Archives December 2010

2010 in Review

Are you tired of all the “Year in Review” columns popping up everywhere yet?

No? You want a recap of the 117 brain eructations I’ve posted this year?

Okay, fine. Here’s a link to the archives.

Some Traditional Christmas Music

Christmastime has a lot of traditions associated with it, so allow me to share one of mine.

Back in, oh, 1984 or so, my best friend in High School and I went down to Barcelona for summer vacation. Aside from the usual stuff you’d expect two teenage boys on vacation away from their parents to do, like trying to pick up girls in night clubs, smoking joints, and plotting to crash the China Crisis/Simple Minds concert, we stopped at a used record store (remember record stores? Remember records?) and picked up something called Navidades radioactivas.

It was a compilation. A Christmas compilation. A punk Christmas compilation. A Spanish punk Christmas album. Naturally, we had to have it. And until YouTube stops being the repository of all music everywhere, you can hear an approximation of what it sounds like:

I made a point of listening to this every year, as a way of countering the endless barrage of Ecksmas Muzak played in every goddamn store throughout November and December, until my tape player died. I eventually converted my tapes to MP3s and have resurrected the tradition. Except that by then, online shopping had been invented, and became less necessary to put up with brick-and-mortar crap. I found out a while back that my friend also, once a year, pulls out his vinyl copy and plays it. I like that. It makes me feel that even though we don’t correspond much anymore, we’re still somehow connected.

So yeah, this is quite personal. So even if you’re listening to it now, I don’t expect you to make it to the end, unless you’re morbidly curious.

Some notes on the album

Unless you were a DJ in Madrid in the mid-80s, the only artists you have any chance of ever having heard of are El Aviador Dro and Derribos Arias (no, the Alphaville that performs Un día de diciembre is not the same band that did Big in Japan). I think Dro, who were big enough to have their own label, were trying to promote some bands they thought deserved wider recognition.

El Aviador Dro — El nascimiento de la industria: This is not the version from the LP. Apparently the track listing was changed when the CD version was released, so this is a different recording. Try to forgive the performance. It was the 80s, after all.

T.N.T. — Ratatata: a punk cover of The Little Drummer Boy. Back before we had things like YouTube, College Humor, and Boing Boing, this was considered some pretty weird shit.

Los Iniciados — El abominable hombre de nieve: This is a dark variant on Frosty the Snowman: it tells of how the children build a snowman, which then lasts all winter. Spring comes, and it doesn’t melt. Seasons come and go, and the snowman is still there. Years pass, boys grow up to be men, their children grow up and have children of their own, and still the snowman remains there, casting its unholy shadow over the town.

Agrimensor K. — Resurrección blanca: This may very well be a racist white power anthem. Sorry about that.

For anything else, Google — both its search engine and automatic translator — is your friend.

Information vs. Other Stuff

One common creationist objection to evolution is “where did the information come from?“.

There are many responses to this. But one thing that often gets lost in the noise is: it doesn’t matter.

What matters is, how do new organs appear? How do new body parts, behaviors, genes, chromosomes appear? As long as that happens, it matters not one whit whether “information” goes up, down, or sideways. In fact, if you define “information” as “the entropy of the universe, with a minus sign in front”, it’s easy to demonstrate that evolution requires a decrease in “information”.

The problem is that it’s fairly easy to show with a few examples that “new” organs, aren’t actually new, but really just variations on a theme. Think of bat wings and human hands, for instance. There are also many known types of mutation, including gene duplication, that can plausibly lead to the sorts of variation we see.

These examples are simple and clear enough that lay people can understand them. So creationists focus on “information” and play the same game as with “kind”, “God”, and “designer”: use a word that everyone thinks they understand, at least somewhat, rely on handwaving, intuitive arguments to make their case, and stubbornly refuse to provide a formal, testable underpinning for this intuition.

There’s a big difference between understanding a thing, and merely knowing the name for it. The “where does information come from?” argument plays on the fact that you can have a name for an ill-defined concept. So my advice is to treat “information” the same way as “quantum charm” or “GDP” or “melanoma”: if you don’t have a good idea of what the term means, ask your interlocutor to clarify until you’re sure you’re talking about the same thing.

And if it turns out that under some definition, an increase in “information” is impossible, well, who cares, as long as it doesn’t prevent the evolution of limbs and organs?

How to Respond to Charges of Misinformation

The New York Times has an article about a University of Maryland study that shows that for the most part, the more people watched Fox News, the more they were misinformed about issues pertaining to the 2010 election (e.g., Fox News viewers were more likely to think that TARP began under Obama rather than Bush).

Asked for comment on the study, Fox News seemingly dismissed the findings. In a statement, Michael Clemente, who is the senior vice president of news editorial for the network, said: “The latest Princeton Review ranked the University of Maryland among the top schools for having ‘Students Who Study The Least’ and being the ‘Best Party School’ – given these fine academic distinctions, we’ll regard the study with the same level of veracity it was ‘researched’ with.”

Mr. Clemente oversees every hour of objective news programming on Fox News, which is by far the nation’s most popular cable news channel.

For the record, the Princeton Review says the University of Maryland ranks among the “Best Northeastern Colleges.” It was No. 19 on the Review’s list of “Best Party Schools.”

(NYT’s statement about the Princeton Review seems to be true.)

So now we know: if someone accuses you of making shit up and misleading your audience, just make some shit up.

(Update: Clarification suggested by alert reader Fez.)

What Good Is Math?

