Monday, December 1, 2008

Some thoughts on free will

I'm still reading the Einstein biography (I read another book in the middle of it), and one thing it discussed was Einstein's beliefs about free will. This got me to thinking, I don't think I've ever seen my exact beliefs published anywhere (though some have similar ones), so I figure I'll lay them out here. I think it nicely balances scientific evidence with philosophy, as well as practical considerations, though I don't make any particular claims of perfection.

I've got a few assumptions I start from:
  1. The universe is fundamentally stochastic (probability of events can be predicted deterministically, but not events themselves) on a small scale, but acts mostly determinisically at normal scales.
  2. Specifically the human brain is mostly deterministic, and the nondeterministic elements are not particularly coordinated (meaning no quantum computer in the brain, not that that would alter my conclusions much)
  3. The mind exists totally within the brain (I don't believe in a soul for example)
  4. Free Will means one thing in philosophy and another in normal language.

So, what do we mean by free will? Philosophically it can be defined in many ways (and usually the views of philosophers depend on their definitions is my impression), but they all get at the idea of making a decision independent of outside influence. This idea has some problems: for one thing, we know that outside influences can affect decisions, and not just by altering the consequences of actions either, for example people act differently under the effect of drugs than normally. My assumptions above force me to take the position that free will does not really exist in the philosophical sense.

So can we make choices in my view? Well, it all comes down to definitions. I would say that our actions are determined by both internal and external states of the universe, so a choice in the usual sense is impossible, but the sensation of choice corresponds with a state transition in the higher functioning parts of the brain. When I say "I want to do X", I mean "my memories, beliefs, values, and reasoning ability inclines me to actions that I believe will lead to X", and when I say "I chose to do X" I mean "I did X because of a variety of reasons, mainly because of my memories, beliefs, values and ability to reason, as opposed to instinct, outside chemicals or orders".

In everyday life free will means something more like the idea of actions being endogenous (coming from internal states of the brain, rather than direct outside influence). An easy way to see how this differs from philosophy would be the case of a drunk driver: they would normally know not to drive drunk, but once drunk, and knowing they are drunk, drive nonetheless with no other outside influence on them to drive other than alcohol. If you accept my premises above that the brain is the seat of all human consciousness and is (mostly) deterministic, then clearly the alcohol caused the drunk driver to drive. In an everyday sense, even if you believe that I do, most people would hold the drunk driver responsible if he hit anyone. This bring me to a good way to sum up the common sense idea of free will (at least as I see it): responsibility. People are responsible for their actions even if there are outside influences on them.

Most people view strict determinism (or even my "everything on the scale of daily life is deterministic for the most part") as morally repugnant because they feel that people are not responsible for their actions in such as worldview. This is not necessarily the case, we can hold people responsible for their actions if we like, no matter our philosophical views. I would hold everybody responsible for their actions, and then we as society can choose what actions we want to support, and which to punish.

Some argue that in a deterministic (or mostly deterministic) world there is no place for ethics. This seems like a poorly thought out objection to me, if outside influences affect people's actions than surely ethics and laws affect people's actions, in a way that we want.

Well looking over Wikipedia's Compatibilism article, it seems I'm on well treaded ground; this is not particularly surprising, but I nonetheless like my views as recorded here. I will note that my view are somewhat different from compatibilism in that I believe that we don't have free will but that are nonetheless responsible for our actions, but in the end that becomes a matter of definition and language.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Despite what you hear on the internet circumcision is not the Holocaust

So PalMD of Denialism blog riled up the hardcore anti-circumcision types with a post about why male circumcision and female genital mutilation (FGM, aka female circumcision) are not equivalent, as any right thinking person can see (at least the form of circumcision practiced today is different from FGM as practiced today, some of the historical forms of circumcision were if not equivalent, at least of similar severity). I would like to make a broader point: those who think circumcision is some great terrible crime are dumb. Sure there are arguments against it (if I had a son I would probably not get him circumcised), but the anti-circ militia are just making stupid, provably false arguments. What I want to know is how does this become such a huge issue for them? I was circumcised and I may (or may not) have lost some minor feeling. This is not a big deal, I can (and do) still enjoy sex-- and the best parts aren't the raw physical sensations (why do people seek out a partner, the sensations aren't much different for solo and partnered sex? Hint: the brain is the main sexual organ of the body). So maybe it is a tradition that we should drop, but making the argument for that by comparing a relatively harmless procedure to one in which people die every year, and the ones who don't are often unable to feel any sexual pleasure, is just absurd.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A few thoughts on intelligence

So I read Gino Segre's book Faust in Copenhagen (which I quite like) a while back, and now I'm reading Walter Isaacson's biography of Einstein. Both are about the doings of geniuses, Einstain being the obvious one, but Faust in Copenhagen is about people almost as revered in physics: Bohr, Pauli, Dirac, Heisenberg and Schrödinger among others. What separates these people from regular folks like me? I'm pretty smart, but by no means a genius. Obviously these people have accomplished far more than I probably ever will (at least in terms of physics), but what traits did they have that made these advances possible? Obviously a large amount of intelligence, but what is intelligence? Many people (and almost all game designers) think of intelligence as a single value, measured by IQ, and known by some social science researchers as "g" (for general intelligence). What is this "g", however? What traits do people with high "g" have? I've made a list of ones I can think of right now (it's by no means exhaustive). Also note that not everyone with a high intelligence has all of these traits (as a hint to where I'm going, I'm trying to figure out what one of these traits all geniuses have, and is in some sense true intelligence).

