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Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Desperate Need to Complain

There are many things that can be said about Lima that are not particularly pleasant (intense air pollution, gross humidity, large amounts of litter and garbage, and so on), but one thing that is surprisingly pleasant (especially for the climate) is an odd lack of insects. It would now seem that this is due to the startling amounts of pollution, since we left the city for the day and went to a nearby town along one of the rivers flowing toward Lima. In this town there were plenty of bugs, including some sort of weird sand fly that is far worse than mosquitoes (at least the typically disease-free ones of my home town in BC. Granted I will admit that malaria or West Nile carrying mosquitoes would be worse). However, on a physical bite-bite comparison, these little critters are worse. Where mosquitoes just make little bumps, these guys take out chunks of skin (I'm not sure how they manage it, because they are really tiny). This leaves a small circular open wound, but they also must inject a similar anesthetic and anti-coagulating agent to mosquitoes because the area surrounding the wound gets all red and itchy. Scratching the incredibly itchy bites, however, leads to itchy, painful, and bleeding bites because they are already open wounds. Anyway, there wasn't much of a point to this post, other than to point out that my legs are unpleasantly itchy and sore this morning, and I'm not a fan.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

"Gonna live it up down old South America way"

I just wanted to say that I am leaving my apartment tonight to spend the holidays in Peru with my family (it's complicated). I don't know what sort of internet access I will have or what sort of time I will have to spend on my blog, so there might not be a whole lot going on here for the next two weeks.

Also, just for giggles, I am going to start a blog contest and we'll see how it goes. When fitting, I will title posts using a quotation from something (denoted by quotation marks, just so people know a title is part of the contest. This is the second such post, the first being "That's why I never kiss 'em on the mouth"). We will be using the honour system (no Googling the answer!), but whoever can tell me where the quotation is from (if it is a television show or movie, the character saying it and the context would be nice, if it is a song, just the band and song title is fine). There really isn't a prize (other than pride), but hopefully it will still be fun.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Righteous Anger (or just bafflement)

I think virtually all people these days with access to the internet know of Wikipedia. Most people are also at least vaguely aware of the multitude of other wiki-style 'pedias' that have developed, including, for example, Wookieepedia for all things Star Wars. There is one such online encyclopedia, however, that is not as innocuously harmless (nor as cleverly named), and that is Conservapedia. My friend, Wisefly requested that I do a blog post discussing Conservapedia, as he decided my blog had healthy levels of liberal bias and social commentary that he didn't want to inject into his blog. As I am always flattered to get requests, I of course have decided to oblige.

To start off with, I think it is kind of ridiculous that the start of Conservapedia came about due to a student of its founder, Andrew Schlafly, using the Common Era style of dating (BCE and CE instead of BC and AD) after having seen it on Wikipedia. It is worth noting that the Common Era method of dating is identical to the Anno Domini method aside from the abbreviation used, so, while it is understandably a silly thing, is hardly anti-anything. Schlafly, however, took this to be evidence of the "liberal, anti-Christian, and anti-American bias" of Wikipedia and decided that something had to be done about it (in other words, create his own pocket of the internet where his own version of reality could reign supreme).

I have been unable to find an original source for this quotation, but I think it sums things up nicely: "Reality has a liberal bias." I mean, Wikipedia is not a political organization. It is an organization ostensibly based solely on verifiable fact, and makes every effort possible to remove bias of any sort. While it is impossible to remove all bias from writing, especially about controversial subjects, living persons, and competing entities, there is a strong effort to do so. I certainly don't troll the pages of Wikipedia looking for ideological confirmation of my deep-seated belief structure. That is not the point of an encyclopedia. To see the intense divorcement from reality that Conservapedia endures, one simply has to look at a couple articles. One particularly telling one is the Conservapedia article on Barack Obama. Within the first sentence, they use the word allegedly about his birth place and date (no doubt a shout-out to the crazies who insist that Barack Obama is not American and thus cannot be President). It then goes on to claim that Obama is an apparent Muslim (from whence did this become apparent?) who could use the Koran to be sworn into office. There is a reference, but if one decides to actually check what the reference is, not only is it from the Christian Science Monitor, it isn't even about Barack Obama. Instead, it is an outraged story about a congressman who actually is a Muslim wanting to use a Koran when taking his oath of office. I tried to read the rest of the article, but simply couldn't make it through (although the assertioan that Obama uses mind control was pretty hilarious).

