30 September 2009

Five Six Signs There's a Paper Shortage in the Department

I mentioned before that the math department's paper budget is currently barely enough to cover printing tests for classes, let alone anything else. Here are some of the effects. And, yes, I've done all of these.

6. You raid the paper recycling bin for paper only used on one side.
5. You post everything to Moodle so that students can print it out on someone else's paper.
4. You start hoarding all abandoned papers and notebooks in classrooms.
3. You find an envelope on your desk and hoard it for scrap paper.
2. You look at the envelope and are pleased to note that if you unfold it, there is another blank writing surface on the other side.
And finally:

#1. You get junk mail in your mailbox and are ecstatic to see that one side of each page in the junk mail is blank.

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29 September 2009

On the Way to the Tower

We did manage to find the blue dragon last night, when we finally had a Door Three show up in Room Three. We had planned to get all four dragons together and possibly get them to help us out against the Wizard, as none of them was too happy about being turned into a guardian statue. Blue, however, freaked as soon as he found out the other three dragons were on the other side of the portal. We didn't have a full out battle with him, though he did stun several of us for a turn. So we all left, and our dragonborn was last (Yeah, he managed to convince us not to kill him. It may have helped that Dovra opened with "So are you evil now?" when he came out of the dragons' lair. I love having a character who has no compunctions about asking questions like that).

However, because he was last, he got robbed, and he was the one with the bag of holding so we've lost a bunch of stuff. There's a plot afoot to go get it back. Dovra's mostly indifferent, as none of her stuff was in the bag of holding. While we were separated in the maze, the other group found a Robe of Scintillation (Level 7 cloth armor, +2 AC) and Dovra agreed to give up a decent portion of later treasure in exchange for getting to keep and use it. She needs the AC bonus, and it does some weirdly neat stuff. Also, I'd realized that she would consider it an insult to her magical abilities to wear mundane armor, so this was about the only way she was going to get armor she was willing to wear. I owe the DM a bit of thanks for planting it there, though it took some doing to convince the finders not to sell it. ^!^

We ended in the middle of an encounter, because one of our folk had to leave at 9:30 pm. Flaming bats don't sound particularly bad, but they do a lot of damage, particularly to a level 2 character. Dovra was unconscious and on fire at one point. The rest of the group convinced Shenron to stabilize her and put the flames out. We need someone else with healing abilities in the group. We had someone else, but he's currently MIA due to Life Circumstances. Anyway, once Dovra was conscious, she got well away from the fire bats and not close to or in line with anyone else (the bats like attacking anyone in a lineup), and then she used Force Orb for the first time. One of the bats was adjacent to two goblins, and the Force Orb makes a secondary attack against all adjacent enemies. It also does more damage than most of the rest of Dovra's arsenal. She finished off one of the goblins and did a decent amount of damage to the bat and the other goblin.

Next time we'll finish that encounter, possibly confront the blue dragon, then it's Off to see the Wizard! The Maniacal Wizard of the Maze! Er, yeah.

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27 September 2009

Numbers and Habits

Via Mind Hacks, I came across an article discussing how long it takes to form a habit. In part, it depends on the type of activity, but overall the results are fairly consistent. There's a fairly rapid increase of habitualness at the beginning which then levels off, and the average time to level off is 66 days. After that, the habit is as set as it is ever going to be.

This interests me partly because my practice has now become such an ingrained habit that it would not occur to me not to do it ... unless there were some physical constraint preventing it. I started with the relatively arbitrary figure of 36 days. It's significant in Chinese thought, and, to be honest, I'm not sure why. I know that traditionally the Chinese listed 6 major organs and 6 something else, and multiplying those results in 36, but I have no idea what, exactly it's supposed to mean. I also know that Cheng Man Ch'ing consistently arrived at 36 moves when counting the moves in the form, but that his labeling was not necessarily consistent beyond the figure 36. It was a number, that's all. A very minor habit might be established after only 36 days. I don't think my practice was.

My other benchmark has been 108 days, and that's well into the level part of the habituation curve. I'm not sure it was completely established then, either, but it had come closer. There were still times when I would actively resent that I couldn't just go to bed, that I still had to do the practice. Now when that happens, I'm mainly irritated with myself for not getting it done sooner, not with the practice itself.

As a point of interest, there's a traditional Chinese idea (at least, Don tells me it's traditional and Chinese) of "the practice of 100 days." In essence, you try something out for 100 days and see what you think of it at that point. If it's something you're capable of establishing as a habit, that will most likely be enough according to the research at the link. If by the end of 100 days, it hasn't become a habit, it's likely that it never will. This isn't the rationale given in the traditional idea, but I think maybe there's a connection.

And now I'll stop rambling.

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Fishing for Stars

I liked this poem from Three Quarks Daily well enough to post it here:

The Solitary Angler

One day I woke up
And did not fear the old gods.

