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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jhertzli AT ix DOT netcom DOT com

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Small Sample Watch
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The Former Four Horsemen of the Ablogalypse:
Someone who used to be sane (formerly War)
Someone who used to be serious (formerly Plague)
Rally 'round the President (formerly Famine)
Dr. Yes (formerly Death)

Interesting weblogs:
Back Off Government!
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Debunkers Discussion Forum
Deep Space Bombardment
Depleted Cranium
Dr. Boli’s Celebrated Magazine.
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Greenie Watch
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My sister's blog
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Out of Step Jew
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Peter Watts Newscrawl
Physics Geek
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Poor Medical Student
Prolifeguy's take
The Raving Theist
Respectful Insolence
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Slate Star Codex
The Speculist
The Technoptimist
Tools of Renewal
XBM Graphics
Zoe Brain

Other interesting web sites:
Aspies For Freedom
Crank Dot Net
Day By Day
Dihydrogen Monoxide - DHMO Homepage
Jewish Pro-Life Foundation
Libertarians for Life
The Mad Revisionist
Piled Higher and Deeper
Science, Pseudoscience, and Irrationalism
Sustainability of Human Progress

Yet another weird SF fan

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Wait 'Til Next Year!

I apparently made a dubious prediction (here):

Besides, if de Blasio is anything like Obama, he'll replace stop and frisk with drone strikes.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Not Paying Enough?

“If there’s a talent shortage, it means you’re not paying enough, right?”

If we ban fracking, any resulting fuel shortage means we're not paying enough?

Monday, December 29, 2014

\(\bf\LaTeX\) vs. Word

According to research by psychologists, a controlled experiment of \(\rm\LaTeX\) vs. Word found that \(\rm\LaTeX\) users were slower and made more mistakes. There are many things I could say about this but others have already said most of it, so I will make only a few points.

First, they had pathetically-small sample sizes (10 in each group). This might even be related to their testing method, since they apparently wanted research published as fast as possible and the time needed to gather and test an adequate sample would interfere with that. (In other words, this is the scholarly equivalent of an all-nighter.)

Second, it looks like they didn't test the propensity to use \propto where \alpha belongs, or vice versa (the basis for this tweet).

Third, consider the following objection:

For anybody who has experience with both systems, it would be trivial to set up examples where MS Word utterly fails and LaTeX shines:

  • Set up 50 numbered equations, refer to them throughout the text, then change the equation order.

  • Have figures and their captions float to appropriate locations at the top or bottom of pages.

  • Change the order of figures in a document and fix all references to those figures.

Word supporters can reply by pointing out that it's possible to have soft-coded cross references and citations in Word. On the other hand, I only know this because it sometimes goes wrong (i.e., missing reference error messages where the cross reference belongs). On the gripping hand, those soft-coded cross references are used very rarely (i.e., most of the time when I check references in Word files in the course of my day job, they're hard coded), which might mean they're even harder to use than in \(\rm\LaTeX\).

Fourth, and most important: The article ends with:

And, second, preventing researchers from producing documents in LaTeX would save time and money to maximize the benefit of research and development for both the research team and the public.
In other words: We have ways to make you use Word. This is what is meant by Nudge. This is what we libertarians are talking about when we warn of the disadvantages of depending on grants. This is the problem with assuming that disagreement means the Other Side isn't fully informed. The step after that is to decide for others based on what they would have chosen only if they were Rational Like Us.

Finally, arrogance is not limited to physicists or engineers.

Addendum 1: Instead of Nudge, maybe the right term is Prick.

Addendum 2: I have an abridged version of this post at Small Sample Watch.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Free Trade?

