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We are still a society of nature-worshippers - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

We are still a society of nature-worshippers [Oct. 9th, 2009|08:43 pm]
Arvind Narayanan

Evolution has come up with many, many clever designs over the eons, and engineers have a lot to learn from studying nature. On the other hand, it is equally true that on average the designs in nature are riddled with inefficiencies, bugs and tortuous mechanisms at every level of complexity. Most people don't realize this, and are in fact repelled by the idea.

Since I've been learning about the human genome as part of my current research project, I often find myself explaining to other computer scientists how some aspect of genetics works. At some point they interrrupt me to ask, "but wouldn't it be way more efficient to instead do... ". When I tell them it certainly would, but that evolution has never managed to figure it out, they are usually surprised. But it's true — evolution has explored only a tiny, tiny part of the design space. I find it ironic that if only scientists did a better job of pointing out all the ways in which nature has failed to find good designs, the man on the street would have an easier time believing that there is no intelligent designer.

In particular, co-operative strategies never occur in nature unless it is a game-theoretic "stable equilibrium" — that is, even from a purely selfish perspective, it must be advantageous to follow the strategy (this is a slight oversimplification.) Worse, the strategy needs to be beneficial not to the individual, but rather to the genes. This is an highly unintuitive idea to wrap one's head around, and it is very easy to fall back into fallacious ways of reasoning even after learning it. (The Selfish Gene is still the best and most enjoyable text on this, 33 years after publication.)

I could go on talking in the abstract, but I'm not going to change anyone's mind. Let me instead leave you with a fun excerpt to chew on from Lions: A Photo Essay that provides insight into the reasons why we idolize nature:
Anybody who has seen a documentary "knows" that lions hunt cooperatively to bring down prey. Unfortunately, nobody seems to have told the lions this. Indeed, for many years field biologists who study lions have realized that cooperative hunting is an illusion. ... So, how come the Discovery Channel says they are cooperative? Partly it is because these figures are buried in Appendix B of Shaller's book, or in dense academic papers. Mostly it is because the story of cooperative strategy in hunting is so endearing to people. Especially to film editors, which means we are destined to seeing cooperation in every nature documentary. The cases where the hunting fails due to lack of cooperation end up on the cutting room floor.

Watching lions hunt, the trends are quite obvious. The primary reason that groups of lions are no more effective than two by themselves is that typically only two lions do the actual hunting. They all make a show of hunting, but in the cases I watched, in several different prides, there were always a couple females that were the most aggressive and took the lead. The others hang back for the hard part then rush up at the end after the worst danger is over. Their primary goal is to be at the kill early so they can eat, not to actually help. Field studies have confirmed that lions do not seem to keep track of this and punish slackers.

Lions can seem quite inept at hunting, because they have no way to communicate complicated information. The Discovery Channel case happens when one lion flushes prey in past another for a perfect catch. More often, what happens is than one lion blows it and scares the game too early, or flushes it in the opposite direction. After watching hunt after hunt fail, you soon decide that lions are not very coordinated. Indeed their only saving grace is that the buffalo can't communicate very well either.
And this is just delicious:
Lions don't wait to kill the animal before starting the process of eating it—as soon as the buffalo stops thrashing, lions start to eat. This is much harder than it sounds however, because the hide is very thick. The prime spot to start is always claimed by the dominant female, or if the male is there, he takes the prime spot. The prime spot is not what you might think—it is the rectum. Believe it or not, the king of beasts starts his dinner by carefully licking the rectum clean. Since the buffalo defecates while dying this is a bit messy. The lion then works very hard to gnaw through the skin and get an incision open.
Sorry, couldn't help it :-P

From: statictype.org
2009-10-10 05:27 am (UTC)


Yeah, I was surprised by this at first too.

But then I thought about genetic programming\algorithms and how the solutions they generate, while valid, are not necessarily optimal. So in that respect, I guess it shouldn't be surprising at all.

