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

Monday, May 30, 2011

A Defense of Groupthink?

According to a recent study (seen via BoingBoing), one of the best incentive structures is punishing disagreement. Can we punish these scientists for disagreeing with the theory that groupthink and censorship are bad?

On the other hand, after I looked at the paper, I noticed the following speculation about the incentive structure they call Bayesian Truth Serum (BTS), another way to reward agreement:

When compared with the other treatments and control conditions, BTS likely had two effects: (a) it created some confusion among subjects about how exactly they were being evaluated; and (b) it created an incentive for subjects to think carefully about the respones of other subjects. The combination of confusion and cognitive demand probably elicited greater engagement with the question, and this engagement in turn probably drove better performance.
In other words, these incentive structures might have avoided the common idiocy “I don't have to think; I have the right to my thoughtless opinion.” I suppose groupthink might be an improvement over nothink.

Addendum: After some more thinking on this, I realized that BTS will reward agreement but it will punish attempted agreement. If you try picking the most popular answer, you are more likely to lose.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

What Were They Thinking?

The news that Italian seismologists have been charged with manslaughter for failing to have precognition has been going around the blogosphere. I'd like to know what, if anything, the prosecutors were thinking. Did they imagine that Dr. Evil and his henchmen sat around a table laughing at their ability to kill innocents with a false forecast? (Is that why it's called man's laughter?) Or did they think the seismologists were paid off by real-estate interests in less quake-prone areas? Or what? Remember “motive, means, and opportunity”? They don't have a good motive.

On the other hand, this might have been pushed by the local construction industry to distract attention. Magnitude 6.3 earthquakes should not be that deadly in an area where people can afford reinforced concrete.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Brief Note on Gödel's Proof of the Existence of God

It looks like Gödel proved that Existence exists. I think of that as a proof of God's existence but the sort of atheist who thinks something doesn't count as religious unless it's irrational probably won't.

On the other hand, it looks like Gödel assumed the axiom S5, in which something is necessarily true if and only if it is true in all possible worlds and something is possibly true if and only if it is true in at least one possible world. If we only assume S4, for example, we can't prove God exists in all possible worlds. (I'll have to expand on this in a future post.)

A quote that might be relevant to discussions of the Ontological Argument from Atlas Shrugged:

But it is not possible for justice to go out of existence, because one is an attribute of the other, because justice is the act of acknowledging that which exists.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Morton's Fork

On the one hand, Malthusians argue that scarcity is inevitable so capitalism is obsolete.

On the other hand, some anti-Malthusians argue that abundance is inevitable so capitalism is obsolete.

It's almost as though the conclusion were known in advance.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Curve Fitting

Fitting the results of recent research on the relationship between education levels and death rates to a curve may be a puzzle. On the other hand, harder examples of curve-fitting problems have been solved.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Translating Glenn Greenwald

According to Glenn Greenwald (commenting on Benjamin Netanyahu's invitation from House Republicans to address Congress):

I think a better question is whether the ovation will be longer and more enthusiastic than those accorded American Presidents. It is ironic indeed that the same GOP members who will stand and cheer wildly for this foreign leader in conflict with their own country's President are typically the first to scream "unpatriotic!" accusations at others.

My translation:
As Everybody Knows, conservatism is a matter of obeying orders. Why won't conservatives obey our orders?
I have said this before, but it bears repeating.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Effects of SF Stories

I'm sure nearly everybody by now has heard of the rape accusation against Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Ben Stein is a little skeptical:

In life, events tend to follow patterns. People who commit crimes tend to be criminals, for example. Can anyone tell me any economists who have been convicted of violent sex crimes?
There are examples of economists who have been convicted of violent sex crimes.

I've been wondering where Ben Stein got the idea that economists were peculiarly unlikely to be rapists. He might have gotten the idea from A Million Open Doors by John Barnes, in which Caledon (the economist's colony) has a much lower rape rate than Nou Occitan (the poet's colony).

There are other examples of people getting their ideas from SF instead of reality. The conventional wisdom on nuclear energy (that it won't save us from peak fossil fuel and that it can DESTROY THE PLANET) almost certainly comes from Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon (chapter 4, section 5 for the first and chapter 5, section 4 for the second).

