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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The Former Four Horsemen of the Ablogalypse:
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Yet another weird SF fan

Monday, December 31, 2007

A Suggestion for a Science Debate Topic

There is evidence for the existence of a natural nuclear fission reactor on Earth two billion years ago based on the nuclear waste found in rocks of that age. Candidates can be asked if they accept such evidence and what they think of the implications of the fact that the waste did not move with repect to the surrounding rock (in particular, the implications for nuclear waste disposal).

On the other hand, it might make more sense to ask them general questions about the scientific method. For example, they might be asked what a control group is or what the difference is between Type I and Type II errors.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

A Description of the Thompson Campaign

Fred Thompson is jogging for President.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Examples of Implicit Contracts

The New York Times reports on “implicit contracts”:

The concept of “implicit contracts” was developed in a landmark 1988 paper by the economists Andrei Shleifer and Lawrence Summers. Their subject — hostile corporate takeovers — seems far from cyberprivacy, but it is not. Shleifer and Summers showed that increases in share price following takeovers were not due to gains in efficiency, as the defenders of those buyouts claimed. There often were such gains, but they were not the source of the profits. The profits came from reneging on implicit contracts — like the tradition of overpaying older workers who had been overworked when young on the understanding that things would even out later. These contracts, because implicit, were hard to defend in court. But the assets they protected were real. To profit from them, buyout artists had only to put someone in place who could, with a straight face and a clean conscience, say, “I didn’t promise nothin’!”
I can think of two more examples of implicit contracts:
  • The tradition of discriminating against immigrants on the understanding that the next generation or two would benefit.

  • The tradition of hiring university presidents on the understanding that they would not mention some lines of inquiry in public.

Identifying a specific example of the latter will be left as an exercise for the reader.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Don't Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out

From Goodbye, Cruel Jews:

Some persons here have posted remarks offensive to Jews, remarks that no one would have regarded seriously if not for the Jews, as they stridently identify themselves, calling for banning and lynch mobs and denunciation of the posters whose words have offended them.  They have made it very clear that they are willing to destroy this site, to make it a barren no-man's-land where no civil discourse can survive, unless the persons they charge with antisemitism are silenced and driven out.

I know that these Jews will continue to conduct their hate campaigns with impunity as well as self-righteousness, because the people in charge of this site regard them as friends, but they are false, treacherous friends, willing to destroy the site that has befriended them.

And these same persons, these Jews, have not only continued their malicious attacks on me, but others, also Jews, have joined their Hate Squad, solely on the grounds that they are Jews and have been offended by someone, and thus arrogate to themselves the right to hate and insult a person who has done them no harm and no offense.

“Stand not upon the order of your going but go at once!”—William Shakespeare

“There will be many a dry eye here when you leave.”—R. A. Lafferty

Neither Snow nor Rain nor Heat nor Gloom of Night Stays These Couriers from the Swift Completion of Their Appointed Rounds


Your carrier is instructed not to attempt delivery when there is a heavy accumulation of snow or ice on sidewalks, steps or porches. If conditions prevent your carrier from reaching your mailbox, you may consider meeting the carrier upon delivery or arrange to pick up your mail at your local post office.
They sold the building with the inscription anyway.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Bah Humbug

From an economics standpoint, gift giving does not make sense.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Darkness and … Darkness

During the heyday of totalitarianism, totalitarianism crept into the work of people who intended to oppose it. For example, in Darkness and the Light by Olaf Stapledon (seen via The Long View) there was a discussion of two possible futures for humanity: one in which totalitarian thugs triumph (Darkness) and one in which the forces of gentleness win (Light). In the Light section, the World Federation has a little problem with those Americans. It seems that the Americans insisted on keeping capitalism. The President of the World made a compromise offer:

The World Government could now afford to be generous. He therefore proposed, with his Government's full assent, a temporary arrangement allowing the Americas economic autonomy within the Federation. The World Government reserved the power of constant inspection of American industry and would not permit any infringement of the rights of the workers, as laid down in the preamble to the constitution of the Federation. Certain kinds of industry were excluded from capitalist enterprise entirely, such as armaments and the great means of expression. These, and education, were to be nationalized under the American state, subject to final control by the World Government. It also reserved a power of veto on any industry which it regarded as undesirable from the point of view of the world, and it might order American industry to produce some particular kind of goods needed by the world. Such work might be subsidized by the World Government.
Translation: We'll let you live … provided you're neutered and lobotomized.

