Saturday, January 31, 2009
Happy Birthday, Reason and Rational Thought!
2009 marks the 350th year of the Royal Society, which has as good a claim as any as the birthplace of the Enlightenment. And if you're thinking to yourself, "wow, I should really write a novel based on that," well, Neal Stephenson beat you too it, writing not just a novel, but an entire series, The Baroque Cycle. It's a story in the seventeenth century about the Society and the beginnings of natural philosophy, coupled with global political intrigue and no small degree of sex. It includes Issac Newton; Leipzig; a captured whore's daughter who sleeps/cons her way into great wealth and power yet remains always admirable and becomes the leader of an anti-slave revolution; two orphaned brothers, one of whom becomes a straight-laced and highly-regarded military man, the other is Jack, the swashbuckling "King of the Vagabonds", who falls in love with the aforementioned whore's daughter; King Louis XVI (or was it the XIV?) of France, Britain's shadowy, unspeakably evil Star Chamber, a man named Enoch Root, who might or might not be an immortal wizard, the chase for the Philosopher's Stone, the Tower of London, the heist of a mammoth fortune from Arabia, clashes over religion, class, wealth, and, for good measure, the first kidney-stone removal.
Those who can do better that that are welcome to try.
Friday, January 30, 2009
1) The world's greatest 9-1-1 dispatcher is there in case you slice off your own toe.
2) They are celebrating Edgar Allen Poe's 200th birthday.
3) Matt Wieters. Matt Wieters. Matt Wieters. It has been twenty years since the Orioles had a player who could at least be in the room when the topic was best player in baseball. They have one now. Matt Wieters will gross over $300 million playing baseball, and will be worth every single penny.
Thursday, January 29, 2009
Think you have it rough? No, you don't. I am not a huge fan of Brad Delong's, but he nails it here.
The current recession may turn into a small depression, and may push global living standards down by five percent for one or two or (we hope not) five years, but that does not erase the gulf between those of us in the globe's middle and upper classes and all human existence prior to the Industrial Revolution. We have reached the frontier of mass material comfort—where we have enough food that we are not painfully hungry, enough clothing that we are not shiveringly cold, enough shelter that we are not distressingly wet, even enough entertainment that we are not bored.
There is no real reason to believe that the human condition will not continue to improve, if in fits and starts, as the centuries pass.
Dr. Saturday strikes another blow for the meaningfulness of college football recruiting rankings. Five-star recruits are five times more likely to wind up on mainstream-media All-America teams than the four-star types, and 70(!) times more likely than the two- and one-star schmucks they so dominated in high school.
Empiricism is a wonderful thing, is it not?
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Yahoo's Matt "Dr. Saturday" Hinton shows, again, that college football recruiting rankings do matter. When a team has the more highly-regarded collection of high-school recruits -- as measured by the people at Rivals* -- it wins three games out of four, outscoring the lesser-talented team by fifteen points a game. This wouldn't be true if recruiting ratings were all a bunch of hooey.
*Rivals has LSU first in the country this year, followed by Ohio State, Southern California, Alabama, and Texas. Florida is tenth.
--- Joe Sheehan's column today at Baseball Prospectus has a general-thoughts column which includes this line: "... [Would] be better off as a tester for experimental parachute designs." I would like to nominate "You would better serve mankind as a tester for experimental parachute designs" as the Best Insult of 2009 So Far. I would also like to announce that I will be using this regularly and freely.
--- After making the playoffs in each of their first eleven years in Denver -- with two Stanley Cups -- the Colorado Avalanche are in danger of missing the postseason for the seond season in three. Culprit: Offense. When the Av's won the Cup in 1996, they were second in the league in goals scored. When they won the other, in 2001, they were fourth. The '08-09 bunch are just 22nd in the league and were shut out last night.
--- Sportsbook.com has the Steelers as still a solid seven-point favorite, a number unchanged from the open. On the win-outright odds, though, Arizona pays at +200 (a $100 bet wins $200) and 88% of the money on that bet is going to the Cardinals, so the gambling public has the Cardinals with at least a one-third chance of winning. I'd lay the seven.
