Sunday, April 13, 2014

Letting Go of God 

I just watched Julia Sweeney's "Letting Go of God" DVD from Netflix and liked it quite a bit. It's very funny and thoughtful.

Her experience is very different from mine (I've always been skeptical and resistant to arguments from authority and popularity), but I suspect that hers is one that lots of others can relate to.

If it seems like the kind of thing you might enjoy, I recommend that you check it out.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Why We Get Fat 

After being unhappy with how I looked in some vacation pictures last year, I decided to try to lose back the extra weight I've gained over the past few years. I've been able to lose back most of my goal, but still have a bit to go.

But, there's so much contradictory information about weight-loss and diet out there that I wanted to find out a bit more about what theories the best evidence supports in this area.

So, I recently read Gary Taubes' Why We Get Fat: And What To Do About It.

This isn't so much a diet book, as it is an explanation and history and survey of theories about what causes (heredity, calories in/calories out, fatty foods, lack of excercise, carbohydrates, etc.) people to get fat, and related health problems

Spoiler Alert: It's carbohydrates.

Heredity definitely plays a role, and exercise is valuable for other reasons, but it seems like carbohydrate ingestion dominates factors that one can control.

Taubes is very much driven by the evidence and I found the book easy to read and very persuasive. Again, it's not primarily a book filled with menu suggestions (although there's a bit of that in the Afterword); it's mostly an argument for eating few carbs. Low-carb diet details and suggestions can be found lots of other places.


Friday, February 28, 2014

Do You Have The Right To A Private Conversation? 

I just watched this Reason.TV video of Ladar Levison (founder of Lavabit, the successful secure email provider he chose to shut down rather than comply with the FBI's efforts to compromise the privacy of his users).

It was inspiring, and I'm very happy that there are people like him around, helping us to maintain a shred of privacy.

I'm also intrigued by the Darkmail Technical Alliance he's promoting, along with the principals from Silent Circle (which also shut down their secure email service rather than compromise privacy).

Secure electronic mail that's easy enough for non-technical people to use will be challenging to develop and it could be even more challenging to achieve widespread adoption.

I wish them luck.

My answer to the title of this post is "YES!", I think we do have the right to a private conversation, and I hope we'll all be able to exercise that right without having to take heroic measures in order to do so.


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The State of the Union 2014 

I watched the President's State of the Union address last night and was happy to see that it was boring, without many grand program proposals. That's the best I could have hoped for from him.

Here's a pretty good video from the Cato Institute responding to some of the key comments and proposals in much the same way I did in my head.


Saturday, December 28, 2013

I Am A Sit-Com Character 

A "funny" thing happened to me yesterday. I got robbed.

Well, not exactly.

After a nice week's vacation in Las Vegas, my wife and son and I planned to go to breakfast and then off to the airport. As usual, I was carrying the heavy luggage down to the car by myself and was in a hurry to get it done. I carried one full-size suitcase and one carry-on bag (my son's) down the flight of stairs to our silver Hyundai Elantra rental car. One strange thing that happened was that my car remote failed to open the trunk, no matter how long I held the button down. But, it did seem to unlock the doors, so I opened driver's-side door, released the trunk manually and loaded the bags into the car.

But, then I noticed that the remote also failed to lock the doors. I heard a faint clicking, but the door didn't lock. I tried to lock it manually with the key (first time I tried the key in the door) but the key didn't turn. Seemed like an artifact of some stupid modern anti-theft system that depended on the remote. I wondered how we were going to lock the car at the restaurant, but figured that was a problem for later; now I just wanted to finish loading the car.

I walked back up to the room, told my wife about the remote-control and key issues, and brought down the second suitcase.

When I got back down to the car something seemed a little off. I noticed that the trunk was open (I was sure I'd closed it) and then saw that it was empty!! WTF??? Somebody had taken our stuff in the one minute it took me to go up and get the other bag. Maybe they jammed the remote somehow (???). I asked around but nobody saw anything. We spent time complaining to the resort management and security who were nice and polite, and would review any security footage (didn't cover the car itself) for suspicious activity, but denied any liability, since I had left the car unattended.

We felt terrible and violated. It was too late to go to breakfast, so we just went to the airport, complained to Budget about the faulty remote helping to get our things stolen. From the airport, I called the police and filed a report (they wouldn't do anything, but maybe it would help to try to recover something from Budget, or maybe American Express had some coverage that would help).

The whole thing was very upsetting.

We spent the afternoon trying to console ourselves. It was only stuff that could be replaced. Nobody got hurt. The thieves got very little of value to them (lots of laundry, an old laptop, toiletries). My wife and son kept thinking of other things in those bags that were problematic (including lots of DRM'd songs from Apple, some photos on the laptop, a gift that I'd bought for my wife, a library book, etc.). And, there were things (including the suitcase itself) that were memories of my wife's mom (who died this year) that caused grief to lose. My son was worried that he should change all of his passwords (a process I helped him start with my phone).

But, all in all, I think we handled it pretty well. We were rattled, lost some faith in humanity, but reminded ourselves that we were still okay and had each other for support.

After we got home, my wife brought our phone to me and told me that there was a voice mail that I had to hear.

The manager from the resort had called to say that another guest had found our luggage. Apparently, the bags had been placed into their car.

What an idiot!!!! I put our bags into the wrong car!!!

We'll have to pay to have our bags shipped back to us, but we'll get them back.

In retrospect, a few things conspired against me.

  1. There was another, nearly-identical car parked in the area where I had parked late the night before.
  2. It was unlocked!!
  3. It didn't have any stuff in it that made it obviously not our car.
  4. They left right after I'd loaded it (it wasn't around when we were looking for witnesses and places for the bags to have been stashed).
  5. I was in a hurry and eager to believe that the car was closer than it really was.
  6. I wasn't familiar enough with the car to know that what happened wasn't possible.
  7. There must have been a large vehicle between the cars, obscuring the one the remote was working on.