  • Education: This is more than knowing just a lot of facts, but understanding what they mean.
  • Memory: ability to learn quickly.
  • Computational ability: ability to do mental computations quickly. This mostly means math, but can also include other types of computation like finding anagrams, etc.
  • Creativity: ability to come up with new ideas.
  • Mental Quickness: ability to think on one's feet.
  • Mental Clarity: ability to reduce a problem to it's essentials, as well as to separate what one wants to be true, from what is true.
All of these are parts of intelligence. I would say that computation and memory are becoming less important as computers get more ubiquitous and powerful. Mental quickness is helpful in many situations, but not for making true breakthroughs. Of the remaining three Education is necessary but not sufficient: a thorough understanding of the topic is important to advancing it, but many people understand things and are not geniuses, also education is not inherent to a person and does not correspond to what we often think of as intelligence. It seems that a combination of creativity and mental clarity is the key condition of genius. Someone who is otherwise intelligent and is creative, but not mentally clear will become a crank. Someone who is mentally clear, but not creative would make a good critic or regular working person in their field, but not a genius. The combination is what makes genius.

Now different geniuses have had different relative strengths: for example Einstein is almost the poster by for creativity above all, whereas Pauli was known as the Scourge of God because he was able to see the flaws in an idea so quickly and is the perfect example of Mental Clarity.

I voted

It was pretty easy, there were almost no people at the voting place, but then I am living in a quite well off area full of white people. Hopefully things aren't crazy in, say, Philadelphia.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


So I always get excited by National novel writing month even though I never seem to get it together to do it. I'll try it again this year, and to help encourage me, I'll have a progress widget on the side of my blog.

Also, I've got several books I want to post reviews of, I'll do that before too long.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Why I am unsatisfied by job search websites

So, I'm currently unemployed. The current economy being totally shit does not help this matter, but I am not here to discuss that today. Rather I am here to trash all the job search sites I have used. Specifically I am going to say how bad the sites that are only job search fail at their tasks. I will discuss the sites I have used one by one.
  1. Craigslist: This site actually works well for what it is. It does not claim to be a full featured job search site, it is free, you don't need an account, there is no screening of employers or prospective employees. The search actually works well, it's easy to check different locations, job types, and narrow the search. Unfortunately there is no saved search or anything like that (it would actually be pretty useful for craigslist as a whole), but for doing period searches by hand it is pretty good.
  2. This site is a dedicated job search site, and to apply for a job you have to sign up for the site. However, rather than being more convenient than say, craigslist, it is much less. There are a great variety of annoyances, but the one that impacts my finding a job the most is that the search function is terrible. It has a bad interface, and once you spend 10 minutes configuring it right it does not save properly. I graduated from college in June, and it keeps sending me senior developer positions. There are also a lot of adds, including obtrusive ones for the university of phoenix (I've got a BS, I don't need another). Overall the site feels like it was written in '98 and could seriously use a refresh.
  3. Career builder: This place is on average about the same as, but has different annoynaces. The save search still is crap, but there is a "jobs similar to ones you have applied for" search that works decently. On the other hand it was a huge pain to sign up for, I had to put in my info at least 3 times because it kept going to the next page of questions before I was done, and then when I went back to edit it everything was wiped out.
  4. Usajobs: This is the official US government job search site. It works ok it's self, but the jobs are posted here in a very annoying way. Not only is the language of the posting strange government legalese, but there are huge numbers of the same posting repeated again and again. Also to apply to many of these you have to go to another site which brings me to my next section...
  5. Company or agency specific sites: These are by nature hugely varied. The worst are government sites, one of these I could literally find no way to apply. Boeing has a good one (the saved search actually works).
Someone should make a website that aggregates the search results from a variety of sources and consolidates them so that you don't need to sign up for all of these places just to search, and also so they can have better search features. Maybe I should...

