Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Is Evolution Really Difficult to Understand?

Philosopher Daniel Dennett has a nice article in the NY Times (or here if you don't want to register) on why Intelligent Design isn't science and there is no real 'controversy' to teach. I'm not going to discuss most of it because it's thoroughly sensible and everyone should just read it. One thing I did find strange, though, is his suggestion that evolution is hard to understand or somehow counter-intuitive - he uses the term 'mind-boggling'
Yes, eyes are for seeing, but these and all the other purposes in the natural world can be generated by processes that are themselves without purposes and without intelligence. This is hard to understand, but so is the idea that colored objects in the world are composed of atoms that are not themselves colored, and that heat is not made of tiny hot things.
I've heard many a fine person make similar claims - including Douglas Adams in this radio programme, where he says it's counter-intuitive that order can come about through the interaction of many unorderly things.

Personally, I don't find evolution counter-intuitive at all. In fact it's one of the very few scientific theories I can actually understand in a concrete way. We can precisely pinpoint the mechanism (natural selection) which brings about these effects. True, order and purpose are things we don't expect to just emerge without reason, but when we can explain how they come about in simple cause-and-effect terms, shouldn't our skepticism disappear?

By analogy, we wouldn't expect supply and demand to equilibrate in an unplanned market unless we had knowledge of some mechanism that would make it do so. There is such a mechanism: shortages or surpluses changing the pricing behaviour of firms and consumers responding to those altered prices. Given this economic insight, our grounds for doubting the equilibrating capacity of markets is gone and we accept that order can emerge from flux.

Does anybody agree? I'd probably be inclined to go with Dennett and Adams, they're both far smarter than me.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Litigious Creationists

The Assn. of Christian Schools International, who represent private schools, are suing the University of California for religious discrimination.
Under a policy implemented with little fanfare a year ago, UC admissions authorities have refused to certify high school science courses that use textbooks challenging Darwin's theory of evolution, the suit says.

Other courses rejected by UC officials include "Christianity's Influence in American History," "Christianity and Morality in American Literature" and "Special Providence: American Government."

The 10-campus UC system requires applicants to complete a variety of courses, including science, mathematics, history, literature and the arts. But in letters to Calvary Chapel, university officials said some of the school's Christian-oriented courses were too narrow to be acceptable.

According to the lawsuit, UC's board of admissions also advised the school that it would not approve biology and science courses that relied primarily on textbooks published by Bob Jones University Press and A Beka Books, two Christian publishers.

Instead, the board instructed the schools to "submit for UC approval a secular science curriculum with a text and course outline that addresses course content/knowledge generally accepted in the scientific community."
What do they expect? A course on Creationism simply doesn't teach you anything about biology. As for the other courses, there's clearly nothing wrong with teaching a course about religion, but I assume since UC has declined to certify the courses they go beyond that and fail to address other issues or lack critical analysis*.
How can kids indoctrinated into this sort of anti-academic thinking be expected to perform at university? I dare say many academics would leave the US if they had to put up with too many self-righteous little fucks who think they know everything about biology because some crackpot tells them there are holes in the theory of evolution, misrepresents what 'theory' means and rejects evolution because we - the (boundedly) rational part of the human population - can't explain every aspect of evolution or 'prove' that it's true.

Link - free registration required but BugMeNot worked for me. [via Backwards City]

*Of course the UC could be evil lesbian satanists who want to prevent any sort of religion being taught in private schools, in which case I'm moving there immediately.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Dirty Old Anthropologists

Today, Monday, 9.20.14, I had a strange dream; homosex, with my own double as partner. Strangely autoerotic feelings; the impression that I'd like to have a mouth just like mine to kiss, a neck that curves just like mine, a forehead just like mine (seen from the side). I got up tired and collected myself slowly.
Bronislaw Malinowski, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term. Quoted in Wallace, L Sexual Encounters: Pacific Texts, Modern Sexualities. Cornell University Press, 2003. p159.

In the words of Oscar Wilde, 'a dirty mind is a joy forever.'

Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Inerrant Word of God

This letter from the Humanists of Utah to Tele-Conservative Laura Schlessinger demonstrates the hypocrisy of (virtually) all biblical literalists pretty well. Leviticus is by far my favourite book of the bible though - the New Testament just seems a bit flaccid by comparison.

Dear Dr. Laura:

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the other specific laws and how to follow them:

When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord - Lev.1:9. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness - Lev.15:19- 24. The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?

