Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Hallowe'en

Some think that the twilight world of Hallowe'en is dressing up, carving pumpkins and getting candy. Well, our family tradition recognizes the real nature of Hallowe'en. Enjoy the music, but beware of the darkness.


[Um…could my little brother use your bathroom, please? He wet his pants at the house next door.]

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Halloween and Other Stories

After we moved up the mountain to a new house at 262 Harding Drive, I would always go back to my old neighborhood to go trick-or-treating with Judy and my friends. I can't remember any costumes I wore, but I do remember that I was only allowed to take candy. Sometimes people would give us money, like a nickel, but I wasn't allowed to take the money. 

I remember one time when John and I were living in New Jersey that my mother came over to our house dressed in my father's clothes—like a hobo—for Halloween. She was crazy like that. 

Friday, October 28, 2011

A Few Words in Defense of the Crazy Ones

Science, like everything else, is messy, controversial, and misunderstood, but I'm going to give a definition, an operational definition: Science is systematically observing the world in search for repeated patterns. Theoretical science is when these patterns are organized into a meaningful model (or principle or theory or law).

Today Andrea Rossi, Italian 'scientist', demonstrated to a fairly large group of invited scientists, engineers, customer representatives and selected press…get ready… cold fusion! Using 52 bundled micro reactors, the experiment reportedly achieved 470 kW for 5 1/2 hours during self-sustain mode, i.e. no energy was added to the system. This is not 1MW which was advertised, yet 470 kW, if true, is incredible. It appears that the test was a resounding success. Rossi reports that the customer, who is an American company or government agency, was satisfied.

Per my definition, Andrea Rossi was not practicing science. He readily admits he does not understand the theoretical principles involved in his reaction—no one does. What he is practicing is engineering. Of course, he uses repeated experiments to improve his engineering. With the amount of time and work he has spent during the last 20 years, it doesn't appear that he is a charlatan, but time will tell if this demonstration will lead to world changing events or unrepeatable dead ends. Unfortunately, no one, including the press, was allowed to ask questions to the engineers running the demonstration.

The press has been reluctant to report on Rossi's demonstrations. This may change tomorrow. For now, perhaps wildly optimistic skepticism is in order. The best I can do is give you some links so you can make up your own mind.

Here is an article from January of this year. It is outdated, but it gives some background.
Here is Rossi's site with some of his (and others) comments on today's test at the bottom. There is a link, also near the bottom, where Rossi allows you to download his public report on the demonstration.
Here is a fairly detailed report from a site advancing cutting edge energy generation.
Here is Wired-UK's story on the day's proceedings with some positive and negative comments.
Note that there was someone from AP news service at the test, but no report yet.

Leave it to Richard Feynman to define science another way. In warning against the danger of believing scientists and not mother nature, he said, "Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts." If that's true, Rossi is a scientist.

It's the engineer's lament. "We can make it work in practice—now if we could only get it to work in theory!"

Thursday, October 27, 2011

U.S. Senators swing into action

This is an even bigger political story than Republican candidate heresies. What can get Congress working again? Poverty? Income inequality? Occupy Wall Street? …yawn. The budget? The economy? …call my secretary. Housing? Health Care? …boring. No, we're talking college football!!!
West Virginia's two U.S. senators and a congresswoman expressed outrage Wednesday night amid reports that a Kentucky politician may have muddied the Mountaineers move from the Big East Conference that seemed all but a done deal Tuesday. 
The New York Times reported Wednesday that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pressured the Big 12 to consider Louisville as the league's next member instead of West Virginia. 
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said at a new conference in his Charleston, W.Va., office that he would call for an investigation in the U.S. Senate if necessary. 
"If these outrageous reports have any merit -- and especially if a United States senator has done anything inappropriate or unethical to interfere with a decision that the Big 12 had already made -- then I believe that there should be an investigation in the U.S. Senate, and I will fight to get the truth," Mr. Manchin said. 
Believe it or not, this is not The Onion.

