My Zunivers

31 January 2006

Country Music

NEB: "What are the lyrics? All I can hear in this song is 'honkey tonk' and 'Donkey Kong.'"

Another regular reader will notice the phrase "We hate to see her go but love to watch her leave" is used here.

The song actually reminds me of a dikphore.

Two Annoying Things

1) Natural Family Planning

In a discussion of church populations over at SoF a small war broke out over measuring birth control methods. It's quite interesting.

One of the things that has always bothered me about birth control statistics is the "the method is 100% effective for people who use the method properly" mentality among natural family planning people. The problem I have has nothing to do with people skipping sex for ten or fourteen days or whatever, so if that's how you choose to get your jollies then go right on and do it. My problem is that the statistic tells us nothing, at least when worded that way. What is the sample? The sample could be "people who use this method properly." So people who use the method improperly need not included in the sample. When we say "Suicide is 100% effective in causing death for people who kill themselves properly" we are making the same sort of statement. But while many people find the latter unmeaningful, many people take the former as good evidence that they're not going to be having any kids.

This isn't to say that natural family planning definitely is less than 100% sucessful. What I'm trying to say is that a commonly parroted statement about its effectiveness is vacuous and needs to be replaced with something more useful.

2) Thyroids

When my wife found out that her thyroid was bum I got hit in the face by some stupidity that I had not before noticed in the medical community. Let's talk about it.

When a doctor suspects that a person has an illness the doctor might take a blood test. The normal range for the results is the interval [a,b]. If the person is inside this range then everything is working properly and the person is marked down as not having the disease. If the person's test results are outside the range then the disease is labeled, more tests are ordered, and so on. All this is well and cool, and you can even do brainy things like work in the term "null hypothesis" if you want to sound smartypantsandnerdy on us.

The problem comes with determining the interval. For many biological indicators (I have no idea what the real medical term is) the intervals are quite often chosen by sampling a healthy population. So we can take, for example, a few thousand people who have no fever and from them get a range of "normal" body temperatures. The specific problem isn't that we might actually have a few people in the sample who have some unknown disease that really does affect temperature. The problem with the interval is that when sampling like this across the population we have not determined at all what any individual's normal temperature is.

Nerds like me have experimented with this. My temperature when I'm well averages between 99 and 100. I can have a "low fever" of 100.9, which is called a fever because it's outside the "normal" range, and feel just fine. 100.9 might be 2.3 degrees above the population mean of 98.6 but it is just over 1 degree higher than temperatures I'm used to feeling. When I have my termperature checked I am diagnosed not based on my temperature average but rather the population's. The real fact in cases when I'm about 101 is that I don't have any more than teeny-tiny fever. That's why I don't feel bad. Yet I've gotten many a speech at 100 to 101 from doctors and nurses about how to recognize the fever symptoms that I must not be noticing or about how important it is to tell the doctor the truth about what I'm feeling because acting all tough won't get me anywhere.

This all came up in my mind when I was thinking about thyroids because a very common complaint among people with thyroid problems is that they have symptoms but their doctors won't change the treatment because the blood tests are within the "normal" range. The doctors like to attribute the symptoms of these people to their becoming worried about their health and thinking every little thing is a big deal. The reality, though, is that the doctors might be acting quite stupidly with the statistics. Thyroid hormone levels for any individual could fall within a much narrower range than the population average. If this band falls completely within the "normal" range then a person can have "normal" results compared to the population but still have a problem low or high and need treatment for it. And the facts that hormone levels are never constant in a person's body and the ranges of fluctuation vary by individual just throw in more monkey wrenchs. The doctors, of course, won't have any of this and generally insist on treating numbers, which probably tell us diddly squat, rather than symptoms, which tell us that the body isn't working properly.

Hardly a reason to dump all modern medicine, but still annoying.

30 January 2006

Foggy Frost

Inspired by this poem I took the road less traveled tonight. The difference? Getting lost on country roads well after dark in a fog so think I sometimes lost sight of the white line on the other side of the road, that's what! It was about the worst fog I've been in for some time, and the fact that I was in a car driving didn't help. The way that the fog was sometimes only partway up the windshield, the stars laughing at my plight from above, was absoultely frustrating. I eventually meandered my way, at ten miles per hour, into Allentown around 19th street. I think I was on Mauch Chunk road for a good bit but I couldn't read any signs in the fog except for the one that said Schnecksville was a few miles to the left and I had a feeling I was between there and home heading south so I shouldn't turn. For amusement of the locals, I was driving home form Northampton. Lucky for me I was the only idiot out in that mess. Dumbest thing I did since I stuck my finger in a pool of warm tar outside the physics building a few weeks back. I'm such a theorist.


Most of you know that in the summers I now go to a high school week at a church camp not too far away. Every year in the winter the camp has a weekend for high school students. I've found my way into being volunteered to go down for that event, and it's next weekend. So I will probably miss the after church dinner that Sunday but I will be able to make the Lehigh hockey game and the super bowl party in which I will watch my Seahawks fanatic friend, the host, completely freak out for the entire game. What a weekend it will be. Oh, and the Ladysmith Black Mambazo concert is the following Tuesday.

And I might also be making a special appearence in the church choir, as they are in need of male voices for an Easter program. I might even go out on a limb and sing tenor. Or I might just not show up. I have a friend who might also go, so if he goes or I go we have decided to both go, so my going might really mean two people going instead of one, and that would give them some help that they need. I must be going crazy to even consider singing such music....

29 January 2006

Progressive Why?

I've been amused lately at what my more socially and politically conservative friends have to say about poverty.

The main amusment comes when I tell them that I am interested in the government feeeding poor people who would otherwise starve. Besides the widespread idea that poor people are poor because they are lazy/being punished by God/want to be poor/don't want to be anything else, they also tell me that they agree that we should care for the poor but that the government is not in any circumstanecs to be in such a business. Where then should the care come from? Private groups like churches, of course. The government is a bureaucracy that wastes money, they say, so if we go through private channels then we won't waste as much. It's the private organizations in the community who can best handle distribution to where it is needed and who can provide personal attention to needy people. They can do this with lower overhead costs.

I point out that we as a nation don't give enough money to charity to help all the poor people in a meaningful way. I'm not talking about making sure everyone has fine steaks and designer clothes, I'm talking basic food and clothing proper for the climate. Since people don't give on their own, why shouldn't the government lend a hand? The response-- if we didn't need to pay taxes to a government that wastes so much money in its social programs then we would be able to give more to the poor.

Okay, I'm going to be the first person to tell you this here. Communism isn't a good idea. We should not have a system where people all get the same food and same shelter and same amount of spending money. In fact, I see no reason why the system should do more than make sure that everyone has enough to at least get by in life. Of course, most of the more conservative people I know want to ride this down a slippery slope. Since we don't know what is "enough" for the government to give, I am told, what we really should do is have the government give nothing. Besides relying on a logical fallacy, this argument has a self defeating element-- if you can't definitely define "enough" for the people then you have no way of knowing if your charity is doing enough either.

I'll also be the first person to tell you here that there is a great merit to the life of charity. It's a calling of many major world religions to be benevolent givers. I know atheists and agnostics who have some compassion also. They are willing to give some change to the Salvation Army at Christmas or donate their old items of low, or even high, value to people who could better use them. And all of this is definitely a good, especially on top of all those taxes that the government takes for social programs that you implicitly support. There's compassion out there along with the incompassion, but incompassion rules the day among almost all colors and creeds.

