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

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Explaining Ben Stein

I'm sure most of my dozen or so readers have heard of Ben Stein's bizarre idea of science:

When we just saw that man, I think it was Mr. Myers [i.e. biologist P.Z. Myers], talking about how great scientists were, I was thinking to myself the last time any of my relatives saw scientists telling them what to do they were telling them to go to the showers to get gassed … that was horrifying beyond words, and that’s where science — in my opinion, this is just an opinion — that’s where science leads you.


…Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place, and science leads you to killing people.

I suspect it comes from the propaganda campaign of the past few years, in which people speaking as the Voice of Science claimed that we must fund embryonic stem-cell research (until they declared victory and retreated). It may have been reinforced by similar-sounding people claiming that defending Terri Schindler Schiavo's right to life was a mark of superstition.

If you claim that Science backs your political opinion loudly enough, you should not be surprised when people actually believe it.

Jimmy Carter: Closet Republican?

According to Megan McArdle, Jimmy Carter was the most underrated American President of the 20th century:

Most underrated: Jimmy Carter. Yes, I said Jimmy Carter. Carter's foreign policy . . . well, 'nuff said. But Carter was actually in many ways the architect of the economic changes that Reagan got credit for. It was Carter who appointed Paul Volcker to the Fed, thus giving the institution the backbone to finally get serious about inflation. And it was Jimmy Carter who started the ball rolling on deregulation, despite the fact that many of the regulated industries employed a lot of the Democratic base. Carter is credited with the awful economy of the 1970s, even though he had no control over inflation or oil prices.

Defenders of the free market have had two problems: First, people labeled as liberal or conservative aren't always that way. (Nixon was far to the left of Clinton on economics.) Second, it takes a few years for laissez faire to work.

During the Carter presidency, the two problems cancelled each other out. The Democrat Carter got the blame for Nixon's left-wing policies and the Republican Reagan got the credit for Carter's right-wing policies.

On the other hand, Carter has been playing the role of a liberal fool ever since 1980. On the gripping hand, that might be to ensure that liberals continue to get the blame.

It looks like Jimmy Carter traded influence for credit.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

A Pleasant Surprise

I was pleasantly surprised to find almost none of the nonsense I had expected at this seder.

It definitely beats celebrating the Spring Potato Festival with a ham and cheese on matzah sandwich.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Liberal Fascism and Inverted Totalitarianism

I just realized the reaction of a typical leftist to Liberal Fascism is similar to my reaction to “Inverted Totalitarianism.”

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Curious News about Aliza Shvarts

I submitted her steaming load of organic fertilizer to The Gender Genie and got the following results:

Words: 746
(NOTE: The genie works best on texts of more than 500 words.)

Female Score: 472
Male Score: 1370

The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!


By the way, is there a Bullbleep Genie that can test how malodorous a writing sample is? I'm reminded of the Robert Klein monologue in which he submitted a jargon-laden college paper and received back “C+ and get a bigger shovel.”

As for what body parts were “meant” to do, after a generation or two of behavior like this (I doubt it will last longer), we won't have to worry about it any more. After all, everybody is descended from fetuses who weren't aborted and most people in the future will be descended from fetuses who could have been legally aborted but weren't.

Unbelievable News

PETA is making sense (seen via BoingBoing):

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wants to pay a million dollars for fake meat — even if it has caused a “near civil war” within the organization.

The organization said it would announce plans on Monday for a $1 million prize to the “first person to come up with a method to produce commercially viable quantities of in vitro meat at competitive prices by 2012.”

In a related story, H*ll froze over.

On the other hand, after the human race moves to an all-algae diet we'll probably encounter autotrophic extraterrestrials who are horrified at the idea of anybody eating their fellow plants.

It's Earth Day

Bah, humbug.

He Wasn't Talking about Us

Many of my fellow wingnuts think that Barak Obama's recent remarks on social conservatives were a personal attack on them. He wasn't talking about us economic conservatives. He was talking about social conservative who “cling to“ the Democratic party anyway. After all, they're the people voting in Demcratic primaries. I'm sure he'll have something equally condescending and clueless about us for the general election.

The difference between Obama and Clinton supporters

Last year, I pointed out that “political correctness” was older than most people think:

Collectivism had already become entrenched in the United States by the 1930s. The process had started with the “Progressive” era. (You can think of the “Progressive” era as a time when a self-styled elite tried to turn the United States into a fake European nation.) The standards of the 1930s said “these people are the wave of the future” and that turned them from mere cranks into the shapers of young minds.
That was written in response to the claim that PC came from leftist refugees in the 1930s and 1940s.

