Reviews

A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Friday, June 27, 2014

Homelessness and Freedom of the Will

One of the reasons why the freedom of the will is a manifest observation is that although the will is determined to the good, it is not always possible to know what the good it, and therefore not always possible to know what means are best to achieve it.

Consider the recent events in NYC in which a flamboyant Chinese philanthropist proposed to give a free luncheon to a passel of homeless people and give each one $300.
He [Chen] had announced the event in a full-page advertisement in The New York Times on June 16. “Leading Chinese philanthropist teams up with famous American charities to host charity luncheon for 1,000 poor and destitute Americans,” the ad said. “Each will receive 300 dollars.”
***
On Sunday he met with officials from the New York City Rescue Mission and asked them to supply the homeless people as guests. They said they would participate in the event as long as he did not hand out any cash, said Craig Mayes, the group’s executive director. Mr. Mayes said he was concerned that some of the clients might use the cash to buy alcohol and drugs. In return, Mr. Chen agreed to donate $90,000 to the organization, and the two parties signed a contract.
***
Mr. Chen addressed the audience and then uncorked the news the crowd had been waiting for: “I will give $300 for every participant today.”

The homeless men and women shot to their feet, whooping and applauding.

“No he won’t,” Michelle Tolson, the mission’s director of public relations, said. “The police will shut him down.”

Officials from the Rescue Mission quickly brokered a deal with Mr. Chen’s assistants, allowing him to hand $300 to several chosen homeless clients in a symbolic gesture. The clients, however, would have to return the money.              -- New York Times
So, it's not easy to give money to poor people, at least in NYC, although it is easy to give money to organizations that provide services to the poor.  TOF is unclear on the benefits to be gotten by giving "several chosen" homeless $300 if they have to immediately return it. They will remain agreeably dependent on the Mission for their well-being.

P.J. O'Rourke once pointed out that if you took all government spending on poverty programs and divided that by the total number of poor people, it would be enough to give everyone a handsome salary. Mathematically, there are no poor people. The problem is that most of that money goes to mid-level bureaucrats and to subcontractor NGOs.  Bad? 

But now the flip-side, as it were. Would it indeed be a good thing to hand them the $300?  On the face of it, obviously so. But the Mission people, who work every day with the homeless and perhaps know something of the reasons for their homelessness, may well be right. Most of the homeless are in that state because of mental illness and/or drug/alcohol addiction. That would be $300 of booze and crack.  The homeless individuals would be no better off -- indeed, in many cases, worse off -- whereas the Mission would spend the money on food, clothing, and such. So which course of action is for the good?


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Muddling Through with Models

A few observations on climate models from some folks on the inside....

"Model Structural Uncertainty: Are GCMs the Best Tools?" Folks here may recollect comments regarding model structure uncertainty in an earlier post
The policy-driven imperative of climate prediction has resulted in the accumulation of power and authority around GCMs [global coupled atmosphere-ocean models], based on the promise of using GCMs to set emissions reduction targets and for regional predictions of climate change. Complexity of model representation has become a central normative principle in evaluating climate models, good science and policy utility. However, not only are GCMs resource-intensive and intractable, they are also characterized by over parameterization and inadequate attention to uncertainty. Apart from the divergence of climate model predictions from observations over the past two decades that are raising questions as to whether GCMs are over sensitive to CO2 forcing, the hope for useful regional predictions of climate change is unlikely to be realized based on the current path of model development. The advancement of climate science is arguably being slowed by the focus of resources on this one path of climate modeling.
-- Curry, Climate, etc.

the GCM is the numerical  solution of a complex but purely deterministic set of nonlinear partial differential equations over a defined spatiotemporal grid, and no attempt is made to introduce any quantification of uncertainty into its construction. [emph. added]

Reductionism argues that deterministic approaches to science and positivist views of causation are the appropriate methodologies for exploring complex, multivariate systems. The difficulty is that a successful reductionist explanation need not imply the possibility of a successful constructionist approach, i.e., one where the behavior of a complex system can be deduced from the fundamental reductionist understanding. Rather, large, complex systems may be better understood, and perhaps only understood, in terms of observed, emergent behavior. The practical implication is that there exist system behaviors and structures that are not amenable to explanation or prediction by reductionist methodologies. [emph. added]
-- Stephan Harrison and David Stainforth, "Predicting Climate Change: Lessons from Reductionism, Emergence and the Past." (2009)
When climate modelers work to characterize uncertainties in their model, they focus on initial condition uncertainty and parametric (parameter and parameterization) uncertainty. 
[And this is why the model results are always stated with greater certainty than actually justified. Uncertainty in the parameters will always be less than uncertainty in the actual predictions.]

WTF?

This is really crappy:
EPA Employees Told to Stop Pooping in the Hallway

TOF has been told first hand of similar behaviors in government offices at the county level. It probably happens elsewhere, and is seriously disturbing.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Steel Driver

The story on the preview page has been changed!

