Yet another weird SF fan

I'm a mathematician, a libertarian, and a science-fiction fan. Common sense? What's that?

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Yet another weird SF fan

Saturday, January 31, 2015

More Old News

There's nothing new about the theory that the past, present, and future all exist together in a four-dimensional space–time. It dates back at least to Lagrange, had a literary description in The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, and the modern version of it was part of the Theory of Relativity.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Has Global Warming Resumed?

After the past week's weather, I sure hope so.

I've come to the conclusion that “snow” is a four-letter Anglo-Saxon word.

Rain is a necessity. Is there any excuse for snow?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

U.S. Once Had Universal Child Care

U.S. once had universal child care. I doubt if we want to follow all the policies of that era.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

This Is Old News

According to Newsweek, scientists have discovered how to unboil an egg.

It's always been possible to unboil an egg. Just feed it to a chicken.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Trying to Get Edenism out of My Head

The trouble with Edenism (a recent brand of crackpot anthropology based on a handful of peculiar skulls that may have been due to a combination of head binding and hydrocephalus, some racial stereotyping with the serial numbers filed off, drug-induced fantasizing, and one or two actual facts) is that it's sticky. After reading about it, it's easy to start classifying people on the street or in history books, even if the classifications make no sense.

For example, I've recently been reading about the origin of descriptive set theory and can't help thinking of René Baire as a Starchild or Henri Lebesgue as a Mousterian Neanderthal or Jacques Hadamard as a Melonhead or …

I suppose I'll have to find another crackpot theory to stop this.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Fetal Lives Matter

This cartoon is a handy argument against the claim that pro-lifers believe that life begins at conception and ends at birth.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

You Can't Always Tell a Book by Its Cover

For example, Ecological Imperialism by Alfred Crosby is not what it sounds like. On the other hand, Words of Power: a Feminist Reading of the History of Logic by Andrea Nye is what it sounds like.

In other words, you do have to read the book (or see the film).

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Falsifying Philosophy

Harvey Friedman, a philosopher specializing in the philosophy of mathematics, is well known for Friedman's Grand Conjecture:

Every theorem published in the Annals of Mathematics whose statement involves only finitary mathematical objects (i.e., what logicians call an arithmetical statement) can be proved in EFA. EFA is the weak fragment of Peano Arithmetic based on the usual quantifier-free axioms for 0, 1, +, ×, exp, together with the scheme of induction for all formulas in the language all of whose quantifiers are bounded.
On the other hand, Harvey Friedman is also well known for
… attempts to justify large cardinal axioms by demonstrating their necessity for deriving certain propositions considered "concrete".
I think the “giant ant” I mentioned here was part of that research. On the gripping hand, the concrete propositions look like statements that logicians pulled out of a vulgar body aperture just to be ornery.

I was puzzled by this for a while. He was arguing in favor of one conclusion while providing something that might be evidence against it. I then realized what he was doing: He was trying to falsify a statement. This is so rare in philosophy, that it was hard to recognize. Philosophers have talked about falsification for years but it always seemed to for others to do. Now that a philosopher is applying the concept of falsification, it might be time for philosophy to climb the science hierarchy.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Omelets vs. Frittatas, Continued

I came up with a way to have three-sided frittatas: When the bottom is set but the top is still runny, lift up the frittata, let some of the egg run underneath, and fry that for a second side. When that's done, turn the frittata over for a third side.

It's probably easier than frying Gabriel's Horn.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Omelets vs. Frittatas

The most important difference between omelets and frittatas is that omelets are fried on only one side whereas frittatas can be fried on two sides. As a fan of the Maillard process, I think the more surfaces fried the better.

I'm starting research into the topological investigations needed to produce a three-sided frittata. (ObSF: “No-Sided Professor” by Martin Gardner)

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Fighting Hate Speech

If “hate speech” is something absolutely horrible, clearly the alleged perpetrators deserve something absolutely horrible … such as hate speech aimed in their direction. In other words, anyone who tries assassinating enemy cartoonists (instead of insulting them) is demonstrating that they don't actually believe that hate speech is horrible.

Yes, I've said this before, but it bears repeating.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Explaining the Wisdom of the Crowd, Continued

Duty calls.

