Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Lisboa

Status: In Lisboa.  First time.  In Europe for first time in many years.

Profound Insights: Europeans all look alike, though I was able to guess the ethnicity of the three English ladies, even though I couldn't understand their language.

Profound Insecurities:  Europeans dress better than us, or at least the locals do.  Though the other tourists mostly looked pretty relaxed too.

Television News:  I can't really follow it, but the economic news doesn't sound great.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Insano sobre España

Paul Krugman charges a German/Brussels windmill.

What happened to Spain was a housing bubble — fueled, to an important degree, by lending from German banks — that burst, taking the economy down with it. Now the country has 23.6 percent unemployment, 50.5 percent among the young. And the policy response is supposed to be even more austerity, with the European Central Bank, natch, obsessing over inflation — and officials claiming that the incredibly foolish rate hike last year was actually something to be proud of. I’m really starting to think that we’re heading for a crackup of the whole system.

See link for relevant numbers.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Desventuras en español

A friend, who was planning to be out of town, wanted to leave the following message for the housekeeper:

If you have time, could you clean the back patio. It's not necessary to wash the sheets this week.

Since the housekeeper had limited English, she decided to leave the message in Spanish, which, with a bit of help from Google Translate became:

Si tienes tiempo, podria limpiar el patio trasero. No es necesario [lavar*] las hojas de esta semana.

Not sure what the housekeeper made of this, but Google put it back into English as:

If you have time, could you clean the back yard? It is not necessary to wash the leaves this week.
*Add per comments

Friday, April 13, 2012

Retinal

I have a new IOS device with a "retina" output display.

Unfortunately, my retinas seem to lack an equally capable input.

Austerity

Spain has a problem. It imports more stuff than it exports and is having trouble paying its bills. Its wages and prices are too high for its productivity. Brussels prescribes austerity, which is supposed to force down wages and prices of Spanish production.

Perhaps it eventually might,but in the meantime employment has collapsed - half of workers under twenty-five are unemployed - and the economy is collapsing. As Paul Krugman frequently tells us, wages and prices are sticky.

If Spain had its own currency, it would devalue the peseta, and everyone would be poorer, but the economy would be far better off. The hazards of the Euro trap were correctly understood by many economist from the beginning, but they were ignored. Probably this is an example of the kind of self-delusion in human affairs that I have argued about in the past.

The central tragedy is that the collapse of the economy leaves the country less and less able to pay.

Can Europe afford to bail out Spain? Will it try? Even if it does, will Italy then be next?

Will a miracle intervene and start the European economy growing again, and if so, enough to help?

The architects of the Euro created an attractive nuisance - the economic equivalent of an unfenced swimming pool. Its attractions sucked many in. Now what?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Us and Them: Moral Instincts

A fundamental challenge of human nature is that our fellow humans are not only our primary evolutionary competitors but also essential for our survival. This tension probably has a lot to do with our instincts about morality and behavior. Most of the time, we need to do some social calculations concerning whom is with us and whom is against: "us" and "them". It's complicated because those boundaries shift a lot.

My guess is that our moral instincts are mostly about how we manage those calculations.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Earth, Air, Fire and Water

We humans have an analytical side. We like to break things into more elementary parts and see what we can build out of them. The atomic theory of matter seems to have been conceived at least 2500 years before it achieved real success, but that success is now overwhelming. The crucial detail was getting the atoms right. Earth, air, fire and water were a cute attempt, but they didn’t work out. Jonathan Haidt has sought for the atoms that constitute our moral intuitions, as he calls them, and builds his characters out of some that he thinks he has found in The Righteous Mind.

As with matter, the strategy would seem to make sense. He makes a good case that our moral and political opinions are indeed built on a foundation of moral intuitions – I would probably call them instincts – beyond the normal reach of logic. So if I accept that step of his logic, my next question is what do I think of his atoms? It’s hard to criticize his approach. He and colleagues travelled the world, asking a set of questions about morality – sometimes strange questions – and then asked people why they believed what they believed about it. A physicist might think of his questions as the psychological equivalent of the particle collision experiments that we use to probe the nature of matter.

As much as I admire the method, my first look at the results left me dissatisfied. He comes up with the following elements: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Are we looking at protons and electrons here, or fire, air, et. al? My doubts stem from the fact that I want his elements to fit into a coherent evolutionary psychology theory of human nature that makes sense. The first three elements look rather primary to me, the latter three, not so much. So is that a wise intuition or merely an ignorant prejudice on my part. TBD, or at least, reconsidered, after I’ve read more of his book.

At the moment, I have in mind what look to me like more fundamental moral particles: us and them.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Latest Book: The Righteous Mind

I haven't read enough yet to have an opinion, so here is a review fragment from William Saletan in The New York Times:

This is where Haidt diverges from other psychologists who have analyzed the left’s electoral failures. The usual argument of these psycho-­pundits is that Nazi politicians manipulated voters’ neural roots — playing on our craving for authority, for example — to trick people into voting against their interests. But Haidt treats electoral success as a kind of evolutionary fitness test. He figures that if voters liked Nazi messages, there was something in Nazi Party messages worth liking. He chides psychologists who try to “explain away” Nazism, treating it as a pathology. National Socialism thrived because it fit how people think, and that’s what validates it. Workers who vote Nazi aren’t fools. In Haidt’s words, they’re “voting for their moral interests.”

Oops - I guess I made a copy error. Somehow Republican -> Nazi and Conservative -> National Socialist.

