Tuesday, April 28, 2009

History Lesson

Knowing history is a great antidote to pessimism, panic, or gloomy thoughts.  It may seem that today's problems are new and strange, but if you know history you know we've been here before.  Civilization has survived much worse.  No matter what hits us, I am confident that we will find a way to deal with it.

Flu Analysis

This is a good analysis of influenza, from a biologist.  The main point of the message is 'Don't Panic'.

Man Versus Machine: Jeopardy

IBM is getting bold.

This would be a big step forward for AI, way bigger than winning a chess game.  It will be interesting to see what happens.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Unique Apartment

I renewed the lease on my apartment today.  In the process, I have learned that I am one of only two people paying $225 a month; everyone else gets charged more.  I can't figure out why my apartment is cheaper; I like it much better than other apartments in the same building that I have seen.  Most places have a large combination living room and kitchen, and a smaller bedroom in the back.  I have a kitchen and a bedroom tucked in the side of the building.  There are four stairs between the two rooms; the odd split-level design of the apartment was obviously mandated by the space that it could fit in.

I guess that this oddity is responsible for the lower price, but I like it.  I like the uniqueness of the design, and the stairs make it seem bigger.  I like having a full kitchen instead of a room that is half carpet and half linoleum.  I like the way that I do not have any doors close to my door.

I am also fairly sure that the rent will not go up as long as I am staying there.  There is a big sign out front that says "Apartments from $225".  If they increased the rent to the two of us in the cheap places, they would have to change the sign.  I am basically living in an advertising gimmick.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Suicide Prevention Method

from this post

"Kevin Briggs, a friendly, sandy-haired motorcycle patrolman, has a knack for spotting jumpers and talking them back from the edge; he has coaxed in more than two hundred potential jumpers without losing one over the side."

I suspect that the number is inflated; not all of them would have actually jumped.  But that's still an excellent record.  How does he do it?

"He starts talking to a potential jumper by asking, "How are you feeling today?" Then, "What's your plan for tomorrow?" If the person doesn't have a plan, Briggs says, "Well, let's make one. If it doesn't work out, you can always come back here later.""

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Placebo research and Anxiety

This is a fascinating study.  It shows a subtlety to the placebo effect.  They gave people with insomnia a placebo, but told them it was either an upper or downer:

"The insomnia patients taking the 'relaxation' pills slept really badly, and the patients taking the 'arousal' pills slept much better.

What seemed to be happening was that patients taking 'uppers', normally trapped in a cycle of anxious self-monitoring, could attribute any arousal they had to the pill. Any sign of feeling wired wasn't them, it was the pill, so they could relax and fell asleep easily.

In contrast, those who had taken the 'downers' thought that any arousal must be their insomnia causing them problems, and it must be really bad, because it was getting to them despite the supposed sleeping pill they'd taken. In other words, they were freaking out because they couldn't sleep despite the 'medication'."

The general message is that anxiety causes all kinds of problems, and that anxiety often comes from an improper view of control.  If you think you are, or need to be, responsible for everything, you will freak out.  But if you accept the situation, and understand the effect of outside factors, you can be more relaxed, and you will end up doing better.

Baseball and Divorce

This is wierd.  Someone did research that claims to show that having a major league baseball team in your city lowers the divorce rate.

I suspect, but cannot prove, that the research is flawed.  Correlation is not causation.  The study looked at cities that acquired a baseball team, and looked at divorce rates before and after the acquisition.  I am fairly sure that the lower divorce rates and the team acquisition are both symptoms of a common cause: increased wealth and prosperity.

Paranoia and Hypocrisy

China is planning on acquiring a blue-water navy, with aircraft carriers.  For some reason, people are making a big deal about this.  The general attitude seems to be that China does not need a navy, should not have a navy, and is causing problems with their desire to have a navy.

"Admiral Gary Roughead, the American navy's highest-ranking officer, told reporters in Qingdao that "it may cause concern" among navies in the region if China failed to make clear how it planned to use a carrier."

from this article

The USA has, at the moment, eleven carrier strike groups.  Any one of them is capable of annihilating the entire military force of any small or medium sized country in the world, and then blowing up any target in that country, even without using the nuclear weapons that they all have packed away in reserve.  We have never been asked to explain to anybody how we plan to use them.  The world knows that we will use them for whatever we feel like doing.  This is the accepted order of affairs.  We take it for granted.  If anyone ever hinted that we had a duty to explain our reasons for keeping them, we would laugh in their face.

