2009-04-30

Women not finding partners

I noticed a certain phenomenon among female friends about my age - in their late twenties.

The phenomenon is, many of them are single. Several of those recently had relationships with rather horrid guys. Of the few who are in relationships, some are still in relationships with horrid guys.

And the thing that strikes me?

At a certain point, many of these girls were with guys, or had the opportunity to be with guys, that were better than the fare that they're now putting up with.

This is not to say that those guys were perfect. But they do appear to have been better than whatever is available to them today.

I get to watch all this from a perspective of a guy who has enjoyed a nearly perfect relationship and marriage over the past 5 years - but also a guy who was previously incredibly frustrated with girls until my early twenties.

From my very limited personal observations, here's what I ponder:
  • Can most people find a partner that is better for them than being single?
  • If yes, what prevents them? Do they look in the wrong places? All first meetings are random chance, but it seems futile to me to wait for your Prince Charming to find you randomly in a stale environment that provides few or poorly aligned meeting opportunities. It seems more likely that you would meet one if you seek out a possible partner in places where there are many opportunities to meet people who are in some ways like what you think you're seeking.
  • If most people cannot find a partner who is better for them than being single, then what prevents them? I would bet that a strong factor is an irrational conception of love. Quite a number of women who I observe stay single as they age appear to be causing that by refusing to take a rational view of partnership. Instead of looking for someone they would be compatible with, they look for someone to sweep them off their feet. They put the cart in front of the horse; instead of starting with compatibility and then letting love grow over time and develop, they want to start with a fiery infatuation to begin with, and hope for compatibility later. This, of course, usually does not occur.
  • In their early twenties, they might find a reasonable match that could be good, but then they severe it because it doesn't feel like it's "the thing". Since they are looking for infatuation rather than compatibility, each following match is shorter and worse. But by the time they wise up, they are not in their prime any more. They might be looking for older guys, but the better older guys have taken younger women and are already in relationships. What now remains is the rejects, or people whose first marriages did not work out, who might already have children, or younger guys who are looking for yet younger women.
Based on my limited insight, here's the advice I'd give to young women:
  • You want to be with the guy you're going to be with by the time you're 25. By the time you're past your prime, you don't want to still be looking for your guy. The pickings will only get worse. You can delay this by aiming for younger guys as you get older, but that's stretching it.
  • You want to look for compatibility first and foremost. Yes, the guy you're with has to be attractive enough to turn you on. That's part and parcel of being compatible. He has to be someone whose company stimulates you. That's part and parcel of being compatible, too. But he doesn't have to swipe you off your feet. In fact, it's preferable that he doesn't. That way, you'll be able to make a better decision about whether you're compatible with him or not.
  • Infatuation is an illusion. Never forget that. It is passionate, and it is exciting, but it is an illusion generated by yourself. Moreover, illusions disappear. Once you have found someone you think you're truly compatible with, don't let an infatuation with someone else ruin your relationship. Infatuations are likely to not work out. They are however likely to make you single, lonely, and miserable.
  • Look for your guy purposefully and intentionally. Don't be afraid to use the internet - social networks, good dating websites. A woman I know used a dating website to schedule dates with guys every day for weeks in advance. She found her guy. If you want to find a needle in a haystack, equip yourself with magnets by all means. But you have to do your part in sifting through the haystack, or else others are going to get to the needles first.

2009-04-29

Never forget!



Egypt slaughters all pigs to avoid swine flu

Someone in Egypt sure doesn't like pigs.

I'm aware that it is standard practice to kill animals to prevent the spreading of an infection, but this is just ridiculous. Egyptian pigs have no infection. Apparently, they're just killing them because they're pigs, and the flu is named "swine flu".

Side note - if this happened to humans, it would be called "ethnic cleansing".

2009-04-28

Obama to radically increase science funding

This could be excellent news (thanks to Scott Aaronson):
I am here today to set this goal: we will devote more than three percent of our GDP to research and development ... This represents the largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history...
I agree with this:
The fact is, an investigation into a particular physical, chemical, or biological process might not pay off for a year, or a decade, or at all. And when it does, the rewards are often broadly shared, enjoyed by those who bore its costs but also by those who did not. That’s why the private sector under-invests in basic science – and why the public sector must invest in this kind of research. Because while the risks may be large, so are the rewards for our economy and our society...
If we start from the assumption that the government will hijack, by force, a large portion of everyone's fruits of labor, then this is probably one of the best long-run investments that can be made; and these are investments that are otherwise likely to not be made.

Is this oppression by people who are interested in science and its long-term benefits, against people who are not, yet are still forced to pay taxes for this?

Umm... I guess it is.

But if such science investments are made in the long run, then, 100 years from now, GDP may be dramatically higher, and lifespans may be longer, and people may be healthier, and it may be possible to enjoy a lot more things.

Consider now a future person who will have benefitted from the science investments over the past 100 years, and will now have several times the purchasing power and untold new possibilities than she would have had without it. Is it wrong to sap a few percent of this person's purchasing power, so as to redirect it to further investments in science, for future generations' further benefit?

Do we want a world where people are forced to invest for the future, when they wouldn't voluntarily invest?

