Weekend Lessons

The morning dawned early, being a Monday and return to the gym thing. Rain was trying to fall, the trainer who opens the building was late, and the Ideas podcast from CBC that I listen to on Monday morning was banal, the empty mumblings of a literateur whelmed with the self importance of his craft and thereby of his own criticality to the species and its society, the only high point the post lecture anger of the speaker at the audiences incomprehension of his turgidity. The most thought provoking matter was the entrance of a member of the local education mafia, a Rubensesque blond wearing a strikingly decorated elastic exercise shirt at least one size too small for her. The sight was immediately a wonder of whether the garment would self destruct under the quivering stress and simultaneously a wonder if this was an indication of some wish fulfillment dementia or only an indication of some desire for result that would engender motivation.

Nonetheless, the matter then led to consideration of a blivet, [Link] sometimes referred to as a saccus sterci, that is a measure of metabolic waste product contained in a half measure sized container. At least that is one of the two classical uses of the term, the other being an Escheresque three timed fork. The former is the one I have found the most use for, especially in a more contemporary usage of a measure of something undesirable in a too small container. Which is not to say that the young woman is inherently undesirable but rather that the idea that she might be the font of some amusement would be undesirable to her.

I was led from this to consider the minutiae of articles that had arrived in my aggregator this weekend and had made it into my browser for reading and have not yet been noted or discarded. In deeper, rain enhanced concentration there is wisdom to be gained.

First, and perhaps most profound, I have learned that nipple rings present a threat to the security of the Yankee republic and are a form of terrorism but navel rings are not. [Link] How they present a threat and what the nature of that threat is, much less the differentiation between mammary and umbilical placement, is elaboration crying for satisfaction. Sadly, since this information emerges from the Yankee government’s Transportation Security Administration we may not expect anything to be forthcoming except propaganda and mindless directive.

In the latter regard, we are also educated to the fact that there is a positive correlation between abdominal fat and dementia. [Link] Given that the population of the Yankee republic suffers from obesity to an alarming degree, this factoid may explain all manner of things from the politicians holding and seeking public office through how the government itself is run and how it treats its citizens to the failure of our education system. One cannot help but be reminded of Mr. Franklin’s “Eat to live, not live to eat.”

Such is not new however as we note work by archaeologists from U Arkansas, perhaps wisely staying out of the state given its contributions to the political venue these days, that indicate the living conditions of ordinary Egyptians in the thirteenth century BCE was pretty rotten. [Link] This too isn’t surprising given the directive nature of Egyptian government in those supposedly “golden” days. One more data point indicating that civilization is less than conducive to ordinary folks.

This seems to correlate with an article by the coastal liberal media that there are more folks getting food stamps than ever before, something in excess of 0.1 of the population. [Link] This probably explains the obesity epidemic.

Now, if I were a younger man, I could go around exercising my patriotic duty by inspecting young women to see if they are terrorists. Instead, I shall do something that may have value to myself and the species.

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Rose or?

I noticed yesterday an article in the Washington Times feed by Michelle Malkin entitled “Truth Deficit Disorder”. [Link] The subject of the article is the statements, particularly those dealing with experience, of the former first lady of the Yankee republic. I have to applaud Ms. Malkin’s presentation; it correlates strongly and positively with my own interpretation of the woman in question as the poster child for politician prevarication.

But I am taken a bit by the catch phrase “truth deficit disorder”. The evolution from attention deficit disorder seems obvious and is perhaps particularly telling in this instance given that the former first lady claims her prevarication to arise from what amounts to a deficit of attention. Such however is not my purpose. As my Great Uncle Stonebuilder used to say, “All men lie, but a man who lies only to benefit himself wastes both our ears and his mouth.”

Rather, what is intriguing about Ms. Malkin’s catch phrase is the first word. Since I have moved to Ubuntu I have things a bit more primitive than before, so for now I have to make do with the 1913 Webster instead of my Concise Oxford Dictionary. The definition given by that reference is:

Truth 1. The quality or being true; as:
(a) Conformity to fact or reality; exact accordance with that which is, or has been; or shall be.
(b) Conformity to rule; exactness; close correspondence with an example, mood, object of imitation, or the
like. [1913 Webster]

The key term in both meanings is “exact”, which is defined as:

Exact 1. Precisely agreeing with a standard, a fact, or the truth; perfectly conforming; neither exceeding nor falling short
in any respect; true; correct; precise; as, the clock keeps exact time; he paid the exact debt; an exact copy of a letter; exact accounts. [1913 Webster]

and here we bring our attention to “perfectly conforming; neither exceeding nor falling short in any respect”.

