Measured Against Reality

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Legend of a Heretic

Here's a great piece on Robert Ingersoll from a NYT blog. The piece gives an overview of his life, and talks briefly about faith in public life. It is quite amazing to me that Ingersoll could be so prominent in politics while holding those views. The idea of the Republican party consulting Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or PZ Myers is pretty laughable.

Which is too bad

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

9/11 idiot

This is the most ridiculous thing I've ever read:

"I believe 9/11 could have been prevented if we'd had a Republican president at the time," Meehan said Wednesday on CNN's "American Morning."

I wonder what kind of stupid you'd need to say that. I'm guessing a pretty severe case.

I'll let Wikipedia explain the various failings of the Bush administration leading to 911. It's

Friday, July 18, 2008

Irrational Voters

Jonah Lehrer has a cool article on the irrationality of voters. It's actually kind of scary, but definitely interesting.

I especially love the statement about how misguided the talking heads on the TV news channels are, as though we needed any more proof of that.

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Opposition to Gay Marriage in CA

Dave Weigel of Reason the reason that the anti-gay marriage amendment is going to fail in November. This is great news, especially the survey showing humanity up 51-42.

As my old readers know, I'm a big proponent of equality in all its forms, and cannot stand any argument saying gay marriage shouldn't exist. I'm so proud that California has become the second state in the nation to allow it, and will be devastated if the amendment passes this November. It looks like it will, but this far off nothing is certain.

Except this one truth: history is progressive. Eventually, whether it's 10, 20, or 100 years from now, people will look at gay marriage like any other civil rights issue, and they will ask, "How could those people deny them their right?" I'm proud to be on the right side of this issue, and I hope you can say the same.

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SLAC ceasing to exist?

Via Zapper Z comes the news that the DOE wants to rename SLAC! The DOE wants the names of the national labs to be trademarked, but Stanford won't let them trademark anything with "Stanford" in it (which is why, I believe,
I mentioned this to my Post Doc, whose husband works at SLAC, and apparently they're having some kind of naming contest (whether real or fake is unknown to me), and NLC, short for National Light Center (or something like that), because SLAC is starting to be used primarily as a light source, is leading the pack (NLC was the name for
one of the precursors of the ILC, so it's supposed to be a joke).

Anyway, this is just silly, I think. Lots of bureaucratic silliness, which I find incredibly annoying. I hope this rename doesn't happen, but if it does the new name had better be good.


Thursday, July 17, 2008

People Found Who Don't Use Numbers: I cry bullshit

I'm incredibly dubious about this: People Found Who Don't Use Numbers, in part because you hear these claims made about remote tribes all the time and they usually end up being wrong, and also because I've read about Piraha before. Their language is really odd and (supposedly) simple, but unless things have changed dramatically since the papers I read, it's quite controversial. Literally one anthropologist was saying one thing and another was directly contradicting him. I think it's largely a problem of learning these languages that have no bilingual speakers, it's difficult to do. Granted, but that's not my only rationale.

Wikipedia backs up the story, but I'm still suspicious. Anthropological claims like this one are just of the type where I think they should be heavily scrutinized. For one they smack of cultural hubris, a kind of "they're so primitive" attitude. I don't actually think anyone believes that, but it's the kind of thing that's very ingrained into Western culture, and that kind of bias (like racism) is damn near impossibly to overcome at a subconscious level. Secondly, it's just so easy to get them wrong.

In Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought he describes a group descended from the Mayans called the Tzeltal, who live on the side of a mountain and generally refer to things as being "up the slope" or "down the slope". A linguist performed an experiment on them to see if this affected how they think (for the details see around p. 140 in the book, I don't think the details are important) and concluded that it did. In short, they "thought" in a geocentric frame, whereas most Westerners use an egocentric (axes centered on your body) or an object-centered frame (axes relative to objects near you). Anyway, another set of anthropologists (or perhaps linguists) performed a second, more careful experiment, and found that they, in fact, can use another frame of reference.

Actually, in this same chapter Pinker deals with the Piraha (they're quite famous), and thoroughly skewers the Sapir-Worf hypothesis (which is tangential to this anyway). For the full discussion see his book (I'm far too tired to transcribe it, and it's a fantastic book anyway).

