Peak Human

February 17th, 2013

Now that I’ve (sorta) got internet back in Australia, it’s time to catch up on a passel of backlogged posts. Some of these will address issues that bobbed into my mind months ago, but … that doesn’t bother me with my personal blog. On RTFLC, I try to keep up with current, mostly political events. On this blog, I’m more interested in deep thoughts.

A couple of months ago, Pew indicated that our birth rate has fallen to historical lows. More alarmingly, it’s fallen among immigrant populations, who have usually made up for the anti-reproductive attitudes of native-born Americans. This is part of a global trend of falling fertility rates that have exploded (pun intended) hysteria about overpopulation. Indeed, people are now openly worried about potential under-population:

That might sound like an outrageous claim, but it comes down to simple math. According to a 2008 IIASA report, if the world stabilizes at a total fertility rate of 1.5—where Europe is today—then by 2200 the global population will fall to half of what it is today. By 2300, it’ll barely scratch 1 billion. (The authors of the report tell me that in the years since the initial publication, some details have changed—Europe’s population is falling faster than was previously anticipated, while Africa’s birthrate is declining more slowly—but the overall outlook is the same.) Extend the trend line, and within a few dozen generations you’re talking about a global population small enough to fit in a nursing home.

I must admit that this is a concern I share. Part of it is my penchant for “end of the world with a whimper” type concerns. Part of it is my own decision to reproduce (and thus far frustrated desire to reproduce again). It may be egotistical, but I feel I have a responsibility to create future generations, especially given the lucky hand of genetic cards I was handed (good health, etc.) But I’m also interested in this as a generalized demographic issue. Are we not having enough children?

Expressing concern over this trend is thorny, as Ross Douthat found out last year. He wrote an article about it and was promptly slammed for wanting women to be barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. But as McArdle notes:

This shouldn’t need saying, but apparently it does: those who say that this is not a real problem, just something that Douthat made up because he thinks that wives should be barricaded in the kitchen until they’ve birthed at least a basketball team, are just wrong. They’re wrong because, well, if you’ve mett Ross’s wife, you know they’re just wrong, is all. But that’s a sidenote. They’re wildly wrong about the policy side. Population decline presents us with big, big problems–ones that we have in no way figured out how to solve.

Our whole economy and social system are designed for a growing economy, and a growing population. Without future growth, savings and investment become more necessary, but less attractive. Without growth, people become less generous towards strangers and more unhappy about their own circumstances. And without the growth around which all of our modern welfare states have been structured, the modern safety nets that governments have spent the last century establishing may not be politically or economically sustainable.

If you think that population decline is going to be a net boon to society, take a long hard look at Greece. That’s what a country looks like when it becomes inevitable that the future will be poorer than the past: social breakdown, political breakdown, economic catastrophe.

You should read the entire McArdle post, but it boils down to this: a society that has no children has no future. Saying so is not sexist; it’s simply reality.

(There’s another ugly aspect of this that comes up frequently in these discussions: the racial/national component. White people are declining far faster than any other race. And various pundits have expressed concern that European countries will soon be dominated by ethnic minorities or that Israel will one day be a majority-Arab state. I really have no idea what to make of these issues. I see the point. I also see that such points have been raised historically and have often turned out to be overblown. That is, unless you think 19th century pundits were right and our country really was ruined by all the Irish and Italian immigrants who came to our shores.)

So are we doomed? Is there a solution? I have no idea but I find concerns over things projected to occur centuries in the future to be a bit dubious. Worries about underpopulation are a little more realistic than past worries about overpopulation; we’re seeing real-life negative consequences of declining fertility in Europe and, very soon, China. But there are a number of things that could change the game dramatically. Medical advances could extend reproductive age (in theory, indefinitely). We could see a Brave New World type society in which children are primarily bred in labs. The state of our population problems five hundred years ago is as murky to us as our problems would have been to Martin Luther.

The fact is that almost all doomsday scenarios — be they overpopulation, underpopulation, global warming, pollution or whatever — rely on humanity not adapting to deal with the problem. So far, we have always found a way to keep going.

Some steps have been taken to fight this trend but I’m dubious of their utility. European countries have massively expanded paternal and maternal benefits and leave. Australia is paying bonuses to women who have children. But these countries have lower reproductive rates than the cold, unhelpful United States. The problem is not financial, it’s cultural. No matter how much money or leave you give someone, that’s going to have a weak effect on their willingness to take on a life-long obligation.

No, I think the changes are going to be cultural and technological. One advance might be group families, as shown in the works of Robert Heinlein, where multiple couples can pool time and resources in the way that extended families once did. Grandparents, living longer and better than ever before, can step in to effectively be stay-at-homes for working young people. As mentioned above, fertility tech that extends the time of child-bearing into the forties or beyond is already combatting the declining fertility trend by allowing women to build a career and then have a family. Improvements in robotics might ease the crushing burden that a newborn places on a young family.

And the ultimate X-factor is space exploration, which could potentially create a baby boom that would dwarf anything that’s come before.