After considering the Obama–Clinton race, I realized that Clinton represents the older faction of home-grown liberal fascism whereas Obama represents the imported Marxists. I still don't see much of a difference, buit their followers seem to see it.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

More Free-Will Research

Not long after the news that the most pointless type of free will anybody can think of does not exist (earlier discussed here), there's more research purporting to show that disbelief in free will might cause cheating (seen via Megan McArdle).

I think the two experiments should be combined. Did the subconscious know whether or not the students would cheat seven seconds before the conscious decision?

Applying Statistical Analysis to Statistical Analysis

Megan McArdle is discussing the possibility that statistical analysis might produce better results than expert advice.

I have a question: Has anybody applied statistical analysis to statistical analysis? What is the track record of people who thought they knew better than the experts? For example, I'm sure these people (seen via TJIC) thought their grasp of computer-aided analysis meant they could redesign an entire economy.

On the other hand, what is the track record of most experts?

Is This the Start of Proscription Lists?

If the United States is looking more and more like the Roman Republic, we can expect proscription lists soon. Is this the start?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A Preposterous Paraphrase

Imagine if a political candidate had said:

You go into these boroughs in New York and, like a lot of large cities in the Northeast, the apartments have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna become affordable and they have not.

And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to civil liberties or NEA grants or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-corporate sentiment or anti-globalization sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

This might be called “condescending” but the proper term is “clueless.”

The Good Side of Hypocrisy

Hal Finney points out that moving your opinion toward that of majority (earlier discussed here) has a downside:

In classic group-decision experiments like "guess how many beans in the jar", you get less accurate answers if people call out their guesses one after the other, because they are revealing their adjusted beliefs, that take into account the social consensus (perhaps without realizing it). If people write their answers down, we get Rolf's kind of beliefs, uninfluenced by the consensus view, and those have been shown to be more accurate on average.

Apparently the consensus is more accurate only when we don't talk about it. (Applying this to the global-warming controversy will be left as an exercise for the reader.)

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. Of course, in that case it makes sense to give verbal support for an unpopular policy (if that's what your reasoning says) while dodging any actual involvement. There are lots of examples all across the political spectrum.

For example, it might make sense to criticize government spending and insulation from the free market while being a tenured professor at a public university … or to defend an unpopular war while dodging the draft … or to criticize racism while moving to an all-white neighborhood.

To sum up, the existence of hypocrisy is not necessarily a reason to dismiss the words of the hypocrites out of hand.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Pointless Free Will

There's another attempt at showing free will doesn't exist (seen via TJIC) going around:

You may think you decided to read this story -- but in fact, your brain made the decision long before you knew about it.

What if you clicked on the link less than seven seconds after seeing it?

In a study published Sunday in Nature Neuroscience, researchers using brain scanners could predict people's decisions seven seconds before the test subjects were even aware of making them.

The decision studied -- whether to hit a button with one's left or right hand -- may not be representative of complicated choices that are more integrally tied to our sense of self-direction. Regardless, the findings raise profound questions about the nature of self and autonomy: How free is our will? Is conscious choice just an illusion?

It looks like the experimental subjects are asked to make a decision at random, i.e., a decision made for absolutely no reason whatsoever. (I think they decided to study that based on the school of thought that holds that actions by people who have an real reason for acting, e.g., private-sector employment, are not truly free but the actions of performance artists who live on NEA grants to come up with pointless art are free.) All they have shown is that pointless decisions are not made by free will. (Take that artists!) Pointless decisions are made by looking at the brain’s random-number generator and that takes seven seconds.

The brain’s random-number generator has other faults. If you tell people to pick numbers at random, the results will have non-zero correlations instead of being truly random. The best you can do is pick pseudorandom numbers.

Of course, if you use a pseudorandom process in this case, e.g., if you’re holding a coin in your hand and push the right or left button depending on whether the coin is heads or tails, there's no way the experimenters can know if the coin is heads or tails seven seconds before you look at it.

Monday, April 14, 2008

If Nobody Knows How to Make Pencils …

If nobody knows how to make pencils, it should be obvious that we're depleting the world's pencil supplies. Soon we'll have to institute rationing. Pencils are an integral part of the Green Revolution. (After all, we know we can grow the food needed for the world's population in an economy with pencils.) If we don't stop soon there will mass starvation and cannibalism.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Theory on Why Protectionism is More Popular Today

It might seem a bit strange that we see more protectionism now than a few years ago when it seemed that every business was being outsourced to Asia. I suspect that it might be due to the decline in the dollar. People who have heard about it interpret it as “foreigners are humilating us” and try to get back at them.

