Wednesday, August 25, 2004

night class

I learned two things tonight.

1. Young rabbits that run out into the road will freeze rather than run when faced with oncoming headlights; so you the driver should swerve, rather than jamming on your brakes.

2. I did not and do not have the courage to do the compassionate thing, and run over it a second time.

Update: anyone with half a brain would have realized that there were alternatives - like letting it breathe exhaust from the tailpipe - feel free to draw the obvious inference.

Of course, if you _do_ swerve, that will probably turn out to be the wrong thing to do too. Damage to automobile, driver and passenger(s) is a real possibility.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Weblog population explosion in Nevada County!

[Reader, this is what's known as "hyperbole"]

Not only is The Union fearlessly getting ready to commence to begin dipping its toe into the future of journalism, but it also turns out (via above column) that earlier this month Nevada County acquired a new blogger, Russ Steele, proprietor of NC Transportation Infrastructure and NC Media Watch. He uses mostly the same terms I would, to describe goals and methods - "modest growth", truth, accuracy...but somehow ends up in a very different place. I still have enormous trouble understanding how this works.

Welcome to the local blogging fold, Russ and soon Rich.

Also NCTV now has a blog.

Sadly, the explosion has bypassed Yubanet - nothing new on their weblogs page. And Eric, Booktown is looking awfully stale.

[complaint deleted]

Thursday, August 12, 2004


I have been reading Machiavelli (The Prince and The Discourses), the former being the Strunk and White of power politics. Nevada County politics could be worse, at present it is still not common practice to "extinguish" (Machiavelli's euphemism, or his translator's) deposed rulers and their entire families.

Many passages jumped out, landing here:

...a general rule that never fails: a prince who is not wise himself cannot be wisely counseled, unless by chance he should have a sole counselor by whom he is ruled in all matters. There could be such a situation, but it would not last long, for the counselor would soon deprive the prince of his state. An unwise prince, having to consider the advice of several counselors, would never receive concordant opinions, and he would not be able to reconcile them on his own. His counselors would pursue their own interests and he would know neither how to rule them nor how to understand them... all history proves by a multitude of examples, whoever organizes a state and establishes its laws must assume that all men are wicked and will act wickedly whenever they have the chance to do so....

there was never anyone who ordained new and unusual laws among a people without having recourse to God, for they would not otherwise have been accepted. This is so because prudent men know of many beneficial things which, having no persuasive evidence for them, they cannot get others to accept. Consequently, wise men who wish to avoid this difficulty resort to divine authority.
For example, the advent of general anaesthesia -
Religious traditionalists held that mothers ought to fulfil the "edict of bringing forth children in sorrow" as laid down in the Holy Bible.... One clergyman saw the new chloroform anaesthesia as "a decoy from Satan, apparently offering to bless woman; but, in the end, it will harden society and rob God of the deep earnest cries, which arise in time of trouble for help."... mutterings that infants delivered painlessly should be denied the sacrament...
[But then an anaesthesia advocate] cited Genesis 2:21: "And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof". Casting God in the role of The Great Anaesthetist ... the suggestion that God Himself employed anaesthesia helped carry the day...

Differences between the conduct of the multitude and the conduct of princes do not derive from differences in their nature, that being the same in both (though if there be some superiority either way, it will be found on the side of the people)...

it is not without reason that the voice of the people has been likened to the voice of God, for popular opinion is amazingly reliable in its prognostications, so much so that the people would seem to have hidden powers by which to foresee their future ills and triumphs...*
Steve Kurson, somewhere in Brad DeLong's comments -
  • When are [crowds of people thinking independently] wise?
    When the crowd is diverse, and when members are making their decisions relatively independently of each other. Again, book is full of work demonstrating the value of diversity and the perils of what Surowiecki [author of The Wisdom of Crowds] calls dependent decision-making.
  • Why are they wise?
    In part, it's because a larger group of people can simply draw on more information, is more likely to have diverse perspectives. But as Surowiecki explains early on, the core of the idea is actually a simple mathematical truism: if the group of problem-solvers is diverse, the errors they make in solving a problem will not be correlated. Therefore, those errors will cancel themselves out, allowing the information that's in the group to surface. This is a simple answer, but it is the answer.

A rather different perspective on the amazing reliability of popular opinion, from Bill Bonner of the Daily Reckoning:
A man on his own, driving down the road, will usually make the right decisions and more often than not end up where he intends to go. But put him in the great mass of voters or investors, and all his good sense seems to disappear out the window like a cigarette butt. All of a sudden he presses down the accelerator and heads for the nearest brick wall.
(in which case, he'll want to be driving the Mini Cooper)

Although given Mr. Bonner's credibility of late - pretending to believe that GWBush is pretending to be stupid, scoffing at global warming ("Global warming is just a hypothesis. Yet it is taught in school as though it were fact.") ...somebody's mouth might be bigger than his brain. [Note: Mr. B. did subsequently print in full(?) an expert's aghast response to his offhand dismissal of global warming - so I retract the anatomical comparison.]

* Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds had not yet been published

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

the discovered country

In Very Far Away From Anywhere Else by Ursula LeGuin (written very long ago), teenage protagonist Owen dreams up a country:
Thorn was a very small country, on an island in the South Atlantic...The wind blew all the time in Thorn. The coasts were high and rocky...steep cliffs over the sea...wind blowing over the long sheep pastures...the city...built of granite and cedarwood, looking out over the windy cliffs...