Oh , and thanks a lot for the last paragraph. You might as well go ahead and link to that photo in the article as well.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-10-11 12:27 am (UTC)

Re: http://statictype.org

"But then I thought about genetic programming\algorithms and how the solutions they generate, while valid, are not necessarily optimal. So in that respect, I guess it shouldn't be surprising at all."

that's true in a sense, although one might think that with the hardware power that nature has, she would have managed to do better than our puny computers. apparently not -- genetic algorithms with 1031 instances running in parallel for 1013 generations with genotypes measured in the millions of bits turn out to be no better.

perhaps a tiny bit surprising, don't you think?
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[User Picture]From: patrickwonders
2009-10-11 04:04 am (UTC)

Re: http://statictype.org

Eh.... the fitness function is somewhat forgiving. Some less-than-optimal folks survive and breed in every generation.
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[User Picture]From: floopilot
2009-10-10 06:48 am (UTC)
thanks. this (idolizing nature) is something I've never thought about, I'm inspired to read more :)
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[User Picture]From: charlesfrith
2009-10-10 07:18 pm (UTC)


I find nature compelling idolatry.
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From: lustymonk
2009-10-10 01:35 pm (UTC)
"evolution has explored only a tiny, tiny part of the design space."

.. which is possibly because of the lack of a sophisticated brain machinery like the neo-cortex. That is, without intelligent thinking/planning .. several individuals (read: genes) had to rely on the instinctual passions to survive.
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[User Picture]From: descartes_rock
2009-10-10 10:29 pm (UTC)
That last part is truly gruesome, and a strong argument for why we shouldn't idealize nature. I'm not sure how you define nature, but I will take it to mean the natural world -- as in all things not made by people -- as opposed to all living things. Which doesn't make any sense to me because it suggests that people are somehow sepaarate from teh natural world, but that's a whole other discussion.

The bottom line is that for all our arrogance, humanitiy's "creations" pale beside the simplest designs of the natural world. The most sophisticated computer is not sentient, no matter how well you write the code. So to look at natural design and suggest that we humans could have done it better is a bit disingenuous -- we can't even do it as well. We can't do it at all. We are the ultimate armchair athletes. We can't even manage our own affairs. We do such incredibly idiotic and and self desrtuctive things every day, that it's amazing the human race still exists -- in fact, we only do because nature has made us so resiliant that our best efforts to destroy ourselves have failed thus far. The stupidity of the human race makes me wince and shift with embarassment on a continual basis.

Ironically, your strongest evidence of the flaws of nature can probably be found in the startling shortcomings of human beings. As much as we have forgotten our place in the universe, we are not somehow magically separate from the natural world, and as such, all of our ingenious creations are products of the natural world. I guess this is where you lose me the most -- in the distinction between what people do and what the natural world does. To me, this distinction doesn't make any sense.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-10-10 11:50 pm (UTC)
i clearly defined what i meant -- i'm talking about evolved versus engineered design. that's all. the fact that humans are part of the natural world is irrelevant.

The bottom line is that for all our arrogance, humanitiy's "creations" pale beside the simplest designs of the natural world. The most sophisticated computer is not sentient, no matter how well you write the code.

nonsense. we've been building computers for 50 years, nature has been building life for 3 billion. give us another half-century, and we'll show you.

i thoroughly disagree with the rest of your paragraph as well, with all the arrogance i can muster. there have been 16 distinct species in the genus homo, we're the only ones who got this far. in fact, the vast, vast majority of species that evolve overall go extinct. the only way we can avoid going extinct ourselves is by transcending nature's flawed design, and i think we are well on the way to doing that.

"As much as we have forgotten our place in the universe, we are not somehow magically separate from the natural world, and as such, all of our ingenious creations are products of the natural world."

again, i've defined what i meant, and as far as i'm concerned your statement is just word-play.
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[User Picture]From: descartes_rock
2009-10-11 12:26 am (UTC)
the only way we can avoid going extinct ourselves is by transcending nature's flawed design, and i think we are well on the way to doing that.

