Monday, March 31, 2008

Please Comment!

So, I realized I mistakenly had my blog set to only accept comments from those with a Google account. I have now disabled that feature, so now ANYone can comment.

I would love to hear what you think!

Friday, March 28, 2008

please wait

Recently, my computer froze as a mysterious box appeared from an unknown program:

Apparently the program is entitled, "Please Wait" and its main operation is to ask you nicely to wait. I wonder what happens if I I still have to wait?

This hereby confirms my theory that Vista was programmed by Monty Python.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What a Bunch of Caucus


You may or may not have heard this, but just in case I thought I would bring it to your attention. The voters in Florida and Michigan did not get to choose their democratic presidential candidate. A few years back, the Democratic National Party revised the timing of presidential primaries and caucuses, setting February 5th for the earliest possible date (not including Iowa and New Hampshire). This revision also laid out the penalties for violating the timing—a state going too early will forfeit their delegates. And in case you slept late during this lesson in American Government class, we, the people do not actually vote for presidential candidates. We vote for delegates.

I was stunned to learn that the legislatures of Michigan and Florida then passed bills that set the date of the primaries in January, in full knowledge that this was against the rules! I was so confused by this that I felt compelled to do a little investigation of my own. Whose fault was this violation of democracy? Did these states just not get the memo?! Was the national party's language ambiguous, lending itself to be misinterpreted?

What I have found out so far has shocked me even further. They did get the memo, they knew they would forfeit their delegates, and they voted overwhelmingly to do it anyway. Here is a little snippet from the report of a House committee, headed by republican David Rivera, that was considering the date-setting amendment to their bill:

As most observers of presidential politics would agree, national conventions in the modern era have become proforma exercises organized to coronate a pre-determined presidential nominee rather than a genuine selection or nomination process where the outcome is in question. The role of a delegate in a modern day political party convention has been relegated to that of rubberstamping the decision made in each delegate's respective state during that state's presidential primary. Under these conditions, priority should be placed on the role Florida will play in selecting a presidential nominee rather than on the opportunities for a select few Floridians to attend a national convention.

After I read that, I felt sick. Not only did these congressmen purposefully forfeit the people's say in the election, they did so based on faulty reasoning!! A little demonstration will help here to illustrate just what I mean:

A couple of riddles
As a student of science education, I have learned a very important lesson—intelligence is context dependent. Let me give you a quick and dirty example of what I mean. Here is a puzzle that is supposed to judge your 'logical reasoning ability'. There are four cards, each with a number on one side and a letter on the other. The rule is: if there is a vowel on one side of the card, there must be an even number on the other side. Which card or cards must you turn over in order to check that these cards follow the rule?

If your answer is to just turn over the card with "E" on it, you are wrong. There are some who assess your mistake to mean you have deficient logical reasoning skills. Don't worry—this claim is wrong, and I can prove it.

Here is another riddle: you are a bouncer at a club where everyone is required to carry a card with their age on one side, and their drink on the other. In America, the law says that if someone is under 21, they must have a non-alcoholic beverage. Which card or cards must you turn over to make sure that everyone is following the law?

Easy huh? Now let me call your attention to the fact that these two puzzles are the SAME puzzle! Perhaps you can answer the first one now…but even if you still can't that's beside the point. The point is that reasoning becomes much easier when you are familiar with the topic.

A political riddle:

Here is another puzzle for you. Point out the error in the following line of reasoning:

Beavis: "The higher the payroll a baseball team has, the more likely it is to win a World Series. Take the 2007 Red Sox, for example—they had a payroll six times that of the last place Devil Rays. Therefore, in order to win the World Series, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays should give each of their players a six-fold raise."

Answer: Duh, Beavis. If there is only one lesson from statistics that you learn it should be this: Correlation does not imply causation!! The Red Sox paid more because, on average, they had much better players! That is the real cause behind the correlation—having good players is what really increases your chances of winning. Just paying the Devil Rays' crappy players more won't make them better (in fact, as Mo Vaughn taught us all, it can make them much worse!) The Devil Rays would have to get better players in order to win, which will most likely also cause a higher payroll.

Now compare this with the reasoning provided by Florida's House of Representatives for moving their primaries to a date that would strip them of all their delegates:
Butthead: "In the last two presidential elections, Florida has been one of the few states that have closely mirrored the final nationwide results.Florida's presidential election results for 2004 were Bush 52% and Kerry 47%. The national results were Bush 50% and Kerry 48%. This means money spent to win the Florida primary will also benefit candidates in the general election."
Butthead, oh, sweet, ignorant Butthead. When will you learn? Correlation does not mean causation!! You've made essentially the same bonehead argument as Beavis. Don't be embarrassed, others have made it too—it's called the fallacy of common cause. Here's another example: "The more firemen fighting a fire, the more damage there is going to be. Therefore, we should send less firefighters to all fires."

Here is the Floridian line of reasoning, which has more than just the common-cause fallacy wrong with it:
  1. In the last two presidential elections, the state results were kind of similar to the national results.
  2. Therefore, in order to win the national election, you need to spend more money to win the Florida primary.
  3. Therefore, the Florida primary should be sooner.
  4. As long as they are sooner, they don't have to actually count.
You don't have to be a logician to see how ridiculous that is.
Now, it would be understandable for a non-politician to get tripped up in the loquacious world of legislation, just as most people get the "S 20 E 13" card problem wrong. But these are politicians!! This is their world! This should be like the "Coke 16 Scotch 52" problem for them! Therefore, I have just proven that, even when accounting for context-dependence, Floridians are all idiots. Modus ponens.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Red Sox vs. Yankees

If you have ever had the pleasure to be at Fenway park for a Red Sox vs. Yankees game, you will know that there will up upwards of 10 fistfights that break out by the end of the game. Of course 10 out of 10 fistfights are between fans of the opposing teams. (and 10 out of 10 of the arrested fans are Yankees fans...but I digress)

Why is it that Red Sox fans don't fight each other? Is it because we are all the same, that we live in peaceful harmony, always agreeing with each other and never arguing? Nope. During a typical game, while sitting rather peacefully in my seat, I will have beer spilt on my by some drunken jerk, have my view blocked by some idiot standing up in front of me to take 12 pictures, and have chewed peanuts sprayed on me by the lady in the seat behind me who's yelling, "A-ROD'S AN A-HOLE!" But I love them all, because we are all Sox fans. We have laughed, cried, screamed, cried, and rejoiced together. We have sat, stood, and kneeled and prayed together. And that shared suffering, that shared jubilation, unites our souls forever, and any adversary from New York or otherwise be damned.