I guess it's unethical for Kentucky senators to get involved and not West Virginia senators, because…well, it's not that there is more important work to do, but rather those pesky Wildcats are fair game for Mountaineer sharpshooters.

From Hertzberg's Blog

Answer Me These Heresies Three

Posted by Hendrik Hertzberg

Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail


Believe it or not, studies have been done that show that in Western Europe, people at the lower parts of the income scale actually have a better mobility going up the ladder now than in America.
Rick Santorum, CNN Republican debate, October 18


No, it [i.e., the abortion issue] comes down to it’s not the government’s role or anybody else’s role to make that decision. Secondly, if you look at the statistical incidents, you’re not talking about that big a number. So what I’m saying is it ultimately gets down to a choice that that family or that mother has to make—not me as President, not some politician, not a bureaucrat. It gets down to that family. And whatever they decide, they decide. I shouldn't have to tell them what decision to make for such a sensitive issue… I can have an opinion on an issue without it being a directive on the nation. The government shouldn’t be trying to tell people everything to do, especially when it comes to social decisions that they need to make.
Herman Cain, CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight, October 19


I’m sorry, Rick, that you find so much to dislike in my plan, but I’ll tell you, the people in Massachusetts like it by about a 3-1 margin. And we dealt with a challenge that we had, a lot of people that were expecting government to pay their way. And we said, you know what? If people have the capacity to care for themselves and pay their own way, they should.... What we do is rely on private insurers, and people—93 percent of our people who are already insured, nothing changed. For the people who didn’t have insurance, they get private insurance, not government insurance.
Mitt Romney, CNN Republican debate, October 18

Supplementary notes:

ONE: Santorum was apparently referring to a 2008 Brookings Institution (!) study showing that, as the authors put it, “rising on one’s own bootstraps is harder in the United States than it is in several Northern European countries,” to wit, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Sweden. The study shows that the people of Canada, Germany, France, Spain, and Australia, too, are living the American dream better then Americans are.

All these countries have high taxes, government-guaranteed universal health care, ample social services, and non-crumbling infrastructure. But you already knew that.

TWO: No amplification needed. Transcript here. To the stake!

THREE: A little murkier, but Romney’s admonition that people who have the capacity to pay their own way should do so is actually a reference to the requirement that people get health insurance, with a government subsidy if necessary, or else pay a penalty—an idea promoted by conservatives like Newt Gingrich and the right-wing wonks of the Heritage Foundation, as Romney correctly noted. This is the notorious "individual mandate," a feature of both "Romneycare" and "Obamacare," as is the provision of care via "private insurance, not government insurance." But you already knew that, too.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Quote of the Day

Guess which countries have a greater income inequality than U.S.?
(Gini coefficient on data from 2001-2009)

United Kingdom
South Africa

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Today's Quote

History is a race between education and catastrophe.
H.G. Wells

(Katy and Sean, please take note.)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades.

Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist, has graced the pages of this blog before. See On Taboo. Now, he provides us with a significant counter-narrative to the views of the cynic in his new book, "The Better Angels of Our Nature."

According to the New York Times Review of Books, "The central thesis of 'Better Angels' is that our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence. The decline in violence holds for violence in the family, in neighborhoods, between tribes and between states. People living now are less likely to meet a violent death, or to suffer from violence or cruelty at the hands of others, than people living in any previous century."

Pinker supplies a lot of statistical – and some anecdotal – evidence to prove his point. But, for me the more interesting issue is why: why is the arrow of history pointed toward more human decency? Pinker doesn't claim to know for certain, but he has some theories. One is what I call the socialist theory. This theory claims that the development of the state monopoly on violence reduces violence among its own citizens. A state which has a disproportionate ability over its citizens to inflict violence has the power to impose penalties that eliminate the incentives for aggression. We see the rise in violence in places like Somalia where government is virtually non-existent or in marginalized places in this country where law enforcement is ineffectual and the mob or drug lords still act with impunity.

The second theory is what I call the capitalist theory. It says that the ability to trade our surpluses with pretty much anyone in the world for their surpluses creates a positive sum result in which both parties benefit. It's not hard for people to see that this arrangement is preferable to the zero sum outcome of war. As Robert Wright, the original proponent of this theory, put it, "Among the many reasons that I think that we should not bomb the Japanese is that they built my mini-van."

