Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Shrinking Respect for Strunk

Judging by the enormous number of misuses I've seen of late, I'd estimate we are no more than a half dozen years away from completely losing the distinction between 'effect' and 'affect'.

If Stimulus II: This Time We'll Call It Jobs Because We've Already Tainted The Word 'Stimulus' With Our Ineptitude goes through, I would consider supporting it if some significant amount of money were spent on distributing copies of Strunk & White to everyone who claims to be literate.

As is often the case, XKCD is there to give me hope.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

That's so weird!

The government of Venezuela being boldly progressive has, over the past several years, taken greater and greater control over various economic sectors, among these the energy sector.

They have used all of their progressive skill & acumen, all of their socially-just compassion to provide low-cost power so the poor could finally enjoy a decent standard of living.

What was the result of these nobly-envisioned price controls?

Rampant shortages.(fn1)

If only there had been some way of foreseeing the possibility of this outcome. But, alas, this must be chalked up as an odd aberration, the root causes of which may never be fully known. At any rate, the solution is clearly more direct involvement by the government in energy production and, increasingly, consumption.

Because when the government sets out to provide something good for the people and, inevitably, destroys what was already there, the blame is never on the good-hearted, hard-working progressive overlords, but on the venal people greedily using too much. Thus Chavez has taken to berating his citizens for taking showers over 3 minutes and getting fat.

Don't worry, there are no lessons here for our own impending government takeover of health care. As I say, this is a weird, totally unpredictable one-off kind of event with no generalizable lessons. When our own well-intentioned, very smart & compassionate progressive overlords redesign a massive chunk of our economy for the betterment of the poor & everyone else it will be smooth sailing with no unintended consequences or highly predictable economic ill-effects. None.

fn1: I'd add that the NY Times is, predictably, completely flummoxed by this odd appearance of shortages in the wake of price controls. I'd point out this might be their ideology once again blinding them to reality but pointing out their manifold failings gets tiresome even for me at times.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Government Leading Us to Progress!

So the Pfizer plant that prompted the Kelo decision that legitimized using the right of public eminent domain to take property from one private interest to give it to another, more-favored private interest is being abandoned. So the town of New London kicked a bunch of people out of their homes for nothing.

At base, this episode was a fairly massive change in the traditional understanding of the relationship of the people to government that was okayed in the name of allowing the government a freer hand to pursue broad social goods, in this case gaining a higher tax base and improving the town through redevelopment.

The end result was a fairly complete disaster with people kicked out of their homes by the government in the name of progress and no actual gain to be seen for the trouble.

Don't worry, this was an isolated incident that should in no way influence our faith in the power of government to engineer good outcomes through exercising state power behind good intentions. I'm sure that the fairly significant redefinition of the traditional relationship between the citizen and the government represented by the health-care reform legislation currently wending its way through Congress will not end in a similar disaster...

Friday, November 6, 2009

Great Scot! It's Doc Brown's Phone!

Funny line in this Times article about the capabilities that will be coming on phones in a couple of years:

Open up the device, point it at the street and ask it to show you what the place looked like 200 years ago, and it offers a photo or video.

Wow! Photos of what places looked like 200 years ago! Truly technology is progressing faster than I thought: apparently phones will have access to time-machine capabilities only a few short years from now...(fn1)

fn1: Some fun history. The first photographic techniques date to the 1820's but took several hours of exposure. The first relatively workable techniques were developed by M. Daguerre in the late 1830's and early 1840's. They took several minutes of exposure. So we are still at least a few decades away from being able to look at photographs of what places looked like 200 years ago, barring the invention of time travel allowing us to photograph them before the invention of photography.

The earliest workable motion picture camera was famously invented by Thomas Edison in the 1890's so we're quite aways away from calling up 200 year old moving pictures, even ignoring the fact that video more specifically referes to electronic capturing of motion pictures, which wasn't invented until the late 1920's by the fantastically named Philo T. Farnsworth. Electronic television, it should be noted, was based on an idea Farnsworth had at the age of 14! And people think teens today spend too much time thinking about television...


The main article in the NY Times on the Fort Hood shootings contains one of the more awkward examples of media bias I've ever personally come across.

Thirty-three paragraphs into a fifty-four paragraph article comes this:

"The Muslim Public Affairs Council, speaking for many American Muslims, condemned the shootings as a “heinous incident” and said, “We share the sentiment of our president.”

So why is that odd? Because nowhere in the article is the religion of the shooter mentioned. So why the non-sequitur of a condemnation from a Muslim group when the religion of the shooter is apparently not known or not important to mention? Why not include a condemnation from a Christian group, since it was Texas and Christianity is the majority religion of Texas? Why not a quote from a Jewish group, if we feel it's important to include minority religious reaction?

Oh, I learn about 80% of the way through the Wash. Post's main article on the shootings, the shooter is Muslim. Well, that explains the otherwise inexplicable reaction quote in the Times.

One must wonder, though, what is going through the minds of the NY Times. I think this is just the reflexive obedience to their pieties leading them into absurdity: linking Muslims to violence is wrong & bigoted & evil so you must not mention the religion of the shooter. But people are likely to find out anyway, so it's best to include something to show that Muslims are just as shocked and outraged as everyone else. Obeying these two dicta leads them to the curious position of leaving facts out of their story, implying that if you actually want to know all of the facts about a breaking story, you should go elsewhere than the Times.

Or learn to read their code, b/c clearly the random quote from a Muslim group indicated that the shooter was Muslim w/o the Times having to do the awkward, bigoted act of actually reporting news they would rather not.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Fun Fact

So Mayor Bloomberg won a third term by a surprisingly narrow margin. Prob. a good thing that he won over the other guy, prob. also a good thing that it was scarily close. Lets him know New Yorkers are upset about his term-limits shennanigans.

But here's something odd I noticed. Again and again in the coverage of his victory it was noted that this makes him "only the fourth three-term mayor in the last century". This makes it sound like quite an unusual thing, no? Only 4 in 100 years?

Here's the thing, though. The first was LaGuardia who took office in 1934. NYC mayor terms are 4 years a piece. So the other way of looking at this "only the fourth" statistic is that when he completes his third term, New Yorkers will have spend 48 (3 terms * 4 years per term = 12 years per mayor, 4 3-term mayors * 12 years per mayor = 48 years) of the past, well, 80 years if we take LaGuardia's entrance as the start but, oh, let's call it 100 years so as to not cherry pick LaGuardia's start date.

48/100 years under 3-term mayors doesn't sound nearly as rare as "only the fourth in a century" does it? Going by number of mayors, it would be 4 of the last 10 mayors, again not exactly a once-in-a-lifetime event.

A good example of the truth in the phrase "lies, damned lies & statistics".

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Truth of the Day

Fascinating article in the NY Times about an expensive piece of bomb-detecting equipment that the Iraqi government is quite enamored of which has the sole drawback of being comically useless:

To detect materials, the operator puts an array of plastic-coated cardboard cards with bar codes into a holder connected to the wand by a cable. “It would be laughable,” Colonel Bidlack said, “except someone down the street from you is counting on this to keep bombs off the streets.”

Proponents of the wand often argue that errors stem from the human operator, who they say must be rested, with a steady pulse and body temperature, before using the device.

Then the operator must walk in place a few moments to “charge” the device, since it has no battery or other power source, and walk with the wand at right angles to the body. If there are explosives or drugs to the operator’s left, the wand is supposed to swivel to the operator’s left and point at them.
This heartfelt statement from the head of the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior’s General Directorate for Combating Explosives betrays the truth I referred to in the post's title:
“Whether it’s magic or scientific, what I care about is it detects bombs,” said Maj. Gen. Jehad al-Jabiri
Though this fellow might be written off as a backwards yokel from a backwards region of the world, this is how most of humanity thinks, even today, even in the West where science seems to reign supreme. Rational thought is very alien to humanity. Scientific thought is an even more unnatural subset of rational thought. It's a rare person who is able to fully embrace it and takes real will for most people to even follow the logic of it, even in the face of literal centuries of evidence of its benefits.

This is a big part of the reason that I feel civilization rests on such infirm footing, despite seemingly irrefutable evidence to the contrary. The glorious achievements of our civilization were not natural or inevitable, nor is the maintenance of the modes of thought needed for their further existence. Indeed, most of humanity would gladly embrace the pleasantly irrational, civilization be damned, than do the hard work of maintaining rationality. For an example from the very heights of the "rational West", just look at the anti-vaccine movement.