Archive for December, 2008

Food for Thought

Posted in Science!, Things You Should Read on December, 2008 by melendwyr

Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences

I do not endorse this hypothesis, nor do I criticize it. I merely offer it as “grist for the mill”.

Actually, this is a specific example of a more general tendency: when I think something is worth looking at, it doesn’t follow that I agree with it, or that I even think it has obvious value. Sometimes I think it’s worth looking at because it’s obviously wrong, or wrong in a way that is illuminating.

I suspect this is one of the many reasons why people on the Internet sometimes don’t understand what I say.


Posted in Uncategorized on December, 2008 by melendwyr

My local library has the first volume of the Baroque Cycle. It also has the third.

You can probably guess where I’m going with this.

Who is Enoch Root?

Posted in Things You Should Read on December, 2008 by melendwyr

Re: Cryptonomicon & Baroque Cycle:

Could someone explain this character to me?

It is not at all clear to me whether the various people who go by this name (sometimes as Enoch the Red) are supposed to be the same person, different people with the same position in a secret organization, or something else.

‘Root’ among other things refers to older words from which newer ones are derived; same holds for languages in general. ‘Enoch’ is a Biblical character – more importantly, Enochian is the ‘language of angels’ that was supposedly given to Enoch, and used in various magical traditions. So if the name ‘Enoch Root’ is meaningful, just what is intended to be meant?

Is it a coincidence that ‘Enoch the Red’ brings to mind the Istari? If not, what meaning does that have?

I am so very confused. Stephenson’s habit of writing past intermixed with present only perplexes me further. And the theme of Cryptonomicon, which Enoch Root relates, and which seems to be explored and manifested in the Baroque Cycle, makes things even harder to understand.


Posted in Favorite Words on December, 2008 by melendwyr

It means
a) a city in the state of New York,
b) a large herbivorous mammal, and
c) inducing desired behaviors by using mass and impassibility to direct others (as a metaphor referring to what happens when in front of a large, herbivorous mammal that wants to be where you are).

As a consequence, we can validly say that:

Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo.

Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon

Posted in GIGO, Science Fiction, Science!, Things You Should Read on December, 2008 by melendwyr

I’ve been reading the works of Neal Stephenson lately, particularly his “Baroque Cycle” and Cryptonomicon, which is something of a precursor to the later series. I recommend them highly. What follows is a particularly thought-provoking section of Cryptonomicon:

Soon, Alan got his Ph.D. and went back to England. He wrote Lawrence a couple of letters. The last of these stated, simply, that he would not be able to write Lawrence any more letters “of substance” and that Lawrence should not take it personally. Lawrence perceived right away that Alan’s society had put him to work doing something useful– probably figuring out how to keep it from being eaten alive by certain of its neighbors. Lawrence wondered what use America would find for him.
He went back to Iowa State, considered changing his major to mathematics, but didn’t. It was the consensus of all whom he consulted that mathematics, like pipe-organ restoration, was a fine thing, but that one needed some way to put bread on the table. He remained in engineering and did more and more poorly at it until the middle of his senior year, when the university suggested that he enter a useful line of work, such as roofing. He walked straight out of college and into the waiting arms of the Navy.
They gave him an intelligence test. The first question on the math part had to do with boats on a river: Port Smith is 100 miles upstream of Port Jones. The river flows at 5 miles per hour. The boat goes through water at 10 miles per hour. How long does it take to go from Port Smith to Port Jones? How long to come back?
Lawrence immediately saw that it was a trick question. You would have to be some kind of idiot to make the facile assumption that the current would add or subtract 5 miles per hour to or from the speed of the boat. Clearly, 5 miles per hour was nothing more than the average speed. The current would be faster in the middle of the river and slower at the banks. More complicated variations could be expected at bends in the river. Basically it was a question of hydrodynamics, which could be tackled using certain well-known systems of differential equations. Lawrence dove into the problem, rapidly (or so he thought) covering both sides of ten sheets of paper with calculations. Along the way, he realized that one of his assumptions, in combination with the simplified Navier-Stokes equations, had led him into an exploration of a particularly interesting family of partial differential equations. Before he knew it, he had proved a new theorem. If that didn’t prove his intelligence, what would?
Then the bell rang and the papers were collected. Lawrence managed to hang onto his scratch paper. He took it back to his dorm, typed it up, and mailed it to one of the more approachable math professors at Princeton, who promptly arranged for it to be published in a Parisian mathematics journal.
Lawrence received two free, freshly printed copies of the journal a few months later, in San Diego, California, during mail call on board a large ship called the U.S.S. Nevada. The ship had a band, and the Navy had given Lawrence the job of playing the glockenspiel in it, because their testing procedures had proven that he was not intelligent enough to do anything else.

