2009

Stories I've already told too many times

A few years ago, a close friend of mine died and I spent a few days with his family helping to sort out his affairs. As they were leaving, his mother offered me a portion of his ashes. This isn't the most atypical sincere offer I've ever received, but it's in the top ten.

The answer I gave: "Thank you, but no."

The answer that would've been true: "Yes, but only for humorous purposes."
2009

Martin Luther, meet Marx.

Fortune has an article that bemoans the plight of the "lower uppers"; folks who are in the highest strata of income yet below the daunting top 1%. The article says that they "work [themselves] ragged to earn a million or two - or, God forbid, $400,000".

Whatever. Here's the quote that got me: "Lower uppers are doctors, accountants, engineers, lawyers. At companies they're mostly executives above the rank of VP but below the CEO."

What the HELL kind of engineer do you have to be to rake in $400K - $2M? Or accountant, for that matter. Even doctors and most lawyers won't often see that unless they're an owner/partner in a private company, which really makes them a business owner that also happens to be a doctor or lawyer. Or an administrator/executive in a bigger company, which really makes them a corporate executive that also happens to be a doctor or lawyer. You get the point.

Seriously. The jackasses running around in Washington think tanks and Wall Street boardrooms-- jackasses like the one who wrote this article-- are so high off the ground that they can no longer recognize the little shapes scurrying below. They associate making huge money with being smart and hard-working, since they make huge money and like to think that this is due to their own virtuous natures. They rely on edumicated folks like doctors, accountants, engineers, and lawyers. Cultural conditioning (and a natural psychological need to think well of someone you're going to pay to cut you open) encourages them to think of these professions as peopled by smart, hard-working folks. Ergo, they must be pulling in seven-figure incomes. After all, America is a meritocracy, and riches are bestowed upon the worthy.

Sorry, chuckles. The only way you get to pull in that kind of dough is by joining the capitalist clergy, practicing arcane rituals that involve moving enormous sums of money from one place to another and declaring that they have grown in transit, a miraculous transubstantiation that none of the faithful dare question. Business owners and high executives are deacons, lay members who serve as the spine and muscle of Capitaltholicism, bringing the blessings of the Market to the benighted masses below. At the lowest level, the "lower uppers" mentioned by the article? Bootlickers, apologists, and ego-polishers like the jackass who wrote this article; perennial altar boys bent over the altar of smug avarice.

I'm an economic agnostic, myself. I don't really buy into the divinity of the Holy Currency, but I appreciate the benefits of its structure provides. I'll decry its excesses and mock its doctrine, but I don't have an alternative I'm eager to push on anyone. It does concern me, however, that the virtues enshrined in the theology-- hard work, ingenuity, honest competition-- are so rarely demonstrated by the economic episcopate. Malicious hypocrisy annoys me, and zealotry of any stripe tends to amuse and frighten me by turns. When the two combine, bad things start happening.
pedant

I'm really very concerned about wire shortages.

A friend of mine posited that humanity supports itself artificially, and that if that support was interrupted our population would drop drastically to a point where we could subsist on a more basic animal-chewing-on-its-environment level. This idea was rudely dismissed by someone long on education but short on consideration, who insisted that human intelligence renders our race impervious to such cataclysmic indignities. This person needs a brief lesson in how the world actually works.

Mark Twain wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court about a modern-day man dropped into the sixth century. This man uses his vast knowledge to give Camelot a crash course on modernization that puts Mao's Great Leap Forward to shame. The book is primarily a commentary on society, entrenched attitudes, and aristocratic cultures. It's good that it succeeds on that level, because the modernization itself is less plausible than the time travel that proceeds it.

The primary limiting factor on development is not research or basic understanding, but infrastructure. It's all well and good to know all about electricity, but you need the material. Plain copper wire is a good first step. Obviously, you'll need copper. You can mine it or smelt it, but either way you need people and tools. Then it must be purified, which requires electrolysis, which requires electricity, which is easily produced when you have a water wheel (specialized carpentry)... and purified copper wire. Let's ignore this problem for a moment. Once you have a nice lump of pure copper, you'll need steel for the draw plates (and many of the tools used in processes already mentioned) to stretch the wire; that's another mining process to get the iron, and smelting isn't optional. Getting steel from that iron requires blast furnaces (specialized masonry) and bellows (wood carving, leather working [which requires livestock and tanning industries], and brass [copper and zinc] or bronze [copper and tin]) and charcoal.

