Archive for August, 2014


Fifteen years!

Wow, you’d think something would have changed after a week away; flying cars, or aliens walking around Manhattan, or at least a new subway line or something, but NO, everything is pretty much just the same!


Extremely attentive and/or precognitive readers will suspect rightly that we were away for a week because we were in Maine; the first time that happened was in 1999, and this is 2014, so it’s been fifteen years!

And since that first Maine trip was when I started writing a weblog, and this is in some sense the same weblog as that, this is the fifteenth anniversary of the weblog!


Here is a picture of Maine:


Isn’t that gorgeous? Along with M’s sister’s family, and their father and stepmother, we rented a house on top of Dodge Mountain, overlooking Rockland and the bay and points East, with a lovely deck, and chairs to sit in, and tables to put your book and your wineglass on, and beds to sleep in, and all.

It was great.

I did a lot of reading, as usual. That book there is “Karma and Rebirth” by Christmas (sic) Humphries. I wrote it up for GoodReads (hope that link works for not-me people).

(I will resist the obvious temptation to produce lots of weblog content by pasting in all various book reviews I have written instead of just linking to them!)

I read that because I happened across it in some used book store (perhaps Hello Hello Books?), shortly after watching Hemant Mehta’s rather offputting “Can Atheists be Buddhists“, and it seemed like a nice synchronicity.

The Mehta piece is offputting for a few reasons:

  • His conclusion is basically “no”, and I’m sort of both of those things, so yeah.
  • The reason his conclusion is basically “no” is that, he says, although Buddhists don’t believe in a deity, they do believe some stuff (specifically Karma and Rebirth) that Isn’t Scientific, and therefore atheists won’t believe it.
  • This implies that for Mehta “atheist” doesn’t just mean “doesn’t believe in God” for some value of “God”, it means “only believes stuff that is Scientific”, and that seems like just sloppy thinking or sloppy word-usage or something,
  • His conclusion that Karma and Rebirth are Not Scientific seems very offhand and not particularly well thought out; as for that matter is his assumption that all Buddhists believe in either or both of them in any form.

Some day I will have to write a post on Buddhism and Scientificness and Karma and Rebirth and all, and why atheists can in fact be Buddhists, and vice-versa, at least when they are me. Not today, though. :)

Another book, that I’m sure I bought in Hello Hello Books (which is a great bookstore, by the way), and then I read and enjoyed very much, is Doris Grumbach’s “The Pleasure of Their Company”, which I also wrote up for GoodReads. It was good.

I do love lying about in Maine, feeling the wind and reading books and thinking about things.

Also I went out on a boat! And held a lobster!

Here is a picture from on the boat, with the notable deck hand Dana holding the lobster in question:

Dana with the lobster

and here is the lobster, with parts of my hand holding it:


and a little girl looking dubious in the background.

We did many other things in Maine! I took three of the four kids to the beach one day, but the sun was behind clouds and the sand was too wet and rocky and the waves too small and they got cold, so we didn’t stay very long.

Here are some rocks!


They do look coldish.

We went into Rockland a couple of times (although sadly we were not in town for this

Internet Cats

which I bet would have been noteworthy), and into Camden a couple of times (here is a classy black-and-white shot of some water in Camden:

Water in Camden

just because we are posting lots of pictures; more and/or different ones can as usual be found on the Insta-Gram).

Reading back through some of the various Maine and post-Maine postings in the weblog over the years, I see lots of variety in terms of thoughtfulness, randomness, introspection, and so on. I did feel introspective, in a good way, and renewed, in a good way, by it all this year, but in writing about it I’m mostly just writing random things, I think. :)

Maybe largely because I didn’t feel like writing about it at all while I was there (too busy doing it?), and now am writing about it retrospectively, having been home for a couple of days and back to work one day, so somewhat back in the quotidian mindset. Or something?

Here is another picture :) this one of ol’ Red’s Eats (where we didn’t eat this year) as randomly enhanced in its usual drive-by way by Google Plus:

Red's Eats

Kinda neat, I thought.

What else? I read some other books, acquired some other books, sat zazen a bit, had some thoughts, drank some wine, ate some lobster and some blueberry pie, enjoyed some sun and wind.

And I’m not unhappy to be home. :)

About all one could ask for, really!


Four humbugs

It is all too easy and fun to point out widespread notions that are wrong. Because I’ve seen a bunch lately, and it’s easy, and at the risk of being smug, here are four.

thumb downImpossible space drive is impossible.

Headlines like “NASA validates ‘impossible’ space drive and Fuel-Less Space Drive May Actually Work, Says NASA and so on and so on are silly and even irresponsible.

What actually happened is that a single small “let’s try out some weird stuff” lab at NASA (and I’m glad NASA has those, really) published a paper saying:

They tried out some mad scientist’s law-defying reactionless thruster, and they detected a tiny itty-bitty nearly-indetectable amount of thrust.

As a control case, they tried out a variant that shouldn’t have produced any thrust. In that case, they also detected a tiny itty-bitty nearly-indetectable amount of thrust.

The proper conclusion would be that there is probably an additional source of noise in their setup that they hadn’t accounted for.

Instead they concluded that both the experimental and the control setup were actually producing thrust, and that they are “potentially demonstrating an interaction with the quantum vacuum virtual plasma [sic]”.

