Thursday, December 01, 2011

quote of the year

By Marcel:
A preacher can almost never be persuaded by rational argument not to use fashionable technology. Hiding the extension cord is only a short-term fix. If the projector disappears or “accidentally” doesn’t work, they’ll just buy a new one. Something like TV B Gone might help in some cases, but often these things are hard-wired. Really I think PowerPoint, once in the church, does not go out except by prayer and fasting.

Monday, November 14, 2011

why I despise LinkedIn

LinkedIn is a career networking site that supposedly helps you find jobs. I guess it's because their business revolves so much around finding jobs, that they don't give a damn if they get people fired.

The site is filled with little traps that make it almost impossible to use it to look for a job without letting your current employer know that you are looking. Add a head hunter as a contact? Your current employer gets an email about it within the week. Ask someone for a recommendation? When you get the recommendation, it shows up on your profile and your boss gets an email about it. You can, if you know about it, hide recommendations that you receive, but the guy who sent you the recommendation can't hide it from his side. It shows up on his profile also, and if your boss is connected to him, your boss gets the email.

They don't tell you this stuff. And they keep adding things about you to the list of public information without telling you that they are doing so. You have to check your profile page regularly to see what they are telling the world --and especially business contacts and possible future employers-- about you.

Although LinkedIn is heavily used by employers in my area, I'm seriously thinking about deleting my account. Their despicable attitude towards user privacy makes Google look like a radical privacy advocate.

No. I'm not looking for a job. :) I just happened to look at my profile and noticed that it contains recommendations that I have given to other people even though I had no idea it was going to do this. In my world a "recommendation" is something private that is only seen by the person that you send it to. In LinkedIn, there is no such think as privacy.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

a former engineering student speaks out about the cruelty

Douglas Kern thinks that engineering schools are doing a bad job of teaching (link from Instapundit). His main complaints revolve around the fact that it is so hard to retain a good GPA and that the teaching tends to be poor. A similar article by Kenneth Anderson recently talked about how inflated grades in other disciplines are making it less attractive to go into science, math and engineering disciplines where grade inflation has not happened.

I don't think I agree with either assessment. People who hire engineers know about engineering classes and take it into account when they evaluate GPAs. The comparison of GPAs between departments is primarily of concern to extroverts and career climbers, but people like that would not typically make good engineers (there are exceptions of course).

Good engineers are people whose self image is bound up in the difficulty and the quality of their work, not on their level in the company hierarchy. They are people who focus on the problem, not on whether their customers or employers like them. Anecdote time: once upon a time, a sales rep told me a story about "successful" problem solving; it went something like this:
once upon a time, there was a tall building with a slow elevator. The building manager was beset with complaints about the slow elevator, so he installed mirrors in the elevator lobbies. People were distracted by the mirrors and stopped complaining about the slow elevators.
The sales rep thought he was telling me about a clever, out-of-the box solution to a problem. I, an engineer, was horrified. That building manager had completely misinterpreted the problem. Being a self-centered little prick (this is my engineering-based assessment of the building manager), he thought the problem was that people were complaining about the slow elevator. He didn't want to be bothered by the complaints. His solution was to reduce the complaints.

But the complaints were not the problem. The complaints were only an indicator of the problem. The problem was that the elevator was too slow. What occurred immediately to me, is that I hate slow elevators but have never complained to building management about them. I also don't enjoy looking at myself in the mirror. Yes, I am awesomely good looking but I don't get distracted by awesomely good-looking men. Now if he had put some good auto and hardware cheesecake calenders in the lobby, ... wait. I'm getting off of my point here.

The point is that I suspect there is a strong correlation between people who complain about slow elevators and people who are easily distracted by seeing themselves in a mirror. You may call this an introvert prejudice if you like. Yes, I do think extroverts are both the kinds of people who think that their minor inconveniences merit complaints more often than introverts do, and also that extroverts are the kinds of people who tend to be distracted by seeing themselves in the mirror. Also by small shiny objects. But regardless of who these people are, the manager only solved the trivial problem that some people were nagging him, while ignoring the real problem that was causing the nagging. It would probably have been cheaper for him to just ignore the nagging if he could not afford to fix the elevators.


So with that background, I'd suggest that engineering schools are doing a pretty good job at selecting for people who will be good engineers --namely introverts who love math, science, and making things work.

The hard grading and lower GPAs select for people who don't care much about how other people evaluate them. This will not be good for their career in general, but it makes them better engineers because it means that they tend to focus on solving the problem rather than on avoiding complaints. Good estimates (rather than optimistic ones), taking the time to get the job right, spending the money needed to do it right --these things tend to get complaints from customers and managers, but overall they make you a better engineer.

Even the poor teaching is beneficial at weeding out people who are not self learners or are not interested in the subject matter. Most of my teachers in math and science were horrible but I learned from the textbooks and from doing the problems. In fact, I preferred it that way. This is a very useful attribute as an engineer because modern science and technology change at a dizzying rate. If you aren't a self learner or are not personally interested in the subject matter, you have little chance of keeping up with it.

So you guys who where driven out of engineering should not feel that you got a raw deal. More than likely, if you were not cut out for an engineering education then you were not cut out for an engineering career. You should be glad that you found this out early rather than late.

UPDATE: It occurs to me that I ought to tie this in with Instapundit's crusade on the education bubble. Glenn Reynolds has been arguing that some higher-education schools have been deceiving students with highly optimistic promises of career success to get their money. Now he is linking to these two posts that criticize engineering schools, effectively for not taking money --by forcing people out of the program. Aren't the engineering schools doing the ethical and honest thing by making a serious attempt to weed out the kids who aren't cut out to be engineers? Do law schools do that?

I just did a quick DuckDuckGo search and found rates of passing the bar exam listed anywhere from 40% to 80%. I think that's appalling given how much the people taking the bar exam have spent on law school. From this (admittedly sparse) information, it looks to me like law schools are either making no effort to weed people out or they are doing a piss poor job of it.

Former law students are complaining about law school because they didn't have the career success they thought they should have, and former engineering students are complaining that they were forced to go into another field, while the engineering students who were able to graduate are all pretty happy with their educations. Who is doing things right here?

Sunday, November 06, 2011

another melancholy milepost

I went to see a movie yesterday and the guy at the ticket counter asked me if I wanted a "senior" ticket. First time for me. Made me so depressed I had to go buy dark chocolate.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

pretzels, fries, and cinnamon buns

This foody post by Marcel made me think, "Why are Obama and Romney giving out rice-and-bean recipes?" There is probably some subtle subtext to the post, but it is beyond me.

More importantly, Firefox mentioned pretzels and that naturally made me think about chili-cheese fries. Seriously. I'm talking about food here, not making culinary metaphors. The reason I tie these two things together (pretzels and chili-cheese Fries, not food and metaphors) is because they are the two snack foods that I never tried for a long time.

When bacon cheeseburgers came out (yes, I have changed the subject again, please try to keep up and I will tie it all together at the end), I was among the first the try them. This was fairly easy since I was eating fast food for 10 or 12 meals per day anyway. They were woefully disappointing. I mean, I love bacon, and I love cheeseburgers, but the best way to eat a bacon cheeseburger is to take out the bacon and eat it, then eat the cheeseburger. Bacon just doesn't add anything to cheeseburgers.

It was with this history of crushing disappointment that I first became aware of these new-fangled chili-cheese fries. Sure, I love chili, I love cheese, and I love fries, but putting the three together didn't sound all that promising, especially given how much I love just plain fries with copious amounts of ketchup and/or tabasco sauce. Mmm.

Where was I? Oh, yes. So although I am a man of adventurous nature, looking ever to the next frontier, scorning the settled life and striving ever after the next range of unknown mountains, the next untamed sea, yet even for me, I thought the chili-cheese fries might be a bridge too far. The problem is not that I feared to taste them, it was the opportunity cost. If I ordered chili-cheese fries then I could not order regular fries, and given that don't allow myself to eat fries that often, this is a severe negative cost. So for years --decades even-- I labored on in ignorance of the taste of chili-cheese fries.

One day that all changed. For no reason, I decided to take my meal in my hands, brave the specter of crushing disappointment, and order chili-cheese fries. I won't keep you in suspense; I'll tell you right now how I felt about them. Not for me the cheap writer's trick of building up to a climax and then stretching it out, annoying the reader with pointless filler. You, dear reader, wish to know how I felt about these chili-cheese fries and I shall tell you: they were amazing. More than amazing, they were stunning. More than stunning, they were fried-potato nachos. Have I mentioned that I love nachos? Well, consider it mentioned.

I had been thinking of these chili-cheese fries all wrong. They weren't some bizarre combination of chili, cheese, and french fries, they were nachos, substituting french fries for corn chips. Looked at like that, how could you go wrong? Not that chili-cheese fries will steal my heart away from fries-with-ketchup or from traditional nachos, for that matter, but they have earned a place in my heart like the bacon cheeseburger could never do --a place warm and spicy and salty, with onions and jalapenos. And to be eaten with a fork, because fries are too narrow to scoop up the chili on their own.

