29 April, 2012


Weezer died.

He was the neighborhood cat, and was very friendly. I'd gotten to know him fairly well in my time here in Erwin, TN, mostly on account of him introducing himself to me when I first moved in. I fed him occasionally and spent more than a few afternoons talking and playing with him.

Born with the name Oliver, he led a long and happy life, growing up as a part of my neighbor's family. In late 2010, he had a tough battle with cancer, but survived. The tumor removed from his throat gave him the chance to enjoy another year of life, but at the cost of a need to constantly wheeze, earning him his nickname in old age.

I'll miss seeing him during my daily outings. I'd grown rather accustomed to seeing him whenever I'd go out for the day. I'll miss him.

Good-bye, Weezer. We had fun.

25 April, 2012

My Favorite Poems

I am not generally fond of poetry, but there are a few poems that really stand out in my mind. Seeing as how a friend decided she would celebrate Poem in the Pocket Day, I thought it might be appropriate for me to create a list of a few of my favorite poems to share with whomever it is that reads this blog.

The Tuft of Flowers

I'll start with Robert Frost's The Tuft of Flowers. It's about an afternoon groundskeeper who is going about his job mowing a large lawn with a scythe. He mulls over how his work keeps him alone, separated from contact with others, concluding that this is how all men work, even if they happen to have coworkers around them. Yet then he he notices a small tuft of flowers beside the brook that the morning mower had not cut. As he, too, decides to not cut these flowers, he realizes that he has made a connection with his coworker closer than most will ever achieve, even though his coworker works in the morning, and he never sees him face-to-face.

To me, the poem represents the wonders of the internet, where I can find and enjoy friendships that are rare to find "in real life".

Dover Beach

Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach is also quite moving to me, but not for the same reason most who like it cite. It is about the spiritual doubts of a believer who has his faith shaken by the realization that all he previously believed was false. It is a description of the pain one undergoes when they move from a belief in solid values to the seemingly obvious conclusion that the basis for all values are invalid.

As a rationalist skeptic, I no longer believe in "value" of the sort described in fairy tales or religion, so in a way, I identify strongly with the ending lines of Dover Beach. Yet I also have come to believe in the worthwhile nature of creating one's own value from the sea of valuelessness, sort of how J. L. Mackie describes his worldview on this issue.


My favorite nonsense verse is definitely Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson)'s Jabberwocky, from Through the Looking Glass. Carroll is a wonderful writer, especially when it comes to logical word play.

The poem is complete nonsense, yet it is a peculiar sort of nonsense that nevertheless makes sense. Even though every other word is made up entirely by the author, you can sort of make out from context what the poem is saying, which is a really strange thing in and of itself, if you think about it. Carroll has taken the idea of discerning a word through context and pushed it to its utter limits, by writing an entire poem that can only be understood through context. Yet even with no reference point to clue you in on what the poem is about, readers can nevertheless find themselves following the story as it is told.

Jabberwocky is an amazing construction to behold, and earns its spot on my list of favorites by virtue of its form rather than any of its contents, unlike most other poems on this list.


e. e. cummings' l(a is another poem whose form I cannot help but to admire. The structure of the poem is meant to represent a leaf falling -- the letters themselves represent the leaf graphically -- and the text reads "loneliness", with "a leaf falls" inserted between the first "l" and the next three letters: "one". The font used in the poem makes the "l" look a lot like the numeral "1". There is a lot going on in this poem, even though it consists of very few characters, and much of the meaning comes from the common trope among poems of his era representing loneliness by a single falling leaf. There is something about the way the typeface seems to show the leaf drifting from side to side as it falls that never ceases to get to me. l(a is definitely one of my favorite poems.

Dulce et Decorum est

Wilfred Owen's Dulce et Decorum est is a poem of war. It describes soldiers in the first world war dying from poison gas. Owens stringently denies Horace's famous line that "it is sweet and right to die for your country"by describing the true horror of war. I cannot help but to envision the scene vividly every time I read this poem, and the thought of people drowning where they stand turns my stomach every single one of those times. Patriotism is indeed one of the worst traits I can imagine that some people actually seem to think is laudable.

The Hollow Men

Perhaps my favorite poet of all is T. S. Eliot, and while The Wasteland is a masterpiece when it comes to literary appreciation, I nevertheless find myself always returning to The Hollow Men whenever I want to reread Eliot. If you have not read Dante, much of the poem will be lost on you, but assuming you are familiar with the works he alludes to, the message Eliot gives in this poem is both dramatic and powerful. There are even references to ancient Greek philosophy in there at the key turning point of the poem, so the only real way to read Eliot is with notes close at hand.

At its heart, the poem is about morality, focusing clearly on what the most immoral thing to do is. Although he does not reference it in the poem, the real issue here is that of Buridan's ass as it applies to choosing an ethical action. Inaction, Eliot attempts to point out, is the worst state of all when it comes to matters of ethics.

I'm sure that my personal interpretation is not shared by all readers of Eliot, but I like to look at it from a consequentialist point of view, instead of the religious view Eliot himself probably meant when he composed the poem. Even if your action results in worse consequences, one must at least attempt to do good in the moment. I look at the issue from the point of view of Bayesian probability with regard to consequentialistic choices; we are not all-knowledgeable, but we can calculate Bayesian probabilities, and we should undertake actions which Bayes would agree with, even if they result in worse consequences.

I fully realize that the last paragraph is not a standard interpretation of The Hollow Men, but it is nevertheless what I see every time I reread the poem. Eliot is trying to ensure we realize the true horror of inaction when we have reason to believe action should be taken. Being sinless is not enough -- we must also do in order to be rightly called good.

