Prayer Is The Cure… Why Not The Prevention?

Some eight in ten Americans,
Believe that prayer saved Gabby’s life,
Though many tears were shed;
The bullet could have broken up
But stayed one piece of lead,
And so did far less damage
As it passed through Gabby’s head;
It missed the major arteries,
And so although she bled
She did not die from loss of blood—
To hospital they sped;
In merely days she showed the signs
While lying in her bed
That Gabby’s health was coming back,
Not hanging by a thread.
So, praying was the answer.
But the comment left unsaid:
If God did this, why not just make
The bullet miss, instead?

Cuttlecap tip to TribalScientist, via twitter

Paul The Octopus, Honored

Octopuses come and go—
So must, of course, we all—
A final act, celebrity
Does nothing to forestall;
But there was one eight-legged sort
Who held us in his thrall
The octopus-cum-oracle
We came to know as Paul.
A bit of zoo publicity
You probably recall:
Presented with two choices,
Toward the winner he would crawl!
His name lives on in legend;
Now he takes a curtain call,
With a statue and memorial,
Where he sits atop a ball.

On A Personal Note…

After a lingering illness that took his mind, his bodily functions, his personality, and his dignity, the husk that used to be my brother in law finally lost his life.   Within a year, I have lost a brother suddenly, and a brother in law slowly.   I’m feeling quite mortal these days.
I had a friend who contemplated suicide a few years ago.  She was in her mid 30’s, widowed, suffering from depression; she quite rationally looked at the possibility of 30-50 years of pain and suffering, and nearly ended it.  She has not told me what stayed her hand; I once thought it was the realization that, whatever this life holds, it is “better than nothing”, and that is the choice.  Watching my brother in law, I realize how naïve I was to think that.  
It is perhaps understandable that I have been watching Christopher Hitchens as he fights his cancer.  He has retained his intellect, his wit, his self, through great pain, discomfort, weakness, and cancer’s best attempts to steal his dignity.  Storms, landslides, illnesses, lunatics with weapons… there are so many different ways to die, and none of us get out alive.  … I’m not going anywhere with this, just free associating.  Like I said, I’m feeling mortal.  Hug your loved ones.  
If you ever get the chance to visit me in the hospital (very unlikely, I’ll grant you), bring me the oldest bottle of scotch you can find, and a bottle of pain pills.   If you can talk me into taking both, then it’s likely for the best.  If I refuse the pills, have a drink with me, and we can have a great talk. 
And visit frequently.  Just in case.
Oh, yeah, right, a verse…
There once was a man who, with pride,
Said he’d never let dreams go untried—
So he spent ninety years
Building hopes, taming fears,
And then—far, far too early—he died.

This post is likely not going to stay up for long.  I just had to say something somewhere.  So if it vanishes, it doesn’t mean you were hallucinating.  Or, to be honest, that you were not.

The Mediocrity Principle

I want a special planet,
One created just for me;
I want a perfect paradise
A garden, can’t you see?
That waited through eternity
For my exalted birth—
But Eden is a myth, so I
Will settle for the Earth.
It’s not so bad, as planets go,
I’ll do just fine with Earth.

I want a special status
Where I’m more than just a beast;
With godlike comprehension
Or intelligence, at least;
Created sui generis
And not evolved from goo—
But rather than be fictional,
Humanity will do.
I’m going to have to face the facts;
Humanity will do

I want a special function,
Or a purpose, or a plan;
I want to be much better than
The ordinary man;
I want to be a shining star
Whom everyone can see—
The odds are astronomical;
I might as well be me.
The product of my history,
I might as well be me.

I want a special talent
That’s the product of my mind;
I want to be a genius
Of the greatest, grandest kind;
Where Shakespeare, in comparison,
Would just give up and curse—
But dreams are not reality;
I think I’ll write this verse.
I’ll never be a Shakespeare,
But at least I wrote this verse.

Why “The Mediocrity Principle”? Here. Cuttlecap tip to PZed.

Google Poetry Translator!