--- From the Wall Street Journal's article ($) on how lobbying increases as the size of the gubmint
This is, though, something the government-intrusionists (mostly harder-core lefties, but such GIs can be found on the right) too often do not acknowledge in the claims that only Government Program X can cure Awful Social Malady Y: The more of a role the government plays in a society, the greater the rewards from lobbying will be, and the more lobbying we will have. And, since lobbying means money, more lobbying means more dollars finding their way into and winding their way through the political system, when they could be spent in other places. If you want to reduce the influence of The Rich in American politics, you start by reducing the influence of the government in American life.
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
I liked this a lot. It's never too early to begin preparing for life in 2362.
I particularly like #12: "Life should not be broken up into a series of disconnected episodes with no long-term consequences. No matter how sensual or complex, playing one really great video game after another, does not make a life story." A life well-lived should be more than one experience piled on top of another. YMMV
Monday, January 26, 2009
Will Wilkinson goes off (read the whole thing) on economics and those who claim to practice it. By his own admission, his rant is inspired more by frustration than by a calculating approach to the pros and cons of various schools of economic thought, but he has a point:
In the debate over economic stimulus, I hear many otherwise brilliant people making a lot of baseless conjectures about mass psychology — about consumer and creditor “fear” and “uncertainty,” and what to do about it. But, as far as I can tell, none of them has even a rudimentary theory about the causes of micro-fear or how it scales up to aggregate consumer demand or aggregrate credit supply, etc. So I feel like I’m hearing a lot of smart people talking out of their asses about a subject they’ve never actually studied –the psychology of coordinated expectations — and pretending it is “economics,” a subject with much greater rhetorical prestige and political power than amateur psychology.
If booms or recessions are really based in coordinated psychological changes, then why should we think that monetary or fiscal policy is the most relevant policy lever? If the thoughts and feelings of the population are the issue, then maybe the real problem is that the mass media are unduly scaring people. Wouldn’t it follow, then, that good economic policy would have at least as much to do with controlling the media as controlling the money supply? If the problem with handing Maria Bartiromo a script of state-mandated talking points is that it wouldn’t work, how do we know that?
That's all interesting, and whether vesting the brown eyes of CNBC's original Money Honey with the force of government is a good idea is debatable. But this is provocative:
If the problem with turning the entire media into a servant of state macroeconomic engineering is not that it wouldn’t work, but that it’s repulsively illiberal, then we ought to face up to it. This is something that's been running through my head for quite some time. I oppose much government intervention largely on the grounds that it is less effective than most voluntary or market-based measures, but even the stuff that makes sense on many levels (ie: military draft) rubs me seriously wrongly on the grounds that morality requires liberty and government action by definition reduces the liberty of the person being acted upon. Libertarians *might* be better served (or would at least be more idealogically consistent) begging off the entire idea of the efficacy of Government Action X and focusing instead of its illiberalness. This, come to think of it, is very similar to the torture debate, except the sides differ (torture: left = "it's wrong"; right = "gotta do it if it works";; economic regulation: left = "gotta do it if it works"; right = "it's wrong").
Might write more about this later.
Sunday, January 25, 2009
When one wants real insights into religion's effect on people, one can do worse than to plumb the wisdom of Scandinavia's death-metal scene.
From Varg Vikenes:
Christianity was created by some decadent and degenerated Romans as a tool of oppression, in the late Roman era, and it should be treated accordingly. It is like handcuffs to the mind and spirit and is nothing but destructive to mankind. In fact I don't really see Christianity as a religion. It is more like a spiritual plague, a mass psychosis, and it should first and foremost be treated as a problem to be solved by the medical science. Christianity is a diagnosis. It's like Islam and the other Asian religions, a HIV/AIDS of the spirit and mind.
Hat tip to Ken.
That is all.
