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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Why can't we ask the question?

James Dewey Watson won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (really, that's what it's called) for "discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material". Essentially, he and his colleagues discovered DNA.

So, along comes 2007. Watson's newest book, Avoid Boring People and Other Lessons from a Life in Science, is released, and in it he opines:

"There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so."

Then, on October 14, the Sunday Times printed more of his remarks, in which he lamented the hope for social progress in Africa because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really".

Here's a man who, through much of his professional career, was at the forefront of genetics, and he doesn't see any reason to believe that all races are equal. And he's being villified for it.

Why? We've created this ideal that all humans are equal, an ideal based more on preferences and good intentions than scientific evidence, and now we're not allowed to investigate scientific hypotheses that might lead to contrary conclusions. That's absurd. I would much rather prefer to strive to be factually correct rather than politically correct in all things, and I can't imagine why anyone would think otherwise.

Some people might ask of James Watson's remarks, "What if he's right?" I wonder why we aren't allowed to find out.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Taxing Income Trusts

The Canadian government broke an election promise, yesterday. They announced they will tax income trusts.

There is no policy problem to which the proper solution is the increase of taxes. Furthermore, the Tories' explanation about how they needs to "plug a hole in their revenue" just days after the revalation of their massive surplus simply isn't credible.

And that doesn't even mention the appalling political consequences of flat-out breaking an election promise. The only way the Conservatives were going to form a long-term governing alternative was to appear trustworthy. They've been widely viewed as unrelentingly evil for a decade; overcoming that should be their number one priority. This broken promise badly hinders their progress on that front.

There is simply no way this is a good decision. If the imbalance is a problem, you can fix it by lowering corporate taxes. Any reduction in federal taxes can be sold as a solution to the fiscal imbalance.

This was a terrible decision, and because Harper's such a micromanager this will all end up being his fault in the public's eyes. This government is doomed.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Racial Survivor

Survivor's decision to break its contenstants into teams by race is causing a lot of controversy. They're breaking their 20 contestants into 4 teams of 5. White, Black, Asian, and Hispanic.

How does hispanic qualify as a race, incidentally? I don't get that. Hispanic designates place of origin based on predominant language. That's not a race.

But back to Survivor. Survivior is defending its decision by pointing out that they did it specifically to increase the ethnic diversity of their show. In their words, "About 80% of the people who apply are white."

80% That's a pretty large majority. Let's compare that to the most recent US census estimates to see how far removed that is from the breakdown of the United States overall:

White Persons: 80.4%
Black persons: 12.8%
Asian persons: 4.2%

Wait a minute. Survivor was getting applications exactly matching a representative sample, and that wasn't diverse enough? That doesn't make any sense at all.

Friday, June 16, 2006

An Inconvenient PR Stunt

I saw Al Gore's film "An Inconvenient Truth" yesterday. It's really well made, and it's going to convince a lot of people.

Because people are stupid. Gore doesn't actually present any science in the film. He presents a lot of anecdotal evidence, and he does a lot of apples to oranges comparisons with datasets (and he hardly ever uses numbers - just charts and trendlines). Plus, his datasets are often incomplete enough to require the viewer to extrapolate the actual consequences of what he's saying.

Think about that. In one case, he presents a bunch of information about historical carbon dioxide levels and historical temperatures (measured using Antarctic ice cores). The two lines match pretty closely going back over 600,000 years. Then, he appends modern carbon dioxide levels (measured directly from the atmosphere, so that's arguably an apples to oranges comparison) to the end of the chart, and they vastly exceed anything reported in the earlier ice core data. The unspoken conclusion is that temperatures are vastly higher by a similar margin than they have ever been before.

But why is that unspoken? Surely the chart would be even more compelling if you could draw that extra line for people.

Maybe the extra carbon dioxide breaks the system. It had been a pretty steady cycle throughout the whole chart, within an easily definable range that never varied. Now the carbon dioxide levels are vastly higher than that - what's that doing to the temperature? Why doesn't he show us that last piece of data. We know people are measuring it.

If the global warming community is so interested in convincing me of something, why don't they use actual science to do it, rather than hints and suppositions?

I was happy to see, however, that Gore did specifically mention carbon sequestration as a possible strategy. One thing the global warming community has done consistently (and it has really annoyed me) is ignore the possibly of large-scale industrial solutions to atmospheric problems. If we can build giant plants that change the composition of the atmosphere by accident, imagine how much we could do if we were actually trying.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Gasoline prices

By the gods, I can't believe I have to write about this.