I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination - Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this?

Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?

I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev. 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? - Lev.24:10-16. Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.

Your devoted fan,

Link [via Guabancex]

Microsoft's Parental Guide to 1337sp34k

While it's important to respect your children's privacy, understanding what your teenager's online slang means and how to decipher it could be important in certain situations and as you help guide their online experience. While it has many nicknames, information-age slang is commonly referred to as leetspeek, or leet for short. Leet (a vernacular form of "elite") is a specific type of computer slang where a user replaces regular letters with other keyboard characters to form words phonetically—creating the digital equivalent of Pig Latin with a twist of hieroglyphics.


Saturday, August 27, 2005

Corporate Social Responsibility

For some reason Milton Friedman's 35-year-old NY Times article The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits has become popular with users (probably an interesting study of technologically-mediated memetics in itself) .

Friedman's arguments are a bit too tied up in the ideology of liberty for me, but I do agree with his conclusion. A market-based society accepts that voluntary trade is, generally speaking, the best way to allocate resources. A profit-driven company is an integral part of this system and if companies start worrying about aims other than profit* in any significant way, the system will be undermined.

Does this mean that companies should be given free reign to do whatever they want? Of course not. Companies (just as people) are bound by the laws of the society in which they operate. If we as a society think that there are certain things business should and shouldn't do, we should change the law to reflect that. Insisting that companies should be nice at the expense of their own bottom-line will do nothing more than ensure that only companies that ignore our whingeing will survive.

Changing the rules of the game means that we can control the conduct of companies without undermining the whole capitalist system.

*Long term profit - donating to charities and whatnot is simply good PR and will often increase, rather than undermine, long-term profitability.

Protectionism and Hollow Economies

Chris at Stumbling and Mumbling gives a good analogy to show that pretectionist fears of lost manufacturing and agricultural jobs 'hollowing out' developed economies are misguided.
But what would an economy look like with its manufacturing "hollowed out"?
It'd look like my street, that's what. Almost no-one in Belsize Park Gardens, to my knowledge, works in manufacturing. And there are loads of service industries where no-one's employed either - and certainly, no agricultural jobs (though some do grow their own herbs).
This isn't jsut true of my street. It's true of most of the area. The people round my way work pretty much in just two industries: entertainment/meeja and financial services.
And are we poor? No. Sure, we have problems with single parents and drug users. But we're pretty rich, despite a catastrophic hollowing out of manufacturing, and despite the fact that almost all the food and clothing we buy is imported, sometimes from as far away as Camden Town.
What, then, is the difference between my area and a country that makes hollowing out a problem in the latter but not in the former?

Friday, August 26, 2005

Cultured Chimps

Scientists have shown that chimpanzees conform to social norms. This would suggest that sociality is 'biological' and existed in a common ancestor.

They presented two different groups of chimps with a problem relevant to their wild cousins: how to retrieve an item of food stuck behind a blockage in a system of tubes.

One chimpanzee from each group was secretly taught a novel way to solve the problem. Ericka was taught how to use a stick to lift the blockage up so that the food fell out.

Another female chimp, Georgia, was shown how to poke at the blockage so that the ball of food rolled out of the back of the pipes.

Each chimp was then reunited with its group, and the scientists watched how they behaved.

They found that the chimps gathered around Ericka or Georgia and soon copied their behaviour. By the end of two months, the two different groups were still using their own way of getting at the food and two distinct cultural traditions had been established.

Brian Easton: What the Tax Debate is Really About

[Leave] aside the rhetoric of greed, underneath the National tax cut package is the language that government spending should be restrained and cut, and that more of the nation’s spending should be in the hands of individuals. We recognise here the return of those who dominated economic policy in the 1980s and 1990s. We can say that with some confidence, because at various times when he was governor of the Reserve Bank, Don Brash stepped outside the narrow confines of monetary policy and talked about his economic prescription. A case in point was his speech to the London based Hayek Society, Friedrich Hayek being one of the leading thinkers of the right wing individualistic more-market solutions I described earlier.

I cant help thinking that National’s underlying agenda is the oft stated right wing strategy of giving substantial tax cuts and then forcing public expenditure cuts to rebalance the budget. It has not worked well in the US, but our political process is more disciplined, as we saw in 1991 when an incoming National government imposed severe expenditure cuts.

Does the public wants more money in its pocket, but having to finance expenditure currently borne by the government. Undoubtedly the public wants more money in its pocket, together with the existing level of government expenditure. Some are willing to sacrifice money in its pocket in order to maintain and increase public expenditure.