Paradise Lost

I will end with a poem too long to summarize in a few short sentences: John Milton's Paradise Lost. This epic poem is a retelling of the beginning of Genesis, describing the fall of Satan and the events of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Strangely, the author says himself in Book One that the purpose of the poem is to justify God's actions, but my reading of the text is that Milton is doing the exact opposite. Satan's portrayal is dreadfully convincing. His argument that God's nature is tyrannical despite its benevolence is extremely powerful, and resonates even to this day.

My interpretation here is reminiscent of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. Torvald is a wonderful husband in the sense that he is doting and kind. He takes care of his wife dutifully and kindly. Yet, nevertheless, their relationship is utterly horrid. As the man, he is in charge, so no matter how kind or good he tries to be with his wife, he can never interact with her on anything like an equal level. This power differential underlies every action he takes, even if he has no ill intent whatsoever. Despite his benevolence, the very fact of his position over her is what makes living under him so terrible. Even if he tries to connect with her on an equal level, it cannot work, because the fact remains that if he wanted to be mean, he could, and she would have no recourse.

Similarly, Satan argues that God, despite his benevolence, is nevertheless tyrannical. Following him is unjustified, even if he has nothing but good intentions at heart. Milton does not say this explicitly, but I understand the situation like this: The only way God would be justified in being a ruler over others is if the power of that rule comes from the ruled in addition to benevolence; benevolence is not enough. Imagine Ulysses in the scene of Homer's Odyssey where he must sail past the sirens. Ulysses is captain, and justly retains power over the sailors because the boat must have a captain in order to sail. Yet he voluntarily relinquishes this power to the sailors while they go past the sirens, since their calls will make him mad. Homer describes Ulysses tied to the masthead barking orders that the sailors justly ignore. In this moment, the sailors rule over Ulysses benevolently, but not in the same way Torvald or God does. The sailors do not rule over Ulysses because they are better than him, but because they were given the power to do so by Ulysses in advance. It is a combination of voluntary rule and benevolence that justify the sailors' domination over Ulysses. Meanwhile, both Torvald and God have only the benevolence part -- they do not have any voluntary rule, as Satan rightly points out.

Of course, from what I understand of history, John Milton did not share the interpretation I give in the above paragraphs when he wrote Paradise Lost. But I nevertheless see the above when I think of Satan's arguments against God's rule.


While these are just a few of my favorite poems, I have to admit that there really aren't that many more that speak to me at the same level that these do. My problem with ancient Greek poetry is that I know just enough koine to stumble through them in the original, making it extremely difficult for me to simultaneously follow complex literary themes. And I know no Latin at all, so most Latin poems based on wordplay do absolutely nothing for me. Meanwhile, more recent classics are hit or miss with me, and really depend on my mood. The above listed poems really and truly are the best of the best that I've run into so far in my life -- although admittedly I don't exactly read new poetry often, so I'm likely missing a number of gems out there.

If you take issue with any of my interpretations, feel free to let me know in the comments. I'd love to hear just how wrong I am about this stuff.

Thanks to Elizabeth Herboso for spurring me to compose this blog entry.

15 April, 2012

Why Many Worlds is Correct

I recently read a four year old article by Eliezer Yudkowsky on why Many Worlds survives Occam's razor. The argument was persuasive enough to cause me to change my mind on a stance I've held for nearly two decades.

The way he explains the issue is a little roundabout, so I thought I'd try my hand at reproducing the basic argument in a more succinct manner. Note that this post assumes some prior knowledge of the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI) of quantum physics and how it differs from interpretations that involve collapsing wavefunctions. Basically, if you understood the last sentence, you'll be good to go; otherwise the following might be a little jargon heavy. Nevertheless, I'll try to give background where appropriate. (If you're really lost, the best book to pick up is Feynman's QED, but if you're in a hurry, the Everett FAQ can answer basic questions with plain English. It's no substitute for reading Feynman, though.)

Some Background

There are several possible interpretations of quantum theory. MWI explains just as well as any other, but it is often called out as violating Occam's razor. "Stipulating all these extra worlds", proponents of wavefunction collapse theories argue, "certainly counts as extra assumptions." Of course, there's no reason why nature must respect parsimony, just as there's no reason nature must respect induction. Nevertheless, both have proven effective at making correct predictions over time (pun intended), so a good response is needed.

Occam's Razor

The law of parsimony does not refer to complexity in the same way that we use the word in common usage. Most of the time, things are called "complex" if they have a bunch of stuff in them, and "simple" if they have relatively less stuff. But this cannot possibly be what Occam's razor is referring to, since we all gladly admit that Occam's Razor does not imply that the existence of multiple galaxies is less likely to be true than just the existence of the Milky Way alone.

Instead, the complexity referred to in Occam's razor has to do with the number of independent rules in the system. Once Hubble measured the distance to cepheid variables in other galaxies, physicists had to choose between a model where the laws of physics continue as before and a model where they added a new law saying Hubble's cepheid variables measurements don't apply. Obviously, the model with the fewer number of physical laws was preferable, given that both models fit the data.

Just because a theory introduces more objects says nothing about its complexity. All that matters is its ruleset. Occam's razor has two widely accepted formulations, neither of which care about how many objects a model posits.

Solomonoff inductive inference does it by defining a "possible program space" and giving preference to the shortest program that predicts observed data. Minimum message length improves the formalism by including both the data and the code in a message, and preferring the shortest message. Either way, what matters is the number of rules in the system, not the the number of objects those rules imply.

Quantum Mechanics

So when we apply Occam's razor to competing interpretations, we need to be parsimonious with laws, not objects. How then, does MWI stack up?

Theory-wise, MWI is nearly equivalent to other interpretations. MWI will predict what the Copenhagen interpretation will predict, so in terms of accurate predictions, they seem about on par. But while MWI stops there, most other interpretations start tacking on extra assumptions. (Except instrumentalism, of course, but it always wins the parsimony battle, and doesn't really count.)