Thorn didn't have much government in the usual sense, but they had some of them was called the Scholary. It was built part way up one of the highest mountains...had a huge library, and laboratories and basic science equipment and lots of rooms and studies. People could go there and take classes and teach classes...At night they all met, if they felt like it, in a big hall with several fireplaces, and talked about genetics and history and sleep research and polymers and the age of the Universe. If you didn't like the conversation at one fireplace, you could go to another one...
No, at the time this was written Thorn had not yet acquired an institution called the Demagoguery, or the Comment Spammery or the Trollery or the Pornery, but otherwise it does seem strangely familiar.

tangential, from a LeGuin interview -
There isn't much to watch on American TV now... Did you know that most of the laugh tracks they use are so old that the people you hear laughing at the sitcom are mostly dead?

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Special New Age issue

Added Oct 25: Jeff Sharlet puts forth the thesis that George W. Bush is a New Ager; nice piece, including this comparison:
New Age religions are, literally, reactionary, responses to what’s been called the disenchantment of the world....Christian fundamentalism, meanwhile, is the child of the Enlightenment, a functionalist view of faith that’s metaphorically "scientific." It's scripture as read by a cranky engineer who just wants to know how God works...

As ye ask, so shall ye receive...Johann Hari grills the Dalai Lama, with tasty results: (via)
...criticisms...Tibet...romanticized...was a slave-owning feudal theocracy...Does he ever worry that he made a massive concession [rescinding Tibet's claims to independence] and got nothing in return?...are disabled children being punished for sins in a past life?....
"Yes, it [massive inequalities of wealth in the West] is wrong," he says as he smiles. "Why do the rich need so much? We each only have one stomach. Well, not you," he says, looking at my belly. "You appear to have two."

Littlewood's Law of Miracles -
Littlewood...defined a miracle as an event that has special significance when it occurs, but occurs with a probability of one in a million. This definition agrees with our common-sense understanding of the word "miracle."

Littlewood's Law of Miracles states that in the course of any normal person's life, miracles happen at a rate of roughly one per month.
interesting observation -
One fact that emerges that paranormal events occur, if they occur at all, only when people are under stress and experiencing strong emotion.
which makes them hard to study...or rather, hard to get the studies past the ethics committee.

Speaking of which, here's Johann Hari again, this time on animal rights -("Slowly it became clear how shallow it was to dismiss an entire movement because of the rantings of its thickest and most aggressive members...")

Cultural anthropology from a bicultural New Age skeptic (via) -
How did a card-carrying, aura-wearing, chakra-toting leader of the New Age become able to understand and eventually embrace the skeptical culture?

In my [new age] culture, you can't openly attack anyone or their character, and you can't use truly focused skepticism. In my culture...both the emotions and the intellect are considered troublesome areas of the psyche that do very little but keep one away from the (supposedly) true and meaningful realm of spirit...

Blue-green algae, one hell of a health supplement - Dietary neurotoxin linked to Alzheimer's
Neurotoxins from blue-green algae present in certain foods or water can accumulate in proteins and might cause brain diseases like Alzheimer's after many years, suggests a new study....[blue-green algae] are common in freshwaters and seas worldwide, and thrive in polluted, nutrient-rich waters.

Off-topic (more relevant to Old Age than New):
There are worse things than having your water polluted with bluegreen algae though - try backflow from a mortuary.

added Sept 23:

Clifford Pickover's ESP Experiment

Interview with a crop circle artist

No health benefit from prayer [on behalf of the unwell or infertile]; Chris Mooney has the story

On the other hand, there is evidence for the efficacy of acupuncture and aromatherapy (sorry, no URL here yet; saw it on the web though, so it's true. :-)

Added Oct 17: What the bleep were they trying to pull on us? From the [Ebert site] Answer Man's inbox:
While the film "What the [bleep] Do We Know!?" parades itself as a tell-all about quantum physics, it turns out that it's actually a 111-minute infomercial for ... that's right, the Ramtha School of Enlightenment. In fact, the three filmmakers, [William] Arntz, [Betsy] Chasse and [Mark] Vicente, are all devotees of Ramtha.

There's little to no accurate science in the film, and, as a physicist pointed out recently in your Answer Man column, the individuals who are quoted are pretty far from qualified experts on the field of quantum mechanics. Case in point: One of the persons expounding on causality and quantum physics (Dispenza) is a chiropractor. The film's sole purpose appears to be to promote the ideology of the Ramtha School of Enlightenment. A quick browse through their Web site will clearly demonstrate that the film's pseudoscientific nonsense comes straight from the teachings of the RSE.
Not only that, but Ramtha channeler JZ Knight has copyrighted him. Fear not, capitalism is alive and well in the New Age.

[Oct 18:] The ability to see auras is likely to be due to synesthesia:
Synaesthesia is a condition found in 1 in 2000 people in which stimulation of one sense produces a response in one or more of the other senses. For example, people with synaesthesia may experience shapes with tastes or smells with sounds. It is thought to originate in the brain and some scientists believe it might be caused by a cross-wiring in the brain, for example between centres involved in emotional processing and smell perception...