Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Troubling Charity

Chappell has some good points to make about charity.

But...is there a charity that gives out responsibility and initiative? Is there a charity that people would give to if they couldn't tell anyone else that they gave to it? Is there a charity that willfully self-destructs by trying to solve the underlying cause, rather than treating symptoms?

The actual underlying fact is that I can't feel good about giving to any charity I know, which makes me wonder if a product model (warm fuzzies) might be optimal for charities, rather than my naive former understanding. (See also: lotteries. They sell dreams, not odds at cash.)

Having said that explicitly, it makes my former analysis seem so incidental...(Below; possible rationalization warning)

That first one is my biggie. If you're truly committed to utilitarian stranger-welfare ends, in the long term, then the current underclasses will have to support themselves, partly because charity is capricious and unstable, and partly because humans crave independence. Under what conditions is it better to start learning responsibility at a later point than right now?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Oops You Exist

I was thinking about error, and trying to pin down my intuitions on how often humans have succeeded at Y by getting X wrong, when I realized that, you know, natural selection.
Humans per se are just really really really bad non-nuclear mono-cellular proto-life. Literally, physics took a cell, tried to copy it, made a crapton of errors, and ended up with the human species.
Uh...oops you exist.

Just think about that next time you're embarrassed about making a mistake.

Open Season

I don't mind off-topic posts. I sincerely can't see how they're harmful.

Indeed, I'm about to encourage them. This post has no topic. All comments are therefore offtopic. Post anyway!

Here's mine:

All comments are emailed to me, so I don't miss any.

RSS feeds are the reason I don't see any necessity to post regularly, though I will perhaps make the attempt at some point.

I can be a selfish bastard. I'd prefer not to post my email, but you can ask me to email you and I will. Spam filters are pretty good these days...but the best spam filter is just not to have a public email. On the other hand I can easily post and then delete my email, and then nobody has to have it out there publicly (for long).

I wonder if there's anyone who knows in detail the pros and cons of posting their email. It seems to just be the thing to do, without any thought either way.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Earthquake vs. Evolution

This sort of thing (HT) is actually quite a challenge to evolution. Imagine what a species has to go through to select for earthquake detection: either most individuals that can't detect earthquakes have to die, or else the detectors have to breed disproportionately. With the reliability these toads display, the faculty would have to be selected for extremely strongly - earthquakes massacring toads over and over or somehow causing a huge offspring disparity over several generations.

Both are problematic. Toads are small, thus light and can take to the water. An earthquake doesn't have much purchase on particular individuals. Their response to the quake actually takes them away from spawning, so I have a hard time imagining the earthquake-dodging toads breed a great deal more.

Secondly, every generation without an earthquake is going to damage to earthquake-detecting genes. Genetic drift will reliably erode them. Except for places with very frequent shocks like the San Andreas fault, the ability should die out long before it is put to use.

What all this adds up to is that toads are dodging earthquakes without ever having been selected to dodge earthquakes.

A word on anecdotal evidence. It's still evidence. Don't ignore evidence because it's unfashionable.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Factually Incorrect, But What Is the Intuition Getting At?

I have been irritated. Luckily, I have a blog.
""Deductively, we can assert that either Dr. Fukino is lying, or she is telling the truth"
Elizabeth Loftus disagrees. Yet again, philosophy fails to contribute."
No, this is a failure to understand philosophy. Predictably, from someone who thinks that philosophy fails to contribute. The belief obscures any evidence to the contrary, because philosophy is run on the wetware - you need to take philosophy seriously enough to install the programs before you can accurately evaluate its statements.

Either Fukino thinks she's seen a birth certificate, or not. Whether she has actually seen a legitimate document, or used her hypocrisy circuits to invent a memory of such, is quite irrelevant to whether she is lying or not.[1]

Would this small modification have helped?
"Therefore, B.H. Obama and [or] his associates [think they] are actively withholding this historical document (which should not be confused with a database printout on fancy paper) from the public in the face of substantial public interest. Remember, this is a best-case scenario."
I don't think so; I made this change automatically, as part of interpreting writings charitably, but perhaps this is a specialized skill which is more difficult than I realize.

I think there's something more to these anti-philosophy charades (I see them everywhere) that I don't fully understand. The issue of being factually incorrect is blinding me. I suspect that the situation is somewhat symmetrical - they don't understand philosophy, and I don't understand what they're finding objectionable in philosophy. Any ideas would be appreciated.

I should also mention that several commenters suggested that Obama is withholding on purpose. He's already president, so fait accompli, and a lot of his opponents are wasting time with this dead end. A sign of utter unscrupulousness, if so, but pure win for him, strategically.

[1] For the record I don't care either way. Citizenship is just a contrived legal hurdle, the real question is who should be president, for the good of the country, and the real answer is no one.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

King and Country Debate

I was researching the general field of debate when I came across "world's most prestigious debating society" and its famous debate.

My prior position is that debating societies reliably disappoint me. However, of the set of all things which at one point disappointed me, I have come to find value in many of them after more thoroughly investigation. Nevertheless, I was confident that Oxford Union would disappoint me.

Soon, I was reading that,
"It is no mere coincidence that the only country fighting for the cause of peace, Soviet Russia, is the country that has rid itself of the war-mongering clique."
Communism: for when you just aren't prestigious enough! Though the resemblance to anarchist rhetoric should not be denied,[1] one should also not deny the how hilariously wrong the dove side already is. Fighting for peace? No war-mongering clique? I can guess that Kenelm Digby had no shame and wasn't the least embarrassed by that little thing we called the Cold War. I wonder how he felt about the Gulags; they weren't dying in war, per se...

It was looking good for my preconceptions. There's of course more amusing absurdities that follow that line, but the real clincher has nothing much to do with Digby.

"What is generally forgotten (but arguably more significant as an example of the Union's commitment to freedom of speech) is that an attempt was made by several prominent Union members (including Randolph Churchill) to expunge this motion and the result of the debate from the Union's minute book. This attempt was roundly defeated — in a meeting far better attended than the original debate. Sir Edward Heath records in his memoirs that Randolph Churchill was then chased around Oxford by undergraduates who intended to debag him (i.e. humiliate him by removing his trousers), and was then fined by the police for being illegally parked."

"We're for peace! And we'll beat up anyone who disagrees with us!"

Just in case you think this is insufficient evidence for hypocrisy, I found more. Focus especially on the last two sentences.

