Wednesday, November 09, 2005

In defense of pessimism

Varifrank has an excellent piece referring to all the doom and gloom predictions that have been made pretty much since Thomas Malthus, two hundred years ago. He doesn't explicitly reference Malthus, but I think the blame for much of the apocalyptic we're-going-to-run-out-of-X-resource nonsense can be dated to him.

Varifrank refers to Hal Lindsey as the "king of silly predictions". I've never heard of him, but I do remember Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute. I participated in high school debate, and ten years ago the topic was U.S. foreign policy towards China. I'm not going to assume familiarity with high school debate rules; basically there were two teams of two who would face off in each round. One team would present some sort of plan addressing the topic for that year, including whatever evidence they could muster, and the other would try to poke holes in their case.

My partner and I that year built a case that we needed to take land from the Conservation Reserve Program (basically, a program that pays farmers NOT to farm a portion of their land) to grow food for the Chinese. Why would the Chinese need this food? Because they waz gonna starve! At least, that's what Lester "the Molester" Brown said (Note: not his actual nickname, just an unfunny play on his name). In retrospect, the idea is laughable. The Chinese economy had posted double digit growth rates since the late '70s, and they were going to starve? Even at the time I didn't really believe it, but high school debate is about winning, not the truth.

Obviously Mr. Brown was incorrect. But a quick Google search reveals that he is still making paranoid prognostications. He now works for the Earth Policy Institute (biography here), where he continues to fear-monger regarding world population and resources. The lack (rather than the surplus) of the former is fast becoming a problem (at least for the developed world), and the latter is, after decades of predictions to the contrary, more plentiful than ever.

After a comparison of our lives today and those a hundred years ago, Varifrank has this to say:

"We are all the descendants of those who came before us, who in each of their lives saw and experienced things daily that would make each of us wet our pants in fear. We face none of those horrible things in our lives today, yet we are more in fear of life itself than any of those people were in theirs while they faced very real threats and not the imagined ones of that we face in ours."

My response is that humans have a deep-seated need to fear. And furthermore, this isn't a bad thing. Fear is a powerful motivator, as Machiavelli realized when he famously argued it was better for a ruler to be feared than loved.

None of the apocalyptic predictions regarding the future have come true, and I believe it is at least in part because the predictions were made. Instead of self-fulfilling prophecies they became self-defeating prophecies. By loudly proclaiming that the sky is falling, these oft-foolish predictions are taken seriously by a few who perhaps help put policies in place to pre-empt their impacts.

Do I have any real evidence for this? Nope. I'll just point to the fact the world hasn't ended as evidence that apocalyptic predictions (no matter how ridiculous) are no threat.

They are also extremely fun to ridicule.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Quick hits

Two quick items:

First, this item from Ravenwood, about one poor would-be anti-war protesters dilemma.

"Sometimes I just get so mad that my country is committing mass murder. What power have I to stop it?

I am going to start reading up on Ghandi. This is the breaking point. I have to do something drastic, like go on a hunger strike chained to a light pole next to the NBC building in Chicago. But it's starting to get cold and I have my thesis to work on and classes to finish up this semester."
(Emphasis mine.)

Now, that's funny. I would try to make a political point by suffering through a hunger strike, but it's just too cold and I'm busy.

On a slightly less humorous note, there's this article from National Review Online concerning divorce.

"As recently seen on The Today Show and Good Morning America, "divorce parties" are all the rage. Was your marriage on the rocks? Well, the divorce papers are signed and it's now time to play "pin the blame on the ex" and "throw the wedding ring in the toilet" games — or so it is if you talk to the likes of the author of The Woman's Book of Divorce: 101 Ways to Make Him Suffer Forever and Ever."

I have suggestion. If you are the type of woman to buy a book subtitled 101 Ways to Make Him Suffer Forever and Ever, then the most effective way to "make him suffer" would be to stay with him.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

You are a

Social Moderate
(43% permissive)

and an...

Economic Conservative
(88% permissive)

You are best described as a:


Link: The Politics Test on OkCupid Free Online Dating
Also: The OkCupid Dating Persona Test

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Engineering Education

Go read this article from Tech Central Station from an engineering drop-out.

Have you read it?

Okay, here are my comments. The author makes many good points, but isn't quite in a position to make complete recommendations (not that I am either, but combined...).

In my experience the following qualities are required to succeed in obtaining an engineering degree:

1. above-average intelligence
2. the ability to learn on your own
3. the ability to self-motivate
4. willingness to give up an extensive social-life

Douglas Kern was found lacking in 2. This ties into his recognition that engineering teaching is generally poor. This is true and should be changed but won't. Why? Because university engineering programs are not about education they are about research, and the skill-sets required of professors for the two often conflict. It's not about how well you can teach the students, it's about how well you can pull in the research dollars for the school.

