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, July 31, 2007

The Problem with Ethanol

It's looking likely that a sudden increase in the use of corn-based ethanol for automobile fuel will make corn less available for food. (We can't escape rising food costs by switching to other foods because that causes the costs of othe other foods to rise as well.) I'm beginning to think that putting ethanol in gasoline was actually a scheme for making food scarce enough to have something for Malthusians to point at. You can see a typical example here. It's currently impossible to use “Malthus was wrong” as a sound bite; it can only be used with involved explanations that non-geeks won't listen to.

I'm reminded of the environmentalist attitude towards nuclear power. They first make it impossible to build new nuclear power plants and then they claim that the resulting rising CO2 levels threaten to Destroy the Planet. (If their claims about the dangers of fossil-fuel use are true—and they might be—then we have a case for trying them for treason to humanity.)

On the other hand …

There's also a lesson here for the conservative base. The liberal side of the immigration debate will claim that keeping immigrants out will mean that work done by immigrants won't be done. The conservative side will make the counterclaim that Americans will do that work if the price is right. If we apply the lessons of corn-based ethanol, that will mean fewer Americans available for other work.

Meanwhile, Over at the Next Table …

On Overcoming Bias, Eliezer Yudkowsky reported the following conversation:

I was once at a dinner party, trying to explain to a man what I did for a living, when he said: "I don't believe Artificial Intelligence is possible because only God can make a soul."

At this point I must have been divinely inspired, because I instantly responded: "You mean if I can make an Artificial Intelligence, it proves your religion is false?"

Meanwhile, over at the next table, there was the following conversation:

“I believe science teaches us that human-caused global warming is an urgent crisis.”

“You mean if it's either not a problem or can be fixed easily, it proves science is false?”

Sunday, July 29, 2007


I have succeded in unscrambling a 5 × 5 × 5 Rubik's cube!

Maybe I should get a life …

Friday, July 27, 2007

An Odd Reaction to a Cell Phone Upgrade

I recently got a new cell phone. My previous one was becoming hoplessly obsolete. (In other words, I had received a notice that they were turning off the old network.) For some reason, the clerks passed the old phone around as though it were a valuable antique. I was starting to feel like an antique as well …

The next time I get a reaction like that from store clerks I plan to rise from my wheelchair and hit them with my cane.

Extra-Strength HeadOn?

Do they dilute it twice as much? (Seen in a supermaket.)

Do Corporate Subsidies Necessarily Mean Corrupt Intellectuals? Part II

I recently blogged that corporate subsidies of intellectuals do not necessarily mean said intellectuals have been corrupted. I then had an annoying thought: What if the proverbial “pointy-haired bosses” think that pro-business intellectuals have been corrupted anyway?

That might explain why nuclear power has not been defended that energetically by the power utilities, the people you might think would be most eager to do so. (I have encountered some pro-nuclear activists … but they've usually turned out to be Lyndon LaRouche's followers instead of sane people.) The utility executives hear the engineers say that nuclear power is safe and interpret that as meaning the engineers have been corrupted. Since the executives actually do have consciences (I'm going out on a limb here but I figure they might be willing to rook customers a little but they're not out to Destroy the Planet), they try to have as little to do with such an apparently-corrupt technology as possible.

That isn't the only example. This might explain why pharmaceutical companies lobbied against drug reimportation with a campaign that sounded like a standard competition-suppressing move. They heard the real arguments against drug reimportation, figured those arguments were an amateurish imitation of professional monopolists, and went with the usual bullbleep.

Come to think of it, maybe the best reason for intellectuals to avoid corporate subsidies is to convince the capitalists that there are real reasons to defend capitalism.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Defending the Idiotic

After reading the right-wing blogosphere's coverage of the “John Doe” amendment, I wondered if there were any bloggers at all who were criticizing it. I used Google blog search for "john doe amendment" and found there are some blogs. Most left-wing blogs appear to have been ignoring it.