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The ginger beer Chronicles

So I've been trying to make home made ginger beer. First I tried this recipe with added ginger, but it didn't ferment enough (probably my fault), and it just tasted like ginger ale. I was looking for a stronger flavor especially after trying some Jamaican style ginger beer. It was incredibly strong and spicy. So I looked around and formulated my own recipe:
  • Ginger to taste, grated, juiced or sliced. I used most of one root
  • 2 allspice berries
  • 1 cassia (cinnamon) stick
  • 1 star anise
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • juice and zest of 1/2 lemon or whole lime
  • 1/4 tsp bakers yeast
  • 2 liters water (to fit the container, double the recipe for a gallon container )

From Ginger Beer Recipe 2
Put the ginger, sugar, and spices in a large pot

From Ginger Beer Recipe 2
Add water and boil. Let steep for ~10 min.

From Ginger Beer Recipe 2
Cool to prevent over-steeping. Add citrus.

From Ginger Beer Recipe 2
Put yeast in bottle and pour liquid into bottle.

Ferment for 24-48 hours until plastic bottle is firm when squeezed. Refrigerate to stop fermentation.

I accidentally watered it down a little when cooling it. On the plus side I now have 2 bottles of it. My initial taste says that it's tasty with spices, but is not particularly gingery. We'll see how it is when it's done.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Sara Palin: petty dictator

So according to Sara Palin did not try to get books banned, but rather asked the librarian what she (the librarian) would do if asked to remove books, and then what she would do if there were pickets. This seems pretty threatening to me, and reveals that she is a petty dictator: the kind who has to constantly remind those under her that she has power over them. Of course this is only one of many situations where she has revealed that aspect of her personality.

as an aside, I would mention that everyone should visit to confirm your stuff before getting into a political debate, it's pretty reliable politics would be much better in this country if everybody had to stay within the bounds of facts.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Review of really old stuff: Neil Gaiman's Sandman

Inspired by Reading Comics, I decided to read some comics that I know are well thought of. One comic that even I've heard of is Sandman written by Neil Gaiman and drawn by a series of artists. Wikipedia has a good basic summary of the character and setting, but basically it follows the activities of Dream of the Endless, a group of beings that govern aspects of the natural world (they are, in order of oldest to youngest, Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delerium), aka Morpheus. The only other "mainstream" (meaning DC or Marvel) comic I have read is Watchmen (as I mentioned in the other review), and I think it would be useful to contrast the two:

  • Watchmen is about superheros, even if they are unusual and fucked up superheros; Sandman is not about superheros (though they exist in the background and make a few cameos), it takes place in a fantasy world of Gaiman's design and is more strongly influenced by mythology than comics themselves
  • Relatedly Watchmen is very meta, and is really about superhero stories specifically in the form of comics, Sandman is about more general metaphysical questions-- the one I really picked up on was how to deal with death and change. One of the things that comes up is can/if Morpheus has changed, and that really becomes central to the end of the series. Sandman does get meta, but about stories, not comics.
  • Watchmen is action packed, full of violence and exciting activities; Sandman has almost no conventional action -- Morpheus is a force of nature, and after the first few issues he faces very few dangers he can fight. This leads to a very different sort of story, and often Morpheus does not seem to really be a major player, but the theme of dreams always comes through
  • Finally there are a few format differences: Watchmen is very short, it essentially is a graphic novel, whereas Sandman is just to long to be a single body of work, but must be a series of some sort. There are also several artists who work with Neil Gaiman, and some of them I like more than others, whereas Watchmen has the same two people for the whole series, and the quality is always consistent.

What I really loved about Sandman is that it is so tied to mythology, it doesn't just use the characters' names and attributes, it uses the storytelling style of myth, and has many of the same characteristics. Neil Gaiman knows his mythology better than anyone else (that I know of) writing nowadays. The flaws are all in the use of comics as a medium, though they are mostly just not using it so perfectly well as Watchmen does (and I don't know if they could have kept that up for 75 issues), and my not liking the art style of a few of the comics. Definitely a good read, and one I would recommend for fans of fantasy, regardless of their thoughts on comics.

Friday, August 8, 2008

History of my fantasy world

One of the important things to think about in any fantasy world is it's history. This affects the conflicts that drive the story, as well as inspiring the cosmology of the world. The most important element to explain in this world is the source of the large church that is tied with the old magic, and how the new magic came about. The belief of the Anogrian church is that it was founded by refugees of a currently depopulated continent, where some sort of magical catastrophe took place. The society in that place was very magically advanced, and so the refugees were able to become conquerers and enforce the worship of their last king (who was tied up in the catastrophe somehow). It gained direct political control over the West for some time, but lost it due to multiple uprisings. While it held political control of the West, the church built universities to try and spread the teachings of the church, as well as the official form of magic practiced by the church. These universities started as religious in nature, but slowly became secularized (just as the universities of Europe did). These universities were the incubators of the new form of magic, and thus began the conflict that characterizes this world. The ideas (and smart people) coming out of the universities often ended up working for a small kingdom, which has built it's wealth and power on ideas from the new way of things, and liberal use of the new magic. It also has profited from the slave trade.