I can't help but notice that the idea of a society where the private charity is the only significant source of help for the poor has something in common with the ideas of communism. In both systems, people need to be willing to give up what they have in order for other people to have it. People are, however, quite often selfish. People who live under communism resent the fact that they are forced to give so much of what they could have. (Yes, a straw man, but one that many of my conservtive friends would agree with, and they're the ones I'm trying to get at here.) This is a sign to me that people who live under a system where they must give up on their own are not going to do it. Where the line is, of course, I don't know. I have a feeling that if we in the US cut taxes in half and drop all social programs then most families will take the extra money and keep it for themselves.

So why have I decided to take amore progressive stance on poverty? Simply put it's because I don't see people having the good nature to help. I'm not saying that it is necessarily the government's job to feed and clothe everyone. That really is the job for individuals and churches and charities. I am saying, however, that for the sake of compassion in a world where people don't do their job the goverment should step in to help. I see fewer people saying "I would give to charity if only my taxes were lower" and more poeple saying "My money is my money and I'm tired of the government taking it away from me and giving it to other people because it's mine." (I recommend that you not take a poll to test this, though, beause if you put those two choices before people they will probably be more likely to say they agree with the former than they would be to actually carry it out.)

For those of you who want to give money to charity and think the government has no business doing it for you, look around at how things are for once instead of the way they should be. It's nice to think about the way things should be, and keep looking toward that, but also realize that people aren't all like you. Your taxes that go to welfare programs are making up for the fact that not everyone is as caring and giving as you are. It might be inefficient but it's doing something.

For those of you who don't want anyone taking your money and dont' want to give any away, drop the uncaring attitude and you not only will get your money but you'll want to give it away anyway. If not, consider your taxes that go to welfare programs a fine for your not giving a rip about anyone but yourself and your kind.

Now you can all leave comments about how wrong I am and make fun of me and call me a democrat and other dirty names.

28 January 2006

A Boom Remebered

This being the 20th anniversary of the Challanger blowing herself to kingdom come, I thought it would be nice to remind the readers of what really caused the event. Many of the news outlets are expresing a similar thing, but a few of them aren't. Many individuals I have talked to in the past decade sounded like they needed a refresher.

Soon after liftoff on January 28, 1986, a very cold morning at Cape Canaveral, Florida, video captured a small puff or two of flame peeking out from behind one of Challanger's solid rocket boosters. Within seconds the main fuel tank exploded. Many people, including me, were watching this live on television. My almost six year old mind, just back form morning kindergarten and watching CNN to amuse myself before lunch, looked at the TV and said "It was going that way, and then it went into pieces and started going other ways. That's not right." I was glad that my grandmother had called (the phone was ringing as we walked into the house) to remind us to watch it. Something important obviously happened.

Dispite having a minimal understandng of death at that age, enough that I wondered why my mom was trying to make me feel better about the people dying, since it must have hurt a lot to be stuck in a big fire but she was telling me they probably didn't feel anything, my main thought for a few years was to figure out why after the explosion the rocket boosters followed the paths that they took. It was completely fascinating to me to see them curve instead of going in a sraight line or followign arcs like the unpropelled debris. Only years later did I work it out.

To this day I hear people who say that the reason Challanger exploded was that, as Richard Feynman demonstrated at an accident investigation press conference, some of the rubber sealing a joint on the solid rocket booster could not work at cold temperatures. That's definitely a true statement, I believe. The puffs of flame were the rocket exhaust coming out of a joint that could not seal properly on that citrus killing morning on the Florida coast. The rubber didn't work. But don't balme the rubber.

That morning there was a fight at NASA over what to do about the weather. The rocket booster engineers, those at NASA and Moton Thiokol, the rocket booster manufacturer, said that the weather was too cold to assure the integrity of parts that had not been tested for cold weather. Florida is, after all, quite warm, so nobody had thought to design rocket boosters that could be lanched from places where the temperature got down below 40 degrees. On the other hand there were the NASA bureaucrats who said that there were thousands upon thousands of people watching the first teacher go to space, so the first teacher was going to space or they'd be what you don't want any bureaucrat to be-- really, really angry.

So why do I think that the space shuttle blew up? I don't blame the physical machine. It probably would have worked fine if had been used properly, or to be more specific not used improperly. The fact that a group of publicity hungry desk jockeys won the day over people who knew what could happen, that's what caused the explosion.

After an expensive investigation the blame was spread around and NASA got nice bullited lists of things to do to improve. I can't tell you if things have inproved. I can tell you that to the common person the lesson of the January 28, 1986 still seems more often to be "Morton Thiokol made bad o-rings" than "Trust people who know what they're talking about even if it makes you look bad for doing it."

I've obviously left out a ton of the story. It has been a while since I read the papers on the subject that I was given in college (this incident was an engineering ethics project that I did my sophomore year; I didn't need to do an ethics project because I was a physics major, but I got out of doing a really hard lab). I also once read most of the accident investigation report. There's a lot of detail to consider and a lot of lessons to be learned.

But even if you don't read that stuff, make sure that instead of stopping at the physical causes of things you also look at the people involved to see if perhaps they are more to blame.

Hockey Night

Tonight we (my wife and I) had a nice trip to a Hockey game. Villanova vs. Lehigh, and it was a pretty good game. Although the score was tied 0-0 at the end there was plenty of excitement. Jeff was there and his wife came when she got done with work. After the Lehigh game I also got to see about two minutes of the beginning of the Lafeyette vs. Seton Hall game. Good times.

It had all the mystique of small time hockey-- the woosh of the zamboni, the one person heckling at a time, the sounds of skates and players calling out to each other, and a hint of that undeniably foul, but quite homey, stench of hockey. You only know it if you've smelled it (or visited the back stairwell in Fischer east where the hockey players kept their pads; you know, the emergency exit stairwell with the locked doors at the ground level that we could not use?). So I had a good time, and next year I need to get to more games.

This weekend I need to work. One of my friends who graduated form our group will be coming back for a visit tomorrow and I need to talk to him about some simulations.

27 January 2006


The glasses have not arrived. Of course, I've always found the 3 to 5 day thing to be a lie when it comes to my glasses. My guess is that the folks who fit the lenses usually see the prescription and laugh so hard they break some spectacle part or another and have to order a replacement. After repeating three or four times the joke just isn't funny, and so they go on to make the wrong thing anyway. But it's always better than what I had, so I keep it.

My wife is kind of like a little sister. The fact that she was a little sister probably helps. Recently I've been noticing how her behavior in times of intellectual boredom is occasionally a lot like my little sister (which is a lot like the standard younger sibling of the pair defense mechanisms on the market). Sadly, that could only mean that I must have acted like her older sister. Grump.

Speaking of spcatacles, and thinking of my upcoming trip to Baltimore, my favorite Poe story is "The Spectacles." Go read it if you haven't. It's the pinnacle of horror stories. And it's not even scary, except that it's your worst nightmare. The poem "El Dorado" is actually scarier. Any poem whose second word is "bedight" is simply frightening. Children should not be exposed to such things. Neither should grown-ups. And this poem is just sad, although most scientists can't understand a word of it so it doesn't bother them. Besides, you can have enough ringing in your ears to make up for it.

Find-a-work assignments for the literary among us:

1) If any of you can remember who it was that wrote the short story about the guy who woke up being choked to death, I think it was called "The Dead Hand" or something, please let me know.

2) A poem called "Sky Laundry." From where, by whom? I can't remember any of it but I really want to find it again. Last I saw it was 20 years ago.

I might have come up with a geometric type explanaiton for what's going wrong with my research. If I feel like it I'll build it out of clay to show my advisor. If not I'll just cross my fingers and decribe it to him. Today when my shoe became a model of the surface under discussion it helped us work out a few things. I think I can get pounds upon pounds of self hardening modeling clay for cheep at A. C. Moore. I can probably convince him to pay for it, too.