All theories that posit a wavefunction collapse, for example, are positing something on top of the needed rules that agree with observations (pun intended). Why posit a wavefunction collapse whose only purpose seems to be a method of denying the reality of the wavefunction? Of course, maybe reality is such that the wavefunction does collapse. But Occam's razor would clearly prefer the option asserting fewer assumptions.

"But wait!", say the wavefunction collapsers. "MWI asserts way more stuff than any other theory ever made! Don't you see that the addition of a single simple law of wavefunction collapse does away with having to admit the existence of all the excess crap MWI forces us to believe in?"

Yet they are missing the point. If something is a deductive consequence of the rules of a system, then you get that extra thing for free without having to refer to Occam's razor. As Yudkowski puts it, if P(Y|X) ≈ 1, then P(X∧Y) ≈ P(X). All the "excess crap" that gets posited into existence with MWI is just the deductive consequence of the quantum theory all interpretations agree upon. Even in wavefunction collapse theories, many worlds exist until the collapse occurs. The extra rule positing a collapse is the real "excess crap".

Parable of the Invisible Spaceship

If you're still not convinced, consider Yudkowski's implied invisible spaceship.

"Suppose you're going to launch a spaceship, at nearly the speed of light, toward a faraway supercluster.  By the time the spaceship gets there and sets up a colony, the universe's expansion will have accelerated too much for them to ever send a message back." They will be unable to interact with us even in principle, as they can never intercept our world-line. "Do you deem it worth the purely altruistic effort to set up this colony, for the sake of all the people who will live there and be happy?  Or do you think the spaceship blips out of existence before it gets there?"

If you're like me, you'll find it intuitive to believe the spaceship and its colonists continue existing, even after they reach the point of no return, because claiming they cease to exist requires extra laws that wink them out of existence when they get too far away. Parsimony demands that we accept implied invisibles.

A Personal Note

Although I only just recently was convinced of this stance by Yudkowsky, the basic argument is quite old, and I really should have run into it before now.  I guess the main reason I never did is because quantum physics was something I spent a lot of time on while I was still young, and I just haven't kept up with the field since I was a teenager. Since I didn't encounter Bayesian probabilities until studying philosophy of science at Spring Hill College, I just never put two and two together. Let this be a lesson to myself to never stop learning, and always update old beliefs with newly acquired information. (c:

Oh, and by the way, if you're wondering why I called this write-up succinct, you should see how much Yudkowsky writes on the topic.

08 April, 2012

A Working Quantum Computer

The diamond in the center measures 1mm by 1mm.
If you've been following news on the quantum computing front, you'll know that a major stumbling block so far has been the issue of decoherence. Every time we get a proto-quantum computer to start computing, it quickly breaks down from an inability to store data for calculation.

This problem has now been resolved.

A paper just published in Nature claims that they have found a way to protect multiple qubits from decoherence over an extended period of time, and built a quantum computer into a diamond to prove it. Since I realize most of my readers don't keep up with this field as much as I do, I'll try my best to explain.

How it works.

Classical computers use bits (binary digits) to store information in memory. These are the binary digits (1s and 0s) that get stored in between calculation steps in any non-trivial program. If a 1 were to turn into 0 randomly in the middle of an operation, a program might still be able to recover if it has good error detection, but if huge numbers of bits were to switch from one to the other while a program was running, there's just no way it could continue to function as desired.

Quantum computers use qubits instead of bits. This is what makes quantum computing as a concept so very powerful. Rather than use 1s and 0s that are either one or the other, the qubits of quantum computing utilize a superposition of states where a single qubit might be partly a 1 and partly a 0. Yet this reliance upon qubits has been a fundamental problem in quantum computing so far. It is just too easy for qubits to decohere and lose whatever information you try to store in it.

It wasn't until 2008 that a group first figured out how to keep a qubit from losing its information for a grand total of 1.75 seconds. Not only is this amount of time too short to do anything with, but the process could not handle multiple qubits, making this type of quantum computer incapable of using more than one qubit at a time.

Today's news marks the first time anyone has figured out how to shield multiple qubits from decohering for an extended period of time. I won't get into details of how they accomplish this; you can read the paper yourself for that. (Suffice it to say that they used microwave pulses to delay decoherence continuously.) But the point is that they were able to construct a working quantum computer and run a simple program on it to verify the qubits are not decohering.

The fun part of the story.

Quantum circuit representation of Grover's algorithm.
In order to prove their method worked, they used the quantum computer to run through Grover's algorithm, a function-inverting quantum algorithm.

The usual explanation of Grover's algorithm starts by imagining a phone book organized in alphabetical order. (We'll need a new mental example soon; I can't remember the last time I actually saw a phone book in person.) If we have a specific phone number we're looking for, our only real recourse is to search through the book one entry at a time. We might get lucky and find it as soon as we open phone book, but we also might be unlucky and not find it until the very last entry. (Technically the second to last, since we assume the number exists in the book, but please ignore this sentence for clarity.) In general, it turns out that, on average, we will find the number we seek on our N/2nd try, where N is the total number of entries in the phone book. For a book with four entries, we'll find it on our second try on average; if the book has a hundred entries, we'll find it on the fiftieth try on average. A phone book listing everyone in New York City would have ~8,000,000 entries; we'd find a particular entry on the four millionth try on average.

Grover's algorithm, on the other hand, will find it, on average, on our O(N1/2) try. For a book of four entries, we'll basically find it on the first try every time. With a hundred entries, we'll find it on the tenth try on average. With 8,000,000 entries, on average, we'll find it on the 2,829 try. That's not a typo; it really is less than three thousand tries for an eight million entry database. This speed increase is enormous. The applications for such sheer speed has drastic repercussions in the real world.

