Friday Four

Friday, April 18, 2014

1. Kepler-186f, as scientists have recently announced, is the closest thing to another Earth found in the cosmos so far:

Kepler 186f is not a perfect replica, however. It is closer to its star -- a red dwarf that is smaller, cooler and fainter than our sun -- than the Earth is to its; its year, the time to complete one orbit, is 130 days, not 365. It is also at the outer edge of the habitable zone, receiving less warmth, so perhaps more of its surface would freeze.

"Perhaps it's more of an Earth cousin than an Earth twin," Dr. [Thomas] Barclay said.
At the end of the article is an interactive feature about the 950 exoplanets discovered so far by the Kepler mission.

2. Little Man has become quite the proficient crawler lately. He is now also an avid chaser, although he sometimes gets mixed up and crawls away when invited to play.

He is also, much to his father's delight and relief, an ardent napper. A day or so ago, I was washing bottles while Mrs. Van Horn and Pumpkin were out. Little Man crawled into the kitchen, as he often does, but continued over to me, and stood up, clinging to a pants leg for support. (Or was he tugging it?) When I picked him up, he yawned and put his head on my shoulder. He was out like a light in minutes.

3. Google has announced a modular smart phone, which Ars Technica says may be "the last one you'll need to buy":
... Ara, at least as a concept, is fantastic. Who wouldn't want the ability to some day print out new parts for their smartphone at home, expanding its life expectancy to six years and beyond? Google's willingness to try something so ambitious in public is energizing, particularly in the era of the get-rich-quick smartphone app. Project Ara's goals could transform the industry, give people greater control over their own devices, and free them from the annual cycles of obsolescence. It's flexible platform suitable for everyone, everywhere, from every walk of life.
It could also make it stupid-simple to take advantage of major hardware innovations, not to mention making certiain kinds of repairs  as painless as they should be. (I replaced my first smart phone after I determined that the cost through my carrier was about the same as repairing its power button. I was otherwise quite happy with it.)

It's about time.

4. The latest invasive insect species from South America is the "crazy ant".
... Tawny crazy ants and red imported fire ants share an evolutionary history since their native ranges overlap in parts of South America. Their arms race began there, with fire ants evolving venom to defend themselves and crazy ants evolving a detoxification mechanism as a counter-defense. Now the chemical warfare has been re-engaged here on a second continent, playing out across the Gulf Coast. And for a second time in the past century, a new invasive ant species is dominating and drastically transforming ecological communities.
The good news is that crazies beat the reds 93% of the time. The bad news is that crazy ants are attracted to electronics.

-- CAV


Electoral College Update

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Some time ago, I noted that Massachusetts had joined an effort to bypass the Electoral College. Dick Morris provides an update:

So far, nine states and D.C. have joined, casting 136 electoral votes, halfway to the 270 needed to put the compact into effect. The ratifying states are Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois, Hawaii, Washington, Massachusetts, Vermont, California and Rhode Island.

Both houses in New York have passed it, and it's on Gov. Andrew Cuomo's desk. And it has already passed one house in Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina and Oregon. These states, plus New York, represent 107 votes.

Combined with the others, that's 243 votes.
Morris notes that a group funded by George Soros is behind this effort and that Barack Obama carried all but two of these states. In my earlier posts, I elaborated on why this is a terrible idea, but Morris gives a few additional reasons I hadn't considered:
Under the electoral vote system, they figure why beat the drums to get a high turnout in New York City when the state will go Democratic anyway? But if it's the popular vote that matters, the big-city machines can do their thing -- with devastating impact.

And think of the chances for voter fraud! Right now, the biggest cities, the ones most firmly in Democratic control -- Washington, D.C., New York City, Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco -- are all solidly in blue states. Not only does this make it unnecessary to maximize turnouts there, but it also makes it unnecessary to promote double voting, fraudulent voting, and all the other tricks of the trade at which Democrats excel.
Morris correctly calls this an "end-run around the regular constitutional amending process" and notes that a simple majority of the states ratifying this arrangement (vice two-thirds of Congress and three quarters of the states) will be enough to put it into effect.

We are dangerously close to losing yet another of the checks on unlimited majority rule that our Founding Fathers wisely put into place.

-- CAV


Taxing Away Over 11,000 Lives a Year

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Tom Purcell does a good job cataloguing the current absurdity of the income tax. (I can't agree with his suggested remedies, which would treat only the symptoms and not the underlying disease.) My "favorite", because I really felt it this year, was the ridiculous amount of time that we all have to waste (or pay someone else to waste) preparing our returns.

The tax code is incredibly complicated -- so complicated that, according to the National Taxpayers Union, Americans spend 7.64 billion hours and $227.1 billion complying with the tax laws every year.
Purcell goes on to note that the tax code, originally only sixteen pages long, now tips the scales at 75,000 pages.

