Weblog of the Three-Toed Sloth

A slow, upside-down view from the trees

Who Would Run the ``Irish Gulag'' but the Magdalen Sisters? (Tue Jan 28 21:21:16 2003)

Just when you thought there was nothing more to be exposed about the Catholic Church, something like this ---something that might've been ripped from The Awful Disclosures ofMaria Monk or other anti-Papist propaganda --- always comes along: tens of thousands of Irish women enslaved in laundries by nuns over more than a century. ``Girls who had become pregnant, even from rape, girls who were illegitimate, or orphaned, or just plain simple-minded, girls who were too pretty and therefore in `moral danger' all ran the risk of being locked up and put to work, without pay, in profit-making, convent laundries, to `wash away their sins.' '' Of course, they would be for-profit. Of course, the Church would refuse to apologize.

Better Willing Through Chemistry, or, More Reasons the Staff of the Washington Times Should Be Squirming in Front of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission Right Now (Mon Jan 27 12:45:21 2003)

Back when I subscribed to magazines like Mother Jones and The Nation, it seemed that every few issues they'd run a piece saying psychiatric drugs were overproscribed so that pharmaceutical companies, aided and abetted by soulless allopathic conventional Western medicine, could profit from turning the common problems of life into treatable disorders. As you can tell, this irritated, for a number of reasons. The most important were matters of temperament and prejudice. Because I would like materialism and mechanism to be true, I like the idea that, even if some of these conditions have up to now been ordinary ills that flesh is heir to, they could be dealt with by fairly simple chemical means --- and dealt with better by subtler chemical interventions. Even more, I am generally inclined to think that soulless allopathic etc. medicine is a Good Thing, and that conditions which respond to physical treatment are real. And the articles themselves always seemed to employ two incompatible reactionary tropes, those of futility (``you can't medicate away unhappiness'') and jeopardy (``medicating away human spotanaeity''). And an awful lot of them seemed to be written by talking-cure shrinks...

In those pieces, Ritalin was always a particular object of scorn, as something used to keep prole-spawn in line. Now, I was (and am) willing to believe that many teachers, school administrators, etc. would like nothing better than to have zombies for students. But saying ADD/ADHD doesn't exist, or that Ritalin doesn't help it, or that it turns boys into something from The Night of the Living Dead, is just absurd, and flies in the face of extensive scientific evidence. An anecdote:

Imagine my surprise to learn, from professional conservative Michael Fumento writing in The New Republic, that most professional conservatives are saying that ADD is yet another liberal P.C. myth, and make lots of the same charges the people on the other side do. The exceptions are those movement conservatives who have ADD kids, or who have actually bothered to learn anything about the subject. Nonetheless, a little digging now turns up a steady stream of right-wing pundits saying ADD is a hoax and Ritalin is ``kiddie cocaine''.

An anecdote might make vivid what acting on those ideas would mean. One of my best friends is an excellent mathematician who is, in writing, incredibly inarticulate --- we joke that he proves the theorems, and then his co-authors translate his papers into English. But by all odds he shouldn't be writing papers at all, since he's dyslexic and as a boy he had severe attention-deficit disorder --- he really could not concentrate at all. Fortunately, he was treated with Ritalin for years on end, which kept the ADD ``down'' enough that he could learn to control his own attention. (In fact, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in his typically-excellent New Yorker piece on Ritalin, this process of medication making it easier to acquire normal self-control is a fairly common outcome. But it wouldn't be Gladwell without at least one far-out speculation, viz., that more teenagers have ADD because fewer of them smoke.) Were it not for the fact that his condition was admitted to exist, looked for, recognized and treated, he'd most likely be a dropout, or in jail. Instead he's a productive member of society, or at least as productive as any expert on high-dimensional dynamical systems theory can be.

One of the sound tenets of conservativism is that one should be most leery of harming actual, concrete human beings in the name of abstractions. But this is precisely what the conservative claim that ADD is a myth would do: ruin the lives of people like my friend, for the sake of abstract principles about ``opposing political correctness''. In the name of enforcing personal responsibility, it would deny those people the modest tools they need to become responsible.

Is it puzzling that people who frequently fuss about threats to the heritage of Western science would make up whatever sounds convenient and repeat each others fabrications, rather than actually consult experimental findings? Not at all; while there are individual conservative activists who are genuinely dedicate to science and reason, the movement as a whole has no use for them, other than claiming to defend them. Making-stuff-up is the charitable description of professional conservativism's mode of argument; often it can only be described as blatant, self-serving lies about crucial subjects. While people who write for, and read, Mother Jones can irritate me, people who write for The American Spectator, and their paymasters, can deny people like my friend the things they need to grow up decently, and can choke us all in sooty filth. Much of the left has, sadly, faded into crankishness; the right is a well-organized band of cruel, dangerous, selfish liars. It's not a hard choice.

