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

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Why Was There a Pause in Science?

Michael Flynn theorized in “De revolutione scientiarum in ‘media tempestas’” in the July/August 2007 Analog that a scientific revolution nearly occurred in Medieval Europe (discussed here earlier). He also speculated that that there was a pause between the High Middle Ages and the Baroque due to the bubonic plague epidemic that cut down the number of scholars.

Bubonic plague probably played a role, but there was another factor. This was the same period when only governments had guns (1350—1650). It was a period of intolerance and authoritarianism all across Eurasia.

There were centralized absolute governments in Russia, Turkey, India, China, and Japan. There was no such takover in Europe but there was absolute monarchies everywhere and the Hapsburgs nearly took over everything. As a result of this. there was the expulsion of Jews from western Europe, the Mogul persecution of the Sikhs, and the Japanese persecution of the Christians. The era 1350—1650 was a terrible period for any dissenting group and potential scientists may have decided to keep their heads down.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Mathematics

The colonel upset at the inhumane treatment of robots (mentioned here earlier) might have a complaint against mathematicians as well. According to John Baez:

They're called "ternary rings" because they're usually described in terms of a ternary operation that generalizes xy + z. But the precise definition is too depressing for me give here. It's a classic example of what James Dolan calls "centipede mathematics", where you take a mathematical concept and see how many legs you can pull off before it can no longer walk. A ternary ring is like a division ring that can just barely limp along on its last legs.
On the other hand, some people might claim that mathematics did the torturing first.

Will Britain Obey the Geneva Convention?

In Britain:

Patients at Rampton high security psychiatric hospital, which houses some of the country's most dangerous criminals, are challenging a smoking ban in a test case which claims the refusal to permit cigarettes in the hospital's buildings or grounds violates their human rights.
This is, of course, in accordance with the Geneva Convention:
Sufficient drinking water shall be supplied to prisoners of war. The use of tobacco shall be permitted.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Next Civil Rights Crusade

In the course of looking up background material for further possible comments on corporate personhood (earlier discussed here), I noticed the following on Wikipedia:

There are limitations to the legal recognition of artificial persons. Legal entities cannot marry, they usually cannot vote or hold public office,[8] and in and in most jurisdictions there are certain positions which they cannot occupy.[9]
Corporations cannot marry? Does that mean if you've fallen in love with the corporation of your dreams, you cannot marry him/her/it? THIS IS UNFAIR!

Legalizing corporate marriage is the next logical step after gay marriage and polygamy. (Marriage to animals, vegetables, or minerals will have to wait.)

It's Only a Matter of Time …

… before Al Qaeda (or a similar organization) kidnaps somebody who explodes.

I suspect that will be the last kidnapping for a while.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Overly Fine Distinctions

I'm normally in favor of making fine distinctions but this is ridiculous:

Seven-in-ten Americans now say they favor "affirmative action programs to help blacks, women and other minorities get better jobs and education," a 12-point increase since 1995, with support increasing among most demographic and political groups; but the number favoring "preferential treatment" for minorities, 34%, is no higher than in the early 1990s.
What do they imagine affirmative action is?

I'm reminded of the following fine distinction (attributed by Raymond Smullyan to Marvin Minsky):

No, no; your trouble is that you're confusing a thing with itself!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

A Theory about Al Qaeda's Game Plan in Iraq

They might be trying to create another group of Palestinians. If they can get rest of Iraq sufficiently p___ed off at the Sunni Arabs, they might be able to engineer a mass expulsion of Sunni Arabs from Iraq. That will create another homeless people who will blame everything on the United States. If all goes according to their plan, we can expect UN-run refugee camps, Arab governments keeping the refugees from assimilating, and enough terrorism emanating from the refugees to keep non-Arabs from accepting any of them.

Hmmm… This might be the incentive that will finally get space colonies started …

An Engineer? I'm Dubious

According to an alleged engineer writing to The Corner:

Immigration is basically a plumbing problem - our border leaks. When you have plumbing that leaks, you fix the leak before you start cleaning up your house. Build a fence and stop the leak, then decide how to clean up.

Note that the leak is cause by a pressure differential across the souther border - lots of people want to come here. (Compare to northern border). Economic opportunity here far exceeds that in their own country, and there is little risk of associated with coming here illegally. So pressure builds to our south. Once the leak is stopped, we can look at ways to equalize the pressure. Strict enforcement and deportation would do it. Getting Mexico to reform would help as well. I'm also fine with increasing legal immigration through carefully regulated valves on our southern border.

