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June 26, 2004

On Vacation

Your Cap'n is on vacation through July 5th. I intend to return with pictures of myself capsizing a dinghy in a poorly-executed piratical raid. Really. I'll be in the Great Cardboard Boat Regatta.

I probably will not blog while I'm away. This is the first vacation I've had all year, and I intend to maximize the slacking off.

June 23, 2004

Ineligible for Vacation

I got a strange telemarketing call today.

It was for one of those promotional "free vacation packages" from a hotel chain. I was interested in the trip to Vegas. But then the telemarketer asked me a few questions, and it turns out I'm not eligible for this Fabulous Offer™!

He first asked me my age, and followed up by asking if I was single, and then if I was living alone. For some reason, I have to be over 40 to qualify for this trip if I'm single living alone, but if I were married or cohabitating I'd only have to be 25. No, it doesn't make sense to me either. If they're trying to filter for people with high incomes — because they're older or because they likely have a two-income household — their filter is bad. I'm young and single and yet my "household" has a high income. (Ever notice the lack of a tip jar around here?) They should have drooled at the chance to get me in their hotel.

Their screwy system aside, what this incident tells me is that there are even more financial incentives to escape singlehood than I previously realized. So, with that, are there any nearby nubile ladies who'd like to move in with me so I can go to Vegas? (You could go too, I guess.) Send in your applications right away! :)

What's that I hear? Crickets?

June 20, 2004

Environmentalist Article Discussion

Every so often, one of my co-workers sends me an article to look at that she thinks I might enjoy (where "enjoy" can be either good or bad.) Sometimes I'm not drawn in by them, but usually I am, and one recent one succeeds in pushing lots of my buttons simultaneously.

The article is from the Feb. 2004 Harper's Magazine, The Oil We Eat by Richard Manning (print-friendly).

The task I've appointed to myself today is to write a statement about this article. As I've said before, when I'm in a flippant mood I'll describe myself as anti-environmentalist, but it's more accurate to say I'm anti-environmentalism. There are actually two kinds of environmentalism — one good, one bad — one based on the value of human life, the other on the rejection of that premise.

Environmentalism has become thoroughly polluted with the anti-human mentality, and the linked article is an example of it. Yet environmentalism has a veneer of respectability because people give it the benefit of the doubt and ascribe good motives to its advocates, despite how many times the mask has slipped.

A group of co-workers will be having a discussion about this article on (hopefully) July 10th. I will prepare my comments today but will not post them until after the discussion takes place.

June 18, 2004

Women Need Warning Labels

I won't have much time to blog for couple days, but had one pithy observation worth posting: women need warning labels.

Case in point, this evening I went to the supermarket and the cashier was wearing several lovely gold bracelets. Since I like gooooold I made the innocent remark that the bracelets were very nice.

And then all of a sudden she gets talkative. I really was not trying to flirt with her but clearly that's how she took it. I didn't even say the bracelets looked nice on her which would have been unambiguous. I was vague. Clearly not vague enough.

Google doesn't hit on (no pun intended) "Murphy's Law of Flirting" so I'm free to coin it: If you're trying to flirt, she will do something to make it impossible or inappropriate. If you're not, she'll assume you are.

But speaking of coining, and gold, and gold coins, I recently acquired a couple British gold sovereigns. I know you don't care, but it's my blog and I can post whatever I like. ;)

June 15, 2004

Hussein and the Geneva Conventions

Shocking! Outrageous! (It's been a long time since I've had one of these…)

According to the International Red Cross, the US will be violating the Geneva Conventions unless it releases or formally charges Saddam Hussein by the June 30 handover of Iraqi sovereignty:

Saddam and other senior officials of the old regime are the only Iraqi detainees to have been given PoW status. […] "When the conflict ends the prisoners of war should be released according to the Geneva conventions," Ms Doumani said. [source]

Hang on just a minute. Who says the Geneva Conventions apply in this case? As SDB explained almost a year ago, there are exceptions written into the Conventions themselves:

There are three main exceptions which apply to most but not all of the provisions of the convention: they broadly don't apply to nations who are not signatory; specific ones don't apply to nations who are themselves violating them even if they are signatory, and some specific ones regarding treatment of enemy soldiers don't apply to enemy combatants who do not formally wear uniforms or formal insignia or other clear and distinct indication of membership in the military. [source]

But ignoring these issues entirely — setting aside the question of whether or not Iraq was following the Conventions, or whether Saddam's hiding among civilians disqualifies him individually — there's still the important moral consideration of due process.