I suspect the individual mandate part of Obamacare might have been inspired by the belief that capitalism is a matter of forcing people to buy things as found in “The Midas Plague” by Frederick Pohl and Hell's Pavement by Damon Knight. (There was a little bit of this in A Million Open Doors as well.)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

They Lied to Us

The “They” in question are the environmentalists who insisted that plastics are non-biodegradable. (You can find a typical example here. Unlike some people, I actually bothered checking to see if anybody actually said what I claim has been said.) On the other hand, according to Scientific American:

Last year a group of researchers publishing in the journal Science reported a mystery: during a 22-year survey of plastic accumulation in the western North Atlantic, the scientists saw no increase in the amount of plastic, despite a surge in annual global plastic production from about 75 million to 245 million metric tons over the same period. Where was it going? New research shows marine microbes may be feasting on the debris.

Me to environmentalists: Phphphphtttt!!!!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

End of the World Postponed

… but enough about Malthusianism.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Question about Abstruse Goose

What did the control freak in the middle major in?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

I Confess!

After posting the preceding blog entry on how there was a certain lack of people denying that any of the Fukushima reactors had melted down, I looked up previous entries on this blog that mentioned “meltdown” and found that I had used the term in a context that made it reasonable to claim that there had been no meltdown:

If I recall correctly, nuclear power plants are supposed to be designed so that we might expect the worst case to occur once every 100,000 reactor years. That means we can expect that an accident that does so much damage that there was a 10% probability of meltdown will occur once every 10,000 reactor years. If there are 400 reactors in operation that will occur about once every twenty five years.
On the other hand, that was a matter of leaving out the phrase “worst possible” before “meltdown.”

On the gripping hand, I had also used it in two entries in the broader sense and even referred to the “recent meltdown.”

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

“They Lied” with no Quotes

According to Sharon Astyk:

So it turns out that there *was* a meltdown around reactor #1. Quite a lot of people suspected this from the visual evidence, but TEPCO and the Japanese government denied, denied, denied. Accusations that those arguing for a meltdown were all internet conspiracy theorists (which also occurred early in the Katrina disaster as well, and in other instances) were used to discredit people who argued that a meltdown had, in fact occurred.
For some reason there is no quote (or a link to said quote) from an official denial.

The really weird part is that the event in question happened a couple of months ago in the Internet era. It makes a little bit of sense to claim “They lied” with no actual evidence when the alleged lie was decades in the past. We can challenge the other side to cite a source but such challenges don't seem to work…

In other words,


Monday, May 16, 2011

Two Problems with Abundant Natural Gas

One problem: It makes greenhouse-effect worries more plausible. As long as fossil fuels looked scarce, it looked like there simply wasn't enough of them to create a major greenhouse problem. Now, it looks like there is enough.

Another problem: The formerly-absurd environmentalist worry of running out of oxygen might not be absurd after all. As long as it looked like fossil fuels could only have been created by photosynthetic life millions of years ago, any fossil fuel would be matched by the oxygen in the atmosphere (and some of that fossil fuel would be too deep to be reachable). In other words, we would run out of fuel before we ran out of oxygen. If Thomas Gold was right and there's far more fuel than was created by photosynthesis, we might run out of oxygen first.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Chirpsithra and Iranian Justice

David Pryce-Jones reports:

Majid Movahedi is an Iranian and in the available photograph he looks like any other young man. He pursued a woman called Ameneh Bahrami, and in the available photograph she is very pretty, smiling under the black niqab that covers her hair and head. She rejected his advances, whereupon he threw a bucket of sulphuric acid over her. In spite of seventeen operations her face is still appallingly disfigured, unrecognizable, and she remains blinded. Under the operative law of retribution, known as qisas, she has the right to blind him, literally to take “an eye for an eye.” The man’s father, and bodies like Amnesty, have tried to pressure her into showing mercy. She would relent, she says, if she received two million euros to take care of her future needs. In the absence of money, she will have retribution. A doctor is due today to pour sulphuric acid into the man’s eyes. “I wish I could drip it myself,” so Radio Free Europe quotes Ameneh.
According to a Chirpsithra proverb (reported by Larry Niven):
Cruel and unusual crimes require cruel and unusual punishment.

