Archive for January, 2011

Poor Grammar is a Dangerous Thing

Bad grammar convicts Ambassador of war crimes.

The quote from the article:

The officials, Pierre-Richard Prosper, a former United States ambassador at large for war crimes [Ed.—you can’t make this shit up], and Michael Shanklin, a former Central Intelligence Agency station chief in Mogadishu, are both serving as advisers to the Somali government, according to people involved in the project. Both Mr. Prosper and Mr. Shanklin are apparently being paid by the United Arab Emirates.

From Mssr. Prosper’s wikipedia page:

Pierre-Richard Prosper (born 1963 in Denver, Colorado, USA) is an American lawyer, prosecutor and former government official. He served as the second United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005.

Sometimes hyphens make all the difference.

Dear Physics,

Please marry me, you sexy, sexy beast.


The SotU, summarized.

A large part of it, anyway.

Damon Root, over at Reason’s LiveBlog of the SotU, wins this one, I think:

Instead of corporate welfare for yesterday’s firms, corporate welfare for tomorrow’s.

EDIT: Root will actually be splitting the prize with Brian Doherty for this gem of a summary:

Smoked Salmon, drilling a 2,000 foot hole to our future.

Adorable Coincidences

It just so happens that, in the past couple days, I’ve stumbled across several utterly charming videos of people with their kids. Being a music geek, here are my two favorites.

First up, this kid lays down the wicked grooves:

Baby’s First Audition from alex on Vimeo.

Secondly, Jorge and Alexa Narvaez cover “Home” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros:

Things Are Better Than You Think, Part 0

Back in late 1999, I was a Sophomore in high school and, like most Sophomores in High School, I was convinced that the world was some kind of terrible. So when I started to hear talk of this dreaded “Y2k” bug, my general response was one of “of course, that makes perfect sense, now the world’s gonna suck in one more way.”

But the more I read about it, the more I realized that the people talking about Y2k fell into two broad categories:

1.) Those who knew a lot about Y2k.
2.) Those who could make money off of Y2k

Unsurprisingly, the people in category 1.) weren’t very worried. The people in category 2.) couldn’t stop talking about how worried everyone should be (oh and by the way buy our product.)

So I formed a hunch that maybe, just maybe, Y2k wasn’t that big a deal. Uncharacteristically for a teenager, I assumed a stance of cautious optimism.

And then, when Jan. 1st, 2000 CE rolled around, something funny happened.

Nothing at all.

Not a single glitch that I can recall. Pretty much all the computers seemed to work more or less as they had the previous day. Y2k was, essentially, an over-hyped myth that was all fear.

And it was hardly an isolated incident. Over the intervening decade, I started seeing an amazing and heartening trend: doomsayers were almost always wrong, and the rare optimists among us were usually right. What’s more, the closer I looked at the world around me and the more I learned about history, economics, and the world at large, the more I realized that it wasn’t just the doomsayers that were wrong. It was pretty much everyone who, like me, thought the world was a shitty place to begin with.

Simply put, the more I learned, the more awesome the world turned out to be. Almost everywhere I looked, I found that things were better than I’d expected.

Now that’s not to say that there isn’t real horror in suffering in the world, as there certainly is. But for a large part, I consistently found things to be better off than I initially expected them to be. And I don’t think that I’m alone in my misguided pessimism.

What got me thinking about this today was reading this Op Ed in the Washington Examiner, and the article (PDF warning) to which it links. The punch line? People (even students of Economics) are unduly pessimistic about the state of the economy.

I think that the phenomenon is more general than that. Furthermore, I think that the source of this pessimism is the structure and incentives of the modern media, combined with modern democracy’s obsession with security and centrism.

My thesis can be broken down into the following three points:

  1. Things are better than you think.
  2. You think things are bad because the media tells you they are. The media does this because fear and horror sell.
  3. Politicians exploit this fear by telling you they can and will fix these problems, even though they can’t and won’t.

I intend to try and prove my case by examining several common areas of pessimism, including but not limited to Crime, Terrorism, the Economy, Disease and Healthcare, Technology, War, and Trade. I, of course, won’t be tackling these all at once, rather I’ll do this as an occasional series.

So stay tuned for the first installment coming . . ., uh, at some point, when I have time to research it properly.

Richard Brautigan Interlude

“Gee, You’re so Beautiful That It’s Starting to Rain”
By Richard Brautigan

Oh, Marcia,
I want your long blonde beauty
to be taught in high school,
so kids will learn that God
lives like music in the skin
and sounds like a sunshine harpsicord.
I want high school report cards
to look like this:

Playing with Gentle Glass Things

Computer Magic

Writing Letters to Those You Love

Finding out about Fish

Marcia’s Long Blonde Beauty

Cake, Showroom of Compassion

Artist: Cake
Album: Showroom of Compassion
Label: Upbeat Records
Release Date: 2011.1.11
Score: 8.5/10

Long hiatuses are always scary for the fans. Typically, the longer a band goes without recording, the further away that new record will be from their older material. Definitely in style and all too often in quality.

So when I heard that Cake was releasing a new album seven years, I met the news with both a smile and a cringe. (A “sminge”, I shall call it.) I mean, after seven years, would the old magic still be there? Would they still be able to create that perfect mix of sweet horn lines, catchy pop riffs, and sardonic lyrics?

Turns out I needn’t have worried. Showroom of Compassion is easily as good as some of Cake’s earlier work. Is it different? Sure, but only in the fact that it feels a lot more mature than their earlier works. The horns don’t have the gimmicky feel that they occasionally had on earlier records, instead being limited to tasteful blares and well-crafted melodies. The guitar and bass riffs are more subdued, but no less fun or recognizable. (Cf. “Got to Move” which is built on a guitar that alternates between chunky, staccato hooks and long, descending lines, both of which perfectly fit the lyrics and the feel of the tune.)

