Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Defibrillating Capitalism

Remember the wooly mammoth? It was a large, hairy ancestor of the elephant that thrived during the ice ages. Overhunting and rising global temperatures led to its extinction, but recently scientists have decoded 80% of the creature's genetic code, raising the possibility that we will one day in the not-so-distant-future see one in real life. Will it once again range the Earth freely? No, more likely it will be sustained in a lab or a zoo. Perhaps McDonald's will come out with the McWooly.

Remember the Chrysler auto company? It was a large, hairy ancestor of the Hummer that thrived during the oil era. Gas guzzling and rising global temperatures led to its extinction, but recently the Executive branch of the government stepped in to resurrect it with a $17.4 billion dollar get out of bankrupcy free card. Coincidence? I think not.

Do the recent collapses in the auto and securities industries represent the dying coughs of capitalism? No. Contrary to common belief those industries were not capitalistic, and haven't been for a long time. In that sense, capitalism has been writhing around on the ground for a while. Although they may have been necessary in the short term, the bailouts amount to kicking capitalism while its down.

What should we do? Can capitalism be saved? I say it can, and I have an idea of how to do it...

First, it is important to realize that capitalism works in much the same way as evolution: there is a diverse field of competition for limited resources, and the fittest survive to fight another day. The auto companies, like a lot of old industries, have become big, clunky dinosaurs in the modern era. There is no longer a diverse field of competition, because the car companies offer the same old gas-guzzling crap and if they all fail the government just gives them money anyway.

If capitalism were to work itself out, then we would expect it to happen by new car companies starting up and try something new. If they are fitter for the present economy, the auto startups would take over the market. But there's one problem for capitalism working here: capital. None of the existing companies have the capital to try anything risky (like seriously marketing a hydrogen-cell car) and nobody else has the capital to create a start-up car company. Are we stuck? If so, we are screwed.

There is hope. Another business that is becoming a relic of a bygone age is gold mining. The mines are running out of gold, and it is too expensive to risk digging in new places. Nobody has the capital to create start-up gold mining companies. But one company found a successful work-around. Goldcorp did something completely unprecedented in the gold industry: they made their gold maps public and held a competition in which anyone who could find gold would get part of the treasure. The Goldcorp Challenge worked brilliantly: new sites were found and the company jumped from a $100 million failure to a $9 billion success story.

This is not the only place this worked. Another outdated beast with high production costs is space travel. Until recently, there was no real competition--only governments could afford to send people into space. That is, until the Ansari X Prize inspired 26 teams to spend a combined $100 million dollars to figuring out a low-cost solution to putting a person into orbit. At first, the task seemed insurmountable, but in 2004 Scaled Composites won the prize 8 years after it was announced.

What should the U.S. government do to save the auto industry? Not what it's currently doing. It's giving out free money to the very companies that were selected against by the economy. That's like trying to resurrect the wooly mammoth in our post-ice age modern world. Instead, the Senate should allocate funds towards an H-Prize: $500 million to the first company to market an affordable Hydrogen fuel-cell powered car. Or something like that, anyway…you get the idea!

Making competition based auto payouts would not signal the end of capitalism, but the return to capitalism. It's well worth the shot.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

NCLB: No Country Left Behind

It's 1983. Ronald Reagan initiates project "Star Wars". Michael Jackson's Thriller tops the charts. And America's education scrapes the bottom of the charts.

An educational review commissioned by Ronald Reagan summarized their findings in the document: "A Nation at Risk." It starts off with a bang:

"Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world…We report to the American people that … the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people."

Why all the hubbub? The first piece of evidence is international test scores:

"International comparisons of student achievement, completed a decade ago, reveal that on 19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized nations, were last seven times."

The commission made a few, clear, and urgent recommendations. For example:

School boards should adopt an 11-month contract for teachers. This would ensure time for curriculum and professional development, programs for students with special needs, and a more adequate level of teacher compensation.

It is now 25 years after this broad-sweeping and influential criticism of the American Education System. No Child Left Behind, the most substantial educational policy change in decades is well underway. So how are we doing?

