Monday, March 30, 2009

Kids these days

In the Economics lecture today, two students were spending the whole class on their laptops, browsing Facebook and doing homework for another class.  This was in the big lecture hall; TA's spread out through the room while the professor gives the lecture.

These students were causing a minor disruption for the other students, so at the end of class I called them out.  I was able to read their names off their Facebook accounts, so I said, "[Student Name], who is your TA?"

I was expecting them to be surprised by someone they had never met before calling them out by name like this, but they were not.  They simply answered, as if it was a casual conversation.  They did not seem the slightest bit guilty.  One of them even asked me, after she had answered, "Why do you want to know?"  I answered, "I think that your TA should know you were on Facebook for most of the class."

Neither student seemed to comprehend that they had been caught doing anything wrong.  There was no guilt at all.  It was as if they considered their behavior to be perfectly normal.

Why do they even bother coming to lecture?  They clearly were not listening to anything the professor was saying.  Do they think that they will magically absorb the material by being in the same room?  I guess this kind of thing is based on habits learned in high school, where showing up and not causing to much trouble was all they needed to do to pass.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Networks and Solitude

This is a good, well-balanced article, and comments about it have been circulating:

The End of Solitude

Some people simplify this issue too much and make the conclusion that a networked society is new, strange, and bad. The fact is that being constantly connected to a close-knit tribe is the default state of humanity. Solitude and Introspection are modern inventions. I think that they are very valuable, but I recognize that they are the exception, not the rule.

I like the insight that 'boredom' is a negative emotion that is cultivated, not natural.  Having nothing to do is a blessing, not a curse, and people who have not been exposed to modern civilization have no need to fill their idle time with some kind of activity.  They just sit around happily doing nothing.  Too much idleness can be bad, but the optimal amount is not zero.

It does worry me that there are people who cannot abide being alone.  Being constantly surrounded by a social group does bad things to your ability to think.  Too much solitude can be bad, but as with idleness the optimal amount is certainly not zero.

Friday, March 27, 2009

You might be a Paladin if...

you follow a code of ethics that features the words 'defend' or 'protect'.
you believe that citizens have a right to be well-armed.
you make moral judgments about people based on how they use and maintain their weapons.
you believe that people have a duty to defend themselves.
you believe that weapons training or martial arts makes you more ethical.
you believe that moral philosophy makes you a better fighter.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Quote for the day

'Nothing in life is quite as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it'

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Great Post

Read This.

I have one or two minor quibbles with what she says, but otherwise it is very close to what I believe, and what I think everyone needs to hear.

"People do not act rationally at all times. ... If your vision depends on them doing so even most of the time, your idea is in trouble."

People do a lot of stupid stuff.  But when they pay the costs of their own actions, they quickly learn to adjust their behavior.  After a few feedback loops, people will act in a way that is very close to rational, if 'rational' is defined as 'getting the most personal benefit for the least personal cost'.  If you think that someone is consistently acting irrationally, it probably just means that the two of you value different things.

"Freedom for other people invariably and inevitably means discomfort for you- physical, emotional, and moral."

I disagree.  I am not sure exactly what she means.  It is almost impossible to make me uncomfortable without actually attacking me physically or destroying my property.  Perhaps I simply have a high tolerance for strangeness and chaos.  But it seems to me that a tolerance for the actions of others is a basic necessity when living in a civilization.  If you can be made uncomfortable by things that have no impact on your life, or that can be avoided with minimal effort, then you need to re-evaluate how you view the world.

Tribalism

This article talks about how all hints of racism disappear when people are assigned to a group together.  This shows that the real problem is tribalism, and that racism is a small subset of that problem, one that can be eliminated fairly easily.

People are naturally hostile to anyone that they perceive as being foreign.  But one of the best things about the modern world is that our concept if 'non-foreign' has expanded dramatically.  In the ancient past, anyone outside your tribe of about 150 people was considered worthless, and you could do anything to them without any moral penalties from the group.

There are still places in the world where people think like this.  But the remarkable thing about modern, developed countries is that even the most backward racist bigots will consider a vast number of people to be non-foreign.  The impulse to consider outsiders less than human has been confined to others who have some obvious physical difference, with everyone of the same race being a non-foreigner by default.

Of course, the tribalism instinct is so pervasive that it often finds new outlets, even if people are trained to ignore color.  Political affiliation and ideology often activate tribalism, with those who think differently automatically being seen as less than human.

We have made great progress in weakening the tribalism instinct.  But we will never eliminate it completely unless we continue to attack it directly.  Focusing on only one manifestation will simply cause the problem to mutate and reappear in some other form.

