Irrationality Part 2

Posted on April 24, 2009 by Steve

A coworker passed along a trite fable that was infecting inboxes last month. Usually I am pretty good at ignoring this kind of thing, but this time I asked another recipient about it, a very competent developer and seemingly sharp guy. He described the story as "gold." After that I couldn't leave it alone, and eventually banged out the reply below. This, of course, got no response. A week later I asked the original sender about my objections, and he answered by saying "It's only a story." Simple as that.

It was abundantly clear that this message impressed its readers exactly to the extent that it supported their worldviews. No harm done, of course, if that worldview is correct, but I tried to demonstrate that the same kind of nonsense can support any viewpoint, absent critical thinking.
From: Steve
Sent: Tuesday, March 31, 2009 6:43 PM
To: Dan; Rick; Jim; Clifton
Subject: RE: Socialism

This anecdote is amusing but ultimately unsatisfying in its honorable intention refuting the viability of socialism.

First of all, alternate outcomes are plausible. Professors frequently assign group projects in which students of differing levels must work together. Harder-working students take up the slack of lazier ones and the overall result is satisfactory. This story suggests that if two students are paired as lab partners for a semester, the lazier one will inexorably depress the other until neither is willing to even light a Bunsen burner. It is plausible that motivated students will continue to work hard – or even work harder – as slackers take advantage of the “equitable” grading system (though they would be foolish to agree to such an unfair system in the first place). Moreover, freeloaders will be pressured by their classmates, who depend on the overall grade, and some may be shamed into pulling their own weight. Motivated but struggling students will suddenly find themselves supported instead of ignored by formerly competing class members. It is even conceivable that the average grade will be higher with the “one grade fits all” policy.

Secondly, the classroom analogy to socialist government seems strained. Socialism is not simply capitalism with individual incentive removed. A socialist government typically has considerable infrastructure to meddle with the lives of individuals. Why are there no TA’s, dividing the work and scheduling study sessions? No tutors, training slower students? Bean-counters, measuring performance? And don’t forget the secret police, enforcing classroom morale! These socialist elements are wide open to questions about their effectiveness (not least of which is who pays for them), and these questions pertain more to what socialism is than the straw man classroom in Texas.

Public toilets

Posted on April 24, 2009 by Steve

It shouldn't be that hard to get these things right, yet so few do. For the betterment of society, I humbly offer this checklist.

Yes: Outsized spool of cheap TP.
No: Stingy one-square-at-a-time delivery systems.

Yes: Motion-activated flush.
No: Motion-activated faucet.

Yes: Simple, idiot-proof soap dispenser.
No: Hand soap resembling any bodily fluid.

Yes: Stall door with secure deadbolt.
No: Self-closing door that requires a push to check for occupancy.

Yes: Gravity-assisted non-spring-loaded paper towel dispenser (bonus for trash can near exit door).
No: Air dryers (exception for high-power units in high-traffic facilities with no door blocking egress).

Yes: In smaller establishments, two unisex restrooms. We have all had the experience of waiting for a restroom to become available, while a perfectly serviceable but contrarily signed room sat idle. I am sure I'm not the only one to have violated social norms in the interest of expediency.
No: "Separate but equal."

Yes: Modern plumbing.
No: Plumber's helpers.

No: Limited-flow faucets.
Really, No: Limited-flow faucets. This whole post is really an excuse to express this pet peeve. Facility managers, listen up. You're hardly going to save any water relative to the toilets. Half of your users don't even wash up. Water costs nothing anyway; install high efficiency lights with timers, low-flow toilets (we can flush twice), cheap paper if you need to count pennies. Install one basin less if you must, but let the water flow. That 1.0 GPM trickle will run three times as long to get the job half done, and your visitors will be germy and disgruntled. Do you think they make them tamper proof because people want to steal them?

Geometri sorular

Posted on April 13, 2009 by Steve

This problem appeared in the Science and Technology section of Cumhuriyet on Friday, 10 April 2009 (click image for the question). I confess I wasn't able to solve this problem unaided; I had to look up le théorème d'Al-Kashi. (Jamshid al-Kashi gets a mention in the article on approximations of pi for having derived, in 1424, 9 digits of 2π in base 60.)