"Speaking after the debate, Digby said: "I believe that the motion was representative neither of the majority of the undergraduates of Oxford nor of the youth of this country. I am certain if war broke out tomorrow the students of the university would flock to the recruiting office as their fathers and uncles did."[3] He was proved right. [...] McCallum recalled at the outbreak of war two students, "men of light and leading in their college and with a good academic record", visited him to say goodbye before leaving to join their units. Both of them had separately said that if they had to vote on the "King and Country" resolution then and there, they would do so. One of them said: "I am not going to fight for King and Country, and you will notice that no one, not Chamberlain, not Halifax, has asked us to".[12]"

Yes, the anarchists in the audience can relax. The Oxford Union stands for Stalin, not non-violence, pretences to the contrary notwithstanding.

Oh, and by the way, Oxford Union can go ahead and 'free speech' my ass.

[1] Anarchists; peace is always better than aggressive war and war is the result of a minority with the ability to externalize the costs of war. No coercive minority, no war. (War to defend property within one's borders is not by this definition aggressive.)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Bayesian Regress

I was fascinated to discover that the Bayesian reasoner's probability of Bayes' formula being true calculates to zero.

I should start by mentioning that my probability estimate for Bayes' formula being useful is 100%. At least I hope so, since I often use it.

To calculate the probability using Bayesian analysis requires assuming the Bayes formula - in classical terms, begging the question. But, I thought, perhaps the series can converge? Every run-through changes the probability assigned to the Bayes' formula step of the calculation, so it needs to be run until it settles down. However, any sub-unity number multiplied by itself enough times converges to zero. It's an article of Bayesian reasoning that no priors can be unity. Oops.

Bayes' formula was discovered and proved within the context of classical logic, and indeed even the Bayesian reasoner must use one prior step of classical logic before they go on their statistical voyage. They must assume that Bayes' formula is unconditionally true.

There's a similar problem estimating the odds of yourself being mistaken. If you run the calculation once, perhaps you get a reasonable number, like 2%. But this calculation is reflexive - the odds that you're mistaken about being that mistaken is 2%. Works out to a 3.96% chance of being mistaken. But it's reflexive, so...a Bayesian calculation shows I have a 100% chance of being mistaken on every subject. Therefore, I'm wrong that you can understand the individual words I'm now typing.

Though clearly nonsense, I enjoy this result because I've often suspected that self-doubt in the usual sense can't be logically upheld. Especially if I'm not evaluating evidence, but taking action, the correct course is insensitive to doubt. If I'm faced with a black box with several buttons, one of which will serve my goals if pushed, whether I assume I have a 30% chance of being wrong or a 0% chance, I push the same button. It only changes if I have a higher estimate of being right for some other button - but it changes instantly and entirely, so again my action indistinguishable from one with utter certainty.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Logicking at Black Holes 2, Digressing Onto LHC

So I was thinking about black holes some more, and I concluded that the nascent event horizon will indeed prevent its own formation...unless space is quantized. Infalling particles would jump directly from a region of finite time dilation to inside the event horizon. This gets interesting as Einstein's relativity is inconsistent with quantized space, so we'd need to update the theory of gravity, and quantized gravity may not have a black hole solution in the first place. Although if not, it is likely to have something similar, what with all those massive dark astral objects.

There's also some housekeeping regarding my previous post. I'm glad someone else has noticed that black holes should prevent themselves from forming. Truth is available to everyone, which means that independent discovery should happen with basically every true idea. Only lies can be truly creative and unique. (Indeed I just found an argument that the classical black hole would reverse its own time before an event horizon is formed...in short, nature abhors an infinity.)[1]

However, the large hadron collider is not dangerous. While Hawking's calculation may not be consistent with an actual unified quantum gravity, it is consistent with things like thermodynamics #2; even if Hawking is wrong in the details there is every reason to think that black holes decay. For example, using my ideas (or Pegrume's) the black hole is really a collection of almost-infinitely redshifted objects. Hawking relied on the sharp event horizon, but imagine instead that a virtual particle pair forms, one half annihilates a real particle, and the other tunnels out. Essentially this is a captured particle tunnelling out of the black hole, and thus a loss of mass, and thus, Hawking radiation, even though half of Hawking's assumptions were counter-assumed away. The result is robust like this in several ways.

Considering a micro black hole, I remember that matter is in fact mostly empty space, and that the thing which makes a black hole is gravitational gradient. So this micro black hole is basically a few massively redshifted particles very close together, but the dangerous volume they create is smaller than a proton; beyond this their fields appear completely normal, for example a black hole doesn't amplify gravity, so the gravitational attraction will be that of a few individual particles, exactly as they were before the atom smashing. Between small volumes and empty space, unless the phenomenon is completely stable, it will decay before it manages to grow enough to stabilize.

Using the maximum possible energy the LHC can produce, assuming all of the energy is captured by the black hole, it would have a Schwarzschild radius of less than a Planck length.
Let me say that again: less than a Planck length. A lot less, like ten orders of magnitude less. Don't forget that most neutrinos can make it through the entire Earth without touching anything. The cross section of a neutrino is way, way higher than a Planck length.

Further, virtual particles swarm around real particles; this phenomenon is responsible for shielding some of the naked charge of the electron, for example. Clouds of virtual particles should corrode the black holes.[2]

Similarly, the idea that the LHC will somehow do things not before seen in nature is preposterous human hubris. Every time before we thought we've been clever, we've been shown up, often by 'lowly' creatures like sea cucumbers, or random comets. While it's impossible to rule out total destruction, the correct odds for the LHC in particular are exactly those of any new technology, like internal combustion. Even assuming we do eventually manage global apocalypse, we're not going to know it might happen beforehand.

Every single factor is stacked against catastophe, even though consensus physics is wildly wrong about black holes.[3]

[1] Pegrume wants the index linked. First, he should say so on the individual pages, I was checking for crankishness when I found the request. (He certainly lacks a proofreader, as attested by a serious problem typing with 'none' instead of 'non.') Second, his request is unreasonable, but luckily he provided the reasons, so I'm interpreting it.

[2] Real black holes theoretically emit less Hawking radiation than they receive in cosmic radiation. They're big enough to have a noticeable cross section to catch radiation, and Hawking radiation drops with size.

[3] Physicists even suspect they're wrong, as in every other case a singularity is not a sign that nature breaks down, but rather a sign that the mathematical models break down, and are thus incomplete.

Monday, May 17, 2010

"Compassionate" Politicians - Exactly Not

(HT) Just in case you were worried politicians might actually care about their constituents, someone ran the numbers.

