Exploring Moralspace

I'm trying to give some logical foundation to the idea that there is one true moral system, and maybe provide some idea of how to find it.

A few things out of the way first.  A moral system maps a set of present circumstances and a proposed course of action to a rating of goodness and a level of confidence in that rating (both outputs scalar).  Some have suggested a moral system could take only the resulting circumstances as input, but such as system would be unable to distinguish between (for example) infanticide and birth control.  Most of the work of a moral system is done with standard descriptivist logic to determine how the action interacts with a set of terminal values.  Terminal values are things which are seen as atomically right or wrong -- no reason can be given.

Consider the act of contemplating one's own terminal values (as performed by an intelligent mind).  Can the mind conclude its own terminal values are flawed?  Certainly!  Most attempted altruists, confronted with evidence of their own scope insensitivity, will try to rectify it.  Once the new terminal values are in place (difficult in real life, trivial in a thought experiment), the act can be repeated.  We now have an iterated system -- something we can work with.

For example, the null value set may be consistent, but as soon as you care about something a little, you'll think it's good to care about it more.  Nullity is a repelling fixed point.

Monomaniacal obsession is probably attracting.  Caring a little about something else is bad because it distracts you from what's really important.  But only if the obsession-target is simple.  Understanding all the details of the most important thing in the world is clearly good, and if that renders the obsession inconsistent, the value-set isn't fixed.  So simple obsessions are a set of attracting fixed points.  Handwaving vigorously, I propose they form an uninteresting submanifold.

We probably won't see attracting cycles, because the intelligent mind performing the iteration will notice the cycle and do something else with it.

We can talk about the volume of valuesets which approach a given attractor in the limit, assuming sane shapes and a distance metric (is there a standard distance metric for functions which output R2?).  Fixed points of high volume are probably particularly interesting.

It's a long way from the Word of God, but at least this manages to draw some intrinsic landmarks on what was a rather trackless sea.

Details of my journey to Sydney

I arrived at Newark via New Jersey Transit. NJT is hot, crowded, poorly marked and has incomprehensible announcements, but it's fast and reliable. This isn't news.

I wasted time at the terminal looking for a Qantas checkin. The airtrain sign said Qantas terminal A, but there wasn't anything actually there. I reexamined my papers, and discovered that the flight was operated by American Airlines (I had suspected something like that). I went to the AA counter and checked in at the machine. After a few steps, it said "wait for an agent at this kiosk". I waited, but it didn't seem to have notified anyone. Finally I got someone's attention, who told me to wait in line for a human operator -- the kiosk couldn't help me. When I got to a human, I was told that I did need an Australian Visa after all. This was rather disturbing, but after several go-arounds and much nervous waiting, it turned out you can buy one right there for $25. There wasn't any sort of application process, just a fee. I'd thought the idea of a Visa was to control who gets into the county, but apparently it's to make money off of it. Once this was cleared, I received a ticket, but not a boarding pass or seat assignment.

TSA was a non-issue. I found the gate with a little time to spare and bought a big water bottle and a bag of cookies at Hudson News.

I went to the gate agent and asked for a seat assignment and boarding group. The agent understood the issue, took my ticket, and told me "we don't have a seat yet, but we will get you one; wait and we'll call you." I don't understand how they hoped to get a seat (surely they know the plane's seat layout in advance!), but I waited. They called standby people. They made announcements I couldn't make out (always a way to make me worry). They announced that the plane had a mechanical issue, and that they needed to wait to hear if it was flyable. They announced that it was. They announced first-class boarding. They announced business-class boarding. They announced group 1 boarding. Finally they called my name (it was clearly audible) and gave me a boarding pass for group 5.

We got on the plane and we sat there. We sat there. It was hot. Eventually it became clear that the mechanical problem was with the air conditioning. We sat there. The pilot announced that half the air conditioning was down, but they'd blocked those vents, and once they had main power they'd overdrive the other half and it would be ok. Now it was a matter of paperworlk. We sat there. Eventually, the plane took off.

The flight itself was uneventful. I was glad off my water and cookies.

Shortly before landing it was announced, "those of you continuing on to Sydney will be met at the gate." Indeed we were. A Philipina women with poor English was there saying "Sydney, Sydney, Sydney." She handed me a boarding pass and (with some difficulty) directed me to wait with the other transferees until all of us deplaned. She took us down to the tarmac and through a secured door to a special shuttle bus, which took us across to the other terminal. The driver explained that this was the only way to avoid going out and in of security, which we didn't have time for. We arrived at the gate with boarding in progress. There was a long line. I refilled my water bottle from a fountain and tossed the empty cookie bag to avoid importing crumbs to Australia (this proved wise). There was a short line. I got on with no problems.

