Archive for June, 2009

Newfangled Features

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on June, 2009 by melendwyr

I think I’ll try adding tags to my posts. I’m not sure how useful they actually are, as I’ve never bothered with them either in reading or writing, but some people seem to search for information with them, so presumably there’s a net benefit.

What precisely is the difference between post tags and categories? WordPress is awfully slow about establishing a new post tag…

More Successful Foraging!

Posted in Foraging on June, 2009 by melendwyr

Passing by the Municipal Building on my way to the library, I happened to notice that the landscaping trees were covered in purple-red berries the size of a large pea.

A little research and judicious taste-testing later, I’ve concluded that they’re juneberries, also known as serviceberries, saskatoon, shadbush, shadberry, and all sorts of species names within Amelanchier. And no one around here seems to realize that they’re edible – and utterly delicious. Like blueberries crossed with black raspberries, with a hint of rose.

Trees and shrubs planted for decorative purposes often don’t have fruit, or they’ve been selected for fruit that looks nice but that wildlife won’t actually eat so that it’ll hang on the bare branches during winter. Even when the fruits are eaten by wildlife, they frequently either aren’t edible for humans or have so little culinary value that only a very hungry person would bother with them. It’s pleasantly surprising to come across a planting of a species that’s so scrumptious.

Ontological Priority

Posted in GIGO on June, 2009 by melendwyr

TGGP has requested that I expand upon my earlier statements regarding the choice between contradictory assertions.

A useful method for analyzing incompatible ideas is to force the assigned truth value of each to vary, examining the consequences of this on the value of the others. In this way the possibility space of the conflict can be explored. “What happens if I assume this? How does this change?” I often perceive this as turning a complex object in my hands, twisting the pieces of a puzzle, exploring how a shift in perspective or a sliding piece transforms the shape of the structure.

We quickly find that the categories of statements are loosely organized into a hierarchy. (I prefer the concept of a reverse-hierarchy, with the most important things at the bottom rather than the top, but the associations that cause that are merely subjective and you may do as you please.) Altering the truth value of the most fundamental concepts has implications for certain other categories of statements, but not vice-versa.

Let’s say you observe a friend doing something that you believe is utterly and completely uncharacteristic of them, to the point where you can’t bring yourself to believe you saw what you saw.

There are two competing premises here: “Friend did X” and “Friend is incapable of doing X”. They’re clearly incompatible – the see-saw of logic is in full swing. Depending on which statement we accept and which we reject, our conclusions flow in two different directions.

If we’re uncertain about what we saw, and we’re fairly confident in our evaluation of our friend’s character, it’s easy to dismiss our observation. We could have seen incorrectly, after all. If our beliefs about our friend are uncertain or weak, it’s easy to accept what we saw. But taking confidence to be more than it is leads to faith, where any contradictory evidence will be rejected no matter how strong.

What we have to remember is that our beliefs are just a way to anticipate and react to the things we perceive. Both beliefs and perceptions can be in error, but perceptions are closer to the true reality we’re trying to understand and predict.

Changing the valence of our beliefs does not change what really happened. Considering different truth values for the reality makes our beliefs either true or false (or valid or invalid, justifiable or unjustifiable… you get the idea). One category is more fundamental than the other, which is ontologically dependent on the value of the statements in the deeper level of analysis.

That deeper level has ontological priority over the other.

Pan’s Labyrinth, Mirrormask

Posted in Fantasy, Reviews on June, 2009 by melendwyr

I’d heard great things about these movies, but each was a disappointment.

Pan’s Labyrinth had hardly any fantasy in it at all – it was too full of the ‘serious’ drama of the fight against Franco and Spanish Fascism. The fantastic elements were squeezed into the interstices of the scenes in the adult world. It’s not magical realism, because as far as the adults were concerned none of the fantastic things ever happened. It’s not a story about the realm of the imagination, because too much happens in the child’s perspective that cannot simply have been imagined. It’s some strange, incoherent mixture that isn’t really about the fantasy after all.

The effects were nice, but they don’t make a movie.

Mirrormask was just completely disappointing. Characters did things without clear motivations, were introduced hurriedly and awkwardly, and behave in ways that simply don’t make sense merely for the purpose of creating drama.

The special effects were weak, difficult-to-see, and unimpressive. The city of light and the world of shadows looked pretty identical. I expect a city of light to be bright – or at least noticeably brighter than its gloomy spots; instead, we were presented with a sepia-tinged monotony. The antithesis of the city of light looked barely different.