Happy 250th birthday, Wolfgang. May your flute continue to be magical and your tears of death remain touching for generations to come. Yeah, I'm a sucker for his late work. Call me a helpless romantic. Feel sorry for yourself if you get the pun and why it doesn't quite work.

26 January 2006

Thinking About Girls (And Boys)

I need to look around sometime to see if there's any new research on cross-sex friendships. For those of you new to my blog, this is a subject that fascinates me like crazy, mostly because I've found that I get along much better with females than males.

Of particular interest I want to know what the fasciniation is with saying there is no such thing as a platonic cross-sex friendship and why the most rare type of cross-sex friendship is the married male with a single female. I'm also interested in separating out the dyad of a married couple from the individuals involved, since marriage creates a separate social entity that has its own dynamics in terms of friends and relations.

You can, of course, leave your comments, but I doubt that they will contribute much to teh literature. I need some solid data and social theory rather than musing about generalizations and personal experiences.

Sociology is calling me. I hear it. Perhaps I'll end up there some day after all. If I do, I'll never regret physics, though.

24 January 2006

Pointless Fun

There is a poll on my office chalkboard. This week's poll is looking for information on what we're going to do with all the Eskimo chicks that Steve brings back form Alaska. Steve, if we have good ideas, you bettter produce.

Slashdot and Digg had links to this fine website that scores your IP address. It's at least good for finding your IP address if you're lazy. I'm dialed into a modem pool right now and it scores a measly only a 9. Sucky. They don't give extra points for powers of two, though. That should be worth something.

23 January 2006

My Sister Meets The Computer

My sister is taking a course on programming in Java, and she has found that some of the computers at her school can be rebooted to find an evil dark side wearing a red hat and sometimes pretending to be a penguin. Welcome to Linux world. It's cool. You'll be laughing at root jokes before you know it.


A recent mishap involving floss and my wife has ended up with my gum being very swollen between my two front teeth.

I'm gettng an ulcer on the bottom of my tongue.

I have a pimple on my neck.

I have some itching, um, there.

I haven't gotten nearly enough sleep for the past four days.

We're out of decent food.

The weather is taunting me with fake visions of skiing while making everyone else perfectly happy, except for this bit of nuisance snow, of course. Not like it's January or anything, people.

Beethoven is hard.

I have work to do.


22 January 2006

New Glasses

I bought new glasses. Really. Finally. I should have them by the end of next week.

The most amusing part of the appointment was when the optometrist dialed in my left eye presecription. He closed off my right eye, and I saw, well, nothing much. I could guess at the 20/40 line. He also said, just in case I didn't know, that I have the double whammy-- nearsightedness and astigmatism. I told him that I was also colorblind. He looked sorry for me. We got it all fixed up and down to 20/15, near and far, so things should go much better once the new set comes in. I hope that my pupil separation was properly done. I worry about that because the vision therapy I did before college can mess up teh accuracy, although the fact that I can make my eyes move independently is a bonus at parties.

The new frames were a little cheap, and I worry a bit about cheap glasses sometimes because I'm afraid that I'll break them. At the same time, some of the cheap ones are built like tanks, and considering the wear I put on glassses-- I need to wear them in the shower so that I don't get disoriented and fall over-- tankness is cool. My current frames are four years old and in the same condition that some of my more expensive glasses of the past were in when they were barely two.

Many people like to get titanium glasses, but I don't see the appeal. My glasses now weigh less than a third what some of my glasses weighed when I was a kid, so I can deal with just about anything on my nose. I have nice temple grooves, too, so fitting isn't a problem on my big head. All of this comes of wearing glasses since toddlerhood. So does using the rigidity of the arms to get the glasses on and off. I tried some of the flexies today and kept poking my eyes! So if I was really made of money I might get scandium frames, just to say I have it, but titanium is just too needlessly trendy.

The new glasses are black (sorry mom), although I did look at silvers, purple, and other colors. The front is thin enough that from a distance I probably will continue to look like a beard rather than a beard and glasses. I never know what I look like in glasses until I have them purchased and on my face. The arms are round in corss section, which I've never had before. They have springs, a must considering the abuse I give my glasses. (I saw one pair today that had curcular springs rather than helical ones. Quite cool.) They are metal, of course. I still don't have the guts to do it, but I always thought that my dad looked good in those plastic things he was wearing in 1972.

This pair is smaller than the current ones, but the current ones are bigger than the two previous pair. For my relatives, the new ones are on par in size with two pairs back, which were bluish-silverish marble shellish painted metal frames that were nice ellipses. That's the pair I had for the first half of college, including when I met my wife, and they didn't have springs so I had to bend them back to shape once or twice. They followed the more circular matte gold colored pair that I had when I took the SAT and preceded the reddish-brown painted metal ones with a rounded triangular shape that I had late in college and when I moved to Atlanta. My sister helped me pick those, since mom was pregnant with my brother at the time. That was probably my favorite pair ever. The current pair is third, and the matte gold ones are second. Fourth place would be the final pair of aviators, those monstrous brushed aluminum looking things with the honkin' progressive lenses. The current pair was actually the only pair of glasses I picked myself, and I almost got them in brown but then got them in dark steel instead.

I'll stop boring you now.

My Wife Took My Zuniver

For my 300th Zuniver, I figured I would send link over to my wife's blog.

Today she wrote a long post, for her, about birth control. This is something she's looked into a lot. Unlike the usual nonsensical "once you really do research you can find..." sort of mentality that spins around in the heads of those who don't realize how researching garbage "facts" will lead to garbage conclusions no matter how really you research, she makes a case that's based on, if nothing better, the same numbers that people use wrongly to come to the opposite conclusion. I'm not sure if those are in the articles she links to, but I know that she has mentioned this matter.

She explains what it's all about pretty well, but let me give a summary. One of the most common complaints that conservative, pro-life types give about birth control pills is that they "cause abortions" because one of the effects of the pills is that if an egg is released and fertilized the uterine lining will not always accept the implantation of the embryo. Most of the same literature, though, does not address that this faulure for an embryo to implant is a common event even without taking birth control pills. Another type of argument is that we really should not be playing God and making decisions about when we have kids. (This is one that her post doesn't really cover, but it's actually the more mundane argument and you can make your head spin both ways by searching around online for a few minutes.)

My wife talks about the difference between abortion and miscarriage in the popular sense and in medical terms. She then does some math. Without reliable numbers she has been able to take the worst-case numbers she can find and show something amusing. The number of embryos that do not implant is quite likely higher for a woman who does not take birth control than for a woman who does. In other words, the "abortions" from birth control pills probably happen more often in people who don't take the pills than in those who do take the pills.

Then she follows up by addressing those who would say that the numbers don't matter because it's the "non-naturalness" (my term) of the pills that makes the failure of embryo implantation an "abortion" when taking the pill but simply a "miscarriage" when not taking the pill. (Why those people bring up the numbers in the first place if the numbers don't matter is beyond me; as I've ranted before people now call the teleological argument "intelligent design" too, though).

She also goes after the slipperly slope of the "take no risk" mentality. It's a pragmatic approach which by its nature doesn't address such things as whether it really is wrong to take any risk in one's actions and therefore we are all actually doing something wrong by living , an approach that appeals to me because it makes the concept of original sin a one line corrolary, but it's an approach that I like to hand out anyway just to mess with people's heads.

Just a note... her comments are moderated. This isn't to insult you, but rather to keep me a secret. No, not the fact that we're marrried. She and I would simply prefer that some people we know not know about my blog. As easy as it is to find if you know how, they don't seem to know how. So if you make a comment on her post, then don't mention that you found the post here and if you have a link to my blog in yours then don't use your blogger login or leave your URL. Failure to comply will mean that even the most thoughtful comments will be deleted. And if you really do want to argue about it, go over there and do it, not here, or I'll delete your comments here. You've been warned.