Nearly everybody has been ignoring the precedent, in which an Orthodox Jew was escorted off an Air Canada plane from praying in a disruptive manner. For that matter, not that many people have been pointing out that, if information wants to be free, that includes information on who has been acting as a terrorist decoy.

By the way, would it be worthwhile to set up a charitable organization to pay the legal bills of victims of the resulting lawsuits? Most of the intimidating power of lawsuits comes from the necessary legal bills.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

You Can Write Your Own Punch Lines

They can't possibly be more preposterous than the comments on Fark. According to Spiegel Online:

The commonly spouted wisdom that people only use 10 percent of their brain power may have been dismissed as a myth, but one French man seems to be managing fine with just a small fraction of his actual brain.

In fact the man, who works as a civil servant in southern France, has succeeded in living an entirely normal life despite a huge fluid-filled cavity taking up most of the space where his brain should be.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Connection between Anti-Zionism and Malthusianism

An article in Harper's a few years ago (seen via a commenter on Greg Easterbrook's profile of Norman Borlaug) indicated the connection:

Plato wrote of his country's farmlands:
What now remains of the formerly rich land is like the skeleton of a sick man. . . . Formerly, many of the mountains were arable. The plains that were full of rich soil are now marshes. Hills that were once covered with forests and produced abundant pasture now produce only food for bees. Once the land was enriched by yearly rains, which were not lost, as they are now, by flowing from the bare land into the sea. The soil was deep, it absorbed and kept the water in loamy soil, and the water that soaked into the hills fed springs and running streams everywhere. Now the abandoned shrines at spots where formerly there were springs attest that our description of the land is true.
Plato's lament is rooted in wheat agriculture, which depleted his country's soil and subsequently caused the series of declines that pushed centers of civilization to Rome, Turkey, and western Europe. By the fifth century, though, wheat's strategy of depleting and moving on ran up against the Atlantic Ocean.
There is an obvious counterexample to the claim that agriculture caused the decline of Mediterranean civilization: Israel. The example of Israel shows that if people come back for other reasons, it's possible for former deserts to bloom again.

The renewal of Israel should not surprise us. Topsoil is a renewable resource, as anybody with a compost heap knows. You just need people to maintain the compost heaps. Speculation: Was bubonic plague the turning point in the Mediterranean? The ecology was almost completely artificial in some areas and had to be maintained by humans. After the farmers had been depopulated…

Since the Other Side will now claim that Israel was made possible by a supposedly-unsustainable fossil-fuel technology, I'll have to mention that they're also ignoring the counterexample to the claim that agribusiness requires fossil fuel: nuclear energy.

Monday, July 16, 2007

If This Had Been Written Two Centuries Ago …

If this had been written two centuries ago, it would have warned about running out of the wood needed to manufacture slide rules.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

I'm Saying This through Clenched Teeth

I agree with the environmentalists.


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

An Earlier Blue Moon

It turns out the research discussed here isn't the first to show more nutrients in organic/sustainable foods. An earlier paper by the same author (this is starting to sound like the Lancet) also showed benefits from allegedly-sustainable agriculture.

The really interesting point is that the earlier research showed that the crops in question, when grown with artificial fertilizers, had more nutrients. (They were called “sustainable” because the pesticides were missing.) So … research that shows some foods grown without artificial fertilizers are more nutritious can be cited as evidence for the superiority of organic/sustainable agriculture and research that shows some foods grown with artificial fertilizers are more nutritious can also be cited as evidence for the superiority of organic/sustainable agriculture. This is starting to look non-falsifiable.

I'm reminded of the dread microwave menace of a decade or two ago. A study that showed an increase in disease A and a decrease in disease B upon exposure to microwaves was reported as proving microwaves are dangerous and another study that showed an increase in disease B and a decrease in disease A upon exposure to microwaves was also reported as proving microwaves are dangerous. (On the other hand, there's a more recent version of the same hysteria.)