But that’s in the future. And there’s little government can do about it, other than stand out of the way. In the meantime, we’ll just enjoy what might be “peak human”. Right now there are more people than there have ever been and those people are richer, healthier and happier than they’ve ever been. That’s something worth celebrating, whether it is the peak before our inevitable decline or just the resting point on a journey that ends with quadrillions of us spread across the Galaxy.

Thursday Linkorama

January 24th, 2013

I think I’ve spent the entirety of this week either on the phone or having a meeting or curled up in bed with a migraine. Sigh. Some weeks are like that.

  • I can’t say that I enjoy the retuning of some songs to different keys, per se. I do, however, find it utterly fascinating how important key is to the mood and feel of a song or musical piece. I knew a woman back in college who had a variety of health issues that would eventually take her at a young age. But she was an amazing pianist who could shift the key on a song instantly and play it perfectly. Somehow, it never changed the tone like these retunings do.
  • Cracked looks at lines censored by TV. My brother and I used to get great amusement from watching movies like The Breakfast Club and Police Academy on Channel 46. The dubbing was so bad and the lines so hilariously stupid, we almost preferred them. My favorite comes from Police Academy: “Mahoney …. nobody plays with me.” with “plays” delivered about an octave and a half lower than Bailey’s register.
  • This article, which tries to argue that Southern dominance of Miss America is a result of racism, is so idiotic, so filled with PC bullshit and is such an inaccurate assessment of Southern history, culture and tradition, that it could only possibly have been published in the New York Times.
  • Eerie pictures of Chernobyl and amazing pictures of World War I.
  • Jacob Sullum details some of the concerns about allowing the CDC to do research into guns. I’m in favor of lifting restrictions on scientific research, even if it does mean politicized work. I just hate restrictions too much. But it is worth noting that the public health experts have a bad history of cooking the books to reach their conclusions, as seen in the EPA’s study of second-hand smoke and the CDC’s own study of obesity deaths.
  • A woman drives 900 miles out of her way and through several countries due to a supposed GPS error. Maybe it’s me, but I doubt the GPS was the only malfunctioning thing in that car.
  • An environmentalist admits he was wrong on GMO’s. Thanks a lot.
  • How much do you want to bet that most of the people involved in these idiocies were not fired?
  • I can’t vouch for the accuracy, but if these people really have recreated a hairstyle from the Roman Empire, that’s pretty damned cool.
  • Mo Money, Mo Problems

    January 13th, 2013

    A couple of week ago, I had some Twitter discussion about lottery winners. The impetus was the horrible story of Jack Whittaker, a very successful businessman who won the powerball lottery and watched his life go completely to hell. It’s a truly tragic story, especially for those of us who are fathers and enjoy indulging our daughters. Not only did he descend into booze-fueled chaos, he ended up divorced with both his daughter and granddaughter dead.

    Whittaker’s story may be extreme but it is not that unusual. Just in the last week, another story broke about a lottery winner who was likely murdered by someone close. Scientific research on the subject is, at best, mixed. But even that doesn’t capture the fullness of the issue: it’s possible that lottery winners are, on balanced, happier. But it seems like they have an increased chance for the lives to go horribly wrong.

    Why does this happen? Two reasons, I think.

    First, money changes the people around you. Dave Chappell talked about this a lot: how the fame and fortune brought by his wildly successful show made him distrust the people around him, made him worry that no one would criticize him because of his money.

    There’s also a huge difference between someone who earns money through their own means and someone who has a ton of money dropped on them from space. The Whittaker article talks about star athlete and how many of them burn out at younger levels because they can’t handle the fame and fortune. Those who do succeed surround themselves with good people early on so that they have a “team” of people they can trust to look out for their interests, usually people who have been around wealth and fame before and so aren’t phased by it.

    Second, money also affects people themselves. Sudden surges in income can produce sudden surges in spending to match. There’s a theory, often propounded by Clark Howard, that people are mentally calibrated for a certain amount of wealth. And when they suddenly get more income, they spend to get themselves back to that familiar frame of reference. It takes time for them re-calibrate and realize that they don’t have to spend every penny. Indeed, this is one of the things that keeps poor people poor: when they do get some money, they instantly blow it because they are so used to money just disappearing. Most of the lottery winners have never had a lot of money or income before. They are not used to the idea of putting money away. And so they revert quickly to bad habits — buying cars, houses and shady business deals.

    You combine these two and you get the real problem: wealth and fame — like many other things in life — put strains on a person. If the person is already psychologically strong and has surrounded themselves with good people, money can bring happiness and fulfillment. But if they have character flaws — really big character flaws — they will crack and crumble like a faulty bridge. This is especially true of a sudden unexpected fortune. Looking over the story I linked above, you see Whittaker simply indulging himself and everyone around him — lavishing gifts on his granddaughter, buying expensive cars, leaving cash lying around, throwing money at everything: precisely the behavior one is not supposed to engage in.