It wasn’t even clear how real the events of the story were. Were they completely a dream, brought on by fear and anxiety about the mother’s illness? Did the dark princess actually do things in the real world while pretending to be the daughter? What exactly do the events mean? What was the mirrormask, and why was it actually important? This wasn’t explained nearly clearly enough to my tastes.

Gaiman can write fascinating text. Shame he can’t seem to make a movie script worth watching.

Familarity Breeds Comfort

Posted in Doom, Politics and Society on June, 2009 by melendwyr

See this, which puts me in mind of another study I read several years ago (for which I have no reference, sadly).

It found that exposing people to certain songs over and over again would cause them to prefer them, even if they didn’t like them originally. It seems that aesthetic preferences ultimately aren’t as important as avoiding the sensation we experience when we’re accustomed to something which is no longer present.

This is part of why radio stations that play popular music often showcase the same few songs over and over. They want people to get used to them so that they’ll like them.

Things You Know That Ain’t So

Posted in Doom, GIGO, Medicine, Useful Aphorisms on June, 2009 by melendwyr

It’s not the things you don’t know that get you, but the things you know that ain’t so. – Attributed to Samuel Clemens

There are many situations in which we don’t care so much about the total overall accuracy of a source or a process, but want to specifically find their errors. Usually it’s because we want to correct the errors or avoid them in the future ourselves.

In such cases, I’ve generally found that the most effective way to do this isn’t to closely examine the topics and conceptual places that get lots of attention from others. Even slight uncertainties will probably have been noted and fiercely debated already. Instead, it’s more productive to take a look at the places few people think are worth examining, or that have been wrongly passed over as already-known, because that’s where uncaught errors will accumulate.

When I started investigating medical errors and issues, I expected that I’d find mistakes and some uncertain grey areas that should probably be looked at again. What I actually found was that there were countless obvious problems that few people bother looking at once, much less twice.

I’ll be discussing these issues, some of which are resolved but whose implications are not acknowledged, some of which still occur, in the near future.

My Ancient Enemy

Posted in Gardening on June, 2009 by melendwyr

The leeks and tuber-rooted parsley I planted months ago have finally sprouted.

Now, the only problem is my ancient enemy: the slugs. The slugs.

Scattering pine and spruce needles has helped so far, but that will acidify the soil until they break down completely, and that could take years. Crushed eggshells are also an effective slug deterrent and also raises soil pH, but getting enough of them will be hard.

The best organic solution would be shallow bowls or saucers of beer. The yeast in the beer attracts slugs, and the alcohol poisons them. Obstacle: as the garden is on university property, we’re obligated to follow university rules, which includes a prohibition of alcoholic beverages. The intention was to prevent students from drinking, of course, not slugs.

I’ll have to see if there’s an exception for pest control.

Bad Design

Posted in Doom on June, 2009 by melendwyr

I’ve never liked the automatic sensor water faucets you find in some modern public bathrooms, the ones that turn on when you position your hands in a certain place and run until a timer runs out or you move your hands.

But what really irk me are the occasional installations that aren’t on a timer, but whose operation can be triggered by the stream of water flowing down itself. Those just run and run and run, wasting lots of water and with no good way to turn them off.

Lois McMaster Bujold on War, Peace, and Status

Posted in Politics and Society, Science Fiction, Things You Should Read on June, 2009 by melendwyr

From an interview which can be found here:

Ah, that may be the most interesting question of this interview. At the time, I thought my hosts were crazy to be seriously asking a housewife from Ohio, who’d never even been in the military, her opinions on war, but I got up some kind of speech anyhow because I wanted the free trip to Russia. But there was a kernel of original thought in my speech that still niggles at me. I got to wondering, if we could eradicate a disease like smallpox, why couldn’t we use the same medical and scientific methods to eradicate war?

Now, the scourge of smallpox was easy even as diseases go — among other things, it had a single, identifiable cause. And nobody liked smallpox — it didn’t boost anyone’s bio-social status to have a plague the way people still imagine it does to have a war. It wasn’t exciting, it didn’t involve guys hitting each other or any of the fun stuff. Ugly death without glory. (Which is actually how real death in war also is, particularly for the non-combatants who get overrun, but the young male soldiers, hopped up on their own propaganda, often don’t realize that till it’s too late.)

