Whatever the Deal

Another fools pleasure.
Let your feet do the learning.

"But the price of quality is often the unique imprint they leave."
Avowed antitheist.
Did leer.

"It was no excuse to be young."
One of us needs to figure out how to cross the event horizon.

Never mind martyrs, the stars had to die so that we could live!
Anyone who tells you anything else doesn't mean a thing.

"The world is... different. It's just not what we wanted it to be."
"I don't live very well alone. Some people don't. We all have different ways of defending our territory."

At the heart of the issue is this: science is any method by which we test statements to find out if they are true or not—evidence (or the lack thereof) is the only important fact. If you assert that a claim is fundamentally outside the purview of science, then you are also asserting that it is fundamentally disconnected from reality, and furthermore, you're asserting that the claim can not be proven true or false—it is by definition unknowable, incomplete. In summary, science is the sum of the collection of all that is truly knowable and the processes by which anything is truly known.

"Know how to solve every problem that has been solved."
—Richard Feynman, (appears to be on his chalkboard at the time of his death)

"Science is what we have learned about how to keep from fooling ourselves."
—Richard Feynman (unsourced)

Bee says, "A definition is never wrong, it's just more or less useful." I think that is the best description I've ever heard. Much more eloquent than my attempts to explain that whether Pluto is a planet or not is really just up to an arbitrary definition of planet, which should not be chosen so much to the inclusion or exclusion of Pluto, but rather by it's precision in categorizing astronomical objects. Seems so long winded now...

I disagree strongly with Stephen Hawking on this one.
The idea that extraterrestrial life is likely to be radically different than known life I think is only partially applicable. There are a few levels to look at: first, is it possible for life to form under extremely different circumstances? Well, we don't know yet! If it is, this might be expected to produce radically different life; the canonical example might Titan, with it's methane analog to Earth's water system. But that leads to a lot of complexities I'd like to ignore for the moment. So lets just stick with what we know, starting from observations of life here on Earth. Three main points come to mind:

1. Certain areas of Earth appear to remain (largely) devoid of life, implying that such environments have no suitable "hydrocarbon-based solution," (i.e., life as we know it). This might be extended to methane-based life by describing the limited temperature range in which methane-centric chemical reactions could be expected to allow an organism to do useful work (separate entropy from thermodynamic free energy).

2. Billions of years of evolution seems to indicate some quasi-equilibriums among different strategies, (e.g., sexual v. asexual reproduction allows for greater variation per generation, so much so that many species have completely lost the ability to reproduce asexually; multicellular v. single cellular, & plant v. animal are two other apparent branches we should probably expect).

3. Selection pressures are required to increase the complexity of life, and only life with a sufficient complexity can be expected to be intelligent (at least in the way we long for). In other words, we can't really expect a bacteria colony to develop the sort of intelligence we want, we should expect it to be a multicellular animal-like creature.

I also disagree with Hawking about a number of other issues in that article, such as the Independence Day theme of locust-like E.T.s, and the analogy to Christopher Columbus and the native North Americans. This idea that you might cross the vast interstellar distances because you've consumed all your resources at home is silly to me, it's along the lines of traveling from northern Canada to Peru to buy the last existing gallon of gasoline: if you can make it there, the rewards are relatively meaningless. Likewise, interstellar travel is no small feat; in fact, I suspect it may simply be impossible for organisms to accomplish—we may simply be too fragile, with to much space separating the stars from one another to expect an organism to ever make the journey. However, we are on the brink of being able to create autonomous explorers that could sleep the journey away, though it is unclear what it would mean for them to colonize the galaxy for us. (Though to me, this appears to be the modern reasonable version of Fermi's paradox, which I think is most reasonably resolved by adjusting the likelihood of intelligent life in a proximally reachable space to zero. That is, I figure intelligence is very rare, and spread out, and possibly unlikely to ever contact one another.) The argument against a Columbus-scenario is simply the question: is that how we would expect ourselves to treat the situation if we were the explorers? Travel hundreds of trillions of miles to exploit some new land? We are even trying to take care (unclear how well we are doing), to not infect other celestial bodies with Earth-based life (we don't want to taint Europa with Earth-based life, in case it harbors it's own home-grown life). These are also some important arguments to help people understand why, say, finding oil on Mars would not really affect us at all—what makes oil so valuable in the first place is really much more than it's energy content, it is also the accessibility and abundance of the substances as well, and Mars is most certainly not accessible. (A human trip to Mars demands a 26th month-mission, to allow for best orbital positioning to make the trip. Just a radio signal to tell a robot to stop takes 10-20 minutes to transmit one way, depending on the current positions of the two planets.)