    The gripping hand is that people who are psychologically strong and have surrounded themselves with good people tend not to play the lottery. Lottery is well-known to be the vice of the poor; state lotteries are a heavily regressive tax. And, generally, people who are happy and balanced aren’t looking for the escape hatch that the lottery provides. Obviously, that’s a generalization: plenty of happy people play the lottery. But they’re doing it mostly for fun. They’re not doing it in the hopes that it will rescue their lives or solve all their problems. They might play, but they also know that wealth and happiness is more likely to come to them through good living, reliable friends, hard work and perseverance. If they win the lottery, that’s gravy on a life that is already well-lived.

    So would I like to win the lottery (if I played)? Well, if it were a modest amount, sure. Enough to pay off my house or squirrel away for retirement. Maybe even enough that I could write full time. But I can’t help but think that suddenly crashing into a LOT of money — millions or hundreds of millions — would expose my own character flaws, would expose those of the people around me, would allow me to indulge my own daughter as much as possible.

    I don’t play but if someone bought me a lottery ticket and it won (my mother, most likely), I’d probably donate a significant fraction to charities. I’d endow chairs for my wife and I at a chosen university. I’d establish trusts for a handful of people. And that would pretty much be it. I’m not into fancy cars; my practical Camry is just about the perfect car for me. I don’t want a huge house — maybe something newer and less drafty than my current residence. And while I might like to play around with some business ideas, I would only do those if I could stand to lose the entire investment (which is what usually happens).

    Hell, I probably wouldn’t even quit my job, no matter how much I won.

    It was Robert Heinlein, I think, who said that most Americans don’t want to be rich. They don’t want the single-minded devotion that real wealth accumulation usually requires. What they want to be is well-off. Comfortable. With a nice house and no real worries about the future, able to support causes they believe in and people they love.

    The Bowl Championship, Reloaded

    January 6th, 2013

    A few years ago, I invented a Bowl Championship Points System. The basic idea was response to the Bowl Championship Cup, which was awarded, for a while, to the conference that did the best in the bowl season. But because it was given out for winning percentage with a minimum of three games, it almost always went to the conference that played in … three games. If a conference went 2-1 or 3-0, they would “win” the cup over a conference that went 6-2 and won two BCS games. This crossed me as absurd and a result of not understanding the effects of small numbers on percentages.

    In my system, each conference gets two points for a bowl win, an extra point for a BCS bowl win and loses a point for a bowl loss. So it rewards conferences that are both in a lot of bowls and do well in them. Yes, it favors the major conferences. But it should favor them as they usually have far more depth than the mid-majors. The system is fair, I think, because it mostly favors the top conferences but a mid-major can win if they have a really great season. And, in fact, one has and another might this year.

    I’ll just quote my old article on past results since the inception of the BCS in 1998 and contrast my system to the bowl championship formulation. (And no, I am not going to correct for the Stalinist revisionism of vacating wins from either Penn State or USC).

  • 1998-1999: Both systems favor the Big 10, which went 5-0 with two BCS wins.
  • 1999-2000: Both systems favor the Big 10, which went 5-2 with two BCS wins.
  • 2000-1: The Mountain West had the best record at 3-0, but my system favors the Big East’s 4-1 record with a BCS win.
  • 2001-2: The Big East took the BC Cup based on a 4-1 record. My system would have given it to the SEC since they were 5-3 but won two BCS games.
  • 2002-3: Both systems give the cup to the Big 10, which went 5-2 with a BCS win and national title for Ohio State. If you’re counting, that’s three wins for the Big Ten in five years. Just keep that in mind when the SEC starts winning and you claim I’m biased.
  • 2003-4: The ACC wins the BC cup based on a 5-1 record. My system puts the SEC in a tie because they went 5-2 with a BCS win. This is a perfect example of how the systems differ because the Cup favors the conference that had fewer bowl games while my system favors the conference that had more bowl games. I don’t weigh national titles in the system because of my belief that such title are arbitrary (see previous rantings). But if I used it as a tie-breaker, the SEC would win since LSU took a share of the national title.
  • 2004-5: The Cup went to the Mountain West based on a 2-1 record. I gave it to the Big 12, which 4-3 with a BCS win. That was the lowest winning score (6 points) of any winner. And simultaneously an example of why the Bowl Cup was always stupid because it went to a 2-1 conference. This was the most balanced year on the books as only the Sun Belt was more than one game away from .500.
  • 2005-6: The Cup splits between ACC and Big-12 as both had 5-3 records. My system gives it to the Big 12, which also won a BCS game and a title.
  • 2006-7: The Cup went to the Big East based on a 5-0 record. My system puts the SEC in a tie. Although they went 6-3, two of those wins were BCS wins and one was for the national title. People pretend the SEC has dominated forever only have memories going back to 2006, which is when the SEC began to dominate. The Big East’s 5-0 record was impressive and I can understand people thinking they were the best. But the SEC played in almost twice as many bowls.
  • 2007-8: Again, the Mountain West wins the cup with a 4-1 performance. My system gives it to the SEC, which went 7-2 with 2 BCS wins. Their 14 point performance is the highest out of any year in the system and their seven bowl victories the most for any year. This was actually the peak of SEC performance. The hype has trailed it.
  • 2008-9: Another year where one conference — the Pac-10 — goes 5-0. But with a 6-2 record, a BCS win and a title, the SEC earns a tie in the point system. 5-0 is awfully impressive for a major conference. The Big 10, once the mightiest conference in the land, reached its nadir with a 1-6 bowl record. They weren’t the worst conference, though. The MAC went 0-5.
  • 2009-10: The Mountain West wins its fourth cup by virtue of a 4-1 record. My system favors the SEC again, which went 6-4 with 2 BCS wins. This is another year where the sheer weight of the SEC — ten bowl teams — propels them to the win. Had TCU won the Fiesta Bowl, the Mountain West would have become the first mid-major to win the points system. This demonstrates, I think, the wisdom of the system: an exceptional performance could propel a mid-major to the title. Under the Bowl Championship system, winning enough Weedeater Bowls is enough.
  • 2010-11: In 2011, the Mountain West became the first mid-major conference to win the points system when TCU won the Rose Bowl. Of course, they later bolted to the Big 12. But with a 4-1 record, they just edge the SEC (5-5, 1 BCS) and the Big East (4-2). While we’re on the subject, the Big East has to be most resilient conference in the country. No matter how many teams flee, they still do well at bowl season, second only to the SEC in the database.
  • 2011-2012: The Cup is split between Conference USA and the MAC, with 4-1 records. My system favores the Big 12, which went 6-2 in bowls with a BCS win. However … it should be pointed that the SEC became the only conference in the system to ever play a bowl game against itself. I thought it was ridiculous at the time to face off two teams from the same conference. Of course, if the LSU and ‘Bama had been in two different bowls, they might have both lost. So I’ll stick with the Big 12.
  • It may seem like my system is biased in favor of the SEC. But I designed it when the SEC was in a down cycle and it was favoring the Big-12. The SEC does better in my system simply because they get into more bowls and win more bowls. Over the BCS years that I have now entered into the system, here are the records of each conference coming into this bowl season.