This is the kind of thing that makes people resent America.  We spend more on our military than the rest of the world put together, and our money is, believe it or not, spent more effectively than almost everybody else's.  ( We have lots of lethal hardware and force projection capability, while most country's military budgets are sunk into salaries and benefits for a lot of infantry that can't really reach out and touch anything. )  We act as if overwhelming power is our natural right.  And yet, we complain and moan and fret when China invests in a navy that, frankly, it makes sense for them to have.

We are not the only ones who have carriers to throw around as we please.  Our NATO allies have about five full-power carrier battle groups, any one of which could probably erase the entire Chinese navy.  India has an aircraft carrier, and is planning on getting two more.  Brazil and Thailand each have an aircraft carrier.  The Russians still keep a carrier around.  If the world accepts that the latter countries have the right to sail a carrier around, why not China?

We currently possess the ability to park a massive fleet off China's coast, and there is nothing they could do to stop it with conventional weapons.  Meanwhile, there is no way that China's one little carrier could cause any serious threat to our country.  It is not a problem for us. us.  We shouldn't care.  We have no right to interfere.  The Chinese have a right to a navy.  They are a sovereign country, and they have the right to maintain the military force to protect their interests.

The rest of the world doesn't really trust us, but they have to live with our casual possession and use of power.  If we get so paranoid about one Chinese aircraft carrier, imagine how they must feel about our navy.  If you are scared of what China might do with military power, imagine how scared the Chinese are about our possible use of military power.

If we were actually using our navy to keep the world's oceans safe, the way the British did 200 years ago, then we might actually have some right to complain.  But we aren't.  The Chinese have a lot of ships sailing around, and they need those ships.  Without access to safe marine transportation, China's economy would implode.  Recent events have shown that these ships are not being protected by anyone.  ( Sometimes they don't need protection.  The Chinese sailors have a fighting spirit.  As far as I know, of all the ships that have been attacked by pirates, the only ones that have successfully fought off the pirates had crews that were either American or Chinese. )

If the USA and our European allies fail to protect the world's shipping from pirates, then someone else will step up to do that job.  I wouldn't be surprised if that someone turns out to be China.  A part of me would love to see the Chinese sail a carrier strike group into the Somali pirate port of Eyl, lay waste to the entire place, and liberate all the ships being held for ransom.  Maybe we've gotten too soft to do what needs to be done, and someone more ruthless is what the situation needs.  I've talked about this kind of thing before.

This may sound crazy, but I think that the rise of China as a serious world power will be good for the USA.  I honestly think that the last 20 years of being the global hyperpower have been bad for us.  Power corrupts.  Monopolies become lazy and inefficient.  Clearly I don't want the Cold War back, with two mortal enemies staring at each other with a hand on the nuclear launch button.  But I don't think that will happen.  The Chinese are motivated mainly by wealth, not ideology.  In some ways they are more Capitalist than we are.  The world might be a better place if we engaged in a round of amiable competition, as between Wal-Mart and Target, for influence in the world.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Choice Blindness

Scientific proof that, in many situations, human beings are fundamentally incapable of knowing and/or telling the truth about the world around them:

"...We showed our volunteers pairs of pictures of faces and asked them to choose the most attractive. In some trials, immediately after they made their choice, we asked people to explain the reasons behind their choices.  Unknown to them, we sometimes used a double-card magic trick to covertly exchange one face for the other so they ended up with the face they did not choose. Common sense dictates that all of us would notice such a big change in the outcome of a choice. But the result showed that in 75 per cent of the trials our participants were blind to the mismatch, even offering "reasons" for their "choice"."

There are lots of experiments like this.  People were unable to tell the difference between something they chose, and a replacement.  Then they made up stories about why they chose the thing that was randomly presented to them.

Full Article

Researchers are finding these kinds of things all the time.  But it does not make me cynical or dismissive of humanity.  It actually increases my empathy and tolerance.  Confabulation is not a deliberate evil, it is an honest mistake.  Our brains are, quite simply, built to tell stories about the world around us, even in the absence of facts.  It is unfair to expect people to consistently do things that their brains are not meant to handle.  Remembering actual facts of the world, rather than a made-up narrative, is one of those things.