I called the number on my fridge
And when the movers arrived

I gave them everything.
On my way out of town

I spat into the wind
And did not linger to see where it landed.

Who can say for sure
If the dream has ended or begun?

A frail dimness rims my craft.
Stars swim up to the surface

Of a bottomless well
And sink back when I take my eye off them.

There is no greater calamity
Than to underestimate the strength of your enemy.

The ancients saw the stars
And called them angels.

They turned everything else into a clock
I say wear a watch if you must.

But don’t count on it.

by Suzanne Buffam

I'm not sure what it is that I like about it. It's not the kind of texture that usually appeals to me, but there's something in the imagery that grabs me. Click below to expand to the full poem.

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25 September 2009

The Amazing Maze

I hosted last night's D&D gathering. This meant that I spent most of yesterday getting the main public rooms into presentable shape. Part of me thinks this means I should host more often, as it will induce me to keep the house in better shape. Part of me thinks this means I should avoid it as much as possible. Either way, I got it into better shape than I actually expected to, and had everything ready well before most people showed up.

We found out last night that the door numbering is fixed in every room of the labyrinth, and that when we're also in a numbered room, the door corresponding to that number leads out of the labyrinth. Also, some of the numbered rooms connect directly to one another. The problem is that whether or not there is a door in a particular spot is completely random, so just being in a numbered room doesn't guarantee you can get out. If the door out doesn't show up, you can't. There are also rooms containing gems, and those rooms seem to be hubs. Whichever door you choose after that will lead to the room corresponding to the door's number.

There were seven ways into the labyrinth from the originating cavern. There should be eight, so there's a hidden passage or something somewhere that we still haven't found. We're pretty sure it's door three that's missing, so we've been going back into the labyrinth, trying to get to Room Three, so we can go out Door Three and find out where it actually is. So far, Door Three has not been available any time we've made it into Room Three. We've been in there three times, so it's not particularly unlikely that this would happen, but we are starting to wonder if there's something else going on there.

Oh yes. We now have two dragons who are awake: Green and White. We found out that if the gem next to the dragon has already been touched, then touching the corresponding gem in the maze not only wakes the dragon up, it also transports us directly to the dragon. The white dragon was not as friendly as the green, and Horgta rolled poorly on diplomacy, so White decided he was a spy for the Wizard. Then he asked us if he could eat Horgta. All of us but our dragonborn said "No." Possibly jokingly, our dragonborn said, "Yes." Unfortunately, he has higher diplomacy than the rest of us—why? only his god Bahamut knows—so White decided to go after Horgta. Fortunately for us, the portal was open at our end and Green opened the other end, plus Horgta had higher initiative than White and got out of the way, so White left before he had much of a chance to go after Horgta.

So we're already a bit annoyed with Shenron, our dragonborn cleric, and he goes over to the cavern that now has two fully awake dragons and one still frozen, and offers to serve them. OOC, I'm pretty sure he's just going to gather information. IC, I think we're all rather suspicious and disgusted. However, at that point it was time to quit. Next week, we'll probably go back into the labyrinth and keep trying to find Door Three. Well, all of us but Shenron. He's trapped in with the dragons at the moment, and I don't think any of us are averse to just leaving him there at this point.

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23 September 2009

Swine Flu Is Here

By here, I mean, in Pocatello. More specifically, at ISU:

POCATELLO - Idaho State University announced a student has contracted the school's first reported case of the H1N1 Virus, or Swine Flu.

A worker at the Student Health Center said it is a mild to moderate case. The results took about five days to return. Since then, the student has recovered.

The student does not live in university housing. LocalNews8

I can't remember what prompted it, but somehow the topic of being sick came up while I was going over some review material for a class, and one of my students commented that ISU now had a confirmed case of swine flu, so I went looking. Based on the information at Effect Measure, I would consider it worthwhile to get the vaccine when it becomes available, largely because having asthma puts me at greater risk for complications should I contract swine flu. I'm going from memory, so my figures may be off, but about 1% of people who get swine flu have it infect something deep inside the lungs, and at that point there's about a 50% survival rate. If you don't have it get deep inside the lungs, it seems to be no worse than regular seasonal flu.

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22 September 2009

1000 Days

I thought I had two more days, but I just checked my calendar. I've had 1000 straight days of practice (taiji, yoga, chanting, meditation) as of today. I wasn't sure I'd make it 10 when I started, let alone 1000. I really think the practice saved my life. It was a minor but useful thing that I could do even in the depths of depression and feel a sense of accomplishment.

There have been times when I did the bare, bare minimum just to check it off as done, but lately I've been expanding the practice. I'm up to 22 minutes of standing meditation now. Cheng Man Ch'ing is supposed to have said that one shouldn't even learn the taiji form until one could make 30 minutes; it strengthens the quads and teaches proper skeletal alignment. I can probably jump up to 24 minutes in the next week or so.