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Maybe Vague Warnings Make Sense

The following by IowaHawk was hilarious:

London - British public safety officials today increased the national alert level to "Quite Elevated Indeed" -- the highest category possible -- and appealed to UK citizens to "keep a sharp lookout for diverse people engaged in activities."

"We ask the public to report any behaviors by various people that may or may not be of a suspicious nature," said Lt. Clive Jameson of the Metropolitan Police Service. "We further ask the public to be especially vigilant for activities of broad stratas of people who may be from countries of some sort, especially those within the eastern and/or western hemisphere."


Nigel Brunton, a spokesman for the British Society of Diverse People Doing Various Things, said his organization was "cooperating fully" with police, but said he felt it unfair that it was being singled out.

"In every group there's bound to be a few bad apples," said Brunton. "Or some sort of pomaceous fruit of some kind."

It would have been even funnier if I hadn't read the following first:

One complaint in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and the anthrax incidents afterward, is "They tell us to be alert, but they don't tell us what to look out for."

The Federal Government advises people to watch for packages with loose wires, suspicious stains, excessive postage and incomplete addresses. Frankly, if you get a package like that, you're dealing with a very stupid terrorist. Shameful how people don't take pride in their work any more.

Terrorists by definition use surprise and concealment. A predictable terrorist is no threat. So it is impossible to give a simple list of what to look for.

So here it is. You notice everything. You identify every potential threat, everywhere, all the time, and have a plan to deal with it if something happens. Always. You no longer have a right to go through life in a fog on cruise control. You never really did, but the penalties before now were not severe - your career was lackluster, your achievements were nil, other people picked up the slack because you underachieved, they paid the bills when your negligence got you in trouble, but there were no really bad consequences. Now your inattention might get you killed. So you spend all your time, 24/7/365, observing and thinking. Gerbils eat, sleep and reproduce, and go through life without thinking. If you want to live that way, don't complain about other people "dehumanizing" you. You did it yourself.

It Must Be a Blue Moon

At long last, some evidence that at least one type of organic food is healthier than its conventional equivalent has surfaced. According to at least one study organically-grown tomatoes have more antioxidants (seen via FuturePundit):

According to the new findings, levels of the flavonoids quercetin and kaempferol were found to be on average 79 and 97 per cent higher, respectively, in organic tomatoes. Flavonoids such as these are known antioxidants and have been linked to reduced rates of cardiovascular disease, some forms of cancer and dementia, says Alyson Mitchell, a food chemist who led the research at the University of California, Davis.
On the other hand, this might be merely a matter of adjusting fertilizer composition for the allegedly-conventional tomatoes.
Mitchell's team say the finding can be explained by the availability of nitrogen. Flavonoids are produced as a defence mechanism that can be triggered by nutrient deficiency. The inorganic nitrogen in conventional fertiliser is easily available to plants and so, the team suggests, the lower levels of flavonoids are probably caused by overfertilisation.
On the gripping hand, a well-known vegetable (according to the Reagan administration) is even healthier.
This latest study does not prove that a healthy diet must be organic. The evidence of health benefits for flavonoids is conflicting, says Peter Bramley at Royal Holloway, University of London. And even if such benefits exist, higher flavonoid levels do not necessarily make organic food healthier, says John Krebs, former chair of the FSA and now at the University of Oxford. "This depends on the relevance of the differences to the human body," he says. "Tomato ketchup has higher levels of lycopene than either organic or conventional tomatoes. So if you wanted lots of lycopene you should eat ketchup."
(Addendum: ON the other hand …)

Meanwhile, in a related story

Let's see … The organic foods movement is several decades old. Is this the best they can do?

A Theory about the Doctor—Terrorism Connection

Could NHS doctors be more likely to become terrorist because triage has made them less respectful of human life? According to Iain Murray:

Life in the NHS is not a rewarding experience. A family member of mine who is so highly regarded as a Doctor that she has won a prize carrying a substantial annual stipend for the rest of her life has withdrawn from clinical treatment because she was constantly asked to make life-or-death decisions based on the rationing of resources (you won't hear that story in Sicko). The socialization of medicine in the UK is responsible for a lot of problems. The importation of terrorists is just one of them.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

What Is War and What Is Liberty? A Hint

In case you were wondering what I meant by this post, you can find a hint here.