Friday, March 20, 2009

'Chinese' Food

Some time ago, we all went to a local Chinese buffet on the recommendation of our pastor, who said it was a good place to get sushi.

The first thing I noticed when I stepped into the restaurant was that it was full of Mexican families.  About half of the customers were speaking Spanish, and I heard a lot of little kids babbling happily.

The restaurant had made a couple of menu adjustments to cater to this clientele.  There were Chinese tacos and tortillas on the buffet.  The tacos were basically chicken stir fry in a taco shell, and the tortillas were basically Chop Suey with lots of sauce between tortilla shells.  Both of them were good.

Also on the menu were apple pie, peach cobbler, pizza, and the kinds of simple meats and vegetables you might expect to find in a traditional Southern buffet. (This is actually the mainstay of traditional Chinese food from the northern and central parts of China.)  And of course, sushi is Japanese.

So the 'Chinese' restaurant ended up selling a combination of Mexican, Japanese, Italian, European, and Southern American food, in addition to food from all of the regions of China.  If this trend continues, 'Chinese' buffet restaurants will end up selling popular foods from all over the world.

This actually makes sense.  The Chinese have always been traders, and their culture readily incorporates outside influences.  They are the natural people to create these kinds of fusion dining experiences.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Monkey Flossing

Apparently monkeys have better oral hygiene than most people.

If this report is verified, it would be an impressive example of animal learning.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Soviet Army

From a BBC article talking about Russian soldiers who remained in Afghanistan:

"Alexander deserted his unit to escape the brutality of his Russian officers. ... he remembered his walk into the darkness one night, believing he faced certain death.  The Russians had warned - anyone who surrendered would be tortured by the mujahideen.  But instead they took him in. He eventually converted to Islam and fought his former Russian comrades."

Why were we ever afraid of this military machine?  Their soldiers hated them so much that they were willing to leave and go to what they thought was certain death at the hands of savages.  If they ever tried to invade Germany, we could have caused mass desertions simply by dropping leaflets.

Production and Crisis

I apologize in advance for the length and lack of structure of this thing.  It is kind of a ramble:

For almost 150 years now, people have been criticizing the capitalist system for producing too much stuff but not distributing it fairly.  This is not usually an accurate or coherent analysis, but it does contain a hint of truth.  Any change in production capability will cause society to be disrupted, as people try to adjust to the new reality.

In some ways, the current financial crisis can be traced to people producing more wealth than they know what to do with.  I believe that the acceleration of technological progress and production efficiency will continue to cause disruptions in the future.  Society will continue to struggle with the effects of the mountain of stuff that is being produced at an accelerating rate.

Business cycles were originally blamed on factories producing too much stuff for the market to bear, and then cutting production and laying people off when the demand for the goods decreased.  This is not the true cause of business cycles, but it is true that people have a habit of making economic fluctuations worse by spending more money in good times and cutting back excessively when things turn bad.  They increase consumption when they feel rich, and if something makes them feel poor, they suddenly realize that they were spending money on things that they didn't really need.

However, the roots of the current mess lay in a group of people who did not make that mistake.  For the past decade or so, the people of China and other countries in Asia, as well as raw materials exporters, have been saving a lot of money as their economies were booming.  For the raw materials exporters, this was entirely rational; they were saving for a future where the value of their exports would be lower.  But for the growing economies, it seems to be a puzzle.  Everyone expects that the Chinese will be richer in the future.  They should theoretically be borrowing money against their future income and spending it today.

The high savings rate of Chinese is not fully explained, but part of the reason is that they live under a lot of uncertainty and do not have the ability to purchase reliable insurance.  While the Chinese on average will be richer in the future, any individual person could easily face some crisis, like a medical emergency, that demands lots of cash on hand.  And since they already feel a lot richer than their parents, and are living what they think is a lifestyle of luxury*, they don't feel the need to spend more money today.

But the Chinese don't have a reliable financial system to process all of these savings.  In a rational world, Chinese savers would loan money to Chinese entrepreneurs in order to finance a new, more productive, business.  But this would require a reliable system of courts and regulation, to make people feel that their money was safe.  China doesn't have that, so the Chinese savers sent their money to a country that, historically, had offered save and reliable returns on investment: the USA.

In a rational world, this money would have been used to invest in research or technology or projects that would make more wealth in the future.  But for a variety of reasons that I don't fully understand, American businesses did not do this.  There were some new entrepreneurs and some useful projects, but the money required for these was less than the money available.  So our financial system needed to find a place to park all of that spare cash, while earning a decent rate of return.