Meanwhile, my friends majoring in the liberal arts pulled dandy grades while studying little. "You just wait," I thought, gazing upon them like the ant regarding the grasshopper in the summer. "You party and blow off homework now, but in ten years, you'll be making merely wonderful money as investment bankers and consultants, while I'll be getting laid off from a great job at General Electric."

Here is the second problem with engineering education. Oddly, it has little to do with the engineering part of it. The problem is that liberal arts degrees are so easy to get as to be worthless (except from a hoop-jumping perspective). None of the liberal arts classes I took taught any sort of useful skill. We (my fellow engineering students and I) had a simple formula to relate the difficulty (and hence the usefulness) of engineering classes to liberal arts ones: one engineering class = four liberal arts classes. This should give you an idea of the relative difficulty. The problem is not with the left-hand side of the equation, but with the right. If liberal arts classes actually taught something and required effort, then engineering classes would not look so bad in comparison.

To a certain extent, engineering classes are difficult because they have to be. Future engineers need to learn the required skill-set to do their job without getting anyone killed. No liberal arts program prepares students for a life-or-death environment and they have thus relaxed their requirements to worthlessness. The fault here lies with liberal arts education programs, not engineering.

Here are Kern's prescriptions for improvement:

If you want more engineers in the United States, you must find a way for America's engineering programs to retain students like, well, me: people smart enough to do the math and motivated enough to at least take a bite at the engineering apple, but turned off by the overwhelming coursework, low grades, and abysmal teaching. Find a way to teach engineering to verbally oriented students who can't learn math by sense of smell. Demand from (and give to) students an actual mastery of the material, rather than relying on bogus on-the-curve pseudo-grades that hinge upon the amount of partial credit that bored T.A.s choose to dole out. Write textbooks that are more than just glorified problem set manuals. Give grades that will make engineering majors competitive in a grade-inflated environment. Don't let T.A.s teach unless they can actually teach.

Fair enough. But, as stated above, the "overwhelming coursework" exists for a reason. Those are the skills needed to make an engineer competent enough not to kill people. You can't really reduce that. This is especially true of upper-level classes which the author would have never been experienced due to his dropping out.

Another problem with his comments is that the skills required to succeed in getting an engineering education are basically the same as those required for being an engineer. You can't just dumb things down and serve everything on a platter because that would not create good engineers. What he calls "weeding out undesirables with absurd boot-camp courses" is not always a bad thing. Many people are simply not cut-out to be engineers and the goal should not be to keep those people; it should be to keep those who have the skills but are struggling due to inadequate teaching.

Note that the boot-camp style of engineering education serves to create strong bonds between students. Engineering students (justifiably [IMAO]) look-down on those who take the easier liberal arts path. But if you've read this far, you know that:).

Friday, July 29, 2005

Carolina on my mind

For reasons I do not care to explain I was driving through the Carolinas yesterday, and I saw some interesting things.

First, in North Carolina, there was a billboard for a housing development called "The Challenge." Huh? Do people really want to live in a challenging environment?

Second, in South Carolina, there was sign for a mobile home place named "Spartan Homes." Admittedly it was near Spartanburg, but still, do they not know what Spartan means? Seriously, people.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

How American am I?

You Are 82% American
You're as American as red meat and shooting ranges.
Tough and independent, you think big.
You love everything about the US, wrong or right.
And anyone who criticizes your home better not do it in front of you!

Mmmmmm. Red meat.
Mmmmmm. Shooting ranges.

Lack of Discipline

Read this Weekly Standard article talking about our societies views toward commitment. Here's a sample of some of the new marriage vows replacing "'til death do us part."

Noble: "For as long as our marriage may serve the greater good."
Poetic: "For as long as our love shall last."
Prosaic: "For as long as we continue to love each other."
Clock watchers: "Until our time together is over."

Note the vacuous nature of each of these. The article ties the idea back into our lack of commitment to prosecuting the war on terror (or, as it was recently re-named, the "Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism" as this Slate article explains). I've said for a long time, that most of our societies problems stems from a lack of discipline (to which I'm certainly not immune [Exhibit A: the eleventh month period in which this was not updated]).

The Plame Conspiracy Revealed

It seems that everyone, certainly on the left side of the political aisle, is having fits about the whole Valerie Plame thing. This has to be the most boring, pointless political scandal, ever. Fortunately, IMAO is here to break everything down in an easy-to-read FAQ format. Click here and be enlightened.