    SEC: 67-47 (16 BCS wins) = 103 points
    Big East: 43-27 (7 BCS wins) = 66 points
    Big 12: 54-53 (9 BCS wins) = 64 points
    Big 10: 45-54 (12 BCS wins) = 48 points
    Mountain West: 31-20 (3 BCS wins) = 45 points
    Pac 10/12: 37-40 (11 BCS wins) = 45 points
    ACC: 45-53 (2 BCS wins) = 39 points
    Conference USA: 29-40 (0 BCS wins) = 18 points
    MAC: 19-23 (0 BCS wins) = 15 points
    WAC: 21-29 (2 BCS wins) = 15 points
    Sun Belt: 8-11 (0 BCS wins) = 5 points
    Independents: 7-12 (0 BCS wins) = 2 point

    It’s fine to hate the SEC. I probably would had I not been raised in Georgia. But their dominance in the BCS era, particularly from 2006-2012, can not be denied. The other conferences cluster near .500 but the SEC is away ahead. This is true if you use W-L, national titles, BCS bowl wins or my system. On win percentage, the Mountain West or Big East would take the lead (but with a fraction of the bowl appearance). Those are the only two conferences that could be said to have legitimately matched the SEC in bowl performance.

    So why am I posting this now, while we still have two bowls left in 2013? Here’s why. With the old bowl championship system, Conference USA would have already have “won” the bowl season by virtue of winning the Beef O’Brady Bowl, the Hawaii Bowl, the Armed Forces Bowl and the Liberty Bowl. While I’m happy for those teams, this doesn’t really cross me as exactly dominating college football.

    As of right now, the points system has Conference USA, the much-maligned ACC and the hyped SEC in a tie at 7 points. Should ‘Bama win their third title, the SEC will take the points system with a 6-3 record and a BCS win. However, should Notre Dame win, the SEC will lose it (as they should, having already lost one BCS game) and Conference USA/ACC will split the title.

    The SEC is still the dominant conference, but they have waned a bit in recent years even as the hype has exploded. From 2006-2013, they have placed first or second every year, which sounds about right for a deep conference that has won six straight titles, gone 41-22 in bowls and won nine BCS games. But their peak was three years ago. They have come down to earth enough to be beatable as Northwestern, Clemson and Louisville have shown.

    Notre Dame has a very good chance in this game because they play defense. For all the hype lavished on the SEC’s speed, what has made it the dominant conference is being one of the few to take defense seriously. If you look at the powers — ‘Bama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, LSU — they all have great defenses. When SEC titans clash, you don’t get 50-45 shootouts like you do in the Big 12 or Pac 12. You usually get low-scoring slugfest. A classic SEC game features a tough running game, punishing defense and enough passing to keep things lively. This year, we’ve seen SEC teams rise and fall with their defense. Georgia has trouble with Nebraska until their defense clamped down. South Carolina won, in part, because their defense clamped down, setting up the last minute heroics. Florida failed because their defense was completely lost at sea. Even Texas A&M, for all of Manziel’s amazing performance, pulled away when their defense shut out Oklahoma in the second half.