I think most people, if you asked them, would say that teaching math in school is a good thing. If you ask why, the usual answer is something like, it allows you to figure out how much carpet and wallpaper you need to buy to redecorate your living room, to determine whether the 12-can pack of ravioli at Costco is cheaper than what you can find at Safeway, and so forth.

But that’s all elementary and High School level stuff: arithmetic, geometry, a dash of algebra. I’ve rarely used trigonometry after college, and I know one person who used calculus in quilting. I think it’s safe to say that most people never use calculus, differential equations, prepositional logic, etc. after college. But I still say there’s value in studying math beyond the practical.

Let me ask a contrasting question: why should kids play sports in school? Only a tiny minority of them will make a living playing or coaching sports, and less than half will even play on the office softball team or the like.

The answer I get most often is that sports teach teamwork: how to subsume your immediate desires for the greater good, make sure you do your part and trust your teammates to do theirs, and communicate effectively to make sure you’re not working at cross-purposes. You learn to win graciously and learn from your failures.

In other words, it’s not so much that playing sports develops muscle tone and general fitness. But rather, it’s an indirect way of teaching other skills like cooperation. They may not be taught explicitly, and there are other ways of teaching them, but this works.

The same thing, I think, applies to math. A few years after learning it, you probably won’t be able to prove that there is an infinite number of primes, or how to integrate a function. But that’s okay, because math teaches skills other than the purely pragmatic.

Proving theorems, for instance, forces you to distinguish between what you think is true, and what you can demonstrate; what looks right, and what is right. Geometry teachers always admonish students not to reason from the diagram because concrete examples are often misleading: just because line AB is perpendicular to line CD in this drawing doesn’t mean that that’s always the case. The point is to figure out what’s universally true, not just what’s true about this particular instance.

These are skills that apply to non-mathematical professions: judges and lawyers often deal with people who have clearly done something wrong, and need to distinguish between “I know that ain’t right” and whether the action in question is legal or not. Police officers likewise need to know the difference between “I know Jimmy’s been selling crack to students” and “I can prove to a jury that Jimmy’s been selling crack”. Programmers will find that they write code that works in situations that they didn’t imagine, because it’s a truism that end users will do weird things with your software that you never dreamed of. Financiers should be able to put together a portfolio that can survive unexpected catastrophic changes in the market. (And as much as it pains me to defend the Bush administration, Donald Rumsfeld was quite right in distinguishing between “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns”, and trying to plan for both.)

Or take the discussion about defining information in the “I Get Email” thread; specifically, the exchange between Tom and Troublesome Frog on whether all living beings contain information. It seems that Tom doesn’t quite get the difference between ∀ xy p (no matter how you define information, all living beings contain information) and ∃ xy p (we can come up with a definition of “information” such that all living beings contain information).

Math is very big on abstraction. This starts in algebra, which is all about figuring things out about things that you know you don’t know much about. And it just gets more abstract from there. The first time you demonstrate that there is no solution for some equation, or better yet, that there can be no proof of a given proposition, can be quite a thrill.

And abstract thought is one of those things we humans are good at. It’s what allows us to formulate moral rules that apply to everyone, and see things like “the market” instead of a bunch of people trading stuff. It seems that we ought to learn to do it well.

One of my favorite types of SAT question is the one that presents a math problem, and one of the possible answers is “not enough information to solve the problem”. The lesson here isn’t just “know your limitations”. It also shows that just because something looks solvable doesn’t mean that it is; that just because something is printed in an official-looking book doesn’t make it kosher. And also, the sooner you figure out that a problem has no solution, the less time you’ll waste looking for one.

Finally, one thing that everyone should get out of any math class is that you can figure stuff out on your own, without looking the answers up in the back of the book. Yes, the same is true of science and other classes, but math is one of those branches where you don’t need fancy equipment to work on a problem and figure out the solution.

One problem I see is that a lot of people seem to think that knowledge is something that is handed down from on high, rather than something that can be created. This seems to be at the root of the claim that evolution is just another religion: “I have my priests who tell me that God created humans, and you have your priests who tell you humans evolved. The only difference between creation and evolution is which team you’re on.” There’s no arguing with someone who simply repeats what they were taught; but if you’re in an argument with someone who thinks that mere mortals can work out answers on their own, you might get somewhere. And that’s something we could use more of.

Ionized Bracelets

This ad doesn’t actually say that the Q-Ray bracelet does a damn thing, but it sure as hellshit[] implies it:

Thanks to the Ask an Atheist guys for the pointer.

Hey, the Q-Ray people aren’t saying the bracelet does anything. That would be an invitation to get sued. No, the athlete is saying it. And she’s not saying it, either; she’s just saying it might.

And her testimonial is filmed in what appears to be a doctor’s office (or, more likely, a doctor’s office set. At least, my doctor doesn’t have any anatomical charts on his wall).

So it’s not actionable. But if you should happen to get the impression that this magic bracelet is part of a medical regimen endorsed by the medical profession, well, they won’t try to disillusion you.

The narrator says that magnets have been “used for centuries to promote a healthy lifestyle”. Of course, the same could be said of leeches.

As far as I can tell, the only verifiable claims made by the Q-Ray people are 1) it has magnets, and 2) “beautifully crafted, with an expandable steel band”.

This Hour Has 22 Minutes says pretty much the same thing, but won’t let me embed the video.

[] Text changed to refer to something for which there’s actual evidence.

A Musical Interlude

Sorry for not posting anything recently (aside from trying to get answers from Tom). So to tide you over, here’s some music:

Siouxsie and the Banshees improve on an Iggy Pop song, The Passenger:

Tom Shear (d/b/a Assemblage 23) doing his thing in Anthem. I, for one, love the way the various voices come in and out throughout the song.