Monday, March 02, 2015

Scott Walker and evolution

Some British reporters asked our governor whether he believed in evolution, and he punted the question. Since this isn’t, as far as I know, relevant to British politics, it must be part of their suite of tribal-identification questions for Americans.

The problem is that the term “evolution” is overloaded--it includes several meanings, only one of which is ever talked about. Everybody knows the young earth vs old earth faceoff, but the other divide is the important one. (A claim which will no doubt catch me the usual flak from the “don’t undermine the Bible’s accuracy” crew)

That divide is between those who believe things like love, justice, beauty, and so on are built into the nature of the universe, and those who think they are “emergent” qualities. The first camp holds a motley crew: Christians, Muslims, Confucians, Hindus (think of karma), and so on.

The second camp holds figures like Kant (Always act according to that maxim whose universality as a law you can at the same time will) and Bentham (greatest aggregate happiness principle) who appeared well before Darwin (“I have so lately endeavoured to shew that the social instincts,--the prime principle of man’s moral constitution-with the aid of active intellectual powers and the effects of habit, naturally lead to the golden rule”) and the Just-So stories of evolutionary sociology. The problem is the arbitrariness in these formulations—justice could have been something different, love is a chemical illusion, and so on. It isn’t easy to live that way consistently, and it is odd to read someone claiming that his argument is a transcendent truth and an emergent effect at the same time. (Not in so many words, of course)

Trying to explain with as few principles as possible has been extremely fruitful in natural philosophy, with things that can be measured. Thales tried to make water the origin of everything--a bit too simple, but you can see that the drive to have a single equation for it all is old. But there’s that caveat: “things that can be measured.” When a field of ripe wheat and a battered branch of driftwood are both beautiful, we’re not talking about something measured in terms of utility.

Granted, you can go too far the other direction and inshallah everything. Some say Muslim science went to dust after the victory of the philosophers who held that nothing, not even reason, constrained God. Probably an oversimplification, but probably contributing.

The reporter’s question was really “Are you a member of a tribe we despise?” What they said confused the two questions “Do you believe species changed over time?” and “Do you believe in a moral universe?” I wonder how those reporters would have answered. Probably punted the question—they’re busy people, with deadlines to meet, and no time to talk with Socrates.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Intellect and Spock

Leonard Nimoy wasn’t Spock, though I gather from the title of the second autobiography that he got used to the idea of the association after a while. We had a record of him singing and reciting (oddly enough the things I recall don’t match the Wikipedia discography listings). I intensely disliked the Bilbo Baggins ballad, which at the time seemed almost shameful.

Spock was our icon of unemotional rationality, who followed the facts wherever they led and was perfectly willing to admit ignorance. Unemotional intelligence in the form of giant brains were all over science fiction—not the only theme by any means, but very common, and almost always it represented a higher form of existence. The highest life forms were to be bodiless pure minds. Sometimes they were villains and David had to beat Goliath, but even there you found the equation unemotional = powerful.

The theme isn’t limited to science fiction. When was the last time you heard the phrase "knowledge-based economy?" Notice the implicit assumption that only intellectual work should matter? How Greek! Of course we’re more benign than the Greeks, in that we assume the grubby work will be done by machines instead of slaves, but the useless idleness envisioned for hoi polloi isn’t a gift.

I think I get what Nimoy was driving at now. I know I’ve (eventually) learned better--intelligence is good, but not the only value.

Intelligence is a kind of wealth, and that needle’s eye is a bit of a squeeze. One day we return the talents and deliver an account. Other things matter more then--the widow's mite weighs more than a bag of silver.

Rest in peace Leonard Nimoy, and may the Lord receive you. You were not Spock, and neither (despite youthful aspiration) was I. I think I'll listen to that ballad tomorrow.

Update: Sunday, actually. The version on the LP didn't have the backup singers...

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Kharijites

Are the Daesh neo-Kharijites or is this a legitimate expression of Islam? There are multiple schools in Islam, and at least theoretically they are supposed to recognize each other as True Muslims. ∅bama and other Western pundits have no standing to say what is legitimate and what isn't. The Daesh talk the talk.

If these are truly illegitimate, there's only one way under the circumstances (and given Islam's union of church and state) to prove it--the other Muslims have to wipe them out, as they almost succeeded in doing with the original Kharijites.