Which is just silly, per this G+ posting by an actual physicist, and various similar things.

For the other side of the issue, see’s doubling-down Q&A. But I would still bet many donuts against there being any real effect here.

Brain-like supercomputer chip super how, exactly?

IBM Builds A Scalable Computer Chip Inspired By The Human Brain“, “IBM’s new brain-mimicking chip could power the Internet of Things“, “IBM reveals next-gen chip that delivers Supercomputer speed“, etc, etc, etc.

Chief among the things that make me skeptical about how important this is, is that none of the articles that I’ve read give an actual example of anything useful that this chip does any better than existing technologies.

You’d think that’d be kind of important, eh?

Apparently there was a demonstration showing that it can do pattern recognition; but so can an Intel Pentium. It’s also touted as being very low-power, but again it’s not clear to what extent it’s low-power when doing some specific useful task that some conventional technology takes more power to do.

I like this quote:

While other chips are measured in FLOPs, or floating point operations per second, IBM measures the chip in SOPs, or synaptic operations per second.

“This chip is capable of 46 billion SOPs per watt,” Modha said. “It’s a supercomputer the size of a postage stamp, the weight of a feather, and the power consumption of a hearing-aid battery.”

Amazing, eh? If only we knew what a SOP is actually good for…

Hey, my right little toe is capable of 456 trillion quantum vacuum flux plasma operations per second (QVPFOPS) (which I just made up) per watt! It’s a supercomputer! In a little toe! Buy my stock!

(Disclaimer: I used to work for IBM, and they laid off at least one friend who was doing interesting work in actual brain-inspired computing, which I have to admit has not increased my confidence in how serious they are about it. Also I now work for Google, which is sometimes mentioned in the press as experimenting with the “D-Wave” devices, which I suspect are also wildly over-hyped.)

Numbers about “sex trafficking” are just made up.

On the Twitters I follow a number of libertarian posters (with whom I sometimes agree despite no longer identifying as libertarian myself), and lately there’ve been lots of postings about the various societal approaches to sex work.

I tend to think that the more libertarian “arrangements between consenting adults should be regulated only to the extent that there is force or fraud involved” arguments are more convincing than the more prohibitionist “things we wish people wouldn’t do should be outlawed and thereby driven underground where they can be run by criminals who do force and fraud for a living” arguments. (As you might perhaps be able to tell by how I have worded my descriptions of them.)

Recently there was this interesting “In Defense of Johns” piece on, and this also interesting “Actually, you should be ashamed” rebuttal.

One very striking statement in the latter is this:

U.S. State Department estimates that 80% of the 600,000-800,000 people trafficked across international borders every year are trafficked for sex.

which is a really striking number. Half a million people a year kidnapped and taken to other countries and forced into sex work? That’s horrible!

It’s also completely made up, and almost certainly false.

Here’s a paper on the general subject that includes considerable analysis of these numbers, how wildly they vary from source to source, and how little actual fact there is behind any of them. One salient Justice Department quote:

Most importantly, the government must address the incongruity between the estimated number of victims trafficked into the United States—between 14,500 and 17,500 [annually]—and the number of victims found—only 611 in the last four years… The stark difference between the two figures means that U.S. government efforts are still not enough. In addition, the estimate should be evaluated to assure that it is accurate and reflects the number of actual victims.

Between “we’ve found only one-tenth of one percent of the victims” and “the estimates people have pulled out of their hats to get funding are wildly inflated”, I know where I’d put my money.

There are people forced into sex work, and that’s a terrible crime that we ought to find and punish and disincent. But we need to do that by getting all of the truth that we can, not by artificially inflating numbers (or just outright lying) to get more than our fair share of funds, or by conflating a voluntary activity that we don’t like with actual coercion, or by otherwise acting in bad faith.

Sergeant STAR is not AI.

Okay, this one is a bit of a last-minute addition because it was on On The Media this morning, and it fits with our occasional theme of how bad “chatbots” are.

Basically the U.S. Army has this chatbot that answers questions from potential recruits (and anyone else) about being in the Army and all. The EFF got curious about it and filed a FOIA request which was (after some adventures) more or less answered. Details (and some rather confused distracting speculation about different kinds of bots and privacy threats and things) are on the EFF site.

The Executive Summary is that Sgt STAR is basically an FAQ, with something like 288 pages of Q&A’s, and some kind of heuristic matcher that tries to match each incoming question to one that it knows the answer to, and displays that answer. No big deal, really.

And then (the actually useful part) there are some humans who constantly review the log of questions and update the answers to better match what people are asking, and how reality is changing.

The reason the good Sgt qualifies for a Humbug list is that people (including the bot himself) are constantly referring to it as “intelligent” and “AI” and stuff like that.

You Asked: Are you alive?

SGT STAR: I am a dynamic, intelligent self-service virtual guide…

No, no Sarge, I’m afraid you aren’t.

You’re a well-designed and well-maintained lookup table.

And that’s not what intelligence is.


Eventual thread convergence

Speaking of the really bad science in teevee shows like Numb3rs, and speaking a long time ago about that really annoying book that Stephen Wolfram wrote, we are extremely amused to read that:

Wolfram Research served as the mathematical consultant for the CBS television series Numb3rs, a show about the mathematical aspects of crime-solving.


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