It is unfortunate that people rarely follow references, because Conservapedia has a habit of giving references that are only tangentially related or directly contradictory to the statement they are making. For example, the article on PZ Myers used to state "In January 2008, Myers participated in a debate with Discovery Institute fellow Geoffrey Simmons on KMMS. He was unable to counter criticisms of the fossil record, in particular the absence of transitional forms in the whale fossil record. Geoffrey was invited back for an hour long talk the next week. PZ Myers now refuses to debate creation scientists." The reference given, however, was for a Youtube video hilariously (and accurately) titled, "PZ Myers destroys Geoffrey Simmons" (or something to that effect, the verb used may have been 'crushed' but unfortunately the video is no longer available). I am actually marginally impressed that Conservapedia has been somewhat mollified and now only states the first sentence.

Anyway, I could keep going, but it seems rather futile. Conservapedia is an insane mockery of an encyclopedia, divorced from reality and full of its own self-satisfied importance. It can be handy for a chuckle, though, and if you ever just need to shake your head in bafflement, peruse an article on Conservapedia. The most blood-boiling ones tend to be about either evolution or politics.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Century of Posts

This is my one hundredth published post, so I thought I would commemorate the occasion by talking about why one hundred is such a special number. The specialness of 100 is primarily rooted in our 10-based numerical system. Basically, 100 is nice because it is a large, uncomplicated number but not unmanageably large. It is also 10 x 10, making it a perfect square. However, we are so used to thinking in base-10 that we forget how much it colours our thinking of numbers. I suppose, to be entirely responsible, I should start with a description of what a base-n system of numbers is.

Any number which we can write as a decimal can be written as an additive sequence. I briefly covered this in my post on the Cantor Set, but I will repeat myself here to refresh your memories (also, please note that I will now use * for multiplication rather than x, simply because it is what I more used to writing on the computer). For example, the number 15.34 = 1*101 + 5*100 + 3*10-1 + 4*10-2. The base of your system is whatever number is being raised to the exponent in the expanded representation of the number. There are some other base systems that receive widespread use, the most famous and popular being the binary system (base-2). When looking at the Cantor Set, we used the ternary system (base-3), and in many computer science problems it is useful to use base-8 or base-16 (base-16 gets somewhat awkward to use since we need additional symbols beyond 0-9 to represent values up to 15. The letters A-F substitute in an unpleasant mixture of letters and numbers, which is why, despite my fondness for the number 16, I resent base-16 (also called hexadecimal)). Those, of course, are not the only possible systems, since one could potentially choose any base.

If we did not use base-10, then, 100 would cease to be such an exciting number. While it would still have the property of being a perfect square, it would no longer be any more special than 36 or 49 (though I think I would still like it more than 49 since it is even, and I have an irrational dislike of odd numbers). There would be other ramifications, however. 5 would no longer be as special as it is, since it would no longer be half of the base. If we used a base-6 system, 3 would take on many of the nice properties of 5, becoming even more popular than it already is, and 5 would be relegated to the awkward position of 7 or 11 as an ungainly prime number. The reason the properties of numbers change based on the system one is working with is because of the tricks you learn to do mental math. If you are not working in a base-10 system, then multiplying by 10 no longer simply shifts things one position over and adds a zero. Instead, whatever the base of your system now does that. The entire numerical field in one's head must twist and contort to fit the new system.