But, I still feel really dumb. I should have been more suspicious when the key didn't turn in the lock. I think that since the doors had apparently unlocked, I had no doubt that this was the right car. Also, I should have noticed that it wasn't the same spot (I now think our car was two spots further away), but when I saw the open trunk I was too distracted to focus on that. And, I should have been more suspicious about the remote starting to work fine again (but I was already blaming the thief).

Also, nobody hearing the tale asked: "Are you sure it was the right car?"

But, I still feel really dumb.

We'll work on having our stuff shipped back. It will be an expensive lesson, and a good (but really, really embarrassing) story to tell.

I'm sure that some day it will seem more funny than humiliating. But that day is not today.


Sunday, December 15, 2013

Wealth Inequality Concern: Do You Hate Wealth or Poverty? 

I watched a recording of last week's Stossel today, and was struck by something that Johan Norberg said.

I'm paraphrasing, but in response to Stossel's mentioning the concern about wealth inequality, Norberg said something like "Those who are primarily concerned about wealth inequality hate wealth more than they hate poverty."

Now, I know that this isn't true about everyone concerned about wealth inequality, but those who are aware of the tremendous advancement that the poor have made due to markets should be cautious about calling for too much interference and redistribution. Unless, as Norberg says, they are more concerned with taking from the wealthy than the are for the longterm welfare of the poor.

It was a great point.


Thursday, October 31, 2013

How People React To Their Lying President 

Of course, many of us were well aware that the President had no factual basis for his claims that people could keep their health insurance plans after Obamacare would take effect. But, now that the truth is becoming starkly evident, it's interesting to watch how people react to the reality that he was knowingly, blatantly, lying to them.

Some are honestly surprised and offended, but most supporters are still twisting themselves into ethical knots trying to minimize and justify the deception.

As the Rube-Goldberg scheme continues to unravel, it will be interesting to see how people will react in the face of further and further evidence that this was always a stupid plan and will make the world worse for far more people than it helps. Many people will come to accept the truth, but many others will cling tenaciously to their romantic vision of the state as a hyper-competent problem solver. I wonder how long it will take for the balance to shift enough to try to recover from the blunder. The sooner the better.

If it wouldn't do so much damage to the health care market, it might even have been worth it for the important lesson and the pure spectacle of it.

But, it isn't worth it.


Monday, September 02, 2013

Inside Jokes 

Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind by Matthew M. Hurley, Daniel C. Dennett, Reginald B. Adams Jr. contains the best theory I'm familiar with that explains humor.

As longtime readers of this blog know, I've been interested in what makes things funny for a long time, and wrote an early post about it.

I cannot hope to do justice to the theory of the book, so I won't really try. I hope all who are interested will read the book itself. It's very rewarding. While it does spend a bit of time on background issues, it's very readable and is peppered with lots of good jokes and witticisms used for illustration.

For those who won't read it, or are curious about the theory, I'll try to give a small taste.

Humor, like beauty, is in the mind of the beholder. There isn't a formula guaranteed to generate mirth, but mirth is something that happens within the receiver's brain, and different people will have different reactions to the same stimulus (of course).

The basic idea is that various reward systems have evolved to help human genes propagate. Just as we evolved a "Sweet Tooth" reward system that leads us to find pleasure in tastes that are correlated with high-energy content, we also evolved a "Joy of Debugging" reward system that leads us to find pleasure (mirth) in detecting and refuting certain sorts of errors that make their way into our thinking. Basically, the sorts of error-detections that generate mirth tend to be that of refuting covertly entered, active, committed, beliefs.

In the book, the details are explained and refined. There is much discussion of mental-spaces, JITSA (Just-In-Time Spreading Activation), etc,. as well as many variations (first-person, third-person, recursive levels of modeling various intentional agents) and lots of analysis of how various types of mirth-inducing stimuli (including tickling!) conform to the theory, and much discussion of related issues.

Again, if you're interested in what humor is all about, I'm sure you'll find the book well worth your time.


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Ouch! 

Yesterday morning, just after getting off of my commuter bus and it started driving away, I realized that I had left my Kindle on the bus.

I really didn't want to lose it, and forgot how old and out of shape I am, so I started chasing after it, running quickly (for me) waving my arms like a lunatic... I wasn't feeling optimistic, but after a while I saw that the bus had stopped at a red light just over a block ahead, so I thought there might be a chance to catch up with it. Unfortunately, in the middle of a street, my weight got too far forward and I fell on the asphalt.

I got right back up and started running again and, fortunately, a construction worker up ahead saw me and figured out from my wild gesturing that I was trying to get to that bus, and he got the driver to wait for me.

So, I recovered my Kindle!

Unfortunately, I had scraped my left palm a little and my right arm (below the elbow) more, but the brunt of the impact was borne by my ribs, which were already hurting.

Today, I feel like I was hit in the chest with a baseball bat. Everything is sore, but the pain is mostly in my ribs and stomach, which seem to be more involved in every movement than I realized. It hurts to lie down, to get up, to sneeze (!!!), to walk, to stand, to sit down, to lift my arms, and to breathe (deeply). My left hand is so tender I can't grip anything with it. But, if I sit fairly still and work on the computer (as I do most of the day), the discomfort level is fairly low.

So, I'm working from home today and trying not to move too much or quickly.

Even though I would pay much more than the price of a Kindle to avoid this experience, it seems like it would be much much worse if I'd lost the Kindle too. Maybe it's just my desperate attempt to see a bright side, but I'm sticking to it.