Wired appears to disagree with the Wisdom of the Crowd Theorem (and right after I blogged about it). They got two things wrong:

  • The theorem says that the median estimate is more accurate than most individuals; it says nothing about the average.
  • Even despite that, the average guess was more accurate than 60% of the individuals … and the median guess was more accurate than that.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

There's Hope for the Statists (Tobacco-Control Edition)

According to a speculation at Velvet Glove, Iron Fist, major reason for the opposition to the e-cigarettes is that it interferes with the use of tobacco control as an excuse to extend State power. On the other hand, there's hope for the statists yet. They can always call for government-subsidized e-cigarettes. If anybody objects, accuse them of starting a “war on tobacco users.” Look for them to quote mine pro-tobacco libertarian rhetoric in support of the idea.

There's another side to subsidies: If there turns out to be a problem with e-cigarettes, no matter how small, the subsidies can be used as an excuse to regulate. There may even be a law that the waste from subsidized e-cigarettes can only be be disposed of in a repository in Nevada that the authorities can order closed.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Sometimes There Really Are Problems with Vaccines

When there really are problems with vaccines, the Medical Establishment (you know … Big Pharma) admits it. Maybe other parts of the Establishment can learn from that instead of trying to figure out what the “right balance is between being effective and being honest.”

By the way, why do conspiracy theorists concentrate on the most honest part of the Establishment?

In a related story, I seem to have come down with an upper-respiratory infection.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

The Scott Alexander Weight-Loss Plan

Maybe I should try this sometime:

My recent post on nerds and feminism was something I wrote in anger and anxiety—I’ll admit that I actually lost some weight because I was pacing so much after reading the article that inspired it.
I just have to write a record-setting long rant. That sounds like it beats dieting. On the other hand, although I'm pretty good at short rants (most of these blog entries), I'm not sure if I have the stamina for a long one.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

… And There Is Great Rejoicing

Our prayers have been answered. The Millennium is at hand. It's time for parades and fireworks.

The latest MathJax (currently in beta testing) can finally use \hfill!

Addendum: Also \hfil and \hfilll.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Playing Dumb on Climate Change?

According to Naomi Oreskes:

Where does this severe standard come from? The 95 percent confidence level is generally credited to the British statistician R. A. Fisher, who was interested in the problem of how to be sure an observed effect of an experiment was not just the result of chance. While there have been enormous arguments among statisticians about what a 95 percent confidence level really means, working scientists routinely use it.

But the 95 percent level has no actual basis in nature. It is a convention, a value judgment.

95 percent might have made some sense back in Fisher's day. After all, it was very difficult to test 20 hypotheses at once back then. Today, it's possible to automatically devise hundreds or thousands of hypotheses and data dredge to verify them.

The above applies more strongly to hysterical hypotheses about the consequences of global warming than to hypotheses about global warming itself. It's hard to come up with a few zillion hypotheses about one time series.

But wait, there's more:

[Insisting on a 95% confidence level] makes sense in a court of law, where we presume innocence to protect ourselves from government tyranny and overzealous prosecutors—but there are no doubt prosecutors who would argue for a lower standard to protect society from crime.
I think we do have to protect ourselves from government tyranny and overzealous EPA regulators.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Wait 'Til Next Year!

I apparently made a dubious prediction (here):

Besides, if de Blasio is anything like Obama, he'll replace stop and frisk with drone strikes.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Not Paying Enough?

“If there’s a talent shortage, it means you’re not paying enough, right?”

If we ban fracking, any resulting fuel shortage means we're not paying enough?

Monday, December 29, 2014

\(\bf\LaTeX\) vs. Word

According to research by psychologists, a controlled experiment of \(\rm\LaTeX\) vs. Word found that \(\rm\LaTeX\) users were slower and made more mistakes. There are many things I could say about this but others have already said most of it, so I will make only a few points.

First, they had pathetically-small sample sizes (10 in each group). This might even be related to their testing method, since they apparently wanted research published as fast as possible and the time needed to gather and test an adequate sample would interfere with that. (In other words, this is the scholarly equivalent of an all-nighter.)

Second, it looks like they didn't test the propensity to use \propto where \alpha belongs, or vice versa (the basis for this tweet).

Third, consider the following objection:

For anybody who has experience with both systems, it would be trivial to set up examples where MS Word utterly fails and LaTeX shines:

  • Set up 50 numbered equations, refer to them throughout the text, then change the equation order.