Anyway, this song seems appropriate, though I doubt I'll be around long enough to make it to 1000 years. I suppose it's conceivable, but incredibly unlikely ... unless there really is something to the Taoist elixir of immortality nonsense and I've chosen the correct practice to find said elixir. ^!^

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21 September 2009

Blazing Chapel

My mom's church had a fire on Sunday. It was actually the top story in the Idaho State Journal today, though I haven't found nearly as much coverage online. Here's the sequence of events as I've heard it:

(1) Just as the 11:00 am service was getting out, people heard a fire alarm going off.
(2) The majority of the people left.
(3) Marky, Mike and a few of the ushers went looking around to try and figure out what was up with the alarm. Marky is my mom's secretary.
(4) Marky opened the doors to the small chapel and found the fire. Someone called 911.
(5) Mike attempted to use a fire extinguisher on the flames. Here I have conflicting information. My mom told me yesterday that he got it out ... the news report indicates that the fire department got there just in time to keep the fire spreading to the whole building. I'm thinking that my mom misunderstood.
(6) The fire department arrived, got the fire out, and spent the rest of the day trying to clear the smoke out of the building.

Here's one of the online reports:

POCATELLO, Idaho (AP) - Pocatello fire officials say the chapel of the First United Methodist Church in Pocatello was damaged in a fire started by a ceremonial candle.

Pocatello Battalion Chief Tom Sanford said firefighters were able to quickly knock down the flames, containing the fire to the room.

Sanford said the blaze apparently began when a ceremonial candle fell off a table after the congregation left the building Sunday, the Idaho State Journal reported. A church staffer noticed smoke and called emergency workers about 12:30 p.m.

Sanford said the chapel sustained extensive fire and smoke damage, and the rest of the building had some smoke and water damage. KHQ-Q6

That church uses two kinds of "candles." One is oil-filled with a wick. I'm told that the fire would have been much worse if it had been one of those that fell over while lit. The other is a spring mechanism. There's a white cover, and the candle sits inside on the spring. The spring pushes it up to where it can be lit, and the cover makes it look like a brand new pristine candle forever ... or at least until the spring gives out, the flame slips below and into the case, and no one realizes that the candle has not actually been blown out. Then something happens to knock the candle into a guitar case, and well...

Only one pew was damaged in the fire, as well as one guitar, all the hanging tapestries, a $5000 Kurzweil (electric piano), the altar, and who knows how much carpet, wiring, etc. My mom was making some noise about the cross on the wall not catching fire, which is a bit silly. Yes, the tapestries were just as high off the ground. They also catch much more easily. The cross is solid wood: the flames can't just lick across it to catch it on fire. The pews are also wood, and not that much thicker than the cross, and only one of them burned, despite being on the floor. Oh, there was also a regular piano in there. Despite most of the frame being burnt through, the keys were undamaged and it still plays just fine.

Minor historical note: that was originally the only chapel at that church. At some point, probably before I was born, they built onto the church and added a larger chapel. For the time being, that's going to be their only chapel. To be honest, I never cared much for the small chapel. It always seemed too crowded to me, even when there were very few people in it. I'm sure they're going to rebuild it. I'm not sure I see the point to rebuilding it, but I don't see the point to a lot of things associated with churches.

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20 September 2009


I've just started reading Duhem for Philosophy of Science, and came across a rather beautiful quote (which, strangely, does not seem to be in any quote databases):

Men who have an excessive faith in their theories or in their ideas are not only poorly disposed to make discoveries but they also make very poor observations. They necessarily observe with a preconceived idea and, when they have begun an experiment, they want to see in its results only a confirmation of their theory. Thus they distort observation and often neglect very important facts because they go counter to their goal.

At least, I think the quote is from Duhem himself. It's in quotes in an article written by Duhem (Physical Theory and Experiment), but the only source cited is a book also written by Duhem. * shrugs * Whoever the real author is, I agree with the sentiment. "Excessive faith" might also be described as "attachment." A good scientist must remain detached from any particular result.

ADDENDUM: Google books has the article/chapter in question here. The section we're reading starts at "Section 1" preceding the place the link will go to.

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Via Effect Measure, I came across a piece entitled, "My God Problem." It's an interesting read, and highlights some disparities in public discourse. Compare the two bolded sentences, expressing sentiments from the same person.

Consider the very different treatments accorded two questions presented to Cornell University's "Ask an Astronomer" Web site. To the query, "Do most astronomers believe in God, based on the available evidence?" the astronomer Dave Rothstein replies that, in his opinion, "modern science leaves plenty of room for the existence of God . . . places where people who do believe in God can fit their beliefs in the scientific framework without creating any contradictions." He cites the Big Bang as offering solace to those who want to believe in a Genesis equivalent and the probabilistic realms of quantum mechanics as raising the possibility of "God intervening every time a measurement occurs" before concluding that, ultimately, science can never prove or disprove the existence of a god, and religious belief doesn't—and shouldn't—"have anything to do with scientific reasoning."

