased profits from all those extra X-rays and blood workups? Many doctors find it personally distasteful to waste their patient’s money. My point is that the system provides them both an incentive to overspend and a handy and elastic excuse. Meanwhile, the purported malpractice crisis is also useful to right-wing politicians, who can blame escalating medical costs on lawsuits and thus deflect attention from the grotesque structural inefficiency of the system.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Silver Linings

When I read that the balance of trade improved slightly last month, I wasn’t surprised since the considerable recent decline in the value of the dollar has made imports more expensive while lowering the real price of export goods. That’s good or at least necessary, but only in the sense in which it is necessary to go to the dentist after years of sucking on hard candy. Like working off a bout of inflation or increasing the savings rate, redressing a gross imbalance of trade inevitably involves pain. Just who does most of the suffering is another question. Which is probably why right-wingers view the trade balance with equanimity. They are aware that the balance of trade will eventually be redressed, but that’s OK because under the current political economy of the United States, the cost of paying down the deficit can be shifted to the proles. No need to lower your profit rate to reflect the lower prices you get for your goods internationally when the difference can be more than made up by lowering the standard of living of your workers who will be buying more expensive consumer goods on lower wages. A utopian solution, always assuming, of course, you don’t end up with your head on a spear.

The prosperity of the United States is artificial to a considerable degree. Unless we really do figure out how to make empire pay on a grand scale, our standard of living must eventually come more into line with the rest of the world. Such an outcome is not necessarily tragic, both because the continual improvement of technology means that a relative decline doesn’t have to imply an absolute decline and because wealth simply isn’t the only measure of the well being of a nation. If the burden of a decline were equitably borne, paying down the trade imbalance wouldn’t have to unpleasant political consequences. Indeed, shared sacrifices can promote genuine unity in a country, something with which we’re completely unfamiliar after long decades of commercialized patriotism. It might also be a relief to have some goal in this life beyond the endless accumulation of things. I don’t expect things to work out in this happy fashion, however. As the American economy continues to come under competitive pressure, the natural reaction of the well off will be to compensate for declining national income by increasing their share of what’s left.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Enter the Dragon (Here and on Line 32)

Am I alone in thinking that the great problem of the left is not political but ideological? While Ehrenreich or Nader or Chomsky can score rhetorical points against the powers that be and turn out the usual crew of protesters, what are they offering as a coherent alternative to business as usual? What the heck is democratic socialism—or whatever—in the 21st Century? Acting as if a mass outbreak of virtue and compassion will solve our problems just doesn’t cut it.

I'm not writing this to carp. I keep looking around for a confident voice on the left that has something to offer but theoretical nuance or petit bourgeois moralizing. I'm not sure I'd buy into a fresh radical point of view, but I'd sure like to hear one. Capitalism itself seems to work much better when it is challenged and checked by a credible counterforce with serious ideas. Which probably requires the emergence of a group or class of people with a vital interest in changing things and some idea of what they want.

Incidentally, I don't have a clue what the title of this bit means either.