The funny thing is, I have a really hard time picturing any of these ramifications, because my mind automatically works hard at translating things back into decimal. It is one of the reasons I find the binary system nicer to work with than the ternary system, since it is easier to mentally translate binary to decimal and thereby visualize what I am working with. Numbers have their properties in my head based on the decimal system, much like words have their meanings rooted very strongly in English. I might know some German words, but they are more like code words in which I have memorized their English translation rather than additional words with subtle connotations in their own right. Likewise, German grammar is an artificial system of rules that I must impose upon the sentences which I compose in my head in English. My Russian is much better, in that there are things I can successfully 'think in Russian' about, and I suppose that might happen if I were to exclusively operate in another numerical base for a while. I can even see that starting to happen with the ternary system and the Cantor Set, because I am perfectly happy to do the majority of my Cantor Set thinking in ternary. It just makes relating that to other areas of mathematics somewhat burdensome, because then I am stuck trying to mentally translate the entirely unwieldy ternary system to decimal.

Anyway, this isn't exactly the post I had envisioned to commemorate my 100th blog post, but I hope my meandering ramblings about numbers were at least vaguely interesting. The main point I was trying to make was that the appreciation for 100 that exists is mainly based on our convention of using a base-10 system rather than anything else, yet the fact that the decimal properties of numbers are a convention goes largely unacknowledged.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A quick note of annoyance

I was just trying to watch the December 10th episode of The Daily Show with John Stewart in which he apparently turns his keen political commentary to Canadian politics. It is currently loading, but when watching from the Comedy Network's website, you get advertisements first. The one that showed up for me was an annoying Intel commercial which I have seen before, but it strikes me as even worse each time I see it. It has a young person standing there holding a chip, which apparently "uses less energy and saves my battery". The person then goes on to proudly declare he or she doesn't know how it works, but it's great. Stop and think about that a moment... what do batteries provide? The energy to run your device. Now if a chip uses less energy, what do you think that is going to do for the battery life of your device? It isn't an "and it does this" situation at all... the person is just saying the same thing twice, and then sounding even more ignorant by happily stating they do not care how it works, it's just nice to have such new-fangled technology.

I know it is just a commercial, so maybe I'm being overly rankled, but oh well. That is part of what blogs are for.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Political Science Review: Hobbes

This will probably be my last post in the Political Science Review series. While we also read Locke, I ended up not getting past his early stuff. While it was interesting, particularly in relation to Aristotle's opening as they both discussed the role and organization of the family, I am not sure I remember enough of it to really do it justice. So, if you are interested in Locke you'll just have to read his stuff yourself, and I will end my sojourn into political science with a review of Hobbes' Leviathan.

Hobbes was an interesting thinker. While Leviathan is a rather difficult text to slog through (mostly owing to it being written in English used several centuries ago), his ideas and thinking quite impressed me all the way to chapter 19, at which point it seemed to all fall apart. Not to get ahead of myself, though, let me start at the beginning. Hobbes begins by discussing the nature of man, going so far as to look briefly at sensory perceptions and how a person knows what he knows. While his neuroscience is stifled a little by 17th century science, some of his basic ideas are interesting and, taken together, form a coherent, logical context for his later political analysis. He paints a rather dismal picture of mankind, though, in many ways accepting a similar view to Machiavelli on the nature of man as violently selfish and greedy. The main difference between Hobbes and Machiavelli, though, is Machiavelli stressed greed and desire for glory as the primary drives of men, while Hobbes emphasized fear (specifically of a violent death).

Given that Hobbes was a much more careful, academic, and theoretical thinker than Machiavelli, where Machiavelli dove straight into political discourse on realistic situations, Hobbes carefully defines his terms and thoughts about human nature. Probably the most important one Hobbes outlines is his definition of the state of nature, or state of war (they are the same thing for Hobbes) in which there is no government. This is essentially anarchy and, according to Hobbes, is an absolutely horrible, terrible state where people butcher each other and steal without qualms. He says, for example, than in the absence of a political authority, "every man is enemy to every man..." (13.9). Though Hobbes admits that there are other driving forces in the quarrels of men and the reasons they agree to live in peace, he emphasizes fear as the greatest of them all.