Unfortunately what would seem likely to make them Not True Muslims isn't trivialities like enslaving and killing Christians--historically that's perfectly OK. And not ancient history, either. Where they go over the top is where they takfir-ize other Muslims at the flash of a CD.

So where do we fit into this picture?

Or, more accurately, where do American Muslims fit into this picture? Especially if the Daesh are, by default, legitimate interpreters of Islam?

We'll have to start distinguishing between religions one way or another...

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

NOT(Both/And)

A report on kwashiorkor has early suggestions that it might be caused not just by poor diet but poor diet plus an unfortunate gut bacteria mix. Another reports on how mouse gut bacteria can go nuts when the diet includes lots of emulsifiers. Very interesting articles. Go read them.

Then Ed Yong writes something very relevant when reading all science research reports:

PS: I’ve written two pieces today about the microbiome. In this one, Akkermansia protected mice from malnutrition caused by other microbes and a poor diet. In the other, Akkermansia was associated with inflammatory disease, in mice that ate a diet rich in food additives. In other rodent studies, it stops mice from getting fat, but is more common in cases of bowel cancer. All of this illustrates a point I’ve made before: any one microbe can have very different effects in different contexts and circumstances. There is no universally “good” bacterium, no universally “healthy” microbiome.

A fix for X can worsen Y, in engineering as well as biology. And in economics, too. It's a simple rule, borne out by everyday observation if you care to look, but it's hard to get people to credit it. They want a silver bullet; they've been promised silver bullets, and if the silver didn't work somebody must be hiding something.

Easy to fool

The story about fooling conspiracy fans is circulating. It's hard not to marvel when the story they shared most enthusiastically claimed that "chemical analysis revealed that chem-trails contains sildenafil citratum (the active ingredient of Viagra)" Those wacky "alternative news" devotees--what won't they fall for?

As AVI pointed out, one reason conspiracy theories are popular is because conspiracies are common--but most conspiracies conflict and fail. And as Twain pointed out, “If you don't read the newspaper, you're uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you're mis-informed.” A friend of mine told me this morning that yesterday he'd been flying spotter for a large multi-site drug ring bust, of which not a word has hit the news. Maybe there are good reasons, but after a moment's thought we find that the newspaper/radio/TV fails to mention many other things we know about and think significant (what was that fire I saw on the way back from work?).

The fact that the newspaper can only print a finite number of articles (and can't hire enough reporters to report even on all the fires) must always be a little more abstract than the easily visible: "there was blood all over the road and not a peep in the paper." Plus, though it is always easier to see when you don't entirely share the political philosophy of the news source, quite a few of them seem to have unashamedly reverted to the old model of newspaper as political party organ. (What I've seen of TV news is worse; radio news is generally severely truncated.)

It's no wonder that there's a huge appetite for "alternative news." Some of the "alternative news" sources are aggregators with clear links to where the stories are from: Drudge Report is probably the most famous, with nothing but headlines and links and a picture or three. Even those headlines and pictures tell stories sometimes, and some things get left out--and you can infer some things about Drudge from that. Aside from the obvious fact that he likes a zingy headline better than a perfectly accurate one. Rantburg is a much more specialized aggregator, and includes a lot more commentary. It has a point of view too, but like Drudge you can follow the links to the Iranian or New Delhi newspapers and evaluate their credibility yourself.

There's the rub, I suppose. Even if you are of a disposition to learn more and try to understand, and not just to circulate "Oh wow that's deep" quotes allegedly from Neil Tyson, what do you bring to the task of evaluation?

To questions about "chem trails" I bring an education that tells me jet fuel, like gasoline, is a hydrocarbon and will produce water vapor that condenses in the cold just like my breath. I know it is mighty cold up there because I've been up there too, and I know gasoline burns hot enough to destroy simple additives. My understanding of human nature tells me that if 20,000 airplane mechanics have had their hands on the engines at least one of them would have betrayed the secret. When I put it all together it seems pretty airtight.

But suppose someone comes to the issue with one or more of those links missing, and in its place a rock-solid understanding that the birth rate is down and that high officials for years have warned of overpopulation, and that there are chemicals that prevent or abort pregnancy, and that organizations will buy what good publicity they can. In his analysis someone is obviously spraying birth control drugs all over the county, and since some people will object the perps must keep it secret and hire others to defend them. Since I would be defending the un-named perps, I must be one of the employees, and therefore I have no credibility.

