Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween! Dictator quotes quiz

AND NOW .. HOW ABOUT A LITTLE QUIZ? A little history lesson: If you don't know the answer make your best guess. Answer all the questions before looking at the answers. Who said it?

"We're going to take things away from you on behalf of the common good."

A. Karl Marx
B. Adolph Hitler
C. Joseph Stalin
D. None of the above

2) "It's time for a new beginning, for an end to government of the few, by the few, and for the few...and to replace it with shared responsibility for shared prosperity."

A. Lenin
B. Mussolini
C. Idi Amin
D. None of the Above

3) "(We)...can't just let business as usual go on, and that means something has to be taken away from some people."

A. Nikita Khrushev
B. Jose f Goebbels
C. Boris Yeltsin
D. None of the above

4) "We have to build a political consensus and that requires people to give up a little bit of their order to create this common ground."

A. Mao Tse Dung
B. Hugo Chavez
C. Kim Jong Il
D. None of the above

5) "I certainly think the free-market has failed."

A. Karl Marx
B. Lenin
C. Molotov
D. None of the above

6) "I think it's time to send a clear message to what has become the most profitable sector in (the) entire economy that they are being watched."

A. Pinochet
B. Milosevic
C. Saddam Hussein
D. None of the above


(1) D. None of the above. Statement was made by Hillary Clinton 6/29/2004
(2) D. None of the above. Statement was made by Hillary Clinton 5/29/2007
(3) D. None of the above. Statement was made by Hillary Clinton 6/4/2007
(4) D. None of the above. Statement was made by Hillary Clinton 6/4/2007
(5) D. None of the above. Statement was made by Hillary Clinton 6/4/2007
(6) D. None of the above. Statement was made by Hillary Clinton 9/2/2005

Be afraid. Be very, very afraid!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

My Annual Rant on Taxes

Every year around tax time I get very annoyed with how the tax code is structured, and every year I post the same rant. If the government is going to continue doing the same dumb things every year, I don't see why I shouldn't continue making the same criticism every year. By the way, this is not around April 15 because I got an extension until October 15, and I just took care of that dirty job last week.

It's not that I don't believe in taxes, I know we have a government which should do some things (way less than what they currently do, but that's a different rant), and that it needs to collect money from people in order to do the things it should do. What annoys me is the wasted time, money, and effort that happens every year because of the way money is collected.

First of all, tax deductions. If everybody just had to pay the same amount or the same percentage with no deductions for anybody on anything, we would all just pay and be done with it. But since tax deductions exist, in order to take advantage of them one needs to become a part time accountant, keeping track of every little expense and car trip. And what for? How does it benefit individuals, the government, or the economy in general to have everybody waste their time keeping track of miles and expenses? But given that the deductions exist we end up wasting our time trying to protect our money from being over taxed.

Second, the complexity. If we had to pay the same amount or the same percentage, the tax forms would be very simple. We wouldn't have to hire tax preparers or accountants just to figure out how much of the money we make we get to keep, and how much tribute congress demands in exchange for the privilege of staying out of the royal dungeons. Our taxes are so complex that there isn't one person in the world who knows all of the tax rules, regulations, and loopholes. It's easier to understand all of general relativity, quantum mechanics, and super string theory than it is to understand the tax code. And why do we need that? Nobody benefits from all of us trying to understand such a monstruosity.

Third, the waste. Because of the complexity of our monster tax system, we have a whole industry dedicated to preparing taxes. There are millions of people who all they do all year long is prepare taxes! What is the economic value added of that? When people make cars, grow plants, write software, make movies, paint portraits, discover laws of nature, etc. they create value, because they bring something new to the economy that wasn't there to begin with, and we all are richer because of that. But when millions of people spend their time deciphering a byzantine code that countless other millions of people spend their time writing, nothing is being produced. That is pure wasted effort! It is like having millions of people making holes on the street, and another set of millions of people covering those holes. If the tax system was simple, we would have no need for the majority of IRS agents, tax auditors, tax lawyers, and accountants. They could move on, and spend their time doing productive work instead of wasting their lives and their talents on something that creates nothing.

