Notes from the Publisher

August 16, 2008

Funny / Medical Research on Sword Swallowing


HT to YORF for this one.  It appears that medical researchers have begun looking into the side-effects of sword swallowing.  This authors must have been laughing hysterically as they wrote the paper:

We excluded cases in which injury was related to swallowing items other than swords, such as glass, neon tubes, spear guns, or jack hammers.


Some let the sword fall abruptly, a manoeuvre known as "the drop," controlling the fall of the sword with the muscles of the pharynx, and some invite members of the audience to move the sword. 

Shivers.  I don't think I'll take that up as a hobby.

On a more serious note, there was a comment on the paper which I thought was very interesting for medical science:

Having recently undergone an extremely uncomfortable endoscopic exploration of my own oesophagus and stomach I have learned that I have a small hiatus hernia. This perhaps explains why I still have ‘the worst’ acid reflux despite my religious use of esomeprazole 40mg and an array of ‘lifestyle’ measures. I read the sword- swallowing article with great interest especially the discussion on how sword swallowers must train themselves to voluntarily exert control over normally involuntarily controlled sphincters. I wonder if sword swallowers could teach GORD (gastrooesophageal reflux disease) sufferers to control their lower oesophageal sphincter thereby giving themselves relief of sometimes very resistant symptoms? 

Very interesting indeed.

August 15, 2008

General / If You're Going to Make a Microfiche Scanner...


If you're going to make a digital microfiche scanner to use with a computer, you should at least be kind enough to make it work at a high enough resolution to actually read the text!

August 09, 2008

Projects / New Project - Evolving Algorithms


Bartlett Publishing has just launched a project called Evolving Algorithms to determine the limits and requirements of evolutionary algorithms in computer science.

This project is essentially created to be a little like Avida, except with a much narrower focus.  Avida attempts to be several things at once, and winds up not being very good at any of them.  It attempts to model biology by making the organism self-replicating and using lots of biology metaphors in its production, it attempts to model cost theory through its use of environmental limits, and it attempts to model the possibility of evolution by mutating programs and seeing if they can evolve new algorithms de novo.

The problem is that it doesn't do any of these things well.  Despite the fact that Avida is a Turing-complete system, it can't even detect the evolution of an algorithm that requires those constructs!  The only construct that requires looping is the copy loop, and that is precoded in the original organism!  So, for instance, it can't even in theory give selection value to, say, a factorial function.  I was greatly disappointed when I found this out.  Likewise, it doesn't model biological cost theory well, because it gives an inordinate fitness advantage to new functions (for a good model of cost theory, see Mendel's Accountant).

Don't get me wrong, Avida was a great system to spur interest in this field.  This program probably wouldn't exist without Avida - we probably wouldn't have thought of it on our own.  However, the problem is that many view Avida as being able to answer their questions (which it generally can't - especially on cost theory or evolvability) instead of simply being the first iteration of a dynamic series of research questions.  

So, what we would like to research are the prerequisites for evolving new algorithms, not just logic functions.  Therefore, we are starting this project in order to determine what is required in order to do this.  We are chucking cost theory, non-teleology.  We know we are including teleologial concepts into evolution, because the question we want to answer is, in order to solve problem X, what prerequisites are required in order to construct a solution?

Therefore, the new project will have an easily-modifiable instruction set, a more flexible machine model, and a probably more teleological method of defining fit/unfit organisms.

Again, the new project is at


August 03, 2008

Politics / Generative, Rhetorical, and Historical Roots of Politics (Moral Politics, Pt 1)


This is the first post of a series on the book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think.  I am blogging as I read, so parts of this may wind up being different than where the author is ultimately going.  In any case, the discussions in Moral Politics provide a good springboard for discussions.

The main idea in Moral Politics is to identify how conservatives and liberals process their political beliefs cognitively, and what the difference is. This is not problematic, per se, except that I think that the author is overgeneralizing the words we use to describe politics to the way we really think about politics, and along the way is missing some important distinctions. 

The fundamental thesis is that conservatives think in terms of a "Strict Father" morality - one that is based on discipline and self-reliance, while the liberals think in terms of a "Nurturing Parent" morality - one that is based on mutual respect and providing for others' needs.

Now, there are several causes for our political beliefs.  I think the three most important are:

  • Generative - these are the first principles of politics (the specific principles used vary from system to system) which are combined, elaborated, and applied systematically to create a political system.  This could also be referred to as ideological.
  • Historical - these are the associations that are built up through history.  For example, two groups may be historically related in a political system even though they have little in common anymore.  Perhaps in their history they persued common paths, but now their link is no longer in their generative theories but simply because their organizations have grown so closely together.  This can also happen when two groups face a common enemy.
  • Rhetorical - these are the words used to communicate politics (whether generative or historical) to others (whether to other politicians or to the public at large).  Interestingly, rhetoric can itself become a cause - kind of a substitution for a generative idea. 

