Monthly Archives: August 2015

Seals, Whales and Dolphins back in the Thames

This is good news for everybody – seals and whales and dolphins have been spotted swimming in the Thames, a river which has spent several decades more or less officially dead. When I went to London almost twenty years ago everyone was excited because they’d found a dead fish in the Thames, and not the type of fish a person would buy in a fish shop, which implied that at one point it had been a live fish in the Thames. Of course there were those who said it was just a prank… but long-term concerted efforts at rehabilitation have paid off, with many people now spotting seals, whales and dolphins in the Thames river, which implies there are fish there for them to eat.

They’re not just in the mouth of the river either, but way upstream, past the Big Smoke, as you can see on the interactive map available here.

This is a good sign that there is hope for even the most destroyed of environments if we put in a bit of effort, and also that humans can live with other animals with just a little bit of forethought.

Power Doesn’t Corrupt, It Empowers

I’ve often been leery of psychological experiments which come out with statements like “people in this situation behave this way”, as if the results weren’t averaged over everyone in the experiment…as if individuals in the experiment didn’t respond differently to the situation. Scientific American has a blog post about the Stanford Prison Experiment, which famously showed that people who are given power and no oversight become abusive sadists. He puts a convincing argument that “Yes, power corrupts. But power does not corrupt everyone equally”. In fact, people inclined to try and improve society become more generous when given power.

The most interesting part for me was in the footnote, about a British experiment that tried to replicate the Stanford one but failed because it had an ethics committee.

There was even some uncertainty about roles. At least in the beginning, prisoners were told that they might be able to become guards. Research shows that in environments in which authority is unstable, or at least perceived as unstable, being in a position of low power can actually be empowering. As one group of researchers put it, “For low power individuals, power instability is empowering, leading them to act and behave as high power individuals… Having unstable low power leads to feelings of confidence and self-efficacy, especially when low power individuals can gain power by being creative. They may be more confident about their abilities and also perceive that they have the ‘power to change their situation.”

Democracy is one of the ultimate forms of power instability, and such a situation causes low-power individuals to act like high-power individuals, which is really useful because: “Power increases confidence, optimism, risk-taking, sensitivity to internal thoughts and feelings, goal-directed behavior and cognition, and creativity.”

So let’s keep our democracies as democratic as possible, yeah?

PS: One of the problems with science is how few experiments are reproduced, and when they are the results aren’t always great.

Appropriating Culture By Protesting Cultural Appropriation

One of the side-effects of destroying old power structures is that people no longer have a set-in-stone way to feel superior to others. So they go looking for a way to feel superior, often by finding some terrible injustice and railing against it. If the injustice is committed by people they identify with it allows them to pretend to be humble while feeling morally superior. This can be quite useful, of course, since ending injustice is a great thing to do no matter the motivation. However, once the main work is done, people often see the result and jump on the bandwagon, and the problem that the main work is done is easily overcome by extending the notion to ridiculous ends.

This process is exemplified by cultural appropriation, and there’s a solid argument in the Washington Post against taking it too far. People complaining that someone referencing Russian culture in a novel isn’t a “real Russian” and therefore shouldn’t write about it, complaints against the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston about allowing visitors to try on a kimono. It has reached the point where drawing any kind of inspiration from a culture other than your own, or referencing another culture in any way, or eating another culture’s cuisine, is denounced as “cultural appropriation”.

these accusations have become a common attack against any artist or artwork that incorporates ideas from another culture, no matter how thoughtfully or positively. A work can reinvent the material or even serve as a tribute, but no matter. If artists dabble outside their own cultural experiences, they’ve committed a creative sin.

There are some very obvious issues with this. The idea that westerners should avoid anything from another culture has overtones of racial and cultural puritanism; in order to be a “good Westerner” you have to eschew anything that’s not “Western”, preferably from your own country, preferably from your own racial background, preferably from your own neighbourhood. It’s insulating and isolating, and has a negative effect on empathy and understanding of other cultures. As Cathy Young (the WP author) wrote: “When we attack people for stepping outside their own cultural experiences, we hinder our ability to develop empathy and cross-cultural understanding.”

These attacks are overwhelmingly made by Americans – it’s rare to hear someone from the country whose culture is being “appropriated” complain. Indeed, in the example of the kimono protest described in the article, the number of protesters was tiny, while “many [Japanese Americans] actively backed the museum’s exhibit, as did the Japanese consulate”. In fact: “The kimonos, which are replicas of the garment in the painting, were commissioned by the Japanese broadcaster NHK to accompany “La Japonaise” for the recent traveling exhibit “Looking East”; visitors to museums in Tokyo, Kyoto, and the MFA’s sister museum in Nagoya could try them on as part of the exhibit.”