Well, not so great. Shockingly few of these recommendations were ever implemented. And the results in international test scores are still abysmal, as you can see for yourself in this Washington Post article:

International Science Exam Shows Plateau in U.S. Performance

Francis Eberle, the director of the National Science Teachers Association, had this reaction:

"We need to pay attention to the results. We're just static, and other countries are improving. Whether it's global warming, energy production or conservation or homeland security, people need to be able to understand enough to make decisions as a citizen."

What does it mean to be able to understand enough to make decisions as a citizen? That is the crucial question that we need to answer to fix education. So far, our answer has focused too narrowly on the content, and not enough on the context—i.e. what to do with that content and when. The current system is built upon the mistaken notion that information can be disseminated and regurgitated independently of its relevance or actual use. NCLB exacerbates this problem by emphasizing high stakes, across-the-board tests, which, due to outdated theory and pragmatic-economic reasons consist almost entirely of cookie-cutter, decontextualized trivia problems. And even though Obama is following the recommendation to increase teachers' pay, he is doing so on the condition that there will be more "teacher accountability" (read: standardized tests).

Nearly half of Americans don't believe in the theory of evolution. Nearly HALF! This is not a good thing. How does this naïve view persist in this, the era of science, and the era of greater "accountability" and standardized tests? Well, the standardized tests measure whether you know what answer the test-makers are looking for. It doesn't test whether you believe them.

By no means am I endorsing some way of making students evaluated based on their beliefs. That goes against the very principles this nation was founded upon, and really is only a hop-skip-and-a-jump away from Thought Police. Instead, what I am arguing for is to stop worrying so much about the conceptual aspect of Eberle's plea, and more on the epistemological. We need to stop trying to shovel "knowledge" down the kids' throats without ever teaching them how to evaluate it, how to be critical of what people say, to deliberate over conflicting ideas and make a personal decision based on evidence, not rhetoric. These days we still demand that they not question authority, that there is one right answer, that creativity is not an appropriate skill to bring to school. We push harder and harder to standardize our children, when in fact human beings cannot and should not be standardized.

Although it's 25 years later, it still sounds a lot like 1983, to me. Or even 1984.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

University of Maryland Water Polo Team on CBSSports.com

Very few cameras have the temporal resolution to be able to capture and accurately portray my water polo moves on film. A foolish, if intrepid young photojournalist has recently attempted however, and you can check it out by doing the following:

Step 1: Go to http://www.sportsline.com/video/player

Step 2: On the menu on the right, click the option for UWire

Step 3: Out of the videos on the far right, click on "Water Polo Moves East"

Step 4: Make some popcorn

Step 5: Get ready to have your mind blown and your entire outlook on life changed

Friday, September 19, 2008

Are You Liberative or Conserveral?

Once upon a time, there were couple mild-mannered, well-meaning political ideologies: liberalism and conservatism. Liberals would have you believe that the government should be utilized to solve problems. Conservatives would have you believe the opposite; keep the government out of our lives and we can solve our own problems. For example, the welfare system was started by the liberal FDR to allocate government money to give relief to the poor, among other things. Conservative critics hold the current welfare system up as an example of "big government" sticking its tail where it don't belong.

The distinction is not, and perhaps never was, so clear cut as either side thinks. Conservatives cry for the government to get out of their lives (e.g. taxes, gun control, welfare), while paradoxically condoning government control of much more personal things like high-stakes standardized tests, wars, drugs, abortions, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage. Liberals are arguably just as self-contradictory, pushing for racial, sexual, and socioeconomic justice from up on a pedestal. For example, 72% of all university faculty are liberal, while they work in environments that continue to have severe inequalities in tenure and pay with regard to race and gender.

Recent studies in psychology have started to reveal a new picture of the distinction between conservatives and liberals. The greatest predictor for whether you are a liberal or conservative is the extent to which you feel open to new life experiences. The second greatest predictor is the number of body piercings.

Pop quiz: which of these dudes is a liberal?