This idea has resulted in very little good and much harm in the world. If one steps back and examines the quality of life of contemporary people verus that of the primitive societies from whence we came -- the origins of who we were before we decided to see ourselves as distinct from the natural world -- one finds that all our advancements, from agriculture to the internal combustion engine, have had little or no net positive impact. We live longer, but we don't live any better.

As for beating evolution, can you really say that we are more secure as a species today than we were a thousand years ago? Even with the end of the cold war, we are a heartbeat away from annihilating ourselves, never mind natural selection. And we continue to live in an increasingly unsustainable existence.

The arrogance of humanity is about thinking that there is something better than nature and that we somehow own the blueprint to this utopia, if we can only figure out a way to build it. We're trading a pretty good deal for a pipe dream -- throwing away the natural wealth that was ours forever if we only just made a commitment to look after it, for something that doesn't exist. That is not good science, it's some kind of weird mysticism. It's faith of a kind I guess, with science as its deity.

Have you ever read Ishmael by Daniel Quinn? If not, you should, it's an excellent book. He compares humanity to one of those early pioneers of flight who stepped off a cliff with wings strapped to his back. YOu can be falling fast and still believe you're doing fine -- reality doesnt' set in until the moment you hit the earth going terminal velocity.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-10-11 12:39 am (UTC)
i will ignore your random moralizing; you make only one point that can be argued factually:

"As for beating evolution, can you really say that we are more secure as a species today than we were a thousand years ago?"

yes we are. and if you go even farther back in time, we're even more secure than them. i already pointed out that the vast majority of species that evolve soon go extinct; that would have been our destiny as well if we hadn't wandered down the path of technological civilization. at least now we have a chance of getting off the fucking planet.

oh, and btw, the whole 'annihilating humanity with nukes' thing is such a bunch of BS. someone did the math and found that the notion that 'we have enough nukes to destroy the world several times over' is just something we made up to scare our kids. in reality, we only have nukes to kill 1/50 of the world's humans. just thought i'd throw that in. but my larger point is that even if we had a 50% chance of going extinct with nukes, that's still a 1000-fold higher long-term chance of survival than not developing technology.
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[User Picture]From: descartes_rock
2009-10-11 05:55 pm (UTC)
Interesting. Where are you getting your facts about nuclear arms? This is a topic that I have some interest in, and I'm not familiar with those numbers. The generally accepted quantification of the nuclear threat is that there are about 27,000 nuclear weapons at readiness today, about 2,000 of those ready to fire within about five minutes. Even asif only a fraction of these deliver their payloads, and only on a limited number of targets, the blast alone is going to kill off a good part of the world's population, and the resulting contamination and environmental damage is likely to kill the rest of us. I would be interested in seeing the work of this "someone who did the math". If they are talking about tons of explosives only, then that is a very, very limited way of calculating the destructive force of nuclear arms.

What's more, we like to think of the end of the cold war and the non-proliferation treaty as having significantly reduced the real risk of nuclear war, but risk experts largely agree that the risk is increasing year over year. The myth is not around the destructive force of nuclear weapons, its around the risk of a nuclear conflict ocurring.

Here's an articl you might be interested in, and I've pulled a quote from it (http://www.wagingpeace.org/articles/2009/08/04_wittner_ongoing_danger.php).

Overall, then, the situation remains very dangerous. Dr. Martin Hellman, a Professor Emeritus of Engineering at Stanford University who has devoted many years to calculating the prospects of nuclear catastrophe, estimates that the risk of a child born today suffering an early death through nuclear war is at least 10 percent. Moreover, he cautions that this is a conservative estimate, for he has not included the danger of nuclear terrorism in his calculations.

But really, the nuclear threat is only one of so many threats to the future of humanity, most of which are of our own making. Many of these are the result of population growth, which itself is a direct result of human design. Agriculture, followed by urbanization, followed by industrialization have created population of humans that are only sustainable through artificial means, and the larger the population grows, the more we have to stretch our ingenuity to make it work. Recent shortages of staples like rice are an indication that science's ability to make this all work is being tested. There are limited resources on this planet. It only stands to reason that the more each of us consumes and the more of us there are consuming these resources the sooner we're going to run out of stuff. And this is only the consumption side -- the waste side is equally problematic. Human design has put us in this place -- has in essence created a lot of risks to the species that would not have existed otherwise.