Friday, January 23, 2009
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Meant to add in the Chuck Noll post that, unless New England captures another title in Bill Belichik's tenure (and '09 marks the fourth ringless year in a row for the Patriots), Noll's four-Super Bowls mark is unlikely to be matched for some time. Now that Tony Dungy has moved onto the next phase of his life, and Tampa Bay has ridden itself of the march-to-mediocrity that was the last few years of Jon Gruden's tenure, the only active coach with even one Super Bowl championship on his resume is the man who a year ago denied Belichik his fourth, Tom Caughlin of the Giants.
John Gasaway of Basketball Prospectus talks about the stunning decline in the pace of play of Pac-10 basketball. His point about whether this could lead to recruiting trouble is, I think, valid. Superstar athletes are superstar athletes largely because they can run and jump and they will go to schools where they can run and jump. And those schools are not in the Pac-10.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
This, I thought was fascinating. Yale Law sounds like it could be more properly called "Yale Philosophy School for People Who Want to be Hippies but Also Want to Make Money and/or Wield Influence", while Harvard could bill itself "Harvard Law: Where We Teach You to Dominate Others by Demanding You Kneel to Us". I wonder how much, if any, of the difference can be explained by each school's deliberately eschewing the other's styles, curricula, and philosophies, by way of trying to differentiate itself from the other.
Saturday, January 17, 2009
A dear friend of mine is proud to announce that she will be a member of Baltimore County's 9-1-1 dispatch. I encourage all members of the English-speaking world to head to Baltimore and start up emergencies, giving her more opportunities to say "Baltimore County 911. What is your emergency?"
Friday, January 16, 2009
When we last left Michele and Christopher, the chef had arrived.
The chef in the tall white hat set the grill afire, and a flame several feet high shot into the air. Then came the eggs. Tossing them up into the air and catching them on a spatula before breaking them and letting them sizzle on the grill. I took out the BlackBerry to record the show ...
... and after a minute or two thought of a passage in Neal Stephenson's essay, "In the Beginning there was the Command Line". Stephenson recounts a trip to Disney World. While walking through the Magic Kingdom, he spies a man with a large camcorder recording everything in sight, yet looking at the exhibits only through the small screen in the camcorder. Stephenson thinks to himself, "Here is this guy, spending all this money to come down here for a vacation, to look at man-made replica's of other people's imaginations, and he's watching it through a television. And I am watching him." And I realized I was doing the same thing, watching a replica of a Japanese style of cooking, and doing it through a viewfinder. I put away the BlackBerry and remarked to Michele about the Zen-style nuttiness of what I was doing. She laughed, but didn't take her eyes off the show.
I lost track of time, so I have no idea how long various techniques of grilling, slinging, seasoning, cutting, whittling, shaping, frying food -- all while keeping up a level of audience-interaction patter that would make an Atlantic City Boardwalk pitchman proud -- went on, but at some unknowable point, I was sitting with a full plate of food.
And, I ask, just where the hell has THIS been all my life? Yeesh, that was good.
Michele on or way out told me that she had never seen me smile that much. I guess I have a new favorite restaurant.
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
The exciting conclusion of Saturday's evening at Koto's will be posted shortly. For now, I wanted to talk about an interesting ad strategy being pursued by the people hawking the Chevy (don't dare call it Chevrolet, not with a truck) Silverado.