The team used Grover's algorithm on their quantum computer and found the correct entry on their first try 95% of the time. This puts the question of whether their computer works or not entirely to rest. Their quantum computer not only works, but works well enough to actually be capable of quantum calculation at a 5% error rate. Sure, that's not perfect, but it's already enough accuracy that, if one desired, error-correcting could be done. Just redo the calculation ten times; with a 95% accuracy rate, that is more than enough to determine the correct output. The insane speed increase quantum computers have over classical computers is enough to make it more than worthwhile to repeat the same calculation ten times in a row each time.

Of course, the quantum computer they built held only two qubits, and so can only store so much information at a time. Doing Grover's algorithm on an 8,000,000 entry database, for example, would require seven qubits. (In general, O(log(N)) qubits would be required for a database of N entries.) But there is nothing stopping someone from creating such a quantum computer in principle, so long as they have enough microwave pulses to keep them all from decohering. The future, it appears, is now.

So what does this all mean?

First of all, it means that somebody has a working two qubit quantum computer right now. Realistically, this is not enough to cause much of a ruckus. To put it in context, this is only enough storage to solve Grover's algorithm for databases of seven entries or less. (Although Grover's original paper points out that his algorithm requires only that the processing be done with qubits; the memory can be saved in a classical bits.) However, quantum computers do not scale linearly like classical computers do. As mentioned previously, a mere seven qubits would be enough memory to store steps for Grover's algorithm on a database of 8,000,000 entries. It takes very few qubits to handle very large problems.

Now that the conceptual hurdle has been passed, someone could, right this very moment, build a quantum computer with a dozen qubits. There is nothing preventing us from accomplishing such a feat now, save sheer expense. But if you can afford the dozen microwave lasers and have an appropriately flawed diamond to work with, it is certainly doable. What could one do with such a machine?

To put it bluntly, nearly everything.

All bounded error, quantum, polynomial time (BQP)
problems are efficiently solved by quantum computers.
Forget other programs. Let's just focus on Grover's algorithm, which has already been shown to work on this quantum computer. All symmetric-key algorithms could be broken by sheer brute force in half the time. This includes all Advanced Encyption Standard (AES) codes, the standard block cipher ratified by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. All NP-complete problems could be solved with a quadratic speed-up over current brute force methods. Not to mention exponentially faster database search in general, which I already pointed out earlier in the article. And all this is just from Grover's algorithm alone. Other algorithms can reduce password cracking time on certain types of passwords from years of processing to mere seconds. These algorithms already exist; they just never had a quantum computer to run them before. Now they do.

This effectively breaks most commercial-grade encryption now in use on the internet. Some encryption does survive; notably lattice-based and McEliece cryptosystems.


Although the last section makes it seem like quantum computers have now arrived, there are still problems that need to be addresses. David DiVincenzo points out that a practical quantum computer must have:

  • scalable physically to increase the number of qubits;
  • qubits can be initialized to arbitrary values;
  • quantum gates faster than decoherence time;
  • universal gate set;
  • easily read qubits.

This new discovery solves the first (albeit expensively) and third issues completely. The second issue is still problematic, but is something that can be programmed around. The fifth issue is a matter of convenience; expense and repeatability makes this solvable with money alone. This leaves only the fourth issue: a universal gate set. As this is not yet solved, we will not yet be able to program whatever we want on a quantum computer. But we can still run Grover's algorithm, and a few other programs to which we know the necessary gates, and I've already shown how this affects society directly.

A note on how the press is covering this.

As a skeptic, I was very disappointed in a quote by Daniel Lidar on their method of delaying decoherence. He told press "it’s a little like time travel", because the microwave pulses that made the electron qubit switch their direction of rotation did so in a way that makes the decoherence disappear by moving back in the direction it came from. But, quite frankly, this is bullshit. That has no more to do with time travel than moving left does when you want to take back a move to the right. However, now that the quote is out there in a story that headlines with the word "quantum", you can be sure lots of quacks will completely misunderstand, as they so often do.

A few credits.

Although credit for stuff like this gets cited in journals, blogs rarely take the time to actually link out to the individual scientists' blogs/social media in articles like this. So I thought I'd buck the trend by giving a shout out to the authors of the study, including Daniel Lidar, Zhihui WangToeno van der SarMachiel BlokHannes BernienTim TaminiauDavid ToyliDavid Awschalom, & Ronald Hanson. Well done.

Also, thanks to Wikipedia for its help in understanding basic principles and the University of South California for their press release summarizing the findings of the paper. And a tip of the hat to the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe for letting me know about this recent development in the first place. Your podcast is awesome. (c:

06 April, 2012

Supreme Court Party Time

The other day, a friend and I decided to go through all 5.5 hours of Supreme Court oral argument on the Affordable Care Act together, plus background materials to familiarize ourselves with the case.

Oyez' awesome player.
It was a fun experiment, and resulted in much great discussion. I'd highly recommend it, as I'd definitely consider it the kind of party that I'd try again. Oyez.org also makes it especially easy to go through. Not only do they provide great background material and audio, but they also provide text to make it easy to read along. I'm very impressed with the quality of features Oyez makes available to the public for free.

If you're interested in trying it yourself, here are a couple of pointers to help get you started.