The reason due process is so important is that we don't want to punish the innocent. The evidence may be unconvincing, or the person apprehended may not be the perpetrator. But in the case of Saddam Hussein there is absolutely no doubt of his guilt or his identity. None whatsoever. We've got the right man, the Butcher of Baghdad, in our custody.

When I see the International Red Cross, an organization supposedly dedicated to the relief of suffering, entertaining Saddam's release from custody, I shake my head in disgust. It turns the Conventions on their head, using them to protect the brutal instead of attenuating brutality. This is not what they were intended for.

UPDATE 2004-06-15 19:25:25 UTC: The Red Cross quickly clarified its position:

Nobody in the ICRC is calling for the release of Saddam Hussein. Absolutely not," Notari told The Associated Press from the Geneva headquarters of the humanitarian agency, which serves as a watchdog to ensure adherence to the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of warfare.

Earlier Monday the Baghdad-based ICRC spokeswoman, Nada Doumani, told Associated Press Television News that under international and military law, Saddam and other prisoners of war and civilian prisoners should be released at the end of the conflict and occupation unless there were charges against them.

Methinks the two offices should coodinate notes ahead of their next press release.

Scary News from Iran

Let's see… an organization in Iran has recruited 10,000 volunteers for suicide attackers, as Iran has demanded their nuclear program be allowed to proceed unimpeded because they'll only use it for electricity. Nevermind that Iran's former president advocated nuking Israel — Iran's leadership is full of nice people who mean well. Just ask them!

This is bad. Really bad. How do I know? Because even the IAEA is losing patience at this point.

Attention News Media: What's happening in Iran right now is important. I'm looking for the sort of saturation coverage you toss about on a whim for much less important things like the Scott Peterson, Kobe Bryant, or Martha Stewart trials. Can we get some coverage of the looming nuclear war, please?

June 14, 2004

The Road Not Taken

(This is more of a diary entry than a regular article. Skip it if you're not interested in me as a person. Hmm, that sounds awful…)

Over the past month I've experienced a powerful lesson in opportunity costs. And it makes me feel old. Which won't make any sense, so let me back up a few years…

I was a strange teenager. I was unusually well-behaved — ask my parents. I certainly have my share of silly stories of awkward adolescence but the important point here is that I wasn't self-destructive — I generally spent my time on useful things that invested in my future. Lots of reading, learning technical skills, that sort of thing. (I can't say lots of studying, because I was content enough to get by without a lot of effort.) This carried on through my college years and even though "there's a time and a place for everything and it's called college" I didn't treat it that way.

When my peers were going through the wild / carefree / dangerous / partying phase, I was busy being more "responsible", pursuing hobbies that were directly responsible for landing me my job. I missed all of the fun when I was younger.

So now that I've taken a couple dives into that end of the pool (read as: "let women get me drunk") my natural inclination to overanalyze everything has had me reevaluating the last decade of my life. Over and over again. When I drink I don't just lose that evening, I keep thinking about it for days. I fear I would be an excellent object of study for some underworked psychologist; I think I'm several standard deviations away from normal.

The reason I feel old, and the connection to opportunity costs, is that I feel so unnatural in the carefree lifestyle that I don't think it's something I could capture and properly experience even if I had the inclination to do so. I'm so naïve and inexperienced that it would be embarrassing to make the attempt. I would need a very patient teacher. The opportunity cost of concentrating on my skills and career this past decade is that I may never be able to capture the experiences I earlier chose to forgo. And isn't that what makes people feel old — the realization that some opportunities are gone forever?