Happy surfing.

21 January 2006

Our Educational System Sucks

After making a couple of slides and sending an e-mail to sister, I figured it was time for a news break. Then I read this and got furious. I have one place to put the blame for this-- self concept as the goal of education.

I've been a TA at my current university. We do everything we can not to fail students. An F can easily cause a lawsuit which names not only the school but also the instructor by name. Half of the students deserve to pass, although all but one or two out of hundreds get along anyway by riding the grade inflation. If the class average is a C the students, and even their advisors, and occasionally deans, cry bloody foul your tests were too hard the admissions office didn't screw up they can't all be that bad. In the catalog and on the back of the official transcript a C is called "competent," not "bad." Funny how nobody notices that.

The trustees should redefine the grade scale to reflect what the letter grades really mean:

F = didn't sue for a higher grade
D = dumb, which nobody is
C = almost dumb, which nobody should be called
B = below average, ma non troppo
A = average

If I grade a quiz problem that is half correct as 50% I will always have at least a few students who come and ask "Even if it's wrong shouldn't I get more than half the points? I did do more than half of the work, so more points would be fair." The fact that homework is to be graded only on effort doesn't help this. The fact that otherwise rational professors grade homework on effort is mind boggling. The fact that people who work in cublices can often get by on less than effort makes my lecture about the "real world" a complete lie. I still tell it, though.

Students who are reported to the dean's office for failing to come to class are removed from the course with a grade of "Withdrawn" not failed for being irresponsible nincompoops. They are paying good money for this class, after all, so why make ruin their academic record for an academic problem? Why not just take their money? That's insulting enough, isn't it?

Speaking of money, students who lose their financial aid because they had too low of a GPA and couldn't get it up during probation go around begging for higher grades instead of sucking it up and realizing they aren't smart enough for this school/major/whatever and leaving to do something worthwhile like welding. We're short of qualified welders in this country, and they make mad cool money, but people keep majoring in poly sci and spending a decade unemployed anyway (or working as welders, if they're smart) just so they can have that college degree!

And it's not just this school, it's all of them.

All of this I blame on the fact that education is not about teaching and learning, it is about self discovery and self concept. Screw that. We've got to take the entire education system from the bottom up and shake it until it starts to give people what they deserve, not what will make them happy.

20 January 2006

A Dilemma

Make slides for committee meeting, write in blog. Slides for committee, write in blog. Hmmmm....

The remaining content of this post will tell you which one won.

Relativistic Estate

As in postmodern relativism and "real" estate.

Today I read one article that said the current real estate market favors renting over buying because what matters long-term is increases of equity and the tax breaks won't balanace the losses if you are buying for less than a frew decades. I read another where buying was put equal or better than renting even if the prices drop because real estate usually barely beats inflation anyway so that the best you can expect it to do in the long run. Thsoe two aren't mutually exclusive, I'll point out.

And then in one other article I saw a Wellesley economist compare buying a house to buying a fridge, as if there is really a comparison to be found. I mean, you could maybe claim that a house is a durable good, but you don't borrow against the equity in your fridge, no bank will give you a mortgage for one if your payments are even ten percent of your net income let alone twenty to thirty of your gross (although it's either one nice fridge or your income is too low to be taxed), and you certainly don't take thirty years paying it off at a variable interest rate, a thirty years during which the value of the fridge goes up and down based on things like the spontaneous deaths of oil barons and irrational investment property buying or selling sprees and Japanese stock exchanges going all whee-wheeeee.

An interesting thing

I realized something today, a day that has lasted far too long because I got up early, when I was comparing scientists and engineers. I'm not working with a big sample, but I'm wondering if I've found a trend.

I have noticed that of all the Christian scientists and engineers that I know in person, the engineers are proportionally more committed to young earth creationism. In fact, I can include mathematicians in with the engineers and it's still true. And I can remove the natural scientists, those evolutionists, and leave only the physical scientists, and it's still true.

There's probably a veritable treasure trove of information here about perceptions of science, science and technical education, and religion all affetcing career choices between applied and pure sciences, and vice versa.

Another trend that I've noticed is that the engineers tend to speak with more authority than they sometimes have. Scientists will say things like "I'm an analytical chemist, so I've never learned about genetic algorithms, but I guess since the molecular biologists think it's okay then I will too for now." Engineers are more likely to say things like "I'm not a molecular biologist, but I learned Fortran when I got my masters in civil engineering, and after that I got a masters in environmental engineering and did some programming in B, so I think I'm qualified to evaluate genetic algorithms and conclude reasonably that they're all meaningless once you understand them and consider how real science is supposed to work."

In fact, this is also the kind of crap that comes from the mouths of mindless middle managers, and that makes me think that being in the business world versus the academic world has something to do with it, too. (I know that this is related to titles of one's work. Engineers are more likely to call someone a physicist or chemist, for example, only if the person is employed as one, whereas physicists say things like "I know a chemist who left chemistry and has been a full time bartender for twenty-five years. He finds it much more to his taste." Laugh if you want, but it does happen.)

Or is it simply a matter of knowing or not knowing enough to know whether or not you know? And is that related to being in business instead of academia? Or to religion? Or to early science education? Or just to social or genetic personality differences between those who gravitate toward applied or pure science? Are engineers just stupider? Or do scientists just have an attitude? Yes, scientists do have atttitudes overall, but so do engineers in my experience.

Your opinions, in person or in the comments, are welcome.

19 January 2006

Good For Once... But Consider The Source

An excellent piece of science journalism here. Note that it was written not by a journalist but rather a scientist. And why could it be explained so well? Because unlike a lot of concepts in science, this one has been developing for centuries and is quite simple.

A big reason why science journalism sucks is that scientists can often simplify what they are talking about only so much, and a big reason for that is because the ideas are really quite complicated. Journalists should never go so far as to blame innacurate reporting on the scientists for not simplifying their explanations because it's not the scientist's fault that the world is complicated. At the same time, it's sad that scientists are required in order to print good, meaningful articles about such things as high school physics.

Come Laugh At Me

Anyone in the area can come to my place of work sometime between 9:30 and 12:30 tomorrow. For some reason when people see me there before noon they laugh at me. I probably look different in the morning, like I have less hair or something. Whatever amuses you, I guess.

18 January 2006

Bad Weather! Bad!

I was about to go to bed and I noticed that the 04:31 temperature reported for my location is 61 degrees. That's just sick.

Mistakes of Biblical Proportions

It's been a while since one of my long winded complaints about my church, and this one tops all, really, so I just need to vent about it.

I go to one of those dinky little fundamentalist churches with anabaptist roots. Sunday was my pastor's choice for his annual anti-abortion sermon. This happens every January, as the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade is in January and some organizations or some others have taken upon themselves the task of declaring a Sanctity of Life Sunday to memorialize this overinflated symbol of pro-choice activism.

This year, though, my pastor reached a new low. But let me back up. The church, being fundamentalist, follows a sola scriptura philosophy. While this term was intended to mean just what it says, scripture only, what it really means usually ranges from the fundamentalist "Our sectarian interpretation of being a Christian is right since we don't believe in creeds or authority but rather the Bible," to the orthodox and anglo-catholic "You're Bible worshipping losers. Why don't you worship God?" I lean a bit more to the latter, but, back on topic, what really happened was that my pastor's sola scriptura reached a new low last Sunday.