This is the basis of the problem with the word “truth”. It has an inherent component of perfection that is inherently impossible, for no human can be expected to perceive anything with perfection, much less to communicate such. Hence, it may be argued, the use of the term “truth” outside the context of a revealed religion where epiphany delivered by the deity conveys “truth” to the blessed (?) recipient is inappropriate and mistaken. In particular, the use of the term “truth” in the context of legal activities, and in particular the conveyance of an oath in association with, is either fraudulent, or heretical, if not both. It may also be a wonderful example of hubris in the sense that the jurisdiction of the court is claimed over the deity.

A more useful, modern usage, based on the great triumphs of science in the previous century, is the term “accuracy”, which implies both an aversion to active prevarication while acknowledging the inherent incorrectnesses of measurement, and an aspect under controlled circumstances of quantification and thus an exactitude of a more useful form than the idiomatic. In this sense we may thus propose a modified catch phrase “Accuracy Deficit Disorder”, which while overloading the acronym ADD and giving rise to some ambiguity of whether a lack of attention or accuracy is meant, may actually strengthen the use of the term, primarily in that idiomatic sense.

Automotive Intelligent Something?

I commented yesterday on how complexity in physical systems tends to be extensive. Now this morning I got the weekly email newsletter from Science (the journal) on their open access component Science Now. This pointed me to a news article on some work by Japanese researchers on how traffic jams occur. [Link]

The phenomenon these guys were studying is one that is familiar to all sentient drivers of automobiles. That phenomena is one where the highway can be relatively clear, recognizing that this is obviously a localized observation, for a notable period of time and then all of a sudden the highway is congested even no there is nothing to cause such like construction or traffic lights or whatever. The obvious hypothesis is destructive interference. (This is another one of those neat physics terms admittedly misapplied here since it is supposed to refer to wave phenomena and clearly we are talking about particles here and despite the quantum mechanics implication, the wave aspects should not apply. Nonetheless, there is a form of interference.) The interference is manifest in the varying behaviors of the automobile-driver systems, or at least that is an obvious hypothesis.

Now Japanese urban traffic is notorious for its density, so it may be natural for this to be a study for Japanese scientists. What they did was to take a circular track about 75 m in diameter (230m around) and put automobiles on this track with instructions to the drivers to drive at 30 km/hr if they can. The results were amazing.

The experiment was run by adding automobiles to the track slowly enough for equilibrium to be maintained. Up through a total of 21 automobiles the flow of traffic was unimpeded. But once they got to 22 automobiles, they got traffic jams.

Now the average length of an automobile is quoted as 196 in, [Link] which is admittedly a “full size” automobile, but iwe will adapt as a reasonable working estimate of 5 m. Then 21 automobiles is a length of 105 m, which is ~ 0.46 of the track occupied; 22 automobiles is a length of 110 m, which is ~ 0.48 of the track occupied. This is pretty clearly a fairly sharply defined effect if a difference of ~ 0.02 of the track length occupied changes traffic flow from smooth to congested.

National Roulette

So much for the master race OS claims of Apple! It seems that Leopard is the easiest of the major operating systems to be destructively hacked. [Link] Vista came in second in one of those contests where one wants to be last, putting it in the situation of Alibam while Ubuntu, the sole unhacked contender remaining at the end of the time period, is in the situation of Mississippi.

But I still wonder how much of this success is because of open source and how much in spite of? And yes, I recognize that is an heretical question, but then isn’t that what proper disrespect is all about.

Babel Strikes?

A bit ago I blogged on the recently discovered (perceived?) tendency of biological evolution towards greater complexity. [Link] As can be told from the scope of the blot this was not a great surprise, nor did it engender extensive comment. But then yesterday I ran across another article, a bit more sensational in tone, [Link] that related an interview with a Yale U biologist that addressed the matter of there being no additional cost for that complexity.

This sparked interest and I read on. So far as I can determine, the cost that is referred to here is an effect and not a cause. Normally, one associates a cost either with taking some action or achieving some effect, in which case the cost may be thought of as causative. However, taking that action may result in some effect that is undesirable – see the Law of Undesired Consequences, e.g. – and one thus incurs a cost if one is to reverse or ameliorate the effect. The cost being discussed in this article seems to be more of the latter than the former complexion.