Do we want a world where people are forced to invest this way, through taxes, even if such investment is against their beliefs; such as is the case for the fundamentalist religious?

It is easy to say yes, but are we not saying yes only because this particular oppression is in our interest?

It would be a lot easier to justify this if people could at least choose the country where they live and pay taxes. The U.S. was founded with such competition in mind - with multiple states and freedom of movement between them. But it has, since Lincoln, degenerated into a single, oppressive federal government with only superficial differences among the states. And there's no exit either: more than in most "free" countries, U.S. citizens are punished severely for leaving.

2009-04-26

Svalbard

Holy cow!

Did you know about Svalbard?

(Feel free to sneer at this point that yes, because you paid more attention to geography in school than I did. In my defense, I mostly had horrid geography teachers.)

More than 2,000 people live in this archipelago halfway between Norway and the North Pole. The capitol, Longyearbyean, is at 78 degrees north. For comparison, the Antarctic continent starts at 66 degrees south.

It is the northernmost inhabited place on Earth. According to Wikipedia, they have "the world's northernmost school, church, hospital, bank, newspaper, airport with scheduled airline service, movie theater, kebab shop, and in-door swimming pool."

In North America, the northernmost settlement is Barrow, at the northernmost end of Alaska, with a population of 4,600 living at a geographic latitude of 71 degrees north.

Edited to add:

Trivia question.

Where is the easternmost land of North America?

Is it in Newfoundland? Or perhaps Greenland?

Thereabouts, if you were looking for the rightmost point, considering the bulk of the continent to be in the center. The geographical easternmost point, however, is the Semisopochnoi Island in the western Aleutian Islands - 23 minutes west of the 180th meridian. It is part of the United States.

2009-04-25

French wine militants attack

There's just no arguing it.

The French truly are a nation of hooligans and vandals.

In another recent act, militant wine growers broke in and destroyed $830,000 worth of someone else's wine in a campaign for higher wine prices. They had previously "claimed responsibility for bomb attacks on supply trucks, supermarkets, and the ministry of agriculture".

As for my take on this, no use repeating myself. I've written about it before.

It's not my arm!

Fascinating article by Yvain on Less Wrong:
After a right-hemisphere stroke, she lost movement in her left arm but continuously denied it. When the doctor asked her to move her arm, and she observed it not moving, she claimed that it wasn't actually her arm, it was her daughter's. Why was her daughter's arm attached to her shoulder? The patient claimed her daughter had been there in the bed with her all week. Why was her wedding ring on her daughter's hand? The patient said her daughter had borrowed it. Where was the patient's arm? The patient "turned her head and searched in a bemused way over her left shoulder".
So what's Dr. Ramachandran's solution? He posits two different reasoning modules located in the two different hemispheres. The left brain tries to fit the data to the theory to preserve a coherent internal narrative and prevent a person from jumping back and forth between conclusions upon each new data point. It is primarily an apologist, there to explain why any experience is exactly what its own theory would have predicted. The right brain is the seat of the second virtue. When it's had enough of the left-brain's confabulating, it initiates a Kuhnian paradigm shift to a completely new narrative. Ramachandran describes it as "a left-wing revolutionary".

Normally these two systems work in balance. But if a stroke takes the revolutionary offline, the brain loses its ability to change its mind about anything significant. If your left arm was working before your stroke, the little voice that ought to tell you it might be time to reject the "left arm works fine" theory goes silent. The only one left is the poor apologist, who must tirelessly invent stranger and stranger excuses for why all the facts really fit the "left arm works fine" theory perfectly well.

It gets weirder. For some reason, squirting cold water into the left ear canal wakes up the revolutionary. Maybe the intense sensory input from an unexpected source makes the right hemisphere unusually aroused. Maybe distoring the balance sense causes the eyes to move rapidly, activating a latent system for inter-hemisphere co-ordination usually restricted to REM sleep3. In any case, a patient who has been denying paralysis for weeks or months will, upon having cold water placed in the ear, admit to paralysis, admit to having been paralyzed the past few weeks or months, and express bewilderment at having ever denied such an obvious fact. And then the effect wears off, and the patient not only denies the paralysis but denies ever having admitted to it.
There's more.

One value set to rule them all

Phil Goetz argues on Less Wrong that everyone should use the same set of values for personal decisions as well as for moral reasoning. His article has an interesting passage with which I agree:
How do you weigh rationality, and your other qualities and activities, relative to life itself? I would say that life itself has zero value; the value of a life is the sum of the values of things done and experienced during that life. But society teaches the opposite: that mere life has a tremendous value, and anything you do with your life has negligible additional value. That's why it's controversial to execute criminals, but not controversial to lock them up in a bare room for 20 years. We have a death-penalty debate in the US, which has consequences for less than 100 people per year. We have a few hundred thousand people serving sentences of 20 years and up, but no debate about it. That shows that most Americans place a huge value on life itself, and almost no value on what happens to that life.