I wasn't surprised when the civilization was taken over by localvores. (BTW, why do the advocates of human cooperation oppose any specific instance of large-scale cooperation?) I was even less surprised when their reaction to a crisis was to restrict human action even further rather than extend it.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Some Things Don't Change

In ancient Egypt, the best expert advice was to spend lots of money on an expert:

Gen 41:33 Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt.
In modern America, the best expert advice is to spend lots of money on experts:

About three dozen experts on energy and climate, along with prominent figures in other fields, have sent a letter to all members of Congress, President Bush and the presidential candidates, proposing a roughly tenfold increase in federal spending on energy research.

The goal, they say, is to accelerate advances in nonpolluting energy technologies to limit climate risks and security problems related to the fast-growing global demand for oil and particularly coal, the fossil fuels that produce the bulk of carbon dioxide emissions linked to global warming.

The letter, sent Sunday, calls for at least $30 billion a year in spending to promote sustained research akin to the Apollo space program or the Manhattan Project.

People still fall for it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Control Group Needed

A poll carried out on “112,000 freshmen from 236 colleges in Fall 2004 and of 15,000 from the same group as juniors in Spring 2007” indicated the group became marginally more liberal. I doubt if college had anything to do with that. Judging by election results, the general public moved in the same direction.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Economics of Interstellar Trade

One obvious possibility is trade in information and services since different planets will have different cultures and might be best at different things. (ObSF: The Dorsai series.) It might start out as free (gratis), but the people downloading movies from the Movie Planet might prefer action-adventure movies to artsy stuff and the people downloading programs from the Software Planet might prefer understandable user interfaces. Eventually, they will get around to paying for the extras.

Trade in material resources might also be possible. System X might have a high ratio of sunlight to planetary mass and System Y might have the opposite. In that case, it makes sense for them to trade atoms for photons. (The atoms can be sent by spaceship and the photons by laser.) In particular, the planets of a red dwarf might have the atoms needed to support a population in the quadrillions but might not have the energy to do so. On the other hand, Sirius might have the energy to support an enormous population but might not have any planets.

Interstellar colonization might be set off in reaction to a sunlight monopoly in the Solar System. A colony around Alpha Centauri can match the amount Big Sunlight can sell and a colony around Sirius can exceed it by a very large margin. On the other hand, Big Sunlight might try maintaining the monopoly by shooting at colonization ships.

Of course, Sirius might also become a monopoly. Most of the starlight emitted within 5 parsecs of the Sun comes from Sirius. If Sirius exploits its monopoly, there will be attempts to bypass it by starting colonies near Vega or Arcturus.

I think we have a plot as well as a background …

The best part is that this revives the Golden Age SF cliche of putting colonies near first-magnitude stars.

Are Alpha-Ray Lasers Possible?

Since α rays are bosons, it should be theoretically possible for α rays to stimulate more α-ray emission. If it's possible to do that in the real world, it would be possible to have compact sources of nuclear power. What's even more important, it might even be possible to accelerate α decay, so we don't have to wait “500,000 years” (a ridiculous figure, but that's a different rant).

On the other hand, this seems obvious enough for it have been researched, so I guess it didn't pan out.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Ninety Candles

It's Arthur C. Clarke's birthday.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

What Do Countable Ordinals Look Like?

I've been wondering what countable ordinals look like when graphed as relations. You can think of a countable ordinal α as an order relation >α such that there is a one-to-one order-preserving function f from the natural numbers to the ordinals less than α. In other words, n >α m if and only if f(n) > f(m) for all natural numbers n and m. You can also think of relations on the natural numbers N as subsets of N × N. It's possible to graph the corner of that near the origin.

We start with ω, the supremum of 0, 1, 2, …. In this case, we can use the usual ordering of the natural numbers:

As you can see, it is extremely simple.

Next, we look at 2ω, the supremum of ω, ω + 1, ω + 2, …. In this case, we identify the even numbers 2n with the ordinals n and the odd numbers 2n + 1 with the ordinals ω + n:

Each half of this has a uniform period.

Then we look at ω2, the supremum of 0, ω, 2ω, …. Here, we use the standard method of constructing a one-to-one correspondence between the natural numbers and ordered pairs of natural numbers. For example, 0 is identified with 0ω + 0; 1 and 2 are identified with 1*ω + 0 and 0*ω + 1, respectively; 3, 4, and 5 are identified with 2*ω + 0, 1*ω + 1, and 0*ω + 2, respectively; etc.:

This looks periodic, but the periods expand linearly with the number of periods from the origin.

We continue with ωω, the supremum of ω, ω2, ω3, …. In order to come up with an ordinal corresponding to number n, we first express it in binary. We then start with ordinal 0 and go through the binary expression from the most significant bit to the least adding one at each 1 and multiplying by ω at each 0. For example, 42 has a binary expansion of 101010. It is easy to see this becomes ω3 + ω2 + ω. The graph is:

Here, the periods expand exponentially with the number of periods from the origin.

