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Interesting Posts from 2011

21 december, 2011
Science vs. Religion

"There is no god and that's the simple truth. If every trace of any single religion died out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again."

Penn Jillette knows what's what and what's not what.

17 october, 2011
One Step Towards Allah

In the vein of my previous article about how science only scratches the surface, Jonah Lehrer had a great article in the New Yorker:

Although scientific experiments are supposed to be reproducible, few people ever try to reproduce them. Even fewer succeed. It's as if the results fade away over time and stop being true.

My personal theory is that the intention of researchers affects their results -- when you go beyond your old boundaries to try something new, you help to create new outcomes. Ask anybody in a 12-step group: when you go out and take risks, do the unknown, all kinds of coincidences start to happen.

As John Elton Bembry put it "if you take one step toward Allah, Allah takes two steps toward you".

Note: I believe in the phenomenon without believing in Allah.

It's not surprising that exciting new experiments give different results than experiments that are done for confirmation, that don't give rise to passion.

Lehrer's is a fantastic article and goes well beyond what I've written here.

14 october, 2011
The Complexity Brake

Paul G. Allen:

"We call this issue the complexity brake. As we go deeper and deeper in our understanding of natural systems, we typically find that we require more and more specialized knowledge to characterize them, and we are forced to continuously expand our scientific theories in more and more complex ways."

"The closer we look at the brain, the greater the degree of neural variation we find. Understanding the neural structure of the human brain is getting harder as we learn more. Put another way, the more we learn, the more we realize there is to know, and the more we have to go back and revise our earlier understandings."

This is great... I've been looking for a way to express this phenomenon for a while now. In the mass media, you get the impression that everything's under control, we pretty much understand how the world works.

My wife is a biologist, working on L. pneumophila, the cause of Legionnaires Disease. I've gone to several conferences with her, and it is clear that the closer we look at bacteria, the more difficult they are to understand. Basic bacterial reproduction is extremely complex and varies according to circumstances. Bacteria are able to communicate amongst themselves ("quorum sensing") but no one knows how.

I often think of how we retrospectively mock the Victorians for their limited understanding of science (measuring skulls etc.), but are we really that far advanced compared to the 19th century? We're only scratching the surface.

I'm learning anatomy in order to improve my drawing. I decided to be thorough, and it immediately became clear that my previous understanding of our bones and muscles was incredibly superficial. The more I looked learned about the muscular system, the more everything was interconnected and it started to seem like an arbitrary decision whether a muscle was single or a group of muscles, etc. Many muscles vary routinely between individuals or are absent in half the population.

People are already talking about modifying the climate artificially. I can't imagine that we understand it enough to be able to have a positive effect.

17 september, 2011
Candidate Bush And Arab-Americans

Candidate Bush, on Oct. 11, 2000:

"Bush said during the nationally televised debate, 'Arab-Americans are racially profiled in what's called secret evidence. People are stopped, and we got to do something about that.' Then-Governor Bush went on, 'My friend, Sen. Spence Abraham [the Arab-American Republic Senator from Michigan], is pushing a law to make sure that, you know, Arab-Americans are treated with respect. So racial profiling isn't just an issue at the local police forces. It's an issue throughout our society. And as we become a diverse society, we're going to have to deal with it more and more.'"

Steve Sailer, always a good source for news you won't read in the NYT.

26 july, 2011
Understanding Oslo

The ever-eloquent Mr. Moldbug sheds some light at Unqualified Reservations.
I always imagined that Oslo was a sort of northern-European paradise where everything worked, everyone got along, and so on.
Apparently, they suffer from heavy gang activity, largely immigrant-controlled.
Native Norwegian youths are routinely beaten and intimidated, and when they organize to defend themselves they are labeled neo-nazis.
It's one data point, but it changed my perspective.

1 july, 2011
Employers Hire More Minorities

This is great news:

"The combination of well-documented racial differences in cognitive ability and the consistent link between ability and job performance generates a pattern that experts term "the validity-diversity tradeoff": job selection devices that best predict future job performance generate the smallest number of minority hires in a broad range of positions."

"The data indicate that pronounced differences in the background distribution of skill and human capital, not arbitrary hurdles imposed by employers, are the principle factor behind racial imbalances in most jobs. Moreover, blacks lag behind whites in actual on-the-job performance, which indicates that employers are not unfairly excluding minorities from the workforce but rather bending over backwards to include them."

Amy L. Wax, University of Pennsylvania Law School, on SSRN.com

28 june, 2011
How to Steal Image Rights to Any Landmark

The company responsible for lighting the Eiffel Tower at night copyrighted the pattern of lights that they put up.

Now, they legally (air quotes) own the right to any image of the Tower taken at night.
If I get a laser projection unit and broadcast my copyrighted logo on, say, the side of the pyramids, does that mean that I own the rights to any images of the pyramids at night?
What if I make a potato stamp of my logo and stamp the forehead of a politician?
SNTE, who owns (air quotes again) the right to the Tower at night, seems to be claiming that the lights are the main thing I'd be taking a picture of.
Do they think I'd be there taking a picture of their lights without the presence of the Eiffel Tower?

28 march, 2011
The Cost of Taxing the Rich

Zero Hedge has an interesting article about the unexpected costs of taxing the rich. It explains a problem with taxing the rich that I have never seen described elsewhere.

The basic problem is that by depending on income tax receipts from the rich to fund the government, the welfare of everyone becomes dependent on the welfare of the rich. Since most of the income of the very rich does not come from salaries but from bonuses and investments, it can vary wildly from one year to the next.

For example, the state of California gets half its income tax revenu from taxes on households that make more than $500K/year. The financial crisis hit the very rich twice as hard (in dollar terms) as it did the middle class. Because of this the state saw a drastic drop in revenue when it could least afford it.

Ironically, taxing the rich is often proposed by people that simply don't like the rich and would like to see them disappear -- but the effect of doing so is to transform the maintenance of the wealthy into a necessity for the well-being of everyone else.

16 january, 2011
Truman on Immigration

Truman: "It is absolutely impossible, without the expenditure of very large amounts of manpower and money, to seal off our long land borders to all illegal immigration."

He was arguing for increased powers to expel illegal immigrants.

I took a great class on social justice at Swarthmore. The basic lesson was that immigration policy comes down to a choice between:

- welcoming everyone and degrading the quality of life (benefits recent immigrants) and

- restricting immigration and serving as an example to the world (benefits current residents and the rest of the world).

There are two assumptions implicit in this view: that increasing immigration decreases quality of life, and that we are fit to serve as an example to the world.

15 january, 2011
Understanding the Difficulties of the Euro

"...when the single European currency was first proposed, an obvious question was whether it would work as well as the dollar does here in America. And the answer, clearly, was no... Europe isn't fiscally integrated: German taxpayers don't automatically pick up part of the tab for Greek pensions or Irish bank bailouts. And while Europeans have the legal right to move freely in search of jobs, in practice imperfect cultural integration -- above all, the lack of a common language -- makes workers less geographically mobile than their American counterparts."

Source: NYTimes.com