Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Things that caught my eye over the past week or so:
  • Automated debt-collection lawsuits. This is like something out of one of my favorite SF novels, Charles Stross' Accelerando (free e-book!), where sentient financial instruments coexist with automated legal systems. I suppose it's only a matter of time before the techniques used to automate debt collection lawsuits are used to automate P2P lawsuits, or some other form of highly routinizable legal work; I know some legal work in the US is now routinely outsourced to India and other low-cost destinations (I'm sure there must exist some research on this).
  • I didn't know that the Iroqois confederacy issued its own passports. I suppose it makes perfect sense for sovereign Indian nations to do so, but it certainly makes it difficult for them to travel. I wonder how the world would look if more non-state groups did this - would the need for a passport diminish, or would we see even further differentiation in the value of a passport (with high-value passports, useful for entry to a lot of places, for some groups of people, and low value passports - like my own - for other groups)?
  • Some physicists apparently have been trying to argue that gravity is an effect of the second law of thermodynamics, not an independent force in itself. Though I cannot claim to understand this (and the article's author does not even try to explain), I always feel a certain frisson of excitement about this sort of work. I can imagine that it makes sense - that much about the universe is well described as an effect of the laws of probability (which is basically what the 2nd law of thermodynamics ultimately amounts to: the highest probability configurations of the world are those that take place on the macroscale). This sort of mathematical physics fits in with my instinctive platonism about physics and mathematics. (Really, click the link - platonism is alive and well at the highest levels of physics and mathematics: Tegmark argues that the universe, at the most fundamental level, simply is a mathematical object. And the early parts of the paper are not even too difficult to understand).
  • We are basically just walking bacterial ecosystems. One of the interesting things about our evolving understanding of our microbiota is that it seems that our "genes" should include the genes of our live-in bacteria. Thus, though we have about 23,000 protein-coding genes (and an unknown number of RNA-only regulatory switches and stuff we don't really understand) there are really something like 3 million protein-coding genes in our "extended genome" (i.e., counting our bacterial symbionts). These genes even get passed from parents to children in some imperfect ways (from the moment of birth, even).

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