Thursday, August 26, 2004

Tricks of the Trade

"And when doing botanical work in South America, steer clear of the monkeys: They will throw sticks at you with surprising accuracy."

This and other equally useful lessons from various occupations can be found at the link. I should have known the trick for attorneys, but didn't.

I saw this post from, an excellent weblog for wasting time reading about technology and other random, geeky things (thanks for telling me about it, Kathy!).

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Pornography and Environmentalism

The New York Times had an article recently on attempts in California to require actors in pornographic films to use condoms. The actors had mixed feelings, stating that the requirement may reduce business and put people out of work.

I doubt they're arguing that condom use would reduce the amount of pornography that people bought, so what they're really saying is that the condom requirement would drive business towards out-of-California and out-of-the-US production (I know some of the half-dozens reading this blog live in Vancouver - maybe pornography will join the rest of the movie business in setting up shop in your city).

As an environmentalist, I've heard this argument before. The American timber industry uses it when arguing against forest protection, saying that will just increase the cut of rainforest timber, which the American companies are generously seeking to protect. Same thing has been said about other environmental standards, and about stopping investment in countries like Burma and apartheid-era South Africa. I hear it also for stopping land use protections: "if we shut down development in our county, it will just leapfrog to the next one over."

It's not a completely ridiculous argument, but it also puts us in a difficult situation. The effect is to say that we must do something wrong here, or others will do something wrong elsewhere. Something about that just doesn't feel right to me.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Night Vision Zoo Visits

I did the family trip to the zoo today, and seeing sleeping animals during the day reminded me of the one chance I had years ago to visit a zoo in the evening. All the big cats were up and moving, the whole place seemed so much more alive, not sad like many zoos still seem, despite their improvements.

So today's brilliant idea is that once or twice a year, a zoo should be open in the evening, keep lights to the absolute minimum, and supply visitors with night vision gear. I think it would be a fantastic experience, one that people would be willing to pay two or three times the normal price for admission.

The night vision gear would be very expensive to keep for use once or twice a year. That expense could be decreased by having the gear travel between zoos, so it gets used much more often. It would give a different perspective on visiting zoos.

(Note: how about this? Two posts in a row that don't talk about how awful Bush is ....)

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Reductio good, slippery slope bad

Kevin Drum has a post stating why he thinks reductio ad absurdum arguments are bad ones. He says rather than saying Principle X, carried to the extreme, yields an absurd result, everyone should acknowledge that competing principles and interests will yield different results that prevent reaching an absurd result.

Kevin's wrong in this case - he should be going after slippery slope arguments instead. Reductio is a legitimate argument to raise if someone else says Priniciple X is all one needs to decide Issue A. Responding with a reductio argument forces the person arguing for Principle X to say why the result is not absurd, or to acknowledge that Principle Y sometimes controls, and explain why Principle Y should prevent the absurd result but should not control Issue A.

Slippery slope arguments are different - they say that if you apply Principle X to Issue A, then no matter what, awful unintended consequences will follow. Slippery slope arguments just assume the exaggerated consequences will follow, without providing a reason for why they will happen. Reductio arguments are different - they don't assume awful things will happen, rather they argue that absurd/awful things would be justified on the basis of the principle their opponent supports. Reductio therefore has a logic to it, while slippery slope is just an argument people make up when they can't think of a persuasive reason to support their viewpoint about about the particular issue being discussed.

So much for my rant. Many others rant in the comment section to Kevin's post.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Boiling Point

In The New York Times, Al Gore reviews the book Boiling Point, by Ross Gelbspan. The review is well-written, and the book sounds like it is also. Three points in the review especially struck me. First, the book mentions how mountain glaciers are melting rapidly. I worked for six years in a national park in Alaska, and I remember experiencing the same thing on a personal level, visiting glaciers I had seen years earlier and having to hike a half-mile or more higher up the valley to find the terminus.

I also thought Gelbspan summed up the Bush administration's approach to global warming perfectly: ''corruption disguised as conservatism.'' Back in the early 90's, I remember thinking that Reagan's big failure was his delay in recognizing that glasnost and Gorbachev were real changes, while Bush 41's big failure was his inaction in the face of global warming. To do nothing now, after twelve more years of scientific confirmation, is inexcusable.

Finally, Gelbspan blames environmentalists for not concentrating enough on global warming. He may have a point there as well, one that we environmentalists shouldn't forget.

I guess I'll have to actually read the book, instead of just blabbing about it.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Calling Bush's Bluff

My friend Junichi had this great idea for a Kerry fundraiser: a "Texas hold 'em" poker tournament where winners get some of the money, and the Kerry campaign gets the rest. I tried to go, and the other players would've wanted me there - I don't know enough about poker to know how Texas hold 'em is played. I was too slow to get a seat. Maybe next time - meanwhile, maybe other people will consider copying the idea.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Several short items today:

I need this: therapy cures monkeys of laziness.