Civilization Fell While I Wasn't Looking (Fri Jan 17 19:38:13 2003)

When I was a boy, I read novels (and even, have mercy, play role-playing games) set in post-apocalyptic worlds where an advanced civilization had collapsed, leaving behind fabulously dangerous technological artifacts in the remoter reaches of blasted landscapes. When I grew up a little, I thought those books were silly and juvenile. Now the world has places like this ruined Soviet biowarfare lab, on an island in what used to be the Aral Sea, regularly visited by scavangers on ``two small boats, the last to ply the waters''.

Try It, and Let's See What Happens, or, Great Minds (Fri Jan 17 19:44:27 2003)
Predictive state representations are a way of predicting how a dynamical system will respond to outside inputs, by grouping together input histories which lead to the same distribution of future outputs. This is so damn close to chapter 7 of my dissertation it's not even funny, especially since they can actually get them to work. Clearly worth the trek over to North Campus to talk to this guy. (Found by Kris.)

Great Moments in Afghan Buddhism (Wed Jan 15 21:56:37 2003)

Buddhist manuscripts on 2000 year old strips of birch-bark from Gandhara by way of the British Museum and Seattle. There's a story there, almost all of which nobody will ever know. (Presumably the Brits could say why they picked them up in 1994.)

The Nightmare from Which We Are Trying to Awake (2) (Mon Jan 13 21:50:52 2003)

Capitalism is a one of the great utopian ideals: free exchange, with no coercion, and respct for individual rights and individual property. Consider what it says should happen when one needs to hire people to do a a difficult, dangerous job, such as working a sixteen-hour shift in a factory casting iron pipes from molten metal. The capitalist employer would offer a contract which completely compensated the employee for the disutility of taking such a job. Suppose, for instance, that there is some substantial chance that the employee would get sucked into a piece of machinery and spend three hours screaming for help before anyone could hear him over the cacophony, while the machine sanded off his arm. The employer then offer a benefit so valuable that the employee is indifferent between keeping his arm and getting the benefit. There are many ways to design such a contract, depending on how risk-averse the two parties are, but under capitalism every single one of them is right, provided they both agree to it, and under every single one, employees wouldn't mind getting their arm sanded off in order to have that benefit, even after the fact. From the other side, employers could reduce the amputation benefits they must offer by making their factories safer, and so lowering the probability of amputations. They would spend money on workplace safety, until each extra dollar for safety reduced the benefits they had to offer by just a dollar. Nobody could squeeze out more profits by neglecting the safety of their workers.

In real life, of course, we have companies which make a few billion dollars a year by killing the people who work in their pipe factories (1, 2, 3).

The really appalling thing is that other companies in the same industry are just as profitable, and immensely more decent. McWane isn't being driven to kill people by implacable market forces: they're just too vicious and stupid to make money any other way. Human beings may not be good enough for socialism, but we're not smart enough for capitalism, either.

The Nightmare from Which We Are Trying to Awake (1) (Mon Jan 13 21:03:14 2003)

Vampire rumors are haunting Malawi, though, as one of the rumor-mongers sensibly says, drinking blood sounds like a bad idea in a country with a high incidence of AIDS.

It is of course easy to mock the Malawian vampire panic, and it deserves mockery. But how different is it, really, from our fears about alien abduction or Satanic ritual child abuse? (Well, the Malawians haven't developed elaborate institutions around those fears, but we're an industrial society and they're not: organizing comes as natural to us as littering.)

Update (via Die Puny Humans): They're stoning people suspected of harboring vampires, including politicians.

Image Analogies (Fri Jan 10 21:20:14 2003)

Computing analogies between images. Clever idea: one wants to complete analogies of the form A:A'::B:B', where those are all pictures. The solution is to find a filter, such that A' and B' are filtered versions of A and B. The even neater application is to be able to fill in the blanks: learn the filter from A and A', then find what the analog for B is. (For instance, landscapes in the style of Lucian Freud!) Especially look at the textures-by-numbers examples.

There are vast possibilities for fraud here; also for jokes. Presumably the same approach would work for movies. In fact, you could build an analogical predictor, not just a filter, in this way: train it on pairs of successive frames from a movie, and then apply it to the last frame, to see how the movie continues! (Memo to self: see if you can't work in a reference to this in the new paper on predicting spatiotemporal systems.)

Fuck-You Vehicles (Fri Jan 10 20:15:37 2003)

SUVs are polluting, gas-guzzling monstrosities, unsafe for other people and their own drivers, who ``tend to be people who are insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors.'' But you knew that.

Everything We Act As Though We Knew Is Wrong (Mon Jan 6 2003)

``Teen drug programs turn curious teens into crackheads.''

Being fat is not actually bad for your health.

It's not that we don't, collectively, know what we're talking about, or how to find out about things. It's that we act on a weird mix of moral principles and visceral responses, and then feel compelled to justify them by making shit up, and holding steadily to it in the teeth of evidence to the contrary. In this we are helped by the fact that many of us don't know how to handle evidence --- one of the astonishing things about reading Campos's article about fat is the sheer rarity of studies of the influence of fat on health which control for exercise and fitness, surely an obvious confounding factor. (As someone with a body-mass index well over 25 who walks several miles a day, I find this very comforting.)