Perhaps, the most intriguing theory is based on the fact that people are simply getting more reasonable. Here's what the New York Times Review said:
Pinker's claim that reason is an important factor in the trends he has described relies in part on the "Flynn effect" — the remarkable finding by the philosopher James Flynn that ever since I.Q. tests were first administered, the scores achieved by those taking the test have been rising. The average I.Q. is, by definition, 100; but to achieve that result, raw test scores have to be standardized. If the average teenager today could go back in time and take an I.Q. test from 1910, he or she would have an I.Q. of 130, which would be better than 98 percent of those taking the test then. Nor is it easy to attribute this rise to improved education, because the aspects of the tests on which scores have risen most do not require a good vocabulary or even mathematical ability, but instead test powers of abstract reasoning.
The jury is still out on the causes of the Flynn effect. But, because evolution can't work that fast, it can't be that we are biologically smarter than our ancestors. Rather, it suggests that the brain is fairly malleable and is influenced by environment. Many suggestions have been made, including proposals that better nutrition or more emphasis on timed test-taking improve scores.

The most convincing argument, however, is that, because we live in a more complex environment which requires more abstract thinking, our minds have trained themselves to think more logically. Here's what Flynn himself had to say, "We weren't more intelligent than they [our ancestors], but we had learnt to apply our intelligence to a new set of problems. We had detached logic from the concrete, we were willing to deal with the hypothetical, and we thought the world was a place to be classified and understood scientifically rather than to be manipulated." Flynn's belief was that, as our minds expand their abilities, we will continue to create more complex environments, which will in turn stretch future minds to even higher functioning and more complex environments. Who knows where this ever expanding circle of intellectual capacity might lead? It makes us envious of the future generations.

According to Pinker, given our increased reasoning powers, we now have the ability to detach ourselves from our immediate experience and from our personal or parochial perspective, and understand our own situation in universal terms. Pinker suggests that the increased ability to think outside our own particular box moves us toward moral advances – mostly by the recognition that, from the standpoint of the universe, no one holds any position more privileged or more deserving than anyone else. In other words, we finally get what it means to say that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. So, if we prefer life over death and happiness over suffering, we can't expect anyone to accommodate us unless we're willing to accommodate others. This perception, captured in the golden rule, was once the exclusive insight of religious visionaries. But now through the Flynn affect it is within the intellectual grasp of almost everyone.

Pinker calls this the moral Flynn effect. We're not only getting smarter; we getting better. And, if Flynn is correct, these advances will happen at an ever increasing rate. Hey, the future's so bright I gotta wear shades.

Here is where we must draw the line

This drawing of Vermeer's Girl With a Pearl Earring was made by Hwee Chong by starting in the center and drawing one continuous line in an ever expanding spiral. The details are achieved by varying the thickness of the line. Here are more drawings by Hwee and a video showing him work (in fast motion).

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Ridicule Redux

Two important dates are coming at the end of this month.

October 21, 2011
That's God's well hidden date for the end of the world. One very dedicated sleuth extricated the date from its biblical cypher. Unfortunately Harold Camping's reward for outsmarting God and coming up with the start of the rapture, on May 21, has been ridicule. Undaunted by God's sense of humor, he proclaimed Rapture Redux for October 21.

October 28, 2011
Even more sensational, at least for those of us remaining, is Cold Fusion Redux. You will recall that Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons received the world's ridicule in 1989 when they announced they had achieved cold fusion using deuterium and palladium metal. Their published experiment was never duplicated.