I would also like to encourage both of my readers to listen to the highly amusing weekly IMAO podcast.

Monday, July 25, 2005

The Economist on Pain

Here is an interesting article I found on people's perception of pain. The money quote:

Many researchers are therefore concluding that genetics underpins at least some of the difference, and that females really do feel pain more than males.

In my experience a lot of women seem to think that female pain tolerance is higher than males'. That has now been scientifically disproven. Take that.

Another section that was personally interesting to me because I suffer from migraines:

The latest example of such a difference is in migraine, a condition that is three times more common in women than in men. In 2004, a group of researchers led by Michel Ferrari of Leiden University in the Netherlands reported that they had created what they believed to be the first mouse model of migraine. Since some researchers argue that migraine is associated with heightened sensitivity to pain, they sent their creation to Dr Mogil for testing. He stresses that his data are preliminary. However, he does find a lowered pain threshold in the mouse migraine model compared with healthy mice—but only in females.

Since I suffer from migraines does that mean I have a low pain threshold and feel pain like a girl? (And in this case I do mean that in the pejorative sense.) Anyway, read the whole thing, but keep in mind there will be a lot of scientific mumbo-jumbo (like mu and kappa-opioid agonist).

Saturday, July 16, 2005

NASA and omelet making

To prove my own laziness, I will now give y'all an excerpt from an e-mail I sent a friend:

It seems to me that the Shuttle is a clear case of over-engineering
and the managers are being entirely too cautious. Apparently only one
fuel sensor failed, but there are four of them and only two need to
work to avoid a problem. So the design builds in this huge degree of
redundancy, which negates the consequences of a single failure but
greatly increases the chance that something will fail, and then scraps
the launch because of the almost inevitable failure. No wonder it
costs billions of dollars for a single launch. Exploration requires a
little more testicular fortitude than they are willing to expend.

That was from a couple days ago. Now in the New York Times there is an article saying that NASA might actually grow a pair and send the Shuttle off with *gasp* only three of four sensors working.

The ultimate goal is to make space travel as cheap and common-place as air travel. After being in space almost fifty years we're alot further behind than we were at a comparable point in aeronautical history. At this point in time in aeronautical history we were on the verge of the 707 and cheap, safe, ubiquitous trans-continental travel. If we were near the same track when it came to space we would regularly be sending people to Mars without a second thought. But we're not. So the big question is why?

There are several answers. First, there just wasn't the same precursors for space-travel as there was and is for air travel. Before aircraft came along people were able to travel long distancesm, it just took longer because they had to travel by train or by sea. Airplanes were an incremental advance in transportation technology. The ability to travel to different planets has never before existed, so it's a much bigger jump. We had to crawl before we could run, so to speak. We're still in the crawling stage when it comes to space. But that doesn't fully answer the why.

That brings up the second reason: which is that there is no imperative to be in space. Traveling long distances on this planet makes sense for alot of reasons. It facilitates business, it makes more interesting vacations possible, there is a clear demand for intra-planet travel. There is no such demand to go to Mars. There are no businesses on Mars. There are no people on Mars (that we know of). That makes kind of a conundrum: in order for there to be demand to go to Mars we must already have some kind of presence there to make it worth it. It's easy to imagine a day in which space travel is common-place. When we've colonized other planets there will obviously be every incentive to have the ability to travel between planets. But it's a chicken or the egg thing. Before you can have a chicken you must have an egg (unless God just creates a chicken out of mid-air, but it's not a good idea to count on that).

The last reason we're so early in our inter-planetary travel capabilities is that we're developing them with two arms and a leg tied behind our back. When aviation was beginning the state-of-the-art was advanced by people taking risks to try out new things. Now, nobody takes any risks, least of all the entrenched bureaucracy of NASA. It costs billions of dollars to send the Shuttle into space and the reason it costs so much is, at least partly, because NASA spares no expense in creating redundant and safe systems on the shuttle. Which is all well and good, except that a price is paid for any level of safety. By placing the primary emphasis on safety (and for political reasons, I might add) the advancement of our understanding is retarded. So don't hold your breath waiting for NASA to lead the way to space. A much more promising route is to let risk-taking private entrepreneurs like Burt Rutan lead the way. As the saying goes, to make an omelet you've got to break a few eggs.

I didn't re-read this post due to laziness so I apologize for any typos, though I doubt I made any.

I'm Back (maybe)

My apologies for my almost year-long absence from here. My health hasn't exactly been ideal. In fact, I am currently in the throes of a migraine, even now. But maybe pounding on a keyboard will help. Anyway, I don't what direction I'll be taking this but be assured that it will not be ambitious. Ok then, onto something with something resembling substance. Maybe.