Using investment rather than the welfare state bureaucracy, you can purchase an annuity of more than your annual income for the price of the social security tax you were paying anyway. Combining Murray's numbers with La Wik's, you can have private doctors for about the cost of public doctors, if that's what you are actually after. In other words, drop wait times, lose the bad attitude, and provide an incentive for smart students to become doctors, and in return get doctors for everyone.

We all know politicians are liars. But do you really get what that means? "Our new initiative will help the poor and the sick by...." Whatever the initiative will do, you can be sure it is not helping the poor or the sick.

I have no idea if the authors actually connected, but I first read a version of this idea on Unqualified Reservations; MM noted that simply giving every American a financial instrument equivalent to their legislative due would be vastly more effective at the stated goals than what's actually going on.

This is how you can tell that the stated goals are just noise. The solutions are generally practised elsewhere, simpler to design, not difficult to understand, and if ignorance is a barrier, then simply showing your representative Murray's article should sweep it away. Despite this, what's actually created are byzantine networks that both intentionally obfuscate and always seem to put lots of money in the pockets of politician's friends...

What's even more interesting to me is that it works. The golden goose never seriously questions the story that its egg is being sold to provide bread for poor children. It's even more remarkable if you consider how easy it is to draw a person into outrage at their governments, as long as you limit the discussion to concrete particulars.
(Just in case you're worried that the person does have good things to say about their government as well, check to see if they're using vague happy-speak or whether they can talk specifically of actual uncompromised benefits, without ignoring their downsides.)

Murray also touches on the real issue. "The welfare state is pernicious ultimately because it drains too much of the life from life." If socialism simply taxed the wallet, it would just be annoying. The real problem is that socialism taxes the soul. I was tempted to think this is a side effect, but I found out that the degradation of family and community greatly benefits the perpetrators of the welfare state, although I hesitate to say it is 'intentional.' For example, did Alfred Kinsey want to promote violent, jealous rages, or was he just out to prove his own impulses were morally sound? To the democratic state, however, all those warped children are sources of power. So, Kinsey's friends get funding and exposure, while his enemies, the opponents of human misery, perhaps equally oblivious of their sociological role, become persecuted.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Meta-science Dismissed

I was reading about some reasons to distrust meta-analysis, and when I went to evaluate the ideas' merits, I remembered a source of error that I'd read about recently. I enjoy Eades' epistemological takedowns, but this one basically amounts to, "Meta-analyses are usually done wrong."

Eades is correct to dismiss meta-analyses, though perhaps not for the reasons he thinks. (I suspect experience guided him.) Although he has good reasons; a meta-study including methodologically poor studies is going to be a poor meta-study, and a meta-study has to be very careful to include data fairly. If it fails to do either, I would call it a mistake, not a study; it's quite possible for a meta-analysis to do both properly.

This mainly impacts journalistic writing, as they'll happily write on any study that fits their agenda, and generally forget caveats and other subtleties. If you're in a position to read the actual paper, you're in a position to tell if they're cherry-picking data.

However, how many meta-studies do you suppose correct for the fact that neutral or negative studies don't result in papers? I'm not sure how I would check, but I'm going with negative zero. They can't even try to deal with cherry-picking that occurred before the paper is published.

It's a shame. Yesterday, the meta-study was my favourite kind of statistical study.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Flynn Effect vs. Retards?

The clinical cutoff for the mental cripple is an IQ of 70. Flynn noticed that the average - normed to IQ 100 - is getting smarter. There's a qualitative cutoff at the mental cripple stage. Such a person is literally too stupid to support themselves, and require lifelong care. Basically, childcare extends across adulthood.

Setting aside edge cases (which can be statistically smoothed out) is the cutoff actually dropping, as the Flynn effect would predict?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

An Obvious Dilemma?

Blogging and print journalism seem to share a dilemma.

Obvious thought is not necessary; the audience can figure it out on their own. The only real barrier is inclination, which can be overcome simply by vaguely gesturing in a particular direction.
Non-obvious thought is automatically more useful, but deters audiences, because it is difficult both to convey and to understand.

I'm not interested in reading or writing about the obvious, and you're reading this blog; you're probably the same way. There don't seem to be enough of us to fully support blogs that pursue non-obvious ideas.

This can somewhat be overturned by posting long enough to put forth a full explanation. Beyond generating complaints, I wonder what effects long posts actually have on readers. Books work; is there some no-mans-land in the middle?

I wonder if a compromise would work. Perhaps consistent posts on the obvious peppered with eyeball busting treatises, at say 10-1. I suspect there's a lot of intersection between readers who want to be in the choir and readers who want an uphill read.

I think this dilemma has defined the idea of 'news.' One way to be both simple and useful is to supply small updates to existing bodies of knowledge. Unfortunately for the purposes of discourse, small and obvious amounts to insignificant. Thus, neither actionable ideas nor mind-changing ideas are economically viable to share. My issues with journalism may stem from journalism bloating beyond areas like weather, where facts that are insignificant as ideas can have significant physical consequences.

The part about 'existing knowledge' seems like it would drive expectations in the wrong way, too. The existing knowledge is necessary to make the update obvious, but having been raised on a diet of the obvious, can you deal properly with the non-obvious? Isn't your first instinct going to be to treat it as obvious but wrong? It was certainly my first instinct, and it would rather neatly explain around 3/4 of blog comments.

This dilemma has probably shaped the idea of 'science' as well. Specialists cannot be economically sustained by selling the ideas they develop; hence grants. Given the abysmal efficiency we're seeing grants achieve, I hope this one is a false dilemma. Since selling to a journal-equivalent is not sufficient, science should find some other voluntary exchange which does supply enough wealth. (Indeed, science did not begin in the age of grants, though measuring science by number of papers began then.)

On the other hand, sharing ideas is something humans seem to do for free. From time to time. Experiments remain expensive, but I have to ask; is there demand for science? If grants weren't cornering the market, would there be efforts to find voluntary alternatives, or would science die out, as grant-proponents (naturally) say?

More importantly, is there actually a market for ideas per se? Funding thinkers certainly puts more ideas out there, and conversely, perverted and neglected IP rights suppress the idea market. But exceeding the actual demand inherently implies waste. If ideas cannot be sold above the cost of production, there are more ideas than people want. Perhaps neglecting the market is actually the good choice. Perhaps the only reason there are so many ideas out there is that one day long ago, a scholar was frustrated that their preferred leisure was unprofitable, and then, through the devil's own luck, came into power.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Taxation versus Crime

I was surprised to discover how badly neglected the direct link between taxation and crime is.

