August 17th, 2009

Academically speaking

Explanation of the day

There are various explanations of why "extreme" political positions do not work in the long term. This is one of the best ones I've seen - explicitly from a modelling/engineering perspective:
My problem with Objectivism is the same problem I have with doctrinaire Communism; they are both, in engineering parlance, trivial solutions.

When you try to model any complex system you often find yourself trying to solve a complex mathematical model with many parameters. You want a number to plug into each that makes the whole thing balance. Very early on in learning how to do this you discover that setting some of the key parameters to zero lets you do this much more easily, but the result is useless because it tells you nothing about a realistic system. In a classic predator/prey population model, for instance, you can easily set the number of rabbits to be zero, and find it very easy to solve for the number of foxes (also zero). This is a valid solution, but a useless one for modelling population dynamics.

And, IMHO, extreme political theories do this with human society. "Let's set X to zero!" the Objectivists/Communists/whatever exclaim, where X is variously altruism, property rights or some other aspect of society that they first assume can be reduced to a single number and then further assume can be switched off by sheer Application of Will. But their pretty little toy society that results is a trivial solution to real-world social concerns; unrealistic, unhelpful and downright unachievable unless you overcome that pesky human reluctance to have our deep-seated social goals reprogrammed for us. Which is why the Communists end up resorting to Gulags, and the Objectivists don't even get that far, because it turns out that even trying to beat altruism out of people doesn't work.
- Simon Bradshaw/major_clanger

(no subject)

I have (within the last year)

bought an item second-hand in a charity shop
bought an item second-hand in a for-profit shop
bought an item second-hand online for a fixed price (Amazon marketplace - EBay buy-it-now, etc)
bought an item online through a bidding process (EBay auction)
bought an item new online
none of the above

Over the last year or so, and if you have multiple bank accounts answer for all of them

I access my bank account online
I access my bank account over the phone
I access my bank account by snail-mail
I access my bank account in person
I have no bank account

Delicious LiveJournal Links for 8-17-2009

book power

When reporting annoys me

The BBC reports that we should cut our processed meat intake if we want to avoid cancer.

Of course, they don't actually mention what the chances are of us getting cancer, nor what the change that processed meat causes is, thus making it completely impossible for readers to make an informed decision.

Fortunately, a look at the basic research shows that there is a definite increased risk, although my understanding isn't good enough to tell me exactly what it is.  Anyone care to dig into those figures and tell me what the percentage chance of me getting rectal cancer is both with and without meat-eating?


Of the 500,000 people (age 51-70) in the study, 50,000 of them got cancer in the following 8 years. So if you live to be 50-odd then you have a 10% chance of getting cancer. If you eat meat then your chances of getting cancer are 20-60% higher than if you don't. Which presumably means that your chances are nearer 6-7% if you don't. So, an extra 3% chance of getting cancer in your old age if you eat meat.

Hardly worth panicking about.

Foreign Policy

Afghanistan is passing a law which will let husbands starve wives who withhold sex. When Western leaders protested against it it was

rampant liberal imperialism, telling other people what they can and can't do in their own countries!
the completely correct response to an abhorrent law!
Not nearly good enough - why aren't they _doing_ something about it???

The Guild Sings!

Dunno if many of you have seen The Guild, a comedy about the members of a Warcraft guild.  It's very funny, and Julie and I watched the whole first series in one go (it's about an hour in total and you can watch it here).

But they just released a song/video, and it's well worth a watch:

(cheers to sneakingyoda)