According to J. R. Nyquist:

I believe the course of events is dictated by a Leninist and Stalinist political culture which has grown out of the precedents of czarism and Bolshevism, involving a bag of tricks in which six elements are used to achieve political and economic results: (1) provocation; (2) divide and conquer; (3) infiltration of the enemy camp; (4) disinformation; (5) controlled opposition; (6) and strategic deception. Various special formations and ideological sub-weapons have been developed by Moscow to amplify the working power of these six elements, including organized crime, drug trafficking, international terrorism, national liberation movements, revolutionary Islam, free trade, global warming, feminism, the homosexual movement, gun control and multiculturalism.
Free trade? Sometimes the right wing really is nuts.

I won't more than mention that restrictions on carbon emissions will cut into Russian exports or that any nation with Siberia in it stands to gain from global warming.

At least he didn't mention immigration.

Explaining the Wisdom of the Crowd

I'm sure my fellow anti-social malcontents have heard of “the Wisdom of the Crowd” and that the first reaction of most of us was skepticism. (How can you prevent groupthink? Aren't speculative bubbles a counterexample?) I'd like to give a mathematical explanation of this.

Let us assume we have a continuous distribution of estimates in which the median and the Truth differ (see figure below). We are certainly not assuming that the median is infallible. In this figure, the dark areas represent the opinions of people who are further away from the Truth than the median. Half of those opinions are on the other side of the median from the Truth. (For every contrarian, there is an opposite contrarian.) In addition, there are opinions that go too far in the direction of the Truth. (You can usually find people who make your opinions seem moderate, no matter how cracked you may seem.) What this means is that at least half the population will have opinions that are more wrong than the median … and you are probably one of them.

As a specific example, I'm dubious about the Linear No-Threshhold theory of radiation damage. The opposite contrarians would be the people who think the Petkau Effect implies low doses of radiation are more dangerous than the linear theory predicts. The contrarians who might be going too far are the people who think that there's proof that radiation hormesis implies low doses of radiation are good for you.

Apparent counterexamples

Speculative bubbles aren't a counterexample. There is no reason to buy when you agree with the median opinion, as represented by the market price. On the other hand, the people buying during a bubble might think they're agreeing with the median opinion (“everybody knows the market's going up”) but are mistaken. It's also worth noting that selling short during a bubble is also risky since “the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.”

Another apparent counterexample is from the late Hal Finney: an opinion cascade. In an opinion cascade, everybody adjusts their opinion to that of the apparent majority, producing a situation in which the first few people to express an opinion have a disproportionate influence. One possible way to stop this:

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.

There's another reason to be dubious about following the median estimate. The median opinion (at least in this society) disagrees with it. That might have enabled Western Civilization to outcompete more conformist civilizations. On the other hand, that might be a matter of contrarianism being a public-goods problem (also from Hal Finney):

Most people would become more accurate by shifting their opinions towards the consensus average. But this probably would cause social harm, in that we all benefit from having a wide variation of opinion and debate in society.

It may be one reason why society encourages individualism and thinking for yourself. It is harmful to individuals but beneficial for society.

This is a classic public goods problem. Are you going to do what is good for yourself, suppress your individualism and accept the group consensus? Or are you going to accept the social propaganda to think for yourself, even though you will be less accurate?

Again the best solution might be express what your personal analysis says while simultaneously adjusting your private opinions closer to the opinions of the majority. Just don't let anybody catch you applying for tenure while decrying insulation from the market … or dodging a draft while defending an unpopular war … or criticizing racism while moving to an all-white neighborhood … or flying around the world to global-warming conferences … etc. (I had an additional discussion of that type of hypocrisy here.)

Digression: the trouble with tradition

Opinion cascades are a major problem with tradition. If the people in each generation adjust their opinions to the average of earlier generations, the first few will have a disproportionate effect. On the other hand, rejecting tradition entirely means getting your opinions from just one generation in the present.

