Sunday, June 20, 2010

Building A True-Cost Economy

Guess what?  The prices we use to measure the value of goods don't accurately reflect their true value.  Surprised?  While it's probably impossible to internalize every cost into a good's price, there are certain well-known costs that are systemically left out:

People might think they're getting a sweet deal by paying less for gasoline, for example, but in fact these externalized costs are assumed by someone, somewhere, in various forms.  This raises serious concerns about fairness, especially when dealing with corporations, which have a massive incentive to externalize as much as possible to reduce the sticker price of their products.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Quantum Poker in Star Wars

Hardcore Star Wars aficionados may be familiar with Sabacc, the fictional poker-like card game popular with lowly spice smugglers and interplanetary tycoons alike.  Without delving too much into the nerdy arcana, players receive cards grouped by value (1-15 plus 16 face cards) and suit (Coins, Flasks, Sabres, Staves).  There are several rounds of betting, the pot going to the player with the strongest hand based on a specific hierarchy.  The main feature of the game is the shifting nature of the cards: while in a player's hand, every card may randomly change its value and suit based on a predetermined probability distribution.  During each round of betting, players have the option to place cards face down on the table.  This action locks in the card's value and suit, preventing further shifts.

So why is this relevant?  Sabacc provides a perfect real-world analogy for the concept of quantum superposition, or the condition of an object existing in several mutually-exclusive states simultaneously.  Emerging from modern particle physics, quantum superposition is perhaps best known by the famous thought experiment Schrödinger's Cat.  A key feature of quantum superposition is its collapse: whenever the superpositioned object is measured, its strange quantum condition ends and a single observable state emerges.  Returning to the Sabacc analogy, we can view a player as holding cards that exist in a probabilistic superposition.  Due to the random shifting, each card possesses not one value, but rather a probability distribution of every possible value.  Placing a card on the table collapses this distribution into a single value and suit.

The concept of quantum superposition, once relegated to the netherworld of quantum mechanics, is seeing an explosion of applications.  Most interesting is the fledgling field of quantum game theory, which allows for the quantum superposition of strategies by players, in addition to regular pure and mixed strategies.  For more information about quantum superposition and its exciting new applications, check out episode three of the Math For Primates podcast.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


The vast majority of my personal exposure to environmentalism--it values, beliefs, and culture--comes from sources that are mostly urban and east of the Mississippi river.  Through working this summer with multiple government agencies in Wyoming (Forest Service, State Parks, etc.), I've become acquainted with a different flavor of environmentalism, one uniquely Western and more grounded in natural resources and the idea of "use."

Exposure to use-oriented western environmentalism has supplied contrast to my mental framework of what environmentalism is.  By use-oriented environmentalism I mean the holding of environmentalist preferences for instrumental reasons: for example limiting fishing, logging, or hunting because it is economically rational in the long-run.  Conversely, the same policies might be supported by environmentalists driven by some existential view about the inherent sanctity of nature.

This distinction is not new.  The idea of conservation was a precursor to the modern environmental movement, but now that the cleavage exists, it increasingly seems that use-oriented environmentalism, grounded in economic rationality, is more connected to reality.  It is more flexible in its methods and better suited to attract mainstream support.  Most current environmental challenges are in fact process issues.  Everybody agrees that the problems should be solved, yet conflict emerges over potential solutions.  Use-oriented environmentalism is free from the baggage of a problem-obsessed ideological edifice and generates action solely within the solution domain.  Ideological environmentalism, although useful when facing unpleasant trade-offs, currently limits too greatly the range of "acceptable" solutions and may in fact be hindering progress on some issues, for example opposition to nuclear energy and genetically modified crops.

The science of ecology, biology, and physics unquestionably support a radically activist environmental policy.  Environmental issues are the single most important topic receiving society's attention; a framework of ecology and environmental physics underpins most other societal issues, and effective environmental solutions will trickle-up and benefit all aspects of society.  Despite these facts, staunch environmentalists must be cunning and strategic.  Promoting use-oriented policies, and describing issues in use-oriented terms, may be a more effective way of achieving environmentalist ends.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

News Fast

I've been working in Wyoming with minimal access to internet and news, and the lack of information about current affairs has been an interesting experience.  Most of the coverage in daily newspapers is of unimportant events that won't develop into anything of note.  Observing an event for only a day or two doesn't allow for any filtering: most news is simply background "noise."  Checking the news after substantial time away is a much more meaningful experience (versus the daily grind) because it allows for important events to reveal themselves.