I think this comes from believing in the soul, and binary thought in general. People want a simple moral system that classifies things as good or bad, allowable or not allowable, valuable or not valuable. We use real values in deciding what to do on Saturday, but we discretize them on Sunday. Killing people is not allowable; locking them up forever is. Killing enemy soldiers is allowable; killing enemy civilians is not. Killing enemy soldiers is allowable; torturing them is not. Losing a pilot is not acceptable; losing a $360,000,000 plane is. The results of this binarized thought include millions of lives wasted in prison; and hundreds of thousands of lives lost or ruined, and economies wrecked, because we fight wars in a way intended to avoid violating boundary constraints of a binarized value system rather than in a way intended to maximize our values.

The idea of the soul is the ultimate discretizer. Saving souls is good. Losing souls is bad. That is the sum total of Christian pragmatic morality.
This, I think, is very good reasoning.

I'm not sure whether I'm in agreement with Phil's major premise though, which is that one should "use just one logic and one set of values for all decisions", whether micro (what am I going to do tonight?) or macro (what's best for everyone?).

Even if your micro values (what should I do today?) are mostly compatible with your macro values (what's best for everyone?), there are values people have which seem immaterial in macro decisions, but apply strongly to micro decisions.

For example, consider a tragedy of the commons where people are over-exploiting a resource and thus gaining an advantage. There is no infrastructure in place to prevent over-exploitation. Should you join in and contribute to the over-exploitation, or abstain and suffer a disadvantage for it?

Note that you cannot affect the macro end result. The resource will be over-exploited and the damage will be irreversible. There is however a major difference to you: you will either share the benefits of over-exploitation with others, or you will suffer a significant disadvantage for not partaking.

What should you do?

In my opinion, everyone is rational in competing for the over-exploited resource, but everyone should at the same time be open to an agreement to impose an infrastructure to prevent over-exploitation; and should preferably act to impose such an agreement soon.

Perhaps this is in compliance with Phil's call for a single value set, if we take the value "no one should have to be the sucker" to apply both in the micro and the macro world.

The above tragedy of the commons example leads me to this paragraph from Phil's post:
Rationality is a win for the rational agent. But in many prisoners-dilemma and tragedy-of-the-commons scenarios, having rational agents is not a win for society. Religion teaches people to replace rational morality with an irrational dual-system morality under the (hidden) theory that rational morality leads to worse outcomes.
Quite so.

Religion is one of humanity's answers to the question:

"What infrastructure can we impose to discourage behavior that is individually rational but harmful when done by everyone?"

The problem with such infrastructures is that they can themselves be harmful. Religion is one of those.

2009-04-22

Stardock leaks customers' emails to spam

I rarely, if ever, use PayPal.

The other time I used it to buy a copy of Demigod (by Gas Powered Games), a fairly simple-minded but graphically rich third-person combat game.

Within days of placing that order, I started to get spam to my PayPal address, where I never received spam before.

I only used the PayPal address in the order and license process, and never used it for anything else with them.

That's a filthy, filthy, filthy business practice. Either someone at Stardock who has access to order emails is covertly selling them, or Stardock themselves are doing so.

It is illegal, too.

Why hearsay is not to be trusted

Robin Hanson summarizes a fascinating study.

2009-04-21

How things work out if government doesn't get in the way

Sudhir Venkatesh has a fascinating article about his experience with "loan sharks" - people who loan money to desperate penniless borrowers at high interest rates.
[C]ontrary to popular perception, very few cases of failed payment led to physical harm. Instead, you could be forced to pay in kind — e.g., with a television set — or with food stamps and welfare checks (which also function as collateral).
It is sad to see that regulators - well, and people in general - are so f***in stupid as to fail to realize that the setting of maximum interest rates is what prevents poor people from getting legal loans. Which, in turn, helps keep them in poverty.

Loaning people money is a form of betting. Some loans will not be returned, so if you want to make ends meet, you have to charge interest - or loan to nobody.

The riskier (the more peniless, the more desperate) the borrower, the higher the interest needs to be in order for the equation to work out. If the equation doesn't work out, the lender is out of business, and no one gets a loan.

Loan sharks are heroes who bring loans to the poor despite oppression from the government, which is so stupid as to limit interest rates at levels which have the effect of outlawing loans to the poor.

Similarly, marijuana dealers are heroes who risk their personal freedom to bring this relatively harmless substance to everyday people not much different from you and me, who simply like to use it - despite the government's braindead efforts to outlaw this.

We should portray these people more like what they are - heroes, as opposed to the jackbooted thugs with uniforms and badges, who are often sent to oppress people and take liberties away.

2009-04-19

Amazon EC2

I have long been eyeing Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud, but now the pieces have fallen into place:
  • For a while now, it has been possible to run Windows servers, which wasn't possible earlier.
  • They now have a nifty web-based control panel in place, so you don't have to download third party software or learn command line utilities in order to manage your server instances at EC2.
  • The Elastic Block Storage (EBS) provides, in effect, flexible persistent virtual hard drives which you can attach to any server instance. These volumes are supposed to be resistant to failure of any individual hardware component.
  • With a click of a button, it is now possible to bundle a Windows server instance, which saves its state and allows it to be relaunched later in the same configuration if it crashes, or to launch multiple clones of a server.
Before Amazon EC2, I also tried GoGrid, but I have not been as impressed. I would explain what's wrong with GoGrid, but they make you agree to a "Beta Agreement" during the signup process, where they essentially prevent you from discussing anything you experienced while using their service. Convenient, eh?

