Saturday, July 31, 2010

A singular plug

I don't normally do endorsements on Rondam Ramblings, but I'm going to make a rare exception for the Singularity Summit (August 14-15 in San Francisco) which looks like it's going to be a worthwhile event. I was very much hoping to attend myself, but unfortunately they scheduled it on top of another long-standing commitment so I can't go this year. If you register through this link you can get a $150 discount off the normal registration fee.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A rare win for freedom

The EFF has achieved a rare victory for individual liberty by convincing the U.S. copyright office to officially declare that circumventing digital rights management (DRM) is legal under certain circumstances. It is now officially legal to jailbreak your iPhone, circumvent copy protection for fair-use, and make mash-ups on YouTube. Three cheers for the EFF and the Library of Congress.

Anyone want to take bets how long it will take Apple, the RIAA and the MPAA to launch their PR campaign against this decision? Or to appeal the decision in court? Or to win that appeal? The cynic in me gives it two years. So enjoy your freedom while it lasts.

[UPDATE] Ars Technica has a very good and detailed analysis of the decision.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

These Chinese spammers are getting pretty annoying

Lately everything I post collects at least one piece of Chinese comment spam. I've been manually deleting them, but I don't know how much longer I can keep that up. (I'll leave them on this post if they appear to illustrate the problem.) I already have every comment-spam-prevention measure available on Blogger enabled short of shutting down comments altogether. I'm not sure what I'm going to do if the problem persists. Suggestions welcome. Surely I'm not the only one having this problem?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Why can't we all just get along? Because the laws of physics forbid it.

The Boston Globe recently published an interesting story about how facts backfire:

It’s one of the great assumptions underlying modern democracy that an informed citizenry is preferable to an uninformed one. ... This notion, carried down through the years, underlies everything from humble political pamphlets to presidential debates to the very notion of a free press. Mankind may be crooked timber, as Kant put it, uniquely susceptible to ignorance and misinformation, but it’s an article of faith that knowledge is the best remedy. If people are furnished with the facts, they will be clearer thinkers and better citizens. If they are ignorant, facts will enlighten them. If they are mistaken, facts will set them straight.

In the end, truth will out. Won’t it?

Maybe not. Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

What is surprising to me is not so much that facts cause people to become more entrenched in their beliefs -- whatever those might happen to be -- but rather how hard it is to convince people who claim to hew to the facts that this is so. The idea that more faithful adherence to objective fact will cause people's views to converge is supported by neither theory nor observation, but rather by a blind faith that Truth Will Prevail somehow.

To be sure there are circumstances where objective metaphysical truth can be very useful with respect to certain measures of utility. If you're trying to build a bridge, for example, you'll probably have better luck if you do the math than if you pray. But if you're trying to, for example, mobilize a large group of people to work together towards a common goal, you might do better by promulgating ideas that are not scientifically demonstrable (or, more to the point, falsifiable), like the idea that you are anointed by God.

But, counter the Hitchenses and the Dawkinses and the Harrises of the world, if you base your actions on a fiction then, being unconstrained by objective reality, anything is permissible, and all manner of evils predictably result: Slavery. Oppression of women. War. (It is, not coincidentally, ironic and revealing that this is exactly the same critique that is raised by the other side of the debate: if you are unconstrained by the Word of God then anything goes.)

And yet even a moment's reflection will reveal the flaw in this reasoning. It is simply not the case that "anything goes" in fiction. I cannot, for example, simply stand up on a soap box in the town square and proclaim myself to be anointed by God and expect anyone to take me seriously. The promulgation of ideas proceeds according to the laws of physics no less than the promulgation of genes. That the laws of the promulgation of ideas are not as widely known or as well understood does not change the fact that they are, in fact, in effect.

Ideas are information, and so they propagate by processes that are by now pretty well understood. Because they propagate by making copies of themselves, and because the resources required to make those copies are limited, they are subject to the laws of Darwinian evolution: ideas that are better at copying themselves make more copies and so are more likely to propagate. Being objectively true might offer a competitive advantage in some situations, but there is nothing fundamental about "truth" that makes it any more likely to propagate than fiction.