Understanding these ideas about space and scale also help one understand why nuclear waste is not as big a deal as one might first suspect, and why any proposal to launch it into space is really very silly.

Some comments written in response to space-based disposal of nuclear waste:
I've heard a lot of people propose space-based elimination of nuclear waste, and I think under scrutiny it is a very unreasonable idea, exactly because I don't think it can be made either cost-effective or safe.

We lost two shuttles out of only 129 launches, even though we put extra care into maintaining and inspecting the craft because of the human element (though in my opinion the losses could have been prevented with better management).

Even the Saturn V only lifts 47,000 kg to lunar orbit, and the shuttle cost about $50,000/lb to GTO (I'm seeing as low as 11,000$/kg for other rockets), which isn't even escape! (Additionally, it seems unlikely these prices can drop too much lower, due to the enormous fuel requirement.)

Given the millions of tons of waste to dispose, odds exceedingly favor that we would accidentally detonate a large quantity of radioactive waste in the atmosphere eventually.

What I don’t understand is why everyone is so averse to storing it here? We already maintain, monitor and protect weapons, why not protect the waste the same way? No reason to seal up the mountain and hope the caskets don’t leak or rot; inspect it every few months! Guard it! Maintain the facility! Maybe even reprocess it if we choose.

In fact, these hard economic times ought to be perfect to get Yucca mountain going, or really, whoever the lowest bidder is. Development and maintenance should generate a lot of permanent jobs, ranging from higher-education engineering to lower-education construction.

Plus transporting the waste to the site, freeing up the space the waste currently takes up at some of the reactors. It seems like consolidating our inspection, maintenance and protection costs with radioactive waste should be a no-brainer, whether from a security, economic, or environmental perspective.

Some comments I recently wrote on a blog post about the Fermi paradox and the possible resolution that intelligent beings routinely destroy themselves with technological progress:

Resolving the Fermi paradox with nuclear annihilation I think is an awfully big jump. Assuming we did experience a full nuclear exchange, even at the height of the cold war (when maybe 10 times as many weapons existed) it seems unlikely that it would completely annihilate humanity, and the persistence of even a small society, together with the many fragments of information and technology, would return to an advanced society quite quickly. It is unrealistic to think we could really wipe out humanity, or even put us back at the stone age (knowledge has always defied destruction, even in times of heavy persecution).

To me, more reasonable resolutions to the Fermi paradox include: life isn't as common as we hope; intelligence is much less probably than we hope; communication over vast distances is much more difficult than we think (just imagine the 1/r^2 drop off with r=100+ ly! Let alone competing with all the astronomical sources radiating noise.) Maybe they use much more efficient means of communication, whereby stray signals that we could detect are much less likely; maybe they have some silly prime directive, or maybe they are just so evenly dispersed in the galaxy that we can't possibly ever find them. Of course, there might be many more reasons, or any combination of these.

This is not to say that I am not on board with nuclear arms reduction or awareness - surely it is one of the few serious threats to humanity that we have complete control of, which makes it a wonderful target of our concern. I'm just want us to be realistic about these things, that's all.

Glenn wrote:

Your resolution of the Fermi paradox seems quite quite plausible. However, concerning a nuclear conflagration, I would be somewhat less confident that we would survive as a species and quickly re-establish an advanced society.

I responded:
Glenn, I'm not saying it would be pretty, but just imagine, most information would remain intact (of course, nearly all electronic storage might be lost, there are mountains of paper-stored knowledge spread across the globe).

Of course, I would argue that our survival would be nearly certain even with the most aggressive exchange imaginable (as I did below), but more realistic scenarios, (like rogue states detonating a device as terrorism, or say an exchange between Pakistan and India), would be much less devastating still, leaving most of the industrialized world completely intact. 

Again, I still agree they are a terrible threat and we should be actively trying to decrease the number of devices, I just don't see it being as devastating as say a large asteroid impact.

