Sunday, January 31, 2010

GDP, GNP, and Quality of Life

It seems to me that measuring national progress against the benchmarks of GDP or GNP is, while not entirely unjustified, somewhat misguided. How does one benefit as a result of such increases in GDP or GNP? It is quite an abstract measure, but perhaps some might defend these queer yardsticks by claiming, "If GDP/GNP increases, this likely means that my income has increased!". Even if such a statement is true (which it may not be), I ask, "So what? How is that good?".

The subtext is, of course, that an income increase is good as it raises one's quality of life. But that raises a question- why not simply use the quality of life as a direct measure of national progress!

We of the modern age run the risk of mistaking financial strength as a core good. It is not; obviously our quality of life is by far the most important. Admittedly, GDP and GNP may be somewhat indicative of the average quality of life in a country, but this is at best a coarse measure. We ought not to focus on increasing GDP and GNP while losing sight of the true goal, which is to raise our quality of life. By concentrating on the wrong measures of progress, we are confounding ourselves, and exposing ourselves to a life of wealthy misery.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Wuxia: Part 1

Even the most ignorant of people amongst all the sects and schools in the entire Wulin know about the tumultuous event that happened fifty years ago. Then, the treacherous Shangguan Bo destroyed one of Wulin’s five major sects and almost sparked a war between nations. Fortunately, Shangguan Bo was stopped by the heroic Ren Juzhong, master of the Ren manor. Ren Juzhong was a good friend of Shangguan Bo, but he was able to put friendship aside and justly execute heaven’s way, killing Shuangguan Bo. Thus, a catastrophic war was barely avoided.

Shangguan Bo, before he was revealed to be a traitor and a man of great evil, was widely admired as a master of many arts, well deserving of the character “learned” in his name. He had acquired mastery in astrology, calligraphy, painting, and martial arts, among many other things. But it was his skill in venoms that caused the most harm to the world; he had invented a poison so deadly and ingenious that it was unparallel in history. This poison was called the “Seven Day Intestine Dissolving Powder”; dissolved in water, it was colourless, odourless, and tasteless, absolutely undistinguishable from just water; after consuming it, the victim would have no indication that he was poisoned until seven days later, where worms would gorge and consume the victim’s intestines from the inside. Lastly, the poison was impossible to neutralise by any medicine or remedy, and could not be expelled by internal energy either. It was indeed an ultimate toxin and weapon.

It was through underhanded trickery that Shangguan Bo managed to get the members of the Mofeng Sect to consume the Seven Day Intestine Dissolving Powder. None of them had suspected that they were poisoned. On the fifth day, Ren Juzhong arrived at the main hall of the Mofeng Sect with the Divine Doctor Xue and his young pupil. Ren Juzhong had learnt of Shangguan Bo’s evil plans through the great resources of his manor. Originally, the Ren clan was a family of wealthy traders with branches in many cities and towns within the empire, but they found that their trade routes and branches were also good for gathering information. Eventually, they began to deal exclusively in the trade of information, which only their resources and reach could gather effectively; and thus, the Ren manor became the centre of the most massive engine of news and rumors and secrets that the Wulin had ever seen. Thanks to this enormous and unrivalled engine, Ren Juzhong learnt of the poisoning plot, and tried to prevent it, but he knew he was too late. Hence, he had instead sought out the world’s greatest physician, Divine Doctor Xue, in an attempt to save the Mofeng Sect. Unfortunately, the Seven Day Intestine Dissolving Powder was indeed the chief among poisons; all the Divine Doctor could do was to diagnose that the Mofeng Sect members had been poisoned by some unknown poison. Indeed, at that point of time the Seven Day Intestine Dissolving Powder was unknown to the world, for Shangguan Bo had invented it in secrecy. Though the Divine Doctor was known for his ability to cure even diseases he had not encountered before, he was truly stumped by this new and mysterious poison; he was only able to witness the gruesome deaths of everyone in the Mofeng Sect, from the most skilled elders to the most junior of disciples. The Divine Doctor was so shocked by this scene of death, and so ashamed by his inaptitude, that henceforth he returned to his home in the mountains and went into a prolonged period of retreat, trying to research some cure to counter this potent poison that could only be described as being a devil’s gift from the eighteenth level of hell.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Chinese Blackjack (Ban-luck)

