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Crazy trading

So high-frequency trading is pretty clearly insane and has fuck all to do with useful economic activity. There are billions of dollars to be “made” out there, but they only reward whoever has the shiniest computers, fastest microwave connections to the stock exchange, and smartest algorithms; and they all come at the expense of those who think they can keep up but fall behind due to inferior ability to play the market.

Huge amounts of human endeavour are being poured into this system by those who hope to get personally rich from it. Not to blame them exclusively for that; they exist in a culture which tells them every day that making money is the most patriotic and noble thing you can do and so long as you stop somewhere short of literally drowning puppies in the process you should feel great about it.

And yet nobody’s producing anything useful while all this is going on. Nothing’s being built or designed; the creative or communal aspect of the human spirit is not being enriched. Just billions of dollars being thrown around, won and lost, inflicting massive rewards or punishments on the participants so chaotically that I’m not sure we’d notice the difference if it were truly random.

Obviously this is all crazy. But the mistake people make is in thinking it’s crazy like, say, quantum mechanics is crazy. Quantum mechanics is crazy, in the sense that it’s a bizarre and inexplicable and counter-intuitive system, which nobody would have designed anything like that, but it also has an unavoidable connection to the real world. It models our best current understanding of how the world just is, at a fundamental level. Whether you believe it or not, whether you want to rearrange things in a way that strikes you as more sensible or not, quantum mechanics is going to carry on, because that’s just how things are.

Whereas high-frequency trading is crazy like stoning gay people to death is crazy. It’s something our species invented, and which we’re quite capable of subsequently identifying as complete bollocks and rejecting as unworthy.

Here’s one of many, many available stories of someone the US government really, really wanted to murder. He was 17, and ended up on death row.

He was pretty clearly innocent, and it’s hard to imagine the gross extent of the incompetence and misconduct responsible for letting the case go as far as it did. Which is a great place to hang the argument against capital punishment: the system is completely unreliable, as evidenced by the fact that the government were preparing to execute a teenager, despite flimsy details like prosecutors knowingly lying about the evidence and airtight alibis being bizarrely ignored and the clear unreliability of witnesses being suppressed.

So we really can’t be sure innocent people won’t be killed unless we just stop killing everyone. The Innocence Project has counted 330 exonerations of convicted criminals in the last 25 years, through DNA testing, including some who were days away from being put to death. How many others weren’t caught in time?

All that’s still a good argument to make. But this is a reminder, to me as much as to anyone else, that I’d oppose the death penalty even if somehow those objections were utterly resolved.

The problems in any one particular case, with dishonest prosecutors and unreliable witnesses and so forth, are all basically moot. The end result was, you killed someone, or you were going to. I’m not okay with that, and it doesn’t really matter how you got there. No human system of establishing guilt will ever be reliable enough that it deserves to be granted that much trust – but even if it somehow were, let’s still not murder each other over it.

It goes like this: In 1893, a couple of lines of music were published in a book. The piece of music is eight bars long, and consists of a single-note melody which can be hummed in its entirety in about six seconds.

In 1927, this song was published in a separate compilation of similar musical pieces, with different lyrics which are known to have been informally attached to it for some time.

And now, as a result, if you want to reproduce the song Happy Birthday in any kind of media, you need to pay the Warner/Chappell Music Group for the right to do so, or risk being sued.

They collect millions of dollars every year this way. By claiming some bizarre kind of “ownership” of a universally familiar melody composed well over a century ago by some person or persons entirely unconnected with the people now profiting from it.

I’m trying to imagine a basically worse person than someone who’d demand money from someone else for the right to sing Happy Birthday. If you can think of anything more viscerally contemptible, let me know.

Handouts

Often, what prods me to get tetchy and social-justicey on the internet and bash out a minor socialist tirade has a lot to do with the free-loader problem.

Someone else writes about the problem of other people “expecting everything to be handed to them”, and how this is a major societal catastrophe which their preferred political system is capable of handling, while your preferred political system would give free reign to these entitled monsters and then calamity would somehow ensue.