Finally, progressive taxes on income. Why should we be taxed on the creation of value? And why should those who create the most value be taxed the most? Whenever you tax something you create a disincentive for that particular something. In Denmark people have a steep car tax, so people tend to have less cars. If you tax productivity, then people will tend to be less productive. When the CEO of a fortune 500 company is deciding whether to spend the 50th hour of the week working vs. relaxing, his effective pay for that 50th hour will influence that decision. If he is heavily taxed he will probably decide to relax instead of work. That choice to relax one extra hour of every week might make the difference between company success and company failure, which would make the difference between economic growth in the region where that company operates and stagnation, and would have a direct impact in the lives of all the employees, customers, suppliers, and vendors to that company. A much better way to get tax revenue would be to tax the destruction of value. So don't tax us when we make the money, tax us when we spend it. That way our incentives to produce and make the economy richer continue at full force, and we just have to pay more for the things we consume. Another benefit of that approach is that we don't have to keep track of taxes, because those selling us things would do that for us.

So what can we do? There is a proposal out there that would have most of the features I want, the fair tax proposal. They want to eliminate income tax, capital gains tax, dividend tax, etc. and make all tax revenue come from a national sales tax. The only potential downside I see to this proposal is if the government decides to implement the national sales tax without getting rid of the income tax. If we can't get the fair tax, at least a flat tax would be much better than what we have now.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Going to the Singularity Summit this weekend

I will be in San Francisco this weekend at the Singularity Summit conference. It should be very interesting, a weekend of pondering Artificial Intelligence and the future of humanity. There are many interesting speakers, the keynotes are going to be Rodney Brooks and Peter Norvig. Brooks is the Director of the Artificial Intelligence lab at MIT, and CTO of iRobot. Norvig is the Director of Research at Google, and he has written a few good AI and LISP books. This will be a time to think about cool ideas, meet interesting people, and enjoy San Francisco's nightlife.

That's one of the things I love about working at a startup company, the work schedule is flexible, and the people working there tend to be entrepreneurial, intellectually curious, and spontaneous. My two coworkers and I were looking at the conference, we thought it looked interesting, so we decided on the spot to get the tickets and go. If I was working at a large company I would probably be going by myself as I usually do.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Gogol Bordello, a very cool band!

I was working out of a coffee house last week, and they started playing some very weird music that I really liked. They had some mixture of heavy punk with arabic sounding music, and a guy who was singing with a heavy foreign accent. Intrigued, I went and asked the lady at the counter who they were, their name is Gogol Bordello.

It turns out they are a band from New York, the lead singer is from Ukraine, most if not all of the members are immigrants, and their lyrics are around that theme. The music is categorized as a blend of Punk, Gypsy, and some Latin influence. Here is the youtube for a few of their songs that I liked:

"Immigrant Punk"

"Wanderlust King"

"Not a crime"

"Punk Rock Parranda"

The sound quality is poor since most of these videos are recorded live, and most likely uploaded without permission, but it gives you an idea of the type of music. If you like it, buy their CD!

If anybody reading this knows of other weird bands that mix different apparently disparate styles successfully like these guys, please let me know!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The intrinsic, the subjective, and the objective.

Where do ideas come from? What are concepts? What is the nature of moral principles? Do mathematical entities exist beyond the reality we can perceive with our senses? Where can we find the essence of an entity? Do essences exist, or are they only in our mind? These are some of the questions that philosophers have been asking since the beginning of recorded civilization. These are also some of the questions we ask when we are kids, but then we stop asking when we realize that these questions are hard and we find other things to keep us occupied.

Ayn Rand came up with an answer to this, and in reaching her answer she came up with a very useful categorization of all the possible answers to these questions. This categorization, which partitions the space of possible answers (i.e. separates it into a set of categories that are mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive), is the distinction between regarding concepts as intrinsic, subjective, or objective.

Intrincisism is the position that concepts are intrinsic, that they exist in reality independent of the mind of man. This is the position that Plato held, when he postulated that this world is only an imperfect reflection of another world, the world of the perfect forms. This is the position that religious people hold regarding moral values, they exist independent of man in the mind of God, and they are revealed to man through intuition. This is also the position that some mathematicians like Roger Penrose hold regarding mathematical concepts, that these concepts exist independent of man, and when we learn a new mathematical truth all we are doing is discovering one of these preexisting concepts.

Subjectivism is the position that concepts are subjective, only in man's mind, and that they are arbitrary conventions that we created in order to communicate with other people but with no reference to reality. This is the position of some modern philosophers, like Nietzche who rejected moral principles, or the logical positivists who reject the existence of anything that cannot be measured. Some modern philosophical movements such as Marxism, Nazism, multiculturalism, and feminism, believe that the conceptual structures people create in their minds depend on their social class, their race, their culture, or their gender, and that none of these have any referents in the real world, so none of these can be considered more valid than any other.