  • Have figures and their captions float to appropriate locations at the top or bottom of pages.

  • Change the order of figures in a document and fix all references to those figures.

Word supporters can reply by pointing out that it's possible to have soft-coded cross references and citations in Word. On the other hand, I only know this because it sometimes goes wrong (i.e., missing reference error messages where the cross reference belongs). On the gripping hand, those soft-coded cross references are used very rarely (i.e., most of the time when I check references in Word files in the course of my day job, they're hard coded), which might mean they're even harder to use than in \(\rm\LaTeX\).

Fourth, and most important: The article ends with:

And, second, preventing researchers from producing documents in LaTeX would save time and money to maximize the benefit of research and development for both the research team and the public.
In other words: We have ways to make you use Word. This is what is meant by Nudge. This is what we libertarians are talking about when we warn of the disadvantages of depending on grants. This is the problem with assuming that disagreement means the Other Side isn't fully informed. The step after that is to decide for others based on what they would have chosen only if they were Rational Like Us.

Finally, arrogance is not limited to physicists or engineers.

Addendum 1: Instead of Nudge, maybe the right term is Prick.

Addendum 2: I have an abridged version of this post at Small Sample Watch.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Free Trade?

According to J. R. Nyquist:

I believe the course of events is dictated by a Leninist and Stalinist political culture which has grown out of the precedents of czarism and Bolshevism, involving a bag of tricks in which six elements are used to achieve political and economic results: (1) provocation; (2) divide and conquer; (3) infiltration of the enemy camp; (4) disinformation; (5) controlled opposition; (6) and strategic deception. Various special formations and ideological sub-weapons have been developed by Moscow to amplify the working power of these six elements, including organized crime, drug trafficking, international terrorism, national liberation movements, revolutionary Islam, free trade, global warming, feminism, the homosexual movement, gun control and multiculturalism.
Free trade? Sometimes the right wing really is nuts.

I won't more than mention that restrictions on carbon emissions will cut into Russian exports or that any nation with Siberia in it stands to gain from global warming.

At least he didn't mention immigration.

Explaining the Wisdom of the Crowd

I'm sure my fellow anti-social malcontents have heard of “the Wisdom of the Crowd” and that the first reaction of most of us was skepticism. (How can you prevent groupthink? Aren't speculative bubbles a counterexample?) I'd like to give a mathematical explanation of this.

Let us assume we have a continuous distribution of estimates in which the median and the Truth differ (see figure below). We are certainly not assuming that the median is infallible. In this figure, the dark areas represent the opinions of people who are further away from the Truth than the median. Half of those opinions are on the other side of the median from the Truth. (For every contrarian, there is an opposite contrarian.) In addition, there are opinions that go too far in the direction of the Truth. (You can usually find people who make your opinions seem moderate, no matter how cracked you may seem.) What this means is that at least half the population will have opinions that are more wrong than the median … and you are probably one of them.

As a specific example, I'm dubious about the Linear No-Threshhold theory of radiation damage. The opposite contrarians would be the people who think the Petkau Effect implies low doses of radiation are more dangerous than the linear theory predicts. The contrarians who might be going too far are the people who think that there's proof that radiation hormesis implies low doses of radiation are good for you.

Apparent counterexamples

Speculative bubbles aren't a counterexample. There is no reason to buy when you agree with the median opinion, as represented by the market price. On the other hand, the people buying during a bubble might think they're agreeing with the median opinion (“everybody knows the market's going up”) but are mistaken. It's also worth noting that selling short during a bubble is also risky since “the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.”

Another apparent counterexample is from the late Hal Finney: an opinion cascade. In an opinion cascade, everybody adjusts their opinion to that of the apparent majority, producing a situation in which the first few people to express an opinion have a disproportionate influence. One possible way to stop this:

It might be best to express what your personal analysis says while simultaneously adjusting your private opinions (which might be revealed in your actions) closer to the opinions of the majority.

There's another reason to be dubious about following the median estimate. The median opinion (at least in this society) disagrees with it. That might have enabled Western Civilization to outcompete more conformist civilizations. On the other hand, that might be a matter of contrarianism being a public-goods problem (also from Hal Finney):

Most people would become more accurate by shifting their opinions towards the consensus average. But this probably would cause social harm, in that we all benefit from having a wide variation of opinion and debate in society.