The result was a speculative bubble in real estate, as foreign money flowed into our housing market.  This is not a productive investment.  The Chinese money ended up getting spent by American consumers on houses, or consumer goods bought with home equity loans.  American consumers should have been saving money; all reliable predictions show that our income relative to the rest of the world will decline in the future.  But they just kept spending, aided by societal institutions that encourage more consumption and financial institutions that treated consumer credit as safe.

In short, the Chinese started to make lots of stuff, leaving them with more money than they knew what to do with, and that money ended up in American pockets.  Poor people saved money, and rich people spent it.  Much of that money was spent on the stuff the poor people were producing.  This was not sustainable.  It may be coincidence, but the financial crisis hit shortly after the average savings rate of American households dropped to zero.  This post shows the correlation between debt and depression; it is not proof of causation but it shows that too much debt is associated with bad things.

This is one reason is why a lot of socialists say that we do not have a problem with production; we have a problem with distribution.  Today, there are idle factories and unemployed people, resources going to waste because people are unwilling or unable to purchase the things that they are designed or trained to produce.  But at the same time, there are billions of people all over the world who lack the basic tools needed to live a healthy life.  We have the unused ability to make a mountain of stuff, but people are dying for lack of that kind of stuff.

I am surprised that no politician has suggested using government money to purchase pickup trucks and ship them to farmers or aid organizations in the third world.  That would be much less of a waste of money than some stimulus projects that got funding, and it would be almost impossible to oppose politically.  It would prop up the automakers while helping people who are much poorer than we will ever be.

That would not be a long-run solution.  It seems that the world has too many automobile factories.  Some of them should go away, preferably the ones that are least efficient and worst managed.  In the long run, the only way to fix the problem is to put our resources to new uses, providing stuff that improves people's quality of life.

I don't have any easy answers.  In times like this, we have to decide between the short run and the long run, and the short run usually wins.  The time to invest in the long run is when things are going well, but we wasted the boom years on unsustainable, short-sighted consumption instead of investing in the future.

*A Chinese 'sweatshop' worker will usually have more disposable income than his or her entire family back on the farm, while working in more comfortable conditions.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Chaos

People don't understand how chaotic and unpredictable the world is.

Suppose you made an absolutely perfect copy of our world, with every single subatomic particle having the exact same location and velocity.  Most people think that these two worlds would continue on the same path.  They would not.  I am quite sure that, within one minute, there would be a human being who is alive on one of the worlds and dead on another. 

The difference would come from quantum mechanical effects in the human brain.  We know that the behavior of subatomic particles is random.  If an electron moves one way instead of the other, it could mean the difference between a neuron firing and staying silent.  That one neuron could mean the difference between someone successfully avoiding an accident and getting killed in one.  There are millions of events every minute that could be pushed in one direction or another by a tiny change in the operation of someone's brain.

It doesn't even have to be a human brain.  Quantum mechanical randomness could change the action of a mosquito or flea, making the difference between someone getting a deadly disease or not being bitten.

Within a year, there would be a noticeable difference in the life of everyone on the planet.  Within a decade, the two worlds would be almost completely different.

Good Thoughts

"Most people (ironically those deemed psychologically healthy) have an optimistic bias and generally assign too high odds of things working out well.  The mildly depressed make more accurate assessments. I have often wondered which way the causality runs: do they make better assessments BECAUSE their unhappy state strips away the rose-colored filter, or are they mildly depressed because they keep giving more realistic assessments, which makes them a drag to be around, and they are depressed because they encounter social rejection?"

from Yves Smith  (No reason to read the thing unless you are interested in finance and/or chaos theory.)

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Brazilian Taliban

Here is some proof that religious idiocy is not limited to the middle east:

"A Brazilian archbishop says all those who helped a child rape victim secure an abortion are to be excommunicated from the Catholic Church. The girl, aged nine, who lives in the north-eastern state of Pernambuco, became pregnant with twins. It is alleged that she had been sexually assaulted over a number of years by her stepfather. The excommunication applies to the child's mother and the doctors involved in the procedure."

Anyone with any sense knows that an attempt to carry the pregnancy to term would have caused the girl to die horribly, while failing to save the babies.

Note that there is no mention of the rapist being excommunicated.

Update:
The rot is not confined to South America. The Vatican supports their position. Somebody needs to read what is written in Luke 10:25-37.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Funny Link

I liked the writing style of this post.