On the other hand, an attempt to psychoanalyze people you disagree with can make you sound very silly.

One & All

I recently heard about a new kind of puzzle:

Inside each set of the following words, there are a pair of smaller words. By putting & between them, lo & behold, you'll make a familiar phrase. For example, "Thighbone/Swallowtail" conceals "High & Low."
One problem is that there might be a common phrase other than “High & Low” hidden by “Thighbone/Swallowtail.”

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Is This the Sensible Party or the Silly Party?

John Cleese has volunteered to become Obama's speechwriter.

Maybe he can tell Obama that “this redistribution of wealth is trickier than I thought.”

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

How to Get the Phrase “Laissez Faire” on Your Card at Starbucks

After considering the new that Starbucks regards the phrase “Laissez Faire” as unsuitable for its customized Starbucks Cards, it should be obvious how to get a card with that phrase this year: Translate it into Arabic. (Twenty years ago the same type of personality would have gone for a Russian phrase instead.)

By the way, is it my imagination or are the most fervently left-wing businesses those that depend on idiotic brand loyalty? (This might include Ivy-League universities.) I don't think you get that kind of “knee-jerk” reaction from businesses that depend on objectively-measurable quality or on providing good bargains. It looks like there are such things as spherical trusts but they only exploit leftists.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

In an Absolut World

In an Absolut world, the Union of Kalmar would still exist.

Put Sweden under the Danish throne again!

While we're at it …

From Comic Strips to Reality

Having a conversation with food is currently limited to comic strips. In a few decades, it may becom real:

'We can already use DNA, for example, to make electronic circuits so it's possible to think of a smart yoghurt some time after 2020 or 2025, where the yoghurt has got a whole stack of electronics in every single bacterium. You could have a conversation with your strawberry yogurt before you eat it.'

Is the Dish of the Day around the corner?


Frank Rich whined:

Tet Happened, and No One Cared
Hmmm… Does that mean he's comparing the recent fighting in southern Iraq to a defeat of the Viet Cong?

Actually, there's no comparison. Tet was noteworthy, not because it was an unexpected Communist victory, but because it was an unexpected Communist attack. The recent fighting, on the other hand, was expected to happen someday.

The Really Frustrating Part about Subsidies …

… is that they make themselves “necessary.”

First, after taxpayers have finished paying for the subsidies of other people's interests, they'll have less left over for their own and will need subsidies to afford them. Second, someone who refuses subsidies will be out competed by people who accept them.

At a minimum, we should avoid complaining about people criticizing our subsidies … unless they're using those subsidies as an excuse for regulations.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Subsidies for Bear DNA?

Orac is annoyed at John McCain's criticisms of earmarks for studies of bear DNA. I'm really dubious about subsidies in general, partly because subsidies can be used as an excuse for regulations.

The recipients of subsidies tend to favor it (at least before the regulations start showing up), and have done so for millennia (Genesis 41:33):

Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt.
but they're probably biased.

On the other hand, some intellectuals reject subsidies.

In my opinion, subsidies should be limited to extreme emergencies and should always be regarded as temporary.

Explaining Improbable Data

According to Larry Bartels (seen via The Flybottle) Democrats really are better for the poor:

My examination of the partisan politics of economic in equality, in chapter 2, reveals that Democratic and Republican presidents over the past half-century have presided over dramatically different patterns of income growth. On average, the real incomes of middle- class families have grown twice as fast under Democrats as they have under Republicans, while the real incomes of working poor families have grown six times as fast under Democrats as they have under Republicans. These substantial partisan differences persist even after allowing for differences in economic circumstances and historical trends beyond the control of individual presidents. They suggest that escalating in equality is not simply an inevitable economic trend— and that a great deal of economic in equality in the contemporary United States is specifically attributable to the policies and priorities of Republican presidents.

My initial reaction was to defy the data on the grounds that Presidents don't have such tight control over the economy and the policies favored by Democrats (e.g., increasing the minimum wage) tend to be counterproductive. I then noticed other recent research by Charles Karelis (seen via Dr. Helen) who claimed that the irrational behavior by the poor might be due to feeling overwhelmed:

Karelis, a professor at George Washington University, has a simpler but far more radical argument to make: traditional economics just doesn't apply to the poor. When we're poor, Karelis argues, our economic worldview is shaped by deprivation, and we see the world around us not in terms of goods to be consumed but as problems to be alleviated. This is where the bee stings come in: A person with one bee sting is highly motivated to get it treated. But a person with multiple bee stings does not have much incentive to get one sting treated, because the others will still throb. The more of a painful or undesirable thing one has (i.e. the poorer one is) the less likely one is to do anything about any one problem. Poverty is less a matter of having few goods than having lots of problems.