That is, I think, enough for now. I have a headache tonight.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Quick creating a fantasy world

One thing that most fantasy writers don't really put enough emphasis on is the importance of religion. This is largely understandable, since we now live in very secular times, and most fantasy writers are not particularly religious. However, in every pre-modern society religion is hugely important. Religious wars are the bloodiest and longest lasting before the 20th century. So I'm going to talk about the religion of the little world I've been creating (I need to give this world a name, but I often put that off, it's not my greatest skill). Since we are focused on the West, I think that there should be a strong centrally organized religion. It's tenants are strongly tied up with the old magic, and the traditional ideology that it is allied with. Much like the medieval Catholic Church, the church of this world will have temporal power in addition to it's spiritual power, and be quite corrupt. To come up with some specifics I will name the church the Anogrian, after it's chief prophet Anogre (pronounced ann-ogh). It once directly ruled the Anogrian Empire, but now only has some small lands under it's direct rule. It still holds vast powers, and is the main religion of the West.

The followers of the new magics are mostly secular, though rarely atheist. They tend to believe in rationalized versions of the Anogrian religion, much like most people do today, and intellectuals did in the enlightenment (replacing the Anogrian religion with Christianity, obviously.)

Monday, August 4, 2008

Back here and more creating a fantasy world

So I was visiting my parent's last week unexpectedly, and I was lazy with my creating a fantasy world series. I'll post on it every day this week.

So when we left off I had basically worked out the way that magic works in this fantasy world. To recap: the basic concept is an analogy to the enlightenment, there is new and old magic, with the new magic acting somewhat like technology, and old magic being more like what we would consider magic.

I was going to move onto the biggest part of creating a fantasy world: making the social structures. These play a much bigger part than say the mechanisms of how magic works.

One thing I want to do with this setting is have a social conflict between the new way of things and the old way, much like the two types of magic, and indeed the types of magic are allied with their respective social movements. Even though I am sympathetic to one side of the conflict between new and old in the real enlightenment, I don't want things to be so clear cut in this setting. This means that each side should have some good, and some bad traits.

The social movement aligned with the new magic is, like in the analogy to real life, strongly supported by the middle class and has a capitalist agenda. The dark side of this is that one of the major reasons why this new capitalism is so profitable is because of slavery. Again, this is much like in real life -- the new economies of England and the Netherlands were based largely on slavery, and the slower economies of Germany, France, and Eastern Europe were based on traditional forms of labor (which were certainly exploitative to varying degrees, but were not the total affront to humanity that racial slavery was). Spain was a bit of a border case, with wealth based on military hegemony over important natural resources (gold and silver mines). The ideological agenda for new ways of thinking is similar to modern America: equality of opportunity, if not success, with a way of thinking that people get what they deserve. Politically the ideal government is thought to be a Mageocracy: a rule by the top mages. This is sort of related to Plato's Republic where he envisions a society ruled by philosopher kings. On the other hand the new way of thinking is very strongly in favor of social mobility, even if it believes that society does need stratification.

The traditional way of things is less extreme. It basically holds that there is a place for everyone in the world, and that they should not move from those places, but that things should be made comfortable and humane for people even in the lowest places. Most traditionalists are opposed to slavery, not just because of it's inhumanity, but also partially because the slavery system has allowed a large number of peasants to rise above their natural position. Unsurprisingly traditional forces believe in a monarchy with a strict social order.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Reading comics, and some comics I read

Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They MeanSo I decided to read the book Reading Comics, by Douglas Wolk, and inspired by that decided to read a couple of comics. First of all lets look at the book. I'm not really a comic book reader, and so this book gave a good background on what types of comics there are, the differences between them. It was fairly focused in scope on comics with a narrative, so no single panel cartoons or anything, from the west (so no manga). The book was well written, and I plowed though it quite quickly. One of the main things it tries to do is to make people read comics as a form of literature, or fine art, some strange cross between movies and books. It defends this pretty well, pointing out that comics seem to be unfairly judged by the equivalent of the romance-novel serials that make huge amounts of money for book publishers, but that so one really would try to defend the artistic value of, rather than the best that comics have to offer.

There are two types of comics according to this book: Art comics and mainstream (or superhero) comics. The label art comics has to do with the goal of being a work of rather than a signifier of quality, one of the surprising things about this book is that the author goes through a lot of trouble to defend superhero comics, even though there are a lot of very bad mainstream comics. Apparently the watershed decade in comics was the 80s: art comics first appeared and superhero comics sort of grew up since they started selling to a more mature, more stable audience (and some good writers were allowed more freedom).

The book concludes with a series of discussions about different comics, chosen for their discussion value, rather tan just quality. I'm going to talk about a couple that I read below, but the main thing I got out of the discussed comics is the huge level of diversity in comics, and that I probably am more interested in art comics, since most mainstream comics require a huge amount of background, and I hate starting in the middle of a story. I would have to start with the originals from the 40s, or stick only to new characters and settings (which is what I plan to do), or else go crazy.