By my count, that's a minimum of sixteen developed industries that are required to make a damn piece of copper wire. None of them are optional, even if you're willing to make a very small quantity of low-quality wire. It's worth noting that no one except for the livestock folks are eating what they make, which means that we need agriculture to be developed to the point where it can support not just the farmers but all these non-food-producers as well. And unless all these fields and pastures and mines and smelters and smitheries and forges and crafstmen and forests and charcoal burners and masons and tanneries are all next-door neighbors, we'll need a distribution network of some kind. Yet more tools and toolmakers.

To make it even nastier, even though this industry can all be primitive by our standards, developing it has to be done in baby steps, since so many steps rely on each other in a circular way-- you need better tools to produce the materials to make the tools you need to produce the materials, and so on. Each improvement in a particular process must be small enough to be supported by the processes that come before it, and it must spread and become standard before it can be used as a base to launch improvements in the next step down the line. This is most obvious in the electricity issue above: purifying copper requires purified copper.

This slow, generational process of improvement has more subtle applications than the simply technological. Economic forces drive development. You don't start making a tool until there's a demand for it, and the demand won't develop until the tool exists to support it. Unless you have an omniscient dictator who can feed and shelter his pet industries while they're producing something that's useless at the moment, each step must be a small incremental improvement that has an immediate application. Wiremaking was originally a process exclusive to jewelry-making, and improvements on the process were undertaken to produce finer product more easily. The tools that allowed these process improvements were themselves made possible as a side-effect of constant small improvements in weapon-grade metals, which always had a market. "They were ahead of their time" is a phrase associated with failure, and for good reason.

Speaking of dictators, it's worth mentioning that specialized industry requires a larger population base, which means cities, which means a government stable enough to provide security and rule of law. This is yet another circular, incremental process: government services are supported by a population that relies on government services to survive and prosper enough to support government services. The balance here is every bit as delicate as it is on the economic side; too much organized power tends to crush its populace, and too little tends to let its populace get crushed by someone else who's willing to organize.

Everything about these processes are interconnected, delicate, and ultimately organic. We've seen the process forced in modern times, attempting to jump-start an infrastructure in one underdeveloped region or another. The results range from "humiliating" to "disasterous". Localized segments of industry and agriculture can make Great Leaps Forward, but the lack of a natural support base leads to instability and inevitable collapse. Japan encouraged and accelerated their own development without imposing a planned design, and achieved great success. It still took them a hundred years, even with the ability to lean heavily on the infrastructure of the rest of the developed world.

Steam engines were known to the Greeks 2000 years ago. Schemes for internal combustion predate Da Vinci. There was nothing wrong with their intelligence. Infrastructure. Takes. Time. If our infrastructure were taken away from us, we could probably recreate it more quickly than it developed the first time (although nothing distracts one from developing metallurgy like starvation, plague, a 40-yr maximum life expectancy, and roving bands of predatory people with goals of their own). On the other hand, we built our infrastructure the first time when metals could be found lying on the surface of the ground, huge forests covered all the continents, and coal and oil could be found in great quantities literally a few dozen meters below the surface.

Humanity's survival at its current level is profoundly artificial. This need not be a criticism. Thousands of years of amazing achievement by individuals and societies have produced a marvelously complex and unthinkably powerful invisible organism whose body exists entirely in the interactions that connect us all. Dismissing its creation as a simple symptom of "intelligence" is arrogant and idiotic. Taking its existence for granted is suicidal.
2009

Authors and books I intend to comment upon further at some indefinite point in the future 1