Criminals commit crime because they perceive that crime pays. Conversely, the more rewarding legitimate work is, the more limited the rewards of sacrificing legitimacy are, in both quality and quantity. Anything that reduces that reward is going to directly stimulate crime. All this can be derived more or less a priori.

I've only found one place discussing this link, and the data look bad to me. Beyond the simple confirm/deny dichotomy, different types of crime will respond to variance in payoff differently.

This means a few things. Even setting aside anarcho-capitalist flavoured violations of property rights, raising taxes has an inescapable odour of immorality. Even setting aside corruption, government waste not only wastes the honest dollar, it creates new dishonest dollars. (Though I stress that rewards, both honest and dishonest, need not be financial.)

Finally, a patchwork would not end up taxing at the Laffer maximum, because a patch with lower taxation will inevitably have a lower crime rate, thus attracting immigration, all else equal. Competition implies market implies consumer goodies.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Experiment Confirms Biased Decision-Making; Irritation

"Our fears were confirmed."
It's not a statement that fills me with epistemological confidence.

I'm indeed interested in the long-term effects of short-term emotions, but the experiment design here doesn't help me. I strongly suspect that emotions have effects that last beyond their qualia, and I think ignoring or lacking this suspicion is what ruined this experiment.

The fear in question is that a bad decision made in the heat of the moment will echo in the future, and indeed I agree that bad decisions are habit-forming, as are all decisions.

The problem is that replicating the situation so closely is likely to consciously remind the subject of their bad mood. If I've been in a lab and played the economic ultimatum game once, and I was pretty annoyed at the time, no matter how long you wait, the second time I'm in a lab playing the ultimatum game, I'm going to remember how annoyed I was the first time around. Rightly or wrongly, I'm going to associate the annoyance with the game.

Andrade and Ariely did not test what they thought they tested.

"They were tapping the memory of the decisions they had made earlier, when they were responding under the influence of feeling annoyed."

False. They were being annoyed a second time around. They did not make a second bad decision while cool-headed.

"If you don’t, you may regret it. Many times over."

If indeed I'm saving time by re-using the result of a previous analysis, how important is it really if one of those times I have lost my cool? If I'm doing something for the thousandth time, instead of the first, and I happen to make a suboptimal decision due to stress, how likely is it that the thousandth-and-first time I'm going to reference only the bad decision?

For this particular example, I can't confirm I'm the best model, but I would actually improve my overall decision making as a result of this bad decision. Seeing first-hand what a bad decision looks like, I would be able to contrast the results directly to both my previous decisions, and my current decision. I would be able to recognize more subtle versions of stress effects on my decisions, because I would have essentially seen in magnified.

However, experiments cannot fail. You always learn something - even if it's just a way not to design experiments. In this case, it supports the idea that the all-important first impression is affected by 'rationally' irrelevant factors, such as overall mood that day.

I already knew this, but independent corroboration is always nice. When trying something for the first time, I start by making sure I'm in a good mood, and abort if something upsetting happens on the way there, unless I'm completely okay with a distorted assessment.

Psych. My conclusion makes the same mistake as Andrade and Ariely; the actual experiment is ambiguous. This experiment does falsify certain things, but not anything Andrade, Ariely, or I actually believe. As such, the only real conclusion is that you shouldn't design an experiment this way, and if we're going to have tax-funded science, it should at least spend some dough on experiments to pick apart why exactly this design does not work.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Weinburg Inspires Sailer to Flaunt Ignorance

The link has been sitting in my bookmarks for a while, taunting me. (And will remain there, as it's also useful.) I think the taunting is ultimately why I'm writing this post up, because as per the blog name, I should accept that most people are going to be ignorant of philosophy most of the time. I don't really think that there's much point in doing much more than pointing out that ignorance renders your opinion meaningless, and that the ignorant soul should study some philosophy if that bothers them. I would also warn that doing it properly is an incredible time sink.

Except there's a bit of paradox, as philosophy shows a clear trickle-down effect, where professional thoughts show up all unreferenced in the layman. Being totally without a philosophy is impossible, which means the total ignorance one can have on building suspension bridges doesn't obtain. I think that means I should say, "Ignorant of the philosophicalness of their philosophy," which captures both the ineptitude and the disdain.

There's a clear thread of anti-philosophy sentiment among the parts of the intelligentsia that consider themselves hard-headed.[1] A good bite-sized example is Feynman's quoted position. The people I meet express similar disdain when I ask them. I understand it even shows up in blog titles. Similarly, the other side is feeling some pressure.

Naturally, I feel I must rise to the defence, at least when the detractor is eloquent.

"Is there a more prestigious job title than "philosopher"?"
I'm going to go with 'yes' for $600, Jim. While I'm sure this was true recently, I've personally seen lots of screeds against the idea, and a whopping zero like the opposite. I'd write one myself, except that I think status should follow from your results, not your job or associations.
"Yet, in what other profession has more brainpower made less progress?"
This does tidily sum up the essay, which makes it an excellent introduction.
"But the only value Weinberg ever found in reading philosophers was when they refuted other philosophers who had clouded his mind."
I don't believe philosophy is immune to Sturgeon's second. Admittedly, I don't do much reading of philosophers either. Quickly glancing[2] over Kant's wikipedia yielded the thought "This guy's considered great and influential? All this is obvious!" Except I shortly realized that that's what influential means. His thought has influenced mine, all unawares.

