Saturday, January 31, 2009

One of the best things I've ever heard

Though it isn't something you should listen to at work:

By the way, Minchin is also an expert in conceptspace, as evidenced by this song:

Read more.

Conceptspace and creationism

Sometimes it is useful to imagine a conceptspace, some ethereal place where rests all possible attributes of all possible things. It is infinitely large, as large as the human imagination. I've found a lot of my old errors of thinking stemmed from an inability to deal with the huge size of conceptspace.

For instance, what if somebody told you that the probability of a coin toss resulting in 10 heads in a row were so low that such an event should be described as a miracle?

What is the probability of flipping 10 heads in a row, anyway? The answer is one in 1024. That's pretty rare! So should we consider it a miracle? (Put aside the law of large numbers for now. Yes, if you do 10 coin tosses 1024 times, you should expect a string of heads at least once. But I'm only talking about one set of coin tosses.)

Even if it's spectacular to witness, I don't think you should consider it a miracle. The problem is that the miracler is attaching significance to a string of heads. But HHHHHHHHHH is equally as rare as HTHTHHTTHT. We don't flip our wigs for any of the other 1023 combinations, except for a string of tails.

But "heads are miracles!" type thinking is exactly what leads intelligent design creationists to make such silly arguments as, "The improbability of life in our universe should lead us to believe in design." Ah, but we only have an understanding of our exact forms of life, because that's all we have to observe. We know very little about what other kinds of life could exist, although we have some pretty good evidence that life can exist in surprising kinds of environments, and natural selection allows us to understand how organisms can turn environmental "bads" into "goods."

Pharyngula takes down a similar argument about the improbability of life:
M(Ex) is a rather important value in Hazen's paper, defined as "the number of different configurations that achieves or exceeds the specified degree of function x". One of the points in that work is that there are many different ways to accomplish function x, so this can be a fairly significant number. To continue our poker analogy, the goal of a hand is to beat the other hands — that's our function x, to have a combination of cards that has a greater rarity than every other player's hand. M(Ex) is actually rather large, since the average poker hand will beat half of all other poker hands (and need I add, every round of poker will have one hand that wins!). How does Durston handle M(Ex)?

He ignores it. He simply sets it to 1. . .

What that means is that he only accepts one possible solution in an evolutionary lineage. He is estimating the probability that an organism will have precisely the genetic sequence it has, as derived from a purely random sequence, within a limited amount of trials. No incremental approach is allowed, and worse, it is the one and only sequence that is functionally relevant. The only way he imagines a sequence can be reached is by randomization, and all he considers is the conclusion.
As Julia Sweeney put it, it's like arguing that hands are so amazing because they're perfectly designed to fit our gloves. Read more.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Great news

Kidney donation doesn't reduce lifespan. Which reduces any sense I could make of opposition to Singapore's organ donation bill. Read more.

Something wonderful

Ron Amundson has a disclaimer on his home page for those interested in taking his Philosophy 310: Metaphysics course. Apparently he is tired of a certain kind of student.

(via) Read more.

Monday, January 26, 2009

An economic analysis of Battlestar Galactica's 3rd season

Found here, a sample:
Why the hell was the MPK (SL: Marginal product of capital) so low on New Caprica?

They had a year before the Cylons showed up. And after that year they were still living in freakin' tents. TENTS! After a year! Lazy ass bastards!

. . .

We are talking about a civilization that has FTL capability here! And they can't fashion tree trunks into adobes.

Also, there's obviously stone - where the execution of Roslin, Zarek and others was gonna take place. Now, if you take stones, and pile one on top of each other, at some point you make these things called *WALLS*. It's not a long shot from there to make a *CEILING*. And then you got a house. But when the Cylons showed up there was no *walls* or *ceiling* or *houses*, just freakin' tents.
The end of the fourth season--along with the show--is finally in swing and I have been mildly disappointed. Read more.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

For your education

The Wikipedia entry for cooties:
From its original meaning of head or body lice, the term evolved into a purely imaginary stand-in for anything repulsive. In British English the term lurgy may be used in the same context. However, lurgy has a broader definition and the two concepts are not equivalent. In Great Britain the term mange in some places serves a similar purpose, broadly being a contactable virus that passes through touch or association with an 'infected' person. There are no actual symptoms of "mange" or outwardly visible signs. The terms "girl germs" or "boy germs" are also commonly used. In south Wales the term "scabs" is used, while in Scotland a similar condition is called "feechs". In northern Europe, "cooties" exists but only suggests that the "disease" is found in girls. In Sweden the phenomenon is called "tjejbaciller"[4] (literally "girl bacillus") and in Denmark it is known as "pigelus" (literally "girl lice"), and "drengelus" ("boy lice"). In Norway the form "guttelus" (literally "boy lice") exists parallel to "jentelus" ("girl lice"). In Finland it is known as "tyttöbakteeri" (lit. "girl bacteria").