And this inevitably brings us back to pretzels. Like chili-cheese fries, pretzels have long been on my radar as a potential snack adventure. I'm talking about those humongous twisted pretzels with topping on them, not the little pretzels you buy by the bag when you don't feel you deserve the true joy of potato chips. Like chili-cheese fries were, pretzels are an adventure that I have yet to taste because they are fraught with opportunity costs. Near every pretzel stand is a Cold Stone Creamery or a Cinnabun or some other snack-food place with known sugary goodness. Buying a pretzel would foreclose the opportunity to have a snack that I already know that I love.

Is it worth the risk? I know not. The struggle continues with every visit to the mall. One day, perhaps. Yes. One day, perhaps.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

two earthquakes in one day

There was a 4.2-magnitude in San Francisco around 2pm today. At my place it was just a sudden jerk like you would get if you were in a car going two or three miles per hour and slammed the breaks.

Just now (about 8:30pm) there was another one. It felt a big more vigorous and lasted a lot longer. Maybe 5 seconds or so. I'll have to wait a while for the news to tell me what the size was.

Well, the main reason I moved to the Bay Area was to experience an earthquake. I've experienced about 5 now, so maybe it's time to move to some place that has hurricanes.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

3-wheelers

I've been browsing through this wonderful web site called 3-wheelers.com. They have a list of hundreds of historic and current 3-wheel vehicles and some of the historic ones are amazing. I was surprised to find that one of the first cars ever manufactured was a 3-wheel steam vehicle invented in Phoenix, AZ in 1887.
What is surprising about this, is that Arizona was so distant from the manufacturing world in 1887 and I have always thought of Phoenix as being a small town before about 1920. It's amazing that one of the earliest motorcycles and earliest cars were both invented there by an interesting individual named Lucius Copeland.

Even older is the Stream Dray built by Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, an engineer in the French army.
The Steam Dray was built in 1769! That's over a hundred years before Copeland's tricycle. I'm not sure how Copeland's can count as possibly the first car, but I imagine automobile historians have certain criteria for what makes a self-propelled machine a car or not.

The brief history given at 3-wheelers.com suggests that the French were ahead in steam technology until the French Revolution, when Cugnot was exiled. After that Great Britain became the most advanced nation in steam power.

Finally, there is the 1942 Arzens L'Ouf.
This French vehicle is primarily interesting because it looks like the inspiration for the Jetson's flying car.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

old horrors

For all of my reading of speculative fiction, I had never read anything by H. P. Lovecraft before two weeks ago when I bought a big E-book collection of his stories for something like $3. I've read quite a few by stories by now, including the famous "Call of Cthulu" and "The Dunwich Horror", and I have yet to get even a faint shiver of fear or loathing, not to mention any nightmares.

I guess I have to put it down to movies. I think I've become so jaded by Hollywood monsters that poor Mr. Lovecraft doesn't have much hope of impressing me. In fact, I find his drawn-out description of disturbing and unnatural landscapes, buildings, and artefacts to be a bit tedious, with a faint odor of desperation in mood-setting.

But I don't think movies explain my impatience with his frequent horrors that drive men insane just by seeing them, or just by hearing about them. I find the very notion a bit silly.

The stories are good, but they could all be improved by cutting out half of the mood-setting.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

I guess conservatives get to distort the truth too

This bothers me: San Juan Capistrano Fines Family for Reading Bible without Permit (link from Instapundit). What bothers me is not that the city is requiring a permit to read the bible, but that Reason is lying about what happened. If you read carefully, you will see that the family was having regular Bible studies with up to 50 people in a residential neighborhood.

Fifty people! That's enough to cause plenty of parking and other problems for their neighbors. Not only does that sound like a good reason to fine them, it sound like a good reason to censure them for being rude to their neighbors --even if they did get a permit.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

the perils of unconstrained creativity

One of the most damaging features of the computer age is creativity. Creativity must cost the world thousands of man-hours of wasted productivity every day as experienced computer users have to constantly learn new interfaces for no good reason.

Microsoft is common offender, changing interfaces with each new release of every major product. Almost none of the changes have been an improvement and more than a few have been worse than the previous interfaces. I suspect they do it just so that new users have something to talk about, thereby creating buzz about the new release and enticing other users to try it --even though the functionality changes are not really worth an upgrade.

Unfortunately, open source projects follow the Microsoft lead. I just spent five minutes trying to figure out how to shut down a machine running Gnome. Eventually I gave up and spent too long trying to figure out how to bring up a shell window so I could type a shutdown command. When someone who has been using multiple different kinds of computers for thirty years can't figure out how to turn off a computer with five minutes of searching then there is something seriously broken about the user interface of said computer.

None of this innovation in user-interface design is either necessary or useful for the large majority of users. There has not been a notable improvement in computer interfaces since Windows 95. I don't care if people want to make up odd little places to put menus and buttons, but every computer system should start up with an option: "Use Win95 Interface?" for people who don't want to deal with their crap.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

the poor and the pseudo-poor

Foxfier does great rants when she really gets her dander up.

What is dander, anyway?

UPDATE: Eww. According to Wikipedia, "Dander is material shed from the body of various animals, similar to dandruff. It may contain scales of dried skin and hair, or feathers." Who would make up a disgusting saying like that? Maybe I heard it wrong and it's really something else.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

the mysterious lack of motivation on the Katrina Bridge case

Instapundit links to this article about some police who were convicted of civil right violations for shooting some unarmed civilians on Danziger Bridge after Hurricane Katrina. Reading the article, I was starting to become more and more outraged about the officers actions, and then I started to notice something --I had no idea why the officers would open fire on a group of civilians.

The article gives no hint. In fact, it makes no effort whatsoever to give the officer's side of the story or relate any facts whatsoever that are sympathetic to the officers. It leaves you with the impression that you had six police officers standing around doing nothing. They see a family of civilians crossing a bridge and then decide, "Hey, let's shoot those guys!" So the police open fire, killing two and wounding four more.

Well, that's ridiculous. Whether the officers had a good reason or not, they had a reason. Why doesn't the reporter want to tell me the reason? I suspect another media coverup. So I did some googling and found lots more articles that also don't explain why the officers started shooting.

The Wikipedia entry didn't tell my why the officers shot either but they had a link to another article on another mysterious unmotivated post-Katrina shooting by police. Mysteriouser and mysteriouser. But then, wait: the Wikipedia article slipped up and added this damning quote by the judge: "Henry Glover was not at the strip mall to commit suicide. He was there to retrieve some baby clothing. You killed a man. Despite your tendentious arguments to the contrary, it was no mistake."

Baby clothes? Isn't that special. The looter was only looking for baby clothes. I'm sure that if he ran across a flooded jewelry store that he wouldn't have pocketed anything. He was just going to take advantage of the lawless situation surrounding the flooding to throw a rock through a window and grab some cute clothing for his baby. The fact that he was only looking for baby clothes make all the difference. This quote is damning, not for the police officer but for the judge. It demonstrates that the judge is making a political decision rather than a judicial decision.

When I added the word "looting" to the google search, I found a CNN article that mentions that the people who were shot were crossing the bridge towards a place where looting was going on and where the looters were armed. Did the police order them to go back and they refused because they figured that the police could not enforce the order due to the breakdown of civil control? Were they actually crossing the bridge in the other direction, coming from the looted area pushing shopping carts full of loot? I have no confidence at all that CNN would tell me the truth if this were the case.

Here is one article that explains that there was wide-spread looting after the flooding and that New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin had declared martial law and ordered the police to "take back the city". Apparently Nagin had no legal authority to do that, but would regular police know that? Some of the police captains are reported to have ordered officers to shoot looters. But Nagin and the police captains aren't being tried. The only people being tried here are the police officers who were in the middle of it after three days on insufficient sleep and watching looters tear the city apart, adding a human-caused disaster to the natural disaster.

Charges against these police were originally dropped by a judge for prosecutorial misconduct. I guess the judge, like me, suspected that a lot of this was political. But that's not the end of it, because, as we know from the Rodney King case, the US has an exception to the double-jeopardy rule of the constitution: when white police officers are accused of attacking black people and get off, then the feds get another crack at it. I'm only guessing that the victims were black --the news accounts carefully do not give any information about the people who were shot.

I don't really know what happened at Danziger Bridge that day. The police claim that they were being shot at, and although they planted a gun, that does not prove that they were not shot at or did not believe that they were being shot at. It's frankly a bit unbelievable that an officer would empty the clip of an AR-15 without thinking that he was being shot at. The news reports indicate that there were witnesses who said the civilians were not shooting at police, but the reports are careful to give no information about these witnesses --information such as "what were they doing there?" and "where the witnesses looting too?"

I am starting to suspect that a great injustice has been done against these police officers.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

the first avenger

I never read a Captain America comic book, so I don't really know much about the character, but the new movie, "Captain America: the First Avenger" is very good. It doesn't flinch from making Americans the good guys like some recent films have done (ok, like GI Joe did). It has a good guy that you want to cheer for and a bad guy that you want to boo. The action scenes and 3d effects are fun and entertaining.