I’ve showed a lot of Mexicans pictures of white people in “Mexican costumes” and have failed to see any ire at all. The most I ever got was “eso es un sombrero de mariachi, no se usa con jorongos”. (That’s a mariachi hat, it doesn’t go with a poncho.) Mexican Americans may get upset*, but the key word there is American. They might claim it’s offensive to them, but to claim that it is offensive to México or Mexicans is not only an unsupported stretch, it means they’re speaking for an entire country and culture they don’t belong to – a far more egregious case of cultural appropriation.

Mexicans actually get annoyed by exactly the opposite – cultural invasion. They don’t care if someone wears a sombrero to a Halloween party, they care that American companies are buying up Mexican companies and then pushing commercialised Halloween trinkets onto them, replacing Día del Muerto with the American holiday**. That they’re pushing Santa Claus gimcrack everywhere to replace Los Reyes Magos. That they’re trying to turn México into South Texas because they’ve already got the supply chains set up. That’s what really shits any Mexican who gives more than a passing thought to culture.

Dia del Muertos

*I’ve seen people online complain, but I have no idea of their ethnicity. Maybe they’re not even Mexican American.
** I’m looking at you, Walmart. There’s been Halloween baubles on sale for a month or more.

The Least Surprising News Ever

It turns out that Almost None of the Women in the Ashley Madison Database Ever Used the Site. The article goes on to provide exactly what’s in the title.
I always thought it was strange that a reasonably large number of women would sign up to a service like this rather than, say, drive two towns over and pop into a bar. Apparently, out of 5.5 million female profiles, a maximum of 13,601 ever interacted with the site or any other users beyond creating a profile…and there were 12,108 women who paid to delete their account. That’s 0.0025% of accounts labeled as female being active, which in most datasets might be chalked up to a measurement error.

Why would someone start a business that was destined to fail? They didn’t, of course. Ashley Madison isn’t in the business of encouraging adultery, it’s in the business of blackmailing men to have their data removed from their servers. Which is something they didn’t do, so I think there’s a strong case for a class action lawsuit or at least a business fine for fraudulent activity.

Source: NASA

The Irrelevancy of Logical Fallacies in Mathematics

Scientific American is focusing on Einstein in September, it being 100 years since he came up with the general theory of relativity. It briefly describes how he came up with the theory, which makes it a lot easier to understand and is interesting to me because it contains a logical fallacy.

Einstein claimed that the happiest thought in his life was: “If a person falls freely, he will not feel his own weight.” To be honest, this sounds like his personal troubles were causing depressive episodes. However, he noted that if a man was in an enclosed chamber in free fall, he would feel weightless. He would not be able to tell if he was in free fall or if he was floating in zero gravity. Likewise, if the chamber was in zero gravity and a constant force was pulling the chamber up at an accelerated rate he would feel his feet pressed to the floor, and would have no way of telling if he were in a stationary chamber under gravity or was being accelerated in zero gravity.

Einstein dubbed this “the equivalence principle.” The local effects of gravity and of acceleration are equivalent. Therefore, they must be manifestations of the same phenomenon, some cosmic field that accounts for both acceleration and gravity.

This seems to be an invalid argument. It takes the form:

If A, then C.
If B, then C.
Therefore, A = B.

Just because two things have the same effect doesn’t mean they are the same thing. For example, saying “if an elephant sat on me I would die, and if a rhinoceros sat on me I would die, therefore an elephant is a rhinoceros” is clearly incorrect.

Of course, this insight of Einstein’s allowed a theory that is very good at explaining the universe that we observe. That could be because it got translated into mathematics, and in mathematical logic it is actually true. If A=C and B=C, then A=B must be true.

This might indicate something very profound about mathematics and its relation to the universe, but I’m not sure what.

The Summer Vacation is Finally Over

And the kids are back at school and I figured I’d have some time to write/edit/publish/promote…
All the getting up early and breakfast and bagpacking and driving and talking to teachers and withdrawing money and returning to pick up the baby and pay for supplies and returning again to pick up the other kids and and and…

Tomorrow will be better.

I know it will.

Cooking the Books

Clete rubbed his eyes; took another sip of coffee. Comparing the daily tally sheets with the official register kept for tax purposes led to an unavoidable conclusion: Someone was cooking the books.

But they were doing it wrong.

Earlier that day, based on the official register, Clete had attempted to refund $113 to a customer who had insisted he had only paid $97 for the vacuum tubes he was returning.

Careless record keeping can ruin a business, but it wasn’t carelessness. Someone was deliberately mis-entering the takings; but rather than stealing money they were recording higher takings and adding cash to the register.

Clete refilled his coffee mug and pondered this. There were three employees: Terrance, who’d worked with Clete for decades; Calvin, Clete’s son; Annie, Calvin’s girlfriend. What could be a motive?

After thinking about where the money trail went, the answer became clear. That weekend Clete shadowed Calvin as he went downtown, handed a wad of cash to a man for a paper bag, then began selling its contents to various other people. Later, Clete confronted his son.