My objection tends to be to the mischaracterisation: it’s not only dehumanising to brand a class of people as moochers in this way, it’s an incorrect assessment of how entitlement is actually distributed. It’s not actually true that capitalism is busy rewarding the hard work of those noble industrialists who contribute the most to society, despite the best efforts of entitled poor people to undermine the whole enterprise with their unreasonable demands for free stuff to just be given to them. This is an untrue narrative that serves to further entrench class divides and add to the troubles of those already having the hardest time.

Reading one particular justification of class inequality the other day, though, I had another thought: What’s so wrong with wanting stuff handed to you?

I mean, as the foibles of humanity go, we’re capable of vastly worse, and this one seems to be either justified or largely self-regulating.

If you demand the handing-over of unnecessary luxuries which you haven’t earned and people don’t think you deserve, then what you’ll actually receive is probably disappointment and frustration.

And if what you expect to have handed to you isn’t a luxury but part of the bare minimum requirements to allow you a tolerable existence, then maybe these are things we should just be handing to people regardless of how obnoxiously we think they’re asking for it?

So why is it worth the rest of us making such a fuss over it? If someone’s expecting too much to be handed to them which they don’t deserve, they’re damning themselves. If they’re expecting to be handed things people should feel entitled to, are you going to be the one to look at them holding their hands out and say “NOPE, sorry, you go hungry and sleep outside tonight because you were too much of a dick when you asked for food and shelter”?

It’s relatable, I admit, the way this freeloading problem is something people react to very viscerally and emotionally. But I’m not persuaded that a rational assessment would actually identify this as a major problem deserving of such a harsh crackdown. It might make you angry, and that’s understandable, but that doesn’t make you right, or give you right to indulge those angry instincts without questioning whether that helps anything. The fact that even mild entitlement earns such vicious castigation is a quirk of human psychology, not a fact about how objectively terrible people are.

Chess is a solvable game, right?

I mean, once you’ve defined the rules and the starting conditions, then everything else which can ever be said about it all follows inevitably from there. There’s no randomisation brought in from any outside elements, like rolling dice or shuffling cards. Every game of chess proceeds from an identical situation, under the same regulations as every other.

None of which has stopped its vast cultural significance. The more it’s studied, the more poetry and beauty folk seem to find inside it. Chess fanatics talk about it in terms of metaphors for human nature, among other things. The early games and midsections and endgames can be packed with apparent philosophical insights. There are styles of play which can reveal things about you, strategies you can adopt in a given position, and so on. We’ve been playing for centuries, and even those who’ve racked up tens of thousands of games don’t feel like its possibilities have been exhausted. Even starting from exactly the same board, against exactly the same opponent, doesn’t feel samey or unoriginal after decades.

And yet everyone who’s ever sat down to play a game of chess has either: been potentially able to force a win no matter what their opponent does; been able to force a draw; or been doomed to a loss however well they play, if their opponent plays perfectly. That is, depending on the colour you play, you’re always in the same one of those situations – we just don’t know which it is. With enough computing power we could. An answer exists, it’s just too mathematically unwieldy for us to have found it yet.

Would the game be less fascinating, if it were solved? If it was known and understood that, say, white could always force a win, that a sequence of moves exists which you could simply look up in response to whatever your opponent did (in an implausibly large book), which would lead step-by-step to a provable, guaranteed victory? Would the whole venture seem dull and pointless, if the sole deciding factor of the outcome of a game was no longer player skill, and could just be a matter of blindly following an algorithm? Would we stop playing, the idea of self-improvement and learning anything for ourselves suddenly seeming inconsequential and foolish?

If I were a proper writer I’d tie in some deep and impressive parable about free will to close this off.

I’ve never enjoyed Blade Runner, or anything by Philip K Dick. Which is probably heretical in some way; I don’t object to them or people who do enjoy them, they’ve just never landed with me.

I re-read Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep recently, and one thing I don’t get is why humanity gives a crap about tracking down and identifying the andys (or replicants) in the first place. Seriously, why does it matter? It doesn’t seem like they’re infiltrating us as the first phase of some kind of invasion plot; they’re not obviously physically superior to us, they don’t pose any particular threat. All they seem to want is to just get on with being alive and being treated as human, until they inevitably die in a couple of years anyway.