Setting aside Sturgeon, and the fact that Weinberg probably owes a great deal of his ideas to philosophers, there's still a good reason for Weinberg's perception that doesn't actually impugn philosophy at all. Weinberg gets one thing right; appreciating advanced philosophy, like appreciating advanced mathematics, takes training in the subject, and as such they're comparable. The constructs are programs which run on wetware, which means you have to install in your person the prerequisite libraries before they're meaningful. So...when did Weinberg install the philosophy libraries? The math he'd already done, as it's necessary to learn physics. The result is that Weinberg's statement, and by extension Sailer's, declares ignorance of philosophy, not the uselessness of it.
"Even the most esoteric math has helped him describe the cosmos. But the only value Weinberg ever found in reading philosophers was when they refuted other philosophers who had clouded his mind."
"My math-based job is helped by more math! But, this subject in which I have no training is totally useless to me!" In addition, I can't use lathes to create chairs. As above, while you can sit on a chair without even knowing lathes exist, philosophy has no such helpful external aides.
"While engineers or farmers or bartenders have all learned a trick or two over the years, philosophers mostly either rehash the same old mistakes or dream up new ones that are even more ridiculous."
My ignorance hypothesis covers this neatly. Even if, having defeated ignorance, you still don't much care for classical philosophy, Anglosphere civilization still owes an enormous amount to one type of philosophy, Christian theology. For example, the vaunted egalitarianism is straight out of the Bible, which you can verify by noting its utter absence from non-Christian civilizations. It is one of the reasons African civilizations aren't resistant to democracy. That humans outside the tribe are people is not a belief that has major traction, worldwide.
"To this day, most philosophers suffer from Plato's disease: the assumption that reality fundamentally consists of abstract essences best described by words or geometry."
Even Plato is on record for attacking the idea of Forms. Ignorance leads to strawmen.
"(In truth, reality is largely a probabilistic affair best described by statistics.)"
So...Sailer thinks that even physics isn't quite sure what physics is? I won't deny our knowledge is often best described statistically.
"Today's postmodern philosophers[...]"
You can stop right there. I haven't seen a respected postmodern apologia. You know, ever. They're defeated, and it's only a matter of time before their lack of proponents means their influence wanes even among the laymen.
"You have to be as eminent a philosopher as Rorty to believe that the category of "the female" is a mere social convention."
Okay. Can you prove that it isn't? Otherwise, that's just your opinion, your prejudice. (And yes, I can.) As a matter of fact, philosophy often involves the cessation of belief in things that seem obvious, because 'it's obvious' is not an argument. All must be proven - one way, or the other. Though it does appear that this skill is tightly correlated with traits that add up to roughly 'eminent philosopher.'

As I re-read that, I think Rorty actually means, "the category "female" is a meaningless category." He wants to make a point that treating women differently is unjust, or something along those lines. Almost all categories are 'mere' social convention - arbitrary and subjective. Even bowls. But, an entity being a member of 'bowl' is greatly meaningful, and far more meaningful is being part of the category 'woman.'
Frankly, if you have to deny a woman's femininity to prove that treating her badly is unjust, there's something wrong with you.

"Fortunately, one school of philosophy has actually taught us some valuable lessons over the centuries: the anti-abstract British tradition of Roger Bacon, Francis Bacon and David Hume, with its emphasis on realism, common sense and the scientific method."

Yawn. One day, people will stop having an orgasm every time they mention 'the scientific method,' that fuzzy beast. Perhaps they'll even start referencing actual particulars with actual meaning. I'll greatly enjoy these as I sail around in my moon-yacht
First problem with this sentence; as far as there's such a thing as the scientific method, it's a result of epistemology. Second, Hume is already highly respected, while I've never seen Rorty referenced without making fun of him, to the point that I barely feel the need to join in. Final problem, "Philosophers who hold my philosophy are awesome, and the rest suck!" It's a form of Dunning-Kruger to fail to recognize craftmanship when the craft on display isn't one you personally have use for.

"Stove simply shreds his fellow philosophers. He turns his flamethrower on those "absolutely effortless pseudo-discoveries that philosophers make, and on which their fame rests." For instance, "Plato's discovery of 'universals' went as follows: 'It is possible for something to be a certain way and for something else to be the same way. So, there are universals!' (Tumultuous applause, which lasts 2,400 years.)""

Stove was pretty cool. I'm not going to directly address the issues in the last sentence.

Universals are commonly used by scientists. Linnaean taxonomy, for example, groups multiple organisms under a single universal name, and then ascribes properties to the category, not individuals. The universal electronness of electrons is universally accepted. The questions that must be answered by philosophical history are; did Plato just write down what was already commonly known, or in fact is it commonly known because Plato wrote it down? Even were Plato simply justifying common knowledge, isn't that in itself valuable? Even if Plato were just writing down common knowledge, isn't that valuable if no one else had done so before?

Admittedly it would be pretty ironic if the task of writing down common sense naturally falls to philosophers. Though this gives me an idea; writing down common sense is an ideal task for philosophy apprentices. First, it gives a record of things that historians and archaeologists often lament as going unrecorded. Second, it helps the master find all the arrogant idiocies the apprentice absorbed growing up, and so can correct them more adroitly. Why, the master may even find a few they'd missed in themselves.

"While his reasoning is impressive, it is also in the Grand Tradition of Western Philosophy: namely, almost 100% fact-free. (Elsewhere, Stove readily admits that philosophers "have no more knowledge of any matter that could serve as the premises of their reasonings than the next man has.")"

I'm not sure how widespread is the knowledge that philosophy isn't supposed to deal with facts. The actual work of philosophy is in finding meaning using logic. It is not necessary for the meaning to actually match anything in the real world for it to be true, and thus good philosophy. As a matter of preference, I try to stick to ontologies that have a shot at being human meaningful, but matching the logical roots to actual data is not philosophical work, even if a philosopher does it.

"But even worse than ignoring statistical data, philosophers seldom understand statistical logic. In this case, for example, while the IQs of men and women are equal on average, men's IQ's are more variable. Thus, as any woman could testify, there are more really stupid men. But, there are also far more male geniuses."

Bias: Sailer is awfully enamoured with statistics. ("Plumbing most important job to civilization, says plumber.") Yes, understanding statistics is important enough to understanding the world that you can tell that our society doesn't offer liberal educations because statistics isn't included.[3], [4] However, as per my previous paragraph, it is indeed an issue when philosophers don't understand statistical logic, unless they intend to dodge the field entirely. On the other hand, Sturgeon's second. Further, philosophers are not exactly alone in ignorance of statistical logic. Actual statisticians are often bad at it, let alone anyone else.

"Stove flagrantly exhibits philosophers' worst trait -- emphasizing verbal abstractions over statistical tendencies -- when he ill-advisedly attacks the grandest offshoot of his own school of British empiricism, Darwinism, which he calls a "mere festering mass of errors.""

"I disagree with you, therefore, you're committing errors." I'm still not sure exactly what Sailer means by his 'verbal, abstract essences.' I'd like to make a good-faith check that his criticism doesn't apply to me, but I can't.

"Philosophers of the world, get real! You have nothing to lose but your irrelevance."
The idea that philosophy is useless is itself a philosophy. It's a thread of analytical philosophy in particular:
"Analytic philosophers are in revolt against the grand manner of traditional philosophy which claimed much and (in their view) established nothing."
Seem familiar? Of course it's a bit worse than that. Socrates faced the exact same issue with the Sophists, the term philosophy created expressly to mock the Sophists and distance the new studies from them. It comes as no surprise to me that many philosophers have followed in the footsteps of the Sophists. The problem with the Sophists was never their tradition, customs, or incentive structure, but the fact that thinking professionally about logic, epistemology, and ontology comes with occupational hazards, such as arrogance and sophistry.