What wrong did he commit? You may have heard of the hermenutic fallacy of prooftexting, a method where someone demonstrates stupidity by saying that a concept must be in the Bible and then citing a Bible verse that taken alone makes the concept sound right but taken in context of the complete biblical passage either has nothing to do with the matter or proves the concept wrong. It is related to the rhetorical fallacy of begging the question (which, by the way, is not what most people are actually talking about when they say something begs a question). But what was my pastor's wrong? His wrong was that he did something less sensible than prooftexting.

Psalm 139, he said, is the Bible's proof that life begins at conception. For those of you who need it, Psalm 139 in my favortite, but by far not the most popular, translation is here. Look at verses 13 through 16. These are the ones he said prove that life begins at conception.

For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.

When I read that passage, I can't help but notice something. It does not say that life begins at conception; at most it says that life begins before birth. My pastor's wrong was to go sola scriptura without the scriptura.

In fact, I think that if we really wanted to get particular we could argue that this passage of scripture shows that life must begin at some point after conception. You see, my frame was not hidden while I was being made. That means that I was finished being made some time after the frame stopped being hidden, something it could only do if it existed. For a dualist Christian, a mind-body position that my pastor strongly advocates, the soul, not the body (frame) is me, the real person. According to the passage, then, I was not a real person until some point after the conception that made my frame. And I don't even know what to make of the part where it says I was formed in the earth, then. Bodies might be made from dust of the ground but life is from the breath of God (see Genesis 1 and 2). The idea that God breathes earth has got to be a heresy listed by a fancy name somewhere.

Of course, this is poetry, so I guess it, just like the biblical poetry about the sun going around the earth and the earth having foundations, might not mean what it says. We'll ignore that fundamentalist sola scriptura claims to be interpretation free (taking the Bible literally, as I was told in my youth; your guess is as good as mine) and let them interpret. But to interpret something unresolved in the Bible we need some kind of outside information to resolve the conflict. Although abortion is one area where conservative Christians have actually produced respectable scholarship (see Mark Noll), we don't have adequate philosophical backing to say that these verses support personhood beginning at conception or variations of viability theories or whatever else that's a step to the right of the idea that personhood begins only at birth.

Worst for me, though, is that Psalm 139 has been ruined. I used to think those verses were neat poetry, a sort of declaration of God's majesty and power. From now on every time I hear them I will think about abortion and how these verses actually have nothing to do with it beyond a human's life beginning before birth. And it will also take me back to one of my pet peeves (of the larger-than-pet sort) which is wondering why Christians have to be stupid. It's one thing to say that the Bible says X and then misuse a passag to try to prove. It's another thing entirely to say the Bible says X when even the passage you quote shows that it definitely doesn't. Perhaps it's an artifact of all people being stupid, but that goes against the grain of all of my functionalist thinking

I'll go back to listening to Rich Mullins now. The song Nothign is Beyond You has some lines that come from part of Psalm 139:7-12. I guess that part hasn't been ruined. And I like Amy Grant's voice.

Well This Just Can't Be...

Sorry for more, but I can't help but comment on this.

Although in this particular case the plantiffs seem to have a point, I am a bit distressed that in teh Dover case "some activists contended that Jones' ruling opened the door to teaching intelligent design in philosophy or religion classes." How horrible it would be if philosophy or religion classes covered anything related to a mask for Christian ideas! I thought those were totally secular subjects, especially religion.


Clearly the CNN people missed the point. Some activists have an axe to grind. And I don't trust them any more than YECies or ID people.

Of course, I don't think that intelligent design should be taught as philosophy, for a simple reason. Intelligent design, as I've said before, is the teleological argument with a few "scientific" add-ons that have not panned out (one demonstrated wrong, the irreducible complexity argument, and another undeveloped and in principle probably not developable, the information content argument). There's no reason to teach the latter two bits in a philosophy class because they are not philosophy, so all that's left is the teleological argument. But if that's all we're going to teach as the philosophy of intelligent design, why bother calling it intelligent design and bringing along the baggage? Why not just teach the teleological argument, a standard topic in almost any philosophy course? But I'm sure that some activists would not want that, since it might let students be open to the idea that there is a God.

Just a thought.

16 January 2006

The Weekend Movies

South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut was foul. That's all I have to say about it. Blame Canada was entertaining, adn the music was of good quality, but the language was awful even by my standards. The concept of world dictators controlling Satan with sex was also amusing, but if you have sensitive ears then you can just forget about this show.

50 First Dates was a roller coaster ride of emotions. I was especially happy to see the sex jokes, such as the pickup line the dude made about petting his walrus. It would have been less funny if he hadn't actually been talking about a real walrus. This one is about a loved crazed guy who pursues a brain damaged woman. It's not just for sex, though, as he comes to care deeply for the woman. Remove that, and take off some of their clothes, and you're left with a plot worthy of a cheap porno. A funny one, but a cheap one. If that's your sort of thing, and I know that for some of you it is, then this movie is worth a watch. I would watch it again, so I guess I can say even though it wasn't one of my favorites it was a decent movie.

I've talked to only a few people about the movie Being John Malkovich and I heard basically no positive statements. Well, maybe some of them were positive, but I don't count the ones that tried to be all philosophical. Just as with The Matrix (and its two bastard offspring), it is a stinking movie for the love of Peter, Paul and Mary. If you want to start your own cult or organize a Talking Heads on the Agora chapter, be my guest. I do recommend that you not use a movie as the basis for your bullcrap, though. Perhaps my opinion was just tainted becuase the movie came out when I was at Wheaton, an intellectually snotty little land where nobody appreciates movies as art, which is what they are, and everyone tries to treat them as philosophy, which they aren't. Well, I know a few people who are exceptions, actually, but overall I trust my statement.

When I say basically no positive response, though, I mean that I did hear one positive response. My dad, of all people, said that the movie was weird but good. There we go. Dad said it's good. My dad introduced me to some of the greatest movies of all time, including Kelly's Heroes, Slapshot, Star Wars, Animal House, and The Right Stuff, to name a few. When he says it's worth watching, it's worth watching. So dispite the negative comments and philosophical hype, I finally remembered to bring John Malkovich home from dad's place and, tonight, to watch it.

The basic premise of the movie cannot be explained very easily beyond the title itself, but I can say that I was quite drawn by the characters, even if they were a bit polarized towards doing outrageous things to move the plot instead of acting like real people would. Along the same lines, the story was immensely entertaining even though some points it was like "Yeah, yeah, but s/he did ____ so get on with it and show me the easy-to-figure-out consequences of _____." While some people think that makes a movie suck, I think it means that this movie lives up to one very important but difficult to find qualities in a movie-- it can be watched more than once and still feel good. I like my movies to be worth watching more than once, you see. That's why psychological thrillers are not my bag. That and that I'm usually scared so much I almost pee myself....

Anyway, if you have not seen Being John Malkovich, tuck the kids in bed early and watch it sometime soon.

My dad also loaned me the Back to the Future trilogy. I've never seen the second and third movies. Sometime I will watch them.

For now, though, it's off to bed so that I can work tomorrow. Choral union rehearsals start tomorrow, so this is the last call I'll make for anyone who wants to join. I didn't think you would, but I figured I'd offer.

Physics Blues

Why is it that every time I fix a problem with my research it ends up making a new problem? Why? Why does it keep not working? Actually, now it finally is working, it's just looking nothing like the experimental results. I would just humble myself and be an experimentalist except that I break things.

If you read the title and were expecting some sort of music I don't know if I should apologize for not giving you any or call you a loser for even thinking about it.

15 January 2006

Something deep

Where is the weight from? Why does it get between me and others? And why does it get between me and my manhood? And why does my manhood get between them and me?

The things we worry about. Sometimes they're petty. This, though, is serious. Unfortuantely I don't think any of you can help, so I'll keep searching. I just wanted to let you know what was on my mind anyway.