Ironically, amnesty will only increase the pressure.

Yes, I am an engineer.

On the other hand, if a leak is fixed but the water isn't conducted away, it will recur. According to to former blog Trolling in Shallow Water (quoted here):
One phrase the inspector seemed to like was "water will win." Apparently this is an aphorism he picked up in the Army Corps of Engineers. What it means is that, unless you give water an easy route to somewhere harmless, it will make its own route by wearing through whatever is in the way. A roof is not kept in good condition by waterproofing alone; that will fail unless there are appropriate gutters and flashings to let the water run off the roof. Likewise, the rain gutters must give water a clear path to a point far from the foundation, or the crawl space will flood no matter how solid the foundation is. Water will win.
Also see here:
If you build in the path of moving water, sooner or later, water will win.

We'll Have to Cross Breed Them with Brazil Nuts

I'll take a break and talk about science news. (Otherwise, you might think I'm defending the right of South American lunatics to move to the United States.)

There's nuclear-powered life.

Who Set off Mass Immigration?

John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. Back in the days of 90%+ top tax rates, it made sense for even the upper classes to mow their own lawns rather than work a little longer at the office. After taxes were lowered, it made more sense to stay at the office and pay somebody else. There was the minor problem that the somebody else would frequently have their own careers. The upper classes could have paid more but it would have been a waste to have more educated people mowing lawns and cleaning houses. The obvious solution was mass immigration.

We Already Knew the Democrats Are Idiots

There's now additional evidence. Have such anti-“gouging” laws ever worked?

As for the other ignorant army

It might be harder to expel illegal aliens than some of us expect. The Second Amendment stands in the way. Has there ever been a successful ethnic cleansing in an area where anybody could buy a gun?

Who Spoiled Northern New England?

In case you were wondering how the formerly most-Republican part of the United States got taken over by Democrats, The Center for Immigration Studies has a paper showing that the country sending the most immigrants to Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont was Canada.

Like maple syrup, Canada's evil oozes over the United States.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Mark Helprin Has a Sensible Idea …

… but it's not the one he thinks he's advocating.

In the course of an attempt at defending perpetual copyright, Mark Helprin wrote:

Absent the government’s decree, copyright holders would have no exclusivity of right at all. Does not then the government’s giveth support its taketh? By that logic, should other classes of property not subject to total confiscation therefore be denied the protection of regulatory agencies, courts, police and the law itself lest they be subject to expropriation as payment for the considerable and necessary protections they too enjoy? Should automobile manufacturers be nationalized after 70 years because they depend on publicly financed roads? Should Goldman Sachs be impounded because of the existence of the Securities and Exchange Commission?
Since turning copyright over to the public domain is a matter of the government refusing to do something, clearly the equivalent when applied to roads etc. would be the government privatizing roads after 70 years. More generally, if a new technology allegedly requires government help to get off the ground, that help should stop after 70 years. This should have been applied to roads and airports and should be applied to nuclear energy and space travel. It has been applied to the Internet somewhat sooner than after 70 years.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Bait and Switch

Anti-immigration activists frequently claim to be concerned about the alleged problem of low-IQ immigrants. You can see examples in the comments to Bryan Caplan's recommendation to offset low-IQ immigrants with high-IQ immigrants. The only problem is that they are equally offended by high-IQ immigrants. For example, the proposed immigration bill is designed to allow in more skilled immigrants but some allegedly-sane people are frothing at the mouth about it. It looks like the anti-immigration people set out the bait of “We only want the best people.” but switch to “Keep out all foreigners!” once that's accepted.

Friday, May 18, 2007


Rumor has it that Bryan Caplan is advocating imitating one of the most annoying habits of env!ronment@lists:

When the media spotlight gives other experts a few seconds to speak their mind, they usually strive to forcefully communicate one or two simplified conclusions. ... But economists are reluctant to use this strategy.  Though the forum demands it, they think it unseemly to express a definite judgment.  This is a recipe for being utterly ignored.  If you are one voice in a sea of self-promotion, you had better speak up clearly when you finally get your chance to talk. ... professional humility is dangerous ... there are two kinds of errors.  Hubris is one; self-abasement is the other. 

I'm reminded of the well-known Stephen Schneider quote:
This double ethical bind we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.
… but it's apparently okay if “we must compete with the other simplifiers.” How about criticizing propaganda in general?

On the other hand, maybe I'm looking at this as a mathematician.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Why Did the Scientific Revolution Happen in Western Europe?