It now carries an early story, "The Steel Driver," a novelette which appeared in ANALOG (June, 1988) and has never been reprinted.

The story is set in the Babbage Society "universe" and the entire first section consists of a meeting of the council whose successors played a role in the novel In the Country of the Blind.

This council, with its mathematical history and primitive computers, justified ANALOG's purchase as a science fiction story. However, I have always held that the core story -- that of John Henry, the steel-driving man -- was always the prototypical SF story: the impact of advancing technology on the lives of people. That the technology is now to us an old hat does not change that.

The account is based on what purport to be contemporary accounts, including Henry's wife, the doctor from Baltimore, the timekeeper Johnston, and the contest rules. Feats performed by John Henry were incorporated into the contest.

It was my sixth published story. There are some awkward sentences and such, and as you know, Bob, were I writing it today it might run smoother.

Monday, June 23, 2014

As Screwy as an Electron


Let us begin with a quotation from the quantum physicist Richard P. Feynman:
"Electrons, when they were first discovered, behaved exactly like particles or bullets, very simply. Further research showed, from electron diffraction experiments for example, that they behaved like waves. As time went on there was a growing confusion about how these things really behaved ---- waves or particles, particles or waves? Everything looked like both.

... If I say they behave like particles I give the wrong impression; also if I say they behave like waves. ... They behave in a way that is like nothing that you have seen before. ... Electrons behave in this respect in exactly the same way as photons; they are both screwy, but in exactly in the same way….

The difficulty really is psychological and exists in the perpetual torment that results from your saying to yourself, "But how can it be like that?" which is a reflection of uncontrolled but utterly vain desire to see it in terms of something familiar. ... Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possible avoid it, "But how can it be like that?" because you will get 'down the drain', into a blind alley from which nobody has escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that."
-- The Messenger Lectures, 1964, MIT

IOW, says Dr. Feynman, it's a mystery. But the mysterious nature of photons and electrons does not deter us from our beliefs. And that leads us to today's topic, here at an end of a Year.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Raises to Zero

Noted on Jerry Pournelle's Chaos Manor:
  1. Seattle has mandated a $15/hr minimum wage.
  2. Momentum Machines is creating a hamburger-making machine that churns out made-to-order burgers at industrial speeds.
TOF's Faithful Reader is invited to speculate what will happen to many minimum wage jobs. Will low-skill entry-level kids get a raise from $9.35 to $15.00? Or will they get a raise from $9.35 to no job at all?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Tab Clearing Day

Yes it's that time again!

Leaders Also Demand New Name for County
Craven leaders poised to approve budget -- headline, NewBern (NC) Sun-Journal, June 15 2014

Question... and Answer!
"What's the Purpose of a Literacy Test for Teachers?"--headline, TheConversation.com, June 17, 2014
"Uneducated Teachers Shouldn't Be Teaching"--headline, Lodi (Calif.) News Sentinel, Jan. 27, 1983

Neuhaus's Law:
"Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed."
-- Fr. Richard John Neuhaus

Regarding World Cup play:
Too many American announcers sound like self-loving too-serious IRS accountants loudly explaining minute changes to the tax code while strictly limiting themselves to a vocabulary of 100 words.
-- William Briggs, Statistician to the Stars

Quote of the Day
"The interests of bureaucrats do not always align with those of their purported beneficiaries."
(This is what we might call a corrollary to Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy.)

Really Scary Tree Huggers!
 "While searching around for a quaint picture of Willits," writes Joseph Moore, "I came across the Tree Spirit Project, which evidently is trying to save the planet via having mostly flabby white people get naked in the woods and pose for photographs. Ah, California! Land of my birth! The connections between out of control narcissism getting naked in public and saving the forests/little fury varmints/the planet is one so sublime as to be imperceptible to lesser mortals. But it seems to be universally recognized by Whole Foods shoppers and crystal energized Bodhisattvas who no doubt walked the couple hundred miles up to Willits from Berkeley in sandals woven from organically grown hemp. Maybe it would all become clear with a little chakra adjustment and reflexology? Somebody needs somethin' adjusted, that much is clear."