Finally, we look at ε0, the supremum of ω, ωω, ωωω, …. In order to come up with an ordinal corresponding to number n, we take its prime factorization. Multiplying two numbers is equivalent to adding to ordinals. The ordinal corresponding to the nth prime (in which 2 is the first prime, 3 the second, etc.) is ω to the ordinal corresponding to n. Since 1 is the product of no primes, it corresponds to ordinal 0. (As a result, the graph has (1,1) at the origin instead of (0,0).) As an example, let us considers the ordinal corresponding to 42. 2 becomes ω. 3 becomes ωω. 4 becomes ω2. Since 7 is the fourth prime, it becomes ωω2. 42 is 2 * 3 * 7 and the corresponding ordinal is ωω2 + ωω + ω. The graph is:

This looks like a humanly-incomprehensible jumble. On the other hand, someone more ingenious than I am might be able to devise something clearer.

I'm not going to touch Γ0 and larger ordinals for now. In any case, ω1CK is too large to be graphed in this manner.

You can find a review of the ordinals displayed above in the chapter “Birthday Cantatatata…” in Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas R. Hofstadter.

These ordinals are displayed using JavaScript on my other blog. I would appreciate bug reports from my readers.

Addendum: There was a bug in the original program for ε0. It has been fixed.

Friday, December 14, 2007


David Hazinski, the sort of academic who gives intellectual snobs a bad name, wrote (with emphasis added on this blog):

But unlike those other professions, journalism — at least in the United States — has never adopted uniform self-regulating standards. There are commonly accepted ethical principals — two source confirmation of controversial information or the balanced reporting of both sides of a story, for example, but adhering to the principals is voluntary. There is no licensing, testing, mandatory education or boards of review. Most other professions do a poor job of self-regulation, but at least they have mechanisms to regulate themselves. Journalists do not.
That should be “principles,” not “principals.”

Discussions of standards are more impressive when you can spell.

Addendum: Attentive readers might have noticed a spelling error or two on this blog. That clearly means I should not set myself up as a standard. On the other hand, I don't recall doing so.

Addendum II: The spelling error has been corrected on the original site.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Your Mother Wears Army Boots!

Not in Iran.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Why Israel Is Leaving Socialism Behind

If Glenn Greenwald's figures are any indication, it should be obvious that Jews with working brains have been leaving the United States for Israel.

Addendum: Irony alert! While looking for comments on the above, I noticed that the relevant post on MuzzleWatch has closed comments after just a few hours.

Addendum II: I just realized the poll results resemble those from the polls showing that most Hispanic-Americans want a crackdown on immigration.

Addendum III: I also just remembered one of the most famous poll results ever.

Extraterrestrial Investors?

Megan McArdle has a series of posts defending the Efficient Market Hypothesis—the theory that human beings cannot consistently beat the market. On the other hand, there is Warren Buffett, who has a reputation for doing so anyway.

So… If human beings cannot consistently beat the market … would Warren Buffett be an extraterrestrial? (He might be a Monoid from the planet Functor.)

Maybe his remarks on taxes or population control are intended to soften us up for the invasion…

Sunday, December 09, 2007

What If the Earth Were Flat?

Ilkka Kokkarinen has a speculation on the effects of the world being flat:

I wonder what life and things would be like if Earth was flat and infinite in all directions, so that no matter how far you went, there would always be new geography and people and cultures living there. To sidestep the question where all these people came from, let's say that there is always a finite number of people, but there are so many (and that they expand so fast) that from where you start, you would never reach the edge even if you travelled in the speed of light. What would international politics look like in this world, since for example any possible "U.N." or alliance between nations could ever include only an effective zero percent of all nations? Would there be massive migration of individual people constantly going on, with the hope that logically there must be something much better out there somewhere? What would life be like for talented people in various fields, since they knew that there are countless people out there who are even more talented in that field, and somewhere out there everything they can do is obsolete?
Effectively-infinite populations should erase the obscurity trap, in which nobody uses a potentially-important technology because you can't find experts in it and nobody tries to learn it because you can't get a job in it. In a very large society, hobbyists can jump start nearly anything.

Increases in population size can affect moral standards. At present, in a world of a few billion humans, there are plausible-sounding calls for the currently most-powerful nation to right every wrong (e.g., “We can stop the Darfur famine.”) and plausible-sounding claims that picking and choosing between wrongs to right is hypocritical. I suspect that on an infinite plain, similar ideas would be regarded as obvious nonsense.