George Bush's character can be seen on the playing field: 3 simultaneous fouls while playing rugby, including punching another player in the face.

I caught most of the Senator Barbara Boxer/Bill Jones debate on the radio. Both of the candidates evaded answering questions, but Boxer did it so much more artfully than Bill "No Hypothetical Questions Please" Jones. My job brings me into contact with many local level politicians, unpaid city council members and the like, and many or most of them could have done a better job than Jones. People had previously thought this would be a close Senate race,
but not anymore.

Besides evading questions, Boxer deserves some criticism for using the standard front-runner tactic: this debate is the only one during their campaign, happening long before voters are paying attention. That's not serving the public, and I'd hope for more in an otherwise-good Senator.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

Spit it out, Kerry: "My plan is for a split military command in Iraq"

Kerry has said that he will reduce American troops in Iraq over four years but refused to say exactly how (registration required), resulting in the justifiable criticism that he's claiming to have a secret plan to end the war in Iraq, like Nixon claimed in 1968 to end the war in Vietnam.

Juan Cole outlines how Kerry's idea of internationalizing the military forces could work. Cole's argument seems reasonable if ambitious, but it has the proviso that the international forces replacing most US troops come under United Nations command. The idea that the UN could do a competent military operation will come under intense criticism in the US, but any suggestion that remaining US troops will come under UN command is political suicide. I think this is why Kerry isn't talking.

But what I really think could happen in a Kerry administration is that UN troops will come in, and US troops will neither control nor be controlled by UN military command - resulting in a split military command. A split command is never a great idea, but when you consider the alternatives, it's the best we've got. The commands wouldn't be operating side-by-side anyway, Iraq would be split up geographically so coordination problems would be less severe.

There's nothing wrong with Kerry saying this - he can't let knee-jerk fear of the UN run his campaign. "Trust me," his current overt plan, is not enough and deserves criticism.

Kerry advisors have done the same thing on space policy, by the way, saying "trust us" without revealing their policies.
Touching the Void

Touching the Void is an excellent film for those curious about mountaineering. The film re-creates a trip by two young men in 1985 to attempt a never-climbed mountain face in the Andes, cutting between the re-creation and interviews of the men in the present day.

When I was as young as they were, I did some stupid and scary things on the mountains. One of the scariest was falling/sliding nearly twenty feet into a crevasse on a solo mountaineering trip. Compared to this film, that was absolutely nothing. Rent the movie when you're up for it.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Slightly Irritating the Borg

On the question of whether Microsoft is more like the computer network from the movie The Matrix, or more like Star Trek's the Borg conglomerate, I'd say the Borg is more apt - Microsoft doesn't hide its existence or (some) of its goals.

One of my goals in life is to irritate and annoy Evil, since fighting Evil might be overambitious. To deal with the Microsoft subset of Evil, I've recently replaced Microsoft's Internet Explorer on my home computer with Mozilla's free Firefox web browser, after reading about it in a Slate magazine article here. As the article says, Firefox offers some security protection against hacking directed at IE, and it kills pop-up windows. Using Firefox is also a good way to annoy Microsoft, I think.

So far, so good. Installing Firefox was easy, and I'm no techie. I encourage anyone to check it out. Irritate the Power!

Monday, August 02, 2004

The Silverware Travesty

While this blog deals mainly with politics, war, and the universe, what clearly constitutes the most pressing issue of our time is silverware orientation in dishwashers.

Whats wrong with people? Why oh why can't people put silverware in dishwashers with the handle side up?

I may be narrow-minded on this subject, but my impression is that silverware is placed in dishwashers so that it can get clean. I cannot fathom why the part that goes into our mouths is place upwards, so that it has to be fingered by the person emptying the dishwasher. Yet good people, friends, more than friends, put silverware handle side down.

Someday, however, things will change.

Back to my normal ranting now.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

How to apply the Wisdom of Crowds

I've been listening to the audiobook version of a good book, The Wisdom of Crowds. The author's thesis is that groups can arrive at the correct answer to a question more reliably than single individuals, even if the individual is an expert and the group members are not. Larger groups are better decisionmakers than smaller ones. The reason for this is that each individual knows some small amount of useful information along with random biases. In the collective decisionmaking, the random biases cancel each other out and the correct answer emerges, under the proper circumstances. The author then goes on to discuss ways that the process goes wrong.

So here's an idea on voter participation that I had independently of the book's thesis: allow voters to allocate a portion of the budget for a state or local governmental entity. On the ballot, the voter gets to take a nominal or substantial amount of money from a specifically-created reserve fund owned by the governmental entity, and direct it to the governmental department favored by the voter. This would start to bring free-market concepts into governmental budgeting, and make governmental departments more directly responsible to the voters. And if you accept The Wisdom of Crowds thesis, the voters' decison on budgets could often improve on the decisionmaking by governmental experts.

Update 8.4.04: Some other blogs are talking about this book too. Daniel Drezner's has a good post and some interesting comments.