The American life expectancy is currently just over seventy eight and a half years. Let's be generous and apply it to everyone, just to see how much time we lose each year, measured in human lives:
7.64 billion hours doing taxes x 1 year/8765.81 man-hours x 1 life/78.64 years = 11,083 man-lives each year.
The government bans or severely restricts access to many things that cost far fewer lives each year. It speaks volumes that there isn't a frenzy to abolish taxation.

This is not to say that the government should be in the business of prohibiting people from risky behavior that harms no one else, or that equivalent lives lost is a guide to its proper role. The fundamental problem is that the government is violating -- rather than protecting -- our rights. The fact that it might as well be taking over 11,000 lives per year merely illustrates the extent of the problem. And this doesn't even account for the time it took to earn the looted money or the what else it might have cost to prepare the taxes!

-- CAV


A Triumph of Independence

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

This morning, via Hacker News, I came across a remarkable biographical account, by Flor Edwards, of her childhood in an apocalyptic cult. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the narrative is the independence of its author, who began questioning things at an early age, and who doesn't pull punches when she describes what she had to overcome:

When people ask me what compelled them to join, I think back to the times in which they were living: the 1960s. It was a time of protest, political turbulence and school rebellion. Baby boomers were coming of age, exploring sex and lowering their inhibitions. Hippies on the streets of California were looking for answers and Father David believed he had them. He incorporated the movements of the '60s into his evangelical mission, even writing a letter called, "C'mon Ma! Burn Your Bra" and a series of letters on "revolutionary sex." Father David believed that we could return humanity back to the Garden of Eden, the way God intended, a world of peace with humans living close to nature and serving God. He understood that the youth of the generation were ready to believe anything. [bold added]
Predictably, the people attracted to this cult, having abandoned their own minds, ended up living like they were in an army, blindly following orders.

But this was the choice of her parents, and Edwards' account shows -- from her early ruminations about how she would die, through the continued existence of the world past 1993, to the struggles of her fellow cult members after the death of the leader -- that to remain in this army of fools, she would have clearly had to make a similar choice too many times, and against the grain of a child eager to learn about her world.

Perhaps "inquisitive" (as opposed to "independent") would more accurately describe the author when she was very young. Nevertheless, it is clear that she became stronger and more independent than many others who suffered similarly from the poor education and psychological abuse dealt out by the cult:
I've heard many stories about kids who grew up like me and killed themselves because they didn't how to make it in the world. Some were my friends, others distant acquaintances. They'd blame their parents for not teaching them how to write checks, or fill out applications, or hold their own in a normal social setting. There are girls who became strippers because all they knew how to do was give a powerful "look of love," as taught by Father David during the flirty-fishing movement. They had no skills for working or making money, so they used their sexuality, just like their mothers did in the early days.
Against this backdrop, the end of Edwards' story becomes even more inspiring:
I was beginning to see that for the first time in my life I had a future.

In an honors business class our professor announced that there would be an all-expense paid field trip to UC Berkeley. I raised my hand.

"What's UC Berkeley?" I asked.

Looking back now, I can see how naïve my question was but I also quickly learned that curiosity was going to be my greatest and only ally. I would have to forfeit seeming dumb for my own survival. [bold added]
I recommend reading the whole account, because it exemplifies, on many levels, the maxim that, "To save the world is the simplest thing in the world. All one has to do is think." For one thing, as Edwards indicates, one's own life depends on it. For another, anyone selfishly interested in broad cultural change and who understands that it must happen one person at a time, might do well to see that it can and does, and how it can occur.

-- CAV


Fortress of Wisdom -- Or Cocoon of Ignorance?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Meghan Daum writes of the latest fad in academia: the "trigger warning".

... Originating on certain feminist, self-help and social activist blogs, trigger warnings are meant to inform readers that the ensuing material deals with subjects, such as war or sexual violence, that might upset those suffering from post-traumatic stress related to those issues.
She notes the guffawing this will elicit from certain quarters, but not without asking her readers to take a good, hard look at themselves:
Liberals stay away from Fox News. Conservatives shield themselves from MSNBC. We choose to live in particular neighborhoods or regions in part because we want neighbors who share our values. We rant away on social media, but we're usually just talking to people who already agree with us.

We call that an echo chamber, but isn't it also a way of living inside one big trigger warning? How much difference is there, really, between refusing to read Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (a trigger targeted novel at Oberlin) because it deals with troubling racial and religious issues and refusing to listen to opposing views that might make you angry? [minor format edits]
Daum goes on to risk being accused of advocating her own cocoon when she adds that, "Given the choice between Fox or MSNBC, we'd be better off skipping both and reading a good book instead." But what makes a book good -- or even better than watching the news? And what is wrong with choosing to live among people who share our values? (I don't think Daum herself has taken any of the necessary steps to move into a prison any time soon.)

Wisecracks aside, I think Daum is urging us to ask the right kind of question. If I read her correctly, she is cautioning us that emotion alone is no guide to action, but she seems to run out of steam shortly after. One can also counter with another good question: Can't emotional responses to certain things be appropriate? And that question leads us directly to the one underlying her column, which is, "By what standards should we evaluate our sources of information or commentary?"

