Friday, February 27, 2004
The New York Times reports that, just like "door close" buttons in elevators, "walk signal" buttons at intersections are nonfunctional. I find this story incredibly funny for some reason. Maybe it's the lesson in futility and impatience and the failed promise of urban humanity and the great lies of technological innovation, and maybe it's the fact that the URL says BUTT in capital letters. My philosophizing, and my sophomoric sense of humor, both satisfied.
Sunday, February 22, 2004
FUN WITH TECUMSEH
I was discussing Tecumseh's Curse with a few people the other night, and none of us knew the actual numbers, so here they are, for the edification of all.
Probability that a U.S. president elected since 1840 would die in office, if he was not elected in a year ending in a zero: 0.05
Probability that a U.S. president from the same period, elected in a year ending in a zero, would die in office: 0.875
This calculation is made excluing all presidents who were never elected to the post (eg Ford, Fillmore), but not controlling for number of terms elected or number of years in office. Still, it is at least mildly interesting that in the past 160 years, out of 28 elected presidents, eight of whom were elected in years ending in zero, only one president (Zachary Taylor) elected in a non-zero year has died in office, while only one president (Ronald Reagan) elected in a zero year has survived his term. Prior to 1840, no president had died in office.
Saturday, February 21, 2004
H. G. and G. W.
In a recent exercise in denial of the freedom of information, the Bush administration’s Department of Education has removed funding support for the closed-captioning of almost 200 television programs, thereby preventing the deaf and hard-of-hearing from enjoying the same drivel as the rest of us. In general the results are about what one might expect, but a few things seem to have slipped through the cracks.
“Robin Hood” was denied funding; “The Time Machine” was approved. The decision regarding “Robin Hood” is fairly obvious—robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, otherwise known as progressive taxation, is hardly the sort of ideal the Bush administration hopes to encourage. “The Time Machine,” however, is a more subtle point. I suspect that our worthy government may be made up of folks who have only seen the movie, or at best read the abridged children’s versions.
As we all know, in H. G. Wells’ inexplicably famous book, a time traveler ends up in a horrific future where beautiful idiots live on the surface and brutish, deformed creatures live belowground and eat the “Upper-worlders.” The children’s versions, and TV-movie versions, tend to treat this as a simple horror story. But the original is a cautionary tale—the Upper-worlders are the descendants of capitalists; the Under-worlders are the descendants of the proletariat. The workers, having been pushed to the margins of both society and the earth, have become inhuman and, eventually, cannibalistic, while the bourgeois have become complacent to the point of being no more than livestock.
It may not be worth bringing this up—after all, what appears on TV will not be the original story. Or is the message in the emasculated version so far distorted that it appears to be the reverse—a warning of the terrors the working classes might inflict upon the elite if the elite relax their vigilance?
What all of this has to do with hearing impairment, I’m not sure, although I suspect it’s simply a matter of opportunity.
Tuesday, February 10, 2004
IF SCIENTISTS AGREE, THEY MUST BE WRONG
It's been brought to my attention that Michael Crichton has given a talk on why global warming is a crock. I thought that, being someone who studies global climate change, I was fairly familiar with the various arguments used by the nay-sayers. And indeed, Crichton does drag out the tired old "uncertainty necessitates passivity" and "innovation will save us" and the like.
But he also makes a couple of claims that caught me off guard. First, he attempts to disparage the entire field of modelling on the grounds that it involves manipulating a whole lot of parameters that "nobody knows," and that "models just carry the present into the future. They're bound to be wrong." Second, he argues that scientific consensus is irrelevant--unscientific, in fact--since many famous scientific discoveries went radically against the accepted wisdom at the time.
The modelling question is not going to be resolved by arguing about the merit of our parameter estimates, or by pointing out the very wide range of scenarios used in predicting the future climate. This is a question of moral philosophy: given that our ability to predict the future is highly uncertain, should we do the best we can with what we know today, and try to influence the present toward what we believe will be the best future, or should we abandon all attempts at prediction and stick to blind faith?
Crichton's lack of respect for consensus is somewhat amusing on second thought. He states that "the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus . . . Science . . . requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world." One wonders how he thinks results are verified if not by other scientists.