There are (at least) three different ads, each starring former football great and classic man's-man Howie Long, and each specifically targets one of Silverado's three primary rivals: Ford's F-150, the Dodge Ram, and Toyota's Tundra. In the F-150 ad, Long, in his Silverado, stumbles across a guy rather gingerly getting out of his truck bed with the use of a step hanging off the tailgate. Long mocks this as a "man-step", all but implying that an adult male who uses such a step would be better off driving his little hybrid to ballet class than risk injuring himself getting in and out of pickup trucks. In another, a gentleman for whom the Ram is clearly too much truck, gently bumps into Long's pickup while trying to parallel park. Long, weirdly in good humor (when was the last time you chuckled while getting bumped by another driver?) walks up to the driver and tells him not to worry, no problem. Then he notices neatly manicured hands clutching the steering wheel. "Enjoy that heated steering wheel," he says with a chuckle. The best of the trio, and most strident in showing off its in-your-face testosterone level (that it targets the only Japanese-made truck in the series might or might not be a coincidence), is one with Toyota's Tundra in the sights. Long pulls up to the filling station next to a baby-faced chap in a flat-brimmed ball cap. Long compliments him on the truck. Baby-face says, clearly pushing his voice an octave or two below its normal range, "Yeah. It's a real truckers' truck. For real truckers. Like me." Long inquires about the real-truckers'-truck's gas mileage. Baby-face answers in a much higher tone, suggesting that his balls aren't properly inflated with sufficient man-hormone. Long, again, chuckles and mentions the Silverado's superior mileage. "Enjoy being a real trucker." [read "being" = "pretend being] This is the only spot in which an advantage Silverado has over its competition is mentioned.
What's classic about these ads is how little they mention about Silverado's own features. The tactic is clearly that if your own product doesn't have selling points of its own, make fun of the competitors' features. And if you can do so by playing to your targets' fears and insecurities, so much the better. Whether these ads work in terms of increasing Silverado's market share and GM's profits (assuming there is a GM six months from now) remains to be seen. It's also an interesting look into the psychology of truck buyers ... at least the buyers Chevy is looking to chase.
Monday, January 12, 2009
On Saturday, Michele and I took my first-ever trip to a Japanese restaurant. Ten gazillion times I have driven past this place on College Drive, maybe twenty gazillion, but rarely if ever did I think about going in. Then when Michele and I were thinking about places to eat the other day it occurred to me that a) Michele had said a couple of times that she loved Japanese food and b) she and I had never gone for Japanese, largely because c) my aforementioned Japanese-food virginity.
To Koto's of Japan we go.
We go in. We didn't make reservations and there's a thirty-minute wait. I give my name and am handed one of the little signaller jobbies, the round black thing that looks like an ashtray with flashing red lights. We first go to the bar, but I notice on the TV the Ravens/Dolphins game. I'm DVR'ing this to watch it later, so catching snippets of it at the bar while waiting on a table just will not do. We go outside and enjoy some night air, refreshingly cool and breezy after a month of unseasonably, ridiculously warm summery weather. Jokes about the final end of "post-summer summer" are told. Michele has a cigarette but after her smoke begins to get uncomfortably chilly. We go inside for the rest of the wait. Our conversations are too mundane to list here ("You can download a Google-mail program specifically for your phone," etc.) but are the comfortable and comforting talks of people who share an effortless and enjoyable chemistry. The time passes smoothly and we're soon told our table by the hibachi grill is ready. Because we were sitting inside by the hostess's podium there was no need for them to send the ashtray its signal, depriving me of seeing the little flashing lights. This is disappointing.
We're led to our seats.
Well now, this is nice. My first look at a hibachi grill. There are four grills, two to each side. Michele and I are take the last two seats to the right of a divider. I'm to her right. Whoops. I have another view of the TV. We switch seats and the game is safely from my view.
On the other grill in our section, a young and seemingly large family is hosting a birthday party for their son, who later proves himself to be something of snotnose little brat. To our right are an older couple out on the town. The man remarks on the game on the TV (he, thankfully, says nothing more than who is playing) and the woman says something in return. They start talking, in rather halting tones, about football. The woman says that forty years ago she knew the names of all the teams in the league, offering this as though it's new information. I wonder if maybe they're in the early stages of dating; if they had been in a long-time relationship it's probable that her old fondness of football would have been ground long since covered. I can't stop smiling. I'm feeling good, soaking up various sight, sounds, smells, and sensations, and this is all pretty cool.
An Asian man with a tall white hat appears, armed to the gills with sharp knives and other tools that could be used either at a grill or in a pain chamber. It's the chef!