A Suggestion for the Hollywood Left

Make a movie based on Tolkien's Akallabêth. It's based on a contemporary classic. It's about a plausible analog to the Gulf wars that goes awry. The story isn't that detailed, so it's possible to add a few more details that should remind people of current events.

Don't go too far, at least in those parts analogous to events that have already occurred. Any analog to the present should occur before the human sacrifices start.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Bosses Who Think They're Giving Orders

A few months ago I blogged that some corporate executives appear to think that intellectuals agreeing with them are simply obeying orders. There's a more recent example of a similar phenomenon. Dan Bartlett, a former White House communications director, thinks that we wingnut bloggers were obeying his orders:

That’s what I mean by influential. I mean, talk about a direct IV into the vein of your support. It’s a very efficient way to communicate. They regurgitate exactly and put up on their blogs what you said to them. It is something that we’ve cultivated and have really tried to put quite a bit of focus on.
Ed Morrissey has a response:
Also, I wonder if Bartlett has an explanation for the blogospheric response to Harriet Miers, Dubai ports, and most of all immigration that fits in with his "regurgitation" model.
Bartlett's claim resembles leftist ideas on how conservatives think to such an extent that I suspect that Dan Bartlett is a leftist who “sold out” and became what he thinks is a typical conservative.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Somebody Didn't Get the Memo

That's the only explanation of the first panel in the second row of this Cectic comic strip.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Liberals Are Becoming Capitalists

The following reminds me of the “If you ignore me, you're violating my rights!” school of modern liberalism:

The Mozilla Foundation and its Commercial arm, the Mozilla Corporation, has allowed and endorsed Ad Block Plus, a plug-in that blocks advertisement on web sites and also prevents site owners from blocking people using it. Software that blocks all advertisement is an infringement of the rights of web site owners and developers. Numerous web sites exist in order to provide quality content in exchange for displaying ads. Accessing the content while blocking the ads, therefore would be no less than stealing. Millions of hard working people are being robbed of their time and effort by this type of software. Many site owners therefore install scripts that prevent people using ad blocking software from accessing their site. That is their right as the site owner to insist that the use of their resources accompanies the presence of the ads.
Are advertisements aimed at people trying to ignore them worth anything? I'm reminded of Usenet trolls trying to evade killfiles.

It's Ungoliant!

Paleontologists have just dug up fossils of a giant ancestor of arachnids.

Next month, they find Shelob.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Is Google Secretly Funding Nukes?

Google's RE<C initiative probably did not start last week but was going on for some time now. Could it have anything to do with two announcements of possibly-cheaper nuclear reactors?

What Should Be Served at Google's Restaurants

Stir-fried wikipedia (seen via BoingBoing).

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Time to Sell Google?

According to Winds of Change, it might be time to short Google:

Google got a lot of publicity from their latest RE<C renewable energy initiative, but my first reaction upon hearing it was "short the stock." Companies are not good at everything; indeed, they tend to be good only in rather narrow spheres. When you start hearing a company claim otherwise, be cautious. If their claims seem unbelievable or are explicitly based on nothing (except ego or "we have a lot of smart people here") - run. The last company to sell that line was Enron.

I'm worried about a different aspect: Why don't they mention nuclear energy? I've looked at their press release and the web site describing this initiative but saw nothing about nukes. After all, nukes are even closer to competing with coal, and they're likely to retain any advantage even if the population grows. (BTW, when they say “cheaper than coal,” are they including the cost of the land occupied by solar collectors?) They don't even criticize nuclear, leaving that to fans. Are there debates behind the scenes we don't know about?

It's possible to make a case that nuclear energy “isn't necessary.” If Google rejects nuclear energy on that ground, it's as though they had a mouse infestation problem and controlled it by acquiring brown cats, yellow cats, and gray cats. (Black cats aren't necessary.) Black cats might not be necessary to control mice, but if they're excluded, one might wonder what other superstitions are being taken seriously.

But wait, there's more. At the “Googleplex” of company restaurants, we find the following:

They took me to Pure Ingredient Cafe, which, in the words of the Google Cafe Map, is "a journey towards pure, clean, additive and chemical free food and beverage." Like the other cafes I visited, Pure Ingredient was a smallish cafeteria open to any Googler who felt like stopping in for a bite. It was the day before Thanksgiving, the trays sparkled in the bright colors of the Google logo and a line of hungry cyberproles formed just after noon.

I'd be really dubious about investing in a supposed tech firm where people can use the phrase “chemical free food” without laughing. It would be like voting for a Creationist.

In possibly related news, Scientific American ran an article on raising smart kids. It's very important to prevent them from believing that having brains excuses one from using them.

On the other hand, given my recent track record, it might turn out that Google has a nuclear-research arm after all and the “chemical free food” is only served to journalists.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

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