The point is not that Republicans are Nazis, of course, but that if you are going to assign moral validity to anything that sometimes wins a majority vote, a whole lot of obnoxious doctrines are going to get that stamp.

Timing

...is everything, or so they say. I had planned a trip to Greece, but the political situation looked a little too unstable, so I decided to go to Spain instead.

Uh oh.

Is Your Dentist Killing You?

Dentists have been telling us for years that those X-Rays they love can't hurt us. Might be as untrue as it is improbable. Brain cancer sucks.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Un Anillo para gobernarlos a todos

I have concluded that learning a foreign language is actually impossible. I base this theory on the fact that I have repeatedly failed, and I used to consider myself smart.

This hypothesis has a number of easily testable conclusions, so it has the key attribute of a proper Kuhnian theory, unlike some others I could mention. One clear implication should be there aren't actually any people who speak multiple languages. Of course there do appear to be such people, and I even know a few, some of whom appear to read this blog.

At this point I need to become a Diracian, and not let a beautiful theory be slain by a few inconvenient facts. One possible explanation is that those who actually appear to speak two languages, or more, are actually multiple people, perhaps identical siblings separated at birth. Or perhaps they hold a ring of power, and hence have the power to understand the thoughts of others.

Just in case, while my theory awaits scientific confirmation, I'm going to continue to flail away at Spanish.

Testing, One, Two, Three

The attempt to get some accountability out of American schools has produced a mania for testing. That may be on the point of moving to the university level, or so it is argued in the NYT:

How well does a college teach, and what do its students learn? Rankings based on the credentials of entering freshmen are not hard to find, but how can students, parents and policy makers assess how well a college builds on that foundation? What information exists has often been hidden from public view. But that may be changing. ... In January, the New Leadership Alliance released guidelines calling on colleges to systematically “gather evidence of student learning” — though not explicitly advocating standardized tests — and release the results. The report was endorsed by several major organizations of colleges and universities. Advocates say the point is not to measure how each college’s students perform after four years, which depends heavily on the caliber of students it enrolls in the first place, but to see how much they improve along the way. The concern is less about measuring knowledge of chemistry or literature than about harder to define skills like critical thinking and problem-solving.

A lot of schools fear this like death. Not many parents like to hear that they have invested more than the price of their cars and house in an education that sucks. They love to talk about intellectual maturity, critical-thinking, collaboration skills and other crap that might be hard to test.

Not to disparage those skills, but really, how well can you learn them from sitting in a lecture hall with a zillion other students listening to some geezer talk.

At the moment, American universities and colleges have control of a crucial resource, which they use to extract formidable rents, but that control might be in danger of slipping. I'm talking about the degrees that they hand out. Those degrees are worth a lot of money, and they extract plenty from those who receive them.

Once upon a time, universities were almost the only path to advanced knowledge, since they had the teacher and the libraries. The internet offers a severe challenge to that business model.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Adult Education

Joel Stein is a humorist and an expert at pushing peoples buttons. His latest is an ostensibly serious op-ed in the NYT where he trashes adults, or more specifically adult males, caught reading Harry Potter, The Twilight Saga, or The Hunger Games.

The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter. The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads.

I, of course, consider his column pretty stupid, but some of the outraged responses he collects are priceless:

JelpermanMy Chair FLAG "Books are one of our few chances to learn." Unlike Joel Stein, I read fiction for entertainment and non-fiction when I want to learn something. But then, I don't write for the NYT and TIME -two publications that constantly try to pass off fiction as fact.

Of course some others agree with him. I didn't actually bother to read any of those.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Physics 0

Steam up a room with a mirror. Open a door and let the steam clear with a minimum of forced ventilation. The mirror usually clears from bottom and top first. Explain.

It Might be Time to Clean Your Desk...

...if,

(1)You can't find your Sports Illustrated swim suit issue even after going through the pile of sandwich wrappers and unprocessed invoices twice.

(2)You can't remember if your desktop is metal or that fake wood.

(3)You can't find your keyboard

(4)You reach for your mouse and it squeaks and bites you.

(5)Your coffee cup appears to have become glued to your telephone.

And you really, really need to clean your desk if you are no longer sure if those are cookie crumbs or rodent droppings.

Monday, April 02, 2012

April Foolishness

Lubos Motl and Stefan of Real Climate each decided to publish April Fool posts. In Lumo's case, it was a harmless prank - the people who take him seriously are already nuts, but in the case of RC I consider it a spectacular blunder. The comments make it obvious that many readers don't get the joke.

Such pranks propagate, and regaining your credibility is not at all easy

Qualia and Bu-ha-ha-halia

Wolfgang, David Deutsch, and lots of other smart and philosophically minded thinkers worry about Qualia. Qualia, it seems are what is happening when we see, say, blue.

I think qualia are interesting, but I don't see them as a deep puzzle. I seem to remember watching Sesame Street or some similar program when they would flash some blue stuff on the screen while somebody intoned "blue" and a little balloon displayed the word "blue". The words, of course, were merely labels - but what about that sensation that we perceive as blue, or the other sensations we perceive as loud, love, anger, or red?

My guess is that they are labels too, only in the primitive language of thought that pre-existed in brains before there was language. Such categories clearly exist in the minds of creatures without language, and it seems highly plausible that our linguistic capability is built upon such more primitive structures of labeling the world.

Of course that leaves the question of what a label is, in the language of thought. My guess here is that it is an index to a database of memory. We may not know how those are implemented in brains, but we do know how to do it in silicon.