Seen While Riding a Bus


Cyclohexane in the chair conformation, I suppose.

Friday, May 13, 2011

To Wikileaks and the Florida NRA

… and anybody else who is nominally dedicated to civil liberties but willing to use censorship:

You cannot use the Ring. It's nature is evil, and those who use it will be consumed by it.
From the late War Now blog.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

A Suggestion for Newt Gingrich

Please reread “Volume PAA–PYX“ by Fred Saberhagen.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Quarantining Conservatives?

The Manhattan Institute article on quarantining campus leftists looks like a brilliant idea:

Here’s the plan. Create a brand new school, perhaps named the School of Oppression Studies (SOS) staffed with all those sharing the PC vision. Pay them a few thousand extra to entice relocation. The especially loony might be given high-sounding titles to encourage migration—“Benedict Arnold Professor of White American History.” The usually tough issue of tenure will be solved by permitting them to carry over tenure in an already established department (this is a common academic and perfectly safe arrangement). PC professors will now have their own building, support staff, graduate students and even a honey pot to invite friends for lectures, sponsor conferences, travel, journal subscriptions and all the usual academic perks. The School could also fund ideologically sympathetic journals where faculty members can receive academic credit (i.e., salary increases) for their obtuse raving and ranting.


Since none of these SOS courses are required, and all will be instantly recognized for their empty calories agitprop content, enrollments will be modest, far less than what these PC professors would have drawn in their home department’s required courses. I’d further guess that offering will quickly gain a Mickey Mouse reputation and their very appearance on a transcript might be the kiss of death for graduate study. After all, these SOS professors know that grades are “arbitrary” and just sustain societal unfairness while lowering self-esteem while larger enrollments (even if students skip class) mean bigger budgets and greater opportunities to proselytize. SOS professors will preach to an ever shrinking choir, if the choir bothers to attend class (and fewer will even do the reading). 

This makes so much sense that I wondered what would happen if the Other Side tried a similar tactic. I then realized that think tanks just might a matter of quarantining conservatives. They have all the trapping of academia except for the most essential one: training students. The Other Side doesn't support think tanks financially, of course. They support them with publicity. I suspect a think-tank researcher with un-PC opinions might become far better known (from denunciations, of course) than a professor with similar ideas.

Monday, May 09, 2011

I Hate When This Happens

I hate it when leftists (in full cliche mode) are right about something. (My earlier comments on this are here.)

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Donald Knuth vs. W3C

On the one hand, the file plain.tex from Donald Knuth contains the line:

\def\sin{\mathop{\rm sin}\nolimits}
This means, sin, etc. should be treated as math operators, with extra space before and after.

On the other hand, the description of math identifiers (as distinguished from math operators) in MathML according to the World-Wide Web Consortium says:

Identifiers include function names such as "sin". Expressions such as "sin x" should be written using the character U+2061 (which also has the entity names &af; and &ApplyFunction;) as shown below; see also the discussion of invisible operators in Section 3.2.5 Operator, Fence, Separator or Accent <mo>.
This means sin, etc. should be treated as though they were ordinary variables (except for being in roman type). The W3C did include the space after (in the form of &#x2061;, etc.) but not the space before.

I won't more than mention the annoyance of stretchy operators that aren't part of mfenced

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Would You Want to Live as a Vegetable?

Delenda est Carthago considers the above question. My answer is that we're already vegetables.

On a serious note, if we're allowed to execute people simply because someone influential thinks their life isn't worth living, a slippery slope might lead to nerdicide. The theory that nerdish weirdos and anti-social malcontents don't have a life that's worth living was a clear message of A Most Peculiar Man by Simon and Garfunkel.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Terminator 2 and Jello

While watching a video of jello filmed at high speed, I was somehow reminded of the scene in Terminator 2 in which the second Terminator rises from the floor.

I Was Wrong about Osama

I had thought Osama bin Laden had died years ago on the grounds that such a publicity hound would stay in the public eye as much as possible and that a lack of appearances could only mean he was deceased. Instead he was simply hiding. Mr. “bet on the strong horse” turned out to be the sort of bully who runs away as soon as somebody fights back.

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