It may be one reason why society encourages individualism and thinking for yourself. It is harmful to individuals but beneficial for society.

This is a classic public goods problem. Are you going to do what is good for yourself, suppress your individualism and accept the group consensus? Or are you going to accept the social propaganda to think for yourself, even though you will be less accurate?

Again the best solution might be express what your personal analysis says while simultaneously adjusting your private opinions closer to the opinions of the majority. Just don't let anybody catch you applying for tenure while decrying insulation from the market … or dodging a draft while defending an unpopular war … or criticizing racism while moving to an all-white neighborhood … or flying around the world to global-warming conferences … etc. (I had an additional discussion of that type of hypocrisy here.)

Digression: the trouble with tradition

Opinion cascades are a major problem with tradition. If the people in each generation adjust their opinions to the average of earlier generations, the first few will have a disproportionate effect. On the other hand, rejecting tradition entirely means getting your opinions from just one generation in the present.

On the gripping hand, every time there's an improvement in meme storage, the generation after also has a chance to get its say. Let's take Judaism as a typical tradition: The invention of the alphabet was followed by the Torah; the invention of postal systems (which made collaboration between distant scholars possible) was followed by the rest of the Old Testament; the invention of books divided into pages (which made large books usable) was followed by the Talmud; the invention of paper was followed by Maimonides organizing Jewish law; the invention of printing was followed by the Shuchan Aruch; the invention of the Internet …

The difference between median and mode

Some types of contrarianism might be worthwhile. For example, a large fraction (I hope it's still a minority) of the public believes that Columbus discovered the world is round in 1492. In the real world, the fact that the Earth is round was discovered around 2000 years earlier. If most people don't believe that, the median estimate for “when did people discover the world is round?” will be less than 1492 but the mode is likely to be 1492. If contrarianism is a matter of being skeptical about the accuracy of the mode instead of being skeptical about the accuracy of the median, it's likely to be worthwhile.

On the other hand, sometimes the Official Truth really is true and the contrarians are wrong. For example, the number of deaths caused by the Fukushima meltdown is likely to be at or close to zero. The mode estimate probably agrees with that but the median might be much higher. You can think of the mode as the estimate by the “sheeple” (who are sometimes right).

Cross-posted from my Netcom/Earthlink site.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Left-Wing Beliefs and Last and First Men

A large fraction of left-wing beliefs can be explained by the dystopian SF novel (as far as the near future is concerned) Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon. Many leftists think our present is the same as the future in that novel.

  • Communism in Russia failing because it wasn't Communist enough? Check.
  • Evil America taking over the world? Check.
  • Capitalist civilization using up all fossil fuels with no substitutes developed or any evidence of foresight? Check.
  • Nuclear energy turned out to be ineffective as a substitute for fossil fuels but is supported by government propaganda anyway? Check.
  • A nuclear accident destroys almost all life on the planet? Check.
And that's just the first five chapters.

I was reminded of this by Moe Lane's dissection of Naomi Klein's ignorance of dystopian fiction.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Explaining Net Neutrality

One way to look at Left vs. Right in politics is that the Left thinks that the State makes things go and the Right thinks that the State makes things stop. Since ISPs make things go, they must be governments in LeftWorld. If it's necessary to stabilize any tendency for a few content wholesalers to hog bandwidth, anything done to stop that is therefore not government action.

My earlier attempts to figure out what net-neutrality advocates are thinking can be found here.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Blaming Deregulation from an Alternate Timeline

According to Elizabeth Sweet, “toys are more divided by gender now than they were 50 years ago.” The weird part is that she blames deregulation … without citing any actual regulations that were repealed. (I won't more than mention that, in the early part of the period, the Hays code was still in effect and any regulations would have been anti-feminist.) This goes beyond the assumption “that all good things come from regulations and if [an] unregulated system is good it must be due to the regulations yet to be passed.” In this case, the regulations were never passed in this timeline. Apparently, a deregulation campaign in another timeline caused the increased in gendered toy advertising.