My questions:
Were they right?
What does this fictional anecdote suggest about the limitations of intelligence testing?
How well do you think Lawrence did on the non-math portion of the exam?

Incidentally, a later portion of the novel deals with a Marine who claims that several Japanese soldiers whom he was attacking were eaten by a giant lizard. Psychologists hold that his subconscious mind simply couldn’t cope with the things he found necessary to do to heroically slaughter those soldiers, and conclude that his experiences on Komodo are a complex hallucination/rationalization constructed by his mind. As he is obviously mentally unstable and therefore unfit for normal duty, he is assigned to other things.

Lawyers’ Aphorism on Closing Arguments

Posted in Useful Aphorisms on December, 2008 by melendwyr

When the facts are on your side, pound on the facts.

When the law is on your side, pound on the law.

When neither the facts nor the law are on your side, pound on the table.

melendwyr’s commentary:

The seat of reason is a precarious one, and it is to the advantage of the unreasonable to push others over. Beware of those who try to upset your balance, for they are often trying to unseat your reason.

When listening to an argument, do not consider only what it emphasizes, but what it does not emphasize.


Posted in Uncategorized on December, 2008 by melendwyr

For the record, this site is set to not let most comments through until at least one post from that name/address has been permitted. So you’re not being excluded, Dr. Hanson, you just weren’t included yet.

If you can be revived, you aren’t ‘dead’.

On the contrary, we bring people back from the dead all the time. This is why we can occasionally tell people that they were dead on the (operating) table.

The standard was once when people ceased breathing. Then we learned ways to revive such people. Then the goalposts were moved so that cessation of heartbeat defined death. Then we learned ways to revive those people. That’s precisely why the relevant legal criterion is now ‘brain death’, when we can no longer induce brains to manifest certain levels of activity.

Cryogenically-frozen subjects are both dead and brain dead. They are not revivable by any known means.

We don’t know whether they are revivable by any means, or not. Which is why it’s useless to let their status be defined by that criterion – it doesn’t provide us a means to reach a conclusion, even tenatively.

One final note: we cannot say that the chances of reviving cryonic subjects are small. Revivication is an unknown, and as such we cannot assign a probability to it at all. This is the critical flaw in Bayesian and other systems that try to represent reasoning as probabilistic: our ability to rationally assign probabilities is more limited than our ability to reason about unknowns, and so the former cannot encompass and represent the latter.

The Problem with Cryonicists

Posted in GIGO with tags , , on December, 2008 by melendwyr

An idea that I’ve seen repeatedly come up in apologies for cryonics is that countless people are dying when they didn’t have to. This assertion even appears in one of the latest posts by Robin Hanson on the topic. It seems to me that there’s a little problem with this sort of argument.

It’s highly emotionally-laden, and grossly inaccurate. The first facet is not so much a problem in itself, although it’s a worrisome sign, but combined with the second it becomes devastating, as the emotional appeal makes it harder to recognize what’s wrong with the point.

First, everyone who goes through cryonic preservation dies, whether the whole body is stored or merely the head. Frozen people are dead, period. The issue is not the preservation of their lives, but the possibility of their revivications.

Second, we do not know that cryonics preserves enough information to make revivication possible. For all we know, the minds that once existed within the frozen brains have been grossly damaged, or even erased completely. Even if it is theoretically possible to extract a mind from its chilly husk, we have no idea how much technological progress might be needed to accomplish that, nor precisely why a society capable of the hypothetical technical demands would bother. We do not know that revival can be achieved, no more than we know it to be impossible. But the procedure is a desperate leap into the unknown. Representing it as the salvation of countless dying human beings is wishful thinking at best, and an irresponsibly-extreme exaggeration at worst.

Cryonics doesn’t making dying unnecessary. It doesn’t even give us the reasonable expectation of potentially being ransomed from it. To speak of the ending of millions of human lives as avoidable displays a serious lack of concern for rational argument, and suggests that those who would use such arguments recognize they’re unable to produce solid support for their ideas.