Or on a less obviously crazy subject, Albert will find a story mentioning Palestinian suffering not very credible because "They brought it on themselves", while Bert will find a story mentioning Israeli suffering not credible for the same reason.

Or again: BenLaden supposedly had some erotic videos in his quarters. Do you find that story credible? I don't: even in hiding he was too exposed to risk that kind of embarrassment. It wouldn't be the first time someone was attracted and repelled by the same thing, but if he cheesed off one wife she could wreck his standing in minutes.

Of course most of the people who circulate nonsense never bother to go back to sources, and rely entirely on the credibility of their friends (who they know are credible because they agree with them) and the obvious fact that the story must be accurate because somebody made a nice-looking JPEG summarizing it.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Fly by nights

Mamajek et al say a small binary passed close to the Sun about 70,000 years ago (85,000 to 60,000 years). Stars are relatively small compared to the rest of space (you can see through the galaxy between its stars--where there isn't obscuring dust, that is), but from time to time they come "close" to each other. If their extrapolations are correct, this pair got to something like 52,000 AU (75,000AU to 33,000AU) away, which would put it in the Sun's outer Oort cloud. 1 AU is the distance from the Earth to the Sun.

Even if the binary were as luminous as the Sun, it would have been 6000 times dimmer than the full Moon, so our nights would have looked about the same.

They say the intruders were fast and lightweight, and so wouldn't be expected to perturb the cloud much--so we shouldn't expect a rain of comets in the next few centuries from the encounter. And that near-misses at this range are expected to be every 10,000,000 years or so. Which means either this is a rare sighting, or else the estimate is off.

By symmetry, I guess the Sun went through their "Oort" cloud--and so did we. Not very dense, was it? Saturn's rings aren't anything like The Empire Strikes Back and the outer clouds are even sparser.

UPDATE: Per Texan99's comments, I figure the thing would have swept across 90 degrees of the sky in about 6 years. 83km/sec is fast up close, but at a distance it is less dramatic.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Just for fun

Youngest Son wanted me to collaborate with him on a story. Just for fun here's one character sketch:

The wild ferment inside has to come out as fire now and then. Nothing personal.

Well, sometimes it is. There are people who need a good thorough toasting—you know the sort I mean. And I hate wasps. It's so gratifying to watch their cinders fall. And when I was little my hatchmates and I would go out toad popping. You have to blast them fast enough to pop instead of charring. Don't look so shocked—you and your buddies used sharp sticks: what's the difference?

I'm no magpie. I go for quality, not quantity. My great-uncle, on the other claw—he collected coins, and it didn't matter what kind or condition. They're all over his floor in a brassy mess.

But I keep my helmets neatly racked. Some mediocre ones I kept as trophies—there's always somebody looking for trouble. If they insist, I oblige. I'm glad there have been changes in gear—mail gets stuck in your teeth.

I remember the days when I could fly, catching updrafts and soaring for hours and hours, diving for birds. When I was little I chased bats, but they dodge too fast to catch, and almost always too fast to singe. Now: too big, too long—not enough running space to get airborne. The last time I landed I felt like one of those clumsy geese racing to slow down, and swore I'd never do that again. Bruised up a leg pretty badly, too.

I may not fly, but I can out speed any horse or boar. I prefer goat, though after three or four I generally need to munch a little pyrite to keep the fire smooth. When I visited family in Wales they introduced me to coal. That was wild. I probably overindulged; I don’t remember much. Three of us making a whirling tower of fire; the smell of roast pork and burning leather; contests to see who could roar the longest… I won, but it took a couple of days.

I get the rock from a tunnel spur off my home, of course. I picked the site partly for the variety—sometimes I just have a taste for a little chalcocite to flavor the meat. As to where it is—that’s a delicate question to ask a collector, isn’t it?

By the way, did you know there’s a wasp by your head?

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Solitaire

Have you noticed that kibitzers of a solitaire game seem as engrossed as the player? As my officemate noted, suggestions from the crowd are unwelcome, so the kibitzer isn't really interacting. Perhaps a second-order kind of interaction; interaction by proxy?