    In previous years, we’ve seen offense juggernauts like Oklahoma, Texas and Oregon get beat because their offense hadn’t really faced a tough defense before. I remember the 2008 title game, when the TV broadcast had a clock for how fast Oklahoma’s offense moved. They stopped using it because Florida, unlike most Big 12 teams, had an actual defense and put some of their best athletes on defense and Oklahoma was forced to slow down.

    That’s why Notre Dame could win this. They have a great defense and can match Alabama stop-for-stop. It should be a low-scoring game that could turn on anything.

    This is also why I think the Big 10+ is destined to rise again. The Big 10 is the only other conference to take defense seriously. They had a bad year this year. But then again, two of their best teams were kept out of the bowls.

    Guess Who, Fat Boy?

    January 4th, 2013

    Earlier this week, the Journal of the American Medical Association came out with a huge study of obesity that concludes that the obesity hysterics are, indeed, hysterical. Their results indicate that being moderately overweight or even very mildly obese doesn’t make you more likely to die than a thin person. In fact, it may make you less likely to die, to the tune of 6%. (Severe obesity, however, did show a strong connection to higher death rates).

    Now you would think that this would be greeted with some skeptical enthusiasm. If the results are born out by further study, it would mean we do not have a massive pending public health crisis on our hands. It means that instead of using cattle prods to get moderately overweight people into the gym, we can concentrate on really obese people.

    So is the health community greeting this with relief? Not exactly:

    That’s the wrong conclusion, according to epidemiologists. They insist that, in general, excess weight is dangerous. But then they have to explain why the mortality-to-weight correlation runs the wrong way. The result is a messy, collective scramble for excuses and explanations that can make the new data fit the old ideas.

    William Saletan at Slate lists a dozen different explanations for why this study is wrong, definitely wrong, absolutely wrong, no sir. Most of these cross him (and me) as trying to rationalize away an inconvenient scientific result.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Looking Ahead to 2013

    January 2nd, 2013

    Any year you can walk away from is a good one right? I ended 2012 with my family and career intact, so I don’t think I can complain too much. Abby had a great year with her first real birthday party and a good start to kindergarten. I landed a couple of grants and got a couple of big projects off my plate, including the image gallery for the mission.

    On the other hand, I had my gallbladder out and had a sudden awful onset of bad migraines, something I still have not quite gotten control of. My mother-in-law died. My stepmother got cancer. We spent a fortune on fertility treatments and got, for all our pains, one miscarriage and a bad MS relapse. So … yeah, not our best year.

    In sports, my Braves bowed out in ignominious fashion and the hated New York Giants stomped over the Falcons, Packers and Patriots. On the other hand, the Falcons had another good regular season, the Braves have a lot of young talent and Chipper Jones went out in grand fashion.

    Politics? Oh, God. This was one of the most frustrating disillusioning years I can remember. I looked at both parties and eventually slammed my head into the desk and voted for Gary Johnson. We had a huge amount of sound and fury. More digital ink was spilled than ever before. I blogged my guts out over at Right Thinking. And the result? Obama is still President, Congress is still split, Congress is still stupid, the deficit is still huge and the economy is still sluggish.

    But, for some strange reason, I have a good feeling about 2013. 2011 was a the year of false hope — personally, professionally and politically. 2012 was a tough grinding exhausting year. But I feel like things have put in motion that will make 2013 suck a lot less. I can’t put my finger on anything specific. That probably means I’m wrong.

    Oh, well. Without further ado, my bold predictions for 2013:

  • Alabama over Notre Dame; New England over Green Bay; Miami in the NBA, Cincinnati over the Angels
  • Movies look like a mixed bag. Bad remakes and sequels galore (Evil Dead, GI Joe 2, Hangover 3, Die Hard 5, etc.). Beautiful Creatures and Pacific Rim look hilariously bad. And I’m not optimistic about Oz, Man of Steel or The Great Gatsby even though I want to be. I’m worried Hobbit 2 will suffer from Middle Chapter Syndrome (even more than Hobbit 1 does). But maybe something will surprise us.
  • We’re going to have a debt ceiling crisis that will hurt the economy and result in almost no spending cuts of note. Nevertheless, the economy will lumber on. And, for the first time in years, the deficit will notably shrink.
  • The Supreme Court will have another interesting year, likely striking down Prop 8 but on very narrow grounds.
  • Japan and China will rattle sabers but no fighting will break out. We will probably eventually intervene in Syria. The EU will continue to lumber toward a unified state.
  • So, yeah. Even looking at that, I’m not predicting a great year. But 2012 was so lousy, 2013 is almost bound to be better.

    We must always remember that the arc of history is long and, over the last decade, has pointed toward progress. On a global level, things are improving. Steadily, haltingly, frustratingly. But improving. And maybe 2013 will be the year things start improving around here — slowly, haltingly, frustratingly. In the end, the future is what we create. And I intend to bend my shoulder a little bit more this year and push a little harder.