Daum is right that the misuse of mere emotional responses, particularly those of young and still-developing minds, can impede exposure to information or opinions that can challenge and help develop an intellect. However, some things offend because they are, by any reasonable standard, offensive; and some things are garbage that is unworthy of extensive consideration. The young need to learn the difference, and perhaps should spend some time picking through some trash. The not-so-young have no room for smugness, however: If you cannot explain why something angers you (or elicits any other emotion), it is worth taking a closer look. The difference between a fortress and a cocoon is that the former is designed to allow a look outside, and can either repel invaders or admit reinforcements. The latter provides only the illusion of safety.

The Daum piece brings to mind some comments by Ayn Rand on the subject of "open" vs, "closed" minds, particularly the third alternative Daum seems to be grasping at:
 What objectivity and the study of philosophy require is not an "open mind," but an active mind—a mind able and eagerly willing to examine ideas, but to examine them critically. An active mind does not grant equal status to truth and falsehood; it does not remain floating forever in a stagnant vacuum of neutrality and uncertainty; by assuming the responsibility of judgment, it reaches firm convictions and holds to them. Since it is able to prove its convictions, an active mind achieves an unassailable certainty in confrontations with assailants--a certainty untainted by spots of blind faith, approximation, evasion and fear.
Do you live in a cocoon or a fortress? It is disheartening that so many "educators" seem intent on luring the young towards cocoons than helping them build fortresses. But at least they -- and we -- can all introspect, and change ourselves for the better, if need be.

-- CAV


4-12-14 Hodgepodge

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Please Don't Take This Offer

The above is the title of an email Amazon sends to each of its employees once a year:

... "The goal is to encourage folks to take a moment and think about what they really want," [CEO Jeff] Bezos explains. "In the long-run, an employee staying somewhere they don't want to be isn't healthy for the employee or the company."
Bezos adopted the practice from a company Amazon took over. That company had figured out that the "quit money" was less expensive than being dragged down by an unmotivated employee.

Weekend Reading

"Sounds like a paradox, but it's true: In order to find the love you want, you have to be content with being on your own." -- Michael Hurd, in "Attracting a Healthy Romantic Partner" at The Delaware Wave

"Biological determinism is the false belief advanced by scientists and even some mental health professionals that we are all hardware and no software." -- Michael Hurd, in "Human Hardware and Software: Do We Have Both?" at The Delaware Coast Press

My Two Cents

Writing against biological determinism, Michael Hurd takes a brain imaging study as his point of departure. It has become something of a cliche for the press to take whatever grossly simplified explanation comes with such a study and run with it, often adding misinterpretations and plain old error to the mix. But Hurd is right to focus on the the fundamental error driving the sensationalism. There are many parties, from people looking for convenient excuses to paternalistic politicians, who want this view of human nature to enjoy undeserved scientific credibility.

Thorium Time?

The Economist has run an interesting article about research in China and India aimed at using thorium reactors to meet significant portions of the energy demands of the respective countries.
One of the cleverest things about LFTRs [liquid-fluoride thorium reactors] is that they work at atmospheric pressure. This changes the economics of nuclear power. In a light-water reactor, the type most commonly deployed at the moment, the cooling water is under extremely high pressure. As a consequence, light-water reactors need to be sheathed in steel pressure vessels and housed in fortress-like containment buildings in case their cooling systems fail and radioactive steam is released. An LFTR needs none of these.
The article also explains why thorium is basically useless for building nuclear weapons.

-- CAV


Friday Four

Friday, April 11, 2014

1. A BBC piece on the "Great 1980s Dungeons and Dragons Panic" brought back pleasant memories of playing the game with friends during high school and college. It also reminded me of how divorced from reality so many detractors of the game were:

"Since fantasy typically features activities like magic and witchcraft, D&D was perceived to be in direct opposition to biblical precepts and established thinking about witchcraft and magic," says Dr David Waldron, lecturer in history and anthropology at Federation University Australia and author of Roleplaying Games and the Christian Right: Community Formation in Response to a Moral Panic. "There was also a view that youth had an inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality." [italics added, other minor format edits]
That's right: Kids like me who saw "the occult" for the fantasy that it is were to be protected from the baleful influences of a game -- by people who really believed in ghosts, demons, and such. I recall the perfect response to this coming from someone participating in my gaming group when the movie Mazes and Monsters came out: He named his character "Pardieu".

2. Are you moving? Do you have junk to get rid of? Have you a truck and the desire to make some extra money? The truckplease web site wants to help.

3. A five-year-old boy recently exposed a security vulnerability in Microsoft's Xbox.
Kristoffer [Von Hassel] will receive four games, $50 and a year-long subscription to Xbox Live from Microsoft. He also knows what he now wants to be when he grows up: a gamer. His dad is leaning toward something in computer security.
By the way, this isn't the first time the lad has found such a problem.

4. Whenever I hear about a final exam like this, I wonder whether the author is either offering his most clever students a quick A or is merely lazy.
Write a suitable final exam for this course and supply a key.
The answer is here.

-- CAV