So, we've long been hosting our downloads on Amazon S3, and starting from yesterday, our main web server is now on Amazon EC2. Here's to hoping things continue to go well.

Finally: given how much I've been criticizing hosting companies, it would be wrong not to mention Cari.Net - the one dedicated server hosting company where we have so far not had any problems. Minimal down time, and the one server we have had with them has been working fine for a number of years.

Let's hope I didn't just jinx it. :)

2009-04-17

Never, ever use Cooplabs

A while ago I carped about the troubles I was having with servers hosted at Burst.Net.

Well, that trouble pales in comparison to what I've been through with Cooplabs.

I'm right in the middle of having to reinstall our main web server with another provider because Cooplabs have been unable (or unwilling) to bring it back online after the power supply failed - 10 hours ago. [Edit: it eventually took 13 hours. They were trying to recover the hard drive, but did not succeed.]

In mid 2008, I had to do the same thing - we had two servers hosted with them, and the one that was the main server inexplicably failed with no feedback or response from them. I sent emails and left them voicemail, to no avail. I had to hastily reinstall at the other server and then wait a week before hearing from them.

That wasn't the end of trouble either. In October, the same server (though now not hosting our website) failed again. It took them days to bring it back online. When they did, they simply forgot to send me any sort of login info whatsoever. The server was running, but I had no access to it.

Given such abysmal performance, I asked them to cancel that server and credit the remaining time to the other one that was now running the main website. (I had prepaid for both servers in advance.) They simply ignored this request. [They did agree to it when I restated my case again recently, but that was months later.]

Note that they seemed nice, friendly and courteous at the beginning, and everything had worked fine for the first year! But then the troubles began; and when they did - they began in earnest.

It seems to me that the root of the problem is not so much that the employees themselves don't try. (Well, some maybe don't.) It's unreliable hardware, and the way they are (dis)organized.
  • Unreliable hardware: I experienced 3 server failures in two years of hosting two servers with them. The average time between failure was 14 months. In two cases it was a power supply, in one case they didn't let me know the reason. In the last case, in particular, the hard drive on our web server and database died completely, so no data could be recovered.
  • They don't even monitor their servers. If a server dies, they don't notice it. You have to notice it and keep harrassing them until they fix it. When I didn't harrass, they didn't fix.
  • Instead of having a single point of support, it is haphazard. Their hours of telephone support aren't even published; I got voicemail half the time I tried to call. By email, you can write to this guy, or that guy, or there's an actual support address, but it's different than what it was 6 months ago. When they reply back, each person replies from their own address, so when you follow up, you might reach them, or maybe they have gone home for the day, and now you don't know who, if anyone, is handling your issue.
There is a lesson for small businesses to be learned from the above: use a centralized case management system, and don't let your staff reply from individual addresses.

Gospodarska okorelost

[This post is in Slovenian because it started out as a response to this post by Pozicija Ženska, evoking sympathy for the downtrodden in this economic state.]

Kadar se okolje v kratkem času krepko spremeni, to najbolje preživijo fleksibilni, najslabše pa okorni in okosteneli. Efekt tako imenovanih "socialno odgovornih" politik je, da v imenu zaščite tistih, ki jim že tako ali tako v redu gre, maksimizirajo okornost gospodarstva. Zakoni, namenjeni preprečevanju prilagoditev in sprememb, nudijo podpornikom "stabilne" službe in "spodobne" plače brez "pretresov" - dokler ne pride do sprememb, ki jih zakoni ne morejo preprečiti. Ko začne voda segati do grla, se pokaže resnična narava zakonodaje, ki skrbi za "stabilnost": je kot mlinski kamen okoli vratu.

Če ne bi bilo davka na dohodke, licenciranja poklicev in cele serije drugih zakonskih ovir, bi tisti, ki so izgubili službe, lahko našli druge začasne vire, s katerimi bi si zakrpali vire dohodkov. Lahko bi šli vozit taksi, kosit travo, lahko bi ponudili trgu svoje spretnosti - kakršnekoli že so - za tak denar, kot se soljudem zdi vredno plačati.

Ampak to ni sistem, ki ga imamo. Sistem, ki ga imamo, ne dovoljuje fleksibilnosti. Poudarja dolgoročno, stabilno, poštempljano, overovljeno, licencirano, obdavčeno, organizirano.

To se da, kadar je svet nespremenljiv in predvidljiv.

A ta hip ni.

2009-04-16

French fishermen blockade channel crossings

The proper reaction to this is to remove the fishermen by force and then put some in jail for criminal behavior. If the Police and the Coast Guard won't do it, the Army and the Navy will.

The French State needs to start exerting some control over the destructively crazed portion of its population... god dammit.

The very reason we have government is so that people's issues are resolved in ways other than by violence of one part of society over another - especially, as in this case, over people who have nothing to do with it.

Governments exist to stop this very thing.

A government that doesn't is inept.

The French are exceedingly inept. And proud of it.