Note that Kang and Kodos are theyr dogs, and Zydeco is the cat.

Stage Presence

One of the students in my class is an actor.  He is certainly suited for it.  He is friendly, outgoing, and energetic.  His attitude is generally somewhere between ebullient and flamboyant.  Basically, he always has excellent stage presence.  He has a way of drawing attention to himself and making you remember him.  This is mostly a matter of movement and attitude.  As far as I can tell*, he is not much more attractive or handsome than the average healthy college student.

I had assumed that this was something he did on purpose, and I was always slightly suspicious that he was manipulating me in an attempt to get better grades.  But I am beginning to think that this quality is simply a natural part of him.  During the exam today, he was clearly not trying to attract any attention to himself.  He, like all the other students, was puzzling through the problems.  Like the other students, he would sometimes do things like scratch his chin, stare off into space trying to remember things, and so on.

But whenever he moved, he drew attention to himself.  Whenever he looked up, it seemed for an instant that he was looking at me in order to ask a question.  Whenever he moved his hand, it seemed for an instant he was trying to call me over to ask a question.  All of his movements had some kind of natural attention-grabbing quality.  I am not sure why this is.  It is true that his movements and gestures tend to be a bit larger and faster than most people's, but that cannot be the full explanation.

The only word that can describe this is 'charisma'.  Through some combination of innate talent and training, the ability to draw attention to himself is something that is always a part of him.  It is just there, defying explanation.  Almost every successful actor and performer has this mysterious skill, but you don't notice how strange and unusual is is it until you see them doing something normal in a crowd full of normal people.

*I am incredibly bad at determining how 'attractive' a person of either gender is.  I can't see any difference between Tom Cruise and Peter Lorre.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Future Shock 3

Cyborgs are one of the many things that I expect to exist in the future.  But I always assumed it would take several decades for the technology to be developed.

The technology exists today.  Scientists can run a wire into a mouse's head that will make it run around in a circle.  They can put a device on a person's head that will make that person move his arms involuntarily.  The technology is easy to build and easy to use, and they are willing and able to release this technology to the general public in the very near future. 

We already have therapists using electromagnetic blasts to treat depression and other mental conditions.  Garage inventors and tinkerers will soon have access to this tech.  If you know anything about the open source tinkering community, you know to expect a lot of innovation.  This will be big, and it will be scary, and it will be happening soon.

Read these two articles for more:
First Part
Second Part


Monday, March 2, 2009

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Random thoughts: Assassination

Judges 3:15-23 tells the story of Ehud, who freed Israel from the Moabites by killing their king.  The story tells of the assassination in detail.  Ehud was left-handed, and concealed an eighteen-inch blade on his right thigh.  He then asked told the king that he had a 'secret message' and the king sent his bodyguards away.  Ehud then stabbed the king and made his escape.

It never explicitly said that they looked for weapons on his left hip, where most people keep a sword, but the assumption is that they would.  This story is often used as an example of how people can accomplish things because they are different.  "The guards didn't see a wepon on his left hip, and never imagined that someone would conceal a weapon somewhere else, so they trusted him alone with the king.  Yay lefties."

I know that left-handed people were much rarer in antiquity than they are today, but the behavior of the king and his guards is still idiotic according to that theory.  It doesn't take very much training to learn how to use a blade in your off-hand.  Any right-handed person capable of using a sword could pull off this stunt after practicing for a few hours at most.

Even if you were completely incapable of using your left hand, there are at least two ways to draw an eighteen-inch blade from your right hip with your right hand.  You can pull it out so the blade is pointing to the ground, and stab downwards.  Or you can twist your hand upside down when you draw it, and then flip it forward so you are holding the blade normally.

I know they didn't have any kind of advanced combat training in biblical Judea, but surely the budyguards of a successful king would have known about these kind of basic blade stunts.  I'm guessing that the real reason Ehud got in was because of attitude and psychological manipulation.  It is clear from the story that he was good at deception.  He probably just didn't look like a threat, so they didn't bother to look closely.

That hasn't changed in the last three thousand years.  Good cops and securuty guards read people by their attitude.  It is pracically impossible to scan a crowd for concealed weapons, but law enforcement professionals can easily spot the person who looks tense, nervous, or excited.  If you keep your cool, they don't bother you.

Loaded Word

This is a dramatic demonstration of why you have to be careful about surveys.  I applaud Gallup for providing such a clear example of how easy it is to influenced opinions.

I would guess that the true opinion is that people do support government takeovers.  'Nationalization' is one of those loaded words that people instinctively oppose.