Archive for March, 2011

“Shakespearean Attention”

I’ve been reading some Dorothy Parker lately. She’s one of those writers who makes me at once feel exhilarated and hopeless. Exhilarated that anyone became as masterful with the English language as she, and hopeless, because I’ll never be one third the writer she was.

“Parable for a Certain Virgin”
by Dorothy Parker

Oh, ponder, friend, the porcupine;
Refresh your recollection,
And sit a moment, to define
His means of self-protection.

How truly fortified is he!
Where is the beast his double
In forethought of emergency
And readiness for trouble?

Recall his figure, and his shade-
How deftly planned and clearly
For slithering through the dappled glade
Unseen, or pretty nearly.

Yet should an alien eye discern
His presence in the woodland,
How little has he left to learn
Of self-defense! My good land!

For he can run, as swift as sound,
To where his goose may hang high-
Or thrust his head against the ground
And tunnel half to Shanghai;

Or he can climb the dizziest bough-
Unhesitant, mechanic-
And, resting, dash from off his brow
The bitter beads of panic;

Or should pursuers press him hot,
One scarcely needs to mention
His quick and cruel barbs, that got
Shakespearean attention;

Or driven to his final ditch,
To his extremest thicket,
He’ll fight with claws and molars (which
Is not considered cricket).

How amply armored, he, to fend
The fear of chase that haunts him!
How well prepared our little friend!-
And who the devil wants him?

Know Your Fallacy: Ad Hominem

An ad hominem fallacy occurs when someone attempts to refute an argument by attacking the person making the argument, rather than the argument itself. For instance:

“My opponent claims that the Earth is round, but he’s also a convicted Horse-Shaver, so we can’t very well trust anything he has to say. Therefore, the Earth is flat.”

Or, more generally:

“My opponent says that A is the case.
But my opponent has unpleasant quality Y.
Therefore A is false.”

This fallacy is extremely popular in politics and frat house arguments. (Which might be a distinction without a difference.)

For more excellent information about what is or isn’t an ad hominem, check out this article by Stephen Bond. Bond makes the excellent point (which I will now forever onward call Bond’s Law) that a mere insult is not sufficient for an ad hominem fallacy. Rather, the insult must be used as evidence that a particular argument is incorrect.

Spending is the Problem

Or at least a huge part of it. For a lucid articulation of just how much money we’re spending and just how much of that money we don’t have, check out this great video from Bankrupting America:

“I’m Readin’ a Book, Pig!”

Blogging later. In the meantime, I’m readin’ a book:

Things Are Better Than You Think, Part 3: The Media is Lying to You About Cancer

Via Reason Magazine comes a link to Scientific Americans recent articles on global incidence of cancer. The article’s subhead:

“Once thought to be endemic mostly to richer nations with their longer life expectancies, malignancies now confront denizens of lower and middle-income nations. A new global effort now focuses on the issue.”

But what’s actually happening to cancer rates? In the west, they’re falling rapidly. Oh, and outcomes for cancer patients are improving, too. The (modest) increases in cancer rates in the Third World? Largely due to increased life spans. After all, expected life span in many places in the third doubled in the 20th century.

Okay, so maybe the Scientific American headline isn’t lying, per se. Maybe my headline about duplicitous media headlines was, itself, a bit duplicitous. (Meta-duplicity!) But the fact of the matter is that cancer stats are improving in developed nations and their deterioration in the Third World is largely due to the incredible boom of wealth and prosperity that those countries are experiencing. For Scientific American to treat cancer in the Third World as an epidemic is, at best, half the story. And it’s the worst half of the story because Scientific American, like the rest of the modern news media, benefits when people are scared or concerned.

Moral of the Story? Things Are Better Than You Think. Any time a news outlet (even one as good as Scientific American, which is admittedly quite good) puts up a story of the form “Terrible Thing X on the Rise; The Poor Hardest Hit”, take the time to ask what the other half of the story is. Chances are you’ll be surprised just how good things are.