One thing I thought was funny was the author was discussing how superhero comics are usually a metaphor for some sort of larger struggle or moral dilemma, and he seemed unsure what wonder woman was a metaphor for: it' obviously female domination: what with the rope and everything.

So I recommend the book to comics newbies like me, but I don't know how people who already are into comics will feel about it.

So I read two comics, both discussed in the book, after reading the book. Both I had heard about before and wanted to read, and both are held up as top superhero and art comics respectively. These comics are Watchmen written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, and Fun Home by Alison Bechtel.

WatchmenWatchmen is really well put together, you can tell by reading it, even without having much in the way of other comics to compare with. I'm not going to discuss much of the plot or the setting, since one of the joys of the comic is discovering how the setting and characters are tied together. It has multiple intertwined storylines, moral ambiguity, and an interesting, mostly plausible, backstory. The only thing I didn't like is the ending, which I felt like was a "Philosophy 101" moral dilemma that did not seem natural. I just hope the upcoming movie doesn't suck.

Fun Home: A Family TragicomicFun Home also approaches ambiguity, but rather than grand moral dilemmas, it's more an ambiguity about identity. It's basically about her father who died in 1980 shortly after she came out as a lesbian. The ambiguity is everywhere and fully acknowledged: her father had sex with young men, but it's unknown whether he was truly gay or just bi or some sort of other label. He died being hit by a truck, but was he distracted when he jumped in front of it, or was it suicide? There is a lot to this comic, and it's extremely "literary", not just for comic book geeks, but since it's full of literary allusions, those best able to appreciate the comic may be literature geeks. Highly recommended. I also like Alison Bechtel's running comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For", which is currently on hiatus, even though I can't look all the way to the beginning.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Creating a fantasy world: Fleshing out the concept

So when we last looked at this unnamed fantasy world we had decided that there would be 2 forms of magic: an old form, and a new form. The central conflict of this setting will be between these two concepts so they need a good bit of thought.

Since the new magic is supposed to be analogous to the emergence of science during the enlightenment, it would follow that the new magic should be based on formalism, math and laws. Since the new magic is well... new, it follows that it should be mostly undeveloped, with a lot not understood. On the other hand, in order for the conflict to be one worth worrying about new and old magic should be able to compete, so there has to be some advantage to the new magic. It makes sense from the central analogy again that the main advantage would be repeatability and universality: new magic is just another physical principle that can be manipulated by anyone who understands it. Thus it's much easier to train someone to be a new mage, but they are much less powerful.

Now if the new magic is all about repeatability and formalism, then old magic should be about tradition, but what are these traditions? It's not that the old mages were pure empiricists, just knowing that when you chant these tree words and wave a wand you make a fireball, rather they had their own ideas about how magic works, they just are much less formal, and rooted in tradition, religion, and mysticism. Now since there are as many traditions as there are societies, I'm going to focus on one region that for now we'll call "the west". The western tradition of magic is going to be modeled on medieval Catholicism, and is basically based on the idea that by sacrificing to the god of the western religion you can get miracles on demand. This leads to the idea of what sort of sacrifices could be made. These could be anything from material goods to personal health, to abstract things like your conscious humanity, and obviously the bigger the sacrifice the bigger the magical effect.

[as a side note, if I wanted to make this into a game (a tabletop RPG perhaps) it would make sense to spell out the different sacrifices possible, and possibly have different groups that specialize in different types of sacrifice]

Now we can start to put together the theory of new magic: there is invisible flows of mana all around us, and these flows are affected by the human mind. Things that people value become saturated with mana, and can be released by destroying the thing of value. New magic has found a way to store these flows of magic artificially, providing a good supply of low-level magic, but they cannot get the densities of mana that the old magic can, and this artificially stored mana is not as easy to control as "natural" mana. This means that most new magic ends up being more like engineering than magic as usually thought of, however it is magic not science, and has a whole other set of rules.

Next time I'll talk about politics and such of the new magic vs. old magic dynamic.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

2 Reviews: The Oxford book of modern science writing and Microcosm

So I went down to visit family in Maryland this weekend and since I was not driving I did a lot of reading. I finished The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing edited by Richard Dawkins, and read from start to finish Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life by Carl Zimmer. I'll give my thoughts about them in turn.