  • Earth's Children (series), by Jean M. Auel - The Mary Sue Adventures of Dr. Quinn, Cavewoman: filmed for Showtime late-night soft-core.
  • Cerebus (comic book series), by Dave Sim - Mostly interesting for the story of its creation, the work itself swings wildly between brilliant and vein-tuggingly awful. Yes, vein-tuggingly. Imagine a small, painless incision, through which someone has hooked one of your more visible veins. Now imagine them tugging on that hook; not in a sharp, tearing manner, but in a persistent and determined way that introduces you to new and altogether unwelcome realms of tactile sensation. That's how bad it gets when it's not being brilliant.
  • Dorsai (series) by Gordon R. Dickson - So you want to write sci-fi about geniuses-- world-changing, knock-yer-socks-off, walking buckets of brains. There are three standard ways to go about this:
    1. Write out the thought processes and dialogue of your cerebral superstars, clearly demonstrating their superior intellects. This is tricky, since you actually have to have some significant head-horsepower at your disposal. You don't have to think as quickly, completely, or correctly as your fictional creations; but you do have to do better than (regular character + thesaurus) - social skills, which is how Hollywood typically manages. Disch's Camp Concentration is a fair example.
    2. Focus on the spectacular results of the geniuses' efforts, directly touching upon their process and methods only in vague and oblique ways. Done well, this creates a sense of grandeur, like seeing the distant and hazy outline of something imponderable and awesome (like Herbert's Dune). Done poorly, it creates a bunch of nonsensical mystical claptrap (like everything in the Dune universe subsequent to the original).
    3. Place your eminently average yet sociopathically overconfident "genius(es)" in a universe populated with sub-morons. Spawn some implausibly unbalanced situations. Have your protagonist propose a solution that is either basest common sense, or stands defiantly against all rational deduction, induction, and probability. Write that the solution worked marvelously, which proves that your protagonist Just Knew Better All Along. Arthur Conan Doyle, I'm looking at you.
    Dickson invariably goes for #3, and is hailed as a giant of the sci-fi world as a result. Huh.
  • Wheel of Time (series) by Robert Jordan - Picture a boat. A boat that is slow. A slow, repetitive boat following an overfamiliar route, slowly and repetitively, on a boat. A boat that is slow. Then Nynaeve tugs her braid and crosses her arms beneath her breasts. On a slow, repetitive boat.
  • The Black Company (series), by Glen Cook - It's unkindly reductive to describe Mr. Cook merely as the anti-Jordan. I'm just saying that if they ever shook hands, you would want to duck.
2009

Worthless predictions #487

I don't see the Democrats making the sweep they're predicted to. I think people are mad enough to smash Republicans in the polls, but not enough to change the fundamental voting patterns of the last few years. It doesn't help that the Democrats as a party have the less-than-inspiring platform of "We're not Republicans!", and not much else.

Honestly, I'm not sure why the Democrats want to take power right now. Even if they took both houses by a narrow majority (the best plausible outcome for them), they don't have a prayer of getting anything significant done. The Democrats themselves lack unity (or basic cohesiveness), the opposition are ninjas at shredding them in the media, and the issues that are driving this election (Iraq, immigration, security) are not things that have quick, pleasant, or popular solutions. Scandals are helping the Dems right now, but they're never limited to a single party for long. There's also a chance that the White House might be less than completely cooperative. Even if the party leadership can restrain itself (I give it 50-50, and that attributable more to cowardice than nobility), there will be a perception of vendetta against Bush, which is always unpopular with independents. And God himself couldn't save the party if any-- ANY terrorist attack hit America on their watch. Facts of the matter would be utterly irrelevant. The Republican spin machine could use a Somali cabdriver getting in a fender-bender to basically assure one-party rule for the next decade or so.

Whether or not the country really is in a crisis right now, there's a popular perception that it is. I'd sort of like to see the Democrats sit back, hold on to the seats they have, and make a big unified statement about supporting the country. Every time a piece of Republican legislation comes down that they find objectionable, make those objections... but let it through without grandstanding, without fillibustering, without trying to divide the opposition and force a compromise that lets the Republican leadership get the majority of what they wanted and just enough whitewash to spread the blame if it goes sour.

America-- or at least a consistent yet slight majority of America-- seems to want to buy what the Republicans are selling. So give them a shot. Challenge them to publicly record their predictions, in solid numbers, about the outcome of any given policy. They think Tax Bill A would shift the burden to the middle class and hurt consumer spending and employment? Say so, specifically. they'll either be proved right in a (relatively) non-subjective way, or they'll be wrong-- in which case the legislation was presumably not so objectionable after all.