Indeed, what are screeds like Sailer's doing but replaying the Sophist drama once again, with 'philosophers' now taking the part of arrogant politickers and the 'scientists' the upstart asker of questions? It makes me wonder how much of the Sophist's reputation is deserved and how much was because Socrates won the smear campaign.

This brings me to my wild tangent.

"Mediterranean peoples such as Jews and Italians, who have been drinking wine for 10,000 years, have evolved impressive genetic and cultural defences against becoming alcoholics. In contrast, Northern Europeans, who first obtained alcohol only a few millennia ago, haven't fully adapted genetically to alcohol yet, and thus must often turn to cruder cultural responses like teetotalling, prohibition and the Betty Ford Clinic. Finally, those racial groups unfortunate enough not to taste alcohol and other sugar-based products until the last few centuries, such as the First Nations peoples of Canada and the Australian Aborigines, are currently being devastated by alcoholism, tooth decay and diabetes."

The Internet is the same. Specifically, comment sections. As technology has marched on, we seem to be progressively finding methods of communication further and further removed from the face-to-face. However, of those methods, only letters have developed conventions far different from those of face-to-face, producing the communication equivalent of tooth decay and diabetes. So, in a few centuries or millennia, I predict we'll have had time to adapt to this new technology. Until then, accept as inevitable the decay of your comment section into "FIRST!" semiliterate babbling, gay jokes, and spew from the fellow travellers of neonazis. At least, without drastic measures ("teetotalling") which most find do more harm than good.

[1] I don't care whether they're actually hard-headed; rather this self-evaluation looks to me to mark the group with good precision.

[2] I wanted a survey to try to direct my search. Eventually I concluded that osmosis is strong enough that if I've missed anything, reinventing the wheel is faster than trying to find it in places like Critique of Pure Reason.

[3] Also, things like how much life insurance you need. Here's the calculation: your income, times the years until your dependents aren't, plus your debts. What this means is that if you die the day your insurance goes through, your dependents will have the benefit of your support until they no longer need it, and won't be responsible for your debts. Also, buy term. It's ridiculously cheap, and isn't a ponzi scheme. Difficult, eh? Can you think of a class or two you'd have liked to replace with something useful, like life insurance?

[4] Unless you make the effort to specifically seek out statistics, and then you get the full technical details, instead of being taught to understand the stuff. No, I don't need to actually perform regression analysis or power transformations, nor do I need to memorize Bayes' formula, because I never need to actually perform these calculations. But I do need to understand what they mean and what they're about.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

So I was thinking about school homework...

...and I realized it makes a mockery of child labour laws.

"Tonight, your homework is to vacuum your house." Awesome, no? And since the teachers already know how long it's going to take, either 'only a few minutes' or 'only a few hours' depending on the grade, they can even pay in advance! "You are also assigned to be paid $50." Who could argue with that?

I mean, sure, it's not gonna be as useless, degrading, or painful as 'real' homework, but it should be bad enough!

Can you think of other jobs to assign as homework? Do share.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Oil Consumption versus Reserve Reduction, 2005-2009

I was watching a video (HT: hey bro) on exponential growth and exponential consumption, and it was talking about how much oil there was in 1970, (1.740 * 1012) and how if we'd kept our growth rates, we'd be out by now. He mentions this is very simple arithmetic. Sadly, the world is not so clean. I decided to found how complicated the world of oil reserves actually is.

In 2005, oil reserves were 1,349,417,153,000 barrels.

In 2009, oil reserves were 1,348,528,420,000 barrels.

(P90 proven reserves, those that have a 90% chance of being economically recoverable.)

In 2009, the world consumed 85,220,000 barrels a day. I hope you'll forgive a little fudging, but this number has not changed greatly in the last four years. So that means that between 2005 and 2009, about 124 billion barrels of oil were combusted.

And oil reserves went down by 889 million.

Reserves reduced only by about 140th of the amount burnt. This number isn't stable, it's just to ballpark the power technological growth has on available resources (and to show why a little fudging is meaningless.)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Anarchy vs. Statistics

Somalia has long been cited as a prime example of the horrors of anarchy. I believe that anarchy must avoid the pitfall communism usually falls into, and never say that a place wasn't 'anarchic enough.' There's an argument that runs along the lines that less government is good, therefore you can't conclude that all of a sudden no government is bad, any more than less tumour is good, but completely eliminating it would be bad.

Therefore, I have always accepted Somalia as an example of the features of anarchy, even if I could not, until now, explain what exactly was going on there. This was simply because the place was being misrepresented.

I'll open with the humdinger.

"In the year following the state’s collapse, civil war, exacerbated by severe drought, devastated the Sub-Saharan territory killing 300,000 Somalis (Prendergast 1997).
Though largely unrecognized by economists, the widespread violence that ravaged Somalia in its first year without government vanished considerably by 1994. By the mid-1990s peace prevailed over most of the country (Menkhaus 1998, 2004). Since 1997 most indicators of Somali development show slow but steady progress and today are above their pre-stateless levels."

And I think that's exactly what you could expect if you implemented anarchy right here and now. Mass death, followed by improvement.

This is an issue that I think lies behind most objections to anarchism, but I never see brought up explicitly. Indeed, in nearly any particular, we can easily see that the government is incompetent and would be better off leaving well enough alone. It's even easy to get agreement on this if you don't make your interlocutor actually think of it as anarchism.

There's just that little bit of mass death between here and there, so if you do bring up anarchism, it covertly takes over the entire dialogue. So, try it out, as I'll be doing. Every time I see an objection of the form, 'but government is necessary for X,' I'll replace it with, 'but what about the mass death?' and see if it still makes sense in context.
"On the one hand, popular opinion sees government as universally superior to anarchy."
"On one hand, opinion sees government as universally superior to a period of mass death." Seems to be working out.

Page twelve has the table listing the actual statistics at hand. The table notes a decline in GDP, which shows how useless GDP is. Radios, TVs, telephones, and physicians all go up, but wealth goes down? Notably, Leeson has an excellent analysis of why the statistics fall like this, but I think the analysis could be generalized farther than Leeson would be comfortable with. I'm also highly amused that literacy and schooling have dropped while life expectancy, and indeed general health, has increased.

Things that are truly important, full list:

Actually that's not true, it's just that government education is basically worse than useless. For instance, the medical advances the Somalis are using to improve their health would be impossible without at least one person getting educated, in spite of being schooled.