Zipcar

I think Zipcar is a great idea. It's not really suitable for those who commute to work, since everyone wants to commute most days at the same time, so you might as well have your own car. But with those of us who work at home, our cars are mostly idle. There having to be so many cars for people who hardly use them is a waste. But public transportation doesn't get the job done, and taxis aren't a great alternative either, because it costs about the same (and is usually more convenient) to simply own a car.

If only we can get more of the people who still unnecessarily commute to offices, to work from home. Then the roads will be unclogged, and when you do want to get somewhere, you will be able to do so freely, perhaps in something like a Zipcar. Aaah.

2009-04-14

The Voodoo Sciences

Jerry Pournelle, a science fiction writer, essayist and journalist, once wrote (and still stands behind) this fairly harsh criticism of what he describes as the so-called social sciences:

The Voodoo Sciences

I think he makes good points and expresses sentiments that I also harbor.

There's nothing like reality to throw a wrench into what one would like to think is "elegant thought". Rather sadly, even tragically, a fair proportion of people these days seem to think that when they go and study languages or literature or philosophy or theology or X or Y or Z, that they are learning something which apparently they think is important and worthwhile. What they refuse to grasp, however, is how their "education" is not teaching them to think. People with these types of educations tend to end up being inept in the realm of logic, inept of detecting their own biases, inept at reaching correct conclusions, prone to emotions, misinterpretations, and appalling lapses of reasoning. They are prone to this because their education never teaches them to think.

I am aghast to see engineers or physicists thinking of themselves as having inferior intellectual status compared to philosophers and other humanities or "liberal arts" graduates. In my mind, there can be no doubt whatsoever as to which education is inferior and which superior. The difference is vast! All those degrees in mushy and unpalpable subjects are a whole lot of fog and rhetoric that mainly goes around in circles avoiding facts in order to promote various fantasies. Such "educations" are truly as nothing compared to an education that pits the student against reality and requires him to understand it and master it, provide answers that can be verified, develop theories and ideas that can actually be falsified, that hone the student's reasoning. This is what trains the mind in useful thinking. Useful thinking - as in, thinking on which we can base our decisions, and trust that in most cases those decisions will actually be correct; as opposed to thinking that misleads, leads to decisions that will either not have the desired impact or will even be regretted. Thinking that is therefore at best useless, and at worst harmful.

If there is any one discipline in particular that humbles the mind and trains it to think clearly, decisively, while honing awareness of the mind's own fallibility and potential for being wrong, then this is programming. I am not aware of any other discipline that provides such stark feedback. If your program is not behaving correctly, then in virtually all, all cases, it's not the fault of the computer; or of the operating system; or of the programming language. The fault is yours. No other discipline makes you spend years writing concise specifications for what you want to happen, then makes you face the errors you didn't realize you made; over, and over, and over again. No other discipline has such short feedback loops to show you the faults in your thinking process; and consequently, help you improve the accuracy of your thought as much.

Now compare that to a major in philosophy or history or languages or literature, where any interpretation is defensible, and everything you fancy can be thought to pass.

Rubbish.

2009-04-12

Good job, Navy snipers

1. Somali pirates take ship.
2. Crew trained in anti-piracy fights back, retakes ship.
3. Pirates escape but take captain as hostage.
4. Crew sails ship to Kenya.
5. US Navy negotiates for captain with pirates and Somali elders.
6. Talks stall because US insists on pirates receiving justice.
7. US snipers shoot 3 pirates guarding hostage.
8. Captain freed.

Good job :)

I don't think anything other than consistent slaughter will teach these people their lesson.

Yes, the next act of piracy is now more likely to be violent. It may result in pirates changing their business plan - from planning to take the crew hostage and negotiate a ransom, to just offing the crew outright and reselling the ship and its cargo.

Then again, this may discourage pirates if they don't have the connections to resell the ships, or the intel to know which ones carry valuable cargo. We'll see.

2009-04-07

The most dangerous person in the world

John Goekler nicely summarizes the stats:
The single greatest killer of Americans is the so-called "lifestyle disease." Somewhere between half a million and a million of us get a short ride in a long hearse every year because of smoking, lousy diets, parking our bodies in front of the TV instead of operating them, and downing yet another six pack and / or tequila popper.

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, between 310,000 and 580,000 of us will commit suicide by cigarette this year. Another 260,000 to 470,000 will go in the ground due to poor diet and sedentary lifestyle. And some 85,000 of us will drink to our own departure.

After the person in the mirror, the next most dangerous individual we're ever likely to encounter is one in a white coat. Something like 200,000 of us will experience "cessation of life" due to medical errors -- botched procedures, mis-prescribed drugs and "nosocomial infections." (The really nasty ones you get from treatment in a hospital or healthcare service unit.)

The next most dangerous encounter the average American is likely to have is with a co-worker with an infection. Or a doorknob, stair railing or restaurant utensil touched by someone with the crud. "Microbial Agents" (read bugs like flu and pneumonia) will send 75,000 of us to meet the Reaper this year.

If we live through those social encounters, the next greatest danger is "Toxic Agents" -- asbestos in our ceiling, lead in our pipes, the stuff we spray on our lawns or pour down our clogged drains. Annual body count from these handy consumer products is around 55,000.

After that, the most dangerous person in our lives is the one behind the wheel. About 42,000 of us will cash our chips in our rides this year. More than half will do so because we didn't wear a seat belt. (Lest it wrinkle our suit.)