The romance between the female lead and the hero is very much like what one might have seen in a move from the 1940s. Thankfully the screen writes managed to resist the cliche of having the couple end up in bed together just before the climactic battle. Unfortunately, they didn't resist the cliche of making the woman be "as good as a man" at fighting.

This cliche annoys me as much as the knife-throwing cliche. Knife-throwing is really hard. I know because I've spent time practicing it. Yet 9 out of 10 action heroes is able to whip out a knife in an emergency and throw it thirty feet into the throat of the bad guy. Look, screen-play writers, the whole reason that knife throwing used to be dramatic is because in real life it is a very hard thing to do. It requires hundreds of hours of dedicated training to get good and regular practice to stay good. Because the skill is so hard to acquire, it made the hero more impressive for having the skill. But by now it has been so over used that it's just another cliche. No one even thinks about how hard it would be to do that because it is just one of the arsenal of skills that every action hero is expected to have.

Same thing with women fighters. In real life, there are very few women who could last even two minutes in the ring with any reasonably athletic man. It would require the same sort of dedicated training that professional athletes engage in and even then the woman would not do very well against men who are trained fighters. Consequently, a warrior woman who could kick the crap out of a male warrior was an impressive and dramatic character. Now, it's just the expected thing of women in action movies. Hollywood screen writers have ruined the drama by turning an impressive character into a cliche.

Er. Back to the movie review ... actually, this isn't so much a review as a recommendation. I give the move 4 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

running on the water

When I was young, I used to tease my younger brothers by making up wild stories to see how much I could get them to believe. It wasn't really fair since they were considerably younger than me (and yet today they both look older, how sad is that?), but I had a good time with it.

You've got to hand it to the real pros, though. A group of guys have made a fake documentary about the new "sport" of liquid mountaineering. The sport involves running into a pond so fast that you actually run on top of the water for a few steps. It's a well-made spoof and they have managed to pick up some believers.

You can see the video here.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sarah Palin on Down's syndrome

Here is an excerpt from a letter that Sarah Palin sent to her family a few days before her son, Trig, was born (link from instapundit). She writes the letter as if a note from God to her family, explaining his purpose in giving them a child with Down's syndrome:
Then, finally, I let Trig's mom and dad find out before he was born that this little boy will truly be a GIFT. They were told in early tests that Trig may provide more challenges, and more joy, than what they ever may have imagined or ever asked for.

At first the news seemed unreal and sad and confusing. But I gave Trig's mom and dad lots of time to think about it because they needed lots of time to understand that everything will be OK, in fact, everything will be great, because I only want the best for you!

I've given Trig's mom and dad peace and joy as they wait to meet their new son. I gave them a happy anticipation because they asked me for that.

I'll give all of you the same happy anticipation and strength to deal with Trig's challenges, but I won't impose on you... I just need to know you want to receive my offer to be with all of you and help you everyday to make Trig's life a great one.

This new person in your life can help everyone put things in perspective and bind us together and get everyone focused on what really matters.

The baby will expand your world and let you see and feel things you haven't experienced yet. He'll show you what "true, brave victory" really means as those who love him will think less about self and focus less on what the world tells you is "normal" or "perfect°.
How can you not love a person who is capable of writing such a beautiful letter? More disturbing, what dark sickness of the soul could lead so many people to such unreasoning hatred of Sarah Palin, of the sort of woman who could write this letter?

This letter only came out because the state of Alaska (for reasons entirely unclear to me) has released all of Palin's private correspondence from the time that she was governor of Alaska and various old-media outlets have swarmed the letters looking for ammunition to bring down the hated Sarah Palin. With the United States in three wars, with a dozen Republican presidential candidates to cover, with a badly sagging economy, with Communist China becoming a growing military power, with at least three sitting Congress people involved in current scandals, with a presidential administration filled with tax cheats, former lobbyists, and people with radical political histories --what our national media wants to spend their time investigating is a pile of daily private emails of the former governor of one of the smallest-population states and vice presidential candidate who lost an election three years ago. This is how driven they are to attack her. This is how deep their hatred is.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

am I anti-intellectual?

Am I anti-intellectual? That may seems a strange question to ask for someone who has a PhD, who reads philosophy for entertainment, who likes to discuss Kant, thermodynamics, artificial intelligence, foundations of mathematics, ... and well, you get the idea ... why would someone like that be asking if he is anti-intellectual?

It's because I've been described as anti-intellectual by Larry Sanger (link from Instapundit). I don't mean that he described me specifically as anti-intellectual, but that he described what he sees as an anti-intellectual movement among "geeks", and I seem to fit his description to a large extent. Like his anti-intellectual geeks, I am employed in the computer industry. Like them, I am not particularly impressed by or intimidated by credentialed experts such as college professors. Like them, I am not too worried about an "information glut". Like them, I think reading "War and Peace" sounds like a colossal waste of time. Like them I think memorization is not very valuable in a world where facts are so easy to check and it is enough in many cases to simply remember a broad outline. If you need details, you can always refresh your memory on-line. I also tend to think that college educations today are over-rated and a lot of people would be better off if they did not feel that they had to go to college to be a success.

However, I seem to have a somewhat different take on these things than Sanger. He summarizes what he takes these views to be. I'll quote his summary below with my response in italic
1. Experts do not deserve any special role in declaring what is known. Knowledge is now democratically determined, as it should be.

I would not say that experts have no role at all but that experts with traditional credentials no longer receive the same level of deference that they used to receive. This is partly because there are so many credentialed experts, and partly because it is so easy to go on-line and find another credentialed expert to contradict whatever your credentialed expert says.

2. Books are an outmoded medium because they involve a single person speaking from authority. In the future, information will be developed and propagated collaboratively, something like what we already do with the combination of Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Wikipedia, and various other websites.

I don't think books will vanish, but they will become less and less important relative to other information sources.

3. The classics, being books, are also outmoded. They are outmoded because they are often long and hard to read, so those of us raised around the distractions of technology can’t be bothered to follow them; and besides, they concern foreign worlds, dominated by dead white guys with totally antiquated ideas and attitudes. In short, they are boring and irrelevant.

He has the reason wrong. The classics are not outmoded as knowledge; to the contrary they never were of any particular value as knowledge. Their only value was as a cultural indicator to demonstrate to others what social class you were in. They are outmoded not because their knowledge has become antiquated, but because no one any longer wants to be a member of the social class that they define.

4. The digitization of information means that we don’t have to memorize nearly as much. We can upload our memories to our devices and to Internet communities. We can answer most general questions with a quick search.

yes

5. The paragon of success is a popular website or well-used software, and for that, you just have to be a bright, creative geek. You don’t have to go to college, which is overpriced and so reserved to the elite anyway.

Once again, Sanger misses the point because he misses the class implications. College is not primarily about gaining knowledge except in certain limited fields such as engineering. Primarily it is about establishing class membership and a marker of success. Modern geeks have largely dispensed with college as a marker of success and have largely constructed their own class system which --while it does still offer some deference to education-- offers more deference to other signs of success.

Sanger displays what I think is his greatest misunderstanding of the geek mindset a few lines later:
You don’t really care about knowledge; it’s not a priority. For you, the books containing knowledge, the classics and old-fashioned scholarship summing up the best of our knowledge, the people and institutions whose purpose is to pass on knowledge–all are hopelessly antiquated.
I've never seen any sign of this attitude. Instead, geeks value knowledge highly, but they they value only certain kinds of knowledge. In particular, they do not value the knowledge to be found in the classics, viewing it as a mere bit of arcane culture. Objectively speaking, "War and Peace" is no more valuable as knowledge than say, knowledge of ancient Japanese theater or the Talmud or an encyclopaedic knowledge of baseball statistics. The fact that Sanger picks one of these things and arbitrarily assigns it the status of Important Knowledge strikes me, and probably the average geek, as simple cultural prejudice.

Furthermore, I think it is not just geeks that feel this way. Sanger has simply hit upon the process of cultural evolution. The old cultural elite tries to solidify their authority and power by surrounding themselves with tokens of power and Signs of wisdom. Whether by accent or skin color or clothing, or ability to quote scripture, or the ability to quote Leo Tolstoy (I found the author of "War and Peace" by googling), the current set of elites try to recognize each other and keep each other in power.

While the elites hire everybody, those who show the Signs are those who are destined for promotion and greater things. They vote for other cultural elites and appoint cultural elites to their boards. Sure, they may let a few who are not of the Blood into the halls of power, but only those who grasp after the Signs, who do whatever they can to learn and mimic he Signs, panting after the affirmation of the true elites like loyal puppy dogs. Such people the elites suffer, on occasion, to rise.

Then one day a new opportunity comes along, whether a technology, or a trade route, or a new land to exploit, and great wealth flows to some among the non-elite. Even worse, this great wealth flows to some of those of the great unwashed who not only are non-elite, but do not even grasp at the approval of the elites. Some even show contempt or !gasp! condescending amusement at the Signs! When such barbarians gain enough wealth then they gain power. They gain power on their own, not as a favor from the elite but despite the contrary efforts of the elite. And then the elite are shocked that these people do not hold the traditional Signs in proper respect.