Crack reporters at The Bugle, each notoriously frugal,
Thought they’d stoop to using Google for a verse-translation chore;
Past the ordinary deadline, hoping vainly for a headline
To at least avoid the breadline, where they’d eaten oft before
They were poorly paid reporters, so they’d eaten there before,
And had promised “never more”

Google searches through for matches; when it finds one, it attaches—
If it doesn’t work, dispatches it as something to ignore
Matching syllables and timing, more than this, it looks at rhyming,
Though its crude syntactic priming may yield verses you deplore
Mind you, many human poets give you verses you deplore,
Though we warn them “nevermore”

In this time-intensive screening, Google focuses on meaning,
And the finely tuned machining is the only guarantor
That computerized translation isn’t mere abomination,
And will win the acclamation of the critics by the score
Though the human poets shudder, thinking “critics by the score!
Let them visit never more!”

But a mere computer stripling, it can imitate a Kipling
Though the output may be crippling, and may leave your eardrums sore
Though it lacks a human passion, it’s a poet, in a fashion,
Not exactly Ogden Nash-ian, still it’s nothing you’d abhor
And a lot of modern poetry, the public does abhor
So they read it nevermore.

Now with German, French, or Russian verse, it’s worthy of discussion:
Will we notice repercussions from this poetry galore?
With a software package Babel fish eventually able
To re-work a verse or fable, might it save us all from war?
If we understand each other, will we still believe in war,
Or agree to “never more”?

NPR reports that Google is developing an artificial intelligence Poetry translator.

“It’s what we call AI complete,” says Dmitriy Genzel, a research scientist at Google. “Which means it’s as difficult as anything we can attempt in artificial intelligence.”

Programming a machine to simply understand language, after all, is a task IBM spent four years and millions of dollars to accomplish with its Watson computer, which competed on Jeopardy last week.

Watson understands human speech. But for a computer to understand and translate poetry, there are added problems of length, meter and rhyme.

Tell me about it.

Well, actually, they do tell us about it, in a paper on the Official Google Research Blog. And, damn them, they parodied The Raven before I did, which I’d have known if I’d clicked that one link. Oh, well. They only did one verse. But the paper is well worth reading; I’ve often said that what I do can be accomplished by an adequately trained monkey… looks like Google is raising the ante.

The Political Climate

Growingly, showingly,
Ancient environments
Influenced trees, and the
Growth of their rings;

Centuries later, the
Dendrochronologists
Use this to tell us what
Climate change brings.

Verily, scarily,
Climate-change scientists
Warn us our actions en-
Danger us all:

Climate effects can be
Geopolitical,
Sometimes portending an
Empire’s fall.

Via the BBC, just published online in Science, a report on 2500 Years of European Climate Variability and Human Susceptibility. First, ya gotta find a lot of wooden artifacts. Analysis of growth rings from a large enough sample of such artifacts allowed Swiss, German and Austrian scientists to piece together an historical record of good and bad seasons over the past 2.5 millenia. Turns out “good and bad seasons” holds true both for weather and for the relative prosperity of empires.

From the BBC:

Once they had developed a chronology stretching back over the past 2,500 years, they identified a link with prosperity levels in past societies, such as the Roman Empire.

“Wet and warm summers occurred during periods of Roman and medieval prosperity. Increased climate variability from 250-600 AD coincided with the demise of the western Roman empire and the turmoil of the migration period,” the team reported.

“Distinct drying in the 3rd Century paralleled a period of serious crisis in the western Roman empire marked by barbarian invasion, political turmoil and economic dislocation in several provinces of Gaul.”

I wonder if future dendrochronologists will see us as yet another example.

Thoughts On The Blame Game

At times like this, the nation pauses
Long enough to look for causes.
That’s not quite so. It’s true we pause,
But only look for One True Cause;
Multiple determination
Only leads us to frustration.
When something horrible is done
Our search for blame is all-or-none.