What is rather interesting about Hobbes' analysis, though, is he abandons the common normative views on morality and instead defines them in a rigid and clear manner. This has huge ramifications for his later thought, particularly justice, which he defines as, "injustice is no other than the not performance of covenant. And whatsoever is not unjust, is just" (15.2). Importantly, though, Hobbes makes the caveat that if either party has legitimate fear that the other party will not follow through with their part of the covenant, that nullifies said agreement. Thus, "before the names of just and unjust can have place, there must be some coercive power to compel men equally to the performance of their covenants, by the terror of some punishment greater than the benefit they expect by the breach of their covenant... such power there is none before the erection of a commonwealth" (15.3). Hobbes therefore places fear as the root of the political power of a state, as it must enforce the political agreement undertaken by its citizens through fear of what it means to breach that agreement. Since he also points out that without some form of state there can be no outside coercive force, he subtly hints at what he later makes more explicit: there is no legitimacy for personal morality, but rather what the state dictates takes precedence. The explicit statement of such totalitarian thought comes much later, however, so at this point (chapter 15) I didn't notice the dictatorial undertones and was still rather impressed.

Taking the idea that the agreements which allow for civilized life cannot exist without a central government to enforce them, Hobbes begins to discuss how such a government should appear. It is at this point, in my opinion, that his analysis veers off the course or rationality and into the realm of 'where the hell did this come from?', if you will excuse my break in style. For, while Machiavelli made the, in my opinion true, statement "there is no doubt the public interest is never a guiding principle except in republics", Hobbes states (seemingly completely out of nowhere and not at all supported by reality), "in monarchy the private interest is the same with public" (Discourses pg. 166, 19.4). Hobbes even seems to contradict himself at several points very shortly after, first when he explains that any successful state institution must be essentially immortal or it would fall and need to be rebuilt with each generation, thereby returning its citizens to the horrors of anarchy in each interim. This requirement, as Hobbes aptly points out, means that such an institution must be designed without taking into account the natures of the men occupying it, something which a monarchy clearly fails to do. Likewise, as Hobbes even admits, a monarchy has an extremely high risk of failure at the death of each monarch.

Despite the drawbacks of a monarchy, however, Hobbes continues to argue in favour of one, with his specific description growing increasingly despotic. His main reason seems to be that, within the monarch's lifetime, a state run by a single powerful individual is the least open to civil strife and internal division, thereby minimizing the chance of a catastrophic meltdown into anarchy and civil war. Hobbes spends several chapters addressing (in my mind, inadequately) some of the drawbacks of a monarchy, particularly in the dangers of the monarch blatantly trampling on what we in our modern political outlook would recognize as the civil rights of the state's citizens, particularly in the case of their property rights. Recognizing that not all subjects can be expected to understand that revolt against the government will lead to anarchy which, no matter how terrible the government is, will be much worse, Hobbes states "the grounds of [the monarch's] rights... need to be diligently and truly taught..." (30.4). This struck me as an exceedingly weak argument in which Hobbes ensnared himself in his own rhetorical trap. If anarchy is such a terrible state that any government, no matter how bad, is better and proper education of that fact can make such a government stable through the citizens' fear of anarchy, then this could be used for any government and all the hoops Hobbes jumped through earlier to explain why a monarchy was the best form of government for its stability comes to naught. Education can make any government stable by playing upon the fears of its populace, which leaves the only reason for a monarchy being Hobbes' empty statement that a monarch has his interests aligned with those of the people.

Thus, I found myself unfortunately dissatisfied with Hobbes' political analysis towards the end of his text. I still think the first eighteen chapters were well developed, however, and it was especially interesting to read his thoughts on the fundamental nature of why a government needed to exist. Though I disagree with the initial theological underpinnings of the beginning of Locke's work, I think once he finishes quoting scripture to beat back the arguments of some contemporary of his, he gives a more approachable and, in the end, less flawed portrayal of the nature of government than Hobbes. Locke is also easier to read, being a little more contemporary, but if you have a lot of time to kill, reading Hobbes first will help give some grounding for Locke's work.