Qantas premium economy is very nice. The seats are big enough -- not just leg room but width. The food was tasty. There was a US-style power outlet where I recharged my phone. There was a decent selection of movies and tv shows. I watched X-men: Wolverine (which improved when I stopped thinking of it as part of the general X-men universe, but still suffered from powers-as-plot-demands syndrome). At around 7pmSYD/5amNYC I went to sleep, or tried to. The seats were comfortable, but they were seats, not beds. I came to every hour or so and shifted position to restore circulation. Earplugs just made me painfully aware of how not-asleep I was, so I shifted to earbuds and lullabies on repeat. This worked pretty well, but occasionally the music would act to wake me up. I should invent a biofeedback lullaby system. This psuedo-sleep left my body restored (if stiff), but didn't give me much REM, so the previous day's stress remained with me.

We landed in Sydney. They gave us little cards to fill out with questions like "have you been convicted of a crime" and "are you carrying food". I circled no for everything. On the way to customs, we passed trash cans for non-importable materials (I wonder how they emptied them -- airtight bags straight to an incinerator?) and a giant duty-free liquor store. At the first set of customs boothes, I was told that my Visa was for "Daniel Speyer" but my passport for "Daniel L Speyer". When I told them the airline had handled the Visa, they thought this an adequate explanation and told me to wait while they fixed it. It was a little surreal. I sat next to someone who was filling out a form explaining why he had lied about his criminal record. I was glad my problems were middle-initial related.

I then went to the baggage claim and started waiting. While I waited for the bags to start unloading, I converted my american cash into australian (the baggage claim is a good place to put those boothes -- lots of new arrivals with time to spare). Australian cash uses $1 and $2 coins, and the $2s are tiny. Shortly after this, there was a loud announcement "All bags on the floor for the Quarantine Dog." I thought I had misheard, but indeed, the Quarantine Dog began running excitedly among the bags and sniffing. He wasn't a German Shepard as most work dogs in the States are, but a cute little brown and white thing with big floppy ears and a dignified red vest that said "quarantine". He found a few bags with food in them, and their owners were approached by humans in the same vests and asked to step aside.

My bag didn't come, so when the carousel stopped I found someone in a uniform other than quarantine and asked for help. He directed me to the baggage service area, where I saw some familiar faces in line. It was all the people who'd been on the special shuttle at LAX. The women behind the counter already knew the bag status (leaving me wondering why they couldn't have put a message on one of the big screens) and said it would be delivered tomorrow. She asked for the address I'd be staying at, and when I didn't know it but knew the hotel name she pulled out a list of local hotels and looked it up. I am opimistic about receiving the bag.

After that I went to the second round of customs, where I was asked more personal questions. Apparently having nowhere near enough luggage for the trip was a red flag, but I showed them the papers the baggage office gave me, and generally sounded like who I am. After about ten minutes I was passed through, with directions to the City Rail.

The City Rail is quiet, smooth, and well-marked, strangely routed and very expensive. The trains are two-level with big windows, which probably makes for a nice view on the further-out lines where it's (presumably) aboveground. I reached Central easily. That's where trouble started. The maps told me to transfer to the light rail, but there was only one sign that mentioned it at all. That one had an arrow but was (I later discovered) very far from the light rail itself. After circling the enourmous rail station twice, I found a map from which it could be deduced that the light rail was the same thing as the tram, and that the tram was at the other end of the station. Finally I found it, rode it out to Pyrmont, and found the hotel.

It was too early to check in (I did ask) and the hotel's common spaces weren't inviting, so I decided to head toward the office. By sheer luck I ran into Jim on the sidewalk. I didn't recognize him all 3-d, non-pixelated, and properly lit, but he recognized me. I told him where I stood, and he got me into the building where the google office was (like NYC, we have part of the building, so you need two cards to get in). The Sydney office is very cool. They have walls that are really meshes filled with potted plants. It was from there that I sent out the original arrival notifications.

After a few hours I returned to the hotel. This time I was able to check in. The room is pleasant, and the view of the harbour is excellent. There's a $8 bottle of Fiji water in the room to tempt me, and an entire refrigerator of fancy wines without price tags (I think this puts them solidly in the "you can't afford it" category). There's also a safe, where I put my passport. When I got into the room, I just lay down on the bed and started laughing. I don't even know at what. Maybe it was the idea of telling a 17th century navigator that the scariest part of crossing the pacific was the paperwork, or a 400th bce one that I had "only" a backpack full of goods. Probably not. I was tired, but didn't want to mess up my adjustment by going to sleep at 12:30pm, so I decided to set the alarm for 2pm and take a quick nap. I woke up at 5:30. It seems the alarm-radio was set to play very quiet static.