Some 31,000 of us will commit suicide by intention this year. (As opposed to not fastening our seat belts or smoking, by which we didn't really mean to kill ourselves.)

About 30,000 of us will die due to our sexual behaviors, through which we'll contract AIDS or Hepatitis C. Another 20,000 of us will pop off due to illicit drug use.

The next scariest person in our lives is someone we know who's having a really bad day. Over 16,000 Americans will be murdered this year, most often by a relative or friend.
Thanks to Schneier.

North Korea travelogue

A rare travelogue of North Korea by Austrians who surprised the "Korean International Tourist Company" by entering the country from Russia by train. This allowed them to see a bit more of the country than the official tour permits. Tourists are otherwise required to be accompanied by two guides and a driver by all times, can visit only standard tourist sites where the regime goes to great pains to make an idyllic impression, and the itinerary has to be planned in advance.

The North Korea part of the travelogue, with many pictures, starts here.

2009-04-06

Egypt jails swinging couple

Egypt considers consensual sex between adults one of the worst crimes:
An Egyptian couple accused of engaging in sex sessions with other couples have been jailed by a Cairo court.

The man, a 48-year-old civil servant, was given seven years, his 37-year-old schoolteacher wife got three years.

[...]

Ayman al-Saadi told AFP news agency the sentence passed on Saturday by a court in the suburb of Agouza was "very harsh".

"Even people accused of apostasy have not received such harsh sentences," he said.
Notice how the crime of consensual adult sex is being compared to the crime of changing your religion (to something other than Islam).

Unworthy of lasers

Give them technology, and this is what they use it for:
All mosques have a niche showing the direction of the most sacred Islamic site, the Kaaba, an ancient cube-like building in Mecca's Grand Mosque.

But people looking down from recently built high-rises in Mecca found the niches in many older mosques were not pointing directly towards the Kaaba.

Some worshippers are said to be anxious about the validity of their prayers.

There have been suggestions that laser beams could be used to make an exact measurement.

2009-04-05

Another African economist calls to stop "aid"

Eliezer summarizes it well:
Dambisa Moyo, an African economist, has joined her voice to the other African economists [e.g. James Shikwati] calling for a full halt to Western aid. Her book is called Dead Aid and it asserts a direct cause-and-effect relationship between $1 trillion of aid and the rise in African poverty rates from 11% to 66%.

[...]

Moyo says she's gotten a better reception in Africa than in the West. Maybe you need to see your whole continent wrecked by emotion and pity before "logic and evidence" start to sound appealing.
Foreign aid is interfering with African economies. It is preventing the creation of an internal order based on domestic production, and is replacing it with an external order based on aid redirection. This leads to well-being for the few who are able to hijack the aid for themselves and people around them, while causing suffering for everyone else whose productive potential is undermined by the power wielded by those who hijack aid, as well as by the aid itself (no one can compete with freebies).

In general, poverty arises where people compete over a rich resource instead of having to create value from scratch.

When resources have to be created, those who would wield power cannot tap into them unless they engage the productive potential of the people, which leads the community to prosperity.

But when resources exist for the taking, whether in the form of natural resources or foreign aid, a few people will hijack those resources and thus gain power, which they will use to exclude others from the same resources. Thus are created leaders who see no gain in engaging people's productive potential, which remains untapped, and the community remains poor, or may become poor even if it wasn't.

2009-04-04

Universal Basic Income

Universal Basic Income is the idea that governments can reform and unify their complex, bureaucratic and frequently exploitation-prone social security nets with the introduction of a single benefit, paid uniformly to all citizens, to help everyone meet their basic needs.

My below thoughts come from my response to Tomaž Štih's decided criticism of this idea (which he calls a Universal Basic Holiday).

One form of a Universal Basic Income is part of the American FairTax reform proposal. FairTax proposes to replace all taxes in the gargantuan U.S. tax code with one simple sales tax (I have explained earlier why this is a good idea). Meanwhile, the progressiveness of the existing income tax would be compensated with a form of UBI. I have until now considered this to make sense.

Tomaž exposes the hypothesis, however, that UBI will remove people's will to work.

UBI will not necessarily influence people who already earn a lot, and whose motivation for work is intrinsic. I can imagine, however, that UBI may actually remove the will to work for people who already don't earn much more than minimal income. Many people value their free time much higher than goods that can be obtained with work, especially if they don't particularly enjoy their work, and their income is low. Lots of people like that might at least partially exit the job market, by working less or not at all because they already receive a Universal Basic Income. The size of the workforce for lower paid jobs will therefore decrease, which is a disturbance that the economy can counter in two ways:

1. by importing foreign workers to work low-wage jobs while not being entitled to UBI (implying unequal treatment of foreign and domestic workers, as well as the friction and conflict arising from immigration as such);

2. by companies competing for workers by increasing low-end wages, which in turn will cause varying increases in the prices of goods and services, which in turn will lower the buying power of UBI. Some goods and services will not be available any longer because the equation of the cost to provide them vs. the revenue they generate will not work out.