I strongly dislike the policies and practices of the current Republican party. I have friends that feel the same way about the Democrats. Everybody needs to take a deep breath. Nobody is going to revoke the Bill of Rights, implement martial law, or declare a dictatorship. There's not a lot that either side can do that can't be undone, if it turns out to be unpopular. They can make things suck temporarily for the country, and permanently for individuals. But that's it. And once the consequences are seen, we change and move on. Rinse; repeat.

Is the escalating cycle of fact-free hysterical infighting really preferable?
2009

I'm a convert.

Those of you who know me may be familiar with my enthusiasm for biodiesel. It's technologically mature, energy-dense, relatively clean, and usable in existing vehicles and distribution infrastructure with little or no conversion. That was before I learned about its downside, of course. Some experts predict that the price of vegetable oil (biodiesel = vegetable oil with its glycerin removed) could spike with the increased demand. Apparently, "it takes 7.5 pounds of [vegetable] oil to produce a single gallon of biodiesel".

I mean, wow. Who knew the production was so inefficient? For every gallon of biodiesel you have to go through... well, I don't know how many gallons of vegetable oil 7.5 pounds is, but I assume it's a lot. The way the article phrases it, it sounds like we're pouring truckloads of oil down the drain to squeeze out a few drops of biodiesel.

Well, let's see. How much would one gallon of veggie oil weight? Vegetable oil at STP is about .93 grams per cubic centimeter. That's 9300 grams per liter, at 3.79 liters to the gallon makes 3524.7 grams to the gallon, 453.59237 grams to a pound, so a gallon of vegetable oil weighs... 7.77 pounds.

Um. Huh. So, according to the article, it takes one gallon of vegetable oil to make one gallon of biodiesel. Wow. That's accurate (you lose some mass in the process, but gain back the volume from biodiesel's lesser density of .86g/cc), yet sort of underwhelming.

The real question: did the article's author deliberately switch units to make consumption sound more dramatic, or is he just so bad at math that he didn't realize?

While we're talking about using math to manipulate drama, I should mention that I used the long, suspenseful method of figuring out the weight of a gallon of veggie oil. The easy way would be to take the readily-available weight of a gallon of water (8.33lb) and multiply it by .93. I could explain why this works (mostly works; we're rounding like fiends in both methods), but I trust my that my audience either doesn't need the explanation or quit reading a few paragraphs back.
2009

Lies, Damn Lies...

Rand Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis, has a study that "presents the strongest evidence yet that sexually degrading lyrics in music encourage adolescents to more quickly initiate sexual intercourse and other sexual activities".

Now, I think of myself as a moderate on many issues. For instance, I'm not in favor of eliminating handguns, but I do want them kept out of the hands of children and idiots. By the same token, I'm not one of those people who thinks that statistics are pointless. I just want them kept out of the hands of children and idiots.

I read through the study's abstract and even the journal article published in The Official Journal Of The American Academy Of Pediatrics, presumably because I'm some kind of masochist. I find nothing to fault with the study design, sampling, or outcome measurements (this does not mean there is nothing to fault, only that my untrained eye failed to find it). Looking at the data they received, I see no reason to object to a correlation between listening to music "containing objectifying and limiting characterizations of sexuality" and accelerated sexual activity.

Of course, RandCo aren't satisfied with stopping there. No, this study somehow proves that the music causes or at the very least encourages sexual behavior, and "recommends that parents set limits on what music their children can purchase and listen to". When you have a correlation and infer causation, we call that cum hoc ergo propter hoc, or, if we're feeling less snooty, the fallacy of joint effect. It's like declaring that Kleenex causes colds, since high consumption of tissue paper is statistically linked to nasal distress.

Could their causation have been proven? Certainly, although it would take some effort. For example, had they identified the raunchy-music-listeners at the outset and forcibly replaced their Brotha Lynch Hung with heavy doses of Raffi, and noted a change in behavior, then they might be on to something. It may just indicate an increase in suicides among frequent listeners of "Raffi in Concert with the Rise and Shine Band", or illustrate the difficulty of seducing someone to the sultry strains of "Bananaphone"; but it's a causal relationship regardless.