How much less velveteen is the response to the reader asking whether astronomers believe in astrology. "No, astronomers do not believe in astrology," snarls Dave Kornreich. "It is considered to be a ludicrous scam. There is no evidence that it works, and plenty of evidence to the contrary." Dr. Kornreich ends his dismissal with the assertion that in science "one does not need a reason not to believe in something." Skepticism is "the default position" and "one requires proof if one is to be convinced of something's existence."

Anyone else see a problem there? To be consistent, he would need to say something like, "In science, the default position is that there is no god. One requires proof if one is to be convinced of something's existence." He could then add some nice platitudes about quantum mechanics and the Big Bang, and say something like "Certain formulations of God are not incompatible with scientific knowledge," but he should still add, "but God as a concept has no place in science." I don't mind that he is a "compatibilist" (to use a recent phrase, almost always used condescendingly, unfortunately), but it bothers me that he bends over backwards to avoid criticizing the idea of god, while he just stomps right down on astrology.

So the question becomes, why is religion (supposedly) entitled to more respect than astrology? As far as truth-values go, I consider astrology and religion equivalent. Both make strange claims about the nature of the universe and how certain things will influence us both now and in the future. The primary difference is that most of astrology's claims are testable, and such tests never come out in its favor when run by people without a stake in the truth of astrology. It would be fair to say that astrology has been falsified. Now, some religions don't make any testable claims, but plenty of them make patently false claims. Shouldn't religions that make patently false claims receive exactly the same amount of respect as astrology, i.e. none?

Even for religions that avoid making testable claims, I would state the accommodation as something like, "If a religion makes no testable claims, science cannot prove or disprove it. Still, skepticism is the default position of science and one requires proof if one is to be convinced of something's existence." To say that scientific reasoning should not play a part in religious thinking is absurd. Of course one should reject a religion that makes false scientific claims.

The question remains, then, why does religion get more respect than astrology? It's not because religion is any more true than astrology. I can think of two potential reasons. (1) Religion is perceived as serving a useful social function. (2) The majority of the public are religious, and scientists have to deal with the tyranny of that majority. I actually think it's a combination of (1) and (2). Whether the "perception" in (1) is true or not isn't something I want to get into just now, but it's a point that I haven't seen brought up much. (2), though, is a problem. It has nothing to do with whether religion deserves respect and everything to do with a mob mentality. There also seems to be more than a touch of moral relativism in the culture, and not just regarding criticisms of religion. Criticizing anything is seen as somehow "wrong" ... except, perhaps, criticizing those who criticize. That's a problem, because some things need to be criticized.

Thus, I don't think respect should be the default position for anything that happens to be labeled "religion." Respect must be earned. Then what should it take for a religion, or even a single church, to earn respect? (1) The first criterion has to be that any institution wanting respect must in turn respect others. Intolerant hatemongers need not apply. (2) The second criterion is that it must not make patently false claims about the world; in particular, such claims must not be part of its dogma. (3) The third is that it should provide one or more genuinely useful social services without making those services contingent on proselytization. That may or may not be a complete list, but it's a good start. Certainly any religion failing to meet (1) and (2) deserves no respect. Likewise, a church that makes its services contingent on conversion deserves no respect. I think an institution meeting (1) and (2) without offering social services deserves simple tolerance, and no more. A church or religion that meets all 3 criteria is deserving of respect.

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19 September 2009


I've just been reminded that it's Talk Like A Pirate Day. This seems an appropriate token of festivity:

I might be more enthused had I not been subjected to ginger tonight. I tried a new meal at Chang's (Szechuan Three Delight, or some such) and realized too late there was ginger in it. I wasn't tired or depressed to begin with, thankfully, so it's just made me mildly tired and a bit maudlin. Tasty dish...but one I should avoid in future.

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17 September 2009

Weird Days

I've got a somewhat bizarre schedule this semester, and it's wreaking havoc with my sense of time. On Monday and Wednesday, I'm on campus for almost 12 hours: 7:30 a.m. to about 7:00 pm. On Tuesday and Thursday, I'm on campus for three hours (not counting taiji). This has led to me thinking of Monday and Tuesday as a single unit that ends Tuesday before noon, and that whole unit becomes "Monday," while "Wednesday" starts then and goes until Thursday before noon, at which point it becomes "Friday." It's a bit surreal, in point of fact, especially when it's still technically Wednesday and I keep thinking that "tomorrow" is Friday.

D&D has contributed a bit to this, at least when it's on Monday night. I drink yerba maté so that I have enough energy to play as a non-zombie, and while it's not strong enough to keep me from sleeping, it doesn't fully wear off until noon of the next day. This contributes to the feel of Monday through Tuesday noon being a single unit. Not much I can do about it except remind myself every so often what the actual day of the week is. *shrugs*

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14 September 2009

Lucky Diplomat

Okay, our party is currently split, and all in the Labyrinth. Dovra and Heian are together, as are Alanar, Shenron, and Horgta. If we were all together, the encounters would be easily doable. As is, Heian and I are at a disadvantage, as we have no one with us good for taking the hits. So Dovra's been talking to the goblins, and is very pleased she took the language feat when she leveled up so that she actually speaks Goblin.