Also, this post was a little condensed to make it into an approachable blog post for easy perusal rather than into a daunting block of text which no one would want to read. If you find Hobbesian thought interesting, however, I am somewhat proud of my final essay in the political science course in which I compared Machiavelli and Hobbes on their analysis of the nature of man and how it leads to their formations of what a civil authority should be like. The essay focuses on Hobbes but uses Machiavelli as a backdrop with which to compare (and, since I agree more with Machiavelli's analysis, poke holes). If you want, you can contact me or leave a comment and I can send you my essay (though I will be wildly shocked if anyone takes me up on this offer).

One final note - the references. Except where noted that I was taking quotations from Machiavelli's Discourses, all quotations are given from my version of Leviathan in the format [chapter].[paragraph number].

Monday, December 8, 2008

Study Break Quotations

"If ever there was a case of clearer evidence than this of people acting together, this case is that case." - William Arabin, English judge, 1773-1841

"Not in innocence, and not in Asia, was mankind born." - Robert Ardrey, American dramatist and evolutionist, 1908-80

"The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative on the day after the revolution." - Hannah Arendt, American political philosopher, 1906-75

"It contains a misleading expression, not a lie. It was being economical with the truth." - Robert Armstrong, British civil servant, 1927-

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Coalition Governments

My friend had a very good post about Canadian politics (with some Austrian politics thrown in for comparison). There were some things I wanted to add, however. The hypocrisy of the Conservative party is one thing that drives me nuts about their bleating cries of "foul", as it was only a few years ago that they were considering making the same "deal with the devil" with the Bloc to oust the Liberal government. However, even worse are the comments (mainly of politically illiterate people) that this is undemocratic and not what the people voted for. We are in a representative democracy, so this is within the bounds of our democracy. You don't vote for an entire government, but rather a riding. The winner of each riding goes to parliament, and it is the prerogative of each elected MP to go about forming the government. Usually, there is enough of a victory for a single party to form a government, but that is not the only thing that can happen. I am actually fairly pleased at the prospect of a coalition government, because there are some positive aspects to them that don't seem to be discussed. Coalition governments give voices to issues that might not otherwise be brought up, as it shares power between parties and gives a voice to several party platforms. It also weakens the power of any single party, preventing (or at least reducing) the corruption and arrogant apathy that characterized the Liberal government for several years before they finally fell to the Conservatives.

It is true that more people voted for the Conservatives than for the Liberals or NDP, but not more people than the Liberals, NDP, and Bloc combined. Therefore, there is as much a mandate from the people for a coalition government between the Liberals and NDP with the support of the Bloc as anything else. Of course, it may not be what people had in mind when they voted the constituent MPs for each party into power, but no one cries "undemocratic!" when an MP he voted for turns around and gives support to a law he wouldn't. You can shout that it is wrong and you don't agree, but it is not undemocratic.


Wednesday night was a first for me. I did not sleep at all. I wasn't actually sure I could physically do an all-nighter, given that I have at least a mild case of narcolepsy. While I have certainly gotten very little sleep in the past, this was the first time I worked all night and then went to class without any. It was rather unpleasant and not something I would recommend to anyone.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

More (Arguably) Humorous Procrastination, or a Deep Philosophical Question?

Ah, but who decides which pictures are humorous? Do Lolcats trump LolVader?

Humorous Interlude

Seeing the popularity of my last Sci-Fi oriented post, here is a ridiculous video my girlfriend showed me the other day. I didn't realise people did this sort of thing... The main thing I find confusing about the video is how remarkably good the costumes are. They are almost too good to just be random fan costumes... but I'm not sure even George Lucas would sponsor something this ludicrous.