So, do they provide any evidence of causation? Well, the abstract notes that the conclusion "is consistent with sexual-script theory". Oh, okay. So you had a hypothesis, tested it once, failed to prove it false, and assumed it was true. I might call that affirming the consequent (though it would be a bit of a stretch).

Alternatively, I can just say that statistics should be kept out of the hands of children and idiots.
2009

Ima gonna learn y'all how to talk good.

healthy
Technically, you can only be "healthy" if you're alive. Foods and behaviors that are good for you are "healthful". Vegetables aren't healthy unless you're eating them on the vine, and no meat is healthy unless it's trying to get away. However, common usage is so blind to this that it's a former wrong that's now as good as right. So use it either way, but as you do so think fondly upon the pedant who first informed you of this tidbit.

Could or couldn't you care less?
This is also correct either way, but it annoys me that people use one of the ways without knowing why it's correct. "Couldn't care less" is obvious: "Most people couldn't care less about the healthy/healthful distinction.". They care so little that they could not care less. Simple. "Could care less" means the same thing, oddly enough. It makes sense when you look at its etymological ancestor: "I could care less about professional sports, but it would require an act of God and possibly a lobotomy." Once that was in common use, it was easy to let the qualifier become implied: "I could care less about something I don't much care about...". Then, because people on the whole are lazy and stupid, they collectively forgot about the sarcastic tone and the ellipsis: "I could care less about what the crap that comes out of my mouth means.".

Now that you know, you can no longer use the second version unknowingly, and thus you will no longer annoy me. Good for you!

irregardless
"Regardless" and "irrespective" have somewhat similar meanings. People who had a loose grasp of either of those meanings tongue-fumbled their way into "irregardless", which is not a word, but if it was, the "ir-" and the "-less" would cancel out and make it mean the opposite of what the cretins who use it intend. Unfortunately, the collection of cretins that comprise our community have embraced this festering wordbortion with such vigor that it is rapidly becoming accepted. Just don't use it in formal writing, or in my presence.

not XXX, much less YYY
So many people are so close, yet still so stupid. The "much less" is more or less short for "and thus what follows is much less possible for the subject:". As in: "He could not stop drooling, much less formulate a proper sentence." Yet people persist in using it backwards: "She couldn't run a marathon, much less take a single step." Really? The god-despised quadruple amputee was much less able to take a single step than she was able to run 41.3km?

Just remember: easy one first, hard one second. Like your mom.*

begs the question
I'm more sympathetic to folks who get this wrong. I still want to stuff their mouths with glass shards and salt, but in a sympathetic way. "Begging the question" is a somewhat formal phrase identifying a logical fallacy. If a premise relies on the conclusion to be valid, that premise begs the question. Remember, your conclusion is the issue in question, and by nature it's not accepted as true; otherwise you wouldn't bother arguing it. To prove your conclusion, you present supporting premises which must themselves be accepted as true, or else they are worthless premises-- if you're trying to prove that the Genesis creation story is factual, you don't want one of your premises to be that men have one less rib than women do. That premise happens to be completely wrong, and thus it doesn't do much to support your conclusion. Premises don't have to be immediately accepted as true (although it's always nice when they are); often a premise will spin off a sub-argument in which it is individually resolved before returning to the parent argument with the now-proven (or disproven and discarded) premise. If your premise relies on the issue in question being true, then the premise begs the question for its support-- and since it can't get that support until the question is already answered, it is useless in providing that answer. For example: suppose I posit the fact that you are an idiot. You present your numerous academic achievements and obvious acuity as a counter-argument, but I dismiss what you say because I don't listen to idiots. In my dismissal, I'm begging the question. A more common example is using the fact that someone is on trial as "evidence" of their guilt: ladies and gentlemen of the jury, why would we spend all this time hauling an innocent man before you?

So. Kinda dry, fairly complex. I don't think less of anyone for not being familiar with it. I can easily see how someone could hear the phrase and parse it as "XXX brings to mind the question YYY", as in: "Frank, the panties dangling from your monitor beg the question of just who felt the need to remove them in the middle of the office.". I can understand how it happens, I really can. But you all need to stop.

Now.






*this doesn't actually make sense, but I needed a punchy closing line and I'm in something of a hurry.