So if intellectualism is to be understood as an appreciation for the cultural knowledge of the elites, then I am proud to be listed among the anti-intellectuals. Well, my attitude is not so much against intellectualism as it is condescending toward intellectualism. Isn't that cute how they all think their classics are so important? It's fun to watch those intellectuals talking, like watching baseball fans argue about who was the best left fielder of all time, so absorbed in their little cultural minutia.

But fear not. Our day will come as well. One day I, or a spiritual descendent, will record a vocaleet (a vocally recorded comment that is automatically grammer-corrected, reduced to text, and posted on the Idea Circle --a concept somewhat related to a world-wide group blog) complaining about those disrespectful punks who think they are so smart because they made their money mining astroids but they don't know any QRHTML76.2 so they have to hire people to manage their on-line life and they couldn't recognize a Monty Python quote to save their life. What a bunch of maroons.

Monday, May 02, 2011

how I would have done it

It looks like Osama bin Laden is dead; killed by an American military assassination squad. People are cheering Obama as the great hero who made this happen, but it looks like a major goof to me.

Here is how you run an operation like that.

Phase 1 at 0 - 12 hours, General Alert: put all of your intelligence and counter-terrorism operations on high alert. If you have been thinking about bugging any terrorist telephones, now is the time to do it.

Phase 2 at 0 hour, Ground Mission: The Seals land, grab Osama and anything that looks intelligence-worthy, then beat feet. They work as quickly and quietly as possible with silenced or suppressed weapons. They are wearing and carrying nothing but generic equipment so there is nothing that would identify them as American in case any witnesses survive Phase 3.

Phase 3 at approx. 0 + 1 hour, Create Confusion: As soon as the Seals are out of the blast zone, hit the site with a huge bomb or two. Maybe cruise missiles.

Phase 4 at approx 0 + 1 hour, Interrogation: begin waterboarding the hell out of Osama until he gives up everything he knows. Have the intelligence teams that were standing by begin analyzing all of the security information, tracking down the numbers in his cell phone, everything.

Phase 5 at 0 + 4 hours, Foster Confusion: Have a general get on TV and announce that a few hours ago, US forces bombed a site in Pakistan where we believe Osama was hiding.

Phase 6 at 0 + 5 hours. Sell the Confusion: Publicly and formally demand that the Pakistani government give us access to the site to look for Osama's remains.

Phase 7 (time depends on prisoner cooperation and investigative success), Double Scoop: have all of those counter-terrorism units that were standing by act on the intelligence information that they got from Osama to capture more terrorists.

Phase 8 at 0 + 3 days, Mess With Heads: Announce that Osama was actually captured alive and has been cooperating with terrorism investigators. Announce that we are about to start rounding up terrorists all over the world (note that phase 7 has already completed, though). Listen to phone traffic to find out who is scared about this announcement.

OK, confession time: I'm not exactly a counter-terrorism expert. But doesn't the above make sense? Why in the world would you give up the chance at a major intelligence coup like that? Is Obama just worried that he won't know what to do with an Osama prisoner now that he has worked so hard to delegitimize the tools of hard interrogation, military detention and military trials?

Saturday, April 30, 2011

multiple forwards in Firefox 4

Ever since I upgraded to Firefox 4 I've been seeing this weird bug. I will follow a link to a site, read the site and then hit the back button, but the back button does nothing. So I look at my history and see that somehow the site I am on still has two to four entries in the history --meaning that I would have to hit the back button some three to five times get away from the page. And that is assuming that more history items don't get added each time I hit "back".

I'm not sure that this is a browser bug. It may be some trick used by the web sites to defraud their advertisers over how many hits they are getting, but I almost never saw it before I upgraded.

And I am running the noscript plugin which prevents the sites from running javascript, so if they are doing this deliberately, I don't know how.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

space --the final frontier

I remember the first moon landing. I was very young and I confess that the memory is shrouded by time. I can recall a small television set up on the crafts counter in my class room. I recall watching with my classmates as a man in a bulky white suite with a sinister dark face plate. He made an awkward little hop from the ladder down to the ground and that was it. A man stood on the moon. I don't remember if there was any cheering in the classroom. We were too young anyway to really understand what a remarkable thing had just occurred. The television picture was jerky, overcome occasionally with static and the occasional loss of horizontal sync so that the picture would start slowly scrolling off the top of the screen and then entering back at the bottom.

If I did not fully grasp the miracle of this triumph of the rocket age, displayed live on television --small-screen, low-resolution, television with an unstable picture, but television nevertheless --what I did grasp was the excitement. What I did grasp was that this was that this was the beginning --the opening of a new age, an age where physicists and engineers would control the direction of society, an age of a vast new frontier, an age of exploration and enterprise. What I did grasp was completely and utterly wrong.

What I did not understand at the time was that the real challenge of the moon-landing generation was never the moon, but was Communism. The moon landing, like Vietnam, like Korea, like the Olympics, were really all about the fight of the free nations of the world against the creeping darkness of totalitarian empire. That battle against Communism, I understand today, was far more crucial for the future of mankind than was space exploration and that the resources used in space exploration were really meant to defeat a deadly enemy of civilization.

I understand this but still, I confess, it hurts. The space landing was a pivotal point in my young life. It was what made me decide to become an engineer. Growing up in the days of Apollo, nothing to me seemed nobler than to be an engineer, advancing the capabilities of the human species. I read every science fiction book I could find in the juvenile section of the local library. I was introduced to Tom Swift, EE Doc Smith, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Andre Norton, Robert Heinlein, the concepts of time travel, faster-than-light travel, aliens, psionics, teleportation, robots, space stations, undersea cities, asteroid mining, beautiful space princesses that needed rescuing by good red-blooded American men, and many other things too marvelous to believe. When I had read all of the science fiction in the juvenile section, I went to the adult section where I was introduced to Roger Zelazny, Jack Vance, Arthur C. Clark, and the concepts of dystopias, solipsism, group sex, libertinism, anti-heroes, human evolution into something non-human, and other ... now that I think of it, all of the good stuff was already there in the juvenile section.

But even though a lot of adult science fiction was pretty disappointing to me as a juvenile (and still is to me as an adult), I still read all that I could. I also read books on physics and other sciences. I subscribed to Science News. I read encyclopedias. All of this was not because I wanted to be an intellectual but because I wanted to be an adventurer and I thought that scientists and engineers had adventures. I blame Tom Swift for this misunderstanding.

When Skylab came along, I was thrilled: the first real Space Station! Sure, it was only an experimental living quarters but it was the first step towards opening up the space frontier. Soon there would be commercial applications like asteroid mining, orbital power stations, orbital factories, and the like. Then Skylab was allowed to die a fiery death through neglect, and there were no plans for a successor.

When the Space Shuttle came along, I was thrilled: a low-cost reusable space vehicle! Sure, it was only for astronauts and government launches, but in a few years --ten at the most-- there would be another generation, one that would open up space to commercial applications like asteroid mining, orbital power stations, orbital factories, and the like. A-a-a-a-and nothing. The shuttle was, frankly, a sad failure that never spawned any new technology and never even delivered many of the benefits that it had promised.

Over time, it became painfully clear that the window had closed and that there would never be an opportunity for me to go to space; to join in the great adventure of helping to open a new frontier. The world had failed to deliver what it had promised me all of those years ago when I was encouraged and guided into a life as an engineer.

It's not that I haven't enjoyed being an engineer --I have-- but I didn't become an engineer to help deliver SMS messages faster and more reliably or to create practical systems for police to investigate phone-call histories; I became an engineer to help open the next great frontier. I got screwed.

What happened? There were only about 25 years between the first airplane flight and the first trans-oceanic commercial airline service. The first space flight was in 1961. It is now 2011 --50 years later-- and there is no sign of any sort of regular commercial service. Why hasn't space flight followed the path of air flight? I think that the reason is, at least in part, NASA.

Imagine that you are an investor and sometime over the last few decades someone came to you with a proposal to build a fleet of ships capable of carrying cargo into orbit and back. What would you say to him? I think that you would say, "Space is too big for a single company! Look at NASA. They are the freaking federal government and even they can't make space flight practical. A single flight costs a half billion dollars. Don't you have an idea for a web site? Maybe one that would attract the profitable female demographic with pictures of fuzzy kittens or something?"

NASA's failures, I speculate, discouraged others from trying and suppressed investment. I also speculate that this is why a lot of space fans weren't too upset when Obama cut NASA's budget. I think a lot of us would just as soon see this bloated and failed monstrosity die. Saying such a thing is not easy for me. I was a big fan of NASA during the Apollo and Skylab days. There was a time when I very much wanted to work for NASA. But those days are over. The days when NASA contributed significantly to space technology are over. Let NASA be swept out the door to make room for new players who may do a better job.

So all of that was just an introduction for this speech by one of the new players in the space program, Jeff Greason, CEO of XCOR Aerospace (link courtesy of Instapundit as most of my links seem to be...). This speech is tremendous. I confess it made me a bit misty. I'm not sure most people would get that, unless their own lives were impacted by the space program as mine was.