Oh, I so disagree with Stuart Kauffman too! His entire argument seems centered around what I consider to be a misconception: that an "ultimate theory" would both describe all the fundamental rules governing the universe, and also provide a complete, probabilistic, "true" prediction of the future. (Provide all the possible outcomes with probabilities of being the actual outcome.) I don't know if I think the problem is that he is misconstruing what I consider to be an acceptable concept of "theory", or if it is merely his assertion that intractability of a problem means the rules governing the problem cannot be described. For instance, if the universe is analogous to a computer program, then an ultimate theory of physics would merely be the source code for the program, in a human-comprehensible language. That does not mean we would be able to run the program, and actually determine it's output. Hell, there are simple computer programs that are provably (from a mathematics perspective) uncomputable; we simply cannot predict the outcome of applying certain very simple rules in a systematic way. An interesting class of these are the Busy Beaver functions, which either run for the most steps, or output the most ones, before coming to a halt. I suppose if all he is saying is, "an ultimate theory would both describe exactly how nature works, and allow us to say ahead of time, exactly what the universe is going to do next, and such a theory is impossible to construct." If that is the case, then yes, I agree. But I think it is a silly notion to state in the first place. You cannot even expect to answer the yes or no question: given 1,000 typical mp3s of varying lengths, is there a way to partition the set into two subsets with equal total playtimes? I've chosen such a high number that we wouldn't expect you to find the answer even if the entire universe were a computer that had been working on the problem for the last 13.7 billion years! If every observable particle tested a trillion possible solutions per second every second for 13.7 billion years, it still only could have examined far less than:
of the total possible answers!
And of course, these numbers pale in comparison to even small busy beaver functions, even the six-state, two symbol machine is known to run many orders of magnitude more steps than the "playlist problem" described above! We humans routinely write multi-state, multi-symbol programs much larger than this! In many ways, the imagination really does know no bounds.

This was pretty fascinating too.

I can't figure it out; is the problem that our language feels inadequate to express our emotions?
That is, English is not enough? Words have failed me?


Tomorrow, Oblivion!

"Toad-licking crazy."

Does causality as a concept exist naturally? Or did we develop it as we learned about the world? Certainly some animals have a very basic notion of causality, like some birds, primates, dolphins, and cephalopods, because they can all solve problems creatively. So I suppose organisms had been adapting to causality, maybe since the origin of locomotion? In fact, we could say that the origin of locomotion was the direct result of the causal nature of reality, right? Or at least any sense of controlled, or reactive motion (completely random motion would seem unrelated to causality).

Skoot skoot?

Don't let them ruin you.
I like the phrase, "abortion on demand", as opposed to what, scheduled abortion?
Not worth the powder to blow it up.
If only I knew sooner!

Exquisitely sensitive.

For intelligence: somehow, under certain conditions, the brain just accepts symbols, and perhaps a set of rules to govern the interaction of symbols (probably just more symbols). Need to know how to make "memories" as symbols, in GP.

As always, Sam Harris is excellent.
Sean Carroll gave his take on a TED talk given by Sam Harris.

I think we might be using the concept of morals in two different ways, first, to mean right and wrong, how we should behave, etc. (which it turns out is an imaginary concept, like the popular conception of time travel. It turns out that morals are not absolute, the way they were most often perceived historically). The other meaning is the specific properties of behavior that belong to a species, formed by millions of years of evolution and the way we interact with our modern environment.
Yes! He's found a way out of the trap of relativism! (I think.) Furthermore, science can obviously aid us in determining how decisions about morals (as a society) play out in the real world, whether they work as expected or not, have unforeseen side effects, etc. Also, studying many individual's specific moral attitudes could help us understand where they came from, what exactly they are, and so on. Science also is our best bet at an informed understanding of what I consider to be new moral questions, which is essential to us making good decisions as technological progress marches on relentlessly. (Such as stem cells, for which our traditional sources of moral guidance, e.g., religion, have absolutely nothing to say. Which is no surprise, considering all the major religions are more than two millennia old, born at a time when humans knew nothing and archaic superstitions held by desert goat herders were the law of the land.)

Is there a difference between feeling moderately committed to some principle, and having a very strong reason to commit, and a weaker reason to not commit, such that they balance out to a moderate commitment again? I don't think I have an example, unfortunately, and I can't recall what sparked the question.

Is there any way to measure the rate at which people change their minds about a particular topic? I imagine that that rate increases dramatically after some threshold. I don't see a clear way to quantify this phenomena. But it is integral to understanding how people, as individuals evolve their thinking.

I don't get mad OR even. Wait, what? Maybe it's XOR? I certainly don't seem to get even. Or maybe this is all a joke.

The good is gone from the word goodbye.

"I'm comfortable with the unknown, thats the point of science."

Do we remember words as strings of letters? Or as strings of phonemes? Or probably neither? I imagine our brains hijack the circuitry used for auditory processing, and run a simulated auditory signal, same with mental visualizations.

Hmm, I can't tell if I guessed or knew that.
Joint subcommittee meeting.
"Evil was a word we could not do without."