There's a way to check. Create a computer solitaire game that plays itself while you watch. If it is popular, then just watching is good enough for involvement. If not, then you have to identify somehow with the player. I'm pretty sure some percentage of people who hear about it will just watch: as said officemate noted there are people who pay to watch other people play video games--there are channels devoted to this.

I thought about it for a few minutes and figured I could code and test the Klondike play logic in about a day (with variants for number of cards in a suit--use a Tarot deck, for example), but the graphics to go with it would be much more time-consuming. Maybe I could piggy-back on pysol and shorten the development time. Counting the downloads from sourceforge would be a proxy for measuring popularity. A web page with a java or javascript app would be better (count the connections and connection time), but I don't control my own server and I don't think it quite appropriate to host a game on the experiment's machines. One factor that's hard to control is publicity.

Too much work, too many uncertainties. Though I'd like to see people's reactions :-)

Friday, February 13, 2015

One way to think it through

"How do I know what I think until I hear what I say?" And yet it's true

Many times I sit down at the computer with a gleam of a plan and a few sentences, but by the time I'm done looking up the details and working through the logic, the original plan is perhaps a little corner of something I hadn't thought of doing. Sometimes I wind up chucking the original notion because it turned out to be wrong.

Update: It works the same way with poems. I start out trying to write something romantic for my wife, and it winds up about God or the kids or who knows what.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Madison winter

Dashing through the snow
For the bus is on its way
In the slush I go
And my briefcase flies away.
Children shake with glee
My pants are cold and damp
What fun it is to finally see
The "Not in Service" lamp.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Art question

I notice that, Amarna period to one side, I can't tell Egyptian tomb art from one era from that of another--it all seems to reflect the same forms and ideals. Although my Better Half can testify that my color sense is idiosyncratic and I presume my artistic judgment is therefore somewhat suspect, I'll assume that their art styles really did stay the same.

That would imply one of two cases: the styles didn't change substantially over 2000 years, or the tomb art, representing an ideal world, no longer reflected what people actually wore or used.

Unfortunately I'm having trouble finding representations of Egyptians from other cultures, except as captives (who aren't usually dressed in their finest). Roman era Egyptians dressed differently than the Egyptians in the tomb art.

Does anybody with a little more familiarity with ancient Egypt know about this?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Culture of Narcissicm by Christopher Lasch

This is a little frustrating to review, because there are so many parts one wants to quote.
Far from preparing students to live "authentically," the higher learning in America leaves them unable to perform the simplest task--to prepare a meal or go to a party or get into bed with a member of the opposite sex--without elaborate academic instruction. The only thing it leaves to chance is higher learning. (from the chapter "Schooling and the New Illiteracy")

Or from "The Degradation of Sport"

The uselessness of games makes them offensive to social reformers, improvers of public morals, or functionalist critics of society like Veblen, who saw in the futility of upper class sports anachronistic survivals of militarism and prowess. Yet the "futility" of play, and nothing else, explains its appeal--its artificiality, the arbitrary obstacles it sets up for no other purpose than to challenge the players to surmount them, the absence of any utilitarian or uplifting object. ... What corrupts an athletic performance, as it does any other performance, is not professionalism or competition but a breakdown of the conventions surrounding the game.

You can guess the subject of "The Banality of Pseudo-Awareness: Theatrics of Politics and Everyday Existence." And he even notices that the apotheosis of sex resulted in not just physical but emotional barrenness. (I paraphrase)

His fallbacks are the corrupting power of capitalism and Freudian analytical framework; the latter I can't always make head or tail of. That's probably because I find Freud's infantile/oral/etc framework too giggle-worthy to study seriously. But non-capitalist reformers and theorists come in for their share of blame. And the trends he describes are just as entrenched, if not more so, than when he first wrote it.

Any prescriptions are implicit: "don't do it this way, de-bureaucratize and devolve authority back." There's no recipe. Which shows appropriate humility, since following recipes got us into some of the trouble.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Some things don't change

"No, you'll meet with some so preposterously religious that they will sooner endure the broadest scoffs even against Christ himself than hear the Pope or a prince be touched in the least, especially if it be anything that concerns their profit;" From the preface to The Praise of Folly, written over 500 years ago. (For the honor of truth, I must admit that a different edition at Project Gutenberg translates the sentence in a way less obviously tribal.)

While we're on the subject of Facebook, I notice that movies of cute dogs are actually more common on my feed than pictures of cute cats.