Normalised, n-dimensional, utility monster


Utilitarian theory is embarrassed by the possibility of utility monsters who get enormously greater sums of utility from any sacrifice of others than these others lose … the theory seems to require that we all be sacrificed in the monster’s maw, in order to increase total utility.

How would the problem be affected if all sentient beings have their utility functions normalised into the same range, say -1 to +1, before comparisons are made?

Example 1: 51% (this is not a Brexit metaphor) of a group gained maximum possible normalised utility, +1, from something that caused 49% maximum possible normalised anti-utility, -1. Is that ethical? Really? My mind keeps saying “in that case look for another solution”, and so I have to force myself to remember that this is a thought experiment where there is no alternative to do—or—do-not… I think it has to be ethical if there really is no alternative.

Example 2: Some event can cause 1% to experience +1 normalised utility while the other 99% to experience -0.01 normalised utility (totalling -0.99). This is the reverse of the plot of Doctor Who: The Beast Below. Again, my mind wants an alternative, but I think it’s valid, that “shut up and multiply” is correct here.

Even if that worked, it’s not sufficient.

If you consider utility to be a space, where each sentient being is their own axis, how do you maximise the vector representing total utility? If I understand correctly, there isn’t a well-defined > or < operator for even two dimensions. Unless you perform some function that collapses all utilities together, you cannot have Utilitarianism for more than just one single sentient being within a set of interacting sentient beings — that function, even if it’s just “sum” or “average”, is your “ethics”: Utilitarianism is no more than “how to not be stupid”.


I am not a quantum physicist

I am not a quantum physicist. I do not write this prediction thinking that it is true or a novel deduction on the nature of reality. I write this prediction in order to test my own understanding of quantum physics.

Given all particles are fields:

  1. Fermions are those fields where probability is in the range 0-1 (or possibly -1 to +1, depending on antimatter).
  2. Bosons are those fields where probability can take on any positive or zero value (possibly also any negative value, depending on antimatter).

This “explains” why two fermions cannot occupy the same quantum state, yet bosons can. Inverted quote marks, because this might turn out to not have any explanatory power.

I’m fine with that, just as I’m fine with being wrong. I am not a quantum physicist. I don’t expect to be right. It would be nicer to find I’m wrong rather than not even wrong, but even that’s OK — that’s why I’m writing this down before I see if someone else has already written about this.


Irish border, WTO rules, Brexit

Disclaimer: I’m neither a lawyer nor involved in international trade, this is based on what I assume to be a massively over-simplified understanding of world trade rules.

The UK wants to leave the EU customs union. They are allowed to do this.

Leaving the EU customs union necessarily means that any goods crossing from the UK into the EU customs union will need to pass through customs checks. To stop this, the UK and the EU would have to agree (some sort of) trade deal — the UK does not have the power or the right to prevent this alone.

The UK has an agreement with the Republic of Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement, which reportedly means neither party is allowed to install customs checks on the border (does it? I’ve seen people claim that but I’ve not seen details). The terms of the Good Friday Agreement do not make it illegal for the UK to leave the EU customs union regardless, as there are ways to meet both requirements:

  1. The UK could blindly accept all goods from the EU.
  2. The border between the EU customs union can be somewhere other than the Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland border:
    1. The Republic of Ireland could leave the EU.
    2. Northern Ireland can become independent from the UK.
    3. Northern Ireland can remain within the EU customs union even after the rest of the UK leaves.
    4. There could be a new internal border within Northern Ireland.

All of these have problems, the question is which problems you’re willing to deal with.

The UK could blindly accept all goods from the EU

World Trade Organisation rules say that (outside of free trade agreements), all trade must be on the same terms as the most favoured nation: if you drop tariffs for one nation, you must drop them for all; if you accept goods from one nation without checking them, you must do so for all; etc.

If the UK accepts all goods from the EU without checking them, then the UK is obliged to also accept all goods from everyone else, also without checking them.

This does not oblige the EU to accept goods coming from the UK, but would allow the UK to be following all the rules.

The Republic of Ireland could leave the EU

The Republic of Ireland has no desire to do this. (It might happen).

Northern Ireland can become independent from the UK / Northern Ireland can remain within the EU customs union even after the rest of the UK leaves

The UK government will probably fall if this happens. (It might happen).

There could be a new internal border within Northern Ireland

I don’t know enough about the politics of Northern Ireland to be sure, but isn’t this sort of thinking exactly what caused all the fireworks between India and Pakistan, between and inside seemingly half of the nations in Africa, the reason the Berlin Wall was a symbol of the Cold War, and one of the main reasons Northern Ireland didn’t immediately become peaceful the moment the Republic of Ireland became independent from the UK?

Obviously, the only acceptable course from the perspective of the UK government is to try to force the Republic of Ireland to leave the EU. Fortunately for the Republic of Ireland, the UK government is wildly incompetent.