Now, when communicating with others (i.e. rhetoric), the most important thing is to establish a common frame of reference.  If I were communicating with physicists, I might try using analogies from the laws of thermodynamics.  If I am communicating with computer scientists, I might use analogies related to data gathering or representation.  However, in all these cases, the analogies are used to explain the ideology using a common reference point, not as a substitute for the ideology. 

The fundamental problem with Moral Politics seems to be that the author is approaching rhetoric as being able to identify the fundamental causes of politics.  I think that is fundamentally erroneous.

The reason why family is often used as a metaphor for political action is that everyone is the product of some sort of family.  Therefore, the most inclusive type of analogy that can be used is that of family.  The author seems to want to be using family structure as the core of political belief, and then specifying the branches and alternatives as modifiers within the scope of the notion of family structure.  Instead, while the examination of family morality rhetoric may be interesting and useful, I think that thinking of it as fundamental is a non-starter.  This is more useful information if you want to know how to convince a group of people to believe in your political ideology - you need to know what sorts of analogies make sense to them - but it is not quite so useful in determining either the source of an ideology nor whether or not it should be followed.

The real difference between conservatives and liberals in America is secular verses theistic models of government.   And, interestingly, you actually find that as far as generative models go, liberals are closer to libertarians thaneither one is to conservatives.  But we'll save that for later.

July 29, 2008

Politics / Ancient Hebrew Poetry Talks About Obama


Ancient Hebrew Poetry is taking on Obama - both literally and figuratively.  Read and follow the links therein.  The LA Times comes to the following conclusion:

Obama's pilgrimage abroad points to a larger truth: In the midst of a bitter political year, a loose bipartisan consensus on the Mideast may be emerging. And, irony of ironies, the consensus, seemingly embraced by Obama, seems closer to Bush's views than to those of the antiwar activists who propelled the Illinois senator to the nomination.

Very interesting indeed.

July 29, 2008

Politics / Science and Its Epistemological Limits


One thing that should be discussed more is the limits of science's epistemology.  Filling in the gaps for us is this post at CreationSafaris.

Clearly science seems “on to something” because of its practical successes in medicine, electronics and the space program, but even then, how much of the success is due to trial and error?  How much is due to practical engineering?  How much do we assume is true simply because it works according to the best theories of the day?  One only need look at history to see many examples of practical success using theories we now believe are wrong.

The fact is, science does not even account for a small amount of the whole of knowledge.  The problem is that we fail to recognize it, and speak using scientific categories even when they are inappropriate, and it makes us forget that there is more in life than the scientific.

I shelved this under politics because the political arena is becoming so science-oriented.  Whether or not one has "scientific" views (whatever those are) seems to be what the media judges you on in many cases.  But the fact is that there is a lot more that goes into knowledge than just science, and even more that goes into decision-making.  Making science an idol has clouded our ability to see its limitations.

July 10, 2008

Politics / Secular Mythology


I've always wanted to do a book on secular mythology.  Secular types often think of religion as being mythology and secularism being a "myth-free" religion.  But the funny thing is that the mythologies that grow in the secular world tend to be much more often third-hand, and largely false stories that get repeated over and over for the propoganda effect.  A few quick examples:

  • Galileo - the Galileo story that most people know is flagrantly in error.  Galileo was actually paid by the Church to investigate the heliocentric theory.  What he did wrong was (a) offend the pope (the person whose name was "stupid" in his allegory quoted the pope), (b) claimed that he had proven something when he hadn't, and (c) claimed authority over the church for the interpretation of scripture.  The RCC at the time had nothing but support for Galileo's scientific investigations, but it could not stand for Galileo's own personal problems.  Galileo's model of the solar system was actually inferior to those of the geocentrists of his day, and his lynchpin argument for the movement of the earth was the tides, which he claimed were due to the sloshing around of the seas (the heliocentrists had correctly correlated the tides with gravity).  Also, Galileo, because he was committed to a circular orbit, still had epicycles, while the Kepler (a contemporary) had moved to ellipses and did not have epicycles (Galileo did not bother to read Kepler's work).  It would be over a century after Galileo was dead that the evidence, as well as theoretical underpinnings, began to go in Galileo's favor with the works of Newton.  Galileo lived a very comfortable life, and wrote his most important contributions to science when he was in his home imprisonment.
  • The flat earth myth - the idea that before Columbus the world was believed to be flat is patently false.  Columbus's detractors did not disagree with him over the roundness of the earth, but rather with the distance he would have to travel to get there.  It turns out that Columbus's detractors were correct, and in order to fudge his victory Columbus named the tribes he encountered as "Indians". In fact, all throughout the middle ages the fact that the earth was round was not only known, its approximate circumference was also known.
  • The McCarthy myth - McCarthyism is a favorite label by secularists.  But it turns out that McCarthy was largely right.  The until-now classified Venona project turns out to support most of McCarthy's major claims.  In fact, even the HUAC was infiltrated with at least one communist - congressman Samuel Dickstein who was later found to be on the Soviet payroll.
  • The Scopes trial - sadly, most people only know about the Scopes trial through "Inherit the Wind".  It turns out, inherit the wind has almost no historical value whatsoever.  John Scopes never taught evolution, but merely claimed to have done so in order for the ACLU to be able to try the law.  Scopes was never arrested, or even in danger of losing money.  The only one who hysterically shouted in court was the ACLU's attorney, Clarence Darrow, who objected when Bryan quoted his previous defenses of criminals, where Darrow himself had named evolutionary theory as causing criminal behavior.  Bryan was not a young-earth Creationist, though Price, on whom Bryan relied, was.  Darrow tricked Bryan into taking the stand, saying that he (Darrow) would take the stand the next day for Bryan's questioning, but then called an end to the trial before that could happen.
There's a lot more.  What's your favorite secular myth?

July 01, 2008

Politics / What it Means to be a Conservative


As usual, Glenn Beck hits it right on the money.

June 29, 2008

Politics / The Right and Left in Science and Politics


Here is a masterful piece on the relationship of the right and left in science and politics.  I don't have time to comment on it at the moment, but it is a good read and worthy of discussion. 

However, I do think it misses some big opportunities to speak to the difference between worshipping science and scientists (which moves it out of the realm of science, actually) and having a critical understanding of science, which is more true to the scientific enterprise itself than the worship of science, scientists, or even the body of knowledge produced by the scientific enterprise.

June 02, 2008

General / Killing Reductionism - Part 1

One of the most dangerous yet tempting philosophies is reductionism.  Reductionism is a general concept which says that all reality must reduce to one or a few principles.  Physics, for instance, is the best example.  Within physics there is a constant drive to reduce all of physics to one or a few laws in operation which govern everything else.  Please note that while the examples we will use are based in physics, this concept extends beyond physics to a great many fields, which we will cover in later postings.

There are two things I don't like about reductionism:

  1. It is useless even if it is true
  2. It isn't true
In this post, we will cover the first of the above statements - reductionism is useless even if it is true.  Even if the major premise of reductionism is true - that is, all of the universe is based off of just one or a few principles, the concept of reductionism is useless in a practical sense.  The fact is that we encounter the world at a variety of levels of detail.  Looking at chemical reactions in terms of atoms and molecules is infinitely more practical than looking at chemical reactions in terms of quarks and neutrinos.  While it might be true that the quarks and neutrinos would depict a more accurate view of the reaction, from a practical standpoint, they are equivalent.  Actually, the chemical one is better because it is more readily understandable, and its explanation exists at the level of abstraction in which it is being performed.

Even more fun are things such as the ideal gas law.  The ideal gas law is a little quirky simply because it assumes (falsely) that gases do not take up any space.  The interesting thing is that, even with a patently false assumption, it is still a useful tool!  However, in order to use it appropriately, chemists must take into account the real properties of gases in combination with the ideal gas law.  Now, from a pure reductionist standpoint, this sort of thinking is ludicrous - why would you load in false assumptions just to balance them out with practical concerns later?  Why not just find the real laws of gases, and then operate accordingly?  The answer is that the ideal gas law does operate at a level of abstraction which is useful for solving problems, despite the fact that it makes false assumptions!  Depending on the problem being solved, sometimes we need to think abstractly enough as to steamroll real differences into nothingness, while at other times (usually when a project goes from R&D to Engineering) these differences need to be taken into account.  Sometimes these differences have no theoretical basis whatsoever, and are just the result of experience.

So, even if reductionism is true, there are three practical reasons to operate as if it were false:

  1. The level of abstraction when dealing with "the lowest level" makes the computations too hard for higher levels of abstraction
  2. The level of abstraction needed for thinking about problems may necessitate reasoning at higher levels, even if such reasoning makes use of false (and therefore blatantly anti-reductionistic) assumptions
  3. Since we are ignorant of a great many causes (both practical and theoretical), we will always have to deal with certain causes and effects in haphazard manners, in order to make up for the lack of knowledge on our part

In the next post, we will consider whether or not reductionism is even true.