  • First, get a friend. Seriously, this kind of thing is much better when discussion occurs than it ever would be alone. I've listened to oral arguments via podcast for years, but as interesting as it may have been, it's never approached the level of interaction you get when multiple people are around to give differing viewpoints in realtime.
  • Second, set aside enough time. The oral arguments come in four sections, so you could theoretically do this over four days. The first two, 11-398, are 1.5 hours for the Anti-Injunction Act and 2 hours for the Individual Mandate. The last two, Severability (11-393) & the Medicaid Expansion (11-400) are each 1.5 hours. Remember to allow a minimal five to ten minutes beforehand to go over background, and another half hour afterward to discuss the case in depth. I strongly recommend taking the time to go into more background than just five minutes, but if you're rushed for time, it'll have to do. Just don't be surprised if discussion continues well after the event ends.
  • Third, learn the players. Sure, we all know the styles and leanings of the Justices by now, but you also need to know the lawyers speaking before the court, and whom they each represent. It also might be interesting to bring up background on key players, like the fact that Paul Clement clerked for Scalia and served as Solicitor General under Bush for four years.
  • Fourth, enjoy the show! Oyez does an excellent job of integrating the audio of the oral arguments along with highlighted text to read along. The free experience they provide to the public is great not just for policy makers and those with a need to know, but also to people like you and me who just want to experience Supreme Court oral arguments for ourselves for fun.
  • Finally, don't forget to discuss. There's a lot to talk about in these oral arguments. No matter where you stand on the issue, both sides have plenty of interesting things to say. I know that I was certainly surprised when I first went through them.

If you haven't listened to the oral arguments yet, I encourage you to stop reading here and go set up your own Supreme Court party. It's definitely worth the effort of setting up.

However, if you've already heard the oral arguments, or if you want some extra pointers on discussion points that might be appropriate, I'll give some of my thoughts on each section of the cases.

  • Anti-Injunction Act: Do they even have standing to sue?
    We're forbidden from bringing suit against a disputed tax until after we pay the tax. If the penalties described in the Affordable care Act are indeed taxes, then the Anti-Injunction Act applies, and this entire suit must be thrown out. While both sides argue it is a tax here, a friend of the court was appointed to argue that it isn't. Absurdity gets highlighted when one realizes that the very next day the states will be forced to argue that it is not a tax after all. Is it ethical for lawyers to take up opposing stances on specific issues each day in order to promote their greater goals?
  • The Individual Mandate: Does Congress have the power to force citizens to buy insurance?
    The commerce clause has been construed to have broad power over the years, but is it really this broad? If you are not buying insurance, are you part of the insurance market? If government can not only regulate commerce, but also force purchase of insurance, why can't they also force us to buy broccoli? Compare the styles of Verrilli to Clement to Carvin. Notice any substantial differences in how well they argued their case? (I certainly did.)
  • Severability: If the individual mandate gets struck down, what happens to the rest of the law?
    The Affordable care Act is huge, so even if the mandate is determined unconstitutional there are still plenty of clauses that can stand on their own. But would Congress have passed these smaller laws separately? How far should we look to Congress' intent? What about the fact that the mandate is a necessary provision for other parts of the bill to work properly? And what does necessary really mean, exactly?
  • The Medicaid Expansion: The final constitutional issue is that of coercion.
    Is it blackmail to threaten to remove all Medicaid funding from states if they don't accept the new Medicaid expansion? What about the fact that it is all-upside for the states? What about if the threat would be illegal to carry out? What about the fact that the states and the Secretary of Health and Human Services have common goals and so the threat doesn't even make sense? And how can it be coercion if Congress is fully capable of dismantling all of Medicaid and retooling it from scratch? What makes the states think they have the right to continue receiving federal aid no matter what Congress decides? Note Verrilli's closing remarks where he turns to arguments of ethics rather than law to urge Justices to uphold the Affordable Care Act, and Clement's casual dismissal of them.

Surprisingly, I found myself extremely impressed with Mr. Clement's arguments. Of course, I believe healthcare is dreadfully important to have for all, and I desperately want the court to uphold the Affordable Care Act. But I want this from a moral standpoint, which is different than a legal standpoint. I have to admit that Clement's arguments in the Individual Mandate section were quite persuasive. To be honest, it just further irritates me that Congress did not just pass a single payer system, which would have been perfectly constitutional no matter how you look at it. As it stands now, I'm honestly not sure what the correct legal thing to do is, and that's a disheartening admission to make.

04 April, 2012

The Fun Side of Web Design

One of my most recent projects has been the creation of a small business website for an old friend. I used to do this kind of thing as a living, churning out site after site for clients until I finally gave in and got a proper job doing web work, first at Omnistar Interactive, and then at Share Our Strength.

CSS3 is especially exciting because
I helped create it as part of the w3c team.
Doing one of these five-page sites reminds me of those old days, but in a way very different than one might expect. Back then, I did web creation because I needed money and had a skill others' didn't; but today, I am doing this five-page site for a friend, and, as a result, I seem to be enjoying the process much more than I used to.

I wonder if money is a part of the equation. In the past, I charged clients $500 for a site of this size, plus $200 for logo design and another $300 for copy. But today's project for my friend is being done gratis, and so has a completely different feeling associated with it.

The psychology of gifts is rather different from that of sold or bartered goods and services. It's in a completely separate magisterium, if you'll forgive me for borrowing a phrase from Gould. The rules of gift-giving trigger different parts of our brain than do the rules of trade. For example, studies show that when a person is paid to do a thing, they tend to think of it as a transaction, and are suitably disgusted if they find out they were paid too little. But if you ask someone to perform the same task for free, they do not think of it as a transaction at all, and are much less bothered when they see that the normal going rate is not free. (Also related: the penny gap.)

As an anarcho-syndicalist, I strongly believe in the power of gift economies. Mutual gain seems as though it would be a strictly better basis of economy than mutual strife, although I must admit that capitalism does a hell of a good job in trading fairness for astronomical growth. (Free, by the way, doesn't necessarily imply money isn't changing hands, but that's not the point I'm getting at here.) In any case, my point is that gifts mean a lot more to me than I think that they do for most people.

It especially feels good to do something I've done dozens of times before in a brand new way like this. I'm coding, but rather than slogging through it, I find myself having a lot of fun. I'm designing, but instead of dreading to hear the client's comments, I'm excited to show what I've come up with. It is almost like how I would expect to feel if I were designing my own site, but for some reason these feelings only arise when I am doing work as a gift for a friend. I can't even get up the motivation to work on my own site at all, as you might notice from the bland style of this blog.