Consider the Shakers. The Shakers were a religious sect that, among other things, preached celibacy not just for priests but for everyone. Universal celibacy is not an idea that reproduces well. By way of contrast, the idea that one should be fruitful and multiply, and that abortion and contraception are evil, is an idea that reproduces extremely well. So it should come as no surprise that there are more Catholics and Mormons in the world than Shakers.

The relationship between ideas and their ecosystem (human brains and information-storing artifacts like books and computers) is an extremely complex symbiotic relationship. Ideas cannot exist without human brains to "live" in, and some ideas (like antibiotics) in turn provide benefits to brains. But sometimes -- and this is crucial -- the interests of brains and ideas are in conflict. For example, a brain that came to understand enough about objective reality might figure out how to have sex without producing offspring. The ideas resident in such a brain would then be deprived of one of their chief means of reproduction, namely, the ability to transfer into the pliable neural networks of newly formed brains that are captive audiences to their parents. On the other hand, the ideas resident in such brains might have access to other means of reproduction that would not otherwise have been available to them, like the Internet. But the fate of the idea that one should exercise conscious control over one's biological reproduction will ultimately be decided by evolution, not deliberation.

There is one aspect of the complex interplay between brains and ideas that ought to be deeply worrisome to anyone who values rationality: it is not necessary for a brain or an idea to be rational in order to benefit from the fruits of rationality. Antibiotics work equally well whether or not you believe in evolution. The Internet is equally accessible to the scientist as to the religious fanatic. As long as this is so, rationality will to a certain extent be self-undermining because the indiscriminate proliferation of the products of rationality helps irrationality to reproduce.

Viewed in this way it is no surprise that ideas become entrenched in brains in ways that make them impervious to facts. It's a defense mechanism. Ideas that resist facts have, all else being equal, a reproductive advantage over ideas that yield to them. It is dismaying how hard it is to get otherwise intelligent people to understand this. But it is not at all surprising.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Loki is apparently not done with us

It wasn't just the escrow from hell that has made our lives stressful over the last few months, but we've also had a fair amount of bad luck on our move as well. First there was a miscommunication with our builder, who thought that we weren't arriving for another week, so when we showed up at the house it was still a construction zone. The garage was full of stuff, and there were tarps and painting supplies all over the house. It was 7PM, and our movers were scheduled to show up at 9 the next morning. It eventually got sorted out, but it was a stressful night. Then it turned out that we didn't have any phone service. We had called ahead and arranged to have our new line active by the time we arrived, which it was, but our house is brand new and no one had actually run the wire from the pole to the house. We're also in a cell phone dead zone. (Well, it's AT&T. Most of the world is a cell phone dead zone.) So for a week we had no communications with the outside world at our house.

Don't even get me started about Comcast. Suffice it to say, they are legendary for bad customer service, particularly on new installations, and I can say now from firsthand experience that their reputation is well deserved.

All of which makes what happened today that much more remarkable. To fully appreciate the irony, I have to back up about two months and tell you about a little incident that happened while we were buying our new house. We were exchanging some email with our builder, and he happened to mention a sewage ejector pump.

Sewage ejector pump? We have a sewage ejector pump?

In case you don't know what a sewage ejector pump is, it's pretty much what it sounds like: it's like a cross between a sump pump and a garbage disposal, and it pumps the sewage from our house, which sits in a sort of a hollow below street level, up to the sewer line under the street.

I asked our builder, um, what happens if that pump fails? Does our house fill with sewage?

No, he said, there's a holding tank with a few day's worth of capacity, and if that fills up then it overflows and dumps into the creek behind the house. Which is bad, but not as bad as having a house full of sewage.

But, he said, these pumps are very reliable. They rarely fail.

Well, guess what. We've been in the new place for just over a month, and today the sewage ejector failed, and did do in a fairly spectacular fashion. It has apparently been going bad for a while because it has been making a gawdawful noise ever since we moved in. We thought that was normal, but apparently not. They are supposed to run silent. So it seems that this pump has been chewing itself up for some time. So for the moment we can't run any water, which means we can't flush and toilets.

Figures this would be the day I decide to wait until later to take a shower.