Of course, there are more-private less-public and the more-public less-private advocates. In principle the election is a test of which group is in a majority, although it is possible that other factors – including non-economic ones and a misunderstanding about the nature of the choice which the public face – may confuse the purity of the test.

Link [Chur Christian]

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Economics, Piracy, Bullshit

I've blogged previously about why some piracy can be good for software vendors (specifically Microsoft) because network externalities mean that even a non-paying customer can be a valuable one.
Chris Anderson of The Long Tail argues that piracy can be good for other content providers as well. He has two arguments for this. Firstly,
Any protection technology that is really difficult to crack is probably too cumbersome to be accepted by consumers. We've seen all sorts of failures of this sort before, from dongles to laborious and confusing registration schemes. Each seems better at annoying consumers than at building markets. The lesson from these examples is that zero-percent piracy is not only unattainable, it's economically suboptimal. If your content is uncrackable, it means you've probably locked the market down so tight that even honest consumers are being inconvenienced.

I agree with this. Crippleware is shit and unless a company has extreme monopoly power (which would exclude a black market) and customers really want the product no matter how crippled it is, i.e. it has a low convenience-elasticity-of-demand (look Mum, I made a new economic term), it will lose customers. But it isn't really that piracy per se is good for the content-provider, but that its prevention has unintended consequences.

His second argument is that

piracy can let you raise your prices.

The usual price-setting method is to look at the entire potential market, from the many at the economic lower end to the few at the top, and set a price somewhere in between the top and bottom that will maximize total revenues. But if you cede the bottom to piracy, you can set a price between the top and the middle. The result: higher revenues per copy, and potentially higher revenues overall.

This is complete bullshit. I'm not sure what he means by those at the "economic lower end to the few at the top", but will assume he is ordering consumers by their willingness to pay (~demand). It's true that if a firm ignores consumers with a low willingness to pay (I'm simplifying the economics here, we should really be talking in terms of price-elasticity of demand), they will be inclined to increase prices. But if they could increase revenue that way, why wouldn't they do it whether there is piracy or not. When a firm with market power sets their price they are always making a trade-off between receiving a higher price from a few and a lower price from many. The rational firm looks at the entire market and chooses a price which maximises profit. If a portion of that market leaves, revenue will either decrease (if the price was sufficiently low to sell to that portion) or stay the same (if the price was too high for them anyway).

Anderson does point that network externalities come into play, particularly regarding emerging technologies.

Add to this the familiar (if controversial) argument that piracy helps seed technology markets, and can be a net benefit. Especially in fast-developing countries such as China and India, the ubiquity of pirated Windows and Office have made them de-facto national standards. Few users could have paid for the retail versions at the start, but now that the spread of cheap technology, including free software, has led to an economic boom, Microsoft is finding a nice market for commercial software at the very top, in big companies and government offices.

This kind of seeding could well help some non-software content (not normally thought of as producing network externalities) become more commercially successful over time through word-of-mouth advertising, but I doubt it would help your average Hollywood blockbuster.

In summation, piracy is often good for software vendors, rarely good for music and movie vendors but its prevention is often very, very bad.

Fuck The Creationists

It may seem that I'm hostile to religion in general, but I'm normally just being a facetious cunt. I don't understand how rational people can make the cognitive leap to believe in any particular religion, but accept that there are personal reasons for doing so. But fuck do I hate Creationism, whether thinly veiled as Intelligent Design or not. Until today I thought such backward thinking was confined to the more stupider portions of American rednecks. I was wrong.
I heard a group of fine-looking young gentlemen at this University of Otago reciting the argument (and I use that term loosely) of 'irreducible complexity' put forward by Michael Behe. The argument is that many biological features, the eye for example, require multiple components to work. Since evolution can produce and preserve mutations only one at a time, it is argued, these irreducibly complex features can't have evolved - what use is half an eye?. By the process of elimination God created the universe at it now exists. It worries me that our education system is so poor that university students can think that this 'proves evolution is wrong and that God created everything.'
I'm not going to argue against the claim as, frankly, I can't be fucked. I will simply say that there are plenty of examples of simpler forms of eyes in nature and that the ability to detect light is useful in many ways other than simply 'seeing' in the strict sense. Jellyfish, I think, orient themselves with simple light-sensing equipment for example.
Why do people need to distort the facts in order to defend their faith? Why are evolution and God thought to be mutually exclusive? Evolution does undermine Paley's 'Watchmaker' argument for theism, but surely theists realise they're on pretty shaky logical and scientific ground. Why isn't faith enough for these people?