Gasoline prices are set on a continent-wide open market. Oil companies have no control over the wholesale price for gasoline, so while they do make huge profits when the price of gas goes up, they had nothing to do with that.

Why does the price of gas go up? These days, it's usually caused by shortages. When Katrina hit last year, it damaged the ability of the US to produce oil (off-shore platforms in the Gulf of Mexico), refine oil (refineries damaged or shutdown for safety reasons in Louisiana and Texas), and import oil (tanker docks in Louisiana). As such, there was a lot less gasoline available for sale in North America. When shortages happen, you get rationing. Not everyone gets as much as he wants. You can ration goods several different ways, but on an open market rationing is done through higher prices. If you really need gas, but there isn't enough for everyone, you'll pay more to make sure you get yours. That drives up the price. Without the higher price, everyone would use as much gas as they normally do and we'd run out. That's rationing through waiting lists. This is how the Canadian healthcare system works, but that's a topic for another day.

Some people will claim that prices didn't used to go up when hurricanes hit. I'd need to see some data before I'd accept that assertion. I suspect people simply don't remember because prices were generally lower. Or perhaps that there used to be more excess refining capacity in North America. Sadly, it's quite difficult to get envorinmental approval to site a new refinery these days.

So that's why the price of gasoline fluctuates. The oil companies have very little to do with it. Production, transportation, and refining costs are mostly fixed. The only flexibility is on the government side. The government can relax or harmonise regulations governing gasoline (there are different blends required by law across North America) or by lowering the taxes on gasoline (which in Canada have historically been about half of the retail price - a bit lower than that now since the prices went up).

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Humans are part of nature

Humans are animals. We are part of nature, and we arose naturally.

Therefore, isn't everything we do necessarily natural? Be it industry or agriculture or genetic engineering, we, as natural creatures, are doing it, and thus it must be a natural event.

Nuclear power stations are part of nature in the same way that beaver dams or anthills are part of nature.

So there's no reason to claim that anything we do is unnatural or runs counter to nature, because our actions cannot help but be a natural part of nature.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Implication

This is a much more general topic, but it deals with the fundamentals of reasoning.

Implication. Implication is the unspoken, hidden, but intended meaning of any remark. For example, if I say, "I don't like black people," that implies that I, in fact, dislike black people, rather than the less likely possibility that I am unaware of the existence of black people, and thus have no opinion regarding them one way or the other (or any other possible interpretation).

That's crap. There's no such thing as implication.

Yes, I did just say that. There exists no unspoken, hidden, but intended meaning in any remark. If I say, "I don't like black people," that tells you absolutely nothing beyond the denotative meanings of those statements. I may well be unaware of the exitstence of black people. Or I might be generally misathropic and dislike all people, black people included. You don't know, because I haven't told you.

Any conclusion you draw beyond that denotative meaning is not due to any implied content, because there isn't any implied content. Your conclusion is due entirely to your inference, and no one but you is to blame for your inferences.

I'm not going to tell you not to draw inferences, but you need to be aware that inferences are caused solely by the inferrer.

Immigration

Illegal immigrants (or undocumented aliens, if you prefer - I don't see how it matters which label we use) are in the news. Let's look at what illegal immigrants typically do in order to work out whose fault it is.

Illegal immigrants, taken generally, work low-paying jobs that require little or no training. They are unskilled labour, and generally earn something below minimum wage.

From the employer's point of view, undocumented workers are the only ones she can pay below minimum wage, because documented workers are, by their very nature, documented. If I'm going to break the law by paying low wages, do I really want to hire someone who has the right to complain about it, or whose earnings get monitored by the government? Of course not.

So, the solution seems obvious. Stop forcing those employers to break the law. Eliminate minimum wage. That way, the incentive to hire illegals disappears as legal residents can then take those unskilled jobs.

Legal Marriage

Why?

I recognise I'm a bit late to the party on this one, but with all the discussion about the definition of marriage over the last year or so, why have so people asked this question:

Why does the government regulate marriage at all?

It hardly seems like it's their business. I know we can make the whole thing voluntary by eliminating common-law marriages, and the liberal application of pre-nuptial agreements, but that still leaves the government administering a system that defines people's personal relationships, and I fail to see how that's their job.

Flint

Michael Moore is from Flint, Michigan.

The world's fattest human is from Flint, Michigan.

Coincidence?

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Ideal Rational Agent

Reason's a funny thing. It can lead you to all manner of illuminating conclusions when presented with sufficient evidence, and you can be confident in those conclusions. But without sufficient evidence, you're pretty much out of luck. Let's see where the reason takes us.

And about the Ideal Rational Agent... that's me. You can call me Ira.