Maybe I should call XCOR and see if they have any openings for astronaut engineers...

Sunday, April 10, 2011

professional protection for religious beliefs

Arizona is considering a law that would provide very broad protections for professionals who find their religious beliefs in conflict with their professional licensing boards and other certifying bodies. This law, for example, seems to protect a doctor from losing his license to practice medicine because he refuses to discuss the option of abortion with patients, even if the medical board thinks he has a responsibility to do so.

Eugene Volokh is concerned that this religious immunity is too broad and offers several examples that he considers problematic. Let's take one of the more outrageous ones:
Even a doctor who feels a religious motivation to affirmatively lie to a patient to prevent an abortion — on the theory that lying is religiously justified when necessary to prevent murder — would be free from professional discipline, unless this somehow fits in the category of criminal fraud (which I doubt).
Presumably, this is problematic because Eugene thinks that a doctor who does this should lose his license to practice medicine. But let's put things in perspective: what we have in the real world is not typically a set of undisputed facts, but a dispute. The doctor may say one thing and the patient another.

Eugene seems to want the situation where if the patient can convince the medical board of her side of the story, then the doctor loses at once both his means of making a living and his enormous investment in medical school. Doctors, therefore, are subjected to a huge risk, far beyond the risk that most other professionals have in disputes with their customers.

What would happen if a computer programmer did something similar? Suppose that a computer programmer wrote a program for a medical doctor that is intended to send out emails reminding women about their appointments. Suppose he deliberately wrote the program so that instead of sending a reminder notice for an appointment for an abortion, it would send an email telling the woman that the doctor had determined that an abortion was unsafe for her and she has to have the baby.

What would happen to this programmer? Well, he might have committed a crime and could be prosecuted for that. If not, and if some harm actually resulted from his actions, he could be sued. He could also be subjected non-legal consequences such as being fired and being unable to use his former employer as a reference. If he owned his own consulting firm (as many doctors own their own practice) he could be subjected to negative publicity and have his office picketed. Such things could very well destroy his business.

What would not happen is that the state would not tell him that he could never again program computers for money. They would not take away his means of livelihood. They would not take away his educational investment and his years of experience and turn him essentially into an unskilled laborer.

Nor should they. The primary justification for state licensing is that it protects consumers from professionals who can not or will not perform the services properly as expected of such a professional. It should not be an extra-judicial mechanism for the state to punish wrong doers. It is too lopsided for such a purpose, effecting only certain restricted classes of people and subjecting these people to much harsher punishments than other people face for similar offenses.

With this, let us return to Eugene's example. Does the doctor's lie to his patient mean that he is incapable of carrying out his professional duties as a doctor? Clearly not --does not effect his ability to practice medicine. Does it mean that he is unwilling to carry out his professional duties? There's the rub. What the doctor's professional duties are depends on who his patients are. If his patients do not want any abortion services or abortion advice, then the doctor's unwillingness to provide such services or advice do not effect his ability to provide medical services to his patients.

If the medical board takes away his medical license, they are doing so because he is unwilling to provide service for some patients, not because he is unwilling to provide service to any patients. But that is not a reason to deny anyone a license. Some licensed doctors cannot provide effective medical care to patients who need heart surgery. Should they lose their license over this? Clearly not.

However, a doctor who was not qualified to perform heart surgery could lose his license for attempting to perform heart surgery. Similar rules should be followed in the religious exemption cases. If a doctor is unwilling to even discuss abortion with a patient, then he is obligated not to take patients that want an abortion. This is not always easy to do, and there will be issues involving treatment of minors where the state does not give parents full discretion over the minor's medical care, but reasonable steps can be taken.

In general, the state should not prevent anyone who provides a service, whether a licensed professional or not, from modifying his service to comply with religious beliefs as long as he restricts his service to people who want (or are willing to accept) that modified form of service.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Pepsi, Kraft, and Nestle use cells scraped off of dead babies

Apparently Pepsi hired a company to do some sort of taste-testing for it using cells scraped off of dead babies. No, horrifyingly enough, I'm not making this up.

I've had my last Pepsi. And frankly, it doesn't matter to me if they change their minds. My own personal boycott will be over when the people who make this decision are fired without a golden parachute. That will never happen, of course, so I've had my last Diet Pepsi.

Other companies that have done this include Kraft and Nestle. As a junk-food junkie, I used to buy a lot of the products of all three of these companies. The other one, Solae, I've never heard of and probably won't remember to boycott.

Michael J. Fox famously promoted the idea that we should go ahead and use cells scraped off of dead babies for medical research because it might save people's lives and might offer cures for horrible diseases. This argument appealed to a lot of people who felt that possibly saving their own life was important enough to justify sacrificing the life of a helpless infant that had no friends or relatives to complain about it (since their own mother is the one who killed them).

I always thought the argument was horrifyingly selfish. I wonder if they really grasped what we are talking about here: medicine based on the body parts of murdered babies. A thing so utterly grotesque and macabre should be confined to stories of black magic and devil worship, not enshrined in the methodology of modern medicine.

As horrifying and selfish as that argument was, we now know that it wasn't even the truth. Cells scraped off of dead babies are to be used, not just for the most critical medical emergencies, to save lives and save people from debilitating conditions, but for whatever is convenient --even something as trivial as finding the optimum level of sugar to put in a soft drink.

UPDATE: I just remembered that PepsiCo is actually a big conglomerate so I went to the internet to find out what they own. To my great relief, they sold off Taco Bell so I don't have to boycott one of my favorite restaurants, but they do own Quaker Oats and Frito Lay --both companies that I used to buy a of food from. They also own Tropicana and Gatorade, which I use less, but will still be an inconvenience. Well, nuts, but civilized people just don't do business with the sort of people who use the body parts of dead babies to enhance their products. I'm just glad that I don't work for one of those companies or I would be in a serious moral quandary.

UPDATE II: Pepsi has told the company not to use body parts of murdered babies in the work that they do for Pepsi. That's some progress, but Pepsi is still doing business with them, so it doesn't really make much difference to me. (link from Monday Evening)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

on being dizzy

I spent the last 24 hours aboard a boat and now that I'm sitting in my living room, it feels like the couch is moving up and down on waves. On the boat the waves didn't bother me most of the time, but these non-waves are really annoying. It's like my inner ear is saying "Wow, there goes a wave." and my muscles are saying, "What, where? I didn't feel it!" The internal argument is making me feel a little light-headed.

I was on a 40' power boat. Spent yesterday afternoon and evening driving around, spent the night at Pier 39 in San Francisco and spent the morning driving around again. The water at the Pier-39 marina is extremely choppy. It didn't make me sea sick but the random rolling and the loud creaking kept waking me up and making it hard to get back to sleep.

This morning I did get a little sea sick --only the second time in my life. The water was rough and I was trying to take a written test while the boat was underway. I was also dressed too warm for the interior of the boat. The combination of three things brought me as close as I've ever come to hurling from motion sickness. After I finished the test, I took off some of my under layers and got up to watch out the forward port and it went away eventually.

Oh, and I ate two oatmeal cookies. In retrospect I can't really recommend oatmeal cookies for motion sickness. They sit a little heavy in the stomach.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

old TV --Primeval

Primeval is a British TV series. The premise is that temporal anomalies start opening up at random in England and various prehistoric beasties come through and start eating people. The Government sensibly decides that that this information is far to important to let be spread around to the common people who might [gasp] start buying guns to protect themselves and their families from being a lunch-o-saurus for some random monster. Instead they hire a group of rebellious scientists and zookeepers to handle matters and keep it all under wraps. Apparently, only the Government can be trusted with handling this crisis but only people who despise the Government can be trusted to handle it for the government ... or something.

Politics aside, it is a tremendous idea for a series. The actors are good, the special effects are tolerable, the stories are engaging, and I really enjoyed the first three seasons in spite of the head-pounding stupidity of all of the smart characters. After Firefly and Avatar --the Last Airbender, this is my next most recommended series.

Just ignore the fact that the leader, Nick Cutter displays his genius by making wild-ass guesses, committing all efforts and resources to the the guess, and then getting lucky. All of the other characters view this as a sign of his genius; I viewed it as a sign that the team desperately needed to reassign him to a less responsible position before his lucky streak ran out.

Also, don't spend a lot of time wondering why this brilliant team, weeks after their job starts still don't carry basic equipment for capturing dangerous animals, items like capture poles, ropes, chains, nets, net guns, cages, traps, snares, and bait. They carry no life-support equipment for hostile atmospheres, no mosquito netting, no cold-weather gear. They carry no night-vision equipment. The temporal anomalies have electric and magnetic effects and the only instrument they bring with them for the entire first seasons is a magnetic compass. If they had been prepared, nothing much interesting would have happened.

There are other things you shouldn't ask yourself. Let your problem-solving faculties relax, and you will enjoy the series a lot more.