In any event, a new equilibrium will arise, but where will the new equilibrium be? This depends entirely on the extent to which people will, in fact, depart the workforce due to UBI. In order to avoid an economic catastrophe after introduction of a UBI, the answer to this question needs to be empirically ascertained beforehand.

2009-04-02

Glimpses of rarely observed reality

Introduction

I use the title phrase instead of "supernatural" because there really cannot be anything outside nature. There can, however, be parts of reality, possibly large parts, that we have so far failed to observe; or have observed, but failed to integrate into our common understanding.

There are two antagonistic groups of people. These are not the only groups, but they are very visible, for they represent extremes in our belief spectrum.

One group bases their beliefs about the world on repeatable experience. Members of this group believe things that they have observed on multiple occasions, or things they hear from others were observed on multiple occasions, and confirmed to occur in a certain way. Their highest value is Reason.

At the opposite part of the spectrum are people who base their beliefs on fantasy. There are certain books that they call holy, and they think these books contain everything there is to know about the world. They wilfully ignore and explain away reports about other people's observations, they even discount observations of their own, when they conflict with their interpretation of the Book. Their highest value is Faith.

If we have to choose between the two groups, then of course the more sensible one is the one that believes in Reason.

A natural antagonism arises between these two groups. For Rationalists, antagonism is driven by the Believers' tendency to disregard Reason when Reason leads to conclusions different from the Book. Rationalists see this as stupid and harmful. For Believers, on the other hand, antagonism is driven by the Rationalists' disrespect for the Book. Believers see this as unholy and disrespectful.

The unfortunate part that I wish to discuss in this article is that the described antagonism, and awareness of a large group of people whose beliefs are couched entirely in fantasy, leads Rationalists to develop a resentment against any observation that others are unable to repeat at will. This resentment leads some Rationalists to discount all non-repeatable observations as fantasy.

This, however, is a position that is not supported by Reason.

Yes, for the most part, the world appears to be following immutable principles. For the most part, the world lends itself nicely to repeated observation, on which the bulk of our knowledge is based. Yes, this is the foundation of the progress of our civilization. It is the repeated observation of immutable laws that has led to the sort of understanding that produced the screen you're reading this on.

Imagine, however, what happens if the world does in fact contain rarely observed unreproducible components, while we expect all observations to be reproducible at will. Suppose you observe one of the rare, unreproducible phenomena. Suppose you relate that to Rationalists who are suspicious of Fantasy. What is their opinion likely to be? That you have indeed observed something that few people ever observe, something that our common knowledge does not yet understand? No; they will look for other explanations, and will prefer to discount your experience as irreproducible, and therefore probably a fantasy, rather than consider adding potential new entities to their conception of the world.

Such distrust is a direct consequence of Occam's Razor, which compels the Rationalist not to invent new entities when phenomena can be explained by existing ones. This is sensible and works for the most part. However, an inevitable result is that rare phenomena caused by actual rare entities will be misinterpreted and filed away as something else.

Because of this property of Occam's Razor, I think it's important that people with otherwise skeptical tendencies share any unusual experiences, in order to avoid actual but rare real events being discounted as fantasy.

My experience

I have never seen any ghosts or poltergeists, communicated with the dead, seen auras, performed telekinesis, had out of body experiences, or otherwise experienced first-hand most of the stuff they try to sell gullible minds at esoteric functions. I do believe that most people who make a living claiming supernatural capabilities seem to be charlatans.

Throughout my life, my experience of reality has been consistent and compatible with the laws of science. This is with the exception of two events which fit into the larger narrative of my growing up and meeting my wife.

Waiting under the clock

Throughout my school years, I was a weirdo - a strange guy with few friends. I did well in school, but I had trouble finding peers that I could talk to about things I found of interest. My way of experiencing the world was deep and anchored in reason; their way of experiencing it was superficial and anchored in whim. I could talk to adults, but adults were not my peers. Even adults could often not keep up with my deep questioning of everything.

Lacking peers I could relate to, I was lonely and emotionally undeveloped. With hormones flowing through my veins, I was also horny as all hell. Being lonely, I wanted romance and companionship; being horny, I wanted sex; but being weird and emotionally undeveloped, I had trouble finding any.

Being shy, lacking self-confidence, but desperate for love and sex, I resorted to online chatrooms. At that time, that was the Internet Relay Chat. Trouble was, I wasn't the only guy competing for the girls' attention. At one time I conducted an experiment, taking a female name, and it wasn't long before 13 windows popped up - all guys wanting to chat up the female me.

Females being outnumbered like that, their attention was hard to get. Being nice, polite and smart didn't work, so I tried different approaches. In desperation, I tried one that was particularly vile - simply starting up all conversations by proposing sex. I was able to turn that into a conversation with some girls, and one in particular actually agreed to a meeting. We agreed to meet at a particular time, some evening, at Bavarski Dvor in Ljubljana, under the clock.

Needless to say, I was there. Needless to say, she was not. This was before mobile phones. I waited for an hour, she did not show up. I was angry.