The Oxford Book of Modern Science WritingThe Oxford Book was a collection of essays and excerpts of essays by various scientists on various aspects of science. The conceit of the book is that it is by scientists only, no science journalists. The book basically covers a lot of things, from explanations of various theories to what is "beauty" in science. It starts focused on empirical facts and very biology heavy, and moves to more abstract parts and gets more and more physics
based (most of the philosophizing is by physicists). The book has good parts, but I felt that it was very uneven, both in the level of interestingness of the topics and the quality of the writing. It might be good for someone who is interested, but does not know much science, maybe a teenager if they are good at reading, but I felt that I mostly knew what was being said already, and the parts that I didn't know were not developed enough for me. Overall I think it succeeded at what an anthology of science writing by scientists aimed at the general public should be, but that I am not the target audience.

Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life Microcosm on the other hand was just the thing for me. I love to learn about biology, despite not being a biologist, and Carl Zimmer is the master of writing for the lay audience (which I am in biology). This book is about E. Coli and how it has been used in science, as the model organism for molecular biology and biotech. One thing it stresses is the similarity between E. Coli and macroscopic life such as ourselves. For example E. Coli has a surprisingly active social life: it forms biofilms which are very complicated structures of E. Coli that live on. There are also wars between strains of E. Coli. There is a section talking about the ethics of biotechnology at the end of the book that I think everyone should read, as it pretty succinctly brings up the points people should be debating, in a debate that is often not about facts (for either side). A very good book, I heartily recomend it. The only problem is that I wish that it was longer.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Scienceblogs goes sizzle crazy

apparently there's a new movie out called sizzle by Randy Olson. I wonder if anybody's talking about it...

Creating a fantasy world: Part 1

Something I would like to do on a regular basis (at least once a week) is publicly create a fantasy world and describe how I go about it. It's something I've been doing since at least high school (probably middle school) with increasing levels of sophistication. I take an idea, think about it for a while, and then start writing stuff down in a notebook, this time I'll write it down here. I often end up thinking of an idea for a story in the world, or perhaps some rules that could be used to make it into a game. I would create small homebrew RPGs to play with my friends. Most were pretty mediocre, but some were good (I remember two in particular: one called Gutter Runner, which was basically a cyberpunk distopia, and another called Demon Lords, which was heavily influenced by the game Myth: the Fallen Lords, and had elements of a (magical) distopia as well). Those had very simple rules and back stories, and the main reason that those were so popular is that I actually finished them. Making a whole game is lot of work for one person who's not being paid for it.

The first part of creating a fantasy world is to come up with a premise. One that I've been kicking around for a while is one set in a magical version of the enlightenment. Basically in the real world there was a rediscovery of ancient knowledge (called the Renaissance), that led to the development of totally new ways of thinking. This makes the whole period really interesting, and underdeveloped as a source of fantasy. Just about the only book I can think of set in that period is Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. I want to make the old technology -> magic translation. So magic is undergoing a change, from one way of thinking to another, specifically from an older way of thinking about things (the analogy to the natural philosophy of the greeks and such) to a newer way (analogous to early science). I'll leave it there for now, more posts on this in the near future.

Cybotron lyrics

One band that is hugely influential, but still relatively unknown is Cybotron, an early 80s techno band from Detroit(two people, one one electronics, one on guitar).The sound is pretty awesome, though the electronics are very old. Their album Clear is really good (and the only thing I have of theirs, apparently they broke up after it). Anyways the lyrics of some of the songs I found especially interesting, but had a hard time looking them up, so I listened and wrote them down as I listened. They may not be perfect, but I'm confidant that they are accurate for the most part. I only did this for two songs: "Industrial Lies" and "The Line". Perfect 80's dystopia songs:

Industrial Lies:

My conservative reactionary friend,
the ends done justify the means you understand,
you take the butter from the table by a gun,
you think the status quo will be there when you're done,
you buy the missile, buy the laser, buy the tank,
evict the widow, put the money in the bank,
you do it all in the name of economics: economics, economics, economics.

Well, it's just industrial lies,
hidden behind your eyes.
Well, it's just industrial lies
hidden behind your eyes

take what you want, leave the rest behind
take what you want, leave the rest behind

The Line:

Got out of bed, with no where to go
as I comb my hair, I didn't know
what I would do today to pass the time
as I left the house, I left hope behind
as I hit the street, no sun greeted me
no smiles on the faces of the people I meet

here's the ride step inside, plenty of time to make the line

Life is a line, take a number.
Just one big line, that's all it is.
Life is a line, just take a number.
Just one big line, that's all it is.

Life... is a line.
Life... is a line, just one big line.

Life is a line, take a number.
Just one big line, that's all it is.
Life is a line, just take a number.
Just one big line, I tell it like it is.

Life is... a line.
Life.. the line.

Life is a line, take a number.
Life is a line, that's all it is.
Life is a line, take a number.
Life is a line, take your place.

The end of the line if you please.
I go into town to the eagles nest,
I vanish in with all the rest
I got into line, and waited to see
what the bureaucrat would do with me.
Then his ice cold eyes foretold my fate
I knew I had arrived an hour late:

"What's that you say?
No jobs today?
I see you next time right here in the line."