On the gripping hand, every time there's an improvement in meme storage, the generation after also has a chance to get its say. Let's take Judaism as a typical tradition: The invention of the alphabet was followed by the Torah; the invention of postal systems (which made collaboration between distant scholars possible) was followed by the rest of the Old Testament; the invention of books divided into pages (which made large books usable) was followed by the Talmud; the invention of paper was followed by Maimonides organizing Jewish law; the invention of printing was followed by the Shuchan Aruch; the invention of the Internet …

The difference between median and mode

Some types of contrarianism might be worthwhile. For example, a large fraction (I hope it's still a minority) of the public believes that Columbus discovered the world is round in 1492. In the real world, the fact that the Earth is round was discovered around 2000 years earlier. If most people don't believe that, the median estimate for “when did people discover the world is round?” will be less than 1492 but the mode is likely to be 1492. If contrarianism is a matter of being skeptical about the accuracy of the mode instead of being skeptical about the accuracy of the median, it's likely to be worthwhile.

On the other hand, sometimes the Official Truth really is true and the contrarians are wrong. For example, the number of deaths caused by the Fukushima meltdown is likely to be at or close to zero. The mode estimate probably agrees with that but the median might be much higher. You can think of the mode as the estimate by the “sheeple” (who are sometimes right).

Cross-posted from my Netcom/Earthlink site.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Left-Wing Beliefs and Last and First Men

A large fraction of left-wing beliefs can be explained by the dystopian SF novel (as far as the near future is concerned) Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon. Many leftists think our present is the same as the future in that novel.

  • Communism in Russia failing because it wasn't Communist enough? Check.
  • Evil America taking over the world? Check.
  • Capitalist civilization using up all fossil fuels with no substitutes developed or any evidence of foresight? Check.
  • Nuclear energy turned out to be ineffective as a substitute for fossil fuels but is supported by government propaganda anyway? Check.
  • A nuclear accident destroys almost all life on the planet? Check.
And that's just the first five chapters.

I was reminded of this by Moe Lane's dissection of Naomi Klein's ignorance of dystopian fiction.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Explaining Net Neutrality

One way to look at Left vs. Right in politics is that the Left thinks that the State makes things go and the Right thinks that the State makes things stop. Since ISPs make things go, they must be governments in LeftWorld. If it's necessary to stabilize any tendency for a few content wholesalers to hog bandwidth, anything done to stop that is therefore not government action.

My earlier attempts to figure out what net-neutrality advocates are thinking can be found here.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Blaming Deregulation from an Alternate Timeline

According to Elizabeth Sweet, “toys are more divided by gender now than they were 50 years ago.” The weird part is that she blames deregulation … without citing any actual regulations that were repealed. (I won't more than mention that, in the early part of the period, the Hays code was still in effect and any regulations would have been anti-feminist.) This goes beyond the assumption “that all good things come from regulations and if [an] unregulated system is good it must be due to the regulations yet to be passed.” In this case, the regulations were never passed in this timeline. Apparently, a deregulation campaign in another timeline caused the increased in gendered toy advertising.

As for why there was a change … I can think of several possible explanations: the Roe effect, more toy-buying decisions by men, more toy-buying decisions by children, etc.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Applied Bayesianism

According to Walter Russell Mead:

For liberals, these are bleak times of hollow victories (Obamacare) and tipping points that don’t tip. For examples of the latter, think of Sandy Hook, the horrific massacre in Connecticut that Democrats and liberals everywhere believed would finally push the American public toward gun control. Two years later, polls show more Americans than ever before think it’s more important to protect gun access than to promote gun control.

Sandy Hook isn’t the only example. There was the latest 2014 IPCC report on climate change that was going to end the debate once and for all. The chances for legislative action on climate change in the new Congress: zero or less. There was Ferguson and the Garner videotape showing the fatal chokehold, both of which set off a wave of protests but seem unlikely to change public attitudes about the police. There was the Senate Intelligence Committee “torture report” that was going to settle the issue of treatment of detainees. Again, the polls are rolling in suggesting that the public remains exactly where it was: supportive of “torture” under certain circumstances. And of course there was the blockbuster Rolling Stone article on campus rape at UVA, the story that, before it abruptly collapsed, was going to cement public support for the Obama administration’s aggressive attempt to federalize the treatment of sexual harassment on campuses around the country.