Go to http://www.yourmorals.org/ and take one of the quizzes, to see where you stand (don't worry, the site is a legit research site). Far from having political origins, the distinction between liberal and conservative has more to do with one's sense of morality. Conservatives tend to value loyalty to a group, whereas liberals tend to value "fairness" amongst a group. Here is my graph, where green represents my score (blue is liberal, red is conservative):

As you can see, I'm conservrativally liberacious. And part German.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Musicians are underrepresented amongst our national holidays

Holidays are our nation's way of ceremonially celebrating it's most influential people and its proudest accomplishments. They are dedicated to the nation's founders, leaders, influential politicians, and pivotal events.

I think it's safe to say that music is one of the finest gifts to the world that the United States has offered. To quote House Resolution 57, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1987:

Whereas, jazz has achieved preeminence throughout the world as an indigenous American music and art form, bringing to this country and the world a uniquely American musical synthesis and culture through the African-American experience and...makes evident to the world an outstanding artistic model of individual expression and democratic cooperation within the creative process, thus fulfilling the highest ideals and aspirations of our republic...it is the sense of the Congress that jazz is hereby designated as a rare and valuable national American treasure to which we should devote our attention, support and resources to make certain it is preserved, understood and promulgated.

I suggest that one great way to devote our attention, support, and resources to our native music idioms such as jazz would be to dedicate national holidays to our greatest musicians.

Perhaps for starters, we could make next Tuesday, September 23rd, "John Coltrane Day". John Coltrane was born September 23rd, 1926 in Hamlet, NC. On stage and on record, he traveled deep inside to bring back out for his audience virtuosic and hearfelt "sheets of sound". His music captured the complexities of the experiences and emotions conjured by life in tumultuous times. His music evolved from cries of despair to soothing cries for peace and ascension. His music has not only stood the test of time, it is timeless. He has influenced generations of musicians to search for diligent virtuosity as well as true expression.

Isn't that enough for one day of recognition?

Friday, September 5, 2008

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Guess who's back in style??

Back in style:
Truckers! Truckers stole our hearts with their dedication to supply all of our goods while looking stylish and talking cool the whole time.
Ten-four there, Goldie Wang. This is Rubber Duckie. What's your ten-twenty? Over.
Back in Style:
Ninjas! Ninjas are sweet and totally fast. They will kick you in the face and not think twice about it. That's why ninjas are cool again.
3 Facts about ninjas:
1. Ninjas are mammals.
2. Ninjas fight ALL the time.
3. The purpose of the ninja is to flip out and kill people.

Back in Style:
Pirates! Avast! If'n ye don't think pirates be grand, fine booty, then by the powers you land-lubbers will be fixin' for a taste of the cat o' nine tails. Argghh.
Q: What kind of socks to pirates wear?

Soon to be back in style:
Pilgrims! Pilgrams are zany and happy-go-lucky, as you can tell by their hats. They love to eat corn, make cornucopias and fire muskets. Fact: A pilgrim can make 3x his/her own bodyweight worth of pumpkin pie in one sitting. That's why pilgrims are going to be the next big thing.
In honor how cool pilgrims are, I hereby declare this Friday, August 1st 2008 to be the first annual International Dress-Like-a-Pilgrim Day!!! Who's with me??

Friday, July 25, 2008

Uncommon Courtesy

This is my friend's awesome band called Hugo...I'm actually playing bass on this track. Check it out and let me know what you think!

Uncommon Courtesy

Hugo's website: http://www.hugorock.com

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

When it rains it pours. Here’s why.

I have been doing a final project in math class on how long it takes a cement square to completely saturate with rain at the start of a rainstorm. Inadvertently, I missed my last class to do gather some observational evidence in Mallorca, Spain.

It was, as a trip, comparable to National Lampoon's European Vacation, and I was Clark Griswold. I will spare you the details expect for a highlight real: it poured rain the whole time, my uninsured rental got keyed, and I ran over Eric Idle while he rode on his bicycle.