Friday, March 11, 2011

old TV --Lost

Well, I've finally waded through the end of the Lost series. If you don't know about this TV series, it ran from 2004 to 2010. It told a story about a group of people in a plane crash trapped on a tropical island. Over all, I recommend it as a good TV drama. By the end, you will be tired of Jack's half-tear-filled eyes as he deals with some emotional trauma, and Sawyer brushing blond locks from his eyes to glare his glare of steely rage, and you while be very, very tired of Micheal, but overall, it's far better than your average TV.

Although it takes place after a plane wreck on a tropical island, the story isn't really a Swiss-family-Robinson story. It's not really about survival on a deserted island. In fact the survivors do a lot of things that are pretty inexplicable or even dumb given the circumstances.

Also, there is some sort of monster in the jungle. They can hear it rampaging through the jungle at night, tearing down trees. Among the inexplicable things they do: no one tries to figure out what the monster is, no one seems especially concerned about going into the jungle after hearing the monster, no one thinks about trying to put up barricades to defend themselves from the monster.

It is impossible to imagine that anyone could have actually survived the plane wreck that is pictured in the show (and this fact is pointed out by someone in the show) so some viewers speculated that the "survivors" were really all dead and that the Island was Purgatory or something similar. The producers of the show denied this while the show was going on, but to tell the truth, I think they lied. I think that was the original intent behind the series and when someone guessed it, they decided to change the story rather than have their thunder stolen.

The first season is just a sequence of morality plays, various characters are dealing with the sins of addiction (Charlie), lust (Boone), gluttony (Hugo), greed (Sawyer), pride (Jack) and anger (John) to name just a few. Several of the staring cast are murderers.

Jack is the star of the show and I don't think the writers realized what an insufferable glory-hound he is. They seem to think that he is just courageous, but he is the only doctor on the island (at first) and he consistently takes outrageous risks that other people should have taken instead. If Jack gets killed, everyone will suffer, but he refuses to take that into consideration. He always has to be the one at the forefront taking the most cinematic risks.

I have to say I was pretty disappointed in the ending. Actually, I knew I would be disappointed with a couple of shows yet to go because it was obvious they would not be able to answer all of the outstanding issues in just two more shows --and they didn't.

It seems that my suspicion was right --many of the cases where current characters had visions or other sorts of interaction with former characters turned out to be nothing but make-work for the former actors. Most of those events served no story purpose at the time and now that I've seen the whole thing it is obvious that they were never intended to. In particular, the whole sub-story of how "special" Walt was went nowhere. Instead, they turned the audience favorites into the special ones for the last season.

[SPOILER ALERT]

In fact, the last season as a whole was pretty disappointing. They forked off two versions of history with no coherent bridge at the climax. I claim this is because they wanted to have the ending that was originally planned for the show --where you find out that everyone was dead-- but they also wanted an ending that went along with their promises that everyone wasn't dead. So they just had two endings. It seriously mucked things up.

There was never really an explanation of the Dharma initiative, and never a real explanation of where the "others" came from or an explanation of why they were so vicious. There was no real explanation of what "infected" meant or how it was that the two stars were seemingly able to overcome it while the end-credit actors were not.

This is odd, too because the natural explanation was that the "infection" is what made the others so vicious. The infection happens at the temple of the others. One of the others (Richard) tells Kate that if he takes Ben to be healed at their temple the boy will "lose his innocence" and be permanently one of them. This sounds like he is describing the infection. But no, the infection turns out to be something else. We never find out what he meant about Ben if we don't have this explanation.

There was no explanation of why the others could summon the monster when the others were supposedly working for the enemy of the monster. There was no explanation of why pregnant women died on the island. No explanation of why Charlie had visions that a baby needed to be baptized. No explanation of why Eco was killed. No explanation for having a person pushing the button rather than having it automated. No hint at what the button did or what the failsafe did.

All in all, the authors cheated the viewers over and over by presenting mysteries and then never having a solution to them. It's a shame, too, because it was otherwise a very well-done production.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

don't go there

Just a friendly warning: if you like television but also value your time, do not under any circumstances follow this link. I just wasted an entire Saturday --I'm talking from about 11am to 5:30 with a break for lunch-- reading this site. Let my experience be a warning to you.

Especially do not go to this link to make sure that they correctly listed Wesley Crusher as a Scrappy, or look to see if Ben Linus is listed as a Magnificent Bastard because you will find yourself sucked into the endless links to variations on themes, characters, and plot devices. You have been warned.

You are welcome.

Monday, February 21, 2011

the truth in obligations amendment

I've seen several proposals lately for Constitutional amendments to fix problems with the current political system. Frankly, no constitution will ever fix the problem of greedy people who go into government to gather power and force their will on others. This should be obvious to anyone who can read our Constitution and see how blatantly and unapologetically the federal government violates it. Still, it is useful at times to put in specific amendments to fix specific abuses.

My idea focuses on the current financial crisis that we are facing and the fact that the crisis is lergely due to two factors: entitlements (at the federal level) and the wages and benefits paid to public employees (at the state and local level). These separate problems have something in common: they are ways for a current set of elected officials to get support by obligating future elected officials to give away money. This creates a perverse incentive for future elected officials. If they show responsible stewardship by trying to reduce the scope of these obligations then they create enemies among the people who expect the money. If they expand the irresponsible obligations then they make supporters among those same people.

In politics no one is more highly motivated than someone with money on the line, and politicians do not want highly-motivated political enemies. They love highly-motivated supporters. Even people who go into politics with the best of intentions have a hard time fighting this very simple equation: create irresponsible obligations for the future and you win; show fiscal responsibility and you lose.

My proposal is to reduce the power of this dynamic by a Constitutional amendment. The amendment would prevent any federal, state, or local official from doing anything that would create financial obligations for the government other than by normal borrowing against bonds, and all bonds must be equal --that is, it would be unconstitutional to pay off some bonds in preference to others. Any default on bond payments would have to be done in the same percentage across all bonds.

If this had been in place when Social Security was created, then this would have prevented it from being done in its current form (assuming that Congress didn't simply ignore the Constitution as they so often do). The could not legally have taken money from your paycheck on the premise that they were going to pay you back after you retire. They would have to have issued you federal bonds for your retirement and your bonds would be as good as anyone's.

Similarly, pensions for public employees would be unconstitutional. Governments would have two options for setting up pensions: they could make payments to private pension-providers with clear contractual provisions that the pension provider was solely responsible for payment of the pension. Or they could issue bonds that mature after retirement.

Now it might seem that this would make things worse because it takes away any discretion on the part of current governments to fix debt problems created by previous governments. For example, there would be no way to reduce payments to social security recipients as a way of balancing the budget because all of the recipients would own bonds, but that is a feature, not a bug.

What this amendment would do is give the bond market and the voters a clear and unambiguous idea of what obligations are being made when they were being made instead of years later when the bill comes due. Part of the reason that the US has the good credit rating it does is because of speculation by bond holders that the US will stiff retirees before they stiff bond holders. Politicians have been cynically relying on this perception and have been cynically kicking the pending disaster down the road to future politicians.

If retirees had instead been bond holders equal to all other bond holders then the bond market would have taken into account the real financial obligations that the US was accumulating instead of sequestering off the bond debt as the "real" obligation. And why shouldn't Social Security recipients get equal treatment to bond holders? Do they rely any less on payment of the federal government's obligations than bond holders do?

In addition, if all government financial obligations were in the form of debt then politicians and the news media would not be able to lie to voters about the obligations that are accumulating. The voters would be able to see a single national debt number as a percentage of GDP. They would be able to see the rising interest that the US would be paying for debt (as the bond market took into account the real obligations), and voters would be able to make more informed choices in voting.

When Roosevelt began Social Security, he immediately began making payments to people who were already retired and immediately incurred obligations to people who had already worked a large part of their life without paying into the system. If Roosevelt had been required to issue billions of dollars in bonds, I don't think he could possibly have created such outrageous obligations. I don't think he would have even tried.

I call this the "truth in obligations" amendment because it makes it more difficult for governments to hide, distort, or downplay the financial obligations that they make. This not only prevents them from deceiving voters about what they are doing, but also prevents them from deceiving the people that they are making the obligations too.

I am one of those people who is likely to bear the brunt of the corrections needed on social security and medical programs. It isn't fair to me that I've been paying in huge amounts of money my whole life into a system that never had any real legal obligation to pay me back, and where I most likely will not be paid back. Congress should have been forced to issue me bonds in return for my payment so that their obligations to me would be as legally solid as their obligations to China.

Friday, February 18, 2011

really bad movies --Dragon Wars

As a part of my on-going program to inflict my loyal readers with all of my Netflix experiences, I present a review of Dragon Wars. This is the kind of movie that I would normally love. I mean, it's got ancient prophesies, dragons, battles between mythological creatures and modern US military forces, a reincarnated hero, and a babe. What's not to love about this movie? Well, before I tell you that, let me add that the realistic animated scenes are terrific.

There are huge masterfully-done battle scenes between tanks and and giant Horned-toad-like creatures with ancient Korean rockets strapped to their backs. There are flying dragonets battling in the air with helicopters. There is a scene stolen from King Kong with a serpent-like dragon chasing a pair of people up a sky scraper instead of a giant ape carrying a girl up a sky scraper. Then the dragon goes tearing through the city ripping up the streets and bashing the cars to the side. The realistic 3D is absolutely amazing; it's A-movie special effects in a B movie.