The differences between them and humans are made to sound deeply trivial, anyway. To tell them apart takes either a detailed bone marrow exam of some sort, or the Voight-Kampff empathy reflex test, which would surely produce wildly varying results for genuine humans anyway, and thus be unable to tell an android from just a common-or-garden sociopath.

So why does Deckard’s job exist? Why are substantial resources being spent on tracking, identifying, and eliminating andys at all, as well as continually researching superior methods for doing so? If they’re basically just people, why the fuck not let them get on with it? Why does the planet obsess over sorting them into the right category, so that we know whether they’re inhuman and must be exterminated?

There’s interesting ideas to explore there, about mankind’s insecurity, and why we feel the need to compulsively draw these boundaries to protect our sense of self, and the looming existential dread that we’d have to face up to if we acknowledged the way andys blur the bounds of what being human means. But exploring any of that doesn’t seem to be Dick’s point.

Later in the book, when one character feels empathy toward the plight of an android, they’re warned that this amounts to “reacting like they react”, and is taken as an unquestionably bad sign of some kind. But the idea that the natural human inclination is to feel empathy only toward other humans, and that we wouldn’t normally have the same feelings for a creature we know isn’t “really human”, is just bizarre. Humans will empathise with anything.

A single animation studio has, in the past couple of decades, made millions of people care deeply about plastic toys, insects, monsters that jump out of children’s cupboards to scare them, fish, robots, cars, and a bunch of vaguely person-shaped blobs representing anthropomorphised emotions, among many other non-human entities. Look at the human emotions and personalities the internet ascribes to cats, or sloths, or an elephant seal having its bucket stolen. We will attribute full agency and inappropriately gendered pronouns to a picture of a rock, and some of us will get tearful over how adorable it is if you give it googly eyes and a two-line tragic back-story.

I mean, it’s not like we wouldn’t find countless other ways to hate and dehumanise androids, however much like us they are. Just look at our track record of treating actual human people like shit. But the universally accepted obviousness of eliminating them for not being quite human enough was just another thing that felt unconvincing.

I mean, the science is pretty clearly in, so we know the social and economic benefits of providing everyone with a basic income would be vast. Apparently another bonus is that it makes people “more entrepreneurial“, whatever that means and whatever’s so great about it. Sounds less exciting than escaping the constant anxiety of being homeless and starving if the intrinsically fragile capitalist economy has a bit of a bad day and decides to fuck you up, but sure.

But another thing that’s actually interesting about it, is that a basic income makes sense of a bunch of other policies many economists have recommended, but which often make bleeding-heart lefty types like me bristle.

F’rinstance: charging people a flat fee to see their GP or attend A&E. All the articles I’m finding about it seem to be at least a year old, but I’m sure this cropped up again somewhere just recently.

Basic economics tells us that an increase in something’s price will reduce the volume of its consumption; an increase from free, to a nominal fee of £10 a visit, would ease the burden faced by the NHS and reduce the volume of people using its services, but only those people whose problems are worth less than a tenner would be foregoing any medical attention. Care is still available to anyone who’d really benefit from it, but those who don’t really need it won’t go along anyway on the grounds that “might as well, it’s all free”.

The point of having money, after all, is to allow people to express preferences in a meaningful, concrete way. People who wouldn’t “prefer” to see a doctor than whatever else that small nominal fee could provide – coffee with a friend in Starbucks, say – probably aren’t going to die or deteriorate abruptly based on that decision, since it can’t be bothering them that much.

The problem, as things currently stand, is that the people who’d end up “preferring” to do something else with their nominal fee wouldn’t be choosing between a hospital visit and some overpriced caffeine; they’d be choosing between a hospital visit and the gas bill for keeping their home warm. Or the food they were planning to buy for their children this week. Or the bus fare to get to the Jobcentre so the bastards don’t fucking sanction them again.

Some people are so rich they can have basically all the things they want, and the use of money as a way to express preference becomes meaningless on this scale, while some people are so screwed over by the system already that they don’t get to make choices between preferences in a way that’s remotely fair. Even if you try and means-test it, it’s another hurdle requiring poor people to prove their neediness once again before granting them access to basic medical care.

If only there was some way to make sure people didn’t face that kind of harsh, brutal, unjust, life-or-death dichotomy, and were free to make genuinely economically rational choices about how to allocate the resources available to them.

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