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Unusual Wikipedia Articles

The Physics of Cow Tipping

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Pastafarian Challenge

There's $US750,000 available for anyone who can prove that Jesus isn't the son of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
I think I'm going to convert. Pastafarianism promises a stripper factory and beer volcano in heaven, and the claim that Global Warming is caused by the decline in pirates seems very plausible. I join the demands that the theory of FSM be given equal time in schools.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Richard Rorty on the RU Sirius Show

Doesn't go into a whole lot of philosophical depth, but more cerebral than your average podcast. Link

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Manhole-Covers and Naughty Words

I apologize for my lack of bloguctivity (I love neologistic portmanteaus), but the procrastination had to catch up with me sometime. Look at this gallery of pretty Japanese manhole covers and read about the etymology of British swear-words for some idle amusement.

[via oishii!]

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Google to give away WiFi?

Business 2.0 on the possibility of Google giving the world (which as we all know is only America) free Wifi access. Could be just crazy enough to be profitable.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

List Madness

Chris at Cynical-C seems quite partial to blogging the occasional list from Wikipedia and, frankly, I like the way that man thinks. I've been perusing the List of Lists and here are some of my favourites:

Wasn't Me!

I Wonder when the other celebrity will give up the name suppression. He's no stranger to controversy and seems pretty adept at bullshitting, he should be able to handle the metaphorical jandal. Link to Story.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Christianity vs. Satanism mp3 Compilation

Amusing collection of mp3s. Track 3 is an especially entertaining outburst of pre-teen anti-evolutionism.

(Via Bibi)

Famous Kids

Pictures of various celebrities as children. Apparently Robert De Niro has always looked like a badass.

(Via Exclamation Mark)

Doom on the iPod

Some guys have apparently hacked up a version of Doom for iPodLinux. While it's not a perfect port, being able to play Doom is clearly the acid-test of whether something is a computer, so it seems the iPod is all grown up.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Mind-Reading via Brain Scans

From the BBC:
Scientists say they have been able to monitor people's thoughts via scans of their brains. Teams at University College London and University of California in LA could tell what images people were looking at or what sounds they were listening to. The US team say their study proves brain scans do relate to brain cell electrical activity.The UK team say such research might help paralysed people communicate, using a "thought-reading" computer.

Einstein Quotes

A collection of quotes from Albert Einstein. My favourite has to be "Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the the universe."

The Economics of Crack

Levitt and Dubner, the authors of Freakonomics, on the consumption of crack cocaine:
If so much crack is still being sold and bought, why aren't we hearing about it? Because crack-associated violence has largely disappeared. And it was the violence that made crack most relevant to the middle class. What made the violence go away? Simple economics. Urban street gangs were the main distributors of crack cocaine. In the beginning, demand for their product was phenomenal, and so were the potential profits. Most crack killings, it turns out, were not a result of some crackhead sticking up a grandmother for drug money but rather one crack dealer shooting another -- and perhaps a few bystanders -- in order to gain turf.

Woo New Zealand!

Since New Zealand TV stations deem it necessary to point out whenever our humble country is mentioned in foreign programs, I will follow suit with the blogosphere equivalent. Tyler Cowen at the excellent economics blog Marginal Revolution outlines his favourite things Kiwi. He approves of Peter Jackson (everybody loves Peter), Janet Frame, The JPS Experience and Fush n Chups.

"Get Well Soon" Masks

These are cool.

The very sterile looking white gauze mask inspired me to make it more cheerful and funny while still serving its purpose. This new mask is no longer masking, but transforming the part of the face it is hiding, integrating face and mask.
Currently there are 15 types of masks, varying from animals and human snouts, to zippers and (kimono) fabrics. Next to this customized masks are available, such as the mask for the Hanshin Tigers.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

False Memories Could Help Dieting

[R]esearchers managed to convince people that strawberry ice cream and choc chip cookies - both fattening foods - made them sick when they were young and they really didn't care for them. They managed to get over 40 per cent of the 204 participants to agree with this. The next step is to see whether this mental aversion would actually carry over into their food choices. The team is also looking to see if false memory can be applied to healthy foods too - that is, can they convince people that they always liked vegetables when they were kids?