Chinese Blackjack, otherwise known as "Ban-Luck" to some Singaporeans, is interesting in that it is an almost symmetric game between the player(s) and the dealer. This is because the payouts and scoring rules are identical for both player and dealer, which contributes to the simplicity of the game. In fact, if the dealer chooses to play in a particular fashion, namely hitting his cards before revealing the players' hands, then it does become a perfectly symmetric game.

Conversely, a dealer's house advantage comes solely from being able to selectively reveal some players' hands before hitting. In other words, the dealer has an advantage in that he is able to first beat hands which are likely to be weaker (by being busted), and that he is able to further build up his hand to confront stronger hands.

Out of a pure curiosity, I was considering some potential strategies for Chinese Blackjack. However, most player strategies are likely to have a minimal impact, due to the inherently limited strategic nature of the game. Chinese Blackjack forces the player to draw til at least 16, in which case it is (by statistical reasoning) unwise to draw further. The only exception to this rule is when one has a 'soft' hand, comprising of one Ace. Though I have yet to perform a through analysis of the mathematics, I believe that it is better to hit in this case. There is a small chance of improving one's hand, but the main issue is to confound the dealer's opponent model by tricking him into believing that you have a busted hand.

As a dealer, there is much more room for strategic analysis. It is quite possible to compute, via extended Monte Carlo simulation, the probability of a 4, 3 card hand being busted (assuming the basic opponent model given by the hit-til-16 rule). Furthermore, with some computing power or pre-computed tables, it is possible to obtain the precise odds of a player's hand being superior to yours, and the odds of a drawn card improving your hand, given the already exposed hands. However, I have my doubts regarding the feasibility of such implementations.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Rational Egoism

Egoism is often equated to selfishness. This may be an overstatement; rational egoism is to selfishness as farsightedness is to shortsightedness.

Egoism asks for the individual to maximize his self-interest. Some believe that this necessarily leads to selfishness, but this conception is false. A rational egoist must come to the conclusion that in many cases, it is not possible to improve one's position without also improving the position of others. This may be imagined as the construction of a sort of self-interested altruism, where one gives up immediate self-interest in exchange for a greater yield, accumulated over time and many agents.

It is possible to derive at a form of "golden rule" based on the concept of rational egoism; one simply asks himself, for each action, whether the benefit of performing this action outweights the downsides of having the action performed against oneself. Of course, this construction suffers from the same problems as the golden rule itself, but it is nonetheless a good guide for moral actions.

A major issue with rational egoism is the issue of observer-less actions, or secret actions. If an act cannot be observed or traced back to the agent, then it seems to behoove the agent to behave in the most selfish manner possible. Conversely, an agent is motivated to act altruistically only if he is convinced that his action is able to affect others to behave similarly. This issue is worth addressing, but it cannot be adequately contained within the space of this margin, and must hence be discussed at a later date.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

How to Become More Wise

Here is a guide to becoming more wise.

1. Determine a method or benchmark by which the level of wisdom can be quantitatively evaluated. Lacking this, it is impossible to know whether you have become wiser, and hence you will surely fail in the quest for wisdom.

2. Having obtained a means of measuring wisdom, the next step is to brainstorm a number of potential wisdom increasing activities. Then, in a controlled fashion, test each of these activities, and record the change in wisdom effected by each activities.

3. Based on the previous wisdom data, choose the activity that is most effective at boosting your wisdom. Repeat the activity until you are sufficiently wise.

The above procedure is a scientifically sound way to raise your wisdom.