Life is a line, take a number.
Life is a line, take your place.
Life is a line, just take a number.
Life is a line, take your place.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Thoughts on essentialism

Most of the time on the internet (or at least the parts I visit) if someone is talking about essentialism it's gender essentialism. I'm not going to talk about that specifically, but rather I'll talk about an essay by Ernst Mayr on essentialism that I read in the Oxford book of Modern Science Writing.

So what is essentialism? It goes back to the ancient greeks, especially their geometers who made a lot of progress by recognizing when two dissimilar looking things are really the same thing: for example all triangles are really triangles, even if they have different angles or lengths of sides. A triangle is not a rectangle, you can't have something that is part rectangle, part triangle. This is undeniably true in math, but Plato expanded the idea out to everything: everything is just a reflection of an "ideal". In this way of thinking not only were all triangles totally separate from rectangles, but all birds were totally separate from all reptiles, and it was just part of their natures that could not be changed.

Mayr in the essay argues that this held back biology, because everyone was thinking essentially, when biology is nothing like that. I don't know if this is particularly true, many people seemed willing to give up essentialism in biology once there was good evidence against essentialism (the fossil record and such). My point here isn't to argue with Mayr, but rather to jump off and talk about what it would mean if life was essentialist, and I'm going to talk about particle physics, because all fundamental particles really are identical.

Now once you have things that are really, truly, identical like fundamental particles you start running into all sorts of problems. The first one is how do you tell them apart. If they are identical and they get close to each other and you look away when they would hit each other (or not) how do you tell which is which? It is possible in principle in classical physics because every particle has a unique trajectory, and you can (at least in principle) predict it, and use that to tell them apart. Basically you can tell them apart my their positions in space and time. This becomes impossible in quantum mechanics because the particles do not have distinct positions, but rather wave functions. Basically there are two ways of dealing with this problem: the particles can either not ever get near each other (physicsts call these types of particles fermions), or they can bunch up into one particle (these are bosons). The reason we don't see these sorts of things happening is that everything we ever encounter in everyday life is made up of incredibly large number of particles.

What does this have to do with life? Other than illustrating why we would not expect essentalist explanations of incredibly complex things like life (even the simplest bacteria are impossible to simulate based on physics), it shows the problems with essentialism if you really start thinking about it: if everything is only a reflection of an ideal, then where do the differences between similar things come from?

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Google scoops second life for free

So I hear that google is making a 3d chat room that's free and embeddable in web pages. Sounds pretty cool, but I've always preferred text myself. Also it's not for linux right now, so I can't use it on my typical OS.

The problem with trying to get a 3d environment for chatting is that it uses a lot of resources and many people enjoy chatting while doing other things. If you aren't paying full attention to the environment then you don't get much benefit from the 3dness. I'm sure that google will do a good job with it (as usual), but I'll wait until it's more mature to say whether it looks like something I would want to use or not. In any case I think having a full 3d environment just for chat is a bit of overkill, it seems like I should be doing something (like killing monsters) if I'm going to pull out the 3d.

Monday, July 7, 2008


I love to cook. Today I cooked chicken in a pot for the first time. I got the recipe from The Best International Recipe. I like that series of cookbooks because they let you know why they give the instructions in the book, which helps you improvise. Want to see pics? sure you do:

Doesn't it look tasty? I served it with roasted fingerling potatoes and some veggies cooked by my friend Kristin.

Review: Blogger In Draft

So Google has a new version of Blogger that they're rolling out called Blogger in Draft. I've been using it for this blog and I have to say it works pretty well. I haven't had any trouble with it, and the site looks good.

One of the new features is the ability to drag and drop images into the new post editor. Let me try that out...

It seems to work, and it's easy to resize the image, but it's awkward to place. It's not as good as a good word processor, but it works well enough for simple images placement, and it automatically links to the image source. One thing I don't know how to do is how to get this drag and drop between tabs in firefox. I have to open a new window.

Overall I'm pretty happy with Blogger in Draft. I'm sure by the time it replaces the regular blogger (probably in like 2010 knowing google) it will have all the bugs worked out.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Gayin it up

So for as long as there have been gay people, man has wondered why that is. More recently people have been wondering what causes gayness, a gene, the environment, eating too many popsicles? Well according to the most recent dear science podcast it's probably a gene (at least in men). Go listen, it's short and sweet, but sums up the various possibilities and what the current thinking is on the topic.