But I still believe in progress and self-improvement.  The more we learn about these kinds of things, the better we are able to avoid them and give ourselves better mental processes.

Confusing Primates

A strange thing happened yesterday as I was walking to my car.  I know that I am not able to describe it properly, because it happened so quickly and I don't really know how to interpret it, but I will try:

I was walking down the hill that leads to the parking lot.  As far as I know, I was the only one walking in that area at that time.  A large four-door pickup truck was being driven up the hill.  The driver honked the horn.  My first assumption was that it was someone from Tiger Dojo.  The more gregarious members have a habit of honking at their fellow martial artists whenever they see them.

I looked at the truck, but did not recognize anybody in it.  My blurred impression was of several college-age females* in the truck: the driver, passenger, and at least one in the back seat.  The passenger reached her hand out the window and made the 'victory' sign as she yelled 'woo-hoo'.

This event may have had nothing to do with me.  They could have been reacting to someone or something else that I did not see, or they may have chosen that time at random to celebrate something.  But I had the impression at the time that they were looking at me and that these actions were directed toward me.

Based on my childhood, I generally assume that any strange attention directed at me is motivated by mockery or teasing.  This almost never happens to me now, but old associations take a long time to fade away slowly.  I generally feel that people who draw attention to me are hostile, even though I know intellectually that they are probably not.  So my 'gut feeling' is that these people were making fun of me.

It is also theoretically possible that this was the equivalent of a truckload full of guys honking and yelling at a girl walking by.  It could have been an expression of appreciation or flirting, possibly combined with a need to express a feeling of power.

I will never know which of these possibilities is the truth.  Because there is no information that can be gained from the event, my brain filed it under 'random chaos' and did not attempt to analyze it further.

But I know that I would be able to learn something from this if I had a better understanding of human behavior.  I would have been able to pick up on some subtle cue that would give me a hint about me what they were thinking, and why they were doing what they did.  I know that there are probably dozens of incidents every day that could teach me something about human behavior, if I knew what to look for.  But I don't have the background understanding required to interpret or even notice such events, and so I learn nothing.

Learning requires feedback.  You have to make a guess, and then find out if your guess is right or wrong.  But when you see people doing things, it is almost impossible to get the truth about what motivates their behavior.  You can't ask them.  People habitually lie about their thoughts and actions.  Often they don't even know why they are acting a certain way.  Without a really good frame of reference, it is almost impossible to gain knowledge by observing the behavior of someone that I have never seen before and will never see again.

The only way to really learn about human behavior is to be enmeshed in a close-knit group of people, where you can observe behavior and its consequences over a long period of time.  You also have to hear most of the gossip about their behavior, to tell you about events that you cannot see.  After a few years of that, you would be able to reliably identify behaviors and their motivations.

But I never had that experience.  And since that basic knowledge is required to gain more knowledge, it will be very hard for me to catch up and develop enough knowledge to figure out what people are doing and why they are doing it.

* I never know to describe undergraduate females.  Neither 'girls', 'ladies', nor 'women' seems appropriate, and 'coed' is such an archaic term.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Running 5k

I ran in a 5k (3.1 mile) race on Friday. It was held on campus, part of a special event. Tiger Dojo usually signs up as a group to participate.

My time was about 22:40, which is disgustingly slow for me. I ran a practice three miles in 21:30 the Tuesday before the race. I had been hoping to finish in under 22 minutes.

Part of the reason for the slow time as that the course was hilly and unfamiliar. But most of the reason for my slow time was that I did not really commit to the race. I held back too much energy. Seven minutes after I finished, I had enough energy to race a friend uphill at a sprint.

I did not get any boost or motivation from running with a group of people. I never had the thought that I was actually racing anyone. I am more motivated by constant reminders from a clock. When I am running around a track, I look at the time every quarter of a mile. If my lap time is slower than it should be, I speed up. But I had no such feedback on this race. I was jogging merrily along until I got to the finish at a time much slower than what I could have done.

So while my physical conditioning is better than ever, I seem to have lost the mental conditioning for endurance trials.

Friday, April 17, 2009

'Beyond This Horizon' Review

A couple weeks ago, I read the Heinlein novel 'Beyond This Horizon'.  It was written in 1942, making it one of the first Heinlein novels.