    Swift Unveils the Gallery

    December 31st, 2012

    Not a bad bunch of pictures, if I do say so myself.

    Post-Xmas Linkorama

    December 30th, 2012
  • Godspeed.
  • Heh heh. It turns out that some of those tests that say newborns have pot in their systems may be bullshit. Don’t you just love the War on Drugs?
  • You know, I actually think this guy gets it right. The whole “we’re miserable during the holidays” things always did cross me as a load of dingo’s kidneys. We see the stress of family and travel; ignore the absent stress of work.
  • As much as I respect the idea of building an ideal language, the idea is going precisely nowhere as Zamenhoff found out. Language is not about utilitarian efficiency. It’s about culture, history, nuance and tradition.
  • One thing I wondered while taking Sporcle’s blurred faces quiz is if the results would show a racial component: i.e., would white people be more likely to recognize the blurred features of other white people. This wouldn’t be about racism but about the way our brains process facial features.
  • Disbelief By Any Other Name

    December 29th, 2012

    I have frequently heard this argument from atheists:

    Ricky Gervais argues that “there shouldn’t be a word for atheism: it shouldn’t exist, it’s ridiculous. If people didn’t keep making up supernatural deities, I wouldn’t have to deny they exist.”

    While I understand that point of view, it crosses me as, frankly, condescending. What Gervais is trying to do is define atheism as the default human condition with theism as the anomaly. Really, when you dig into it, it’s another attempt to define atheism as normal and rational while theism is seen as some kind of mental defect. It’s relate to the idea, frequently sideswiped by Dawkins, that people are born atheists and don’t become religious until someone imposes religion upon them.

    But that “mental defect”, depending on whom you listen to, affects 90-98% of the population. Theism and supernatural beliefs have been around, as far as we can tell, since homo sapiens began to wonder where the world came from. And we don’t have to buy into some ridiculous behaviorist psychology nonsense to explain it. In my opinion, religion fits just as naturally with the way we evolved to think as the scientific method does. Human beings are born asking questions. And if we don’t have adequate information, we will invent it (you should hear my daughter’s theories about where babies come from). In science, that’s called a hypothesis. In religion, it’s called faith. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the instinct that drives scientific enquiry comes from the same fount that produces religion: a desperate aching need to explain the world around us.

    However much someone may wish it otherwise, atheism is not the default human condition; theism is. However much someone may wish it otherwise, atheists are not anywhere close to even a significant minority among the human population. And, seen in that light, “why should I call myself anything” comes across as trying to pretend that human beings are something other than what the are: semi-rational animals who don’t like an unanswered or unanswerable question.

    Robot Cars and the Law

    December 28th, 2012

    As I often say about innovation, the technical problems are nothing compared to the pinhead legal problems. Verge has a good article up sorting through some of the legal and treaty issues (yes, treaty issues) involved in automated robotic cars. It’s definitely worth your time.

    However…

    The article seems unduly pessimistic to me. These are things that can be worked out — we have entire armies of lawyers in this country who stand to make millions getting everything sorted into legal precedent. And if these things prove to be safe — and I think they will — the economic pressure to work out the legal issues will be fierce.

    The one thing that bothered me about the article was this:

    The Geneva Convention on Road Traffic (1949) requires that drivers “shall at all times be able to control their vehicles,” and provisions against reckless driving usually require “the conscious and intentional operation of a motor vehicle.” Some of that is simple semantics, but other concerns are harder to dismiss. After a crash, drivers are legally obligated to stop and help the injured — a difficult task if there’s no one in the car.

    As a result, most experts predict drivers will be legally required to have a person in the car at all times, ready to take over if the automatic system fails. If they’re right, the self-parking car may never be legal.

    Did you see the subtext? The subtext is that if I’m in a crash with an automated car, there is no one around to render assistance to me.

    Well, maybe. Bleeding out while unconscious or seriously injured would be a risk (although it’s not like pedestrians and bystanders are going to disappear). But being in a collision with a robot would have some advantages over being in one with a human:

  • One of the lessons taught in driver’s education is how to avoid accidents or, if unavoidable, minimize the damage (e.g., rear-ending someone instead of swerving into traffic or pedestrians). Robots can be made to optimize this much better than human beings.
  • A robot can not be knocked unconscious and can call for help. Even if its CPU were destroyed, it can be on a network that will recognize the dropout and call for assistance to the last known location.
  • An automated car will maintain an extremely detailed and objective record of the accident, making fault easy to determine.
  • An automated car will not get out and try to help injured passengers, true. But this isn’t always a good thing. It’s not unheard for helpful bystanders to drag people with spinal injuries into para- or quadriplegia because of an irrational fear that the car will burst into flames.
  • Developing safety and reporting methods for automated cars will massively improve the ability of driven cars to avoid accidents, minimize damage and call for help.
  • Robot cars are coming, one way or another. As powerful as the legal pinheads are, the force of progress is simply too strong.