It may also have something to do with the novelty of the situation. Although I've done a lot of charity that helped strangers, it has been rare to put so much work into a gift for a friend. Most gifts I've given have required only money, not time.

I wonder if I can concentrate this excitedness about coding and apply this effort to my own site as well. I doubt I'll be able to do such a thing, but you never know. I'm going to give it a try.

03 April, 2012

On The Universal Scientific Acceptance of Anthropogenic Global Climate Change

One of the drawbacks about discussions on Facebook is that not everybody allows their posts to be visible to the public. This can make some arguments hard to follow, such as when only one side's comments are visible, or even impossible to read when the whole debate appears under someone's private page.

Although I certainly am not in the habit of liberating the private content of others here on my blog, there are some occasions where it seems at least partly worthwhile. This is one such occasion.

Last week, I had a small back-and-forth with one of my old school friends on the issue of global climate change. Ordinarily, it would have consisted of little more than a single corrective comment, but he challenged my facts, forcing me to go out and actually look up the data that supports my side. It was only an hour or so of work, but it was nontrivial to verify, and some of my other facebook friends requested that I copy the discussion over to a public forum so that it is readable. What follows is the discussion in full.

(For reference, the original discussion was a post on my friend's wall, but unless you are friends with him, it will not be visible to you through that link.)

Danny Jackson:
‎31,000 Scientists Reject 'Global Warming' Agenda

Eric Herboso:
Scientists are just people, like you and me. We are all easily deluded. What counts is not what a group of people think or say on a topic, but what EXPERTS say on the topic.

I will point out that the majority of scientists in this petition drive have only bachelor's degrees. Of those 9000 with doctorate degrees, the Petition Project refuses to say how many have their PhD in a relevant field. For example, they point out that 3000 have earth science degrees, and that 9000 have PhDs, but they do not bother mentioning how many of those 3000 people actually have a terminal degree in a relevant field with regard to this question. If the overlap were large, I'd have expected them to advertise it.

I find this petition project to be very misleading. It's one thing to debate the merits of a scientific theory, but it's quite another to actually claim that the science is not already settled on the global warming issue. Whether you think the science is correct or not is a point of debate; but to make it seem like scientists disagree on the issue is just ludicrous. From 1993 to 2003, not a single paper was published in the scientific literature that questioned the validity of global warming. Several surveys of actual climatologists working in the field right now consistently show that over 95% believe global warming exist, and most of the rest offer no opinion. The total number of relevant scientists that do not believe in global warming is 0%, and is limited to a half dozen responses in surveys of thousands. Confidence levels drop to ~85% when asking if that global warming is man-made, but the remaining respondents still offer no opinion. Even on the man-made question, 0% are willing to say that they believe it is not man-made.

Debating the merits of global warming science is one thing. But I think the Petition Project is being dishonest by making it seem like the debate is going on among climatologists. The debate ended in scientific circles years ago, and is limited to only nonscientists today. You really should not be using the Petition Project as evidence of anything at all.

I have to admit that I haven't read the article yet, but I would say that the petition drive is a good way to show that not all scientists agree that anthropogenic global warming is happening. I can say that with the other side of the debate the majority of scientists don't know enough about the subject of climate change to be experts in the subject. I believe the main issue against the claims that anthropogenic climate change is happening is the fact that climate change figures line-up much more accurately with the changes of sunspot activity on the sun. When one looks at how temperatures have changed in comparison amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere, it doesn't agree. Now I'll have to point out that these figures were calculated by climatologists who do not have any stake in the climate change band wagon. The figures collected by the climate change proponents actually are not accurate in that the temperatures were taken over the years in areas where there is likely to be a lot of heat e.g. near airports, parking lots, factories, etc. The those Climate Gate emails are also very incriminating in that they show that the made proponents of anthropogenic climate change have been covering up the truth. And the truth is that global temperatures have been dropping for the past 7 to 10 years.

As a non-climatologist, I don't feel entirely comfortable arguing the scientific merits without doing more research than I'm willing to undertake at the moment. Nevertheless, I think arguing about science is a good thing, and should be done far more often in today's society.

Yet what I was trying to get at before was not an argument about global warming, but about the specific tactic used by the Petition Project in the article you originally linked. Just now, you wrote "not all scientists agree that anthropogenic global warming is happening", and it is on this point in particular that I find so incredibly implausible.

It is one thing to debate the merits of the science, and I like seeing such debates occur in society. But when you misrepresent the relevant scientific community's views on a topic, that is just completely misleading. Yes, there are a lot of scientists that think global warming isn't real. But these scientists are dentists and chemists and psychologists. When you point out that those scientists disagree, you are putting "scientists" up on a pedestal, as though their opinion mattered. But it doesn't. The only scientists whose opinion matters are the climatologists that actually work on the issue. Among these people, nearly every single one believes in global warming (~95%), and the vast majority believe it to be caused by man (~85%).

I welcome debate on the issue of science. I think such debate is fun and interesting. (My second favorite field is philosophy of science, after all.) But I feel that groups like the Petition Project are not debating the science. They are just outright trying to mislead the public. Debate on the science is good, but making it seem like scientists disagree on the issue is downright fraudulent. If there were actual debate among relevant scientists on the global warming issue, then there would be published papers arguing against global warming by climatologists. But there aren't any. AT ALL. Not even one.

By all means, I approve of debating the science. But remember that the debate is among people who don't actually work in the field, like you and me, and the 31,000 scientists in the Petition Project that do not publish papers in that field. When the Petition Project acts as though there is debate on global warming among scientists in that field, they are just being facetious in misleading readers. That is the part I disapprove of; the science debate, on the other hand, is quite enjoyable for me.

