Thursday, July 30, 2009

Assigning Gender

I just finished watching a collection of Pixar short films, and then a commentary on the films.  When they showed their lamp film at a computer graphics show in 1986, a famous computer scientist came up to the animator and asked, 'Is the parent lamp a mother or a father?'  They viewed this as a sign of success, that they were creating characters people could relate to.

I immediately thought that this was a ludicrous question.  It never occurred to me to assign a gender to the 'parent' lamp.  I understood the parent-child relationship, and I did anthropomorphize them both, but I had no psychic need to categorize the parent as 'mother' or 'father'.  It was just 'parent'.

Maybe this was just me.  Maybe my knowledge of the wide variety of reproduction types in biology led me to subconsciously assume an asexual amoeba-type fission.  But I think that most people of my generation would feel less impulse to assign gender to the parent lamp.  Our culture makes us much more comfortable with flexible gender roles than an old computer scientist in the 1980's, and so we would feel less need to place everything in a specific role.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

American Union

I fully endorse this blog post.

Unfortunately, history suggests that the reverse will happen.  Our country was originally designed as a federation, a collection of independent states that shared a common court system, currency, and military, much like the EU is today.  But over time, the states lost power and the central government gained it.  In a couple hundred years, it is likely that the EU will look like we do today and we will have but a few remnants of state identity.

Interview with a Pirate

from Wired magazine

One of the biggest recent trends in criminal behavior in recent years is that it is all getting more and more businesslike.  This trend will undoubtedly continue.  As society gets better and better at preventing or containing crimes driven by random impulses and passion, the only criminals left will be those who are well-organized and know how to generating profits.

The fact of these criminal enterprises is a good fact to remember whenever anyone says that businesslike methods and corporate structure are unnatural, or happen as a result of government support.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Philosophy of Science

If you keep this simple advice in mind, you will save yourself from wasting a lot of time:

If it can't be proven wrong, than there is no point in thinking about it.

For example, it is impossible to prove that there is not an invisible fairy flying around your head right now.  No matter how hard you try or how much you think about it, you cannot disprove the existence of the fairy.  So there is no point thinking about the issue.

Real science makes predictions that can be tested.  Real science says, 'If this theory is correct, we will observe X.'  If something cannot be used to predict the future or guide the engineering of something useful, then it is not science.  You can think about it if you gain pleasure from doing so, but do not expect other people to take it seriously.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Mapping Software

Mapping software makes life so much easier.  Ten years ago, when you wanted to get somewhere, you had to ask directions.  There would be a lengthy conversation as you worked through roads, traffic lights, landmarks, etc.  But now, all you need is the address.  You put that address into an Internet system and print off the directions, or you put it in your in-car GPS navigation unit and follow the instructions of the friendly voice.

I was reminded of this because my friends life in a new apartment complex, one that has not yet been added to any of the map databases.  They had to give me directions the old-fashioned way.  We handled this without any problem,  But I wonder how long it will be before giving directions, and following directions form a human, will be a lost art.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Health Insurance and Obesity

A recent study showed that having health insurance makes people fatter.  The cause seems to be that people are more willing to 'let themselves go' if they know that someone else will be paying all or part of the resulting health bills.

Economists are constantly finding evidence of behavior like this.  This is proof that people can and will change their behavior in response to cash incentives.  Being obese is not just a matter of culture or genetics, it happens as a result of choices, and people will change their choices when the environment changes.

If you are not an economist, you would assume that health insurance would make you thinner.  You would think that being insured would mean more visits to doctors who would work to get you to change your behavior.  You would think that education, social pressure, and preventative treatment would reduce obesity.  But that is not happening.

We will continue to have problems with obesity unless incentives are changed to improve people's behavior.  Right now, we seem to be headed in the wrong direction.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Martial Arts and Chi

If you train in oriental martial arts, tai chi, or yoga, you will eventually run into a concept called 'chi' (also spelled qi and ki).  This is a mystical 'life energy' in many Asian belief systems.  Most of the people who developed martial arts believed in it, and this belief is embedded in traditional teachings.  Some people still believe in it wholeheartedly, and swear that it is real and that it gives martial artists their power.  But, at least in Cuong Nhu, most people have a modern scientific view of the world.   We don't actually believe in magic energy flowing around the body, but we will still use the word 'chi' as a shorthand for a variety of things like mental focus, breathing, stamina, balance, pressure points, and soft flowing techniques.

So when someone says 'focus your chi' they mean 'control your breathing, get your mind in gear, and make sure you are well-balanced, relaxed, and alert.'  When they say 'mess with his chi' they mean 'use techniques that knock him off balance, attack his pressure points, break his focus and concentration, and/or do something to take the fight out of him without using use brute force.'  It is just a convenient way of talking about a variety of subtle things that we learn how to do, the little tricks of mental and muscular control that define martial arts just as much as learning how to hit things harder.