So what makes it a B movie? The first hint is the scene stolen from King Kong. Half of the movie seems to have been stolen from other movies. Time and again as I watched it, I thought, "Oh, that scene was stolen from X" or "Oh, that plot element was stolen from Y".

Still, the derivative screenplay wouldn't necessarily make it a bad movie if it not for the terrible, unendurable, worse-than-Chuck-Norris-in-his-first-few-movies bad acting. And it was not just the hero, but almost all of the American actors who just stunk up the screen whenever we weren't watching those titanic special-effects scenes. Oddly enough, the first twenty minutes or so of the movie takes place in ancient Korea and the Korean actors seemed to be pretty good (it's a little harder to judge since it was in Korean with subtitles) but the American actors were awful.

Yet in all fairness to the American actors --the dialog that they had to work with was pound-your-head-against the wall horrible. No one could have done anything non-humiliating with that dialog. It was beyond bad; it was ... well ... really, really bad. Words have failed me.

My advice on this movie: if you are a fan of realistic 3D animation involving mythological creatures getting shot up by modern auto cannons, and you have great tolerance for really, really bad movies, it is worth your time. If you are a fan of realistic 3D and don't have the requisite tolerance then Netflix has a way to skip forward; just watch the battle scenes. If you aren't any particular fan of 3D animations then I recommend that you watch something else.

UPDATE: Oh! Oh! I forgot! The most annoying thing about the movie? The "hero" does absolutely nothing effective through the whole film. Everything he tries to do fails and someone always has to rescue him. This pattern hold all the way through to the climax where the hero tries something to defeat the evil dragon, fails, and is then rescued one more time. The hero accomplishes nothing. No victory over his external enemies, no victory over internal struggles, no victories, no growth, no accomplishment.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

old TV -- Avatar

Avatar is a Japanese animated series (the first season of this series was made into the movie The Last Airbender).

[UPDATE: oops. Donald points out in the comments that although the animation is anime-style, it was not made in Japan and I verified that he is correct. I thought that I recalled someone saying during the controversy over the movie that it was made in Japan, but I must be mistaken. Actually, this helps explain Aang's pacifism, which I thought was more characteristic for a US production than an Asian one.]

The premise of Avatar is a world populated by four nations, one for each of the four elements: earth, air, fire, water. In each nation some of the people are benders --people with an innate ability control the element of their nation.

Bending is not just a matter of mental control; it also requires the use of body actions. The interesting thing is that the actions for controlling the elements are not patterned on Western-style hokus-pokus magical incantations, but on Asian martial arts. I fancied that I could see various differences in martial-arts styles. The air and water benders seemed to use the more subtle, flowing Chinese styles with lots of large circular movements for attack and evasion for defense. By contrast the earth and fire benders used the hard, driving Japanese and Korean styles based on straight-line attacks and hard blocking for defense.

Overall, I thought the bending was well-done dramatically, but it was lacking in ... let's call it "strategic value". What I mean by this is that there turned out to be little difference in what the benders could do in a battle. All benders could hurl chunks or sprays of their own stuff at the enemy and block the stuff that the enemy hurled. An air or fire bender could put up a wall of air or fire to deflect a huge rock that an earth bender threw at him. It would have been more interesting if the various elements had more dramatic strengths and weaknesses that had to be taken into account.

But you can only expect so much in a children's TV series. Avatar is really a children's comedy/adventure, but don't let that discourage you from watching it. The characters are very engaging and if the humor gets a bit silly at times, the silliness is usually short-lived and quickly followed by dramatic events to keep the interest of a grownup. Also, the fact that this is really intended for children and has a comedic element means that I didn't mind the childish plot devices like the two or three impossible coincidences per episode that would normally annoy me.

One thing that did annoy me was the main character's enduring faith that he could save the world from a cruel despot without hurting anyone. Such pacifist beliefs may be admirable in people who have some rational theory to back it up --say a belief in an omnipotent God-- but in this character it simply comes across as an arbitrary convention. You can't expect too much philosophy in a children's show but it would be nice to see some attempt at justifying the moral calculation that says, "better millions of people suffer horrors and murder under a brutal dictator than that I should sully my pure hands with any blood."

Fortunately, there was only one pacifist in the show (among major characters at any rate). There are a huge number of great characters and great villains. There is a demon that steals faces, a moon goddess, an evil blood bender, an ancient toothless earth-bending king with the energy and enthusiasm of a teenager, a giant flying bison, and much more. The imagination behind this series is tremendous.

The plot takes you all over the globe, from the Antarctic to the Arctic and from the great Eastern Continent to the Western Continent. The characters include everyone from village nomads to the royalty of the greatest civilizations on the planet. One of the things that I value most in a story is its ability to invoke a sense of wonder and Avatar does a very good job at that.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

superspeed and my obsessive/compulsive need to organize

I've missed Donald's blogging at Back of the Envelope since he slowed down his rate a lot (sort of like I did...), but he seems to be picking up a bit lately. I was almost inspired to write a long response to his post on Superspeed, but I rested a bit and the ambition went away. So just a few thoughts:

If you are assuming that superspeed and superstrength work simply through normal physical processes, then Donald is right that superspeed requires superstrength, but it also requires enormous energy and more oxygen than normal lungs can take in (assuming that you extend it for any length of time). It also requires superendurance since a person who is running really fast will go a very long way in a very short time. Additionally, superstrength requires supertoughness.

How about:

1. super energy (this could have applications on its own like holding your breath indefinitely or surviving blood loss).
2. super endurance
3. super toughness
4. super strength (requires 3)
5. super speed (requires 1,2,4)

Of course all of this could interfere with a story, so maybe it's better just to let it go...

Monday, January 17, 2011

Kant, irrationalism, and the defense of religion

In a previous post, I discussed the idea of Stephen Hicks that Kant in his book, A Critique of Pure Reason used irrationalism in order to defend religion from science. I disagree with Hicks on two points: Kant was not any species of irrationalist and Kant had no interest in defending religion. Here is what Kant wrote in the first preface to his book:
Our age is the age of criticism, to which everything must be subjected. The sacredness of religion, and the authority of legislation, are by many regarded as grounds of exemption from the examination of this tribunal. But, if they on they are exempted, they become the subjects of just suspicion, and cannot lay claim to sincere respect, which reason accords only to that which has stood the test of a free and public examination.
In the previous post I said that Kant was not concerned to rescue religion from the onslaught of science but to rescue science from the onslaught of empiricism. I confess that this is something of an exaggeration. A truer account might be to say that Kant was concerned to rescue metaphysics from the onslaught of metaphysics.

Kant wrote that the purpose of writing "Critique of Pure Reason" was to set metaphysics on a sounder basis and make it like a science. "Pure reason" here refers to abstract reasoning of the type that is done in mathematics, logic and theoretical physics. Pure reason is also called speculative reason, and is contrasted to practical reason which is reason applied to actual things and specific events as opposed to abstractions.

Kant was motivated by the work of David Hume who had argued against metaphysics in general and who said that all of metaphysics is meaningless. Kant said that David Hume had missed something important --that Hume's criticism applied as well to all sorts of pure reasoning including mathematics and theoretical science. Kant therefore had to rescue science from Hume before he could rescue metaphysics from Hume, which he had to do before he could rescue metaphysics from itself.

Now, this is not to say that Kant did not think his new method would help religion. He remarked in a few places that once his theory was accepted, people would stop making unjustified inferences about things that they could know nothing about and that religion would benefit from this, but I think he had in mind as much the attempts to prove that God exists as the attempts to prove that God does not exist. Furthermore, this is an occasional side theme, not the main drive of the book.

As to whether Kant was being an irrationalist, here is the paragraph containing the quote that Hicks takes out of conext (in fairness to Hicks, it is practically impossible to quote Kant in context because he relied so much on precisely-defined terms with definitions that are very hard to explain. You are about to read an example of this problem):
The positive value of the critical principles of pure reason in relation to the conception of God and of the simple nature of the soul, admits of a similar exemplification; but on this point I shall not dwell. I cannot even make the assumption- as the practical interests of morality require- of God, freedom, and immortality, if I do not deprive speculative reason of its pretensions to transcendent insight. For to arrive at these, it must make use of principles which,
in fact, extend only to the objects of possible experience, and which cannot be applied to objects beyond this sphere without converting them into phenomena, and thus rendering the practical extension of pure reason impossible. I must, therefore, abolish knowledge, to make room for belief. The dogmatism of metaphysics, that is, the presumption that it is possible to advance in metaphysics
without previous criticism, is the true source of the unbelief (always dogmatic) which militates against morality.
[I have highlighted the controversial quotation in bold type.]
Kant is making a technical point here about knowledge that requires that you understand his theory of knowledge --a theory that he spent hundreds of pages of dense German run-on sentences to explain. I only have a few paragraphs to accomplish the same task, so if you read on I congratulate you for your fortitude.