It describes a society that has been using genetic engineering for hundreds of years.  The book does not use the term 'genetic engineering'; that phrase had not been invented yet; but the process it describes is one that allows parents to choose the best combination of traits for their children.  It may be the first book ever to discuss the social consequences of widespread genetic engineering.

It was definitely ahead of its time.  Aside from the genetic engineering, it touches on issues like nihilism and decadence, as well as the traditional Heinlein explorations of the relationship between individuals and society.  It is a good read for anyone who likes the genre, or Heinlein.

But I do have a couple of complaints.  My first complaint about the book is that it reverts to mysticism to solve the problems of the hero and society.  This is depressingly common in Heinlein books, and it ruins a lot of them.  His best works are ones that only feature pure science, and his worst are ones that have a lot of non-scientific nonsense.

My second complaint is more substantial, and leads to a small rant.  This book has the quote 'An armed society is a polite society'.  Heinlein repeats this so often, in various books, that it has almost become accepted as fact.

But it is, in fact, pure and utter hogwash.  The most well-armed society ever known is an infantry unit, and infantry grunts are well-known for being rude and crude, especially to each other.  In my experience, being well-armed, with weapons or martial arts training, always leads to bluntness and honesty, never politeness and formality.

The thing that makes people polite is fear.  People are polite because they fear that bluntness or honesty will cause them to lose something, be it property, life, or social status.  They are afraid of offending someone.  There is nothing inherently good or noble about politeness.  It is simply a tool that helps society function better.  There are other tools that can do the same thing.

In an infantry unit, everyone is armed to the teeth, but they are not afraid of each other.  They know that their brothers in arms will not attack them.  They know that, even if there was a fight, the laws and institutions of the army would punish the aggressor.  In addition, the situations they find themselves in require rapid and honest communication.  People must know their own abilities and weaknesses, and they must be able to communicate without any hesitation.  Nobody has any time to worry about feelings or wounded pride.

Now, it is often true that being surrounded by well-armed people makes one fearful, and therefore polite.  But this is not the natural or desirable state of society.  Any decent society has laws and institutions that punish random aggression.  Any society that allows people to use physical violence to respond to impoliteness or disrespect is broken.  Heinlein seems to encourage and idealize these kinds of societies, and that always bothered me.

Ten Disaster Myths

Good Info here.  I will call attention to one specific thing:

"Myth Number 3: Disasters Affect Us All

Fact: Disasters are neither fair nor blind. Disasters have a strong prejudice against the poor. "I never fought a fire in a rich person's home," a veteran firefighter once told me."

There are two possible explanations for this.

Economic Calculation:  Poor people have fewer possessions, and their house is worth less, so the payoff to investing in fire prevention is smaller.

Social Explanation:  Poor people do not have the ability and/or discipline to prepare for events with a low probability of happening.  They do not understand how their actions affect the chances of disaster.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Situational Authority

Earlier today, as I was in a conference room hearing a talk on a math software package, a lady wearing a reflective orange safety vest, like the ones worn by highway workers or emergency crews, came in and told us to evacuate the building. She said that there had been a leak on the dock. Everyone obeyed her with a minimum of fuss.

As I was leaving the building, I saw someone I recognized. It was a department secretary, also wearing a safety vest. I then realized what the protocol was. All of the secretaries had been issued these orange vests. When the evacuation order was given, they were all to put on a vest and tell everyone to clear out.

From one point of view, it might seem silly to have the secretaries put on those vests. Those vests are designed to make people visible so drivers can see them. But there was no danger of anyone running into the secretaries as they went around the building telling people to clear out.

But if you know anything about psychology, you know that the vests probably made the evacuation go a lot faster. People in our society have an instinct to obey anyone in a uniform. People also make decisions subconsciously, based on visual cues. The vest reminded us of emergency workers, so it both served as a uniform of authority and gave the subconscious impression that there was a serious situation. I can guarantee you than a secretary wearing a reflective safety vest will command much more obedience than one without such a vest. People will be less likely to question her and quicker to obey her. The vest gives her authority, in much the same way that a police uniform would.

The evacuation turned out to be a drill. We got the following email:

University public safety officials report that S--- Hall was evacuated this morning (April 16) in an evaluation exercise. The safety exercise, testing evacuation procedures and efficiency for that building only, began at 9:35 a.m. and ended at 9:45 a.m.