Chi can also mean knowing how to use the placebo effect to heal yourself.  There are a lot of subtle ways that your mind can affect your body.  Every medical study ever done has to account for the fact that people who think they are being healed will actually heal, without any real drug being administered.  If you believe that something will heal you, then that thing can heal conditions that respond well to placebos, like minor pain and drowsiness.  When you combine this with the fact that yoga, tai chi, and martial arts can be eally really good at strengthening your muscles, bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, and cardiovascular system, it is easy to see why people might attribute magical powers to these activities.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Future Shock 4

I remember reading about the first cloned mammal.  It was a very difficult, expensive, and time-consuming process.  Any practical use was far in the future.
 
But cloning mammals is now practical and economical.  South Korea is now using a litter of cloned dogs to sniff for contraband.  The project cost $40,000 per dog, although it is not clear if that included training costs.  Even if it didn't, that is still a bargain, given that only a third of naturally born dogs work out, and it costs a lot to train the failures.
 
Expect more cloned dogs, especially for tasks that involve a long and expensive training process.  They'll take whichever dog was easiest to train and worked the best, and clone it for an easier and more predictable training process.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Board Breaking

Yesterday I completed my first martial arts board break, as practice for my upcoming brown belt test.  A few weeks ago, I bought a one-inch-thick, one-foot-wide piece of pine shelving board from the hardware store and cut it into one-foot-square boards.  I broke a stack of three of these boards yesterday, with a side thrust kick.
 
By chance, there was a new student in class yesterday, to see what it was about.  He saw the stack of boards before class, poked at them a bit, and asked what they were for.  Sensei told him that I would be breaking them.  He seemed interested, and started asking questions about the process.
 
Most people are not impressed by board breaking in demonstrations, because they assume it is some kind of trick or it uses flimsy boards.  But this guy had a chance to inspect the boards beforehand, so he could see that it was no trick.  He saw me send my heel through three inches of no-nonsense hardware-store wood.
 
Actually, there is a bit of a trick.  You are splitting the board along the grain of the wood, the same way you do when you are chopping up cut logs for firewood.  You have to make sure that the side of your foot hits the boards parallel to the grain, so you are attacking the weak point and the board will break cleanly.  The three boards have to have the grain lined up the same way.  Nobody could break through three inches of wood if the grains were crossed like they are in plywood.
 
You also have to make sure that the board is dry, and that the people holding it know what they are doing.  But even so, it is not an easy thing to do.  Like most things in martial arts, it takes speed, fluidity, focus, and accuracy.  It is not a matter of brute 'hulk smash' force.  The key is to make sure your foot is moving faster than the board can bend and absorb the impact, and that you sustain that speed through all three boards.
 
It is a true test of ability, one of the few ways that you can safely do an objective test of your training.  That's why we do it.  Every other testing standard is either the subjective evaluation of the tester, or your performance in a controlled sparring situation.  This is something real, testing your skills against a fact of nature.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Autism and Education

This is an excellent article about autism, and how schools and universities treat the condition.  It has several thought-provoking quotes:

"In "special needs" education, there is plenty of effort to teach the skills of the nonautistic to the autistic, but in the regular classroom we are often doing the opposite. I view higher (and lower) education as teaching people to be more autistic in many of their basic cognitive skills.
...
Another way of putting it is to note that all students are special-needs students requiring lots of help. The nonautistic students do not represent some ideal point that everyone is striving to attain, but rather both autistic and nonautistic students are trying to learn the specialized skills of the other group, as well as perfecting their own skills."

The author goes on to point out that tolerance and respect should be extended to people whose brains work differently, instead of diagnosing everyone who does not act normal with some kind of disease.

In recent years, our society has tried to train people to respect diversity, and tolerate and accept all kinds of people.  This is an excellent goal, and it is absolutely essential for the development of human civilization.  But in practice, the diversity movement has mainly been limited to respecting racial and cultural diversity.  For a long time, anyone whose brain worked differently was subject to dehumanization both from popular culture and the scientific community.  There has been some progress in recent years, but people with autistic traits, or those who otherwise have trouble 'fitting in' with society, are still in the position that racial minorities were in a century ago.  Many entertainers feel free to mock them for cheap laughs, and many scientists find excuses to treat them as sub-human.