Nobody seemed to be thinking about war in the general bio-evolutionary terms it would take to get to the real root causes, and therefore cures. They get all caught up in mere proximate causes and stop thinking altogether.

Group violence of course goes all the way back to our chimpanzee-like ancestors. I do think that, in the end, the chimpanzee studies are going to teach us more about our humanity than all the philosophers who ever wrote. The problem with philosophers is that really smart people are also good at fooling themselves. They have to be really clever to do so, and often are. With our simian cousins, all the camouflage of language is stripped away; what is laid bare may well be the truth.

Anyway, chimps have both hunting and war parties, and up through most of the hunter-gatherer stages of our evolution, that’s what “war” was — family- and clan-based raiding parties. It seems to me that armies, which first put together larger-than-clan-based war groups, are to raiding what the invention of agriculture was to eating. They are a cultural invention that, once in place, gave the groups who took it up an unstoppable advantage over those who didn’t. And so, like agriculture, the idea of armies spread.

You can actually see the echo of clan-based raiding in the training of platoons and such, which seeks to artificially mimic the bonds of kinship among the disparate men gathered. Armies work, to a degree, because they hijack human biological predilections that are already in place.

An anthropologist who studied primitive clan-based raiding in New Guinea came up with the fascinating statistic that such endemic raids actually killed more people over time, proportionally, than all the mechanized wars of the 20th Century. If true, it makes a certain mathematical sense — the more little polities there are, the more little local wars. So the invention of armies actually reduced warfare, from a demographic point of view, from once a summer to once a generation, perhaps another secret of their success.

This is about as far as my thinking has gone so far, although it also connects up with my notions about perceived status-emergencies as the root of much irrational human behavior. But it seems to me that if folks really started thinking about war as a biological phenomenon, they might get to a recipe for peace much faster than by thinking about particular wars as if they were really about what they pretended to be about.

Another interesting excerpt from here:

1. The main characters in your books are often aristocrats of some sort. What is the reason for that and why do you reckon people like such protagonists even in a SF setting?

LMB: It is a source of some bemusement to me that my stories with aristocratic protagonists do seem to sell better than my stories with middle-class protagonists. (I’ve written both; the fact that you are more keenly aware of the first tells its own tale.) My theory is that high bio-social status is an in-built attractor, like sugar to the human palate, and for some of the same reasons.

Unlike the need for food and water and sex, status really hasn’t been studied much directly in the terms of evolutionary biology, which is the conceptual space in which I think it really belongs. But a person’s status, in a group — and humans evolved in groups — can have a profound impact on that person’s ability to access every other survival need. People in the throes of a perceived status emergency are at their most dangerous, just as if they’d been denied water or food.

But yes. Almost all people everywhere are partial to stories where the protagonists have or gain bio-social status. Most readers seem to want to identify upward, not downward. There is also, on the fairy or folk tale level, a deal of not-so-covert family psychology playing out, with kings as story-stand-ins for fathers, queens for mothers, princes as sons, princesses as daughters, and so on, which, quite literally, hits audiences where they live.

The other thing about upper-class protagonists is that they often have or seem to have more political agency, more room to move and drive the plot; more ability to act effectively. This, too, is attractive in a book’s characters. Genre readers want to read about people who are doing things.

Successful Foraging

Posted in Gardening on June, 2009 by melendwyr

A quick trip through the local nature preserve has some exciting results!

I’ve suspected for some time that asparagus grows wild throughout, but as much of the preserve isn’t easily accessible on foot (read: the paths don’t permit access to every square meter), I’ve been unable to confirm this.

Now passing by the garage in which the maintenance equipment is stored, I find a single stalk of asparagus, surrounded by half-a-dozen mown down stalks. I guess they thought they were a weed until it was mostly too late. I got some free stalks out of the deal, though, far later than asparagus is normally available. The bottoms are getting woody, and it would have been better to let the stalks grow to replenish the roots, but as they were already cut I might as well get some benefit out of it.

Another cluster of mystery garlic grows by a fence next to a pasture nearby. I’ll bet the herbicides sprayed to kill weeds hasn’t and won’t affect it much – and I can probably dig it up once the foliage starts to wither at the end of summer.

I’ve learned to identify ground ivy, and am considering trying an infusion – its scent reminds me of a darker and heavier sage smell, and the plant is supposedly rich in Vitamin C.

Oh, and I gathered a lot of dandelion greens. I need more leafy greens in my diet, I think. I just have to watch out for Vitamin A poisoning.