The comment threads of major news outlets (you know how much I love to read those!) are as predictable as they have ever been. One commenter calls for a ban on handguns; several others immediately point out that they are, themselves, law-abiding gun owners. Hate-filled rhetoric? Millions of listeners were able to listen to the stream of invective and were somehow not moved to express their outrage in the form of a spray of lead. Video games? Again, millions of players are a far greater danger to their couch than to any human being. Even the old standby, mental illness, is defended, and we are reminded (unexpectedly, says the cynic in me) that mental illness is in no way predictive of such actions.*

And then, conclusions are drawn. Not the right ones, but conclusions nonetheless. We could have recognized that determination of ultimate causality of human action is never, ever going to come down to one factor, and recognized that our task is not to snap our fingers and make “the cause” go away, but to see which of the many causal elements we can tweak to make the world incrementally a better place. And we could have recognized that, sometimes, big effects don’t necessarily have big (and immediately identifiable) causes. Instead, we conclude that since there is always an exception, there is no rule, and that human behavior is not determined by environmental influences. That the rules that govern the rest of the observable universe somehow don’t apply within the boundaries of our skin, or our skull. If we can’t see one cause, our default fallback position is that there is none.

I do recognize the irony of making this observation, and [overly?] simplifying the behavior of tens or hundreds of thousands of commenters across scores of sites. All I can hope is that my readers will not see one or two examples that don’t fit my observation, and conclude that there is no truth to it at all. We are complex creatures, granted, but some very complex and complicated effects can come out of a combination of very few, comparatively simple, inputs.

*I have seen, unsurprisingly, the very expected post-hoc diagnosis of mental illness. While in this case it may be very probable that he is suffering, I have yet to hear a single qualified commenter make such a pronouncement. I suspect that the use of the label reflects much more our need to distance ourselves from the shooter, and to make sure he is the other; to think that normal people commit horrible acts is, well, horrible. This self-serving tendency is part of what leads to the belief that persons with mental illnesses are dangerous.

Battle Hymn Of The Republican

I’m the voice of opposition in a fast-decaying land
I can mobilize an army who will follow my command
I’m a master of the media; they’re puppets in my hand
I’m conservative, intelligent, and strong!
I’m the future of the party; I’m the darling of the right
I can focus on the issues like a crimson laser sight
With opponents in my crosshairs, I will exercise my might
Cos they’re evil, and they’re wicked, and they’re wrong!

I can motivate the populace, with no more than a word
I can make them true believers, though the message is absurd
I can obfuscate the issues till reality is blurred
There is little—nearly nothing—I can’t do!
I’m an awesome force of nature, moving mountains with a wink
I can rally up a million men, and tell them what to think
I have finely tuned my rhetoric to bring them to the brink
And I’ll exercise my power over you!

[the inevitable occurs]

They could never hold me liable for an incident like this
They could try to say I’m culpable, but patriots insist
It’s your own responsibility when something goes amiss
Sometimes people are just ready to explode!
I’m not running, I’m not shirking, and it’s not like I don’t care
I’m just looking at the evidence, and finding nothing there:
How could words have repercussions? They’re just pressure waves in air!
Now it’s time for my supporters to reload!

I was just continuing to muse a bit over the fascinating change in rhetoric over the past week. The above verse is meant as an amalgam, not merely the obvious target. I remember Rush bloviating “talent on loan from God”; Beck gloating over the attendance at his rally, Billo’s obsession with the numbers competition between himself and his MSNBC counterparts… WHen it suited their interest, they claimed tremendous influence. That influence, however, has the fascinating property of disappearing altogether when reality catches up to rhetoric.

It reminds me a bit of ESP. (wait, I think I can do this.) As per Bem’s paper, scientific studies of ESP, when they show effects, demonstrate an anomalous effect roughly identical in strength to known experimenter biases and methodological errors. It’s as if these effects don’t exist at all, though supporters call me (and others) close-minded for pointing this out. But compare this to the sorts of things ESP is able to do when it is *not* being tested! Telling you whether he or she is the right one, helping you on business ventures, finding your lost wallet, your lost pet, or even your lost child! Well worth the disgusting amount of money forked over, don’t you think?

The difference between untested claims and actual evidential support is a pretty substantial gulf. The difference between credit for good outcomes and blame for bad ones, for Conservative mouthpieces, is likewise huge. What a difference a bit of context can make.

Individual Responsibility And Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin is wrong.

Now, that will come as no surprise to a large percentage of my readers, who are predisposed to take that position based on her speaking history over the past years, but I’m referring to a particular point this time. In today’s New York Times, Ms. Palin (or her writers) waxes eloquent on the Real American Value of Individual Responsibility:

She said acts like the shootings in Arizona “begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state.”