14 January 2006


When I think about where I'd like to teach someday, a few schools come to mind. I wouldn't mind being around here, but there are other places that would also be fun. Usually in my fits of daydreaming, thinking about places I will probably never end up but that I would really like to go, I am torn between Bowdoin and Colby. The former has a deep historical connection with Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Maine's greatest military hero, while the latter worships snow (in a non-deity sort of way) in a way that only central Maine can.

There's a new school on the table, though-- Michigan Tech. Where is Michigan Tech? It's here. You don't recognize that state? That's because it's the more rarely displayed half of the State of Michigan. Although this school does not seem to have the same level of online snow worship as Colby, they do post the area's snowfall data. Of particular interest, and a surprise to some, June through August are not listed. On a happier note, though, ten to fifteen foot years are normal. In the past 100 years, snowfall has been under 96 inches (8 feet) only four times and has exceeded 300 inches (25 feet) three times. I would definitely need to get a few more pairs of skis.

Currently it is 58 degrees here in Allentown, almost 40 degrees above our normal temperature this time of day at this time of year (things should be back around normal by Sunday, but it's still miserable). Houghton, MI, isn't doing much better, as it's 22 there, which is just about the average January high. They are, however, holding a 27 inch snowpack, although it must annoy the dickens out of the locals to have heavy wey snow instead of the nice fluffy stuff that their average weather gives them.

Honey, pack your parka.

12 January 2006

The Library

An interesting opinion piece about the library.

As much as we like to talk about digital materials, there is something to be said about books. I know a lot of people who reflect our love of printed media. In my experience, the printer is indeed more used than the scanner.

I print out data and graphs so that I can look at them on paper. Sometimes you just need to see more than you can fit one one or two monitors, even big ones. I also print out journal articles, and I would do this whether or not I had the internet with me 24/7 and whether or not I had a good way to mark up electronic copies. The computer is an invaluable tool for organizing, analysing, and displaying the data and a very fast way to find and browse articles. The computer, however, feels limited to those things. At least to me.

And then there are the aesthetic qualities of books themselves. I have one former roommate who once proposed starting a publishing company based on making books not for content but for physical beauty. I have some opinions on the matter.

My paperback copy of Thomas Homer-Dixon's The Ingenuity Gap is one object of my affection. It is a nearly perfect example of a finger-pleasing matte paperback cover. Sagas of the Icelanders is nearly as good to touch and also features pages of oscillating width (in fact, they are the same width and folded in little bunches and sewn, the bunches have names but I forget what they are, rather than folding and sewing before cutting; if they aren't sewn then this is at least the look). It feels more serious than my copy of the nearly as large Morte d'Arthur. Odd Girl Out in hardcover has a sruprising feel in your hands, given its awkward shelf profile, as does teh better proportioned Classical Dynamics of Particles and Systems (4th ed)
by Marion and Thornton. Classical Electodynamics by Jackson is the most bendable hardcover of its size that I know.

Bibles with tissue paper pages universally suck, but the consumer expects those pages and, among protestants, the high-and-mighty sound of "Listen, room, I'm turning to the passage the preacher is talking about, and even though it's possible I refuse to do it quietly" has too much appeal. Many a Bible has smashed pages from a slip of judgment performing a hand trick I like to call the Southern Baptist Shuffle. Although nearly universal in any circles where the preacher says "Turn in your Bibles to..." near the beginning of every sermon, I name the technique for the Baptists because it's the most shuffling those folks get, what with ignoring the Psalms and declaring dancing sinful and all. You know the Shuffle; it's the one where you turn Bible pages by sliding your hand across clumps of the tissue paper in a horizontal karate chop (or many variations) instead of by pulling clumps up and placing them on the other side. The tacky little tabs denoting the positions of the 66 books are for wusses, by the way. And if they aren't factory installed and recessed, how dare you defile God's word! Especailly with the chintzy flourescent ones that stick out. Gah!

I'm off topic.

The Elements of Style looks nicer (closed) in the new hardback illustrated edition than in the paperback edition I have, and perhaps it's better to run your hands across, but the paperback is nicer, although not particularly great, to hold. Mass market paperbacks make me cringe. I've bought only two in my life and I regret it. The Wisdom of Crowds takes the feel of dustjacketed hardcovers to a new level. It has both matte and gloss, raised and flush.

All that said, and I haven't even really gotten to sight, smell, sound and taste. This is all overly S for an N like me. I'll have you know, though, that The Cult of Personality Testing, dispite worthwhile content, only felt so-so in my hands at Barnes & Noble.

One thing that I'd like to know about libraries, though, is books read. It would be great if we could know whether library visits are up for the books or if it is for the other media. Libraries are my course of free magazine browsing. Libraries provide internet access. More libraries are allowing checkouts of CDs and DVDs. Are more people going to the library because more people want to read and learn, or are more people going to the library because they dont' want to pay for e-mail and movie rentals? I'm suspiscious that it's the latter, but I'll remain indifferent until I see reliable numbers.

Be grateful for your library. Hug a librarian or other library employee (sleazeballs need not hug my sister). Read more. And pay attention to how nice some books feel.

11 January 2006

It's Baaaaack

A CNN article on a lawsuit about intelligent design can be read here.

So, what's this about? The article points out that the course content is nearly entirely pro-ID. This disturbing bit bother me, though.

"The course was designed to advance religious theories on the origins of life, including creationism and its offshoot, 'intelligent design,'" the lawsuit said. "Because the teacher has no scientific training, students are not provided with any critical analysis of this presentation."

A few questions are in order. First, didn't we just have a court explain in great detail that intelligent design is not science? If so, why would being a scientist matter? Making an implication that only a scientist can evaluate ID is like, although not quite the same, as agreeing that it is science.

Second, are we really going to say that the judge who made that decision has not provided critical analysis and is therefore to be ignored? I'd like to know how he feels about it.

Third, is this a bunch of people who are really open minded, or are they people who want ID to be defeated at whatever cost? (In other words, had the course content contained more anti-ID material, would the lawsuit have been sought anyway simply because of a hunt for religious content in a public schools?) Such people are not looking to protect good science by keeping ID out of science classrooms. They, just like vocal young earth creationists or ID wedge drivers, are looking to force people to accept a particular worldview.

10 January 2006

See Name and Picture

President Bush is a prick. Nee-ner neener-neeeee-ner. Now if you're annoyed have me thrown in jail for saying it without my social security number displayed so that I can be truly identified. I'm such a law breaker.

Clueless? Read this.

The ACLU is already on it.

Sleeping Apart

I know only one or two married couples who haev separate bedrooms. My eyes picked out this article in today's the Washington Post. It's about married people who don't sleep together.

Wording it like that pulls my attention to this paragraph in the article

"In the case of night owls married to early birds, Emsellem usually prescribes a heavy dose of accommodation, starting with an earlier wake time and a willingness to sacrifice some late-night solitude. Generally, her patients are highly motivated to share a bed, said Emsellem; the vast majority who end up apart in the morning start out, at least, in tandem. 'I think people who are together, are together because they want to sleep together,' she said."

Speaking as a night owl married to an early bird, I can tell you that only one of the two definitions of "sleep together" applies here, and it's the one involving genitalia, not the one involving rest. That's the sort of sleep together that ends up on people's lists of why they are married to their spouse. The sleep together as in go to a bed and rest together, that's just not on most people's lists. (If any of you who read do have it on your lists I'm sure you'll be crying intolerance in the comments sooon enough. Remember, though, it's one thing to be asked "Do you like to share a bed with your spouse?" and answer yes, but it's another thing to have it come up on an open list you make of reasons you like being married.)