Then, a weird experience. It felt vaguely as if someone was telling me something, not in words, but by thinking thoughts directly into my brain. If it were a conversation, it might have gone something like this:

Other:You know, the funny thing is, you're going to marry this girl in a few years.
Me:No! It cannot be! She let me down and is most probably laughing at me!
Other:Believe it or not, you aren't going to care about that then. You're going to be happy.
Me:No! I'll show her! She can't treat me like this!
Other:You won't show her. :)
Me:But I want to!
Other:There won't be any reason for it. :)
Me:Unngh. Okay. Then why is she not showing up? Why can't we be together now?
Other:[Nothing]
Me:I guess we might not be ready for each other yet. Unngh. Aargh! Why? I'm so lonely! I need someone now!

That, in a nutshell, was the first experience. A couple more years elapsed before I found my first real girlfriend. Two and a half years later we broke up, and then it was June 9, 2002, a month before I was about to turn 22.

FF

The way I ran across FF (another, unrelated female) is interesting on its own. In the evening of May 28, a Tuesday, I was sitting at home doing some work at the computer when I felt a distinct intuition that I need to pick myself up and go to a certain club that I was visiting from time to time. Once there, I tired of the club itself, but didn't feel like it was time to go back home yet either. I hung around and waited for something to happen. After a while, a car pulls up and four people step out, one of them one of the most amazing women I have ever seen. It was as though I felt her, as though she was in color while everything else was black and white. I overheard her say something interesting; I felt like I needed to do something, so I dropped a note behind her windshield, referencing what I overheard her say, and proposing to meet.

Fast forward to the Sunday almost two weeks later, she gives me a call. I was surprised to hear from her, as I had all but forgotten about the note. We agreed to meet later that evening. As I was getting ready in the bathroom, a weird experience occured. Again, it felt as if some entity was imprinting a message directly into my brain, but it was a different message this time. It was strong. It was vivid. It was an overwhelming sense that this is the girl. This is who I'm fated to be with. This is my future partner. It's all-important. The message struck me deeply, and I headed for the date in a confused state.

The date was a disaster. I found her fascinating alright, but the experience I had prior to the date led me to complete openness and honesty, and this in turn led her to detest me. We were, and are, very different. My values and hers are deeply at odds, and I realized later that she does not seem to be a big fan of rational thought. She has a tempestual temperament, she burns like a fire, and her colorful temperament is what fascinated me about her.

The date ended for me in even deeper confusion than it started. I spent that evening and the next day trying to reconcile it. On the one hand, the message I had before the date is that she was my the one, but what happened instead is, she rejected me, condemned me, and departed with despise. (I didn't tell her anything you don't read about on this blog either, BTW. If anything, I was less extreme at the time.)

Another premonition followed subsequently, about as strong as the previous one. Again, it felt as if someone was feeding distinctly strong and foreign thoughts directly into my mind. The composition of this premonition was about as follows:
  • I'm going to fall for this girl desperately.
  • Over the course of a few years, I'm going to send her silly poetic pleadings that aren't going to meet with success.
  • I'm going to meet two girls in the meanwhile that I'm going to have short sexual adventures with, but nothing deeper.
  • By the end of the predicted timeframe, I'm going to meet a new girl ("NG") whom I will like and who's going to truly like me for who I am.
  • Instead of me pursuing a relationship with NG though, FF will finally come through and I'll have a deeply meaningful relationship with her.
All of this came true, except the last point.

I don't consider these premonitions as predictive as much as they were self-fulfilling. They made me fall hard for someone I would not have otherwise fallen for. They made me fall for someone who was completely and utterly alien to me, someone who I knew detested me deeply and who was completely unresponsive. This led me to doubt myself deeply and to embark on a path of reconsidering myself and my ideas about the world, about partnership and romance. It was a traumatic but necessary transformation. The way I came out of this experience made it actually possible for anyone to endure me as a partner.

By the time I met NG as the premonition predicted, two years later, I had become deeply suspicious of the premonition itself. I rejected the final prediction, which held that I would forgo NG, with whom I was compatible, for no conceivable reason, and would instead find happiness with FF. I didn't see that happening at all. Instead I put an end to the obsession, started a relationship with NG, and we turned out to be, peculiarly, as if made for each other. NG is Jana.

The clock

Later that year, Jana and I were living together as girlfriend and boyfriend. I felt we had a good thing going, but I wasn't yet sure. Our relationship was based on Reason. We didn't fall in love. We were together because we were attracted to each other, we saw that we were a good match, and we saw no reason not to be together given the compatibility. It made total sense; we got along great; yet, it wasn't like my attraction to FF, which was acute and overwhelming, as though it was magical. I was still unsure whether I might be missing something, some Real Thing.

This one evening, Jana was out on our balcony, talking to a friend of hers about random things. I overheard her saying how, when she was younger, she spent a lot of time on the Internet Relay Chat, and it was fun, but there were also all these weirdos who just wanted to have sex. She recalled how one annoyed her in particular, and explained how she "agreed" to meet him under some clock. Poor guy, hahaha, imagine how it must have been for him, waiting there and you not showing up. Serves him well for being such a dick.

At that point I joined the conversation, upset, and explained how it felt to be that guy. I was grudgingly resentful, but I couldn't be angry for long.

It turned out I had met the girl who made me wait under the clock. We eventually married. And she has really made me happy, as I hope I made her. We love each other, and I am happier now than I dreamed. :-)