Avoiding the Wildfire

Posted in Politics and Society, Science! on December, 2008 by melendwyr

In ecological zones prone to climatic drought, it is natural for small wildfires to exist, usually triggered by static discharges. These fires burn out accumulated dead wood, shrubbery, and leaves. Because of their inevitability, they have also become incorporated into the processes of life, and the ecology itself is dependent on the fires taking place. Some trees only germinate their seeds once they’ve been exposed to fire, for example, and certain ecosystems thrive in the newly-cleared areas generated by the burnings. There is some evidence that many natural ecologies in North America existed because of the constant intervention of the Native Americans and the plants and animals they encouraged. (For example, the Great Plains may have been trees seas of grass only because of the buffalo, and parts of California were a mixture of grassland and open oak forest because of burning and cultivation patterns of the natives. This is a subject for another day, though.)

Human beings, in their infinite wisdom, decided to ruthlessly suppress any and all wildfires. Obviously a destructive force not under the active control of humans is bad, and needs to be eliminated. So forest wardens and firefighters stopped the small fires.

The ecologies that needed regular burnings began to suffer. More significantly, dead and dry material began to build up. Eventually, so much accumulated that when fires did begin, they quickly grew far beyond our ability to extinguish or direct them. Not only did these gigantic fires cause a great deal more damage to the ecology than ever before, they destroyed a great deal of human property and often took many human lives before they finally burnt out.

It was eventually recognized that suppressing all forest fires went against the grain of nature and was at cross-purposes to our own self-interest. But with all of the accumulated kindling that had built up during the decades of ‘management’, leaving natural forces on their own would result in undesirable massive brushfires. So it was necessary for people to start small fires, ensuring that they were carefully regulated, and letting them burn through the brush a little bit at a time.

This does not mean that those forests would have been better under human regulation. Quite the opposite. But once regulation had done its damage, a little bit of the right kind of regulation was necessary to restore the original equilibrium.

There is a Taoist belief that the answers to our questions about how to live can be found by a careful examination of nature. This does not mean that nature mystically provides them. Rather, nature can be seen as an unlimited number of experiments. Mindful searching can turn up situations that parallel our own conditions, and offer insights into which sorts of solutions are viable and which are strategies that are doomed to fail.

When people insist that the failure of our economic ecology indicates the need for central regulation and control, I think of the ancient forests and their now-regulated wildfires. As with the forests, leaving matters in the hands of people who do not understand or respect the natural equilibrium leads to disaster – as does permitting them to misunderstand the corrective forces we’ve had to apply.

The Right-Left Fallacy

Posted in GIGO, Politics and Society on December, 2008 by melendwyr

Our habit of dividing political opinions into a spectrum of Right and Left has its origins in the seating arrangements of the 18th-century French parliament. There was and is an ancient tradition of putting honored guests at the right hand of the host, and Christian scripture relates the belief that the saved will stand at the right hand of God while the damned depart to the left. Whatever the reason, the parliament was divided into two sides: those that favored the nominal authority of the King sat on the right side of the legislative assembly, and those opposed to it sat on the left.

The tradition of naming political positions as ‘left’ or ‘right’ has something of a problem with it.

Consider the original division. There are three ways the groups can be said to be distinct:

One group favored the existing status quo, while the other wanted to depart from it.
One group favored authoritarianism and aristocracy, while the other rejected those systems of thought.
One group was in favor, the other was not.

There’s no logical reason any of those ways must be related to any of the others. When authoritarianism and aristocracy are out of favor, is a group that approves of them on the Right or Left? When rejection of those things is part of the dominant status quo, is rejecting them Right or Left? That depends on which of the three principles one uses to define the spectrum.

‘Conservatism’ is often said to be a Right-wing political position. But at present, it refers to an ideology that is out of favor and has been for some time – the status quo is against it. So conservatism isn’t conservative, in that it now represents a break from the past. It’s also out of political favor. So why is it Right? By the original system, it fits two of the three criteria for being Left – and depending on how you interpret modern Conservatism and Liberalism, it fits the third as well.

Referring to political positions in this manner creates inaccuracies and obscures meaning. Habits of speech that act as barriers to communication in this way ought to be avoided whenever possible.