Really? Absolutely no published papers from climatologists showing problems with claims in favor of anthropogenic climate change? A simple Google search has brought me these articles:





‎(I know this is long, so if you don't feel like reading it all, please at least skip to the final paragraph. It holds a revised statement that should make this issue clear.)

The "no published articles" claim I made earlier originally came from my memory of a meta-study done by Oreskes (and a follow-up by Peter Norvig) that found zero articles published in the preceding decade. But since you have questioned me on it here, I decided to do a bit of research to defend my earlier claim.

The original metastudy by Oreskes (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/306/5702/1686.full) was published in 2004 and showed not a single academic paper on global climate change in the preceding ten years argued against it. A follow-up by Norvig (http://norvig.com/oreskes.html) on the same data verifies the 0% claim.

Of course, this info is from 1993-2004. You might rightly complain that it is too old. What about the years since then? Specifically, what about the papers you cited in your reply?

Your first link refers to Spencer & Braswell's "On the Misdiagnosis of Surface Temperature Feedbacks from Variations in Earth's Radiant Energy Balance". While it was indeed published in 2011, no one in the industry takes it seriously. The very fact that the editor of the publishing journal resigned over the whole thing is proof enough that this was an extreme minority view. I won't bother referring to the details of the paper other than to say that the authors neglected to understand that the null hypothesis is not the default position.

Your second link is to a list of Larry Vardiman's articles. I found 14 articles that mention "global warming" written by him, none of which have been published in a peer reviewed journal. Most are hosted at icr.org, with no reference to them even having been submitted for publication. (http://scholar.google.com/scholar?as_q=%22global+warming%22&as_sauthors=Larry+Vardiman)

Your third link is to a list of Michael Oard's articles. I found 11 that mention "global warming" by him, none of which have been published in a peer reviewed journal. Most are hosted at creation.com, and do not reference them ever having been submitted for publication. (http://scholar.google.com/scholar?as_q=%22global+warming%22&as_sauthors=Michael+Oard)

Your fourth link is a specific article by Michael Oard, which is one of the 11 from the third link. Again, this article has never been published in a peer-reviewed journal. The only publication note is from the "Journal of Creation", which does not use disinterested reviewers.

(I'm sure Vardiman and Oard publish plenty of peer reviewed articles. Hell, even I've been published in a peer reviewed journal. But it appears that their successful publications have been ones that did not have "global warming" written within them.)

Out of the four links you gave, only one involves a paper published in a peer reviewed journal, and the ensuing scandal caused the editor in chief to resign. So I decided to see if I could find any more examples on my own.

In an hour of scouring scholar.google.com, I could find only two in addition to your first link. Both agree with global warming, and argue only about its cause.

2005: Jan Veizer published in Geoscience Canada (http://journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/GC/article/view/2691/3113) agreeing that global warming occurs, but he argues that the cause is the sun.

2009: John Christy published in Energy and Environment (http://www.pas.rochester.edu/~douglass/papers/E&E%20douglass_christy-color.pdf) admitting that global warming occurs, but argues evidence of what causes it is so far inconclusive.

Of course, I did not do an exhaustive search. Maybe more could be found. But my point is that while I searched for these two examples, I passed tens of thousands of articles that agree on man-caused climate change. Sure, there's a lot of debate on forums and blogs, but when it comes to peer reviewed articles, there is no question: nearly every relevant scientist agrees on the issue, and debate ended long ago.

Just to make sure you understand what I mean by this, consider that EVERY single scientific body either concurs or is noncommittal on the issue of human-caused climate change. The last scientific group to hold out was the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, which retracted its dissent in 2007.

I will repeat this to ensure it is understood: As of 29 March 2012, there are zero scientific bodies that reject the idea of human-caused climate change. Every single scientific group in the entire world agrees with human-caused climate change. The only hold-outs are individuals, and they dissent only on tv and radio, not in peer-reviewed publications. Of course, human-caused global warming might still be untrue (the scientific consensus has been wrong before); but the fact is that the vast majority of scientists believe that it is true.

You say none of the articles by Larry Vardiman or Michael Oard are peer reviewed, but they don't have to be published in main-stream sources to be peer-reviewed. None of the articles by Larry Vardiman and Michael Oard or any of the creationists scientists I trust are published without being properly peer-reviewed by scientists with knowledge in the subject the article speaks of, and about any biblical truths or arguments made in the articles. So your statement that they are not peer-reviewed is not correct. Btw AiG and CMI actually have their own peer-reviewed research journals-- the Answers Research Journal and the Journal of Creation respectively.

Okay. I just did a quick google search and there are articles all over the web about scepticism from scientists about anthropogenic climate change.

Btw consensus means nothing when it comes to what is true. If consensus had anything to do with what is true, then we would have to say that Islam is true because the majority of people in the world are Muslim. Geocentricism was once the consensus view of scientists. In Germany, it was the consensus view that Hitler and the Nazi Party were good for Germany.

I don't mean to directly contradict you, but calling yourself "peer reviewed" does not make you peer reviewed. I am sure that many people published in Answers Research Journal and the Journal of Creation are respectable scientists and have been published in actual peer reviewed journals. But papers only published in ARJ or TJ are not really peer reviewed.

Peer review means you subject your submitted articles to people in the field from all over the place. They must be disinterested parties from across religious, political, and national spectrums. The ARJ and TJ do not do this. I'm not saying that articles in them are wrong; they very well may be correct. But they are definitely not peer reviewed. It's not peer review if you only get reviewed by people that already agree with you.

As for the link you posted, try clicking a few of those google results. Those are papers that are looking into why the public thinks global climate change isn't real despite consensus. The first google result you posted argues that is a political movement largely generated by nonscientists; the second google result is about how newspapers are misrepresenting scientists; the third is about how the media cites scientists opposed to global warming that don't seem to exist. Please verify what I've just said by clicking the links you posted on your own. I'm honestly not making any of this up.