Michael Flynn has some speculations in “Quaestiones Super Caelo Et Mundo” and “De revolutione scientiarum in ‘media tempestas’” in the July/August 2007 Analog on how a scientific revolution nearly occurred in Medieval Europe. This may have been in reaction to the commonly-expressed theory that the authoritarian Church suppressed science in Europe for a millennium.

My theory, for what it's worth, which isn't much, is that Europe became a center for innovative ideas because it was a fringe area. During the Dark Ages, even the nuttiest bishops couldn't suppress philosophical ideas. There were attempts to declare Aristotle's philosophy to be heresy. Those attempts could not succeed in the Dark Ages and by the time of the High Middle Ages, something resembling reason had become entrenched.

There was a close call during the “Renaissance.” By that time, Europe was no longer a fringe area and the authoritarians had a free hand. The formerly-unified Church broke up just in time.

Al Qaeda Is Taking Notes

They will look for recruits with the right kind of brain damage:

At the University of Iowa Hospital, the researchers singled out six middle-age men and women who had injured the same neural network in the prefrontal cortex. On neuropsychological tests, they seemed normal. They were healthy, intelligent, talkative, yet also unkempt, not so easily embarrassed or so likely to feel guilty, explained lead study scientist Michael Koenigs at the National Institutes of Health. They had lived with the brain damage for years but seemed unaware that anything about them had changed.

To analyze their moral abilities, Dr. Koenigs and his colleagues used a diagnostic probe as old as Socrates -- leading questions: To save yourself and others, would you throw someone out of a lifeboat? Would you push someone off a bridge, smother a crying baby, or kill a hostage?

All told, they considered 50 hypothetical moral dilemmas. Their responses were essentially identical to those of neurology patients who had different brain injuries and to healthy volunteers, except when a situation demanded they take one life to save others. For most, the thought of killing an innocent prompts a visceral revulsion, no matter how many other lives weigh in the balance. But if your prefrontal cortex has been impaired in the same small way by stroke or surgery, you would feel no such compunction in sacrificing one life for the good of all. The six patients certainly felt none. Any moral inhibition, whether learned or hereditary, had lost its influence.

They might even try psychosurgery to create the necessary recruits.

ObSF: “I Always Do What Teddy Says” by Harry Harrison.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

A Paranoid Theory about Peer Review I Haven't Seen Yet

What if the purpose of calling peer review “peer review” is to create paranoid theories? Peer review is mainly a matter of a filter against careless authors (carelessness includes sending a paper to the wrong journal) but the term sounds like it means “authoritarians enforcing groupthink.”

As a result, a slightly-careless author with a nonstandard opinion is likely to attribute the consequent rejections to The Establishment instead of fixing the problems. The presence of this paranoia will be used as an argument against the nonstandard opinions. Some authors might even not bother with academic publication because they're convinced the deck is stacked against them.

Sudden Jihadi Syndrome?

According to Alarming News, it's more like Always a Thug Syndrome:

When Elvis and Dritan Duka, two of the three brothers arrested on terrorism charges in Fort Dix, were kids, they were neighborhood bullies. When they got a little older, they became drug dealers.

How do I know? They grew up in my neighborhood, my brother and his friends used to brawl with them on a fairly regular basis. My brother's best friend's mom was friends with their mom. Then they moved to New Jersey and became Jihadis. Of all possible paths for the Duka kids, that one didn't seem the most likely.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Preposterous Sagan Quote

According to Carl Sagan (mentioned in a comment on Respectful Insolence):

In science it often happens that scientists say, “You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,” and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time someting like that happened in politics or religion.
It isn't unheard of for people to change their political or religious opinions. In the case of religion, that's known as conversion. In the case of politics, there's the common phenomenon of former liberals who became conservatives on September 11, 2001.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

A Common Leftist Meme on Corporations

While looking for reactions to Verizon's innovative legal doctrines, I noticed an example of a common leftist meme in the comments to a post on Crooks and Liars:

Unfortunately, there was a Supreme Court decision in the early 20th century (forget what it was called) which declared a corporation as a person with respect to 1st Amendment rights. Since then, things have gone down hill for private citizens with respect to the 1st Amendment.
It is a sad day when a CORPORATION can claim personhood and declares it has 1st Amendment rights? At the same time, real people are losing their civil rights and civil liberties right and left.
Corporations do not have rights. The “real people” making up corporations do exist and have rights. The rights of corporations is simply a shorthand way of describing those rights. The existence of a corporate person merely means there is more than one reason to defend the rights of the people making up the corporation.