(to be continued)
Friday, January 9, 2009
I wanted to expound on the "21st-century Americans ... " paragraph from yesterday's post, but Dennis Kowalski did it much more eloquently on the Cryonics Institute's mailing list. His post, published with his permission:
I don't know if people who think about the future take into account the exponential nature of technological advancement and how it changes things for the better. When I talk to people about the future many are either negative or a little afraid. It is [fashionable] to talk about the problems of the world but ignore the progress.
The future is uncertain but if we can gather anything from the past ... here's a thought experiment: Lets go back in time, 500 years ago.
99.9% of humans were engaged in basic survival occupations. They either were farmers or in hunting gathering tribes ... starvation was the number-one killer. Even the top 0.1% (as in kings, pharaohs, emperors, or chiefs) were lucky to live to 30 yrs of age. They had head lice, horrible diseases treated by witch doctors and wizards who used blood letting and the alignment of the stars as primary health care treatments. No phone or internet communications, just foot runners. They had no planes ,trains, or autos just horses...no refrigeration, poor nutrition, little entertainment. Romans watched people getting mauled by lions ...for fun? I could go on and on ... overall, a brutal existence even for those on the top of the heap.
Fast forward to today. In the world we have cell phones with 911 access, television with cable, the internet and computers are everywhere ... many people own cars and even if they rent ... one way or another...even if they are poor...they have better living conditions, at least technologically, then most humans did in the past.
I think for lack of a better word, we are spoiled. We keep moving the bar on what it means to be wealthy financially, from millionaire to billionaire. Our life expectancies have tripled. We are angry when people get killed in wars or civilian targets get hit, but this was the norm for most of history. We have so much unbelievable wealth and good fortune around us that we fail to see it in front of our eyes.
So I think if you plucked someone from 500 years ago and brought them here they would be in utter awe of what we have now. Yet they would be puzzled at how much we worry, complain, and fret over the world. For instance, They'd probably welcome high cholesterol and heart disease caused by obesity because in their time most people were starving. No one even got cancer because they either didn't live long enough to get it and no one knew what cancer was. Even "Third World" nations are doing better today then in the past. In the past people just died and went unnoticed altogether.
What does this mean for the next 100 years? I think we will be at a distinct advantage to the people living in the future because their problems will be relative to their existence. We will think of those new-age kids as spoiled, and we can wax nostalgic about how hard we had it. I could see an argument between two people in the future about why they are only worth billions of dollars and only have 100 robot servants while some other rich guy has trillions of dollars and 10,000 robot servants. We could add that they don't know how easy they have it with their fancy teleporters since we had to actually drive from point to point. It's all relative. Advanced nanotech, robotics, and genetics are powerful technologies that will vastly empower humans of tomorrow to a degree that humans of today can only dream of.
Thank you, Dennis.
That, than any other, is the biggest selling point for cryonics: Today is vastly, hugely, almost incomprehensibly better than yesterday. And it stands to reason that tomorrow has a good chance of being even better still.
Thursday, January 8, 2009
The Wall Street Journal reports($) on the "don't just stand there do something" desperation among governments looking to avoid taking their economic-contraction medicine, a stance popularized by John M. Keynes but debunked by Milton Friedman and the montarists. Wishful-thinking quote from the article: "Economists say that if governments can get money into the economy quickly, targeting projects that will have the biggest effect, and make sure the spending is temporary, they can avoid inflation and wasteful spending."
And we can all have free ponies.
The WSJ has another article on national whining about declining 401(k) balances. Kristine Gardner, a 35-year-old whose sense of entitlement vastly exceeds her historical perspective, is quoted as saying, "There's just no guarantee that when you're ready to retire you're going to have the money." Babe, there's no guarantee that you'll even be alive when you're ready to retire. Welcome to life.
21st-century Americans live longer, more comfortable, more peaceful, more secure, and more prosperous lives than any group of people in human history. Even our least-affluent neighbors have access to education, entertainment, and luxury that monarchs of three centuries ago dared not dream of. This longevity, comfort, and education comes from an economy that produces such an abundance of our basic needs that huge numbers of people are able to live what by historical standards are unimaginably luxurious lives. But it starts with prosperity, and prosperity requires a dynamic economy.