As for why there was a change … I can think of several possible explanations: the Roe effect, more toy-buying decisions by men, more toy-buying decisions by children, etc.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Applied Bayesianism

According to Walter Russell Mead:

For liberals, these are bleak times of hollow victories (Obamacare) and tipping points that don’t tip. For examples of the latter, think of Sandy Hook, the horrific massacre in Connecticut that Democrats and liberals everywhere believed would finally push the American public toward gun control. Two years later, polls show more Americans than ever before think it’s more important to protect gun access than to promote gun control.

Sandy Hook isn’t the only example. There was the latest 2014 IPCC report on climate change that was going to end the debate once and for all. The chances for legislative action on climate change in the new Congress: zero or less. There was Ferguson and the Garner videotape showing the fatal chokehold, both of which set off a wave of protests but seem unlikely to change public attitudes about the police. There was the Senate Intelligence Committee “torture report” that was going to settle the issue of treatment of detainees. Again, the polls are rolling in suggesting that the public remains exactly where it was: supportive of “torture” under certain circumstances. And of course there was the blockbuster Rolling Stone article on campus rape at UVA, the story that, before it abruptly collapsed, was going to cement public support for the Obama administration’s aggressive attempt to federalize the treatment of sexual harassment on campuses around the country.

The standard left-wing take on this is: This proves wingnuts ignore evidence! (My earlier comments on the propensity of leftists to claim “wingnuts” ignore evidence can be found here.)

On the contrary, such news items have no effect on our opinions because we expect them. We expect occasional reports of massacres in “gun-free” zones. We expect to see reports of police brutality. According to Bayes Theorem, new evidence that was regarded as highly probable in advance should have little effect.

Question: What are Leftists expecting along similar lines? They expect to see reports of sex scandals and reports of the Mid-east falling apart. What else are they expecting?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

When Evidence Stops

The American Spectator and Pajamas Media have recently been sending sponsored ad-email for nutritional supplements with an interesting tactic: The email will start with a heavily-footnoted discussion showing that nutrient X is Very Important. It will then continue with a discussion (with little or no evidence cited) that nutrient X can be best obtained from the sponsor's brand of supplements. Hmmmm…

Saturday, December 20, 2014

What Would a Similar List Look Like for Written SF?

This list of the top 100 SF characters is from TV and movies. What would a similar list look like for written SF? The top ten might be:

  1. Victor Frankenstein: the Mad Scientist archetype (megalomaniac division)
  2. Mr. Cavor: The Mad Scientist archetype (nerdy division)
  3. Hari Seldon: the sane scientist archetype
  4. Lazarus Long: the longevity archetype
  5. D. D. Harriman: the world-saving tycoon archetype
  6. John Wainwright: the mutant superman archetype
  7. Kimball Kinnison: the action hero archetype
  8. Tweel: the friendly extraterrestrial archetype
  9. SPD-13: the friendly robot archetype
  10. Gnut (also known as Gort): the extraterrestrial trying to save us from ourselves archetype
At first, I had Karellen as No. 10 until I recalled Gnut came first.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Explaining an Apparent Contradiction

On the one hand, later marriage is correlated with increased marital stability. On the other hand, fewer sexual partners is also correlated with increased marital stability. (Both claims seen here.) One possible explanation is that waiting until later to have any sex is correlated with increased marital stability.

On the other hand, maybe higher IQs are correlated with increased marital stability.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Hiring at Google?

Apparently, the people doing the current hiring at Google have said they found that expensive degrees don't predict success, GPAs don't predict success, and asking interviewees if they can solve puzzles doesn't predict success. Would a coin toss help?

Their claim of what did predict success:

For every job, though, the No. 1 thing we look for is general cognitive ability, and it's not IQ. It's learning ability. It's the ability to process on the fly. It's the ability to pull together disparate bits of information. We assess that using structured behavioral interviews that we validate to make sure they're predictive.
This sounds familiar. According to Marvin Minsky:
No, no; your trouble is that you're confusing a thing with itself!

By the way, Google also regards “intellectual humility” as desirable. That might mean the ability to admit being wrong when confronted by evidence. It might also mean a reluctance to tell an echo chamber they're all wrong. Are the engineers who realized that “alternative energy” was a waste of time and money still working for Google?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

How to Stop the “Three Felonies per Day”

Pass a law making all citizens honorary policemen. It's as simple as that.

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