I was hungry, but didn't want any trouble, so I connected to the hotel's internet link ($0.50/minute!) and google-mapsed "groceries". I found a nearby store and bought cheese, crackers and juice, plus a muffin for morning and a power adapter. It's just a funny shaped piece of copped shielded in plastic, but it's enough to plug in things like laptops that are liberal in accepting current. I don't think I'd have dared use it if I hadn't been doing things like that at Microsoft. The cheese and crackers were exactly right, and I think I'll put the leftovers in the fridge with the fancy wines.

That brings me to now. I figure I'll shower, read a little, and go to sleep on the early side. Hopefully tomorrow will bring me luggage!

radical hagadah

A few years ago, I assembled a haggadah for a radical seder. Some people liked it, or liked bits of it, so I now post it here as passover comes around again. I've made a few tweaks where what I wrote seemed awkward, but this is pretty much as it was.

Feel free to use it or to copy bits of it. I certainly copied freely in creating it.

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Harry Potter predictions and analysis

I have not yet aquired or read Deathly Hallows. These are my thoughts *beforehand*, delibrately posted as such (mainly because I called the DADA jinx before HBP but didn't tell anyone, and then wished I had).

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Tommorrow, with luck, I'll actually get book 7 and we'll see if I was right.


Six word stories

Haven't had time for a long post, but I ran across Wired's Six Word Sci-Fi article and thought I'd try my own hand at it.

Trouble expressing teenage angst? Try Plutonium!

They don't recognize us. We recognize....

Speak, so you need not scream.

Soul transplant suffers severe mysti-immunilogical rejection.

Not up there with Sterling, Card or Whedon, but I might be onto something. It's harder than it looks. Anybody else tried?


Why you can't own a canadian

The piece "Why can't I own a canadian" has been going arround the internet a lot lately, basically arguing (through humor and sarcasm) that the Torah contains many things that should not be accepted and therefore the rules regarding homosexuality should also be ignored. While I have no objection to homosexuality, I do object to beating up on the Torah, especially when many of the points are bogus. Anyone looking for detailed analysis on homosexuality should look elsewhere -- it shouldn't be hard to find entire boks, complete with citations in holy works, modern data and coherent analysis.

Meanwhile, here are my answers to the 'questions' posed in this piece. I've re-ordered it slightly to put related points together. I'm sure someone who knows more than I do could add to this, but it should do for a start.

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the other specific laws and how to follow them:

When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord - Lev.1:9. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

What are you thinking? you shall only offer sacrifices at the place the Lord chose [Deut 12:5]. We don't know all the factors that went into that decision (or any divine choice), but airflow and neighbors probably factored in. In any case, since The Lord allowed the Romans to destroy that place, we cannot offer sacrifices until a new one is pointed out (though some argue that with the fall of Jerusalem the site reverted to its previous location at Shiloh, and have organized regular sacrifices there -- a reasonable distance from people who will dislike the smell).

Now that you recognize the problem, your immediate concern should be your neighbors, whom you presumably love as yourself. Remember, transgressions directly against The Holy One are always forgiven, but to be forgiven for transgressions against another human being, you must first make peace with that human being. May I suggest an apology-gift of several dozen perfectly-barbecued steaks? I bet you're having trouble eating the entire animal in three days anyway.

Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?
First, remember that altar in this context means sacrificial altar. As discussed in my previous answer, this shouldn't be an issue yet.

However, planning ahead is always acceptable, so should the temple be rebuilt in your lifetime, and you be a male-line descendant of Aaron (and able to prove it) and you meet all the other requirements, then the exact meaning of t'valul (the word used) becomes important. It derives from the root "to mix", and Rashi holds that it refers to a condition in which the iris and white of the eye intermix, such as white streeks through the iris. So your nearsightedness would probably be ok, but check with the high-priest to be sure.

I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
I fear I cannot find a citation for this, but as I recall, you may not sell her to foreigners, but only at a market governed by the full halakhik rules regarding the protection of slaves (including sabbath, jubilee freedom, and exemption from sexual duties). Since the last such market shut down thousands of years ago, there is no market price.
I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness - Lev.15:19- 24. The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.
That's really their issue and you'll just have to trust them to take care of it. Certainly asking (much less investigating) goes contrary to the principles of human dignity, which are recognized by almost all major biblical interpreters as taking precedence over matter of ritual purity. If this isn't enough for you, simply observe shomer negiah, and you'll be fine. You should also remember that the corrective action if you discover that you have become unclean this way is to bathe and was your clothes, so you might get in the habit of doing that regularly just in case. Your neighbors might appreciate it too.
Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?
Presumably because they aren't for sale. Remember that you may have them if you purchase them legally, and even so they are protected by all the biblical protections on slaves, including jubilee freedom.