You may have noticed the resemblance between the scene I have described and a typical Catholic mass. In fact, the similarities cut deep, very deep…

Creationists vs. Evolutionists

The only place I have been to that rivals the childish fighting between Red Sox and Yankees fans has been at a meeting between creationists and evolutionary biologists. They screamed at each other, pumped their fists in the air, stamped their feet, and I heard almost every insult short of "Oh yeah, well you're a poop-head!" hurled from each side. The reason for this fighting is much the same as the brawls at Fenway. Each side, through their shared dreams, hopes, and experiences of suffering and jubilation, has constructed a shared worldview that cannot be questioned.

One common criticism that has always been raised against science is that it offers a cold and belittling picture of our insignificant place in a mechanistic universe, while religion puts humans at the spiritual (if not physical) center of a warm, vibrant universe that was given to us as a gift. I'm here to say that it doesn't have to be this way!

Who Created Whom in Whose Image?

Each person's view of God tells you more about that person than it ever could tell you about God. Ever notice how only funny people claim that God has an infinite sense of humor? Or that the embattled and persecuted Jews from the Hebrew Scriptures viewed their God as testy, vengeful, demanding, and at times almost irrational? Or how the ancient Greeks, as they uncovered the wondrous insights of geometry, mapped these principles into their view of the Heavens and the Earth's place at the center of the Celestial Spheres?

I think the reason that science is perceived to give a cold, mechanistic view of the universe is for much the same reason--this is the view that was held by the cold, impersonal scientists who came up with the big theories. Newton, for example was reported by those who knew him to be a misanthropic prick. It is only natural for such a pompous genius to assume that universe must conform to his own values of logic and mechanism—hence the clockwork universe that needs no further care once set in motion.

I argue that this bleak picture of the universe is really not indicative of science, but rather of the scientists who conceived it. It doesn't have to be this way. Whether you believe in God or not, I believe science can paint a picture of the universe every bit as wondrous and welcoming as that held by believers. All it takes is a change in perspective.

Tiny, but Not Insignificant
The more we study the universe, the more we find out how small we are compared to it. Space is mostly, well, space. If the Sun were the size of a grapefruit, then Earth would be a pencil point 30 feet away. Pluto would be in the next town, and you’d need a microscope to see it. The nearest star would be another grapefruit, on the other side of the country, with nothing in between. Once you realize how much nothingness there is in the universe, it makes it really special that we are part of something.

We, all of us, are on the same little blue speck of dust, hurling around a little bright dot on the far reaches of a dinner plate hurling through an infinite space at unimaginable speeds. What if there is nothing else; no afterlife, no spiritual realm—what then? Then that would mean we were all in this together, this 'life' thing, with all the joy, suffering, love, and pain that comes along with the human experience. We are all rooting for the same team. If nothing else, can't THAT make us get along??

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Thoughts in Honor of Einstein's Birthday

"There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle."

I have heard this quote often attributed to Einstein, but I've never heard it in its original context. I'm not sure which of the two options he meant to be 'better', if either of them. However, it does seem to me that at least implicitly, he lived as though nothing is a miracle. That is, he at least did science as if everything is explicable in terms of the elegant yet strict laws of nature.

His theory of relativity took away the miracle of gravity. To Newton, it was a miracle that masses exerted forces on each other; and moreover that the very masses that create the force of gravity also resist it proportionally. Why should the universe conspire to make sure everything falls at the same rate?? For Einstein, this was no miracle. Nor was it a miracle that even light was bent by gravity. It was inevitable. The curvature of spacetime tells matter how to move, and matter tells spacetime how to curve. Both oblige eachother, with no choice in the matter, so to speak. That is why, on the eve of the solar eclipse that would determine whether he was the greatest scientist of his day or whether he was just plain wrong, he went to bed early. If the observation went against his prediction, he quipped that he "would have felt sorry for the Lord--the theory is correct!" And, of course, it is.

Perhaps the only miracle in Einstein's universe was the fact that the laws he discovered were so simple. G=8*pi*T--that's it! This elegance fascinated him: "The only incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible." But he was not content to concede this as a miracle, either. He spent the last decades of his career trying to unify all the known forces of nature into one ultimate law. His ultimate goal in this program, what really interested him, was "whether God had any choice in creating the universe." If his program had succeeded, then perhaps the answer would be no, he had no choice. The equations determine everything.

That seems to me to be precisely why Einstein hated quantum mechanics so much. The laws of nature don't determine where the particles are or where they go; it's pure chance. Thus, he was forced to treat each and every moment as if it were a miracle. Or rather, 10^83 miracles. "I don't believe that God plays dice with the universe." That would mean that God had--and continues to have--no choice in creating it, no choice in how it all unfolds. This seems to weigh against the point I was making with Einstein's quest for unification, but in this case even the equations didn't determine everything, and that's what really bugged him. But on the other hand, if even God doesn't have a choice in the matter, would that be the ultimate miracle??