Fun Story

This story came to me via an economics blog.  It is interesting, fun, and thought-provoking.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Biology and Health

Here are two good articles on biochemistry, with practical advice on eating healthy:

Leptin

Serotonin

One of the surprising pieces of advice is that you should treat yourself to a high-carb meal about once a week whenever you are dieting or switching to healthier foods.  This will preventing your body from thinking that it is starving, and doing things to make you hungry and depressed.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

'Only Nixon could go to China'

and only Obama could get away with saying that the problems in Africa are mainly due to bad behavior of African politicians.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Summer in the South

In almost all places, times, and seasons, people park as close to the door of the building as possible.  Normally, parking lots fill up starting with the spaces closest to buildings.

But now, people are not parking this way.  The first parking spots to be taken are those under trees.  People are invariably choosing shade over a convenient walking distance.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Web Link

This is a great site for anyone who is interested in history. It is a collection of images and essays about the rise of Japan and China in the modern world.

Most of the image galleries are designed so you have to scroll right to get through them. You might want to click on the link for the pdf files and read them instead of the web page.

The essay "Throwing Off Asia I" has an excellent quote:

Fukuzawa Yukichi, Meiji Japan's most prolific interpreter of Western values and practices, offered a concise interpretation of what "civilization and enlightenment" entailed. The strength and progress of the great Western nations, he argued, rested on science; and scientific accomplishment, in turn, required a spirit of free inquiry among the general populace. Thus, it followed that liberal and progressive values were not simply moral and political ideals; they were also part and parcel of creating a "rich country, strong military" capable of assuring national independence.

There are far too few people today who realize this.

Edit: One more interesting thing that deserves reposting: a British satire magazine's take on the Sino-Japanese war:

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Freedom and Preferences

Should you measure a people's preferences by what they say they want, or what they actually do?  This is a very important question, with huge implications for law and public policy.

For example, imagine a smoker who has repeatedly tried to quit, who claims to want to quit, yet who can never break the habit and always goes back to smoking.  Does this person prefer to be a smoker?  Most people would say no.  An economist would say yes.

The economics profession has a very strong bias toward measuring people's true preferences by what they do and how they spend their money.  The general consensus is that 'talk is cheap'.  There is a lot of truth in this.  People constantly lie on surveys and interviews, especially when their actual behavior violates a social norm.  If you want to know how someone acts, it is much better to look at his checkbook than to ask him questions.

But it does not necessarily follow that the things people actually do are the things that they prefer to do.  There are many cases where people will rationally come to a decision about what they want their life to be like, yet fail to muster the self-control or resources to make that vision come true.

We often observe that people will spend resources to constrain their own behavior.  They will sign up for 'Christmas Club' accounts that offer lower returns and more restrictions than a basic bank account.  They will leave money in a retirement account even though they are desperately poor.  They will sign up to be put on a list that bars them from entering casinos.  This kind of thing is a big puzzle for economists, but not for psychologists or neuroscientists.

Economists see people as a single decision-making unit.  Researchers who study the human mind in more detail realize that a human brain is actually a mass of conflicting instincts, desires, and thoughts.  Rational thought processes are in conflict with irrational desires.  The result is that many people do things that are objectively bad for them and that they later regret.

Some people see this as evidence that the state should take a paternalistic attitude towards all of its citizens.  I disagree.  Such 'nanny state' actions are a big threat to individual liberty, both in theory and in practice.  But it is true that people often benefit from restrictions that are placed in them.  How can we achieve these benefits while still respecting individual liberty and self-determination?

I believe that the answer lies in an understanding that the liberty of the conscious, rational mind to live a good life is threatened by the primitive instincts and desires of that very same mind.  Public policy should focus on maximizing the 'utility' or well-being of the rational mind, not the subconscious.  Any restrictions placed on people should be restrictions that their own conscious mind places on their subconscious, not a restriction placed on that person by some third party.

How would this be done in practice?  We should greatly expand the programs that allow people to constrain their own behavior, and make it normal and acceptable to use those programs.  This can be done by private companies as well as governments.  We already have the technology in place to do this easily and unobtrusively.  For example, suppose that someone has made a New Year's resolution to stop eating potato chips.  That person should be able to go to a website and enter the restriction.  This restriction would then be forwarded to all of the credit card companies and grocery stores that the person uses.  If the person ever tried to purchase potato chips at a later date, the transaction would be rejected.  Obviously this does not prevent one from paying cash or getting them from a friend, but it could easily help prevent people from abandoning their resolution in a moment of weakness.

The example of potato chips may be trite, but the general system can be applied to any kind of impulse purchase, from fast food to alcohol to magazines, that people struggle with.  Such a system of 'artificial self-control' could dramatically improve the quality of life of millions, and it can be argued that this is actually an increase in liberty, because the rational mind, the thing that makes us human, would be freed from the tyranny of the instincts, emotions, and subjective factors that domainate our lives.