Next Step: Blade Runner-Style Animal Markets

Watch this video:

That bird? Yeah, that bird’s an autonomous robot.

Welcome to the future, fleshy critters!

Know Your Fallacy: Affirming the Consequent

Via Crazy Things Parents Say, we have this:

Affirming the Consequent

This is a textbook case of “Affirming the Consequent“. This occurs when an inference is improperly inverted. Saying that A implies B asserts the fact that A is a sufficient condition of B. That is to say when A is true, B must also always be true. It is not, however, a necessary condition. In other words, there are other conditions that might make B true.

More simply put: A implies B doesn’t mean that B implies A.

To give another example of the fallacy to more clearly demonstrate:

If it is grass, then it is green.
I have shaved this horse and painted him green.
Therefore, this horse must be grass.

Moral of the story? Simple inference is a one way street. If you try to go the wrong way down an inference, you’ll end up in a horrible flaming wreck of bad logic.

Also: knowing logic is important, even if it does occasionally damage your sense of humor.

Metaphysical Search and Rescue

Randall Munroe knocks one out of the park dark cave full of flickering shadows:


Click for source.

A few times in my life I’ve encountered people who decided (either through ignorance or smug self-satisfaction) that they’re solipsists or otherwise denied the existence of an exterior world. I always had to resist the urge to pin them down and slap them repeatedly, all the while shouting “why are you hitting yourself? Why are you hitting yourself?”

Would it teach them error of their ways? Well, no. Would be it be existentially satisfying? Probably not. Would it be a hell of a lot of fun? Most definitely.

Things Are Better Than You Think, Part 2: “Peak Resource” Panics are Bullshit

Peak oil is bullshit. Is oil a limited resource? All signs point to yes. Are we ever going to run out of it? Highly unlikely.

This seeming contradiction comes from the fact that oil (technically petroleum), like most finite resources, has diverse sources and uses. This leads to demand and competition which influence prices. As prices rise, new sources of oil become profitable to explore and people start looking for substitutes. Oil is also extremely sensitive to improvements in methods of extraction and refining. These economic and technological forces have lead to proven reserves of oil increasing more than 13000 times since 1882. And all the while, people have been predicting that we would be running out within a few years.

For more on this, including the source figures I’m working from, please watching this excellent video by Dr. Steve Horwitz of St. Lawrence University:

To recap: during a ~130 span, our reserves of oil increased by 1,300,000%. And during that entire period, people have been predicting peak oil. You’d think they’d have learned by about the 100th year of being proven wrong, but alas, it turns out that resource doom-saying never goes out of style.

And lest you think resource panics are limited to “Peak Oil”, there are a host of other resources currently being fretted about by the media and the chattering classes. The many “Peak Resource” panics include:

Peak Coal
Peak Lithium
Peak Copper Addressed in the video above.
Peak Uranium
Peak Water
Peak Wood
Peak Wheat

This list is certainly not exhaustive. For these and many other resources, people are predicting that we’re in the last years before we start running out or until our production peaks. And yet almost every resource that people have fretted about is getting increasingly plentiful or is no longer needed because a better material has been discovered or synthesized. The forces of Economics and human ingenuity ensure that finite resources are used in increasingly efficient fashions and tend to get more, not less, plentiful.

Basically, if running out of a resource would suck, there’s someone yelling that we’re gonna run out of it any year now. And it’s flat not true. Most of these doomsayers are simply misinformed and sadly don’t understand that Things Are Better Than They Think. But some, well, some of those people have things to sell you. They care neither about Peak Whatever! nor about your and yours. They just want your money and probably your vote, as well.

Three special instances of these resource panics that I’ll cover in future installments are food, energy, and land. Another sort of panic that is orthogonal to resource shortage worries is population growth problems, which will also be a topic for another post.

Programming, Motherfucker, Do You Do It?

Zed Shaw introduces a hot new programming paradigm. I’m going to introduce this to my team at work and see how it goes.

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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.