No word yet on whether this will be fixed today, or if we will have to check into a hotel.

UPDATE at 4:30PM: The county repair crew is here installing a new pump. Don't ever let anyone tell you that government doesn't work. Of all the infrastructure organizations we have had to deal with on this move, the worst by far have been the private companies, AT&T and Comcast in particular. The service from the government agencies has been uniformly good, and in this particular case, exceptional.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The escrow from hell - abridged version

I was in the process of writing up the story of the Escrow from Hell. It was up to six or seven chapters and I was only about half way through when Nancy said words to the effect that publishing the story at that level of detail might not be the wisest thing I've ever done. Nancy tends to be right about such things, so I've decided to just put up a highly abridged and sanitized version of the story for now.

The long and the short of it was that soon after we put our house up for sale we got a letter from our next door neighbor saying that there was water draining from our yard onto hers, and that this had caused damage to a shared retaining wall that separated our properties. We were not on speaking terms with our neighbor because of a long-running dispute involving her dogs that ultimately resulted in us filing a lawsuit against her. We were ready and willing to fix the problem, but because we didn't have an open channel of communication it was hard to figure out exactly what the problem was. We were in the process of sending letters back and forth to try to get this situation taken care of when by an incredible stroke of luck we happened to get two offers on our house at nearly the same time. This resulted in a minor bidding war and we ended up getting our full asking price. There was only one little hitch: when we disclosed the drainage issue to our buyer he added a contingency to his offer: we had to completely resolve this issue before close of escrow.

So this left us in a bit of a pickle. How do you "completely resolve" an issue with a neighbor who refuses to communicate with you? I won't go into details, but suffice it to say it was by far the most difficult thing I've ever done. It involved, at various times, three lawyers, threats of physical violence, and a chain of indirect communications that was eight stages from end to end: from our buyer's lawyer to our buyer to his agent to our agent to us to our neighbor's husband (who was speaking to us even if our neighbor wasn't) to our neighbor to our neighbor's lawyer. Our agent, who is a trained mediator, finally managed to close the deal, but even she at one point threw in the towel and thought that the deal was dead before it ultimately rose from the ashes. In the end, between legal bills, interest on two mortgages, and extortion money we had to pay to our neighbor to get her to sign off -- oh, and let's not forget paying the contractor to actually fix the problem (which ultimately turned out to be the smallest of all the costs associated with this debacle) -- we were probably set back about $50,000. I actually lost ten pounds because I was too stressed out to eat. (I'm starting to gain it back now.)

But we sold the house.

We sold the house!

It could have been a whole lot worse. I think there's a very good chance we're heading for a double-dip recession. The historical parallels between today and ~1931-2 are pretty uncanny. And if the next big economic shock had come while we were holding on to two houses, one of which was vacant, that could have ended up being very unpleasant. So going through two months with the sale constantly poised on the hairy edge of falling through was unbelievably stressful. I cannot begin to describe how relieved we are that it's over.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Light at the end of the tunnel

Rondam Ramblings has been quiet lately because we have been in the midst of the Escrow From Hell (and its companion feature, the Move From Purgatory). But now, at long last, the end seems to be in sight. Some time today, unless something really unexpected happens, we should be getting a call from our realtor telling us that we have finally sold our house in Los Angeles. The situation was so tenuous and dragged on for so long that I didn't want to write about it, partly because I was afraid that some of the other people involved would see the posts and that would make matters worse, and partly because I just didn't have the mental energy. I'm even a little hesitant to post this for fear that it will somehow draw Loki's attention back to us and he will find a way to make the deal fall through even though the only thing left to do is for the title company to record the transfer of the deed. So many things have gone wrong that it would hardly surprise me to hear that the person handling the paperwork got hit by a bus (God forbid) on his way to the county recorder's office or some such thing.

Once escrow is officially closed, and I have recovered from the bender I plan to go on once that has happened, I will be posting again, starting with the story of the Escrow From Hell. I actually started writing it up a few weeks ago. I'm up to six installments already, and I'm only about half way through the saga. So don't touch that dial, we'll be right back after this short commercial break.

[UPDATE:] Escrow did close. Woohoo! Stay tuned for the first installment of the saga.