Theory vs. Reality

According to one theory, immigrants are supposed to have fewer ties to the local community and will be more likely to become criminals. According to another theory, immigrants from high-crime areas are more likely to already be criminals. According to both theories, an area with a high immigration rate should have an increasing crime rate. In reality, New York, with a large and diverse immigrant population, appears to be immune to the crime epidemic on the East Coast.

On the other hand, maybe immigrants only move to low-crime areas …

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Do Corporate Subsidies Necessarily Mean Corrupt Intellectuals?

According to Arnold Kling, John Baden is a counterexample:

For example, I trust John Baden, the organizer of the seminar for FREE. His commitment to principle is strong. At a dinner during our session, I sat next to Edgar Capen, who got to know Baden when they both were in Texas. Baden owed his position at the time to funding from the oil companies, who had found his free-market advocacy congenial. However, when oil prices fell in the 1980's, the industry developed a craving for subsidies. When Baden stuck to his free market economics, he was fired.

Many economists would have found a way to rationalize adopting a new viewpoint more congenial to their sponsors. I trust Baden when he provides information, because he chose to compromise his short-term financial interests rather than his economic principles.

Of course, Stephen, a commenter on that article, ignores the example:

actually, very few still read TCS … because it is blatently politically biased with an obvious right-wing pro-industrial-military complex slant.

It started out with a reasonable attempt to cover up the bias. But when the top was blown off the propaganda infrastructure of the right-wing conservative movement, TCS was among the first to tumble becuase their claimed scientific bases was shown to be fraudulent.

As far as I can tell, “the top was blown off the propaganda infrastructure of the right-wing conservative movement” is a reference to the fact that somebody had subsidized TCS. If Stephen could post that as though it necessarily meant something, he clearly could not have read the entire article he was supposedly commenting on.

Questions about the “Flying Spaghetti Monster”

After reading way too much about the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I have a couple of questions.

If traditional theists believe God made man in His own image, presumably FSMists believe God made noodles in Its own image. If a belief in human rights is a consequence of the belief that humans are theomorphic, would FSMists believe that noodles have rights? If so, what kind of rights would noodles have?

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Three Effects of the American Revolution

  1. It prevented us from being Canadian.

  2. It inspired the French Revolution. (I'm not sure if this was a good thing.)

  3. It gave the British establishment a “whack on the side of the head” and probably kept then from turning the resistance to the French Revolution into an excuse to crack down on the allegedly-lower classes.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Possible Evidence Fundamentalism Might Do Real Damage

According to a recent study, people raised in religious homes (especially when fundamentalist) are less likely to become scientists … at least at “elite” universities. If we need more scientists, that might mean fundamentalist religion is undesirable.

On the other hand …

This might be limited to “elite” universities. (Maybe universities with a higher proportion of irreligious faculty get better press.) This might be due to the fact that religious people tend to marry and reproduce at younger ages (which interferes with grad school and tenure). Most important of all, the difference might be going away. (Younger faculty are more likely to be religious.)

By the way, has there ever been a twin study on this? It might be interesting to find a pair of identical twins raised in religious and irreligious homes, one a Creationist and the other a Deep Ecologist.

Addendum: It is limited to “elite” universities.

How to Discuss Global Warming

The Science and Pseudoscience of Global Warming by Steven Dutch should be a model for anybody trying to convince us reactionary crackpots of the seriousness of the Global Warming Crisis. A typical pro-GW article will frequently involve a liberal congratulating himself on being “reality-based” combined with exhortations to trust the consensus of the experts and complaints that the experts aren't hysterical enough. Steve Dutch reminds us that there is a there there.

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