But the point described in the SciAm podcast (and in the thousand articles I've seen on this today) seems to be a bit absurd to me. If these peoples don't, in the course of their daily lives, need to count anything, then why would they develop a precise language for counting?

And the claim that they "don't use numbers" is probably misleading, since there are other ways to keep track of reasonable numbers of objects. If you're a teacher on a field trip, you could either repeatedly count your kids and notice you have 23 instead of 24, or you could just notice that Billy is missing (that's how Pinker described it, keeping track of individuals one by one rather than keeping track of the number of individuals). There's no particular reason one of these systems is better than the other, until you start to deal with large numbers or complex operations. To expect an individual who doesn't (whether a Piraha or an American) to be able to just spontaneously start to do it is simply absurd, like testing the average American on calculus. They probably never learned it, they don't ever need to do it, so why on earth would we expect them to be able to?

The entire situation just strikes me as cultural elitism, like a kind of freak show, "Oh my god, how could they not have numbers!" Maybe that's not how people are actually seeing it, but that's how it seems, and I think it's absurd (that last line is SciAm just seems so incredibly condescending).

But these newspaper-level articles about indigenous peoples always infuriate me. Although, newspaper-level articles about any science do that, since they always screw it up somehow.

So I'm dubious about whether this experiment proved what they claim it did, even if it did it's hardly useful or meaningful, and I'm depressed by the coverage. All in all, a great story.

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Obama and Iraq

If you happen to think Obama has shifted position on Iraq, read this. It also does a good job skewering the right's attacks on his nonexistent repositioning as yet another attempt to paint the democrat as a flip-flopper, simply because they've got nothing else. I guess it's a Rovian tactic of attacking someone's strongest point.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Stuck on pins

Stuck on lapel pins, what should Obama wear on his lapel?

I know it's from the NYT, but it's easily the funniest thing I've read today.

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It's 3 AM, and John McCain needs to read an E-mail

I don't particularly think that being computer-savvy should be high on the list of qualifications for becoming President, but it is something to think about. And the parody of the 3 AM ad is priceless.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Collins on Obama

This is the smartest Op-Ed I've read in a while. The main point:

But if you look at the political fights he’s picked throughout his political career, the main theme is not any ideology. It’s that he hates stupidity. “I don’t oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war,” he said in 2002 in his big speech against the invasion of Iraq. He did not, you will notice, say he was against unilateral military action or pre-emptive attacks or nation-building. He was antidumb.

Most of the things Obama’s taken heat for saying this summer fall into these two familiar patterns — attempts to find a rational common ground on controversial issues and dumb-avoidance.

This does seem to be true, and it's a decent way of rationalizing his FISA vote, (which which I still disagree, but it's a lemon at this point since the damn thing would have passed no matter what. We we're failed by Obama, we were failed by the Democratic House and Senate leadership). I think this is worth remembering, since some people seem to think that Obama should hold perfect positions (which is insane, because that will differ drastically among the people who support him), and some of the time you're going to disagree with him. But Collins's last point is worth remembering:

Meanwhile, Obama has made it clear what issues he thinks all this cleverness and compromising are supposed to serve: national health care, a smart energy policy and getting American troops out of Iraq. He has tons of other concerns, but those seem to be the top three.

I think that, setting aside all of the other things we disagree with, accomplishing those three things would make an Obama presidency wildly successful.


Monday, July 07, 2008

Video games make you better at math?

This is really cool: playing action video games increases math test scores. It works both for men and women, and could possibly be used to reduce the gender disparity in math. That's really cool, and another great example of how weird our brains are.

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

HuffPo on FISA

This sums up my thoughts on FISA perfectly. Best part:

How can even one senator on either side of the aisle in good conscience vote in favor of this law that does nothing to enhance our security and everything to diminish our rights as a free people?

Damn right.

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Thursday, July 03, 2008

A little list

I'm finding it very hard to disagree with this list of things Obama should do to remind himself of what got him to where he is, and what he should be doing now.

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Police Abuse

I was watching Penn & Teller's Bullshit! last night, the episode about gun control, and they said (something to the effect of), "Sure, the police can protect you from a criminal, but who can protect you from the police?"

That question is becoming more and more relevant.

The sad thing? That's one of the more benign cases of police abusing their power I've ever seen.