Once the poor have been brainwashed into believing that Republican electoral victories are a problem, they might be more inclined to adopt bad habits in response. Clearly, the most effective anti-poverty program is for Democrats to shut down their political campaigns …

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

A Failed Experiment

Paul Waldman (seen via Amor Mundi (seen via Accelerating Future)) once proposed the following experiment:

I propose that every Republican politician be asked this simple question: Do you believe that the earth was created less than 10,000 years ago? In other words, is everything we have learned about the age of the universe, our planet, and the life thereon nothing but an elaborate hoax?

They'll have two choices. First, they can acknowledge the truth, and offend their most rabid supporters. Or they can say they do in fact believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old, in which case they will have proclaimed for all to see their antipathy toward the very notions of science and rationality.

Or they might take a third path – trying not to answer the question. They shouldn't be allowed to get away with that. Here's a sample question journalists can use as a follow-up: "Did you take biology in high school? Are you familiar at all with the mountain of evidence in support of evolution? Do you know about these things called "fossils," that, for instance, show earlier stages of human evolution? OK – so if you know about all that, are you saying it's all a hoax?"

This is a fundamental divide in our society. Yes, according to some recent polling, as many as 45% of the American people actually believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old. Before I go on, we should understand that there are lots and lots of religious people who disagree, so what I'm about to say isn't directed at religious people as a whole.

So here goes. If you think the earth was created less than 10,000 years ago, you're either spectacularly ill-informed (probably not your fault) or willfully ignorant. If you had the benefit of an education at, say, Andover, Yale and Harvard and you think this, you've simply rejected rational thought. Schizophrenics can at least say they did not choose their delusions.

We absolutely need to get politicians on the record on this. The view that God exists and has guided the process of creation and evolution – or even set it in motion and stood back – is not incompatible with an understanding of the world. The view that the entire accumulated knowledge of physics and biology is some kind of sinister scam, on the other hand, is not.

My suspicion is that if you looked into their heart of hearts, even most of the Republican caucus of both houses would admit that of course the earth is not 10,000 years old. But they don't have the guts to say so and alienate their fundamentalist supporters. They shouldn't be allowed to weasel out of it.

The experiment has been performed (earlier discussed here):

The 10 rivals showed their conservative credentials across 90 minutes of debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, each claiming to be a worthy heir to the political legacy of the late 40th president.


The field split on another issue, with Brownback, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo raising their hands when moderator Chris Matthews asked who did not believe in evolution.

In other words, 70% of the top Republicans believe in the fact of evolution, including the presumed candidate.

Meanwhile, I'd like to know which Democrats are willing to believe scientific evidence regarding nuclear waste?

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Rehabilitating Phlogiston

If 18th-century scientists had been a bit stubborner and refused to give up on phlogiston, they might have gotten a jump start on electrochemistry.

Let's review the data that led to the phlogiston theory. It was based on the fact that when we see carbon burning, we see something being emitted, followed by the carbon losing mass. This was complicated by the fact that when we examine iron rusting, it gains mass. The phlogiston theorists tried dealing with this by assuming that phlogiston sometimes has levity instead of gravity. For some reason this wasn't taken seriously for long.

If the phlogiston theorists had been stubborner, they might have decided that the mass measurements merely located where the atoms are, not where the phlogiston is. If we assume that the oxidation of both carbon and iron involve the carbon or iron atoms giving up phlogiston to oxygen, it should be obvious that the combination of dephlogisticated carbon and phlogisticated oxygen went into the air whereas the combination of dephlogisticated iron and phlogisticated oxygen stayed solid.

In other words, in this theory phlogiston acts just like valence electrons.

Once scientists noticed there's a reaction when two metals of differing propensity to give up phlogiston came into contact, they might have realized that phlogiston was flowing. Experiments on the effect of trying to store the flowing phlogiston would have revealed that it's the same phenomenon as electricity. We might have started electrochemistry decades earlier.

But wait, there's more. Scientist would also have realized that the phlogiston particles had been labeled negative. This, in turn, would have corrected the guess that positive charges were marked by more atoms of electricity and led to less mental confusion among students trying to learn physics. (“What do you mean the electrons are flowing one way and the electricity is flowing in the opposite direction?”) We might have had more students taking physics courses, which might have led to additional benefits.

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