Duh?
"[Virginia congressional nominee Dave Brat] questions the federal role in setting education policy--at a time when U.S. schools, by almost any measure, are falling behind."
--Eugene Robinson, Washington Post, June 13

One Thing Follows Another
"US Government Will Finally Make It Easy to See How Your Tax Dollars Are Spent"--headline, TheVerge.com, May 12
"World Pork Expo Opens Wednesday"--headline, PorkNetwork.com, June 1

Mrs. Robinson on Display
"Visitors Get Close to Cougars at New Ga. Exhibit"--headline, Associated Press, May 31

Who Knew
"Bad Food in School Cafeterias"--headline, New York Times, June 2

Illinois Ducks to Cost More
"Illinois Ducks Tax Hike (for Now)"--headline, WSJ.com, June 2

You'll Love Obamadiet
"Federal Dietary Panel: Forget the Beef, Eat More Plants and Bugs"--headline, DailySignal.com, June 2

Problem... and Solution!
"Drone Attacks Split U.S. Officials"--headline, The Wall Street Journal, June 4
"US Reassembles Key Officials for Iran Nuke Talks"--headline, Associated Press, June 7

Problem... and Solution!
"Urged to Multiply, Iranian Couples Are Dubious"--headline, New York Times, June 8, 2014
"First Step in Learning Math Is Getting Over the Anxiety"--headline, Toronto Star, Oct. 11, 2013

She Says That Like It's a Contradiction
"While Mr. Brat is firmly pro-free market, during the campaign he repeatedly denounced crony capitalism."--Jennifer Steinhauer, New York Times, June 12

How Else Are They Supposed to Do It?
"Too Many Scots Drink to Get Drunk, Say Experts"--headline, Scotsman, June 11

Wait a Minute. Did We Miss Something?
"Pope Will Serve as Bloomington Police Deputy Chief After Benedict Retires, Mayor Kruzan Announces"--headline, Herald-Times (Bloomington, Ind.), June 12

How About if We Use it Now?
The Long Now Foundation is apparently trying to assemble a collection of books that can be used to restart civilization after it collapses.

Cause... and Effect!
"The unions are angry that Switzerland--one of the richest countries in the world--does not have a minimum pay level while neighbouring France and Germany do."--BBC website, May 18

How to Tell
[E]verybody knew that the way to tell the difference between Catholic and Lutheran churches and all the others is that Catholics and Lutherans put a cross on top of their steeples instead of a weather vane...
-- Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, "How I Became the Catholic I Was."

h/t Wall Street Journal Best of the Web for many of the above headlines.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Some Statistical Fun

The Armies of the Homeless

  • "One of every 50 American children experiences homelessness, according to a new report that says most states have inadequate plans to address the worsening and often-overlooked problem,"
    – Associated Press (10 Mar 2009)
  • "These kids are the innocent victims, yet it seems somehow or other they get left out,"
    – Dr. Ellen Bassuk, National Center on Family Homelessness.
  • The report estimates 1.5 million children experienced homelessness at least once that year (2005-2006)
But, what do you mean "homeless"? According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, living conditions of homeless children, 2005-2006 broke down as follows:

Friday, June 13, 2014

"To Deepen into Art..."

The Despair of Thomas Disch


Thomas M. Disch, the late SF writer (poet/critic/...), once told Jody Bottum that part of the reason he quit writing science fiction was that, to deepen it into real art, "I would have to be like Gene Wolfe and return to the Catholicism that I barely got away from when I was young -- and I can't do that, of course."

That "of course" is heartbreaking. Bottum commented that Disch "never escaped his escape from Catholicism." And there is something to that. It's a sort of intaglio, defining oneself by what one is not; and one cannot help but be reminded of holes and gaps left unfilled. His suicide was a tragedy and a loss to literature in general and SF in particular. He was once called "the most respected ... and least read of all modern first-rank SF writers." He ought not have been.

Eifelheim reviewed

by Joseph Moore at Yard Sale of the Mind:
Glad to say I’ve finally gotten a chance to read Michael Flynn‘s excellent book Eifelheim, which had been sitting in the pile on the floor near the bed for some number of months now.
In a nutshell: Good book. Go read it.
In addition to great storytelling and loveable, warty characters, what makes this story of alien first contact excellent is the sympathetic treatment of 2 mysterious peoples: medieval villagers and space aliens.
Humility prevents TOF from quoting further. See link for details.

This is Science!

Careful what you say!
On Gwyneth Paltrow's blog, appropriately named goop, one finds the following insights into natural science:
I [Gwyneth Paltrow] am fascinated by the growing science behind the energy of consciousness and its effects on matter. I have long had Dr. [Masaru] Emoto's coffee table book on how negativity changes the structure of water, how the molecules behave differently depending on the words or music being expressed around it. Below, Dr. [Habib] Sadeghi explores further.
Said Dr. Sadeghi explains:
Japanese scientist, Masaru Emoto performed some of the most fascinating experiments on the effect that words have on energy in the 1990’s. When frozen, water that’s free from all impurities will form beautiful ice crystals that look exactly like snowflakes under a microscope. Water that’s polluted, or has additives like fluoride, will freeze without forming crystals. In his experiments, Emoto poured pure water into vials labeled with negative phrases like "I hate you" or "fear." After 24 hours, the water was frozen, and no longer crystallized under the microscope: It yielded gray, misshapen clumps instead of beautiful lace-like crystals. In contrast, Emoto placed labels that said things like "I Love You," or "Peace" on vials of polluted water, and after 24 hours, they produced gleaming, perfectly hexagonal crystals. Emoto’s experiments proved that energy generated by positive or negative words can actually change the physical structure of an object.
Getting all Emoto-nal
It's difficult to argue with such hard science experiments as that; so be careful what you say around the office water cooler. Molecules can not only be selfish (as is the case with genes) but can also grow depressed or elated depending on what they overhear or (in Emoto's case) read. Well, science marches on and all that.