I know this is a popular view, especially after events like the shooting in Arizona. We want to put as much psychological distance between the killer and ourselves. If we admit that there was something society could have done to prevent it, then we are ourselves culpable, and we must shoulder a part of the blame, for our inaction. Can’t have that.

Ms. Palin quoted former President Ronald Reagan as saying that society should not be blamed for the acts of an individual. She said, “it is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.”

Convenient that Jared Loughner must be held accountable, but Sarah Palin refuses to take responsibility for her own actions and her refusals to act.

Palin’s individualist rhetoric (not her bellicose rhetoric) allows her to ignore the plight of those for whom a supportive environment might mean the difference between life and death. They are responsible for their own situations.

Ms. Palin, by your own words, we must hold you individually responsible for your actions. You have chosen a path where your words are intended to have the widest audience, the widest influence possible. You cannot pretend that you have not tried to move people to action; you cannot pretend that you speak just to hear your own voice. You can acknowledge the power of your position and take individual responsibility for your own words—including their effect on your followers.

I do not hold you responsible for Loughner’s actions. But I do not think his actions begin and end with him. Nor do you, unless you honestly think your own speaking has no influence on your listeners. We are a social species; we cannot help but influence one another. We cannot choose to not get involved; even that choice is our responsibility, and it is wrong to stand by and do nothing when we could help. We are interconnected. We all influence one another, constantly.

Those who speak to millions, like Ms. Palin (and yes, the TV and radio voices, and public figures across the political spectrum) have the opportunity to influence these millions. If you believe the doctrine of individual responsibility extends to yourself, then recognize the power of your position and take responsibility for your rhetoric, and use your influence to make the world a better place. If you believe, though, that the doctrine of individual responsibility absolves you of any blame, that your words cannot move others to action… then why are you talking? Do the world a favor and shut the fuck up.

We need to help our fellow man.
Because we should. Because we can.
Because it’s wrong and downright shameless
To dole out blame while staying blameless.

Since You Already Believe *This*…

The evidence for ESP
Is awfully thin, it seems to me.
Some disagree (like Daryl Bem)
But I cannot concur with them.
I’ve heard it said “perhaps the odds
It’s true are similar to God’s—
That is, we may not have a clue,
But still we know, it must be true.”

And I agree—there is no clue
Suggesting it, or God, is true;
A popular belief in gods
Does not improve the tiny odds.
Anomalies from Daryl Bem
Don’t have too much supporting them;
So, sure! The odds for God, to me,
Are just the same as ESP.

My title, of course, is stolen from the New York TImes’s article “You Might Already Know This…“, about Daryl Bem’s upcoming report in the flagship journal, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The paper has already made its rounds in the various science blogs; I have read it, as have, I suspect, many of my regular readers. Although it would be great fun to talk about the paper itself here, that’s not what grabbed my eye this evening. Today, it is more interesting to look at the reaction to the paper.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that the reactions to this paper are… varied. Some suggest that Bem is playing an elaborate practical joke; I disagree. Certainly, it is possible, but the current paper follows 1994′s Bem and Honorton paper in Psych Bull (that’s Psychological Bulletin) claiming “replicable evidence” for forms of ESP, and it would be a damned impressive practical joke that takes over 15 years to pay out. Others suggest that Bem is being given preferential treatment. Possible; he has, arguably, earned it, given his career. My favorite reaction, though, came from the comments to the New York Times piece. In part:

To the doubters – and I have no objection to the doubters – one question: Is there a God?

Put differently, did any of that stuff in the bible happen?

For if the Good Book is good, true, and honest, why not ESP?

If God can send his Son to save us, who says there’s no means to communicate without gadgets?

And while I strongly suspect that my overall view is as far from hers/his as can be, I agree completely. If pigs can fly, why not invisible pink unicorns?

(that was going to be the end, but a nagging thought provokes me. I cannot recall who or when, but I seem to remember someone writing about the dangers of religious belief, with the inclusion of something like “belief in the incredible (literally) claims of religion weakens one’s ability to critically analyze other claims.” If anyone needed an example…”