"We evaluated the plan for evacuating this four-story building, which includes classrooms, offices and a few labs, with a 'mock' chemical spill," said University Police Chief J--- L---.

"The exercise went well, thanks to the good work of the campus public safety employees and building security coordinator and the cooperation of the building's occupants."

It was the first time that I had seen these vests. I do not doubt that they were a factor in the test going well. This was a good example in the power of situational cues in general and uniforms in particular.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Family Life Comparisons

This interview has some interesting facts about family life in the USA versus other countries.  Basically, the numbers show that kids in this country have worse family lives than kids in all the other rich countries.

" American children face much more movement of parents and parent-figures in and out of their households than do children anywhere else. Take children who see three different fathers, stepfathers, and/or mother's boyfriends in their homes by the time they are fifteen. The percentage of American children who live with that many partners is 8 percent, which is three times as high as the next highest country (Sweden at 2.6 percent)."

"Take two children, one growing up with married parents in the United States, and one growing up with unmarried parents in Sweden—which child has the higher likelihood of seeing his parents' relationship break up? Answer: the American kid, because children living with married parents in the United States have a higher probability of experiencing a break-up than do children living with unmarried parents in Sweden."

Of course, it is important to remember that these kinds of overall statistics obscure the fact that America is a very diverse place, with a lot of different cultures.  Some parts of this country are basically like Europe, with rich parents and stable lives.  Others are not.  I am reminded of a P.J. O'Rourke quote:  "It is true that In Scandinavia there is no poverty.  But it is also true that in America, among Scandinavians, there is no poverty."

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Error in 'The Economist'

This is either a flat-out error or just bad grammar:

"the weight of the Formicidae family is equal to that of the world's population of humans and accounts for 10% of the biomass of all the creatures on the planet."

from this article

That implies that humans make 10% of the biomass of Earth.  This seemed wrong, so I looked it up.  The estimated biomass of ants ranges from 900 to 9,000 million tons, while the biomass of humans is about 100 million tons.

Now, if you added up humans, livestock, and crop plants, you might get 10% of Earth's biomass.  Crops have a biomass of 2,000 million tons.

You should always have an internal fact-checker on everything you read or hear.  You don't have to memorize a lot of facts, but you should have a feeling for how things relate to each other.  Developing this fact-checker requires that you have a lot of background knowledge, and an ability to notice something that 'seems wrong'.

Test: Unit Analysis

I am running a test.  I would like everyone who reads this post to leave a comment with an answer the following question.

You are planning a vacation in France.  You will be renting a car and driving 500 kilometers.  The rental car gets 35 mpg.  The exchange rate is $1.35 per euro.  Gas in France costs 1.5 euros per liter.  1 mile = 1.61 kilometers.  1 gallon = 3.79 liters.  How much, in dollars, will you spend on gas?

Also, if you don't mind, can you tell me how long it took you to solve?  Thanks.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Rationality versus Intelligence

This is a good article that mirrors some things I have said before.

Harris Dinner

Yesterday night, the Economics department had its yearly formal dinner, the Harris Dinner. They invite all the professors and grad students, some former students, and some honors undergraduate students. They give out awards and listen to a talk from a guest speaker. Last night's speaker was a former chairman of the St. Louis Fed, and he gave a talk about financial regulation and government policy.

The attire is business formal, which means that it is one of the two or three times a year I wear a suit:

This picture shows me with almost everyone in my class. Only two of the second year Ph.D. students were not at the dinner. I am the second from the right.

Professors are allowed unlimited drinks, but students are given two drink tickets. The country club has its own wine label, so I decided to try some. The bartender did not ask me for a ticket. After the dinner, most of us went to a bar, still wearing business formal, to talk and socialize. They did not ask me to show any ID. Clearly I look older in a suit.

The country club wine was okay, and the wine bottle they bought in the bar was the only dry wine I've ever enjoyed, but I don't think I will ever really like anything other than Muscadine wine.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Good Quote

"Wild-eyed fear of the government is as American as baseball, neatly-trimmed lawns, or throwing boxes of tea into harbours."

from a blogger at The Economist

This is a true observation, and the phenomenon seems odd.  Despite the fact that our government is one of the least repressive on the planet, we have a large subculture of people who are extremely paranoid about it.  Other places may have a few anarchists, and people will use fraud against the government in order to avoid taxes and regulations, but they don't have these kinds of people in large numbers.