Friday, August 05, 2005

Save Multimedia Files from Webpages with Firefox

First Windows Vista Viruses in the Wild

An Austrian hacker earned the dubious distinction of writing what are thought to be the first known viruses for Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Vista operating system. Written in July, the viruses take advantage of a new command shell, code-named Monad, that is included in the Windows Vista beta code.

The viruses were published last month in a virus-writing tutorial written for an underground hacker group calling itself the Ready Ranger Liberation Front, and take advantage of security vulnerabilities in the new command shell. Unlike the traditional Windows graphical user interface, which relies heavily on the mouse for navigation, command shells allow users to use powerful text-based commands, much like Windows’ predecessor, DOS.

Ooh, Vista's going to have a command shell. I frigging hate using a stupid touchpad. Keyboards 4 Life.

The Alphabet: A Critique

Some criticism of alphabet from a design perspective.

Another one from the scrapyard of design. The lowercase d is just a ripoff of the b, and it really bothers me the way the cap D is flipped vertically. It’s like someone wanted to emulate the Bb but just didn’t get it.

God vs Satan in the Stockmarket

Everybody loves money, but some people like to invest in companies that don't do horrible things like undermine the institution of marriage by offering benefits to employees' unmarried partners or selling alceehol; thus virtue funds are born. Others choose to use their hard-earned money for awesome: beer, porn, tobacco and gambling - they can invest in vice funds.
Moralising is all well and good, but you can't argue with the bottom line. Apparently both virtue and vice funds have both been beating the general market.
interestingly, both virtue and vice funds invest in weapons, obviously a good pick in recent years.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Someone's in the Kitchen with Jesus

Images of the big J in art, illustration and film.

Firefox Keyboard Shortcuts

Kim Jong-il: The Sun Shines Out of His Arse

North Korea's Dear Leader Kim Jong-il never forgets a phone number, a cadre's career or a line of computer code.

According to an article posted on Tuesday on a Web site run by North Korea, Kim wakes up early every day for intensive memory training where he sits down and commits to his keen mind items such as the phone numbers of workers in his Stalinist state.


Kim pilots jet fighters, pens operas, produces movies and accomplished a feat unmatched in the annals of professional golf by shooting 11 holes-in-one on the first round he ever played.

Link (Reuters)

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Are Attractive People Smarter?

I found this journal article interesting. Abstract:
Empirical studies demonstrate that individuals perceive physically attractive others to be more intelligent than physically unattractive others. While most researchers dismiss this perception as a ‘‘bias’’ or ‘‘stereotype,’’ we contend that individuals have this perception because beautiful people indeed are more intelligent. The conclusion that beautiful people are more intelligent follows from four assumptions. (1) Men who are more intelligent are more likely to attain higher status than men who are less intelligent. (2) Higher-status men are more likely to mate with more beautiful women than lower-status men. (3) Intelligence is heritable. (4) Beauty is heritable. If all four assumptions are empirically true, then the conclusion that beautiful people are more intelligent is logically true, making it a proven theorem. We present empirical evidence for each of the four assumptions. While we concentrate on the relationship between beauty and intelligence in this paper, our evolutionary psychological explanation can account for a correlation between physical attractiveness and any other heritable trait that helps men attain higher status (such as aggression and social skills).
I had this idea a few years ago but dismissed it as silly. It actually seems quite plausible to me now though. The evidence is fairly compelling (although their claim of a deductive argument seems a bit strong for me). The article has all sorts of interesting asides aswell - well worth the 17 pages of reading.

Sin City Comic-Movie Comparison Images

Super Mario World Soundtrack with Real Instruments

For free at good old

Drunk Pigeons

Slate: "How I stopped an Internet sex hoax"

A tale of espionage, intrigue and Wookie-porn.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Bizarre Love Triangle

The animation in this French film project looks really cool. There's a 'movie test' for download at the site. It seems to be a sci-fi story about immortality with copious amounts of lesbiosity set to cheesy euro-dance. My sort of movie.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Droogle - Search Engine for Drink Recipes

Everybody loves drinking.

Gallery of Bizarre Road Signs

Some of these are truly strange. Needless to say, alot of them seem to be Japanese.

To the Batcave

Now you too can flip the head of a Shakespeare bust to gain access to your secret lair. Yours for a paltry $US299.99 ($NZ439.70), is this faithful replica from the original Batman series. It can be used to switch on any appliance; but frankly, if you use it for anything other than revealing a hidden door behind a bookshelf in your tastefully decorated library, you don't deserve it.
< ? kiwi blogs # >