One thing that was touched on briefly was the possibility of "curing" gayness, but was dismissed as impossible for the foreseeable future. This is the sort of situation where science fiction becomes handy, it lets people discuss these sorts of issues long before they become possible. My opinion is that some people probably would want their children cured (once possible), but that the risks would probably be too much for most parents. It would probably be ethical (since altering embryos is already fine in e.g. IVF), but for parents that want to have a child I doubt many are going to want to abort or have a good risk of spontaneous abortion because of a raised chance of having a gay child (note that it could only be a raised chance, or else we would have already have found it, this is my problem with most Gattica style genetic dystopias: genetics is mostly chance). However this would depend on the culture: if the trends continue and people become more and more accepting of gays then I would think that my scenario is the most likely (especially since there might still be the chance for grandchildren as more gay couples adopt), however if there is some big backlash then they might view gayness as on par with real genetic diseases.

And I'm sorry lesbians, no one knows why you are gay. Or why women's sexuality seems to be more flexible than male sexuality (which is a topic for another post someday).

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Nature Vs. PLoS

Apparently Nature wrote an article about the Public Library of Science that revealed that it isn't too profitable. Some bloggers have taken issue with this and come to the defence of PLoS. I've got to agree with the bloggers on this, but let's make my critisism perfectly clear. Besides the fact that PLoS hasn't made much money (which is irrellevant to the quality of the journal) the main critism seems to be (and I say seems to be because I don't have subscription to Nature) that PLoS only reviews for good methodology and not for importance. I think this is a good thing. The advantage of online journals is that you can publish a lot of stuff really cheaply, and since the authors pay to publish in PLoS there is no reason for them to not publish everything that's methodologically correct. How are readers supposed to find the good articles? There is a commenting and raking system that I think should do at least as good a job as the editors of Nature in deciding what is important (or at least interesting).

The problem with the existing, closed access model for science journals is that besides costing libraries insane amounts they are inherently seperated from the public. Everyone knows about how bad most science journalism is, PLoS gives the public a chance to look at the sausage being made, and hopefully this will lead to both a better public understanding of science, and better science journalism.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Yes, I played D&D before it was cool

So there is a 4th edition of D&D now. I do not own it, but I've seen it, and looked it over. I do not approve. Firstly, there is no need for a new edition of D&D. There is nothing in the book that I could see (without an in depth look over every rule) that could not have made this just a new campaign setting: they changed up the races, alignments, and classes. The core mechanics are the same. This is in stark contrast to the 2nd -> 3rd edition transition where the rules were totally revamped (and needed to be). Let's look at all of these categories, shall we?
  • Races: so they got rid of the Gnomes and replaced them with dragon guys, elves-only-more-so, and Tieflings. Fair enough, and Tieflings are awesome (but this is really a sign that they should bring back plainscape). Point 4E
  • Alignments: they made the already simple alignment system even more stupidly simple. Do they want to remove the ability for people to play anti-heroes or have morally ambiguous campaigns without using house rules? No more chaotic good, there is only good and lawful good, no more lawful evil, only evil and chaotic evil. And the only neutral alignment there is is just neutral. I am generally in favor of changes to the alignment system, but making it even more stupidly simple is not the right solution. Point 3E.
  • Classes (and their abilities): This is where I must rage. First the easy stuff, they changed up the classes, but not the core ones. That's fine, I'm not the happiest with their new ones, but they aren't bad. My main problem comes from the fact that they essentially eliminated magic. There is no magic, only abilities (which all classes gain at the same speed) some of which are labeled as "magical". This, I submit is stupid. Point no one, everybody loses.
So why did they make these changes? It looks to me like they are trying to ride the MMORPG wave, and so are making the ability progressions and such more like World of Warcraft, which is a good game, but a WoW RPG already exists. No need to sully the good name of D&D with a cheap knock off of something that was probably greatly inspiried by D&D in the first place. What I would like to see would be not this reworking of core D&D, but more campaign settings: Plainscape and Dark sun have only fan ports of the settings, imagine how cool it would be if they remade plainscape and really supported it. It would be awesome, but alas they would rather imitate Blizzard (which makes uniformly great stuff, but the needs of computer games and pen and paper games are different).


Lots of people these days seem to get fantasy and reality mixed up. I'm going to set them right. Mainly by talking about both reality and fantastic subjects (such as sci-fi, fantasy, science fantasy, etc.) and keeping the two subjects separate. So what is reality? That's a question I'll leave to the philosophers for now (maybe I'll get to it when I have nothing else to talk about), but we have a handy method for finding what is real and what isn't: it's called science. This isn't intended to be a science or religion blog, but I'll talk about both probably.

As for Fantasy, I'm talking about a wide variety of things here: science fiction is intended to be scientifically plausible (to varying degrees), fantasy throws all the rules of our world out the window and imagines a new set of rules (good fantasy makes sure to have set rules in the world, bad fantasy makes stuff up as it goes along, magic becomes deus ex machina), and science fantasy is the fun hybrid of the two. Star Trek is science fiction, Star Wars is science fantasy, and lord of the rings is fantasy.

Who am I? As of this writing I am an unemployed recent physics grad from drexel university with an unwholesome interest in strange other possible worlds (as well as a totally wholesome interest in how the world really works).