Incidentally, I was not aware that Mexicans were selling themselves into slavery. Remember that it is an indebted person's option to sell himself to settle the debt, not his obligation.

A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination - Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this?
Sadly, I cannot. The same word to'evah (abomination) is used in Lev 11:10 to refer to anal intercourse between men (not to all homosexuality -- see Rashi on this, I don't want to reproduce his arguments) and in Deut 14:3 to refer to things that shall not be eaten. However, immediately after this commandment, Deuteronomy lists the things which may not be eaten (including shellfish) and describes each as tameh (unclean), which is generally understood to be less severe than to'evah. It's not clear whether the act of eating anything which is itself unclean is an abomination or if certain unclean things are also abominal.

I hope the lack of an answer isn't too devastating for you. Should you ever be forced to chose between homosexual anal intercourse and eating shellfish, with no way out of it (and I do not think this likely) consider the perspective of the other man involved in the intercourse and let that be your deciding factor (as it will almost certainly involve more important principles).

I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?
Gloves aren't really an adequate protection here, as football is a chaotic game and you never know what body part may come in contact with what. Furthermore, gloves are not guaranteed to stay on when you are tackled. Playing with a synthetic ball (and most are), is an acceptable solution.

As to the more general issue, most interpreters hold that the ban on touching carcasses only holds when there is a special need for purity, such as by cohenim or on holy days. I can't fully trace their logic (I gave up after the third level of citations), but there is the simple fact that if a pig (or, more likely, a horse or camel) should wander into the village and die, somebody had better remove it. This probably doesn't help you, since you've indicated (by your intention to make burnt offerings) that you are a cohen. That honored position has its personal sacrifices, and perhaps football with real pigskin is one of them.

I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?

My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev. 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? - Lev.24:10-16. Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

Lay off the bloodlust! It is not the death of sinners G-d seeks but that they turn from their ways and live!(Ezek 33:11)

In any case, there are plenty of restrictions on execution. There's to be a fair trial, including an opportunity to defend himself and present mitigating circumstances. There must be two eye-witnesses, who are so confident they are willing to lead the execution themselves. A variety of other circumstances must be met. The talmud states that any court which hands down multiple death sentences in a 70 year period is excessively bloodthirsty. (Christians may ask why they should pay attention to the talmud here. They should recognize that even if it is not holy to them, it is still the accumulated wisdom of generations who actually practiced everything in the Torah.)

Also, remember that the Torah is not a universal set of commandments. The entire purity code is a matter of being a holy people, and is not required to be accounted righteous. Even in the days of Moses and Joshua, there were outsiders who were not asked to uphold these codes. The Edomites, for example, routinely ate unclean animals, ignored the sabbath and engaged in homosexuality, and yet the commandment is explicit "do not abhor the Edomite" (Deut23:8).

As a general rule, when in doubt about the Torah's view on something, remember rabbi Hillel's famous summary: "What is hateful to you, do not do to another person. The rest is commentary, go and learn it." I'm sure you'd hate to be stoned to death, but the second part is important too. Go and learn it. If you wish to argue against the Torah, learn it first so that you can argue against it, and not a straw-man (and, in the process, give it a fair chance and see if maybe you don't oppose it as much as you thought you did). If you wish to follow it, learn it so you can do so correctly. And if you wish to demand that others follow it, and your mistakes will effect not just yourself but millions, then you'd better learn it, and thoroughly. Go now.


The impossibility of corporate accountability

A common view among libertarians is that corporate irresponsibility (such as pollution) can be addressed without regulation by making it practical for victims to sue. Creating a fair enough court system for this presents its own challenges, but even a success on this count wouldn't suffice here.

First, let us establish that our purpose is deterrence. Even the entire assets of a major polluter spread among those who suffer severe health problems wouldn't make the suffering worthwhile. The hope is that a company faced with massive losses will not pollute horribly in the first place.

Next, let us suppose a company acts as a game-theoretic perfectly 'rational' entity with no concerns besides maximizing expected (in the statistical sense) profit. For a publicly traded company, it is practically a fiduciary duty to do so. So let us consider a company with $5G in assets considering an environmentally irresponsible act which will net $100M in profits and has (they estimate) a 1% chance of killing so many people as to lose everything in lawsuits. They will still go ahead and do it. As one considers less likely and more damaging scenarios (nuclear meltdown, major pathogen release...) the rational action for a corporation who can at most lose everything looks very different from the rational action for society.