And then there's the whole thing about sex with separate beds. When my wife and I were talking to one of our pastors before we got married he emphasized the importance of making the choice between going to bed together or not having sex. Last night was the first time in over a year that my wife and I went to bed together; for the sake of honesty I'll point out that the sex happened after we were both awake again today. Perhaps when there are young kids there will be a few years of sex before bed, but it's not preferred around here. In bed, yes, but not before. Having two rooms would, as one guy I know who has a separate bedroom arrangement pointed out, makes for a little more variety. He's probably right. In his case, something besides adoption has to be going on.

Another thing that the article mentioned was that sleeping in the same bed is not necessarily the way that it's always been done. Sleeping in the same bed is cultural. People think it's odd when I point out that my great grandparaents had separate beds. A hundred years ago I would have been a pervert for saying I was descended from people who shared a bed (the branding coming from their sharing as much as from my saying). Once again, it's that whole genitalia connection.

I'll leave summarizing what we have learned as an exercise to the reader.

08 January 2006

Weather, the Bogeyman

You can read about it here.

Also, why video games aren't ruining children, here.

To make an optical mouse into a scanner, see this.

My! Head! Huuuuurts!

Tonight's playing with computing session ended when I ran into this.

It was baffling enough to my little mind that I'm calling in the cavalry. WTF messages have been sent.

I've learned more about computers in the past three days than since, well, since I learned Fortran 95 inside and out in the spring. And I had forgotten how much learning makes my head throb. Or maybe I need new glasses. Fricking things are almost four years old, and everything's blurry.

At least by the end of it I will have some rudimentary Knowledge of things Linux. In typical Fashion I'm learning in Fragmented Bits that will only come together after Accumulating like box-car dust bunnnies on a depressed hobo. Er... right. And no, I haven't been drinking, although this week I did learn what a pipe is used for. (If you get that then you're plain nerdy.)

And after I figure this one out I will need to conquer this (with even the English only half written, in true CS fashion) and this (Dear Lord Save My Head From The Hooves Of The Migrane Bearing Horses!).

07 January 2006

Oh, you SAVE it....

Why does this deserve an article?

If you have mor emoney than you need and you save that money instead of spending it, you still have the extra money instead of not having it. Ooooh. I'm now so enlightened.

I had an economics professor who taught a class called personal finance, one of the few electives I took in college. That professor used to say all the time that the obvious way to have more money to yoru name is to save money. She also used to say the same thing I say-- this fact should be obvious to people but it isn't.

It's obvious in our aprartment. The only debt we carry is my student loans, which make sense to carry when ithe laosn are subsidized loans whose effective interest rate is 0%. Inflation adjustments push income up while the loan balance remains constant; a smaller percentage of income is then needed for the loan. Otherwise, my wife and I take what would be the cable bill, cell phone bill, car payment, the difference between food at Aldi and Giant, and countless little unnecessary things, and put it in the bank. (Not the bank, actually. Their interest rates suck. It goes to a private nonprofit investment company's money market fund and into a Roth IRA.) Point is, rather than breaking even, or the even more common scenario among people I know my age of debt, we have a surplus.

Save your pennies, people. It's worth your time.

06 January 2006


Why does The Brady Bunch theme song emphasize Cindy's curls when, in fact, each of the men in the family has his own hair with magnitudes more curls?

I Hate Visual C++

I really do.

Why? Because it sits here on my PC desktop saying "Use me! Use me!" but when I do I then have to make annoying little changes to codes to get them to compile in g++, so many that I just give up and don't make the changes and therefore I get a lot less done. I could be running these 8 hour simulations in multiples on servers or grids or clusters or something, where they would be slower but in such quantioty as to outweigh that detail. But no. I run them on my sissy little PC because it's a pain in my rear to sit at home and pass files back and forth until they, horror above all, actually comply with the C++ standards.

Did I mention that I hate visual C++?

The good thing is that I have a cuddly baby computer on my office desk from which it is much easier to mess around. I just am not there at all hours of the day to babysit it. Perhaps I should just live there instead of here. Either that or I could just beat myself with a spikey club until I start using g++ here. Not like I don't have Cygwin sitting around busy all the time or anything.

[Update: I just tried to use Cygwin and I remembered my problem. Notepad sucks. Off to get EditPad.]

04 January 2006


An interesting article about online encyclopedias.

From the article:

"But in mid-December, Wikipedia won an endorsement from a prominent source. An analysis conducted by the journal Nature showed that, on scientific topics, an average Wikipedia article had about four 'inaccuracies' (factual errors, critical omissions, or misleading statements), compared with about three inaccuracies per article in the Encyclopedia Britannica. The similarity in quality seemed remarkable given that Wikipedia is thought to be written by thousands of 'amateur' enthusiasts and Britannica by carefully chosen-- and paid-- experts."

Not too much of a surprise for social functionalists, but probably a surprise to a lot of those who have been swept up in the American Love Affair With The Expert.

I'll point out, for those of you who don't know it, that the Christian Science Monitor is not a newspaper devoted to scientists who are Christians. Rather, it is published by the First Church of Christ, Scientist, headquartered in Boston. I personally find their religious beliefs to be a warped bastardization of Christianity, but their newspaper, which is not a religious bulliten but a real journalistic endeavour, is nonetheless top notch. More here.


My web page has a new picture of me.

Besides you lot, I hope that all potential employers check it out.

03 January 2006

Things My Wife Didn't Want to Hear

While she was trying not to throw up, the following words drifted out of the kitchen to haunt her:

"It smells a little like corn in here."

"There was some mucous down on this end."

"It's sort of like tripe."

"I found it's pyloric valve!" (This was, by the way, the place with the mucous.)

"I'm not disturbing you, am I?"

"It's a little more slippery on this end."

"Hey, it really did eat corn! I won't tell you how I figured that out."

"The thin bits on this end are harder to get off."

"I think I'll cut off the valve, since I just can't get the linings off."

"All done. Now it's basically like a bag shaped sausage."

"At least you didn't look close and see the little holes where the acid comes out."

All of this, of course, comes when one is cleaning out a pig stomach. It's soaking in some salt water now, and tonight I will line it with bacon, stuff it with onion, potato, and smoked sausage (cabbage sux), sew it closed, poke a few holes in it, and bake it until it's crispy.

Happy New Year.

Blogger Is Hungry

Why did blogger eat the last two paragraphs of my last post? Why did it leave little tail and fuse it to where it cut things off in the middle of the previous paragraph? Why did this happen overnight? It was in fine shape when I made the post and checked it.

This is only about the tenth time that this has happened to me, and this is the biggest screw up yet. I'm considering finding a more reliable blog service.

And sometime I'll rewrite the end of the last post (unless one of you has it, in which case you could send it to me, but I'd still rewrite it because the tinkering is never done).

Society is Complicated

[warning! draft with really bad typos! I may have left a lot of them! And I had to reconstruct some of it, too, which makes me really unhappy because it's nothing as nice as the original.]

This is taken as a given. Unfortunately, people don't seem to ever try to go deeper or to fix this problem, or explain why it doesn't need fixing.

The complexity is, in short, my fascination with the social sciences. The thing that makes most scientists cringe, because social systems are often too complex to quantify or experiment upon so that we can find a complete picture, and humanists snort, because there's no reason to rob us all of the rich experiences of life by analysing them when we'll never get the complete picture that way, is exactly what draws me to the area. We can span the micro to macro levels with all of my examples.

From day to day I get annoyed at social convention. People get annoyed at me because I don't follow it. The examples are many.