I am especially amused by this bit, emphasis mine

"Public goods come from a variety of sources in stateless Somalia, including the “taxes” charged by militia. Clan militias provide security to citizens in their territories, and militiamen for hire protect businesses, seaports, large markets, and trade convoys. In other cases shari’a, a form of religious law/courts discussed below, provide security by including guards in their court militia in return for payment from businessmen (UNDP 2001: 109-110). Clan leaders also work together to provide needed public goods in areas outside of Somalia’s big cities where very few exist."

While Leeson has discarded the automatic association between anarchy and mass death, by noting that the mass death can't go on forever, he has failed to discard the association between certain goods and the term 'public.' Public goods are defined as those which can't be properly paid for by being charged for. Although, I can understand why Leeson might be unconsciously reticent to admit that the basic service that his government provides - security - is not, actually, a public good.

Another thing working exactly as your average anarchist says it would:

"Private courts are funded by the donations of successful businessmen who benefit from the presence of this public good in urban centers. Under anarchy, dispute resolution is free and speedy by international standards (Nenova 2004; Nenova and Harford 2004)."

Something that needs to be uplayed a great deal:
"Expansive domestic clan-based social networks also provide social insurance."
The role of a robust social fabric is critical in any anarchic situation. It's one of the reasons anarchy here and now would lead to mass death.

I hate to be so topical, but hey Obama, considered Somalia?
"Private healthcare is also available. Although the state of medicine in Somalia
remains extremely low, medical consultations are very affordable ($0.50/visit)"
Fifty cents. ... Fifty cents?! Puts that dollar a day ("extreme poverty") wage into perspective, doesn't it? Given a minimum wage of eight bucks, that would be $30 for a doctor's visit around here. Medical care, when government isn't mucking with it, is priced on par with DVDs,[1] and moreover markets do not produce shortages, two reasons you know that the American healthcare system is not private, whatever they're fond of saying.

Another thing that puts the dollar a day wage into perspective...most of Somali is pastoral. Many earning that dollar aren't relying on that dollar for all their wealth the way a western citizen does. They not only have farms, they have friends with farms. Living hand to mouth isn't something we really do here - but, literally, at least some of those 'extremely poor' Somalis are making things with their hands, and then consuming them. Instead, they're just using the cash to pay for doctor's visits.

Despite all this, I have three concerns. First, the GDP issue is probably just the tip of an iceberg of dodgy statistics. The paper may not be as supportive as anarchism as it appears. Second, the paper only barely touched the fact that while Somalia lacks a central government, it is not really anarchy, but rather polyarchy, which would simply invoke the well-known principles governing monopolies, rather than the people's ability to self-govern. For example, the paper places the free market price on roads - apparently it is 5% of something, but that could simply be because the local militias compete with each other for traffic, and is not likely to continue indefinitely.

Finally, in the Europe of say 1500, military realities would have forced a place like anarchist Somalia off the map in a matter of days, only limited by the time it took for the armies to march across the landscape. What has changed? Depending on the answer, anarchy may be even more viable than Somalia leads us to believe...or Somalia may be unknowingly dancing across a knife edge.

[1] Does that mean an MRI would cost about as much as a DVD player? If so, a getting a truly private MRI would probably be about as much hassle as buying a DVD player. The Somalis do not have the capital investment to afford MRIs, but, in a decade or so, perhaps we'll find out? If the TNG doesn't get off the ground, that is.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Independent Discovery and Journalism; Consciousness in New Scientist

It is certainly not an article I expect from such a bastion of orthodoxy as New Scientist. Clearly, the commenters agree. As per my last post, yes, sometimes journalism will rise above its mandate and produce something approaching worth reading. (NS has also published Lee Smolin, whose writing could not be more different than the bulk of the magazine.)

The key is here:

"It is about the deep philosophical confusion embedded in the assumption that if you can correlate neural activity with consciousness, then you have demonstrated they are one and the same thing, and that a physical science such as neurophysiology is able to show what consciousness truly is."

Tallis fails to follow this through properly, I think. As most discussions of consciousness do, it begs the question. On one side, consciousness is physical, and the only thing left is to demonstrate it, while on the other, with Tallis, consciousness is clearly not physical, and it is just a matter of making the other side admit this. The whole point of the debate is whether the neural correlates, or some equivalent, are indeed consciousness itself or not; there's no use in just reasserting one's opinion.

I will now follow it through properly.

Assume we have the neural correlates exactly corresponding to consciousness, and we have completely described the brain. To use the eye, we can trace the trail of causation as photons enter the eye, as spikes travel through nerves and neurons, as the voluntary nervous system swings into action, and the person responds. ("That is one fine and dandy picture you got there.")

I take this model. I change one thing; I assume the correlates are unconscious. Does the model still work?

"The analogy fails as the level at which water can be seen as molecules, on the one hand, and as wet, shiny, cold stuff on the other, are intended to correspond to different "levels" at which we are conscious of it. But the existence of levels of experience or of description presupposes consciousness. Water does not intrinsically have these levels."

By definition, we have no direct access to another's consciousness, we can only correlate neuron spikes with consciousness reports, and liken those reports to our own experience. The reports, however, are themselves unverifiable, and if there's any systematic bias, they will be systematically wrong.

(As any Buddhist can tell you, there's lots of systematic bias. As long as you're not talking about consciousness, a good psychologist can also go on and on about systematic biases.)

I strip the unreliable reports out; the reports are not necessary for the model to work, and indeed should be predictions of the model, not components. I simply show, using our hypothetical exact model, how certain questions cause these answers. As per my one change, the reports are because of the neural correlates, not because of the contents of consciousness. If indeed the materialists are correct, a full causal description of the brain is simply a full description.

Now, hopefully, you can clearly see why Tallis is correct, that it is self-contradictory to look for consciousness in the brain. Materialism contradicts the very existence of consciousness; and indeed all materialists are in fact crypto-dualists. To reiterate, the neuroscientific persuasion of materialist measures a neural correlate, asks the subject what they're experiencing, and then correlates the two. Which is fine that far, but then they assume the subject's response was not caused by physical thing they just measured, but because of their conscious state, and then they assume the conscious state was the thing they just measured. This species works through the problem with dualism, and then assumes the answer is monistic.

To see this another way, to assume as above that the correlates are in fact unconscious is either to assume consciousness doesn't exist or to assume epiphenomenal dualism is true. The fact that the model still works if Ockham's razor is applied like this means that the model either assumes consciousness doesn't exist, or is dualistic.

(So, do you think my characterization of the camps is accurate?)

As a bonus, this kind of answer is not just philosophically wrong, but scientifically wrong as well.

