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.