Something about the way humans learn and think allows us to develop and manipulate fuzzy concepts in our head. Case in point: on The View, one of the women said something along the lines of believing in evil and satan, but not that it's a guy. And honestly, I see this very often, especially among religious belief, where people have a strong opinion, but lack the details of the concept to provide a coherent explanation of their feelings or beliefs. This happens frequently with words; for instance, I might have a vague notion of what the word stigma means, based on the context in which I have seen it in the past, but without having an exact definition. What is interesting is that these concepts in our heads do seem to require a degree of consistency between one another, (admittedly this is much stricter in some, like scientists, than in others, like creationists), and when new concepts are introduced, they typically need to avoid contradicting the existing concepts. Also, it appears that many of the concepts we have are built out of smaller sets of concepts, though the details of these symbols and the relationships between them are still very unclear. Plus, this is all entirely speculation based on my own introspection, meaning it is scientifically worthless.

Aspire to intellectual honesty.

How am I ever supposed to learn if no one will teach me?
I think there might be some really severe consequences to too much solitude. Though I suppose if one makes it through with cognitive abilities intact there can be some advantages to it too.

Everything was going light and dark all at once.
I want to get a plaid bow-tie.

Mostly I'm an optimist, by any measure of the word. More accurately, I'm a cornucopian, which is usually use derogatorily against one's opponent, but I am comfortable admitting that I am in fact exactly what the phrase is intended to discredit. Essentially it means I think "everything will be just fine," which actually is a conclusion I arrive at by considering how humans don't typically "take it lying down," but rather, if something is threatening their very existence, they tend to work hard, innovate, and persist. This certainly seems true on a global scale, and so I've always figured humans will persist into the distant (tens of thousands?) future, (barring some truly insurmountable environmental disaster, such as an extinction-level-event astroid or a volcanic event like yellowstone). But recently it crossed my mind that there are other ways for us to end ourselves… most especially by our attitudes changing. One obvious difference over time is that we have fewer and fewer children, which makes perfect sense in light of technology and resources management, healthcare, etc. Though obviously it seems unlikely that we could reach a point where no more children are born. But that isn't really what I'm thinking… at the same time, from the other side, we have computers becoming increasingly competitive with humans. I'm not invoking the old "war with machines" story from so many movies and books, but I do suspect it could spell our eventual demise. More sinisterly, it might be by us convincing ourselves of our own obsolescence. Prevalence of autism continues to rise, and no one really knows why, but it has me thinking about the end of the world again. I've harbored suspicions for years that autism is heavily influenced by the way we treat our children, though no one would want to say that, since it places blame on parents and that is just a terrible weight to even suggest. When I first read, I suppose 6 years ago now, how autism is significantly more frequent among "geek" parents, (which was suggested implied a genetic cause, the implication being that geeks had historically been spread out and rarely procreated with one another, but that places like Silicon Valley or Palo Alto were Meccas of geekdom and hence lead to selection of the responsible gene; again, all theory, no one knows yet what is going on). My immediate thought was, "how do we know that geek-type parents aren't doing something to trigger it?" But again, such a suggestion is unlikely to improve the situation.

This reminds me of something I read years ago on the underlying causes of schizophrenia—it occurs most frequently in the youngest children, with higher rates in boys, if I recall correctly. Because it was most often observed in the youngest child, the theory was that the mother (who at the time was still rarely thought of as anything other than a homemaker), after raising a few boys, treated the younger boys in some different way, causing this disorder. By the time I read this, they had rejected that notion and there was mounting evidence that schizophrenia is heavily influenced by the age of the father, suggesting mutated sperm may play a role. (This also explains the youngest-child aspect, since obviously they are conceived when the father is oldest, and mutant sperm are heavily correlated with a man's age.) In this case the burden was removed from the mother, though placed onto the father, but not in much of a way that can be considered correctable.

I'm also reminded of another thought I've been having lately, about the claims of homophobes that homosexuality is a choice. Even if we assume it is not a genetically 'pre-destined' trait, it is still something that forms entirely without your control, and hence, not a choice. Even if it is your very young mentors, or your environment, or the TV, or whatever, it's entirely out of your control. Of course, even if it were just a flat-out choice, even if I could just decide to be gay on a whim, right now, that would still not be an argument against equal rights, marriage, etc.. Because who are you to tell me who I can love or not? I'm sure there are plenty of people who would ridicule societies that still have arranged marriages, and yet would "forbid" their own children from loving the person of their choosing without a hint of irony.

David Attenborough on music and Bach.

Tomorrow, oblivion!
(He actually said, "to moral oblivion," but I like this too.)
How beautiful. May I?
Very good isn't good enough.

If thrown early, grenades can be picked up and thrown back. Much like fish.

So that's me, finished.