However, your point on consensus is well said. Consensus has often been wrong throughout history, even among scientists. I actually think that mistaken consensus in the history of science is one of the most fascinating fields I've ever studied. The philosophy of science is replete with examples of scientists agreeing on things they never really should have agreed to. In the field of quantum physics right now, for example, there is a huge group of physicists that believe in M-theory [sic], despite no proof having yet been submitted. It really and truly is a fascinating topic for me.

Another thing, no magazine or journal is unbiased. Everyone is biased. E.g. You would likely never see a pro-creation article in Smithsonian Magazine, no matter how well backed-up by research. In fact, someone tried to publish a paper that leaned toward intelligent design. The writer of the article was not even an ID advocate. The guy who published the article was fired for it.

All publications are indeed biased. On that we certainly agree.

Again, I am not commenting on the merits of the articles. I am only pointing out that such articles are not published in peer reviewed journals. Peer-reviewed journals are all inherently biased based on their field. Climate journals, for example, are biased toward the weight of evidence in climate science. That's just how science works. It is no wonder that papers on theories that directly contradict much of the currently published results have a terribly difficult time getting through peer review.

It may turn out that the scientists are wrong. But it cannot be denied that the scientists all agree on the position favoring human-caused climate change.

You probably aren't interested, but as the subject of scientific consensus really and truly deeply interests me, I can't help but to encourage you to look up controversial theories on the philosophy of scientific consensus, such as Feyerabend's theory that all of science has no relation to truth and Kuhn's paradigm shift theory that hypothesizes that scientific consensus is NEVER based on pure logic and facts, but depends heavily on the personal opinions of scientists working in the field.

None of this has to do with climate change consensus, really, but deals with more basic scientific concepts like "what is heat?" or "why do we fall only down and never up?". It is more interesting when the science in question has reached such a level of consensus that almost every person on the planet agrees with the current paradigm; that way you can focus on the meaning behind that consensus more clearly.

01 April, 2012

Why I Identify as Polyamorous

Like many members of minority communities, I often get challenged on my minority self-identification. Common retorts I hear upon my coming out as polyamorous are "sounds like you're pretty childish", "are you afraid of commitment?", "so you just enjoy cheating", or even the particularly hurtful "that's so unethical". Of course, not all people are like this; most people I meet are actually fairly understanding and accepting of it.

Yet I think it's time for me to write a blog post for those online readers who fall into the former category. Perhaps, as a reader who stumbled across this blog randomly, you might find yourself wondering what I mean by putting my polyamorous status up on the sidebar under my name. Maybe you think I am unethical, or possibly misguided. If you're thinking anything along that line, then this blog entry is for you.

Although the term polyamory sounds weird to anyone trained in Greek or Latin, the concept itself is really quite simple. It is a philosophy of multiple loves, and is usually associated with people whose romantic partners are not limited to a single person. There are several types of polyamorist groupings, including polyfidelity (such as closed triads), group marriages (as depicted in Stranger in a Strange Land), polygamy (as exemplified by LDS' "plural" marriage), and open relationships (indicating openness to new relationships at any time), among others. The reason there are so many types is because polyamory really refers to all forms of consensual non-monogamy.

Philosophically, I self-identify as polyamorous because I can make very little sense out of the premise that love can only occur once for each person. If you are a physicalist, then you must admit that love, spectacular though it might be, arises from physical phenomena. To think, then, that these phenomena cannot recur with a different person seems quite ludicrous on the face of it. Truly, polyamory should be the default position for anyone thinking clearly about the origins of the feelings of love itself.

Perhaps surprisingly, I think that it actually is the default position. For example, most people are easily willing to admit that widows can fall in love again. But if you honestly believe love can recur with a different person after your first love dies, then why could it not have occurred while your first love was still living? Time is not a relevant factor here; surely whether love occurs or not cannot be dependent upon time. So even though most people do not themselves recognize it, I think the vast majority of people are already philosophically dedicated to a polyamorist viewpoint, though only including multiple partners in time, not space.

I should also point out that polyamory is not cheating; cheating involves deception and the violation of an agreement. Honesty and openness is required in order for polyamory to work. (Of course, there's nothing preventing cheating from occurring even in polyamorous relationships, but, predictably, it seems that less cheating occurs than in monogamous relationships.)

In fact, it is monogamy, not polyamory, which seems more ripe for unethical behavior. Lying and cheating are not uncommon among people who want a relationship to continue on one level, but have already started looking elsewhere for other levels. Serial monogamy, for example, is extremely common in today's culture. Yet it is hypocritical to pretend one is ethical merely by being against polyamory, and yet having no problem with dating multiple people in succession. Separating people out into chunks of time and ensuring none of the times overlap is not monogamy. It is only polyamory of a different sort. Plus, it involves lying, as serial monogamists tend to never indicate to their current partner that they fully intend to move on to another later on.

To top it all off, polyamorous individuals are far more capable of being honest with one another on relationship issues. Relationships can move from stages of lust to commitment without internal worry that the relationship is dying from a change in sexual activity. Commitment fears are eliminated since the institution of a relationship does not prevent further ones from starting. Asexual individuals can participate in romance without preventing their partner from experiencing sex. Sexually-needy people can satiate their needs without overwhelming a single partner. Best of all, polyamory reinforces the idea Bertrand Russell proposed in his Marriage and Morals, that laws and ideas about sex must be re-evaluated along with the times to better reflect only those moral judgments which have validity in society.

For more information about polyamory, I suggest looking into The Ethical Slut, r/polyamory, alt.polyamory, Polyamory in the News, & Polyamory on Facebook. Or, if you want to talk to someone in person, try googling your city along with the word "polyamory". You'll find that there are more of us around than you may have earlier realized. (c: