So I've been thinking about political systems.
Two years ago, when I was telling everyone why they should vote for Nader, I was saying things like, "vote for the person you think is best", and pooh-poohing all the objections about "spoiler candidates" and such. Meanwhile, my friend Michael Kimmitt was telling people about how they need to resolve differences in the primary, then unify under the selected candidate: more or less specifically affirming the two party system. I didn't really like that solution, because it routinely ends up presenting us with decisions like Bush vs Gore.
Earlier this year, the French had an election for President in which Jacques Chirac (the incumbent president) was front runner, and Lionel Jospin (then the premier) was thought to be in second. As was usual French elections, there were a number of lesser candidates as well---after ballots were counted, the top two candidates would face off in a runoff vote a few weeks later. As it happened, Jospin was narrowly edged out by a far-right candidate (Jean-Marie Le Pen), who then faced Chirac in the runoff, where he was soundly defeated 80-20%.
This pattern of events was unfortunate, because Chirac and Jospin were relatively moderate candidates, and each would have gotten a lot of votes in the runoff from people who had voted for someone else in the initial vote. Le Pen was unlikely to increase his percentage (and didn't); those who would have preferred slightly-left Jospin to slightly-right Chirac almost universally preferred Chirac to extreme-right Le Pen, sealing his victory. "It's too bad," thought I, "that they couldn't send to their runoff vote the most popular leftist candidate vs the most popular rightist candidate." Oh. That'd make the first election a primary....
Well, sort of. But it certainly sent me off into a different way of thinking. What if the elections were really just runoffs between the best two candidates, and primaries were really where the elections happened? (Michael's been saying this for years, but it never quite registered, I guess.) I thought a lot about this.
But it still galls me to think that I should have to vote for (say) the Democrat just because I think he's less bad than the Republican, and he was selected in the primary. At least, not if there are alternatives. So I flipped back to backing Instant Runoff Voting or some other fair voting system; it's the logical extension of a basic runoff vote, which is itself just an approximation at finding the most supported candidate. If IRV had been in place in France, then people could have stated explicitly that they liked <random leftist candidate> best but still preferred Jospin over Chirac; and as the runoff rounds proceeded (instantly, without the need for further voting) it would have (correctly) ended up a contest between Jospin and Chirac, instead of a system accident that wasted peoples time by pitting Chirac against Le Pen.
Of course, the existence of IRV wouldn't abolish the existence of the parties, nor should it. Political parties provide a convenient way of grouping like-minded people, and funneling monetary support in some centralised way. And for the determination by the party of which candidate to fund, primaries would continue to make sense. If a candidate is defeated in the primary, he can choose to concede---most would, I think---or go it alone, as an independent. An unfunded independent. This would be difficult, but provides a useful outlet: it's the difference between "I agree with A more than B, but in the end, B's pretty good and I'll vote for him" and "I agree with A, but barely at all with B, and the thought of voting for B is awful".
Until we can get IRV in place, though, I've definitely come around to the idea of primaries being a useful if not very perfect approximation thereof. Now I just have to decide whether I'd rather register as Democrat (so I can vote in the primaries) or as Green (to lend numerary support to their existence: it helps their cause to be able to cite numbers of registered Greens in various jurisdictions). Oh well, I'll think about that before the next elections in two years!
"Well, someone come up with a good word that means "person whose name I can put on the same invitation separated by an "and" if I want both people in a couple to show up at my dinner party" yet doesn't indicate what they do with one another in their spare time so as to earn this distinction, and I'll be happy." --Gel Thelen
Last week, I went to our local Bread and Circus for the first time. That's our local Whole Foods store, i.e. organic, GMO-free, hippie food. Well, that's how I thought of it before, at least.
When I went in, it was more or less to look around---I was thinking it'd be a tiny little store, not really much for me since I don't buy everything organic and I'm not really into the wacky alterna-grains and such. But, I dutifully wandered the aisles to see what was available.
To my considerable surprise, they actually stocked almost everything I would look for in a grocery store. Some things were much more expensive than they would be at the supermarket down the street, but most things were just 10--20% more. I was starting to balk at the expense, when I realised that that was a bit hypocritical of me.
See, I consider myself an environmentalist, but the way I figure things is that rather than forbid or require certain things, we should merely internalise their costs into the economy. If one company's process causes pollution, they should have to pay for cleanup. That will probably mean that non-pollutive processes will end up being cheaper and more common, but if it's still cheaper to pollute and clean it up, well, that's not so bad either. Once all the environmental and social costs of a given mode of production are factored into the market cost of the product, the market will do an excellent job of accounting for people and the environment in picking the most efficient way to do something.
So back to Bread and Circus, and organic (etc) foods and other stuff. They may cost a little bit more, but according to my model, this is what we should be paying anyway. If everyone were using these methods, the costs would probably go down some (especially on things that are whole multiples more expensive in 'organic' than they are in a standard supermarket), but the idea is certainly there.
So I bought a pretty full basket o' stuff. I got organic pasta sauce, organic tortilla chips, organic cereal bars, and recycled-paper paper towels and toilet paper. The towels are at least as good as any other brand I've had, but I'm a little worried about the toilet paper (haven't tried it yet). I mean, if there's one thing I want chemical softeners in... but who knows. While two of the brands looked awfully scratchy, the one I got had quilting in the paper. If they turn out to be bad, I'll not feel bad about throwing them out. On the other hand, at $1.50 for four rolls, they're comparable with standard toilet paper, so if they work I'm happy to stick with them.
Actually, that's pretty much my philosophy on any of these things---as long as they taste/work the same or better, and cost the same, less, or not too much more, why not go for the environmentally friendly variety? Not to mention the novel experience of seeing ingredient lists less than five items long, all of them recognisable. It might even be good for you.
Oh, and one more thing---I just had to try out Dr. Bronner's magic soap. The man was a little crazy, and there is a cryptic diatribe on every paper soap wrapper... pretty cool. And hey, the soap seems to work just fine. A bit on the expensive side, though.
"You can't really get an education if it begins with the premise that there's some book or doctrine that's too dangerous for you." --Janet Cooper-Nelson
Just saw Atanarjuat ("The Fast Runner"), the Inuit film. Fantastic. It's got the best parts of both a documentary and an epic saga. Don't be deterred by the three hour running time: have patience. The film does keep moving (the first twenty minutes are the worst, actually), and it's really worth it. Now playing at a tiny art house near you.
"Wouldn't it be nice if just once, on some issue, the Bush administration came up with a plan that didn't involve weakened environmental protection, financial breaks for wealthy individuals and corporations and reduced public oversight?" --Paul Krugman
Clearly, the best thing for my blog is being under a heavy deadline, e.g. for my proposal. Ever since I finished it, the frequency of my posting has gone way down. :)
Last night, I finished another book: Diaspora by Greg Egan. Where the last one was science fiction addressing AI and cognitive psychology, this one addresses AI and particle physics. I enjoyed it immensely, although Egan has a tendency to get a little too bogged down in the science, which is way over my head. At least, the physics was. On the other hand, I enjoyed the detail in the AI section; and it's not like I was missing any plot when I didn't get the physics stuff---he does explain the import of each scientific bit, for those of us insufficiently sophisticated to understand on our own.
The milieu of the book is primarily inside polises, which are very large, fast computers that provide the operating system in which millions of machine intelligences live, in post-21st century Earth civilisation. The first two chapters describe the genesis of such an intelligence, and may make it into a required reading section of an intro AI class I might teach one day. They certainly stand well enough on their own.
The idea is, once we figured out how to host true machine intelligences, we built these massive computers and buried them deep below the Earth's surface, then a majority of Earth's population scanned itself in and migrated into these computers: this was the Introdus. Not all did; some elected to inhabit robot "gleisners", others to undergo genetic manipulation to become "exuberants", while still others ("statics") continued being human as we understand the term. Most of the characters in the book are home born---grown in the polises, never having been attached to a flesh-and-blood body---but we do meet representatives of the other classes as well. The interactions between and within these groups are rich and fascinating, very well-thought-out.
So where does the particle physics come in? Well, without giving away the plot, early in the book, humanity and its descendants come to realise that the Earth might not be as permanent and safe as they had once thought; was the galaxy? The universe? How far would they have to go to be "safe"? These questions are explored in a variety of fascinating ways, as Egan speculates increasingly wildly about the nature of the universe as he brings his characters through their quest. This quest should hook anyone interested in math or physics, or both; sophistication in these fields would probably help but is certainly not required. As I said earlier, the import of any sciency bit is generally explained pretty clearly.
Summary: excellent book. Know when you read it, by the way, that there is a glossary in the back---it would've been helpful if I'd realised that before I got to the end of the story. ;)
"There are environmentally aware Americans---they mostly wear beads and live in Seattle. The rest of the nation drives past them hardly noticing their presence." --Justin Webb, BBC
Wow, it's been awhile since I posted. Well, quite a lot has happened. I'll recount the Kevin saga at a later date, but for now I'll tell you what I did yesterday.
First thing in the morning this past Friday, I check my email. Sitting in there is an email from the okgo mailing list. okgo is a band that opened for TMBG last year, which I liked and proceeded to meet and then chat with the following day at a chorus concert. Pretty memorable. Anyway, so this email was sent at 9:40pm on Thursday night, and includes the information that okgo was playing the Met Cafe in Providence at 8:30pm on Thursday night. D'oh! I actually sent off an email to them in complaint. :P
Next, I sat down and read the BDH, including the Friday insert (which I don't always bother with). And there was an interview with okgo in it! Nifty. What's more, at the end of the interview is the note that they'd be playing the WBRU summer concert series in India Point Park that afternoon at 5pm. Great!
I headed down there, and saw the sound check and stuff; then I bought a T-shirt and got one of the advance-copy singles they were handing out, with two songs off their new CD (being released next Tuesday). Then I heard the concert, standing right at the barricade, maybe twenty feet from the band. Loud, but very cool.
Since I was down at India Point, I figured I'd wander over to the Providence since it was in port, and say hi to... I just realised I have no idea how to spell her name. Let's say it's Jammin. A friend of Coree's from Smith, she hangs out with us sometimes when the ship is in port, and the rest of the time she's actually a deckhand on a tall ship. How cool is that? She showed me the hold (it's... cozy)---they have an oven that's mounted to swing back and forth as the ship rolls from side to side. But they were getting ready to cook dinner, so I headed on out.
And ran into Avery, a guy who just got his CS undergrad degree here, and who I also knew from occasionally hanging out at Zete; I haven't seen him for months, but he was wandering around India Point looking to meet someone. We chatted for awhile, and then I started to walk back up to campus.
As I passed Armstrong Street, I thought to look down it, since I knew Birgit and Caroline lived on it. Then I realised that was silly, since it was a fairly long street and I didn't know where they lived exactly... but sure enough, there was Birgit, right in front of her house. I waved and walked over; she was outside because she was cleaning up after her car had been broken into. They took the radio and shattered the passenger window. :(
After a brief stop at the CIT, I continued up Thayer towards my house, and who did I run into on the steps of Kabob and Curry but Curran, who was in town for a day to present her master's thesis, and Brett (her boyfriend) and Veronica (another friend from Tech House), who I also knew. We chatted for a while, and I mentioned I'd been to the okgo concert; she was surprised I'd heard of them, and noted that they'd been on NPR the night before, which was the first she'd heard. Moments later, I glance around, and who's standing behind me but Damien Kulash, the okgo lead singer! And the rest of the band and a fair number of staff was milling about too. Apparently they were looking for dinner---I commented that K&C was the best restaurant on Thayer, but I think it was too busy, and they went somewhere else. They were in good hands---Damien went to Brown (class of '98), so presumably he knows where most of the good restaurants (still) are. :)
Then I got home, ate a hot dog, went next door and watched The Contender. It was an excellent movie (pitched right at the West Wing crowd, I loved it), but I didn't recognise anyone I knew in it, so I have to assume that the Extended Moment of Serendipity had ended. We'll see if there are any aftershocks in the next few days.
Ill-considered comment #524: "If I ever find myself in the same quotes file as Miss Manners, I'm slitting my throat." --Matt Stanislawski
Let me preface this entry by saying that I really do have sympathy for those of you out there who lost someone close in the attacks a year ago. The rest of this entry does not apply to you.
Furthermore, I suppose that there may exist people who spend their lives in a constant state of debilitating sorrow for all the murder and other bad things that go on in this country and in the world. If you are such a person, the rest of this entry also does not apply to you.
If you're not in one of those two groups of people, and you're still spending today making a big deal about the GREAT TRAGEDY where SO MANY PEOPLE DIED, the rest of this entry is just for you: get over yourself already. Already in the last few days I've been hearing you gear up for it, with anticipatory strains of woe. You've already sponsored interminable talks with titles like, "how the world will never be the same" and "remembering the thousands that died one year ago". You and people like you are going to make today positively dreadful, not getting any work done and making it difficult or impossible for the rest of us to do so. Never before a year ago, and not really since, did you ever spare a single thought for all the people murdered out there for whatever stupid reasons people murder other people, but just because these people had the luck (ooh, ok, that was a bit sarcastic even for me) to be killed in the company of so many others, you now go on and on at length about how they need to be specially remembered.
Right now, I know exactly what you're thinking. "What kind of awful person would say such things! Thousands died! We will never forget this day! It will live on in... in our memories forever!" Really? Here's a quick quiz: I want you to name the date that Pearl Harbor was bombed. What? You can't? Yeah, life goes on. Let's put this all in some more perspective...
A year ago, 2,801 people died in the attacks. (cite: CNN) That's a lot of people. Now, I don't know how many people were murdered in 2001 because I couldn't find it, but in 2000 there were 15,517 murders in the US (cite: FBI, as quoted in a Boston Globe article). Three years earlier, in 1997, there were 18,209 murders (cite: CNN). Extrapolating, I feel safe in saying that there were at least three times as many people in the US last year who were murdered by someone other than the terrorists. Even adding in the deaths from the attacks (which were, after all, murders) likely wouldn't even bring the total up to a five-year high. This fairly callous analysis is mostly just to demonstrate the hypocrisy of those of you out there mourning the deaths of a couple thousand people you have no connection to, while totally ignoring the deaths of more than ten thousand others.
Well, the terrorists certainly got your attention. And if you believe Bush's post-attack rhetoric about their motivations ("they did this because they were jealous of our freedom, and wanted to take it away")---which I don't, but I'll play along for a minute---boy howdy did it ever work. Despite the basic futility of trying to defend against someone who is willing to commit suicide to accomplish something, we have destroyed many freedoms in the name of security. For the most part (there are exceptions), we are just as insecure as we were before, except that we endure more inconveniences, indignities, privacy violations, and assorted rights violations than we have at any other point in recent memory. I could riff on this topic for hours at this point, but that'd make this too long (if it isn't already). Maybe in a later entry. For now, you can read this AP summary.
I have to say, though, as irritating as I find all the bleeding hearts that have been materialising in the days leading up to this anniversary, at least they aren't trying to sell me anything. If I see one more ad for a 9/11 commemorative, I'll just scream. The leaches are out in force on this one, selling everything from books, to watches, to purses, to coins and medallions; I am hard put to think of anything more crass or tacky than trying to make money off this event (or any other murder, or death in general, for that matter).
Well, I'm tired of typing now, so I'll wrap up. Basically, if you're going to be contemplative today---which is healthy, to a degree---don't forget to contemplate all those other people you didn't know who got killed in the last year. I'll close with a link to last Saturday's entry of Chris Baldwin's excellent comic Bruno, which nicely summarises my whole feeling on the matter.
(PS: It was December 7th, 1941.)
"I blame Martin Luther." --Fr Henry Bodah
Ha-ha! Just downloaded Chimera, a Mozilla-derivative browser for Mac OS X; it doesn't seem to have the problems with blogger that Omniweb has, so now I can write these from my laptop. It does have font issues yet, though, and so I probably won't use it for my main browser. I might get into the nightly-build cycle, for the fun of it---it just might become my new distraction for late at night when I don't want to work on my thesis. Oh wait! That's my blog. Sorry, forgot.
I just discovered that in 10.2 Save dialogs, filenames with numbers in them are listed in numerical order, not alphabetical. Thus asdf10.txt comes after asdf9.txt. I haven't explored it much yet, so I'm not positive how it works, but I'm totally thrilled. Inordinately so, in fact.
"Telling people to 'zip up' is never proper unless they are exposing themselves." --Miss Manners
I have just spent the last, oh, hour or so reading the weekly blog "The Story About the Baby", and I've spent much of that time laughing, choking, and/or spraying mouthsful of Coke onto my monitor. Run, don't walk, etc., etc.
I haven't posted in a few days because the net connection to our house was down, and I was much too lazy to schlep the three blocks to the CIT to actually check my mail or post to the blog. Instead, I obliterated the damn Babylonians and am currently working to ensure that Persia meets the same fate. The year is 1910 and I have Modern Armor and Mechanized Infantry on my side: hear me roar!
Also over the weekend, I finished reading a book called The Turing Option. I picked it up in a used bookstore in Philadelphia; it caught my eye because its authors were Harry Harrison and Marvin Minsky. For the non-initiated, Marvin Minsky is a big name in the field of artificial intelligence, and is incidentally my academic grandfather---my advisor's advisor. Harry Harrison, on the other hand, is a really funny author of various sci-fi books, and is probably best known for his Stainless Steel Rat series.
The book takes place in 2023, and it was written in 1992. This is important to note, because in a problem universal to sci-fi (though perhaps worse here than usual), there are places in the book where an explicit or implicit prediction has gone screamingly wrong. Mentions of a still-active Warsaw Pact, for instance, are impossibly jarring. Frequent references to computers with "thousands of megabytes" fall a bit flat, both for the assumption that that would be impressive and the failure to use the correct term "gigabyte" (which was already in use in the early 90s, so they really missed the boat there).
That said, it really was a good book, and worth reading. The premise is that science is on the brink of discovering true machine intelligence, and there are a number of interests who wish to have that information and are willing to go to astounding lengths to acquire it and keep it secret. The book thus ends up being a mystery novel of sorts---how did the crime happen, and who done it?---while spending a great deal of time on some very well-informed speculation on the nature of intelligence and the necessary components of any replication thereof. More credence is given to the Cyc database than I usually am accustomed to, but that may be a function of when the book was written: ten years ago, a lot of people believed pretty strongly in Cyc or something like it as a necessary foundation for any true machine intelligence. I wonder what Minsky thinks of it now.
Also worth noting, if you do read the book, are the extra chapters of the book, that weren't published, that Minsky has put on his web page.
"Jon, didn't you say the table was granite? You don't need coasters unless you plan to set core-temp lava or dildos vibrating at the resonant frequency of quartz on top of it." --Eva Schillace
I called Apple on Tuesday morning to report the dead AC adaptor, and they said they'd overnight me a new one. Wednesday... nothing. Thursday afternoon, I get a call from a secretary that my package has been delivered to the first floor instead of the fourth---to the computer repair center instead of to the CS department. I go downstairs, and the receptionist there apologises to me, saying that it was weird that the name didn't match anything they were expecting, but they opened it before realising that it wasn't for them.
I wonder if it occurred to them that the label saying "4th floor" might have indicated this?
So anyway, I took the (opened) package upstairs. And you know what? It was missing a part, the part that plugs the AC adaptor directly into a socket (as opposed to via a cord). The corded one was in there, so it's usable, but it's missing a part! I went down there today and delicately asked if it "might have fallen out", "accidentally", when they opened my package. They got very defensive and said they had already apologised. Fine fine, but I thought maybe---it's a little piece---it had rolled out when they opened it or something. Without even looking around at all, the two guys there said that this piece doesn't actually come with the charger, it has to be ordered separately from Apple. Which is patently false, as my friend Rob (among others) just got one less than a week ago, and it included the extra piece. Whatever. These are the same people who claimed I'd dropped my computer and Apple wouldn't fix it. Now I'm calling Apple, we'll see what they say.
Anyway, there's a really interesting essay about being Christian and scientific/technological at the same time, by Larry Wall (creator of Perl), on slashdot today---scroll down to answer #7.
"I always got the impression that Jude was, like, a fixer saint. A Winston Wolf type. He makes your very bad problems go away, but you don't call on him if your problems aren't very bad. He accepts payment in the form of little acknowlegements in the classified section of the Chicago Reader." --Casey Westerman
A senate committee has just recommended legalising pot... in Canada. Still, that's huge progress. We'll see how it turns out.
The only class I'm taking---auditing---this semester met yesterday. It was billed as a first-year seminar (which, since I'm only getting my masters in linguistics, I'm only just now taking), and a bonding experience for the grad students, etc, etc. But there were about four or five grad students there and more than twice as many undergrad cog sci and cog neuro concentrators. Apparently it's also the senior seminar for the cognitive and linguistic sciences department. Format is: everyone picks out their favourite paper in the field, and gives a 40 minute presentation thereon. Oh well, it'll be horizon-broadening, or something. At least there's one other linguistics student in there.
In other news... apparently this is old news, but Greece has outlawed electronic games. All kinds. Whether it's in a console, or your cell phone, or your computer, it's illegal. Internet cafés are still legal, but if anyone's caught playing computer games, the café gets shut down. The avowed goal of the thing is to get rid of gambling machines, but lawmakers were well aware of the law's collateral damage. One hopes that it won't hold up, but I suppose you never know.
On organic farms, they till it like it is. --alternativefoodcoop.com
Some thoughts that occurred to me a few nights ago as I was drifting off to sleep...
A few weeks ago, there was a big flap over the proposed TIPS program, which would have citizens volunteer to be government informants, spying on their neighbours and other fellow citizens; the program was compared to the East German Stasi and other unsavoury Cold War bogeymen. "How terrible," said many Americans, "that we would always be worried that the person we were talking to would look for 'suspicious' things to turn us in over!" After all the fuss, George Junior and his minions dropped the project, fortunately.
The funny thing is, with all the outrage we managed to muster over that, we don't even realise that we're already there. The existing program isn't to look for terrorists, though, but drug users. (Right now, the NORML crowd is saying "yeah, duh, where've you been?".) I don't know about the adults that grew up before programs like DARE were in place, but kids today, and adults who grew up with DARE and such things, are trained deep down that they're supposed to turn in anyone---anyone at all---that uses drugs.
Isn't that a little weird?
I'm not a pot user myself, but I have friends who are. For a long time, it was always uncomfortable to be around them while they were smoking up, because I was thinking that if they got caught, I might get in trouble for not reporting them. Every time I think about that, I just get madder. In no other situation, up to and including murder, would I feel like I'd get in trouble for not reporting someone (of course, in the case of murder I would be reporting them, but because I wanted to, not because I'd get in trouble otherwise). But for drugs, hey, they successfully made me feel like I had some legal obligation to turn someone in for breaking the law. Something tells me I'm not the only one who got hoodwinked, and I think most of the others aren't nearly introspective enough to ever figure out what happened there. (Heck, certainly took me long enough.)
I'd do up a Nacirema-style essay on this, but it'd just make me madder.
"Is that arrogant enough for you? I'm trying to get in touch with my inner Texan, so that I can properly tell you off, but I'm afraid I've been in California too long." --Al Petrofsky
It installed, it works. Power consumption's lower under 10.2, too---a full charge gets me over three hours at max brightness, and nearly four at low brightness. I've made use of that fact over the weekend, since I can't recharge my battery. :)
I called Apple this morning, and they're overnighting me a new AC adaptor. I'm pleased to get one that works, and I really like the LED ring on the plug that shows the state of the charging, but I'm sad that it won't match my computer anymore. Oh well.
In Civ3-land, I feel like I've learned a lot. I ended the game where I was China, and discovered during the replay that my biggest mistake was not expanding fast enough. Not beating up the Babylonians early was also a problem---I let that drag out much too long. But possibly the biggest problem was one of luck: there were three continents, and the one I was on had four civs, and couldn't reach either of the other two until we had ocean-going vessels; meanwhile India had a whole continent to himself, and Japan had more than half of the remaining one, and they could move between themselves already with just sea-going vessels. I feel I did good, considering. I started a new game, and now I'm Iroquois, which is fun---but get this, I'm sharing a continent with the Babylonians again! Growing much faster this time, though, so I should have a better time of it.
Classes have started, and everyone's bustling about again; Providence has returned to its slightly dreary overcast light drizzle that it maintains for most of the academic year. Ah, I love my ivory tower, and I will be sad to leave it.
"Suckiness has many orders. Lots of people filter on higher-ordered suckiness factors, like how they perceive the tone of your posts, or whether or not you've demonstrated due diligence in researching their areas of expertise. The thinking goes: if these factors flag suckiness, probably first-order suckiness is also indicated." --Thien-Thi Nguyen