Despite having only +5 to Diplomacy, she talked their way out of an encounter with two goblins and a bunch of little things being herded by the goblins, and even got some information from the goblins by rolling a natural 20. Then they ran into another goblin with two flaming bats and...two something elses. She rolled an 18 for diplomacy twice in a row, and got them out by trading away some food rations. No XP, but also no dead characters.

Oh yes. Dovra's opening lines.

(1) "Boy, are we glad to see you guys!"
(2) "Hi, how are you doing?"

I swear, she sounds like Jack Burton, only she doesn't have a machine gun with her to just blast them, which would have been handy tonight, actually.

We made minor progress on the labyrinth, finding out that the doors are numbered. We don't know yet if the numbering is consistent from room to room, though.

And now, I have things to grade.

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13 September 2009

More Pirates?

Well, the proposed fourth installment of Pirates of the Caribbean now has a name: On Stranger Tides. There's a Tim Powers book of the same name that involves pirates, so it's possible the story will have some connection, but it's also possible that they just liked the name.

It's not even in production yet, so anything can change, but it looks like Knightly (Elizabeth) and Bloom (Will) won't be returning. As their story is rather settled for the 10 years after World's End, that shouldn't cause significant story issues, though their characters will be missed. So far, it looks like the returning characters are planning to go with the hunt for the Fountain of Youth, as implied at the end of World's End. Taken on face-value, that sounds rather boring, but given what they've pulled off in the other three installments, I'm sure they'll find a way to make it bizarrely interesting. I just hope they find some more balancing characters to fill the gap left by Will and Elizabeth. Oh, and that they don't try to bring back the "same" characters played by different actors.

Speculation: We can probably count on undead monsters of some sort either guarding the Fountain of Youth or something needed to find the Fountain. Since they went over the edge of the world in the third film, I'm sure they'll try to find some metaphysical theme to match or top that. If they actually find the Fountain, it will probably be cursed. Assuming Bloom does not return, I would probably include a one-off scene where they see the Flying Dutchman (but not its captain). Not sure what else. Since the theme of World's End was that the world was becoming "smaller," and maybe too small for pirates, it's hard to say where they'll go overall.

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12 September 2009

Imre Lakatos

Our next reading for Philosophy of Science comes from Imre Lakatos. This reading made a lot more sense to me than any of Kuhn's stuff. As it turns out, Kuhn argues strenuously that his theory of science is not a stepstone to post-modernism, but most people who look at it think it makes even less sense taken that way.

This article compares Kuhn, Lakatos, and Laudan (whom we haven't read yet). Wikipedia has a decent summary of Lakatos's ideas:

The scientists involved in a programme will attempt to shield the theoretical core from falsification attempts behind a protective belt of auxiliary hypotheses. Whereas Popper was generally regarded as disparaging such measures as 'ad hoc', Lakatos wanted to show that adjusting and developing a protective belt is not necessarily a bad thing for a research programme. Instead of asking whether a hypothesis is true or false, Lakatos wanted us to ask whether one research programme is better than another, so that there is a rational basis for preferring it. He showed that in some cases one research programme can be described as progressive while its rivals are degenerating. A progressive research programme is marked by its growth, along with the discovery of stunning novel facts, development of new experimental techniques, more precise predictions, etc. A degenerating research program is marked by lack of growth, or growth of the protective belt that does not lead to novel facts.

As the comparative article points out, not all of Lakatos's criteria are well-defined, yet I found myself nodding agreement through our reading from Lakatos, so I think he's onto something even if it needs to be fleshed out more. The problem with strict Popperianism is that, given a refutation, scientists usually don't throw out the overarching theory, but instead try to adjust it. Popper seems to say that such adjustments are always ad hoc and to be avoided. Lakatos says that if such adjustments lead to novel predictions independent of the monkey wrench that induced them, then there's no problem with them. For instance, variations in the observed orbit of planets resulted in the hypothesis that there was another large planet in the solar system. The result? Neptune's existence was predicted, and it was later found. That didn't work so well with Mercury's orbit, though a similar tack was tried.

The question for a strict Popperian is why, when it failed to find an explanation for Mercury's orbit, was Newtonian gravity not abandoned. Lakatos has a partial answer: an overarching theory won't be abandoned unless a rational alternative exists. Thus Mercury became an "unsolved problem" until Einstein's modified theory of gravity came to the fore. Still, note that Einsteinian gravity theory has not really replaced Newtonian gravity theory. In most frames of reference, Newton's methods give accurate enough results. When more precision is needed, or in cases where relativistic effects become significant, then Einstein's version is used.