Stylistically, the album isn’t too much of a shift. If you liked the sweeping, poppy grooves of Cake circa Comfort Eagle you’ll find a lot here to like. “Sick of You”, for instance, takes classic Cake themes of anti-consumerism and interpersonal emptiness and wraps it in fuzzy guitars and tasteful, horn-led counter-melodies. It’s got the classic Cake feel from the plodding drums, to the shouted backup vocals, to the filtered, sung-spoken vocal interlude.

Which isn’t to say that the album isn’t without its departures from form. “Easy to Crash” is a meandering-synth heavy track, with a ballad-y feel and some wicked heavy drum fills. And yet, for having several atypical elements, it still manages to feel like a Cake track. This, I think, might be one of the hallmarks of a great band: even when they change their style, they’re still instantly recognizable.

But one of the most notable tracks on the album is the opener. To any Cake fan hearing the album for the first time, “Federal Funding” will set aside any worries they may have had re: album quality. It’s sarcastic, cynical, and fun, with layered horn lines, clattery drums, and some truly slick guitar hooks. In short, it’s everything you might love about Cake in one lovely little package.

So for Cake fans, I have only to say that, yes, I was worried, too. But I needn’t have been. This is Cake almost as good as they get. (I think I might like Comfort Eagle and Fashion Nugget a bit more, but Showroom of Compassion is definitely up there in quality.) For everyone else, I say, this is as good a time as any to start loving Cake. So go, buy the record, and enjoy.

And by the time you’ve worked your way back through the rest of their albums, maybe they’ll be ready to release another one. Let’s hope it’s not another seven years.

We Believe This to Be Neither a First Nor a Last

Magic Blue Smoke believes Rejectamentalist Manifesto’s beliefs regarding the government’s habit of “believing” to be well-founded and believe we agree with RM’s belief that government beliefs should be held in suspicion.


Mind/Brain Dualism and the Singularity

A few weeks ago, the excellent EconTalk podcast featured an interview with Professor Robin Hanson of George Mason University. Hanson and the host, Russ Roberts, talked about the singularity, with some very interesting comments on the Economic implications. I wish they’d said a lot more about those implications, actually, since it’s an angle that not a lot of people look at with regards to the Singularity. Most commentators look at the asymptotic knowledge growth, the functionally infinite lifespan, the massive social change, etc. but rarely something so practical and tangible as “what will the economy of the planet look like post-Singularity”.

Unfortunately, part way through the interview, Hanson and Roberts get sidetracked on some of the implementation details of the Singularity and, after crashing face-first into the Mind/Brain Dualism problem, they seem to muck about stunned for a little while before stepping gingerly away and continuing off on other paths. And this is kind of a pity because they failed to mention one of the most interesting things about the Singularity.

You see, the Singularity is, among other things, a hypothesis regarding the Mind/Brain Dualism question. In order for the Singularity to come about as it’s predicted by its believers, the mind must map to the brain in a one-to-one fashion. In other words, every Brain-state must create one and only one Mind-state. If Brain-states aren’t a function on Mind-states, then any simulation which occurs (using Hanson’s version of “simulation”, which he articulates in the podcast), will end up with ambiguities.

These ambiguities would have to be resolved in some way, and, given that we can’t turn to the brain’s state to resolve them, such resolutions will be essentially arbitrary.

So in order to be able to reliably emulate a human mind, that mind must be the range expressed by some function of brain-states. In other words, Mind/Brain Dualism must be false in order for the Singularity to proceed as it’s most often envisioned, with the “uploading” of human minds into some sort of trans-human storage medium.

(Note: it’s an interesting and, I think, open question whether or not the advent of Quantum Computing will any way change this fact. Mind/Brain Dualism has to be false in order for a mind to be simulated on a deterministic machine, but I think it’s still unclear whether it needs to be false in order for the mind to be simulated on a non-deterministic machine such as a Quantum Computer.)

Two other articles that are well-worth reading. The first is Timothy B. Lee’s response to to the Hanson/Roberts interview. He makes a very plausible technical case for why the emulation of natural systems is impossible. I have to admit that I’m not 100% convinced, but I think the odds are very good that he’s right. (I take quibble with his statement that natural systems don’t conform to mathematical models. One could write a mathematical model to accurately describe a lot of natural systems. It’s just that for any system of even modest complexity, the scaling problems in making an accurate model will be entirely intractible. A small quibble, but I think it’s an important one.)

Secondly, read Daniel Dennett on Mind/Body Dualism. It’s a little more general than the Mind/Brain Dualism problem I talked about above, but I think it lays out the important issues. It’s wrapped in kind of a cheesy story, but it raises many of the interesting questions regarding Dualism.

EDIT: On re-reading Timothy Lee’s post, I think he actually addresses my quibble, so basically I think he’s right. Emulating even modestly complex natural systems is intractable.

Great site. Needs an “Add to Wishlist” button…

So just a heads up, my birthday’s coming up in a few months. Anyone who’s still wondering what to get me need look no further:

(Click to embiggen.)

And hey, she’s quite a steal at just twenty-five grand.

C’mon, you know I’m worth it. :-D

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Magic Blue Smoke

House Rules:

1.) Carry out your own dead.
2.) No opium smoking in the elevators.
3.) In Competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
4.) A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place.
4a.) Penalty one stroke.
5.) Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.
6.) Keep Calm and Kill It with Fire.
7.) Spammers will be fed to the Crabipede.