Posted on April 12, 2009 by Steve

In idle moments of high school, I learned the twelve digits of a certain transcendental number stored in my scientific calculator. Since then, whenever I saw the number online or on a T-shirt, I tried to add a digit or two, but didn't make much progress. I don't remember what prompted it, but not long ago I was trolling around for a memory training tool, maybe looking for inspiration for the long-neglected vocabulary project. I found some sites that let you test your skills with the number, but the interfaces were flawed -- you had to submit something to see if it was correct. It was obvious that it could be done better, and thirty minutes and thirty-five lines of Javascript later, it was done.

As usual, making the tool was more fun than using it. But despite my lack of motivation, within a week I was seeing the horizontal scroll bar, even on cold starts. It isn't hard at all to remember three to six digits; the trick is to review them a while later, before they fade away, like that memory guy. Thus did those Robert Palmer songs embed themselves so deeply into long term memory that they are still present a decade and a half later.

I've no plans to compete with the experts, but it's been fun to see how far I can get with simple mnemonic devices. Here's a block of digits and the story I use to recall it:

In 1971, everyone was having mutual oral sex, which suggests the number 3993 for some reason. By 1975, it had reached 105 degrees, then by '82 everyone wanted to go back to 1974, when they were driving Porsche 944s, some even had a 959. Here comes the part with interesting numbers. 23 and 07 are nice primes. 81 is a square, so is 16, and so is 64...
After a while, the chunky flow of digits becomes automatic and I only use the story when I get stuck. If you're really committed, you might become proficient in a digit-to-letter mapping technique that encodes the same block into this concise doggerel:
ACe ToP CaT BaD SHaBBy MoB BoNe PuMa CLaw BuM weT SaLiVa BeeR NoSe PiCK BeLL RePaiReR BaDGe Law By NaMe BaG SaCK FooD BuFF CHaiR'S waSH
You have less freedom this way to build mnemonics on the first crazy ideas that come to mind (which are far easier to recall), but there's an advantage. The index words, ACe, BaD, BoNe, BuM, are suggested by the position in the chart, and those index words suggest the digit-encoding phrases.

It's been a while since I committed anything useful to memory, and I wouldn't mind being able to pull up something like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner on a whim. Probably I would get more benefit by focusing on vocabulary, but that seems like such drudgery.

Guess what

Posted on April 07, 2009 by Steve

I just added a trailing slash to the "URL" setting in Nucleus. Will it correct the link in bloglines? Let's find out!


Posted on April 06, 2009 by Steve

It has been over a year since I listened to the radio while driving. My car's antenna cable was just long enough to reach the left side of the back of the radio, but doesn't reach if the jack is on the right. For a while I had my last radio installed upside down to make it reach, but that was more annoying than not having radio. When I installed a CD player I left the cable disconnected and gave up on radio once and for all.

From time to time I would crawl up under the dash and try to yank things around to get some more slack or figure out how to disconnect the cable and install a longer one. Finally I got fed up and cut the cable and spliced in a few more inches of coax and got it working again.

It didn't take long to see why I didn't miss radio much. Drive time music programming is a one-in-ten chance of finding something you can enjoy, as often as not something you already own. Commercials are as crass as ever. That leaves the mental wasteland of news and talk radio. Here are a few earaches I've collected recently:
  • Some moron solving the recession by calling on the rich to "pay back" the kindness done to them by the economy by spending their wealth away.
  • A guy going on about race relations, repeatedly describing recent cases of intolerance as the "last gapses" of something. He turned out to be the much-published Cornell West, so I'll cut him some slack and suppose that metathesis is a feature of his speech. (Elsewhere he was sicced for the phrase "truth lies prostate.")
  • Noam Chomsky explaining that some banana republic in South America is actually oh-so democratic.
  • The "morning zoo" idiots making the most of a report on germs in public, asking each other what surface they would least want to lick.
  • The dreaded DJ spot, wherein the host, instead of semi-apologetically calling for a commercial break, turns and stabs you in the back with an ad of his own! One was going on about his new Pontiac G8, saying how a gas station manager came out of the office to ask about the car, then a construction worker stopped him to talk about it, even the Burger King drive-through workers were impressed by his new ride!