Thus while the primary thing I gained from this article is that biologists speak a quite different language from physicists, there is still the matter of the enormous uncertainty imposed on the whole communication by the media. But my intention here is not to address the harmful effects of that media, rather I was taken by a statement in the article:

“I think the main broader impact of this work is on the
evolution-creationism debate, I would say
the only intellectually interesting argument that the creationists are
using, at least the scientifically more sophisticated ones, is that
random mutation can not lead to the evolution of complex organisms. And
there are interesting mathematical arguments that have been made to
support that. But our results show that organisms found a way around
that problem by restricting mutational effects on very narrowly
confined parts of the organisms.” (emphasis added)

My first response was to consider how one goes about making an argument that is predicated on proving a negative. This matter is one of the cornerstones of science and a matter that is up front and personal as soon as one begins to do scientific research. As such it is part of the everyday waking nightmares of all graduate students and carries over into one’s independent career.

The example is publication citations. As a researcher one spends some amount of time doing one’s best to survey all of the applicable publications to one’s research. This is bedrock for graduate students who have to find a research project that is original and demonstrating that originality entails proving a negative, that no one else has done this work. Now this may have been a trivial matter back when humanity was entire hunter-gatherer and illiterate since then a literature search would have been a null activity (in several dimensions!) but once writing was invented the problem of scouring the literature became an increasingly impossible task, even with review and indexing services and now, on-line data bases.

However, for belief based theses, proving a negative is no more difficult than assertion.

My second reaction was to consider what was meant here by complexity. To many physicists complexity means the sorts of things that derive from what Per Bak wrote about in How Nature Works. Now in such systems, complexity commonly is at least a loosely extensive quantity. That means that it depends on how many components make up the system. Classically those components were atoms or molecules, units (in some sense) of matter. The more components there were, the more “likely” complex behavior would be exhibited and/or be observable. In some cases the onset of some particular complex behavior was very strong extensive in the sense of a fairly sharp dividing line. Sharp in this sense is usually logarithmic, a factor of ~ log(2) where I have deliberately not mentioned the base of the logarithm.

Now my point here is that in terms of counting the number of components in a biological system, there is not a lot of difference between an amoeba and a human (or a T. Rex) if we think in terms of the logarithm of that number of components. So the question seems to have a component of whether mutations can cause the number of components to increase since if they increase enough in number complexity naturally follows.

The New Edsel?

I have been watching the marketplace the last few months to see what the reactions are to Asus’ Eee PC, especially those of HP and Dell. So I was a bit taken by an article [Link] forecasting the date of the HP entrant at 7 April, quite close to the Easter (Bunny Day) temporal locus I had prognosticated previously.

But as I read the article my head began to hurt. It seems that HP’s entrant, its 2133 Mini-Note PC comes in at $550+ and about 2.5 kilograms.

Now the price is not too much out of line given HP’s waning reputation as a builder of “boat anchors” (to again borrow that righteous and right fitting term from Jerry Pournelle.) I had hoped for the presence of several competitors to lower the price of the capability but that may be longer in coming than I expected. So much for a “dynamic” free market.

But the weight? OK, mass. But since I am sitting at the bottom of a respectable if middling gravity well the two have a strong practical correlation. In either measure, the Eee is 0.4 of the HP in its demands on the human transportation energy budget. This does not bode well to me. The attraction of the Eee is that it is not only inexpensive – strained clearly by HP – but also luggable, sufficiently low in mass that it can be drug about the planetary surface without undue notice. This latter would appear to be past straining and into actual breakage.

Now admittedly, this is still a reasonable mass when compared to those 4 kg monsters with 17 inch screens, but I am not interested in such. I know people who lug such around and most of them, which admittedly is not an enormous sample, much less than the number of molecules in a mole, are deficient in cognitive faculties, to say nothing of predilection, and rather more taken with fashion than function. Notably the few who do not fall into this categorization have their laptops imposed upon them by their employing organizations, who also share some of these aspects.

Thus, while both of my laptops sport 15 inch screens, they are both in the 2 kg range and unless I am traveling by vehicle primarily and going to be wherever I am going for several days (>3), I travel without on the theory that I can bridge the connectivity gap with pocket devices and borrow web access. Increasingly however, this is less feasible as the inherent limitations of both minuscule gadgets and web clients assert themselves in trying to constrain what I want to do to what they will permit me to do.

Hence the desire, nay, need, for a computing instrument that is luggable and functional, the modern equivalent of slide rule or HP 35 plus a good notebook with pen friendly paper and a good fountain pen plus cheat sheets of important integrals, copies of relevant papers, and the like. Mass was a prime trade metric in the old days and it continues today.

So we wait and watch and will some day decide and act. But HP looks increasingly off the mark.

Compelling Quote

This mutation has turned the citizen into a mere ‘consumer’ or
‘customer’, made the existence of a ‘free market’ the criterion of
whether a true democracy exists, and licensed an ethical free-for-all
in freedom’s name. [Link]