Objectivism is the position that concepts are objective, that is, they exist in the relationship between reality and man's mind. The mind observes the world and creates concepts as a way to understand reality, based on abstracting and inducing from direct observation. So concepts cannot exist in reality without a mind, or in a mind without reality, you need both of these to create a concept. This is the position Ayn Rand held in her theory of concepts, and that position appears everywhere on her philosophy, from epistemology, to ethics, politics and aesthetics.

To illustrate the profound difference between the three approaches let's look at ethics. Intrincisists hold that there is one true set of moral principles that we have to somehow learn through divine revelation or intuition. Subjectivists hold that our morality is an arbitrary product of our culture, part of a social contract that could have been otherwise. Objectivists hold that morality is necessitated from the nature of man, and that its principles, like the principles of physics, must be discovered by observing reality. For an intrincisist, morality is a set of rules imposed by a deity or a noumenal world. For a subjectivist, morality is a set of rules imposed by society. For an objectivist, morality is a set of principles one must follow in order to achieve happiness in life. Because of this, the morality of Objectivism is rational egoism, which is very different from the altruism and the irrational egoism espoused by intrincisists and subjectivists.

Another example is mathematics. Intrincisists think that mathematics exists somewhere beyond reality, in the world of forms, and that one must discover them. They have no problem explaining why reality seems to follow mathematical rules since to them, reality is just an imperfect copy of that world of forms. Subjectivists think that mathematics are just an arbitrary game of symbol manipulation people play. So they are at a loss when trying to understand why mathematics can explain and predict the real world. Objectivists think that mathematics are part of the form in which a conceptual consciousness perceives and abstracts reality. So they have no existence without the mind, but they exist as a conceptualization and abstraction of reality, so there is no mystery as to why they explain and predict the real world. They do so because they are abstracted from relationships observed in reality.

In science, the method of Objectivism is induction of principles based on observation and experiment, the method of Intrincisism is thought without experiment (rationalism), and the method of subjectivism is experiment without conceptualization (empiricism, and skepticism).

In politics, the left is a form of subjectivism, and the religious right is a form of intrincisism. Objectivism holds that the recognition of individual rights is the necessary precondition for a rational being to be able to gain from living with other rational beings, and that the rights of man can be objectively derived from the nature of man. Therefore, Objectivism advocates a limited government whose sole purpose is to protect those rights. The left believes that there is no such thing as natural rights, and that society can postulate new rights, or remove some rights if the majority feels that this is correct. The religious right believes that rights are given by God, and that government should be based on religious principles. Therefore they reject any right that conflicts with their teachings.

As you can see, whether one regards concepts as intrinsic, subjective, or objective, makes a huge difference in the subsequent development of one's ideas about many aspects of reality. Therefore it is very important to understand the basis of the ideas that one holds, and to identify if one's ideology comes from an intrinsic, a subjective or an objective basis.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Why I no longer identify myself as a Libertarian

Since I first learned about libertarianism, I knew that it was my political inclination. There are many ways to characterize it; socially liberal and fiscally conservative, for freedom in both the personal and economic realms, for free minds and free markets, etc. So why would I want to dispense with the label? Have I turned into a liberal or a conservative? Not a chance! I am still as pro-freedom as ever! So why stop calling myself a libertarian then?

My misgivings come from the anti-conceptual nature of the libertarian movement. It is true that my values are the same as those espoused by libertarians, but do we really mean the same thing when we say that we want freedom? That sounds like a silly question, but complicated abstractions like freedom are very much dependent on the conceptual framework used to build up the concept. If you are a socialist, a communist, a fascist, a christian, or an islamist, your concept of freedom will be very different to that of a capitalist. No social movement believes itself to be against freedom, as evidenced by the fact that all armed rebels call themselves freedom fighters whether they happen to be fighting for communism, fascism, islamism, democracy, or capitalism.

Libertarians say that they want freedom, but they never bother to define it, so they leave the definition up to each individual. So a libertarian Islamist may want the freedom to submit to Allah under shariah, a libertarian anarchist may want to achieve freedom by ending all government, a libertarian socialist may want freedom from hunger and disease, a libertarian hedonist may want the freedom to do whatever he feels like doing, a libertarian communist may want freedom from oppression by the institution of private property, a libertarian slave owner may want the freedom to keep his slaves, etc. And all of these people from very different ideological backgrounds could properly call themselves libertarians because the libertarian movement has not defined freedom. Would you want to be associated with ALL of those people?