I feel like I made a choice years ago with permanent consequences that I wasn't aware of when I made the choice. And I wonder what life would have been like if I had chosen differently, and been a little less serious about everything. I would probably have a good career but not a great career. I would be satisfied with it, not knowing that what I have now was a possibility. I wouldn't have as much money, but that probably wouldn't matter to my alternate self. I'd probably be married, which would. I'd be much more well-rounded as a person instead of the near idiot savant I fear I am today.

I can visualize how my life would have been different, and believe it would have been better along several vectors that I'm currently unsatisfied with. And of course, worse on others. But I'm not quick to conclude which set of choices would have made me the happier person overall. It's this uncertainty that keeps me thinking about it.

I know what you're thinking: "Sheeh, just lighten up!" Belay that thought for a moment — I'm writing all this because I can't lighten up. That's one of the things I'm not good at, okay?

June 13, 2004

Brains, Souls, and Thought Experiments

Thought experiments can be dangerous. They can often illuminate interesting issues but they can also distract and confuse and be absolutely irrelevant. Thought experiments have limits and it's important to recognize when they're not helpful.

I'd like to talk about two thought experiments. The first I heard from a philosophy professor in college, and the second from a recent post of Steven den Beste's.

I don't remember most of the details of that day's discussion in the philosophy class, so I'm not sure exactly how this thought experiment came up, but it had something to do with the subjective experience of perception and whether different people experienced perceptions in the same way. Anyway, I was asked to consider the thought experiment of waking up one day to discover that the colors red and green had been switched.

I said it was absurd and that I couldn't consider it — the thought experiment was in irreconcilable conflict with facts I knew about the real world. The professor offered two implementations to help me along: That aliens from outer space (those sneaky aliens…!) visited while I was sleeping one night and either painted red everything that was green and green everything that was red, or that they had implanted a device in my eyes to accomplish the same effect. The point was to create a scenario where I would have to accept the change in my experience of color, unable to prove that anything had "happened". This is a poor exposition of the matter, but it was years ago and I don't remember more details that would clarify it. Just play along. The reasons we were talking about the issue aren't relevant.

I dismissed the paint possibility immediately by noting that the first time I cut myself, my blood would be red — the same color as the (painted) tree leaves. But blood and tree leaves aren't the same color, and I know it, so the painting would be exposed. Besides, paint would flake off many surfaces, and I might accidentally spill some paint thinner in the yard. Or the grass would grow and would be green by the roots. Or the paint would kill all the plants. In any case, it would be too easy to detect.

I rejected the eye-implant possibility by explaining that it would also quickly be detected. The physical properties of light are not malleable, and if I looked at a red laser and saw green, I'd know something had changed. I could easily re-measure the wavelength of the laser light so I would know that my perception and not the real world had changed. A person more familiar with optics could no doubt take advantage of the properties of chromatic response in the human eye to figure out the truth, too. They could probably even distinguish which side of the retina the change was on — they could distinguish a neurological change from a device implanted in the orb.

The point is that it is possible to distinguish a change in the real world (paint) from a change in our perception of it (implant) because I know facts about the world that allow me to uncover the truth. The thought experiment does not work because any implementation my professor offered — and I insisted on one; I refuse to consider the totally arbitrary — would lead me to discover some incongruity with preestablished facts.

My point in being so argumentative that day was to show that reality is an interconnected whole and you cannot make thought experiments willy-nilly. Even a supposed "small" change like switching the colors red and green is not plausible because a cursory effort to integrate the new condition with the rest of one's knowledge exposes the difficulties.

"Is the fact that water ice floats on water liquid a contingent or necessary truth?" Aaaagh! For ice to sink would require changes in the laws of physics that would render the universe totally unrecognizable. You can't just have sinking ice, or swap two colors, and leave everything else the same. That's not an option, physics forbids it, and it's clear as soon as you try to integrate sinking ice with the rest of your knowledge. I can not and will not consider an alternate universe that bears no resemblance to the real one. And that's why I reject the distinction between "necessary" and "contingent" truths. In a very real sense I cannot conceive of sinking ice, not in the real world, because it would change everything. I could conceive of it in a comic book, and I fear that's how people who accept the necessary/contingent distinction view the world — as a comic book, not as an integrated whole.