That's not to say that human design hasn't made life a lot better in many ways. I definitely want a doctor with good medical equpment around when I'm sick. But if you're talking survival of the species, then we were better off before we started getting really clever with science.

Re. getting off the planet, I would just say that we are a long, long, long way from being able to colonize any other planet and we aren't even sure if there is another planet to colonize. And we wouldn't need to be getting off the planet if we hadn't mucked it up in the first place.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-10-11 10:39 pm (UTC)
your article is just words, man. i looked up hellman's paper in which he came up with the 10% number. here's the relevant paragraph:

I first ask people whether they think the world could survive 1,000 years that were similar to 20 repetitions of the last 50 years. Do they think we could survive 20 Cuban Missile Crises plus all the other nuclear near misses we have experienced? When asked that question, most people do not believe we could survive 1,000 such years. I then ask if they think we can survive another 10 years of business as usual, and most say we probably can. There's no guarantee, but we've made it through 50 years, so the odds are good that we can make it through 10 more. In the order of magnitude approach, we have now bounded the time horizon for a failure of nuclear deterrence as being greater than 10 years and less than 1,000. That leaves 100 years as the only power of ten in between. Most people thus estimate that we can survive on the order of 100 years, which implies a failure rate of roughly 1% per year.

jesus h. christ. i'm not going to dignify that with an answer. this guy used to be a respected cryptographer, it's interesting that he's branched out into what appears to be intellectually dishonest nonsense.

here's where i got my numbers from. true, it leaves out the indirect deaths. OTOH, i've never seen a shred of evidence for your claim that "the resulting contamination and environmental damage is likely to kill the rest of us."

re. sustainability, there is no doubt that the current human population can only be supported through 'artificial' means. you seem to consider that unacceptable prima facie, whereas it doesn't bother me in the slightest. there is nothing objective to argue about here.

re. getting off the planet: who said anything about colonizing other planets? for an advanced technological civilization, planets are about the worst place to live on, because they are 'gravity wells', requiring a stupendous amount of energy to do anything interesting like getting to the moon.

for more than 3 decades we've known how to build self-contained space habitats. i suspect that if we had the political/economic incentive, we have the technological ability to get one up and running in a decade or two. it would take an effort on a scale that would dwarf the manhattan project or the moon race, but there is no technological limitation.

this conversation has long ceased being productive; can we just agree to disagree? if you feel the need to say more about this, please do so on your blog.
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[User Picture]From: descartes_rock
2009-10-12 04:26 am (UTC)
Sure, let's agree to disagree. I've enjoyed the discussion and you've presented an interesting point of view that's advanced my thinking on the future of the human race. Cheers.
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[User Picture]From: theswede
2009-10-12 08:04 pm (UTC)
I sincerely have to ask; you truly consider living a well furnished life in a safe, comfortable environment with information and education constantly at your fingertips to be no better than living 25 years in a cave, fighting for your survival against disease, the elements, competing predators and starvation every day, with only a handful of people you have limited ability to communicate with around?

Truly? No difference at all in quality, only in length?

I find your premises absurd in the extreme if you do, and your whole point vanishes if you don't.
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[User Picture]From: descartes_rock
2009-10-13 12:14 am (UTC)
The argument was about the survival of the species, and the question being debated focused on whether the species is more sustainable in its present state or in its primitive state -- pre-agriculture, when human design played only a modest role in our lives. I do believe that we are at a higher risk of extinction today than when we lived what we call "primitive" lifestyles. To me this is almost self-evident because most of current threats to human survival are a product of technological advancement -- pollution, weapons of mass destruction, depletion of resources, pandemics. Primitive societies faced none of these mass threats. They lived eminently sustainable existences.