Andrea Rossi and Sergio Focardi will attempt a new cold fusion demonstration, renamed LENR (low energy nuclear reaction), based on Rossi's E-Cat (Energy Catalyzer). The process reportedly uses nickel and hydrogen and yields a byproduct of copper and iron. The two have performed demonstrations in the past to closed groups. This one will be on a much grander scale coupling 52 individual table top modules into one storage container sized plant that will produce 1 megawatt of self sustaining energy. If the demonstration is successful, it could change the world more than the internet, by allowing practically unlimited energy at almost no cost. The press has been understandably reluctant to report Rossi's work, but that may change on October 28. Here is a story in Forbes that includes plenty of further links if you are interested.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Quote of the day

I am your personal headache

This post is for Bill (and others who have just received a new iPhone 4S). Bill was showing me some of the phone's capabilities at mom's on Sunday. It looked very nice.

In anticipation of the web being flooded with humorous Siri videos, I will post a nice one from AppleInsider.

  • Note that, like any foreign encounter, when we aren't understood, we just talk louder. 
  • This will be annoyingly rich fodder for the Apple Lovers vs. Apple Haters for years. 
  • I applaud Apple's latest attempt at Voice Interface-Speech Recognition-Artificial Intelligence. It will take time before humans and machines can have comfortable conversations, but I suspect the real power of Siri is not so much AI (which is excruciatingly hard for language) but massive amounts of data in servers delivered over the internet (I hate the term 'cloud', but I guess I will have to live with it). Siri need not be that smart with Speech AI if it can simply latch on to a catch word or phrase as "breakfast" or "restaurant" and link it to a service. 
  • How long will it be until Jay Leno uses Siri as a comedy sketch? (see Newton)
  • The best thing Apple did for its own self esteem, was to call this 'beta'.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

It Might Be Better in September but It's Not Over in October

Sue and I just returned from another magical week in Beach Haven, where we were joined by Jim. You might think that the second week in October is too late in the year to enjoy the beach in New Jersey, but you would be wrong.

We arrived last Saturday, and for the first several days we enjoyed sunny weather with temperature in the mid-80's. Even when the days became overcast, the temperature was still in the 70's and the water temperature remained warm throughout. If anything, the water seemed to get warmer.

On Sunday, Johnny, Gail and Carolyn came down and spent to day. Carolyn brought enough food to feed an army. We spent an enormously enjoyable afternoon together at the beach and then a dinner to match afterwards.

Things turned cloudy and blustery on Wednesday and Thursday. Notwithstanding the fact that I have been going to Long Beach Island since 1960, we made two excursions to places I had never been to before. First, on Wednesday, we decided to visit the Holgate Unit of the Edwin B. Forsyth Wildlife Refuge. This is the southern part of the island that continues on after the road ends. Its only open in the off season, so we figured this was our one chance to see it. For anyone looking for wildlife, the place is a total bust. In fact, there's nothing much there at all, except some beach and sand dunes. We took the opportunity, however, to walk to the absolute southern tip of the island. It was a two and half mile trudge in the sand. We managed the trip south without too much difficulty. The trip back into a stiff and constant headwind was another story. Every step was an effort. I had images of Robert Scott's ill-fated expedition to the south pole. He reached the pole with little incident, but on the return journey, all five members of his expedition perished from a combination of exhaustion, starvation (we hadn't eaten since breakfast) and the cold. I am happy to report that we did in fact survive.

The other trip we took was to the Tuckerton Seaport & Baymen's Museum. This is a re-creation of a maritime village. Although it gives the impression of being a low-budget affair, it contained exhibits about plenty of things I knew nothing about, including the origins of the U.S. Life Saving Service, the surprising number of shipwrecks in the 1800's off the Jersey and Long Island coasts, the privateers operating from New Jersey waters in the 1700's and something called pound fishing. To say nothing of the fact that the Seaport houses the only surfing museum in the state of New Jersey.

All the high winds churned up some pretty big waves by the end of the week. Unfortunately, for one who is no longer young and spends 51 weeks out of the water, the waves were a bit too far out and too difficult to catch for me. It didn't stop us, however, from having a great time.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Which T-shirt should I bring to the beach?