Steven's thought experiment was about the theological implications of brain transplants (I kid you not):

One can propose thought experiments which such believers might find troubling. For instance, suppose that a mad scientist kidnaps a pair of identical twins and performs a mutual brain cross-transplant, moving the brain of each into the body of the other. Then assume that one of them is hit by a bus and dies. Presumably someone's soul went to heaven, but whose soul was it? Was it the soul which was originally associated with the body, or the soul originally associated with the brain? A different way to ask the question is this: During the mad scientist's operation, when the brains were moved, did the souls move with them? What part of the body is the soul actually hooked to?

He also considers the variation of swapping memories instead of tissue:

Suppose that instead of swapping the brains, the mad scientist copied and somehow stored Alan's memories, copied and stored Bob's memories, wiped clean all the memories in both brains, and then copied Alan's memories into Bob's brain and copied Bob's memories into Alan's brain. The only thing moved would be information; no tissue would be transplanted.

… and copying memories without erasing the ones already present:

What our mad scientist does this time is to copy and store Alan's memories, copy and store Bob's memories, write Alan's memories into Bob, and write Bob's memories into Alan. But the mad scientist does not wipe the previous memories in either brain before putting the new memories in. When they awaken, Alan and Bob will both be deeply confused. Alan will remembers being Alan but will also remember being Bob. And he won't be able to tell which set of memories was original and which was written in.

These thought experiments trouble me. They don't evoke the same level of disdain as the color-swapping or ice-sinking examples I already discussed, but I think that's primarily because I'm significantly more ignorant of neuroscience than I am of physics. (I'm nursing the suspicion that it's primarily ignorance that makes thought experiments seem plausible.)

In the brain transplant case I'm struck by problems at the interfaces between tissue that is transplanted and tissue that is not. There will not be a 1:1 mapping of these interfaces even between identical twins. What if one person had 2% more axons between one eye and the brain, or from the brain to a muscle — perhaps due to an injury? Even if the numbers were the same, what if the behaviors mapped onto them differently, so that some example like flexing the thumb required two groups of signals in one body but three smaller groups of signals in the other body? I'm hypothesizing these problems; I'm sure someone knowledgeable could state them more clearly (or tell me I'm full of crap), but I feel confident in saying that problems at the interfaces would lead to difficulties in at least perception and muscular activity. And those difficulties make me prone to reject the thought experiment for the same reason I rejected the color-swapping one: it's unrealistic.

The "software-only" examples of a memory swap or a memory addition are troubling because we know that memories are encoded in part in the physical structure of the brain. Memory swap would require tremendous "hardware" changes and would only be successful if it reached approximately the same level of change as the brain transplant case — and then we're back to those problems. Also, the brain has some finite storage capacity and it's not clear that it could hold two complete sets of memories. On a finer level of detail, some brain structures may be closer to their capacity limits than others, and would have problems even if the overall storage capacity of the brain wasn't reached. Memory recall would also be interesting — if both people had a memory linked to some particular scent, would both memories be recalled simultaneously? Can the brain even do that in parallel, or does it need to task swap? Would the person have both personalities, or just one? If they spoke, whose characteristic choices of words would they use?

These thought experiments raise a lot of questions that, no doubt, Steven will say are unimportant to his basic point. And I agree. That's why these are examples of bad thought experiments. There are plenty of theological issues to grapple with even for things that we do know are possible, such as twinning and cloning. I think it's much better to use those real cases to approach the theological issues rather than use thought experiments that people like me (heh) will get hung up on because we view thought experiments with great suspicion.