The standard left-wing take on this is: This proves wingnuts ignore evidence! (My earlier comments on the propensity of leftists to claim “wingnuts” ignore evidence can be found here.)

On the contrary, such news items have no effect on our opinions because we expect them. We expect occasional reports of massacres in “gun-free” zones. We expect to see reports of police brutality. According to Bayes Theorem, new evidence that was regarded as highly probable in advance should have little effect.

Question: What are Leftists expecting along similar lines? They expect to see reports of sex scandals and reports of the Mid-east falling apart. What else are they expecting?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

When Evidence Stops

The American Spectator and Pajamas Media have recently been sending sponsored ad-email for nutritional supplements with an interesting tactic: The email will start with a heavily-footnoted discussion showing that nutrient X is Very Important. It will then continue with a discussion (with little or no evidence cited) that nutrient X can be best obtained from the sponsor's brand of supplements. Hmmmm…

Saturday, December 20, 2014

What Would a Similar List Look Like for Written SF?

This list of the top 100 SF characters is from TV and movies. What would a similar list look like for written SF? The top ten might be:

  1. Victor Frankenstein: the Mad Scientist archetype (megalomaniac division)
  2. Mr. Cavor: The Mad Scientist archetype (nerdy division)
  3. Hari Seldon: the sane scientist archetype
  4. Lazarus Long: the longevity archetype
  5. D. D. Harriman: the world-saving tycoon archetype
  6. John Wainwright: the mutant superman archetype
  7. Kimball Kinnison: the action hero archetype
  8. Tweel: the friendly extraterrestrial archetype
  9. SPD-13: the friendly robot archetype
  10. Gnut (also known as Gort): the extraterrestrial trying to save us from ourselves archetype
At first, I had Karellen as No. 10 until I recalled Gnut came first.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Explaining an Apparent Contradiction

On the one hand, later marriage is correlated with increased marital stability. On the other hand, fewer sexual partners is also correlated with increased marital stability. (Both claims seen here.) One possible explanation is that waiting until later to have any sex is correlated with increased marital stability.

On the other hand, maybe higher IQs are correlated with increased marital stability.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Hiring at Google?

Apparently, the people doing the current hiring at Google have said they found that expensive degrees don't predict success, GPAs don't predict success, and asking interviewees if they can solve puzzles doesn't predict success. Would a coin toss help?

Their claim of what did predict success:

For every job, though, the No. 1 thing we look for is general cognitive ability, and it's not IQ. It's learning ability. It's the ability to process on the fly. It's the ability to pull together disparate bits of information. We assess that using structured behavioral interviews that we validate to make sure they're predictive.
This sounds familiar. According to Marvin Minsky:
No, no; your trouble is that you're confusing a thing with itself!

By the way, Google also regards “intellectual humility” as desirable. That might mean the ability to admit being wrong when confronted by evidence. It might also mean a reluctance to tell an echo chamber they're all wrong. Are the engineers who realized that “alternative energy” was a waste of time and money still working for Google?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

How to Stop the “Three Felonies per Day”

Pass a law making all citizens honorary policemen. It's as simple as that.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Part III of Do You Believe in Γ0?

The first two parts are here and there.

The late Edward Nelson did not believe in Γ0 or even in numbers:

The famous saying by Kronecker that God created the numbers, all else is the work of Man, presumably was not meant to be taken seriously. Nowhere in the book of Genesis do we find the passage: And God said, let there be numbers, and there were numbers; odd
and even created he them, and he said unto them, be fruitful and multiply; and he commanded them to keep the laws of induction.
This had a peculiar effect: When impredicative definitions are completely rejected (including any belief in infinite sets), it's impossible to prove that exponentiation is a total function. In other words, we have no rigorously-logical reason to believe in exponential growth. Malthusians sometimes accuse a critic of being an “exponential function denier” but here we have a real one.