The pinnacle (or whatever is opposite of pinnacle, that is) of the madness was when the rental car broke down in the most precarious spot of road ever invented—a hairpin turn on the side of a mountain with a cliff on either side. Actually, with the magic of Google maps, I can show you. It was right here:
Just for fun, here's a contour map, and if you've studied your contour maps (you have, right?) you will see it's WICKED STEEP:

The car battery just died as I was making the turn. Since we were going up a hill, I had to back it down out of the dangerous curve. Since the power steering was dead, I had to back it into the wrong lane. Since it was in Mallorca, we had no working cell phone and thus we had to stop cars by hand to ask for theirs. Since they were all tourists, they didn't have any either.
And since we were in such a dangerous spot, I got to wear a sweet yellow vest (that really tied my whole outfit together) and we had to put up a danger triangle. Here's a pic of me directing traffic in my snazzy vest:

Just when we flagged down the most amazingly nice French couple who offered their help, all of a sudden a lightning storm surrounded us that was so fierce it seemed as if God was trying to personally smite us after a few glasses of Mead.

One thing I noticed as I stopped traffic to (a) prevent a disastrous cataclysm and (b) find a cell phone, I noticed something on that road. It never seemed to be one car that went by, enabling a safe stopping for help. It was always a cluster of cars and buses meeting perilously at the bend in the road, even if it was 10 minutes since the last car came by, making it a completely dangerous situation every time. (wasn't Avis so nice to tell us to just "deal with it")
Why do cars always cluster in the worst possible way? Why do bad things come in three's (or in the case of this trip, bazillions)? I can see 2 answers to these questions:
  1. There could be a selection effect. There may be many cars that go by alone—many bad things that happen in isolation all the time—but since they did not lead to near disaster I didn't notice them as much.

  2. There could be a mechanism at work. In the case of cars, there are always cars that are slower than the average. The faster cars will tend to get stuck behind them, making them all travel together as a clump. In the case of bad things, the first one will put us in a bad mood, which makes it all the more likely that we will see more events as "bad," or worse, even start to make bad things happen.
I think the real answer is a little of both. And the solution is acceptance. At best, you will see less bad things happen. At worst, you won't be able to prevent the bad things from happening anyway, so you might as well accept them so you can move on.

I think Tom Robbins puts it best in his classic Another Roadside Attraction. The narrator notices how Amanda and John Paul Ziller walk through the Seattle rain:

"They strolled calmly and smoothly, their bodies perfectly relaxed. They did not hunch away from the rain but rather glided through it. They directed their faces to it and did not flinch as it drummed their cheeks. They almost reveled in it. Somehow, I found this significant. The Zillers accepted the rain. They were not at odds with it, they did not deny it or combat it; they accepted it and went with it in harmony and ease. I tried it myself…I got no wetter than I would have otherwise, and if I did not actually enjoy the wetting, at least I was free of my tension. I could even smile."

And so we tried, on that precarious bend in the road, to smile. And the French couple that was helping us smiled. And more people stopped to help us. In fact, one of them road over our danger triangle and destroyed it. Instead of thinking, "oh great", we laughed. Eventually Avis came around and gave us a new rental. We made it to the top of the mountain, and the clouds broke, offering us one of the most amazing scenes I have ever taken in.

I think the answer, expressed in its most direct form, was taught to me as a poem by my father when I was young:

Smile a while

and while you smile

another smiles

and soon there's miles and miles of smiles

and life's worthwhile,

because you smile.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

More Brilliance from Microsoft

I was just trying to open Powerpoint, but it froze when this dialog box popped up:

I wonder if this dialog box knew that it was the very dialog box that prevented me from opening Powerpoint...hmmm...

Clearly someone at Microsoft is a big fan of Catch 22. I am not making this stuff up I swear!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Fear Hillary!

When the tyrant has disposed of foreign enemies by conquest or treaty, and there is nothing to fear from them, then he is always stirring up some war or other, in order that the people may require a leader.

The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself

I used to be pretty undecided about who I wanted as our next president. I am not a Republican, nor a Democrat, nor Republicrat. I do not follow a dogma, but rather prefer to think carefully through each issue, look at evidence, hear arguments from all sides, and make up my own mind as much as possible. In the end, I am conservative about some things, and liberal about others. So, I have tried my best to go based on the actual priorities and stances of the candidates in this election.

First step, I tried going to the websites of the top 8 contenders from both parties early on, in order to get a good take on their priorities and stances. No luck. It was all glittering generalities like, "I am for the children" and other teary-eyed hogwash.