If I go to someone's house and they serve me a spaghetti dinner and then ask me if I enjoyed it, I will say no. I passionately hate spaghetti. Yet this reason is not an excuse to say that I didn't like the meal; making this honest and subjective statement is considered rude. The Southerner in my life (my wife) says to tell them "It was good spahghetti" because then I can make the person happy and not lie. I frankly don't see it that way because I hate all spaghetti and am therefore in no place to honestly say what spaghetti is good and what spaghetti is not good.

If someone comes to my house and asks if I enjoyed their visit, I will sometimes say that I didn't. This always get taken way too personally. There is a lot to a visit, like whether it happened at a good time and whether the interactions were enjoyable. People who hear this, though, always seem to take it to the heart-- I didn't like the visit becuase I don't like the person, and any other reasons I may have are just backpeddling to cover up my rudeness. Well, the reasons should cover up the rudeness, if we were rational people who realize that there is more to liking someone's visit than whether you like the person, but it's not backpeddling at all if the reasons given really were the subject of analysis to make the original decision. But we're not rational people and so we're expected to always be happy with a visit, just like we're always supposed to be happy with being served foods that we do not enjoy.

I find this all very bizarre. My wife points out that my lack of understanding these kinds of conventions is what drives people away from me. People like me just fine; beign tall and gentle voiced and hirsute (and probably quite sexy, but I'm not gay enough to know) I'm in a position to be Everyone's Favorite Teddy Bear. So why do I have few friends? Because I do things like make sarcastic comments, flame people on the internet, and so on. Almost all of these events happen over violations of some sort of social protocol that I miss because my mind just never thinks the way it supposedly should, and once they happen they stand between me and people who would otherwise find me to be their cuddly pal.

The way that most Trekkies would put these micro-level situations is probably along the lines of "This is also why Spock and Data don't get any." Neither do Trekkies, in general, but that sort of inbreeding is another matter. My wife and a few other people do a great job pointing out to me how to follow social protocol, especially after really bad displays of knotheaded twitwittery, but performing these tasks still mystifies me. Even worse, it takes lot of academic research to get insight into such things as where social codes of conduct come from and why we should follow them and in what situations it is moral to ignore them and so on and so on.

On a higher scale, I've often been interested in small group dynamics, both organizational and circles of friends. How does a small group, like a small business, find people who can fill needed roles? What should a service provider do with an employee who only works marginally well? How should a store owner handle two perfectly good employees who hate each other, given that productivity goes way down when 50% of your on-duty staff is bickering but neither wants to change shifts? What kinds of critical masses of various sorts of people, from Chinese graduate students to single young adults in a church, does a group need in order for self assembly to become and aid in maintaining the group integrety, and how do other factors like lifestyle play in? How do gatherings of youth become riots? Why do the youths gather? In what similar ways do adults gather? Hwo do people of any age become friends? What roles does trust play in friendship? Can men and women be friends without sex getting in the way? Can married people be friends with single people? What types of friendships exist? How do family relations compare to frienships? Can closed markets be efficient? And so on.

On an even bigger scale, I have many things on my mind, and I won't bore you with the details. Traffic is among them. How does it move and what can we do to make it move better? How relavent is nationalism? Why, given the principles of supply and demand, is fixed pricing more prevalent than the double auction? When do economies require rationality to improve and when does rationality hurt them? When does rationality equal selfishness? What about the same for governments? Why do democracies work? Why don't they work? Why do monarchies work? Why don't they work? What scaling can we find in economies or cultures? How do we deal with the reality of a culture that we dislike while implicitly maintaining it? How does dissent and violence induce change? Which clasically gives a better explanation of change, functionalism or conflict theory, and why are they both incomplete in every case? How do we fill them in? And what is the place of the individual? As I said, I could go on and on and on.

For those of you who don't like social sciences, I recommend James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds. Along with helping to explain why, given the stupidity of the average person that almost everyone agrees upon, societies and economies work and don't work, it is a real masterpiece of the breadth and relevance of social sciences. From traffic to markets to cultures, this book is a treasure trove of topics social scientific. I think that it would be an excellent part of, say, a seminar for high school or college students thinking of majoring in a social science. And I think that every hard scientist should read it, just to get an appreciation, albeit quite simplified, for what the social scientists do.

It's easy to approach it with the wrong attitude, though, as is any book. For example, the book opens with Galton's classic ox weighing observations. Nearly 800 people at a fair in England joined a raffle and guessed the weight of meat that would come from an ox after dressing and butchering. They came from all levels of livestock experience, with little experience being quite prominent. The result? The average guess was only one pound (<0.1%) off from the real final result.

I've often heard Galton's work offhandedly dismissed. Random numbers fluctuate around the mean, I've heard. That's nice. Now, can you you tell me why these non-random but somewhat arbitrary numbers have generated such an accurate mean to fluctuate around? (Why people think that gaussian distributations can explain more than just data that follows gaussian distributions is another matter.) Galton was just lucky, I've also heard, and numbers that accurate coming out of people's guesses are not common. Then why does this averaging work well for the common candy-in-a-jar party game? Because people can see the candy? Then why does it also work for pinatas?

It's easy for people to dismiss the work of social scientists without understanding it. That's the wrong attitude. Sometimes it comes form the fact that we tend to put down fields of study that are not our own or not to our liking. Scientists want to study systems where they think they can get a more complete picture, for example, and so dismiss some other fields of research as invalid not because they really are invalid but because they don't fit a certain box. Also, it's easy to miss the main focus of the work. Because of the complexity of the systems, social sciences are rich in arguments and explanations. These, more than anything tabulated as the results of the work, are the results of the work. For example, someone outside the social sciences will bah-humbug the fact that soemone took, say, ten pages to tell us that people who don't like each other avoid talking to one another, and will usually say that such a result is obvious. Someone more patient will realize that the result is not obvious and most of the ten pages are dedicated to precisely that.

So go read Surowiecki's book. It's good. And remember, society is complicated.

Willy Wonka Woes

Dear Friends,

With last year's appearance of the new film of involving Willy Wonka, I have been woefully troubled by the number of contradictory statements that I get form people about the movies compared to the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

I'm sad about these statements not because I cannot tell whether they are right or wrong. In all cases, the person making the statement is completely confident that what she knows is a correct account of the written storyline and that every other account is wrong. This is a sharp contrast to, for example, Lord of the Rings, where I, fan of the movies but never having not read the books entirely, can sometimes get die-hard fans confused about whether or not they have a correct recollection of the comparison between book and movie. The only thing I can really blame is that maybe people take children's literature just a bit less seriously than "real" literature, and this shows up as taking themselves too seriously when talking about kiddie litter. It is, after all, quite like an Ivory Tower Dweller to think that Children are Worse because their Minds are Small. But I Digress.

One particularly troublesome part for me has been whether geese, from movie one, or squirrels, from movie two, are responsible the downfall of Veruca Salt. I have had a few people tell me that the book has it each way-- some say geese no squirrels, others say squirrels no geese-- and all are certain that they are completely correct. In fact I think they are all wrong and that selfishness is responsible for the downfall of Veruca Salt, but far be it from a science nerd to make such pretentious attempts at literary interpretation. Last time I tried something like that, whilst trying to make trouble in an otherwise boring discussion of the even more boring Madame Bovary, I had a professor tell me that I was being superficial, or trying too hard, or irritating his flaubert (whatever that is), or something, but he hadn't yet finished his Ph.D. so what did he know? It's criminal, really, to have such unqualified instructors. At least I had a free ride that year.

Anyway, if someone out there who has a copy of the book could please look it up the squirrel versus goose question and tell me the answer I would appreciate it. A page number would be nice, since I need to know that you really did look and I don't dirty my own hands with things like pulp fiction. And maybe you could include a short commentary (<100 words) ("<" means "less than") on the relevance that the type of animal has on making one version of the story more realistic?

Thanks awfully,