    Me and the Ninth

    December 25th, 2012

    So, I finally got a new pair of headphones today. That in itself is a story. When I was in grad school, I bought a pair of heavy earphones that were fantastic. Long cord, covered the ears, good balance. I used the hell out of them. One day someone broke into my UT-Austin office through the ceiling and stole my monitor and my headphones. We recovered the monitor; they’d stashed it for later retrieval and I got it back after the police fingerprinted it. But the headphones were never seen again. Why they would want my old, torn-up, earwax-encrusted headphones mystifies me a bit. But, as Robert Heinlein said, thieves will steal anything that isn’t nailed down whether it’s valuable or not.

    When I get new electronics, one of my little quirks is to figure out the perfect media with which to break them in with. When I got my first DVD player, it was Saving Private Ryan. When I got my blu-ray player, it was Lord of the Rings (DVD). So what do you break a new pair of headphones in with?

    If you’re me, you break them in with the Fourth Movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. And since it is Christmas, it becomes doubly apropos.

    Other writers have written more eloquently than I can about the 9th Symphony, which is simply the pinacle of musical achievement. Listened to on its own, it’s powerful, beautiful and overwhelming. But when you think about the circumstances: the most joyous uplifting music in history written by a man who was deaf and had an awful personal life … well, let me just say that I couldn’t get through typing that sentence without choking up.

    As amazing as the 9th is on audio, it’s simply stunning in person. I’ve been privileged to see it live, performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. And I don’t think any media — digital, analog or telepathic — can convey just how special it is to watch it performed live. There’s something about seeing the hundred pieces of an orchestra and chorus working together that a recording simply can not convey.

    What’s even more amazing is the response. I’ve been to many classical concerts and classical audiences tend to be a bit reserved. For a great performance, you’ll get a standing ovation. But it’s usually just politely attentive applause. When the last note of the 9th fell, however, I heard a sound I’d never heard from a classical audience before. There was a roar as the audience lept to their feet, clapping cheering and whistling. The ASO got five ovations the night I saw them. It was like we didn’t want that glorious music to end.

    Mathematical Malpractice: Spree Killings Again

    December 17th, 2012

    This analysis, which claims that the US has more school spree killings than 36 nations combined, is getting a lot of play. It shouldn’t. It is extremely bad mathematical malpractice.

    The basic reason it is mathematical malpractice is the same reason the Mother Jones study was: it is difficult to analyze extremely rare events. When you narrow your investigation to events that happen maybe once a decade and are compiled haphazardly, you are simply going to be dominated by small number statistics and selection bias. You can therefore use those numbers to say, basically, anything you want.

    Let’s break down just how bad the numbers are being twisted here.

    1) The sample ends in 2009. That excludes the recent spate of knife attacks in Chinese schools that have left 21 dead. If you did this analysis a week ago, you would have had to drop China from the right column.

    2) The sample excludes acts of terror or war. But if Islamists shoot up a school because they don’t want girls to read, are those kids any less dead? If a drone strike misses its targets and kills a classroom, are those kids less dead? Why must we exclude the Beslan attack that left 186 kids dead?

    3) The sample excludes single homicides, which amount to 302 deaths in the United States over the time involved and God knows how many in other countries. So you are literally excluding 90% of the problem and focusing just on a tiny subset of killings.

    4) Comparing us to 36 other countries is ridiculous when some of those countries are places like Bosnia-Herzegovina (population 4 million). We have more population, period, then 30 of the countries on that list combined. Also included in that list of countries are England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which are, technically speaking, not countries.

    5) The problem of small number statistics can be best illustrated by playing with the data a bit. If I include the knife attacks and move China into the left column, suddenly China has more violent deaths than 30 other countries. If I move Germany onto the left side, suddenly they have more spree killings than a bunch of other countries. If I define the sample in the 1990′s, suddenly Australia dominates the statistics. You simple can not draw conclusions from samples that are that sensitive to single events.

    6) Combining points 4 and 5, if you look at spree killing rates rather than the deliberate mathematical malpractice of comparing absolute numbers, the situation is very different. In 2009, the Winnenden shooting killed 15. Scaled up to the population of the United States, that would be the equivalent of 60 people dead, more than the worst year the United States has ever had. In 1996, 35 people were kill in Port Arthur, Australia. Scaled up to the US population, that would almost equal 500 dead. It is an event that is seared into the memories of Australians. My point is not that these countries are worse than we are. My point is that these are rare and horrible events and you can manipulate the numbers to prove anything you want.

    7) The biggest thing missing here is a sense of time. Is the rate of school killings going up or down? The answer, of course, is down. Check out chart one at Ezra Klein’s blog that shows that the rate of assault death has fallen by over half since 1970. Check out the NCES page I link above which shows a significant decline in on-campus homicides, from 40/year in the 90′s to 30/year in the 00′s. That decline is a hundred more kids running in the sunshine. The NCES data, based on a complete sample of over 600 incidents, is useful. This …. isn’t.

    I’m not trying to downplay the horror that unfolded on Friday. However, I don’t think any debate can proceed unless we have a good grasp of the problem we are trying to solve. Far too many children are murdered in school in this country — that was as true on Thursday as it is today. But to be useful, the debate needs to be on honest terms. Committing mathematical malpractrice by deceptively comparing the United States to 36 other countries as though there something to be learned from that is not an honest debate and is likely to produce a panicky and ill-considered response.