“I know what you been doing,” he said brusquely. “Laundering drug money through the shop. Planning on getting it when you inherit.”

Calvin looked stricken, but didn’t deny it.

“What’re you selling?” asked Clete.

“Weed,” mumbled Calvin.

“Why din’t you tell me?”

“Not the sort of thing you tell your father,” explained Calvin. “I’ll stop!”

“Weed ain’t so bad,” said Clete. “And I can’t get any since your Uncle Cleveland died.” He chewed his tongue. “Can you hook me up?”


This was written for the Mysterious Photograph Contest in the April 2013 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

Review: Homeworld Blues

This debut novel by A.J. McMillan is a cracking good read. The writing style is fast and fresh, the characters mostly well-written and the world-building brilliant. It’s a good length, too.

Homeworld Blues is in the science fantasy genre, which combines technology and magic-as-science-we-don’t-understand…like the Force in Star Wars. In this universe, Earth as we know it shares an interdimensional axis with two other planets in two other worlds (or dimensions, or branes, or planes, or however you want to think of them) and certain people know how to leap between the worlds, which ability they use to transport refugees from Earth to the paradisiacal Breorl, via the hellscape of Darsa. All the locations are richly detailed and realistic, and I often paused my reading and spent a while imagining what I would do in each place. The books starts off in a claustrophobic colony ship, jumps quickly to a desert world, then to a magic jungle tree with dizzying rapidity that often made me wish McMillan had spent longer in each setting.

Still, this is the first book in a trilogy (the second one is planned for 2015 some time) so I’m sure the plot will return to each place over the course of the series. The characters are fleshed out and likeable – and you’ll find some annoying and some pretentious and so on based on your personal preferences, which is a sign of diverse characters. McMillan follows the lead of George R.R. Martin in being perfectly willing to kill off characters that the reader has become attached to and which appeared as if they would have a major role to play throughout the series.

Apart from a few minor scientific errors, the few things which jolted me while reading concerned a couple of characters. Zepp is a great character, but a touch inconsistent. At one point he looks at a woman “in a whole new light” because she was wearing a sexy and revealing dress; but he had the hots for her the moment he met her and his increase only increased throughout the novel, so I’m not sure what the “whole new light” would have been. At another point he admitted to himself that he deserved to be distrusted because of his actions, but he’d never been anything except completely open and honest throughout the novel – to the point where some other characters chastised him on his openness. At one point I got the impression that Zepp had originally been two characters that had been merged in editing.

Trayia, the protagonist, is awesome. She’s a strong character – not just a strong personality, but a character with good depth and believable motives and beliefs. Still, she gets accepted as the leader/saviour pretty easily by everyone else despite her extreme inexperience and lack of broader knowledge. One guy got told by the Goddess that she’s “the one”, so that’s fair enough, but a lot of other experienced and highly capable people give her undying loyalty based on not very much. I’m not saying she doesn’t deserve it, just that her actions in this book didn’t really warrant it.

All in all, they’re minor issues in a well-written book, and I think we can expect McMillan to get better as the series progresses. So if this is a genre you like, buy the book.

A.J. McMillan’s blog is here.

Freaky Data Mining

I’ve long known of the data mining performed by companies in a bid to get to know us better and then sell that knowledge to advertisers and other dubious entities, and I haven’t been too worried about it…I have my general internet usage of things that are in the public domain and that I don’t care too much about, and anything I don’t want the companies to know I do on a different browser that is far more locked down, privacy-wise.

But something freaky just happened.

I logged onto my LinkIn account after quite a long time away, and had several requests to “connect”, most of which I accepted as I knew them and that’s kind of the point of the site. Then I went to “People You May Know” and scrolled down. It was the usual conglomeration of people I had worked with, or were connected to on social media (or more likely the e-mail account I used to sign up, since I don’t recall connecting any other social media to LinkedIn), and friends-of-friends and such like, with a smattering of people I didn’t know.

And there, at the very bottom, was the name of the girl I had a crush on in Year 7. The girl I’ve had absolutely zero contact with since she changed schools more than a quarter of a decade ago…for those of you keeping score, that was before the World Wide Web. Before Netscape. But there was her name, same birth city as mine, same skin tone and hair colour of the girl I vaguely remember, right at the bottom of the list of people I might know…despite the fact I’ve had no contact with her since before the internet escaped from research centres.

How the hell did this happen?

As far as my checking found out we have no connections in common, no common workplaces, no common educational institutions. Apart from the fact that we are from the same city, the only other connection is an incredibly weak one, where a friend of mine attended the same school as her: But she was in a different year, those two are not connected, and I hadn’t connected to that friend on LinkIn when my childhood crush showed up on my list. I’m pretty certain that’s not the connection that clicked the LinkedIn algorithms to suggest we might know each other…so what the hell was?

What little bot crawling the databases of internet corporations decided we might be connected, and how?