. . .

Children sometimes "immunize" each other from cooties by administering a "cootie shot." One child typically administers the "shot" by reciting the rhyme "circle, circle / dot, dot / now you've got the cootie shot" while using an index finger to trace the circles and dots on another child's forearm. Yet another variation of the cootie shot is "circle, circle / square, square / now you have it everywhere," in which a child expecting an immunization is hoodwinked by a friend into being infected with cooties throughout his or her body.
Read more.

Not to be missed

This is an interview with Zimbabwe's central banker, who is responsible for an 89,700,000,000,000,000,000,000% inflation rate. Choice quotes:
But the United States maintains that the sanctions are targeted toward top members of Mugabe's regime, like yourself.
They do have an impact [on me] but it is the degree of suffering that the world is missing. It's not like I'm an international persona non grata; I often travel. Quite contrary to what the world has been made to believe, the sanctions are not really hitting the middle to high-income bracket. The impact of sanctions is to deny the country access to credit facilities, and then we are unable to import fuel. Then the poor suffer.

Your critics blame your monetary policies for Zimbabwe's economic problems. I've been condemned by traditional economists who said that printing money is responsible for inflation. Out of the necessity to exist, to ensure my people survive, I had to find myself printing money. I found myself doing extraordinary things that aren't in the textbooks. Then the IMF asked the U.S. to please print money. I began to see the whole world now in a mode of practicing what they have been saying I should not. I decided that God had been on my side and had come to vindicate me.

Is it time to change course then?
Only a fool does not change course when it is necessary. Because economics is not an exact science, you want to be able to be relevant. The only constant is change and adaptation.

In November you shut down Zimbabwe's stock exchange. Will you open it again?
The stockbrokers were creating a money supply that wasn't there. I printed Z$1.5 quadrillion, but the exchange was operating with Z$100 sextillion. So I said, "Who is doing my job?" Unless there is more discipline and honor, the exchange will stay closed. I can't be bothered. I don't know when it'll open. It's a free market, a business which must be allowed to succeed or fail.

Many say you profit off the poverty of others.
That is simply not true.
I love how he adopts economists' rhetoric to excuse himself. A little bit of inflation can help during a recession, so the most massively inflated currency in the world must be vindicated. Economics is not an exact science, so we can try any old wacky thing. Read more.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The state of macro

Will Wilkinson's tirade against macroeconomics reminded me of an interview with Stanley Fischer I read last semester. From A Modern Guide to Macroeconomics, first edition:
Why do you think there is more consensus amongst economists over microeconomic issues compared to macroeconomic issues?

In part because micro is less important and in part because, believe it or not, I think that the empirical standards are lower in microeconomics. Let me justify what I mean. When Rudi Dornbusch and I came to write our principles book I knew macro well but hadn't done much micro for a long time. I thought it was going to be a breeze, the macro part we know and the micro part is all clear - there would be a thousand empirical equations out there to illustrate demand and supply curves. Well the empirical backing isn't around very much - there are lots of stories and models but I don't think micro focuses on a set of issues in the same way that macro does. Microeconomists are not called upon to explain real-world phenomena to anything like the extent that macroeconomists are. They don't have a daily confrontation with policy makers, the newspapers and the capital markets. One of the very successful micro fields is finance, partly because they are really pushed to come up with something that will stand the test of a lot of very sceptical people.
I'm siding with the popular blogger over the star economist. I wonder if recent events have tempered Fischer's arrogance? Read more.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Obama's first day

I've been telling people that the best thing Obama could do on his first day in office would be to release all of the documents on torture policy and other things the Bush administration so desperately tried to keep hidden from the public. For all his rhetoric about open government, I could still think of several political incentives against taking such action, so I was cynical.

Turns out he's made of good stuff after all. Obama has set us on the path of opening the government back up. Huzzah! Read more.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Force

This goes on a bit long, but it's an entertaining idea. Woo-woos love to use the word "energy" whenever it suits them. Ghosts have energy, vortices have energy, magnets and crystals have healing energy, spirits have energy. There's energy in your body, and dowsing rods amplify this energy. There's energy in everything, and telekinesis just employs this latent energy. And so on.

Of course, they don't really mean energy. Energy is a scalar physical quantity. Various kinds can be measured by ordinary physical instruments. There was a great bit an episode of Penn and Teller: Bullshit! in which the duo take a vortex tour of Sedona, Arizona. They then return to some of the "strong vortex areas" and measure the electromagnetic energy compared to nearby locales. In some cases they're weaker where the tour guide claims them to be the strongest.

Anyway, Jeff Wagg offers a useful trick when a woo uses "energy." Replace every instance of it with "The Force" and see if the meaning changes. Read more.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Colbert Report Intro Sequence

Does that say what I think it does?
The frame was taken from the January 5th episode. Read more.