Better questions are: What, exactly, is a soul? When does it "enter" the embryo? How do you know? Why do identical twins have different souls? If it's because the souls "enter" after the embryos separate, why do clones also have different souls — because there, the separation is clearly after the soul is present? (I assume that human cloning will eventually happen and that the clone will be considered to have its own soul.) When do souls "leave" the body? If at brain death, what about people in unrecoverable vegetative states with atrophied brains — do they still have souls? What if that condition is reached through gradual decay? Do brain injuries that alter a person's personality also alter their soul, or is a person's behavior only a weak reflection of their soul? How do you know?

Granted, these questions do not cover the same areas as those Steven asked through his thought experiments, but they have the advantage of being based on things we already know are possible. They don't require imagination — or suspension of disbelief — to ponder.

June 12, 2004

Last Respects

Three things about the Reagan funeral.

First, it was very respectful. The comments of his children were good to hear, and Maggie Thatcher's eulogy earlier in the day was much appreciated.

Second, my respect for the press has fallen even more. When a widow is standing over a casket crying, you are supposed to cut away to a different camera, you bastards. You had a camera on the sunset. You have no excuse. And you sure as hell don't make it your lead image in an article about the funeral. Monsters.

Third, my respect for Lew Rockwell has also hit a new low. If you have a political point to make, fine — but do it without spitting on the grave of a good man. Whatever happened to civility?

June 04, 2004

Not Quite What I Planned...

Not everything goes according to plan.

For the past several weeks I've been thinking about a career opportunity that would move me out of my current group. Most of my group knew about it and had talked to me trying to persuade me not to leave. I recently made the decision to stay where I am, and thought it would be fun to announce my decision in this week's staff meeting.

But I'm not normal.

I can't just say "I'm staying" in a short sentence like that. I thought I'd have some fun with this and make it a speech. I wanted to tell the group how great I think they are and let them know how much I appreciate them and their work, because it influenced my decision to stay. And because people don't hear how great they are often enough. I wanted to make a statement about how much progress we've made together over these years. But I wanted to add a twist — I wanted to fake everyone out and make them think I was leaving, and only at the end tell them that I was staying. How deliciously evil, I thought…

I wrote a short speech, about four minutes long. The bulk of it was addressing the contributions of several team members, the people I've worked the most with. The speech was serious, and it was funny, and it communicated my appreciation of my teammates. I practiced it. I thought I'd be able to deliver it without any trouble.

And when I was delivering it in front of the team, I started crying after the third paragraph. It was right after I laid the direction of the speech by saying I'd be talking about the accomplishments of the people I've worked with. I was badly choked up. The emotion was genuine. I caught myself on the hook I was laying for my teammates — my phrasing made it sound like I was leaving and that I would be saying goodbye to everyone in turn.

Sarah had brought a box of tissues with her for allergies. She slid it over to me when I started having trouble. We do all have a sense of humor. :) For the entire rest of the speech I had to pause every sentence or two to steady my voice, which wasn't very effective.

I made a wonderful ad-lib at the end: "If you think I'd be a fool for leaving this team, I agree. I've decided to stay … <choke> so I don't know why I'm having so much trouble with this … <laughing> … You'll all have to put up with me for a little while longer."

I gave serious consideration to writing the entire speech in iambic pentameter. I'm glad I decided not to; I couldn't have pulled off the delivery. Maybe I should've taken some acting classes.

June 03, 2004

Bloggus Interruptus

I ordered some books over the weekend. They've arrived now (much sooner than expected!) and I've got a lot of things to read, so expect lighter than normal blogging volume for a while.

While I'm making PSAs, I'm also going on vacation the last week of this month and won't be blogging during that period.

June 02, 2004

Robots to do our Chores

From washing machines to dishwashers to vaccum cleaners, robots are improving our lives. (Only the super-rich can afford personal assistants. The rest of us must settle for robots — and I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.)

The latest addition to the robot pantheon is the Dressman, a robot that irons shirts.

I'm still waiting for a robot that can fold laundry. I've got money fallin' out of my wallet for one of those. Inventors and engineers, get to it!

Tiny Island