Meanwhile, much anxiety is expressed over creationists, a group of people anxious that their beliefs should be accepted as Really Truly Science!™  None of the Taste-Makers in Late Modern Society would be caught dead associating with their ilk and will mock them as "science-deniers" (rather than more truthfully as "science wanna-bes"). They are about as dangerous as anyone outside the Iron Gates.

Folks like Paltrow, however, are already within the gates, and her occult beliefs are accepted at all the best salons and cocktail parties and will circulate through the minds of all the bien pensants along with the vague notion that it has all been "proven" by pukka "scientists."

But surely even liberal as well as conservative devotees of reason can join hands on this tripe. The Real World™, TOF regrets to inform, isn't actually like that.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

America's Next Top Model -- Part VI


Now that we know how to measure our Xs (and Ys) we need to select units on which we will make the measurements not only for the model baseline and calibration, but also for the input data used in running the model later.

The Eighth Uncertainty: Cheery Picking

On rare occasions, we can measure every item in the population, but more usually, we have to select a sample. This is the third pitfall in data collection. Sampling error and sampling bias could be the subject of entire books -- and have been! TOF's favorite for non-statisticians is A Sampler on Sampling, by Bill Williams, a man whose middle name he has always wanted to know. Other books of a more grimly technical nature include Deming, Sample Design in Business Research (Wiley Classics, 1990), Cochran, Sampling Techniques (Wiley, 1977), and Deming (again), Some Theory of Sampling (Wiley, 1950). TOF directs Faithful Reader's attention toward "sources of error in sampling surveys" and similar topics.

We Can Only Hope The Prom Theme Was Meant Ironically


Monday, June 9, 2014

E Pluribus Unum

Yesterday was the Feast of Pentecost, sometimes called 'the birthday of the Church.' In the Acts reading is a role call of the places from which the Jews and converts to Judaism had come, and the more geographically savvy among us recognize that the list runs from east to west. There are two odd points: the Cretans and Arabs are mentioned separately, and Greece is not mentioned at all. But what in those days had Athens to do with Jerusalem?

Speaking of all nations, among this week's weekday feasts is the commemoration of St. Ephraem,a/k/a 'the Harp of the Holy Ghost, who was a Syrian writer of hymns (among other things), last week included the commemoration of St. Charles Lwanga and Companions, who were Ugandans martyred by the king of that country.

The writer Michael Novak once wrote:
Ratzinger noted, there are certain creative energies and intuitions that Christianity can bring to secular society. Christianity, after all, is by now found in all nations on earth, and it numbers among its baptized members one-third of all people on earth. It is a fount of practical knowledge about other cultures. .....
Down through the centuries, the Catholic Church has learned much from successive secular orders. From the East it learned a sense of the great mystery and transcendence of God—a more mystical and contemplative cast of mind. From the ancient Greeks it learned to love reason, proportion, and beauty. From the Romans it learned stoic virtue, universal administration, and a practical sense of law. From the French it learned the upward flare of the Gothic and the brilliance of idées claires and rapid wordplay. From the Germans, metaphysics, formidable historical learning, and metahistorical thinking. And from the Anglo-Americans, a dose of common sense and a passion for the religious liberty of the individual conscience. 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

On the High Frontier

A story of mine that appeared in Analog (Apr 92) is on the STORY PREVIEW page, link in the left margin. It will stay up for a couple weeks.

"On the High Frontier" was an early effort, a cowboy yarn set in space -- long before Firefly came along, we might mention. It's pretty much a Tall Tale and has nearly every gol-danged cliche you can shake a stick at. I added one to this version that was not in the original.

 Publisher's Weekly had this to say when it appeared in The Forest of Time and Other Stories:

In his introduction and charming endnotes, Flynn reveals an impish sense of humor that leaches into the stories. ""On the High Frontier"" is the space opera to end all space operas, a wild western hardwired with the argot of cyberpunk that gleefully subverts every cliche of the subgenre. Any author who can nudge readers in the ribs with a line such as, ""Many a spacer has come to grief with his ship tuckered out megaclicks from the nearest gas cloud,"" and make them envision a Gary Cooper type saying it with a straight face, is worth his weight in cybercash, and then some.

There is a wink aimed at the original "Eifelheim" in the passing reference to Nagy hypospace. 

Have fun. Or not. It's up to you.