Perhaps this happens because of our freedom and history.  In most places, the government is, and always has been, a fact of life.  People may complain about it, but they accept it, viewing it like they view the weather.  But this country was explicitly founded on the principle that people who do not like the government have a right and a duty to alter or abolish it, using force if necessary.

'Self Knowledge' Review Part 1

Some time ago, I picked up a pile of fascinating old books at a yard sale.  The yard sale was the possessions of an old woman who had died, and it included many books and textbooks, some of them over a hundred years old.  The book I will be discussing now and for several future blog posts is called 'Self Knowledge and Guide to Sex Instruction: Vital Facts of Life for All Ages'.  It was written by Professor T.W. Shannon in 1913.  The picture on the front cover is a woman in Greco-Roman dress waving a flag that says, 'Purity'.

As you would expect, the book is a fascinating look at a bygone culture.  I had only glanced through it at the first.  The only thing that I really paid attention to was the section on eugenics, and what I saw there caused me to summarily classify the book and its author as 'pure evil'.  I'll be covering that topic in more detail later.

Now I am reading through the whole thing with the eye of a historian or anthropologist.  I am learning a lot about the culture of the time and the beliefs of the author.  I have not finished reading the book yet.  There are so many topics to discuss that it will take several blog posts.

The book starts as a guide for parents on how to teach their kids the facts of life.  The it starts giving advice directly to young people, and then for married people.

The things the author says in the book are divided roughly as follows:  One half of it is good science, good morals, and good advice.  It is, even by the standards of our current society, enlightened and progressive.  One third is mysticism, ignorance, superstition, bad science, and the unquestioned cultural assumptions of the time.  One sixth is brain-bendingly alien, things that nobody today or in traditional cultures would ever say.

This blog post will focus on the positive.  I'll talk about the author's mistakes and flawed logic later.  But I will say right now that I think this book was, at the time it was printed, a very good thing.  It was perhaps the best thing that could have been produced for a popular audience, given the limitations of science and culture at the time.

The author is, even by modern standards, a feminist.  He spends much of the book ranting against the double standard of morals that allow men to be sexually free while demanding sexual purity from women.  He says that men should follow the same standards of alcohol and tobacco consumption that they expect of women.  He believes that women should always decide when to have sex, even when married.  He believes that young women should always have the ability to get a good job and support themselves financially.  He says that the man is always the one at fault whenever a woman gets pregnant outside of marriage.  He explicitly blames the moral failure of men for almost all of society's problems. 

But unlike many feminists, the overall tone of his message is not one of condemnation.  It is one of progress and potential.  A tone of optimism, of building a better society with scientific knowledge and improved morality, permeates the book.  He believes that all men can and should improve their behavior.  The corollary to believing that men are the cause of social problems is that social problems would end if men changed their behavior. 

But he does not believe that women are helpless.  The book has plenty of advice on how women can stay out of trouble and improve their lives.  The advice is almost identical to the advice given to men.  The author wants all people to follow the same standards of moral conduct.  But reaching this ideal state will require a much greater behavior change from men than from women.

It is clear that the author wants to be a good person, that he has made a heroic effort to escape the cognitive chains of his society and culture.  He is guided both by his understanding of 'modern science' and a deep Christian faith that looks directly at the moral teachings of the Bible rather than the prevailing beliefs.

He specifically and repeatedly attacks the religiously inspired hypocritical prudery of the time.  He says that all parents should be willing and able to tell their children the truth about sex, using the proper medical terms.  He blames many of the moral problems of society on the failure of parents to communicate with their children.

This is one of the many times when I learned about the culture of the period by reading his complaints about it.  Many people of the time had a false religious belief that sex and reproduction were inherently evil and should not be talked about.  I already knew this.  But apparently, it was often the case that when a child would ask the question 'Where did I come from?' the child would be punished and told that the question was evil.

The author talks at length about how much damage this punishment will do to the psyche of the child.  He correctly says that any parent who punishes a child for asking an innocent question has wronged the child.  The relationship with the parent will be damaged, and the child will look elsewhere for knowledge.  Given that the only people in that society willing to talk about sex were the low-lifes, the child would learn all the wrong things from the wrong people.