I may have more to say about Lakatos later, but I found that he's also contributed quite a bit to the Philosophy of Mathematics. Non-Deductive Methods in Mathematics gives a taste of his work there.

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11 September 2009

Status Report

The cold seems to be 99.9% gone now.

We killed the cavern chokers, and Heian eventually found their stash of loot ... while Dovra attacked walls with thunder randomly, once learning that a particular section was ten feet thick, and once dazing herself. Strangely, thunder isn't good to use against walls in very small, narrow tunnels. The rest of the party wandered off into the labyrinth, and managed to defeat 4 "wolfogryphs" (part wolf, part eagle), a giant ant, and two bloodrat-spiderswarms. No luck solving the labyrinth yet, but Dovra will head in there next time we meet. She's a bit irritated at the moment.

I gave the same test to two classes this morning. In the 8:00 am class, I had 10 or so students still hanging on as the class ended, and very very few who left early. I figured that meant I had made the test a wee bit too long. In the 11:00 am class, I only had 3 students still there at time, and only 2 kept working for the five minutes before I felt like I had to let the next class into the room. That's a reasonable number; 10 is not. I don't know if the 8:00 am students were less awake and thus slower, or if the 11:00 am students were just more interested in lunch and thus ready to give up more quickly. I'll have to consider grades very carefully on these.

In the Math 108 center, today was the first quiz deadline, so I figured we'd have a steady stream of business. We didn't. We never had more than 5 students in there at once, and for most of the time, it was just one student at a time. Usually in the fall, everyone's a bit panicked and coming in for last minute help, particularly on the very first quiz. I'm not sure why this semester is different.

In other news, apparently our misbegotten president, aka Frank Burns, has been quoted as saying he wants to turn ISU into "the MIT" of the something-west. This is a bit like saying you want to turn your rickety old garage into the Taj Mahal. The translation of the statement is that he wants ISU to become a top-notch research institution. To do that, apparently, lots of graduate students are required, and qualified instructors are an unnecessary luxury. It's worth noticing that he waited until after his 3-year contract had been renewed to start axing people randomly. The current thinking is that he's trying to pad his resume to get himself a cushy job somewhere far away from here when those three years are up. I want to see him crash and burn for this. ISU has been primarily an education institution. I don't object to increasing its research capabilities, but I do object to doing so at the expense of basic education. Also, Burns has overlooked one rather important detail: you also need faculty to, ya know, teach and supervise the grad students. Maybe he thinks that grad students just show up and create research with no guidance. Who knows at this point.

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08 September 2009

Dexter, Season 3

Well, one nice thing about being sick over the weekend, I didn't feel like moving much, so I've now made it through all 12 episodes of Dexter's third season. I found several comments from people saying they didn't like Season 3 as well as the first two. I liked it at least as well as Season 1, and probably a bit more than Season 2. I just got sick of Lilah in Season 2, but I have to admit that the end-drama with Doakes was very well done. Warning: There are a few spoilers below the fold.

Season 3 finds Dexter and Rita with a baby on the way,while Dexter struggles with a botched kill which eventually leads him to a questionable partnership. I do notice a continuation of a theme here. In Season 1, at the very end he finds someone who can relate to him (almost) perfectly ... and has to kill him. In Season 2, he finds someone who can accept his darkness unseen, and still accepts him after it is seen, but he has to kill her. In Season 3, he finds someone who could be an equal partner in his darkness, and, well, ... Each time, the relationship is developed a bit more, but the theme is that Dexter is unique in his ability to maintain an ethical code around his darkness. Everyone else just gets consumed by the darkness.

There were a lot of awesome moments in S3, but one favorite is just before the wedding. Debra is wearing a dress for the first time ever on the show, and says, "I feel like a transvestite." Since that's about how I feel in a dress, I loved that. I also loved when Debra was desperately hunting through the case files for a clue to their latest serial killer, and was there all night. She found something and was trying to explain to her fellow cops. She sounded exactly like me when I've had too little sleep, too much caffeine, and cold medicine on top of it. When asked how much caffeine she'd had, she said something like "a mothertruckload" while sort of bouncing and pacing. She probably used a more vulgar term than that, but I found it amusing anyway.

One thing that is missing compared to the previous two seasons is that Dexter never seems to be in any genuine danger of being exposed, which cuts the drama factor down a bit, and that may be why some people didn't like Season 3 as well.

I've seen bits of the first ep of Season 4. My speculation is that this new Trinity killer will go after Rita or Debra towards the end of the season, and I would guess Rita just based on the tiny glimpse I've had of his M.O., and because Debra's been targeted directly already in Season 1. I have nothing to support this other than a gut feeling and the fact that it would add a lot of dramatic tension. The question would be whether Dexter could rescue Rita without exposing his Shadow Self to her. Pure speculation. Hmmm... anyone want to place bets? ~/^

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07 September 2009

Russell v. Strawson

For philosophy of language, we've read Bertrand Russell's On Denoting, and Strawson's response, On Referring. I wanted to lay down a few thoughts here before I read Russell's response to Strawson.