I've seen complaints that dualism is just a myterious answer to a mysterious question. Neural correlates are actually a mysterious answer to a mysterious question. Ask the physicist question; how does this neural correlate know it is supposed to be happiness, and not surprise? As your neural cortex is processing red, why would even bother to know it is processing red, and not just do it? Consider further: it is a bunch of electrons, protons, and neutrons processing red and apparently also knowing that they are processing red. The photon itself is long gone at this point, there's no actual redness around. How do these particles know they're supposed to be correlating to red, and the particles in your hair know they're not supposed to be?

What is qualitatively different about being a neuronal neutron versus a hirsute neutron? How does it know? Because, if it can't know, then it must be the same, and either both unconscious...or both conscious.

Many materialists are aware of these kinds of issues, which tends to bring emergence into the discussion, but unfortunately that is even more absurd, because emergence hardly even pretends to be objective. Briefly, a flock is an emergent structure. Now, read Tallis' bit about water again. To say we became conscious because of emergence is to say we became conscious because of features of consciousness. Physics doesn't recognize flocks. Physics recognizes fundamental particles, and that's all.

To touch on journalism again, it seems obvious to me why Tallis didn't follow through properly; the whole article reeks of being crammed into a tiny space. (Long form Tallis.) While I can say Tallis should not have written the article, or NS should not try to stuff such a complex, difficult, frustrating topic into the corner...to do so consistently would violate Sturgeon's Second.

And now for some light fisking. I wonder if the article would be so glibly dismissesd if these errors were corrected.
"If it were identical, then we would be left with the insuperable problem of explaining how intracranial nerve impulses, which are material events, could "reach out" to extracranial objects in order to be "of" or "about" them."
Tallis fails to explain why the problem is insuperable. In fact, the perspective is new to me, so I have no idea if he's right, or even if he's on to something at all.

"Straightforward physical causation explains how light from an object brings about events in the occipital cortex. No such explanation is available as to how those neural events are "about" the physical object. Biophysical science explains how the light gets in but not how the gaze looks out."

I mentioned independent discovery, although that last sentence is more question-beggging.

Further down is,
"I believe there is a fundamental, but not obvious, reason why that explanation will always remain incomplete - or unrealisable."
"There are also problems with notions of the self, with the initiation of action, and with free will. Some neurophilosophers deal with these by denying their existence,"

Finally, Tallis trips up more seriously.

"It does not, as you and I do, reach temporally upstream from the effects of experience to the experience that brought about the effects. In other words, the sense of the past cannot exist in a physical system. This is consistent with the fact that the physics of time does not allow for tenses: Einstein called the distinction between past, present and future a "stubbornly persistent illusion"."

To LIFO... physics does not respect tense because there is only the present. Each fundamental particle only feels its immediate surroundings, both spatially and temporally, as per the principle of locality,[1] and the name for the temporally local is simply 'the present.' Particles don't care about the past or future because, almost by definition, the particles can touch neither.

However, your memories exist in the present. While we look backward by inducing a feeling of looking backward, it doesn't mean the process of remembering means moving backward in any way. The bar against correlation works both ways.

[1] I must note that while our current principle seems very local, as it basically means adjacent, it need not be, and locality can be back-defined; the local is simply the things a particle can touch, wherever they happen to be. For example, you could say entangled particles don't send signals faster than light, but rather bend space.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Journalism Rethunk

My main issue is just that the 95% crud journalism is taken seriously, combined with the fact that the errors journalists make just happen to be of a kind I find particularly abhorrent.

I learned this by publishing my misapprehensions on the subject on this blog. For some reason, it makes me compare what I've written to everything I read, to see if it matches up properly, and earlier today I suddenly thought, "There has to be some good journalism."

(If you're interested in the process, when it hit me I was reading the line, "That reality helps fuel cynicism about journalists and journalism among some — and The Daily Show may not be helping, Williams says.")

So I think I'll stop blaming journalists particularly for two flaws in humanity generally. It's not their fault that (~95% of) their jobs are inherently a bait-and-switch game, or at least not their fault that the demand exists.

Though I must wonder how much the responsibility for taking those jobs lies with the journalist. The preliminary results of my studies into self-control suggest that they don't actually have much choice. It would be the perfect solution, of course - "I'm noticing that my job isn't what it's supposed to be, so I and my entire department are quitting. Have a nice day." - it's just utterly impossible.

"So," I say to myself, "Of course most journalism is yellow. Most studies are wrong, most art is crap, most ventures fail. It's just more of the same."

The test for this new perspective is - if we magically replaced the journalists with better quality people, would journalism improve? My answer is no. Even if some of them managed to bleach their papers and keep them that way, they would be driven from the market by those that embraced the market's demand. The quality of people must not be the issue.

The only thing left is for me to Accept that near everyone will remain Ignorant of these facts. (Oh wait, also to recurse the technique that found the facts.)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Range of Interstellar Radio

SETI has been in my news feed recently, which behooved me to track down my favourite discussion about picking up alien transmissions. I've never seen the actual physics all mathed out anywhere else, and the reason for this dearth seems obvious from the results. The analysis is basically complete, so I just have a few disjointed comments.

They simply use the word 'detect,' which I take it to mean something like 'differentiate from background noise,' which is backed up by comments like, "In keeping with the estimates of Aburto and Woolley, the Signal to Noise Ratio for all calculations was taken to be 25 since this is between the SNR of SETI@home (SNR=22) and the maximum SNR used by Project META (SNR=33). "

Especially striking is the graph showing how large your dish needs to be to pick up human TV signals from Alpha Centauri or Vega. A little extrapolation shows that at nearly all of the stars in the galaxy you require an effective dish well over a billion metres wide. Billion's a nice big round number, don't you think?

If I were a journalist I would now have to decry this outrageous waste of tax dollars. Presumably, this is supposed to stop outrageous wastes of tax dollars. I find it to just be a waste of outrage. The kind of people who fund SETI, if forced to stop, are not likely to suddenly wake up, find their heads, and screw them back on. They'll just make the exact same mistake in some new and interesting way. In short, that cash was effectively flushed down the drain the moment it left the taxpayer's hand.

I'd also like to highlight:

"beacon signals- These non-leaked signals would be intentionally designed to attract the attention of observers in the direction of Earth. If there are advance civilizations that choose to make themselves known in this way, then it is possible that present SETI efforts may one day produce a positive detection. However, these beams must be aimed at Earth at a time when we are listening for a positive detection to occur."

Aiming a signal at Earth from most of the galaxy would be difficult, especially if they're not already aware we're here and looking for it. This alternative stacks unlikelihood upon unlikelihood.