Overall, the author had a surprisingly good understanding of social factors, psychology, and human behavior.  His discussion of how society affects and shapes people is first-rate.  Even as he exhorts people to improve their behavior, he talks about how the conditions of society creates conditions that lead to success or failure in its members.  His discussion of how the society and home environment affects the future of children reminds me of the most cutting-edge research I see in science blogs.

However, his true beliefs about social causality are tied in with false Lamarckian beliefs about inheritance of acquired characteristics.  More on that later.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Imperialism and Social Progress

Recently my blog has been mainly links.  I haven't cut loose with a nice long rant in some time.  But a friend and I were recently discussing the ideals of social progress, and how they relate to 19th century imperialism.  The topic, by coincidence, matches up with my last post.  So here goes:

The conventional wisdom today is that the 19th century Americans, British, and Europeans were just a gang of greedy predators in their relations with the rest of the world.  A lot of them were, but there were a lot of good people who really were trying to make the world better.  And they actually did manage to do a lot of good.  We should learn from this period, and figure out how to copy their successes without making the same mistakes.

They saw that they lived in the best society that the world had ever seen.  By our standards, it was horribly backwards, but they were more intellectually, socially, and financially free than any large-scale society in human history before that time.  It was only natural to try to 'share the wealth' and spread the values and institutions that let them live such good lives.

Slavery, for example, was endemic in almost the entire planet before the British made a deliberate and coordinated attempt to eradicate it.  They mostly succeeded.  They also did a good job of spreading things like independent legal systems and the rule of law.

I know that I am in a minority when I say this, and it goes against everything that most modern academics hold true, but I believe that that some cultures are better than other cultures, and the good cultures should be spread for the benefit of mankind. 

When I say that one way of life is better, it simply means that people choose that way of life over the alternatives.  It is not a judgment from my personal value system, it is an observation of people's actions.  Most people want to live in societies characterized by personal liberty and rule of law.  The people who do not want freedom are usually those few who are currently in a position to unfairly dominate other members of their society.

Yes, the Americans and the Europeans were arrogant.  Yes, they were blinded by their wealth, power, and feelings of superiority.  Yes, those noble ideals were often used as an excuse for exploitation.  But they had the idea that they could make the world a better place, that some things were just wrong and needed to be stopped, and that good people should not tolerate evil and savagery. 

I believe that most people in Western democracies have lost that kind of thinking, and the world is worse because of it.

Of course, it doesn't help my case that a lot of people who think like this today are clumsy fools.  You can't just change someone else's culture with a couple years of military occupation.  People have to see a good culture working properly in order to appreciate it.  We need to fix up our own mess, make ourselves better, and stop sacrificing our ideals for money and short-term political gain.  How can we hope to improve conditions in the Third World when there are pockets of third-world hellishness within the borders of our own country?

But the good news is that, when you look at the big picture, the good cultures are winning.  Almost all of the world pretends to be democratic, and most of the world actually is.  There are less wars and less violence today than at any time in recorded history.  Individuals have more access to information and more ability to make choices.  Corruption is declining.  People are, generally, more tolerant and less xenophobic.  The list of arbitrary social rules that you have to follow is steadily decreasing.  The ability of small powerful cliques to exclude and marginalize people is eroding.  Science is winning its centuries-long battle against superstition. 

That mass of ignorance, primitive mental processes, harmful actions, and lack of general morality that I call 'savagery' is in decline.  But we need to make the process happen faster, and keep guarding against regression.  The current economic mess threatens to bring out the worst in people.  Focus on what will make your society a good place to live, and fight for those ideals.

Social Progress

It seems that we are winning at least one small victory against primitive savagery.  Culture will change, but it takes time.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Solitary Confinement

This article argues that solitary confinement is essentially torture.  You may not agree with it, but it is something that every citizen should know about.  I find it disturbing that the prison officials themselves, one ones in charge of the prisoners who have the knowledge and should be making the decisions, are being interfered with:

"Commissioners are not powerless. They could eliminate prolonged isolation with the stroke of a pen. So, I asked, why haven't they? He told me what happened when he tried to move just one prisoner out of isolation. Legislators called for him to be fired and threatened to withhold basic funding. Corrections officers called members of the crime victim's family and told them that he'd gone soft on crime. Hostile stories appeared in the tabloids. It is pointless for commissioners to act unilaterally, he said, without a change in public opinion."