I'd go into how wrong this all is, and how we need so much more oversight of police forces to prevent this kind of thing (and the more terrible abuses), but the entire thing makes me too angry and depressed. It's just amazing that this kind of behavior happens in the USA. It's the kind of thing you'd expect from a Colombian cartel.


Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Obama's flip flops

For some reason, our political culture disdains the so-called "flip-flop", as though changing one's mind on an issue were the worst thing ever. Labeling a true change of mind brought about by new evidence as a "flip-flop" is both asinine and counterproductive, as demagogues are made into saints by their consistency, while the thoughtful are smeared.

That being said, when a politician changes their position on an issue because of simple political expediency, there's something wrong. Those issues need to be addressed, and the politician needs to be called out on them.

So that's what I'm doing. But first, I want to say a couple of things.

Obama did not flip-flop on the recent Supreme Course child rape case. He came out in favor of the death penalty for child rapists in The Audacity of Hope (from here, as I don't have access to my copy):

"While the evidence tells me that the death penalty does little to deter crime, I believe there are some crimes — mass murder, the rape and murder of a child — so heinous, so beyond the pale, that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage by meting out the ultimate punishment."

The other flip-flop he's been accused of is on Iraq, which is absolutely absurd. Here's the argument:

Only weeks ago, the Democrat was calling for an immediate and rapid U.S. withdrawal. When General David Petraeus first testified about the surge in September 2007, Mr. Obama was dismissive and skeptical. But with the surge having worked wonders in Iraq, this week Mr. Obama went out of his way to defend General Petraeus against's attacks in 2007 that he was "General Betray Us." Perhaps he had a late epiphany.

This might just be me, but I think that condemning MoveOn for an add isn't showing support for the person they condemn, simply a distaste for MoveOn's actions (which I think Obama shares with many people). The article continues to say that, due to the surge, the situation has changed enough that Obama will modify his withdrawal proposal. Fair enough, it may happen (although I doubt it, for several reasons beyond the scope here), but citing a possibility for the future as evidence of his flip-flopiness is absolutely inane. I wonder if the Editorial board at the WSJ has had their brains removed recently, as that's the only explanation I can see (as for The New Republic employing a guy who fails to see through this charade, I can only hope his previous work was better).

Now, the real change of mind (I'm not going to bother arguing about the gun-rights stance, as I totally agree with both Heller and Obama's tepid take). Obama has completely reversed his opinion on the FISA compromise, which he voted against previously, but now would support this virtually unchanged bill. To be fair to Obama, due to its support from the leadership in the House and Senate, it makes opposition difficult. Difficult, but still right. It's incredibly disappointing that he can't use his new-found eminence in the Democratic party to take a stand against Republican fear mongering. With telecom immunity, we will almost certainly never find out the sordid details of Bush's spying program. Making them pay for their complicity is a secondary concern, and to many (including myself) not a priority at all. The American people deserve answers about what happened.

In the meantime, the President is perfectly capable of conducting all the surveillance he needs to in order to prevent terrorist attacks. If you don't think so, just look at the 911 Commission's findings, of which I was totally unaware until recently. It's simply a matter of fact that the Bush administration's incompetence allowed the 9/11 attacks to happen (see, for example, under the "Criticisms" section of the Wikipedia article). The new FISA bill is nothing more than a power-grab, it's entirely unnecessary, and we need some Democrats to grow spines and explain this to the American people and the fear mongering Republicans.

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As you probably noticed, this blog took an unannounced hiatus recently. I just didn't have it in me to keep going. Blogging is, largely, an entirely pointless endeavor. I can't really defend it in any way.

I also feel like I don't have anything particularly important to add. All I have to offer are my own opinions on things, and cannot figure why anyone would be interested in those.

So those things, combined with some of the busiest academic times of my life, conspired to make me say, "Eh, why bother?"

Although, I will admit, every now and then I saw something I really wanted to respond to in some way. I just didn't have the time.

Well, now it's summer, and now I do! I don't know how often I'll be posting, but I can tell you it will be the same old themes, politics, religion, science, the big interests of all humans. I'm also having some interesting conflicts with parts of the university bureaucracy, something I've never discussed before but, if it comes to it, will need some way to make public.

So, for the mysterious 110 of you that Feedburner says are still subscribed to this feed, you can look forward to seeing things soon!