Out of my clothes cabinet I grabbed a handful of T-shirts:
1. Family First Sports Park Indoor Soccer - Sockers (when I played soccer in Erie)
2. Myk's Mopeds, Inc. Beach Haven, NJ (surely a collector's item)
3. THEY WILL RUN AND NOT BE WEARY - ISAIAH 40:31 (a present from Myk)
4. Tie dye T-Shirt (a present from Renée)
5. Taste & Quick Keys - Software That will Knock You On Your Axis (from a MacWorld Expo)
6. Return of RUN LIKE HELL - You could use the exorcise! (from when we battled the radio talk show host and lost)

[This is a variation of "What books are on your bedside table?" Feel free to take a handful of T-shirts from your dresser and report.]

Can Troy Get Any Cooler

Also, this post was done with the latest interface for posting so best of luck for posters, as a reminder try to keep all post normal size and Helvetiva unless for creative purpose. (uniformity is pretty). 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Death of God and the Euthyphro Dilemma

Back in August there was an article in The New Yorker by James Wood entitled "Is That All There Is? Secularism and its discontents." It was a review of a recent book called "The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now" edited by George Levine.

Many writers have spoken about secularization and the loss of religion as a grim if not catastrophic event. "The fate of our times," writes Max Weber, "is characterised by rationalisation and intellectualisation and, above all, by the 'disenchantment [entzauberung] of the world.'" Nietzsche is even more sobering. For him the death of God is announced by a madman who also sees the dire consequences:

"Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him."
Levine's collection of essays take a more positive view and argues generally that secularism is a good thing. The essays don't criticize religion but contend that life without God is not so bad. I didn't think that the Wood article contained all that many revelations and I was slightly disappointed. But its discussion of secularism and morality is worth noting.

And this brings us to Euthyphro. Euthyphro is one of Plato's early dialogues. Socrates engages Euthyphro, a man known for claiming to be a religious expert, in a discussion over the definition of piety. In the course of the dialogue, Euthyphro claims that piety is what is pleasing to the gods. At this point, Socrates asks the question: "Is piety loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?" Put in more contemporary prose, the question is: is the moral law loved by the gods because it is moral or is it moral simply because it is loved by the gods?

It is this second alternative that leads religious people to say, if there is no God, then everything is permitted – as if it is by God's decree that something is made good or bad. Under this notion, morality just becomes a test of fidelity to God and is essentially arbitrary. However, even in ancient times, people recognized that God's wanting something alone did not make it good. Xenophanes of Colophon saw that the gods were not perfect and, more to the point, were terrible role models, getting away with stuff for which ordinary humans would be punished: "Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods all things that are a shame and blameworthy among men, stealing and committing adultery and deceiving each other."

And in the Bible, when God wants to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham appeals to a higher sense of justice: "Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" Gen. 18.25. Moses later talks God out destroying the Israelites for having worshipped a golden calf, mostly arguing that, if He does this, He'll look bad: "Why should the Egyptians say, 'With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth'?" Moses also reminds God of His promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, suggesting that even God should keep his word. Ex. 32:7 -14.

Can we even trust Jesus? He curses a fig tree and causes it to whither simply because he was hungry and the tree bore no figs. Mark even says that figs were out of season at the time. Matt. 21:18-22; Mark 11:12-14, 19-25. Jesus also quite casually sends unclean spirits into a herd of pigs numbering about two thousand causing a local farmer to lose his entire stock as they all rush into the sea and are drowned. Mark 5:1-17. In the first instance, Jesus seems petty; in the second, inconsiderate.

So, it seems that, even for the religious fellow, the law of God (or religion) must take a back seat. Thomas Aquinas himself says: "It is better to perish in excommunication than to violate one's conscience." Religion never removed the need to judge morality ourselves. So, as Wood rightly recognizes, one thing secularization and the death of God will not do is cast us out into the wilderness of moral uncertainty. We are already there.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Screenings - Pelada

Pelada (2010)
Writer/Directors: Luke Boughen, Rebekah Fergusson, Gwenolyn Oxenham, Ryan White
Genre: Documentary

It's the Endless Summer of soccer, or rather futbal. Unpretentious and extremely enjoyable. Even if you don't like soccer, you will like the movie. If you like soccer, it's a triumph!
(can be streamed on Netflix)