Imagine that you are looking at a red ball sitting on a table. The ball might be made of rubber or stone and the two images would still be the same. Maybe it is not a ball at all, but just a half of a ball. Without moving, you can't tell what is on the other side. Apparently there is a distinction between the thing that you sense and the thing that is really there. Let's call the thing that you sense a "phenomenon" and what is really there the "noumenon" (the plurals of these words are "phenomena" and "noumena"). Notice that not only can one phenomenon apply to two different noumenon (that is, two different things might look the same), but also two different phenomenon can apply to one noumenon --that is, the same thing looks different from different perspectives.

So, apparently noumenon is a physical object and a phenomenon is just what it looks like. Let's look a bit more closely at this. What if you are wearing 3D glasses and looking at a computer-generated 3D image, what is the noumenon? There isn't really a ball there at all. If the ball rolls across the table, you aren't seeing the action of physical mechanical forces; you are seeing the complex effects of digital electronics. The noumenon is explained in terms of digital circuits or computer programs.

Now consider a third possibility: you are dreaming. In this case you can see the same phenomenon but now the noumenon is something in your brain activity. In the case of dreaming or 3D computer animation, the noumenon doesn't look anything like the phenomenon. Not only doesn't it look like it, they don't even have similar relationships. Just because one phenomenal ball is above another phenomenal ball, that does not mean that the noumenon associated with one is physically above the noumenon associated with the other. If you are dreaming, you have no idea how the related brain states are related to each other, or even if they are distinct brain states. That is, just because you see two different balls in a dream, that does not mean that there are really two distinct brain states that these balls are phenomena of.

If you think about it, we really have no idea, even in the normal world, what noumena are really like. We think we know what a volleyball is like --it is spherical, it weighs a certain amount, it behaves a certain way when you hit it-- but when you think about it, all of those things are phenomena. What is really there under the appearance, underneath the information that we get from our senses? Any time that you try to answer this question you come back to sense information. You just cannot explain what is there without talking about phenomena. You can't even say where the noumenon is, as shown by the computer and dream examples. In both of those examples, the noumenon was in a completely different place from the phenomenon. In fact, space itself is a phenomenon. Ultimately, you can't even know for sure that the noumena exist. You can't say for sure that there is any distinct underlying reality underlying what you perceive as a ball.

This is a real philosophical problem (meaning that it doesn't really matter to anyone except philosophers). How can we ever get past appearances, past phenomena to find out what the noumena are really like? Kant's answer is that we can never have true knowledge of noumena. Kant called access to the noumena "transcendent insight" in the quote above.

Kant is using the work "knowledge" to apply to what we know about phenomena rather than what we know about noumena. This might seem backwards: shouldn't knowledge be about the real thing instead of just about the appearance? But that is impossible; according to Kant, we have no transcendent insight. We can think about the real thing. We can form beliefs about it, but we can't have any knowledge because our knowledge about the world comes only from one source: sense data (there are other kinds of knowledge as well, but they do not apply to the world, only to concepts or abstractions such as in mathematics). Since all of our knowledge about the world comes from sense data and sense data is all phenomenal, it follows that all of our knowledge about the world is about the phenomena rather than about the noumena.

In the sentence just before the one about abolishing knowledge is this: "For to arrive at these, it must make use of principles which, in fact, extend only to the objects of possible experience, and which cannot be applied to objects beyond this sphere without converting them into phenomena, and thus rendering the practical
extension of pure reason impossible." In other words, "to arrive at these" (to assume the existence of God, morality and immortality or the soul) Kant cannot use principles that apply only to "objects of possible experience" (only phenomena are objects of possible experience) without first converting the noumena (God and soul) into phenomena which would render the practical extension of pure reason impossible.

I think what he means by that last bit is that although you can reason from the phenomena to talk about what something is like, the phenomena alone are not enough to tell you that something actually exists because existence is a property of the noumena. In effect, you can never have true knowledge that something exists, you can, at most, have belief. Now this applies to rocks and trees as well as it applies to God and the soul, but the difference is that for rocks and trees it doesn't really matter if the noumena exist. If a rock is nothing more than a phenomenon, it is still going to hurt your head if someone throws it, so you'd better duck. After all, your head is only a phenomenon too. It doesn't matter what the "real underlying truth" is because in the physical world all we have are phenomena and that is what really matters.

So this is what Kant is saying: We can never have true knowledge that God and the soul exist because (noumenal) existence is not something that we can have true knowledge about.

This is not an expression of irratinoalism. Quite the contrary, it is an attempt to use rational thought to carefuly demarcate what we know from what we merely believe.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

in defense of Kant

Dr. Sanity --a great blogger by the way who I'm going to add to my sidebar the next time I experience a fit of reorganizational enthusiasm-- has repeated an old slander of Immanuel Kant on the way to endorsing a bit of historical revisionism.

The slander involves taking an out-of-context quote and making it mean pretty much the opposite of what Kant was trying to say. Dr Sanity seems to be largely relying on Stephen Hicks who writes:
By the late 1700s religious thinkers had a choice—accept evidence and logic as the ultimate court of appeal and thereby reject their deeply-cherished religious ideals—or stick by their ideals and attack the whole idea that evidence and logic matter. “I had to deny knowledge,” wrote Kant in the Preface to the first Critique, “in order to make room for faith.” “Faith,” wrote Kierkegaard in Fear and trembling, “requires the crucifixion of reason”; so he proceeded to crucify reason and glorify the irrational.
(as an aside, I suspect that Kierkegaard is also being taken badly out of context here).


UPDATE: My interpretation of Kant's sentence was completely wrong due to the fact that I carelessly read "reasoning" where the translated word is "knowledge" (In my defense, it was well past my bed time when I wrote that post). The word change completely changes the meaning of the phrase, but it still does not support Hicks's revisionism. I stand by everything in the following except the parts where I am trying to understand what Kant meant.

I'll write another post where I take the novel approach of actually presenting the sentence in context.

Kant is not saying what the a simple reading of this sentence suggests: that he has to ignore the facts because they make it hard to believe in God. The reasoning that Kant is referring to is not reasoning that tries to show the non-existence of God --he is referring to reasoning that tries to show the existence of God.

In Kant's time, there was a common belief that reasoning could be used to prove all truths, including the existence of God. There were various "proofs" of the existence of God considered persuasive by influential thinkers. Although there were some who didn't buy any of the proofs that they had heard, it was widely believed that the question of God's existence could be settled, one way or another, by logical proof. Kant rejected this idea.

What Kant is saying in that quote is that since reason can never, even in principle, prove the existence of God we should give up the attempt and rely instead on "faith", by which he means another way of arriving at the knowledge of God.

More generally, Kant argued that we have different ways of arriving at different kinds of knowledge. There is no single faculty that is the ultimate source of all knowledge. This is in contrast to a very popular view in his day (associated with Descartes) that pure reason was the ultimate arbitrator of knowledge. In fact the title of the book that contains this out-of-context quote is "A Critique of Pure Reason".

Kant was, in fact, correct. I've written before about the program of the Logicists who tried (and failed) to disprove one of Kant's examples by proving that all of mathematics can be derived from pure logic. Mmathematics seems to be as close to pure reason as you can get and yet the axioms of mathematics cannot be derived from pure logic. Logic cannot tell you that if A is less than B and B is less than C, then A must be less than C. This is knowledge that you must be able to acquire through some faculty other than logic.

So, it is not true that Kant was endorsing religious faith based on closing ones eyes and shouting "I can't hear you" over and over.

But lets get back to that Stephen Hicks quote: "By the late 1700s religious thinkers had a choice—accept evidence and logic as the ultimate court of appeal and thereby reject their deeply-cherished religious ideals—or stick by their ideals and attack the whole idea that evidence and logic matter". This is wrong in two important ways.

The first mistake is in the false dichotomy. Hicks offers the choices (A) accept evidence and logic as the ultimate court of appeal or (B) drop the idea that evidence and logic matter. Obviously there is a third option, one accepted by most rational people today, (C) accept that logic and evidence matter but don't assume that they can settle every question.

The other mistake is Hicks's assertion that the intellectual crisis that Kant was responding to was a crisis of "deeply-cherished religious ideals". Religion wasn't even under serious intellectual attack at the time. There were certainly rigorous debates about the existence of God, but the atheists had made no more progress in the debate than the theists had. It was an intellectual crisis in science and not any crisis in religion that motivated Kant to produce a work that arguably inspired post-modernism. I don't believe that Kant was even particularly religious.

What was under serious intellectual attack was not the deeply-cherished religious ideals but the deeply-cherished ideal that evidence and logic is the ultimate court of appeal. The empiricists such as Bishop George Berkeley (CofE) and David Hume had fairly demolished the idea that science (or any body of belief) could ever be at the same time (1) about the real world, (2) based entirely on evidence and logic, and (3) certain. Hume, in particular, had already killed this eighteenth-century concept of science but in Kant's day they still kept it around like the corpse in "Weekend at Bernie's". Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" was an attempt to read the last rites to this false conception, but he wasn't entirely successful. The corpse continues to be dragged out for all the parties even today.

UPDATE: I've done a better explanation of the quote here.