For the first half of Strawson's article, he seems to be making reasonable points. But then we get to this example:

Let me now take an example of the uniquely referring use of an
expression not of the form, "the so-and-so ". Suppose I advance
my hands, cautiously cupped, towards someone, saying, as I do so,
" This is a fine red one ". He, looking into my hands and seeing
nothing there, may say : "What is ? What are you talking
about ? " Or perhaps, " But there's nothing in your hands ".
Of course it would be absurd to say that in saying " But you've
got nothing in your hands ",he was denying or contradicting what
I said.

My response? Of course I would be contradicting the speaker if I said "But there's nothing there." It doesn't matter if it was in pretense or not. If I take the speaker seriously, and say there's nothing there, I at least believe that I am contradicting an assertion. The article was pretty much downhill from there.

I think that Strawson is trying to make an argument for how we use language, and tie that to its meaning, while Russell is interested in the meaning itself, independent of usage. Strawson wants to take context into account; Russell wants to explicate the context using quantifiers. Strawson somehow tries to argue that the context itself is not part of the meaning of the sentence, even though he is rather adamant that we use the context to determine the meaning. Russell seems to think that if it is required to determine the meaning, then the context itself is part of the meaning, and, again, must be explicitly included.

I tend to side with Russell. One more example from Strawson and then I'll go see what Russell has to say about him. Strawson argues that these two statements are completely equivalent: "Napoleon was the man who ordered the execution of the
Duc D'Enghien." & "Napoleon ordered the execution of the Duc D'Enghien." Nonsense. Even if I accept the premise that only a human can order an execution (which I do not), the first sentence indicates the gender of Napoleon and makes it explicit that Napoleon refers to one person rather than to a group of people. No. Those are not completely equivalent. If we already knew who Napoleon was, we could use them interchangeably, but only because we already knew that Napoleon was one, and only one, man.

Take a less familiar name. (A) "Trimnald ordered all handkerchiefs to be burned." Is Trimnald a man? A woman? An organization? An alien invader? (B) "Trimnald was the (x) who ordered all handkerchiefs to be burned." Now we know that Trimnald was an x. That sentence gives extra information. To suggest otherwise is absurd. Strawson might argue that in the context where A is written, it is clear what Trimnald is, but that would be the meaning of A plus its context, which would need to be explicitly given.

One of my earlier lessons in writing math proofs was to indicate where everything comes from. So if I want to use x, I can't just insert x and go from there. I have to explicate it as something like "Let x be any real number," or "Let x be any positive integer," or even, "Consider the irrational number x." If I want a decent proof, I cannot allow any of that to be inferred from context alone. If we want the meaning of language to be clear, we must be equally careful not to assume context when it's not actually given.

Okay, going to read Russell's response now.

POST-READING: Mr. Strawson On Referring. First, wow. This is a 5 page article, much shorter than either of the previous ones. It's a bit like a roast, actually, in that Russell, while using the most scholarly of language, manages to call Strawson a dishonest idiot, without ever using those exact words. And I meant to bring up that Strawson analyzes "The King of France is wise," while Russell's example said, "The present King of France is bald," which is a different beast altogether, especially, as Russel points out, if you specify the year.

The terminology is different than I used in my analysis, but I think when Russell mentions "egocentricity," he is referring to what I called "use," and when he refers to "descriptions," that is what I called "meaning." Russell says that, fine, he didn't deal with egocentricity in Denoting, but he did in plenty of other places, and shouldn't Mr. Strawson have read them before going off the deep end? Likewise, Russell would like more precision in language when it is used in philosophy than when it is used in everyday life, just as every other discipline has its own unique jargon.

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The Volt

Plug-in hybrids are a new class of car. You can't really describe their efficiency compared to a conventional gasoline-powered car using a single familiar figure. You could present energy efficiency in terms of a unit like "distance per kilojoule", but most people won't have a clue of what that means. The honest way to describe it is to say "Up to 40 miles without consuming gas, and then 50 miles per gallon". That's not so horribly difficult, now is it?

~MarkCC at Good Math, Bad Math

If and when Jean Luc gives out, I would strongly consider getting a hybrid. My current favorite pick is the Prius, but if the Volt or something like it were at a similar price, I'd certainly take a look. Last I heard, the Volt was going to be $40,000+, which is a wee bit out of my reach. Either way, it's nice to have accurate info on it. I wonder how much this little gem would up your home electricity bill...

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05 September 2009

Bizarre Cold

I was feeling all right on Thursday morning, but, when I glanced in the mirror, I looked awful: sunken eyes with dark circles. That afternoon, a dizzy spell hit me. It felt like the kind I get when I've overindulged in caffeine and the withdrawal starts to set in, so I expected it to pass. It did, but then morphed into a sort of cold. I say 'sort of' because there's almost no sinus drainage. There's a mild headache, a mild fever, and fatigue. The really weird thing is that my breathing is just fine. Usually that gets considerably worse when I've got a cold.