So then I watched all of the major debates of both parties, in order to get a sense of their policies. I decided that my priorities and stances seem to line up rather well with what Obama, Clinton, and Edwards were saying; basically that we need to pull our priorities away from a baseless war and get them back on problems such as education, poverty, civil rights, and dismantling militant networks such as Al Qaeda. That is pretty much the opposite of what I took most of the Republicans to be saying.

That left me stuck between Obama, Clinton, and Edwards. Well, Edwards dropped out, so one down, one to go.
Lately, Clinton helped me make up my mind. She has demonstrated that she will stoop as low as she needs to in order to sway people's votes based on fear and negativity. This was capped off yesterday with her last ditch effort to appeal to the rural population of Pennsylvania: an ad meant only to instill fear in order to gain political credibility. As the quote from Plato implies above, this type of evil manipulation is as old as politics itself.

Watch the ad here:
Clinton's "Kitchen" Ad

Displaying images of the 1929 stock market crash, Pearl Harbor, the 1970's gas hike, and Osama bin freakin' Laden, among other things, does nothing more than try to conjure up negative emotions in the viewers.

The only claims being made in the ad is that being president is "the toughest job in the world," that you "need to be ready for anything, especially now," while showing a video of what people really seem to fear the most—the digits of the gas prices going up on the pumps, in fast forward no less.

The video closes by asking "Who do you think has what it takes?" What is the point of the ad? Since there are no real claims made, no evidence cited, and no policies even hinted at, it is clear that the only message to the viewers can be "you need to be afraid, and vote for the candidate that will ease your fear."

Kind of reminds me of this ad, from another candidate who punched people in the gut in order to get elected: "Changing World" Ad, oh, and this one: America!

This is based on a common theme that has been used throughout history to win elections; that today's world is a dangerous place and candidate X is the one who 'has what it takes' to save us.
What war hero General Douglas McArthur noted in the past is just as true today:

"It is part of the general pattern of misguided policy that our country is now geared to an arms economy which was bred in an artificially induced psychosis of war hysteria and nurtured upon an incessant propaganda of fear."
~General Douglas MacArthur

I have decided I don't want to vote for more of this fear crap. This leaves me with two questions in order to decide who to vote for…

#1 Is Obama Any Better?

Now, Obama is trying to punch you in the gut too, with his messages of Hope and Change. EVERY dang politician EVER has said, "Blahblahblah what we need is CHANGE blahdiblah rabble rabble." I don't know how Obama cornered the market on Hope and Change, but I DO know that Clinton and others have literally and verbally conceded this to him. That is perhaps WHY Hillary has gone to fear, in a last ditch effort to corner ANY market. And when it comes to choosing between hope and fear, I think Bill Clinton has said possibly the only sensible thing of his life:

"If one candidate is appealing to your fears, and the other one is appealing to your hopes, you better vote for the person who wants you to think and hope." --Bill Clinton

#2 CAN we have hope, or SHOULD we be afraid?

The candidates have agreed that we are voting between fear and hope. Which one should we actually be feeling? Perhaps Hillary and the Republicans are right. Maybe the world is going to shit and we need to vote for the only one that can save us. I'm pretty sure it would be Indiana Jones. Maybe Luke Skywalker.

It sure seems like the world is crazy and only getting crazier. Is there any evidence of this? Well, it seems there is. We can get a sense of how the danger in the world is changing by examining, for example, the change in the risk of the average person dying in a war, or by murder, or by state sanctioned violence. By all of these measures, the world is a much safer place than at any time in history. Moreover, the present United States just about the safest place in the history of the world.

If you're interested, here is an interesting talk that argues this point very well and displays some of the evidence: A Brief History of Violence

Why do these politicians claim that the world is getting more dangerous? One reason is that they actually may believe it. It's hard to imagine that they would so blatantly lie to so many people, but it would certainly not be without precedent. Another is that they know that the American people believe it—the press has seen to that.

Whether politicians believe in this fear or not, certain politicians believe it is in their best interests to utilize the fear. Hillary has just shown that she is one of these politicians. If we are to believe what Obama says, he is not. In that case, the only thing Hillary has to fear is...not enough fear.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

T-Shirt Design #2

If you want one, I'll kick your name and take your size.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Shame on you, Ben Stein (part 1)

I just gave in and clicked on one of the advertisements that gmail subtly displays while I check my inbox. What I saw when I clicked it was so disturbing that, against my better judgment, I will discuss it here since chances are you will probably hear about it anyway from other sources.