    The Hobbit Part I

    December 15th, 2012

    The Hobbit is not the Phantom Menace.

    I feel like I have to say that leading in, even though I liked the Star Wars prequels. But since that is the gold standard of disappointing sequels, I’ll just use it as a marker. The Hobbit will not disappoint. Casual fans may find it a bit boring in parts. Tolkien enthusiasts, however, will probably love it despite the liberties it takes with the text. Jackson has fleshed out the book with so much detail and backstory, that you can’t help but get swept up in the labor of love this clearly is.

    As I said on Twitter, the movie is good. Sometimes it is very good. But it if were a half an hour shorter, it would be awesome.

    Let me unpack that a bit. The biggest problem the movie has — in fact, I would almost say its only problem — is that it’s too long. If you’ve got me checking my watch during a Middle Earth movie and continually wondering, “OK, is this where they’re going to end it?”, you’ve got a problem with running time.

    It’s hard to pin down exactly where the movie bogs down because there is simply so much new material. New stuff has been larded in everywhere — the battle with the goblins, the chase to Rivendell, the “out of the frying pan” scene. This is not all bad: Jackson has put a much more tangible villain in the piece who works very well. And, as noted above, the backstory fleshes out the movie to be much more epic than the book.

    No, I don’t think the new material is the problem. The problem is that some scenes just drag on. People are complaining about the party at Bilbo’s house, but I didn’t find that to be much of a problem. I kind of liked it actually as it did a good job of introducing and defining the characters (Balin, in particular, does well). But the part of the prologue with Frodo just drags on. Gandalf’s introduction is almost verbatim from the book. The consultation in Rivendell really drags with Blanchett and Weaving intoning each syllable verrryy slowly. And a number of the battle scenes just go on for far too long (a growing problem in modern action films). In the end, the movie doesn’t really feel like it has an arc; it feels like a series of incidents that just … at some point … kinda ends.

    Personally, I would have ditched all the stuff with Radagast (although it does produce one extremely chilling scene). But I actually think that sharper editing could have kept everything in the movie that’s there and still cut half an hour off the running time. The result would be a great two hour movie that would leave the audience breathless.

    And that’s the rub. The reason I’ve spent most of this review complaining about the running time is because Jackson does so much in the film that’s just so right. The prologue about Erebor is excellent. Thorin’s backstory is great. The new villain is excellent and deepens the significance of Thorin’s return to Erebor. The “riddles in the dark scene” is the highlight of the film. Bilbo’s journey from timid Hobbit to hero is done better than Tolkein did. Middle Earth itself is, once again, rendered with such beautiful, loving and fiddling detail. And there are images in the film — the appearance of the necromancer, the “into the fire” scene, the eagles — that just work really really well.

    The actors are all well-chosen and do jobs ranging from good to excellent. And Jackson shows the talent he’s shown before for letting actors act.

    So, yeah, I liked it, despite its running time. I will probably see it again because, as with the second two LOTR films, my anticipation and worry impinged my enjoyment. But it’s definitely worth $8. Especially on a big 2-D 24 fps screen.

    I’ve rated it 8/10, which is provisional. The reason it’s provisional is that a) I’m a fan; b) I rarely rate films higher than 8 on initial viewing; and c) I have to see the other two films (and I really don’t want to wait two years for them). I initially rated the LOTR movies as 9′s but elevated all three to 10′s as they were one long epic rather than three films. So Hobbit I’s legacy will depend on how Hobbit II and Hobbit III go.

    Texas Linkorama

    December 12th, 2012
  • The idea of building gondolas in Austin strikes me as a really dumb. Gondols are slow and would take up lots of space for the number of passengers they transport. Texans aren’t big on mass transit to begin with (the light rail system is likely to be a flop). And what do you need a gondola for in a city that is really flat? This crosses me as a solution in search of a problem. And if it doesn’t have high ridership, it’s bad for the environment. And expensive.
  • Down with homework!
  • I always suspected that the high I got off parenting was an evolutionary thing. I find these things intriguing and fascinating. Much of what we feel in life: compassion, empathy, love, tenderness is the result of millions of years of evolution making us into creatures that look for the species rather than ourselves.
  • A really good post on the Jefferson slave thing. Also, highly recommended on the subject: Ta-Nehisi Coates. Actually, TNC is just recommended, full stop.
  • One day, parenting authorities will get it through thick skulls like that fun physical activities are good for children even when they involve a low amount of risk.
  • Ah, peak oil. These days, the biggest energy concern is that we won’t run out of fossil fuels and that global warming will be worse than feared.
  • A fascinating story from NPR about how our image of Jesus has changed with social norms.
  • While it strikes me that global helium supplies are a legitimate concern, the idea that our technical needs in 50 years will be the same as they are now crosses me as silly. Think about the chemicals that were important 50 years ago. Are we in the grips of a global lead shortage?