So I stayed home from taiji today, not wanting to infect my classmates or teacher, and ventured out once to see if Wal-Mart had Dexter, Season 3. They did, and at a cheaper price than Amazon. It was money well spent, and I'm about halfway through the season now. Still, that was about all the wandering I wanted to do today: on the way back to the car, my body let me know that little amount of walking around had overstressed it.

I'm wondering if this is the same cold that Melissa had earlier in the semester. In her case, it first manifested as a migraine, and it took her a while to realize it was actually a cold. So, inappropriately generalizing from a sample of two, perhaps this cold enhances some existing painful tendency as it begins, before settling down into a monotony of tiredness.

It seems to be better tonight, as I made it through 20 minutes of standing meditation with only a tiny bit more 'heat' than usual. Maybe tomorrow it will break and I can get back to a semi-normal routine. The problem is that I was feeling pretty well most of Friday ... pretty much until my blood sugar dropped too far for too long. That's classic for me and colds. So we shall see if this respite is in fact a sign of recovery.

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04 September 2009

Idiotic Bureaucracy

Okay, the title is redundant. Sue me. I found someone else in the math department who got the "terminal" letter this summer. I won't use names since I have no idea how anonymous he wants to be, but he had a chance to talk to Fisher about it, and there are three of us total. Neither of us knows who the third is. Now, losing 3 full-time lecturers currently means that they will be short by 15 classes next fall, so they need 15 more graduate students. The graduate student offices are full, and even if they convert the three presumably vacant offices, that still only houses 6 of them. Now, if they'd put sensibly sized desks in the offices, they might get three to an office, but with the monstrosities currently in there, there's no bloody way.

There's another issue, however: to attract and keep that many graduate students, they would need to build up the department; i.e. hire more tenured faculty to teach said grad students. Whatever their excuses, the administration is not going to save money under this scheme. All they're going to do is alienate every department on campus. That might actually be good for those of us "terminated" under this one, though I'm honestly still thinking it's time to do something else, so I may go back to grad school regardless.

ADDENDUM: Oh, yes. I have declared this the Frank Burns administration, for obvious reasons. Whenever Frank Burns was put in charge of M*A*S*H 4077, he implemented bizarre policies that made no sense. A few random examples: decided to move the camp across the road one day, and move it back the next day; declared the camp 'dry' ... this lasted until his policies backfired and he gulped down a drink; not while he was in charge, but he once spent an entire afternoon getting the condiments in the mess tent perfectly lined up and in order by height and popularity; the list goes on. The more I hear about what this administration is doing, the more it reminds me of Frank Burns. Thus I hereby name the President and all his Compatriots 'Frank Burns' for the duration.

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03 September 2009

Sleep Paralysis, Again

I was thinking that this was take two, but hunting through my 'dreams' tag posts, there was one other instance of sleep paralysis that I'd forgotten. Anyway, this dream started off perfectly happily. I was sitting on the floor of my grandma's old house watching Mythbusters while my mom puttered around in the kitchen. I remember hoping that she was going to cook sausage the way that Grandma used to.

There was a running gag through the Mythbuster's episode, where someone kept trying to kill the narrator. This would be illustrated by cartoons or sound effects. The only one I remember in detail had the camera focused on the interior of a boat. As the narrator spoke, the screen slowly started filling up with blue-tint, and cartoon fish started swimming by. When the screen was mostly full, the narrator made gasping noises like he was drowning, but then it drained again, and everything was okay.

Mom came in and shook her head, complaining about the number of explosions in the episode. I frowned and told her this one had been pretty tame that way. I was standing up at this point, and turned back to face the tv again.


Next I found myself on the boat that had been in the Mythbusters scene. It was careening all over the place, spinning around in the water, etc, and I grabbed the steering wheel, trying to right it. I couldn't get the steering wheel to budge. The boat was about to crash into something, maybe a bridge pylon, and I tried even harder to turn it. It did turn this time, but, well, momentum kept it moving towards the pylon. I braced myself for the crash, but just as it hit...


I found myself in my bed in my room. At first I thought I'd woken up, but Sawyer from Lost appeared for a moment, then disappeared again, so I decided I was still dreaming. I realized I couldn't move, and I wondered if I was having another bout of sleep paralysis. As soon as I wondered that, something dragged me off of the bed, whirled me around, and flipped me back and forth, as if warning me that it could have dashed my head against the floor. I tried to call for help, but no sound came out. I was whipped around some more by the unseen force, but I finally managed to make a sound. It was nothing more than a wordless yell, but it broke the paralysis and woke me up.

After waking up, I realized I was still feeling dizzy. I think maybe that's why I kept dreaming about being lurched around: that's how my head felt anyway.

Sleep Paralysis II
Sleep Paralysis I

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