I watched Kinsey recently. Finally. I think I had been somewhat afraid to watch it for a long time. Apparently most people who I know, don't recall ever seeing anything about it, though I clearly remember when it came out I was very interested. It was only recently that I felt willing to confront my own discomforts on the subject and actually watch the movie. And what an excellent movie it is! Superbly done (acting, writing, directing...), but also just a beautiful subject! There is nothing more in this world I am more bothered by than our society's attitudes about sex. And more specifically, the effect such attitudes have had on me personally. A deep conflict exists between how I feel, and want to behave, and how I actually behave, and it has been the source of much torment in my life. (Possibly even more so than religion, which I hold accountable for the persecution of many scientists throughout history, something I find deeply offensive, and antithetical to the progress, and wellbeing, of humankind. Though obviously religion has played a integral role in the twisted taboos we are raised to accept.) Interestingly enough, the movie also instilled a sense of the dangers involved in more liberal attitudes of sex, (not a real concern for me, I have a very long way to go before my attitudes would run the risk of generating such conflicts, I naively believe). There are a million more things I'd like to say on this, but I'd like them to be more organized, rather than this sort of stream-of-consciousness, rambling drivel that I typically present. Drivel is an excellent word, my dictionary defines it as "silly nonsense."

Is anyone against free healthcare to all children under, say... 18? Or if you'd like, make it 12, or 15, or whatever. Am I missing something? What kind of society doesn't care for it's young?

Jean Meslier was an interesting fellow, allegedly the first person to write seriously about atheism, and the originator of the most excellent quote (more or less), approximately, "...wished that all the great men in the world and all the nobility could be hanged, and strangled with the guts of the priests." In fact, I like the quote so much, I think I'm going to figure out how to turn it into a fancy tattoo and put it somewhere as yet to be determined. Though I don't really want it to be text, because that's never appealed to me, and I might try to put it in the original French, even though I don't speak a word.

This is from a few days ago, but:

More thoughts on the Chinese room argument against the turing test: realize that the notion of "understanding Chinese" is fuzzy, like the Sorites paradox. Intelligence suffers this exact problem as well. The resolution of the sorites paradox is that the notion of a heap is ill defined, and the belief that a clear line is implied by the original fuzzily-defined word is simply untenable. It is a notion we created to approximate reality. There is no reason to believe that there should be a word which means heap, and is defined in such a way as to resolve the paradox, because such a word is not very useful (except to very picky philosophers).

Wanna mess around?

I wonder what it is that leads to a phone cord getting wound up? Is there some bias process that the operator performs causing individual twists, repeatedly, in one direction, such that over time the cord is very much twisted up?

"Then we'll all go to jail together."
-Dave (the movie) (I forgot how many big names are in this movie.)

"In the present, the categories "real person" and "fictional character" are pretty distinct. But when we look retrospectively at the first historically documented centuries in any given area, things get fuzzy. And it's even worse if we look at people who are supposed to have lived before the introduction of writing to an area, and who are mentioned in early or foreign texts. These centuries to either side of the introduction of writing is known as protohistory, and protohistorical information is strictly speaking not factual knowledge. Not because we know that it's wrong, but because it is impossible to corroborate. Protohistory is information of indeterminate value, which is extremely frustrating to many amateur historians who Want To Believe."
Martin R, from Aardvarchaeology...

I've been using the word 'fuzzy' a lot lately. I think because it makes me feel all warm and hairy inside.

"That attitude continues today, says Roy. 'What can you say? Physicists are professionally contemptuous,' she says."
Hmm, I already knew I am shallow, and superficial, and arrogant, but am I contemptuous too??? And if I'm not, is it something I can learn? and do I need it to be a real physicist? Or will my nose keep growing otherwise?

Suddenly it seems like the word "monopolies" is an oxymoron. At least in plural form.

We all like to think of ourselves as the good guys... have you ever experienced the realization that you are not? That moment in which you realize you're not here to help. But just to get in the way and cause trouble? I'm not sure I've had that yet either...

I've always assumed that over time, humans have gotten more rational, but the other day, on the rare occasion in which I shower (which is usually a great source of ideas, which ironically can't be recorded in the moment), it occurred to me that there is no reason to think that the average human is more rational now than they were 50, 100, 1000, 10e4, 10e5, etc., years ago. This is unfortunate, if true. Though I have no idea where one would go to even begin to answer that question.

Anyway, enough silly nonsense for tonight.

Oh, one last bit before I go! This man is fighting against a book in his child's school that calls creationism a myth. My favorite part is when he says he's not smart enough to have found this himself, that it was the kids that brought it to his attention. How does one harbor an awareness for one's ignorance, and also a mouth so loud? I get embarrassed about misquoting the slightest detail of any point I argue. I try so very hard not to be wrong, and yet, frequently, I remain so.