Quality of life came up as a kind of tangent I guess. There's a bit of mythology that goes on re. primitive societies -- that they were miserable wretches who lived a horrible existence and were always on the point of starvation. This is simply false. It is in fact an effort to rationalize our current way of life -- we're like people who have bought a car which is beyond our means and keeps breaking down. We need to keep reminding ourselves of how much better life is with the car than it was before. Does the car make us happier? It's debatable. But let's set aside the stereotype of the savage shivering in the rain. Native Americans, for example, lived perfectly happy existences before the Europeans came along. Agriculture was not invented to defeat starvation at all -- hunger-gatherers generally did not have a huge problem with starvation. Contrary to what society whispers on our ear each day, the middle class grind that most of us endure each day is not the golden key to happiness.

If you ask me, would I choose to go live a primitive lifestyle, my answer would probably be no -- but not because it is an objectively worse lifestyle, but because this life is the only one I know. If my exact clone had been born in a remote jungle where people live as they have for thousands of years, and I met up with him today, would he be happier or would I? I don't know. I certainly don't think that my way wins hands down.
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[User Picture]From: theswede
2009-10-13 05:42 am (UTC)
pollution, weapons of mass destruction, depletion of resources, pandemics. Primitive societies faced none of these mass threats

They most certainly did - and we do today to, from acts of nature. The difference is, today we have technology which means we can cope with such things. If they had struck while we were primitive we'd have gone the way the dinosaurs did when they faced such events. I don't buy this premise at all; powerful as the threats we ourselves cause may seem to us they are nothing compared to what nature can throw at us in the blink of an eye.

This is simply false.

You do not consider a 25 year life span, living exposed to the elements and under constant threat of death from getting a thorn in your toe to bne a miserable existence? Well, at least you're hypocritical enough to admit you wouldn't live a nasty, brutish and short life instead of the cushy existence you have now.

Znd no, cars don't make no-one happier, but I would never use that as an example either. Germ theory, clean water, abundant food, dependable shelter, lack of predators and such items of technology, yes, but why do you bring up *cars* of all things? Most people don't even HAVE cars.

I can bet you that your clone would already be dead, unless you are VERY young. People in the jungle don't get very old. And yes, you'd win hands down, I'm prepared to bet a dollar on that. Reasonably reliable observations show that living, healthy people show many more signs of happiness than dead or diseased people, and statistics tell us both of these states have gained tremendously in post hunter-gatherer populations, and keep increasing (except when dumbfucks decide not to vaccinate their children, that is).
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-10-13 05:49 am (UTC)
without getting back into the argument, let me make a quick comment on vaccination. this is one of the issues where i have to break with the libertarian stance that 'i own my body and my property and i can do with it what i want.' since we share the same genetic code, this simpleminded world-view breaks down when it comes to vaccination. when someone fails to vaccinate their children, it affects my health as well; so i honestly think the nutjobs who refuse to vaccinate need to be rounded up. basically treated the same way in principle as someone who tries to introduce toxins into the water supply, but somewhat less harshly.
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[User Picture]From: theswede
2009-10-13 05:53 am (UTC)
Externalities are the bane of libertarianism, indeed.
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[User Picture]From: descartes_rock
2009-10-13 10:46 pm (UTC)
I don't happen to agree with you. You should brush up on your anthropology because your view of primitive societies is not very accurate. I don't think we are any better protected from acts of nature today than we were 50,000 years ago, but in addition to these, we also are facing risks of extinction that are entirely of our own making. We have even magnified the natural hazards by living on floodplains and changing the global environment in ways that creat new natural hazards. And the car reference was a metaphor, not intended to be taken literally.