It gets worse as we consider the actual decision making structure. Despite fiduciary duties, CEOs seem to act as pure rational agents for themselves, and to effectively control their companies. (This is only an approximation, as no game-theory model can really describe an individual human psyche, but corporate politics and business infighting seem to select strongly for this sort of ruthlessness.) Now consider the CEOs payoffs: $100M in company profits and a healthy cut of that in stock options, or the company collapses and a golden parachute. Practically win-win.

One could attempt to eliminate golden parachutes in these situations, but money is easy to shuffle and eroding corporate protections would endanger startups. Even if one succeeded, the CEOs total assets are smaller than the companies, and the same losing everything maximum applies here even more. Even a rational person confronted with the prospect of being out on the street with only his diploma, skills, contacts, and well-hidden overseas bank accounts will not be as cautious as the possibility of killing hundreds of people demands.

To really make the game theory work out, we need to be prepared to execute CEOs whose companies kill people. Even though it wasn't intentional, the victim is still dead, and the CEO still made the decision to take the risk, and the CEO still reaped the benefits, so let him suffer the penalty if he fail. Even though the CEO didn't know the risk, he still made the decision, and had the power to research it further. As Mirage might say, let him gamble with his own life.

Of course, this is still inadequate. It covers one death. What of toxic spills that kill thousands? Well, as any mafioso could tell you, you need to round up the CEO's thousand closest relatives....

I'm not actually advocating that. It may not even be game-theoretically needed -- CEOs are likely to be risk-averse. It certainly isn't moral (the family is innocent -- let none pay for another's crimes). Mostly, this little extrapolation is to show that the whole thing doesn't work. We can't hold decision-makers sufficiently accountable after the fact, so we must restrain them before-hand based on our own risk calculations.

As an aside, the same risk-reward issues apply to politicians, and I think if any president or congressperson who supports a war had to fight on the forefront of it and take the risks with the soldiers, we'd have a much better foreign policy.

A fictional setting, or possibly a metaphor

First, there was a completely urban world. The only wide open spaces were parks (of which there were many, well-tended by a mixture of human and robotic gardeners) and oceans. All civilization depended on the precise timing of world-spanning automation.

Perhaps it was because they depended on precision that they feared chaos. Perhaps it was because they feared chaos that they trusted order, and subordinated themselves to it. Perhaps not. Perhaps they simply erred.

All the precious, grandiose automation fell under the control of a single government, more powerful than any in history. Not a sparrow could fall without their tracking it on air-traffic radar and watching it on security cameras. With power came corruption, or infighting, or incompetence, or perhaps simply a positive feedback loop between the state of the world and the state of the leaderships' minds. Disaster was inevitable.

The details are forgotten. The survivors who knew chose to forget. Fewer than one person in a thousand survived. Only one senior engineer survived, and he fled and hid, fearing that all the world would blame him for the fall. He alone remembered the world's password. None learned of him until generations later.

But the survivors did not despair (well, many did, but those did not become a part of history). They turned parks into farms; they fished in the seas. They descended into the robotic aquaculture plants and discovered that much still functioned, and that food could be harvested if you jammed the guard machines with slivers of bronze and carefully dodged the automatic harvesters. They rode robotic cabs like ancient sailors rode the monsoon, memorizing the patterns and not caring that they were simply where the cars were last called.

Technology was reinvented. Steamships docked alongside nuclear speed boats which would never again be used. Then they were unloaded by old public sanitation robots tricked into this service by an abuse of their old programming. This was called 'domestication'. Many held as an article of faith that the engines they built and the ones they domesticated work on the same principles, but it meant nothing in practice, and none could confirm or deny it.

Civilization grew.

Slowly an order of wandering priests appeared, disciples of the last engineer. They wander ceaselessly, aiding those in need or performing incomprehensible tasks, for their own secret purposes. Many fear them, for they are secretive and they command the engines at the heart of the world. But they do not seek power, or wealth, or any of the things laity desire.

One day, perhaps, their purposes will be revealed.

Does anyone else feel like they've lived in this world?


I woke up this morning with an odd desire to play PipeDream, an old Game Boy game from my childhood. Since my gameboy and the cartridge are both long since lost and on the other side of the continent, I rewrote it in javascript. It's at in case anyone else suddenly gets the same desire.

Maybe one day I'll rewrite the graphics to not suck.