Ben Stein, THE Ben Stein, i.e., Ben "Beuler? Beuler? Anyone? Anyone?" Stein, former speech writer for two U.S. Presidents and former Emmy-winning game show host of an entertaining know-it-all game show, has made an anti-Darwinism "documentary" style movie that is set to hit theatres soon. What the?

For many months, I didn't click on the link that taunted me by saying, "Expelled – Ben Stein - www.Expelledthemovie.com - Why is Big Science suppressing the evidence of Intelligent Design?" It was the "Ben Stein" part that first caught my eye. "Why is Big Science suppressing the evidence of Intelligent Design" part did not catch my eye, because in my time on the internet I'm used to seeing such ridiculous statements all the time. But then what really caught my eye and made me click on the link was the fact that Ben Stein and this ridiculous statement were for one and the same link. Surely, they mean some crackpot religious zealot that happens to be named Ben Stein—they don't mean THE Ben Stein—the intellectual and hip pop-culture icon Ben Stein, right? Wrong.

Creationists used to make me really uncomfortable. I used to get in heated debates with them until we were both literally red in the face. This is no longer the case. I have gained some understanding of a few things. The first that I realized is that I cannot, by arguing with them at a Starbucks, convince a creationist to a doctrine that they perceive to be completely at odds with what they believe. The second, and more important, thing that I realized is that it makes sense to me that certain people are creationists. If you believe that God created this world, AND you believe that the Bible is the immutable word of God, AND you take all the words of the Bible at face value, THEN it seems you must believe that the world was created about 10,000 years ago. And if the purpose of life is to fulfill God's will, than what could be more important? It now makes sense to me why certain people believe their religious beliefs over their scientific beliefs, even if I don't see it that way.

Am I a little surprised that Ben Stein, presumably a gifted and intelligent academic, is a creationist? Yes, a bit. But in my eyes, that does not make him a zealot or an idiot. You can be plenty rational, plenty intelligent and be a creationist.

What I am appalled at is the message Ben Stein is about to send to millions of viewers, that Darwinists are getting defensive because they are 'hiding something.' What I am even MORE appalled at is the fallacious propaganda he is using to send this message. And I do not use the word propaganda in any hyperbolic sense of the word; I mean it quite literally and seriously. It is disgusting.

Let's take a look just at the advertisement itself, shall we? "Why is Big Science suppressing the evidence of Intelligent Design?" This alone already contains at least seven clearly identifiable propaganda techniques. Let's spell them out, shall we? The first is a fallacy known in the practice of law as the "loaded question" or "presupposition of a question". In Walton (1989, p. 28), a presupposition of a question is defined as a proposition that is presumed to be acceptable to the respondent when the question is asked, so that the respondent becomes committed to this proposition when he gives any direct answer. A good example of these would be to ask a witness, "Are you still beating your wife?"

But wait, there are more fallacies. The phrase "Big Science" reeks of the techniques of ad hominem, the technique of attacking the opponent rather than their ideas. It would be the equivalent to if I had decided to refer to Ben Stein in this article as B.S. (which I was tempted to do…) The idea that "Big Science" is "suppressing the evidence" also relies on the techniques of "appealing to fear", "common man", and "demonizing the enemy." Big Science is not even a real entity, just a propaganda placeholder for "science." The phrase "Intelligent Design" itself utilizes the propaganda technique of "virtue words." See the links at the bottom of this page if you'd like more details on what these propaganda techniques entail.

So far, we've only talked about the advertisement banner, and we've seen how Ben Stein is "aiming below the belt" to convince people without facts. He has presented it in such a way that facts aren't even on the table for discussion, only emotions. But granted, all I've discussed so far is an advertisement banner, and such banners are notorious for saying controversial things to get you to click on them. Perhaps the movie trailer will be different?

Nope. It's much, much worse. Take a look at it for yourself…I'm going to comment on that trailer in the next post…TO BE CONTINUED...

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 cancel...do 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.