Anyway, you are getting kind of rude and aggressive with some of your comments. I know some people enjoy this form of debate, but I don't happen to like being called a hypocrite and whatnot, so that's it for me.
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[User Picture]From: theswede
2009-10-14 05:41 am (UTC)
I would like to know what it is I'm missing; I have the lifespan about right, the lack of protection against elements (and the "extreme" climate changes we see today appear to be the norm through recorded history, so I see no reason to expect they weren't around back then either), and the lack of germ theory alone will cause untold harm. That doesn't mean they are "shivering in the rain", or even routinely starving, but that they die from easily preventable infection, live with parasites, and suffered very badly when injuries were sustained. I consider that objectively much, much worse than anything we have in the Western world today. Especially the resulting lack of lifespan - I feel very strongly that my life would be negatively impacted if I were to die.

I don't understand the car metaphor (or why you would use a metaphor when there are thousands of concrete examples), could you please clarify it? It seemed to make an erroneous point and to be picked because cars are pretty much pointless and provide little or nothing for us, as opposed to germ theory, sanitation, cheap energy, controlled housing environments etc. which definitely contribute immensely to both our survival potential and our well being.

The "risks of extinction" you're listing aren't anything of the kind. If 90% of all humans today were to die we'd just be back where we was a few hundred years ago, and a flooded plain won't even kill that many people. As to the change in the global environment, it's no larger than what a few nasty volcanic eruptions would have caused (which is not an argument against us doing something about it, just putting it in perspective - nature unchecked is still a LOT more powerful a destroyer than we are). Thus, the "new" natural hazards are nothing of the sort, unless you have any specific examples (living on floodplains ain't new either, for that matter).

I'm only rude because you were with the car "metaphor", and with your clone hypothetical where you most importantly of all ignore the well documented conclusion that life under those circumstances is unlikely to exceed 20 years. I consider that kind of rhetoric rude, so I responded in kind. If you want to make a point, please pick reasonable examples. So far I see none, except an appeal to my mistaken views about savage societies, to which I respond you better read some anthropology as you seem to be sorely mistaken on the quality of life they had.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-10-12 08:08 pm (UTC)
re. my earlier request to you and theswede's new comment: please feel free to debate other commenters if you are so inclined; i mainly wanted to extricate myself from the argument.
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[User Picture]From: patrickwonders
2009-10-11 04:01 am (UTC)
On a similar note, anyone who feels that "the free market is efficient" has never worked for a company with more than five employees.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-10-11 04:06 am (UTC)
i see the point you're getting at, but the Efficient-Market Hypothesis is a technical term that refers to a very specific principle and is unrelated to the type of "inefficiency" you're concerned about.
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[User Picture]From: patrickwonders
2009-10-11 04:12 am (UTC)
A good point. Pundits and pseudo-libertarians often say "the free market is efficient" to mean that corporations act in the way that will produce the greatest profit (or "the best interest of the corporation"). That's what I was thinking of...
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[User Picture]From: patrickwonders
2009-10-11 04:17 am (UTC)
The Efficient-Market Hypothesis floats between Tautology and Crap to me though. It can only really work if everyone has the all (or at least the same) information. If that's the case, all it says is that value isn't an intrinsic quality. Value is what people are willing to pay. Thus, there is no such thing as value, merely market-value.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-10-11 04:24 am (UTC)
did you even look at the wikipedia article, or a tutorial that explains the EMH?

two generations of economists and hundreds of intellectual giants have studied it, and it has been one of the central questions facing capitalist society. after all the effort that's been expended, we still don't understand it fully. but you think you can dissect it in 3 sentences and pronounce it as crap?

i'm not arguing for or against it; i'm just expressing surprise at your attitude.
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[User Picture]From: patrickwonders
2009-10-11 04:55 am (UTC)
You're right. My attitude here was terrible. And, yes... I only read the opening paragraph of the wikipedia article which is about as in-depth a treatment of it as I've ever read. I apologize.
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From: (Anonymous)
2009-10-31 05:19 pm (UTC)

on human brain

interesting post! However I cannot help but wonder about nature's most brilliant design: the human mind/brain. Sure it took 3 billion years for nature to "build" something which will pass the turing test. Will it take us that long?
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-10-31 05:49 pm (UTC)

Re: on human brain

yes, the human brain is certainly nature's most impressive design. i'm quite confident that it won't take us that long.. let's see :-)
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