Oh, one more problem:

The Good Friday Agreement wasn’t just with the Republic of Ireland, it also involved the total disarming of all paramilitary groups. The paramilitary groups reportedly dragged their feet with that disarming, so even if the governments agree, there may be an undesirable fan-feces interaction.

Advice? I suppose you could invest in armoured reinforcement manufacturers, but this isn’t going to be fun for anyone.

Science, Technology

You won’t believe how fast transistors are

A transistor in a CPU is smaller and faster than a synapse in one of your brain’s neurons by about the same ratio that a wolf is smaller and faster than a hill.




CPU: 11nm transistors, 30GHz transition rate (transistors flip significantly faster than overall clock speed)

Neurons: 1µm synapses, 200Hz pulse rate

Wolves: 1.6m long, average range 25 km/day

Hills: 145m tall (widely variable, of course), continental drift 2 cm/year

1µm/11nm ≅ 1.6m/145m
200Hz/30GHz ≅ (Continental drift 2 cm/year) / (Average range 25 km/day)

Futurology, Software, Technology

Hyperinflation in the attention economy: what succeeds adverts?


Lots of people block them because they’re really really annoying. (Also a major security risk that slows down your browsing experience, but I doubt that’s the main reason.)

Because adverts are executable (who thought that was a good idea?), they also get used for cryptocurrency mining. Really inefficient cryptocurrency mining, but still.

Because they cost money, there is a financial incentive to systematically defraud advertisers by showing lots of real, paid-for, adverts to lots of fake users. (See also: adverts are executable. Can one advert download ten more? Even sneakily in the background will do, the user doesn’t need to see them.)

Because of the faked consumption (amongst other reasons), advertisers don’t get good value for money, lowering demand; because of lowered demand, websites get less money than they would under an efficient system; because of something which seems analogous to hyperinflation (but affecting the supply of spaces in which to advertise rather than the supply of money), websites are crowded with adverts; because of the excess of adverts, lots of people block them.

What if there was a better way?

Cut out the middle man, explicitly fund your website with your own cryptocurrency mining? Users see no adverts, don’t have their attention syphoned away.

Challenge: the problem I’m calling hyperinflation of attention (probably inaccurately, but it’s a good metaphor) would still apply with cryptocurrency mining resource supply. This is already a separate problem with cryptocurrency mining — way too many people are spending way too many resources on something which is only counting and storing value but without fundamentally adding value to the system.

Potential solution: a better cryptocurrency, one which actually does something useful. Useful work such as SETI@home or folding@home — if it must be a currency, then perhaps one where each unit of useful work gets exchanged for a token which can be traded or redeemed with the organisation which produced it, in much the same way that banknotes could, for a long time, be taken to a central bank and exchanged for gold. And the token could be redeemed for whatever is economically useful — a user may perform 1e9 operations now in exchange for a token which would given them 2e9 floating point operations in five years (by which time floating point operations should be 10 times cheaper); or the user decodes two human genomes now in exchange for a token to decode one of their choice later; or whatever.

A separate, but solvable, issue is that the only things I can think of which are processing-power-limited right now are research (climate forecasts, particle physics, brain simulation, simulated drug testing, AI), or used directly by the consumer (video game graphics), or are a colossal waste of resources (bitcoin, spam) — I’ll freely admit this list may be just down to ignorance on my part — so far as I can see, the only one of those which pairs website visitors with actual income would be the video games… but even then it would be utter insanity for the paid customers to have their image rendering offloaded onto the non-payers. The clear solution to this is the same sort of mechanism that currently “solves” advertising: automated auction by those who want to buy your CPU time and websites that want to sell access to your CPU time.

Downside: this will kill you batteries if you don’t disable JavaScript.


If I’m right about this, it’s luck, not skill.

Number #37 in the ongoing series of “questions that I can’t even articulate correctly without a PhD, and if I Google it I’ll just get a bunch of amateurs who’ve mistaken themselves for Einstein”:

What if the apparent factor of 10¹²⁰ difference between the theoretical energy density of zero-point energy and the observed value of the cosmological constant is because that energy has gone into curving the 6-or-7 extra dimensions of string theory so tightly those extra dimensions can’t be observed?

Testable (hah!) consequence: the Calabi–Yau manifolds of string theory would be larger (less tightly curved) inside Casimir cavities.

Futurology, Technology

Musk City, Antarctica

One of the criticisms of a Mars colony is that Antarctica is more hospitable in literally every regard (you might argue that the 6-month day and the 6-month night makes it less hospitable, to which I would reply that light bulbs exist and you’d need light bulbs all year round on Mars to avoid SAD-like symptoms).

I’ve just realised the 2017 BFR will be able to get you anywhere in Antarctica, from any launch site on Earth, in no more than 45 minutes, at the cost of long-distance economy passenger flights, and that the Mars plan involves making fuel and oxidiser out of atmospheric CO₂ and frozen water ice so no infrastructure needs to be shipped conventionally before the first landing.