This is extremely disturbing.  Basically, a gang of Philadelphia narcotics cops arrested a store owner for selling ziplock bags, wrecked his security system, stole a lot of money, and trashed the place.  The man spent time in jail on false charges and ended up losing his business.  This is the kind of thing that you associate with third world countries.  Actually, the situation for this guy is worse.  In third world countries you can bribe the cops in order to get rid of them, but this guy is randomly robbed by agents of the state and there is nothing he can do to stop it.

At least the police involved are being investigated.  But that does not change the fact that an innocent man's life was ruined by arbitrary police power.  This kind of thing seems to be happening more and more frequently, as the drug laws give the police more arbitrary powers.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Health Link

A lot of doctors still prescribe things that do not work.  Here is a discussion, with a list of the most common fallacies.

Quick Link

Tam is a popular blogger due to a great combination of intelligence, wit, and snarkiness.  This post is a good example.

She didn't mention that IBM used to be top dog, before Microsoft kicked them out.    There was even a time when Xerox was a respected and powerful company that owned a tech market.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Great Profile

Our country will be fine as long as we have plenty of people like this guy, and they are free to operate.

Burying your head in the sand

Freakonomics has an interview with someone from Oxford who studies the economy of Africa:


What do you think of Richard Lynn's findings about race differences in intelligence and their relatedness to Africa's continuing state of underdevelopment? In his work, Mr. Lynn compiled the results of numerous studies which appear to show fairly unambiguously that average I.Q.'s in sub-Saharan Africa are below 70. Studies furthermore show that this disadvantage is almost certainly inherited genetically.


I don't know this stuff and don't want to."

I have never seen such a blatant admission of willful ignorance.  He then goes on to make up some stupid story about how intelligence has nothing to do with economic development, in spite of mountains of evidence showing the link between IQ and success in life.

The true irony is that recent research explains why poor people have lower IQ, and why this effect is inherited.  The simple fact is that growing up in stress and poverty stunts your brain's development.  This will lowering your ability to get a good job and succeed in life.  Poverty causes stupidity, and then stupidity causes poverty.  The people who admit that this cycle exists are working on how to break it, but people like the interviewee who will not face the facts are doomed to remain useless.

Yesterday's workout

Yesterday I started my workout by running a mile in 6:09.  That is probably a personal best.  Of course, I don't know how accurate the markings on the track are.  They could be off, in which case I'm not really that fast.  The track is slightly less than a quarter mule, so one mile means running around four full times, plus another third of the track.

After running that mile, I walked the two-thirds of the track to the starting position.  I then jogged a mile, stopping at every lap to do ten one-arm push-ups with each arm.  I jogged this mile in about eight and a half minutes, not counting the time it took to do the push-ups.

Then I walked two laps around the track before trying for another fast mile.  I did it in 6:56. 

Then I went to the laundry room, moved my clothes from the washer to the dryer, and came back to the track for another mile, with 100 one-arm push-ups.  That one took 7:54.

Then I walked another two laps, and finished up by jogging a fifth cool-down mile.  I also ran this one in 7:54.

Today I am not sore or tired at all.

The interesting thing is that I used to jog and run cross country all the time, but I never had this kind of stamina or one-mile speed.  And my upper body strength used to be pathetic.  Martial arts training is awesome.

Of course, it may be that my 5K speed is lower than what it was, because I have forgotten the pacing and rhythm.  I ran four miles in a row last week at what seemed to be a decent pace, but I wasn't timing myself.  I'd like to find a 5k course and compare to my cross-country days.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Marcus Aurelius

I have been intermittently reading the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.
I have not been impressed.

They are hailed as a shining example of Stoic philosophy, but it seems
to me that Marcus is simply repeating platitudes by rote. There is no
logic or structure; he simply writes things down at random.

There is almost no real introspection. He never seems to think about
what he is doing or why he is doing it.

It often seems that he is simply repeating some kind of magic formula
in the hopes of making things seem better.

Marcus has no hope and no goal in life, except to to what is expected
of him by society, playing his part well like a good little puppet.
If this work captures the attitude and philosophy of the Roman world,
then it is easy to see why Christianity spread so quickly.