The really fascinating aspect of this meme is the reaction of leftists when we wingnuts try arguing in favor of deregulating corporations on the grounds of human rights. They will first assume that we are using the legal decision that corporations are persons and claim it should be repealed. When we try explaining that we mean the human rights of the individuals making up corporations, they will assume we are ignorant clods who don't even know the arguments on our side.

I'd like to let the leftists in on a little secret: I have never seen one of us reactionaries using the legal decision that corporations are persons. We always use other grounds.

On the other hand, maybe they could claim that Microsoft, for example, is actually run by goblins instead of humans …

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

People at Risk from The Tennesean

Some people are being put at risk from the recent publication of the list of concealed-weapons permits: people who were not on the lists. If an enterprising burglar had thought to download the lists in time, he would know who he could rob safely.

Verizon Says

Information wants to be free!”:

Essentially, the argument is that turning over truthful information to the government is free speech, and the EFF and ACLU can't do anything about it. In fact, Verizon basically argues that the entire lawsuit is a giant SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) suit, and that the case is an attempt to deter the company from exercising its First Amendment right to turn over customer calling information to government security services. 

They're just speaking truth to power.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Robots

According to The Washington Post:

The most effective way to find and destroy a land mine is to step on it.

This has bad results, of course, if you're a human. But not so much if you're a robot and have as many legs as a centipede sticking out from your body. That's why Mark Tilden, a robotics physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, built something like that. At the Yuma Test Grounds in Arizona, the autonomous robot, 5 feet long and modeled on a stick-insect, strutted out for a live-fire test and worked beautifully, he says. Every time it found a mine, blew it up and lost a limb, it picked itself up and readjusted to move forward on its remaining legs, continuing to clear a path through the minefield.

Finally it was down to one leg. Still, it pulled itself forward. Tilden was ecstatic. The machine was working splendidly.

The human in command of the exercise, however -- an Army colonel -- blew a fuse.

The colonel ordered the test stopped.

Why? asked Tilden. What's wrong?

The colonel just could not stand the pathos of watching the burned, scarred and crippled machine drag itself forward on its last leg.

This test, he charged, was inhumane.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Inspired by Mike Slackenerny?

If Mike Slackenerny could graduate, so could this guy (seen via TJIC).

He's now qualified to either operate a cash register at a sea food place or run a comic book store.

Friday, May 04, 2007

A Flip Interpreter in C

I have uploaded a C program and a compiled executable for an interpreter for the Flip computer language (earlier discussed here) for DOS to my Netcom website. (Not much there yet.)

You must make sure there is a line

(or equivalent) in the file config.nt or config.sys. That won't enable the Java version to work but it's compatible with this program.

The program takes one or two command-line parameters: The first is the name of the flip file and the second (which can be omitted) is the delay in seconds between each step. The second parameter is a real number, so it can be 0.1 or 0.01.

Yes, the 'r' and 'R' commands work.

This Just In

70% of the GOP candidates in the debate last night believe in evolution.

The likelihood of any of the other three getting the nomination is remote.

By the way, is it my imagination or did most liberal blogs commenting on this already have posts written and ready to publish complaining about a 90% belief in creationism and had to edit them at the last minute to mention a 30% belief? The rhetoric would fit a 90% belief in creationism much better than a 30% belief.

Addendum: Paul Krassner didn't bother editing:

And finally, the spectacle of ten white male Republican presidential candidates all vying to become the leader of the western world by competing to see which one most disbelieves in evolution, has itself become the Dinosaur Follies.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

If Numbers Cannot Be Owned …

If numbers cannot be owned, does that include credit-card numbers?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

You Will Bow Down

I think I've come down with an attack of the disease of kings.

Believe in the Consensus

The Consensus is Always Right.

You wouldn't want to disagree with experts now, would you?

Set seriousness bit to ON: The tobacco companies are frequently accused of having tried to stir up doubt about the then developing research linking tobacco and cancer. (This is an obvious attempt to make today's Global Warming skeptics sound like carcinogen sellers.) We can also accuse them of having tried to create a belief in a pro-tobbacco consensus among experts. (This is my attempt to make today's Global Warming enthusiasts sound like carcinogen sellers.)

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Selection Bias Study

Sunclipse has a post on selection bias. I've been complaining about that for years.

Come to think of it, maybe Sunclipse's choice of topics to complain about was an example of selection bias.

On the other hand, maybe my complaints were as well …

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