And dynamic, abundance-producing, civilized-lives-creating economies are strangled by the risk-averse.
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
I was going to write a post about all the fallacies behind the BCS system, foremost among them the prominence of the sham that is the coaches' poll (Does Urban Meyer have a solid opinion on whether TCU is a better or worse team than Virginia Tech? Goodness knows that if he does, that's hardly what Florida is paying him for) and the simply ridiculous restriction on the computer rankings disallowing any margin-of-victory component.
Fortunately, however, Bill James has done my work for me. Money quote: "The only role that the computer rankings play in this is that they're there to take the fall when the system doesn't work—and it doesn't work most of the time."
And here's why the system doesn't work most of the time: It can't. There is no way that in a normal season any system, algorithm, or panel can identify the two teams most worthy of playing for the national championship, because in most seasons at least three and sometimes five teams have equally-valid claims to a title-game berth. The only times a solid one-versus-two is possible is when a "working" system is not needed: Think Southern California and Texas in 2005, or Miami and Ohio State in 2002. When there is controversy (Auburn/USC/Oklahoma in 2004 as just one example), the system is bound to fail. Consistently identifying the Annointed Two is something the BCS, regardless of its setup, just cannot do. And no wrangling over the relative values of opinion polls and computer rankings can change that.
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
"Rationality Quotes 21" from Robin Hanson and Eliezer Yudkowski's blog Overcoming Bias
"The most dangerous thing in the world is finding someone you agree with. If a TV station news is saying exactly what you think is right, BEWARE! You are very likely only reinforcing your beliefs, and not being supplied with new information."
"Companies deciding which kind of toothpaste to market have much more rigorous, established decision-making processes to refer to than the most senior officials of the U.S. government deciding whether or not to go to war."
-- Michael Mazarr
"Everything I ever thought about myself - who I was, what I am - was a lie. You have no idea how astonishingly liberating that feels."
-- Neil Gaiman, Stardust
"Saul speaks of the 'intense desire for survival on the part of virtually everyone on earth,' and our 'failure' in spite of this. I have often pointed out that the so-called 'survival instinct' is reliable only in clear and present danger - and even then only if the individual is still relatively healthy and vigorous. If the danger is indirect, or remote in time, or if the person is weak or depressed - or even if required action would violate established habits - forget the 'survival instinct.' It isn't that simple."
-- Robert Ettinger on cryonics
"We are running out of excuses. We just have to admit that real AI is one of the lowest research priorities, ever. Even space is considered more important. Nevermind baseball, tribology, or TV evangelism."
-- Eugen Leitl
"That's something that's always struck me as odd about humanity. Our first response to someone's bad news is "I'm sorry", as though we feel that someone should take responsibility for all the $ed up randomness that goes on in this universe."
-- Angels 2200
"We were supremely lucky to be born into this precise moment in history. It is with an ever-cresting crescendo of wonder and enthusiasm that I commend you to the great adventure and the great adventure to you."
-- Jeff Davis
Monday, January 5, 2009
Apparently some heavy losers on Sportsbook.com's ledgers tonight. As I mentioned in my earlier post, nearly four betters in five on that site layed the points, and tonight they came up empty. I'll have a follow-up post late tomorrow or Wednesday.
Beautiful post-game quote from Longhorns receiver Quan Cosby: "First and foremost I have to give glory to God." Got that, Ohio State fans? God hates you. God is cheerfully rooting against you. God is fervently working, day and night, to savage your dreams. And so is Quan Cosby. Deal with it.
Texas and Ohio State are in the Fiesta Bowl tonight. I'm rooting for Texas, in part because I fell in love with the school on a brief visit in '87, partly because a cousin went there, partly because burnt orange is strangely cool, but mostly for national-championship-chaos reasons I will discuss more tomorrow.
Yahoo has Texas as an 8-point favorite, down from a 10.5 open. Sportsbook.com has the Longhorns minus 8.5 with 77% of the money going UT's way (numbers provided for entertainment purposes, of course).