The type of freedom I want is that which is clearly defined by objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand. This is the type of freedom that can only be implemented through capitalism, that is, the system of government that respects and protects the rights of individuals. To paraphrase Harry Binswanger, in order to defend freedom one must defend capitalism, in order to defend capitalism one must defend individual rights, in order to defend individual rights one must defend egoism, in order to defend egoism one must defend reason, and in order to defend reason one must accept that reality exists independent of our consciousness. So a proper understanding of freedom, which is necessary for defending it, must involve the conceptual integration of concepts from politics (capitalism), ethics (egoism), epistemology (reason), and metaphysics (objective reality). In other words, the concept freedom implies a whole philosophical framework behind it. Without a clear understanding of the philosophy behind it, the concept of freedom is malleable and easy to subvert.

So why is this a problem? Couldn't we get together anyway for political action? After all libertarianism is much closer to what I want than conservatism or liberalism! The problem is that the differences between my conception of freedom and that of another individual would become apparent once we try to reduce freedom to practice. We might sound like we agree because we are saying similar things using the same words, but we are in fact talking about very different concepts. For instance, the following questions will have very different answers depending on what one means by freedom: If smaller government is always better, isn't it best then to have no government at all? When a big corporation has too much power, doesn't that interfere with the freedom of those oppressed by that corporation? Is abortion a violation of the right to freedom a fetus has? Is a preemptive attack to a hostile country an illegitimate initiation of force and therefore contrary to freedom? Was the federal government interfering with the freedom of the citizens in the southern states to govern themselves when it forced them to end slavery? Does my right to freedom entitle me to build a nuclear weapon in my back yard? Is freedom consistent with life in a commune where private property and government have both been abolished? Is pure democracy consistent with freedom? Can you have freedom without democracy? Should we have a free market of competing governments, defense agencies, and courts?

As these examples illustrate, labelling oneself a libertarian doesn't really provide much of an explanation on what one's political principles are, and it opens the door to being misidentified. If I tell a person I meet on a business trip that I am a libertarian, and then this person meets a communist who also calls himself a libertarian, he will judge me according to what he learns from the communist libertarian. Also, if the libertarians ever win, it will be an internal battle between all the different factions instead of the unified ideology that capitalism provides. So, instead of calling myself a libertarian, from now on I will call myself a capitalist or an objectivist, depending on the context.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Objectivist Conferences rock!

I was out at the Objectivist Conference in Telluride last week, I had never been to one before, and what a treat it was!

Objectivism is the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Unlike other philosophies you might have encountered before, Ayn Rand's philosophy is very practical, in her words it is "a philosophy for living on earth". We had courses available on all subjects, ranging from pure philosophy to math, physics, economics, politics, law, and art.

The main general session was by Dr. Leonard Peikoff, where he presented his DIM hypothesis on how the method of integrating observations into concepts gives rise to different cultural products in art, science, politics, etc. He identified five modes of integration that give rise to five categories of cultural products in a wide range of fields. Beside the general sessions, I took optional courses in the objective basis of mathematics, economics, the scientific method, the science of selfishness, the corporation, the philosophy of Kant, and Atlas Shrugged as a work of philosophy.

I was impressed with the quality of the speakers, the degree of scholarship in their courses, and the quality of the attendees. Besides learning a lot, I also made many new friends. It is not often that you have so many smart people who are interested on ideas together, so I spent a lot of time talking to people, and not too much time sleeping. I figured I'd sleep when I got back to Denver.

I'll write some more later about some of the specific things I learned. Now my next order of business is to apply to the Objectivist Academic Center at the Ayn Rand Institute, so I can really master objectivism as a supplement to my current studies in Applied Math.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Writing again!

I was blogging about a year ago, then I stopped suddenly, well, I am back! I had some changes in my life that required I take time off from my leisure pursuits, such as writing. But I think I can afford to be a man of leisure again, not that I don't have to work, but that I can do leisurely things such as writing. I'll see if I can import my old blog at some point, if not I'll just edit this post and point to the old url for continuity. Although continuity is more of a label than anything else, because many things have changed in a year. Including my perspective, what sort of things I find interesting to write about, and the things that are going on. The continuity is provided by my principles which remain the same. So anyway, here is my official "I'm back" post. Now on to real writing...
(Edit: Here is the link to my old blog in case you want to see some of my old writings)