When you start trying to find out about eccentric theories, you have no idea of how deep the proverbial rabbit hole goes … or is it an anti-rabbit hole?

But wait, there's more:

In addition to disbelieving in the natural numbers, he disbelieves in the reduction of the wave packet, political correctness, and the Big Bang, but he believes in the Holy Spirit.
I'm reminded of Paul Gordan's statement:
Das ist nicht Mathematik. Das ist Theologie.
I suppose this means Edward Nelson wasn't Russian Orthodox.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Conservatives:Academia::Women:Computer Programming

One possible reason for the decline in women majoring in computer science is the belief that the field as a whole is hostile to women. Similarly, one possible reason for the lack of conservatives in academia is the belief that the career as a whole is hostile to conservatives. The existence of a corner or two that really is hostile doesn't mean that hostility is found all over.

On the other hand, attempts to respond to perceived hostility can create real hostility.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Internet Explorer Can Block the Vindicosuite Redirect

For a few hours, attempts to view blogspot were redirected to vindicosuite on Kindle, Firefox, and Chrome. The problem appears to be over.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Following the Establishment without Knowing

How many high-school students asking “What will I get out of learning this?” realize that they're following the the heart of the Establishment?

In other news, the anti-Establishment people showed their tolerance with the following message via Twitter:

You are blocked from following @trutherbot and viewing @trutherbot's Tweets.
Hmmm… Maybe that's the answer to “What will I get out of learning this?” You will be able to understand the context of Trutherbot's nonsense. That might even be a plausible college-level course: Internet Fallacies.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Has Progress Stalled?

According to many pessimists (example here), progress has stalled. As far as I can tell, the progress that is occurring is not particularly important because:

  • Technology A is not evidence that progress is occurring because it is a purely theoretical idea with no possible products.
    Theoretical example: the “ems” Robin Hanson speculates about.
  • Technology B is not evidence that progress is occurring although it is no longer purely theoretical but it is still confined to laboratories.
    Actual example: Detecting extra-solar planets.
  • Technology C is not evidence that progress is occurring although it is no longer confined to laboratories but it is still only used for occasional stunts.
    Actual example: IBM's Watson.
  • Technology D is not evidence that progress is occurring although it is no longer only used for occasional stunts but it is still only affordable by giant organizations.
    Actual example: Planetary exploration by robots.
  • Technology E is not evidence that progress is occurring although it is no longer only affordable by giant organizations but it is still unaffordable for individuals who aren't mind-bogglingly rich.
    Actual example: Space tourism.
  • Technology F is not evidence that progress is occurring although it is no longer unaffordable for individuals who aren't mind-bogglingly rich but it is still beyond the wallet of most people on Earth.
    Actual example: 3D printing.
  • Technology G is not evidence that progress is occurring although it is no longer beyond the wallet of most people on Earth but it hasn't actually progressed; it has merely gotten cheaper (and is also used for very undignified purposes).
    Actual example: this blog.

Friday, December 05, 2014

“Government” Is Simply the Name We Give to the Things We Choose to Do Together

The above cliche is the source of two of the most nonsensical ideas around:

  1. An organization that can enable people to do things together is a government and therefore must be subject to democratic restraints.
  2. Violence is not part of the essential nature of government and it's possible to be pro-government without getting the blame for government violence.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014


China is starting pun control. If they take over ICANN, we must start devising slogans now:

  • When puns are outlawed, only outlaws will have puns!
  • Puns don't annoy people; people annoy people!
  • They can have my puns when they pry my keyboard out of my cold dead fingers!

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

What's the Party Line This Week?

It's a bit annoying to keep track of political opinions that change every week. I've mostly noticed this on the Left. For example:

  • Is the Left for or against IQ tests this week?
  • Is the Left for or against the War on Some Drugs this week?
  • Is the Left for or against trusting Science this week?
Recently, I've found a similar question for the Right:
Same bulshytt, different side.

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