Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Strange Notions of Representation

"The chief victims of the January 23 federal election were:
Western Liberals: In the prairie provinces, Conservatives got three times as many votes as Liberals did, but won nearly ten times as many seats. In Alberta, the Conservative Party won 100% of the seats with 65% of the votes. The 500,000 Albertans who voted otherwise elected no one.

Urban Conservatives: The 400,000-plus Conservative voters in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver should have been able to elect about nine MPs, but instead elected no one. The three cities together will not have a single MP in the governing caucus, let alone the cabinet.

New Democrats: The NDP attracted a million more votes than the Bloc, but the voting system gave the Bloc 51 seats, the NDP 29. Nearly 18% of Canadians voted NDP, but the party won less than 10% of the seats and does not hold the balance of power, unlike the Liberals and the Bloc.

Green Party: More than 650,000 Green Party voters across the country elected no one, while 475,000 Liberal voters in Atlantic Canada elected 20 MPs. "

-taken from Fair Vote Canada

"Don't these people ever give up?" -Colonel Kilgore from Apocalypse Now

Boy, I'm apparently not so sick of this argument as to prevent me from discussing it. Lets start at the beginning. Since we are picking a government, at some scale, a majority is desired otherwise no bill would pass in the house. It becomes a question of scale then where this majority should be located. Across the country? Just in Parliament? As an aggregate of ridings? Obviously, the current system is one where the base unit is the riding and the party with the most base units forms government. This 'first past the post' system does create some mathematical curiosities as noted by the authors above. They present several of these but for example I will talk about the 1/2 million Green party votes but no Green party seats example. The authors interpret this discrepancy as an absence of representation, but there is a slight of hand here when dealing with Green Party votes in the aggregate. In any given riding, it does not follow that the hundreds of people who voted for the Green party are not represented. By the same logic, if you don't vote for the winner, you are not represented. As a matter of fact, you are represented by the winner whether you voted for them or not. In fact even if you didn't vote at all you are still represented by them! The slight of hand in their argument is really ridiculous: "Urban Conservatives should have been able to elect..." They speak of this group as though it were a riding, as though by virtue of being able to speak of them as an aggregate it ought to have a representative. But the aggregate boundaries have been already established. Urban Conservatives come and go but Calgary Centre is a real thing with a real representative who was most people from Calgary Centre first choice!
By inspection, the fact that a single issue (and frankly utterly myopic to the complexities of real governance) party does not easily win seats tells me that the system works quite well! It would be stereotypically Canadian somehow to actually have a party holding seats in parliament that was virtually every riding's last choice!
The current system picks people to represent small groups of people. The authors above want the system to pick small groups of ideas. This is supposed to be miraculously better. Accountability is hard enough in an apathetic culture, but at least a person from the community is accountable to their community and is seen as the best candidate by the most people possible in that community. A system that picks ideas and platforms and then somehow attaches a person to it (the proportional representation advocated by the authors) seems like one that is not in our best interest.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Fun Quiz!! What's wrong with this?

Conditional probabilities
To illustrate, suppose there are two bowls full of cookies. Bowl #1 has 10 chocolate chip cookies and 30 plain cookies, while bowl #2 has 20 of each. Our friend Fred picks a bowl at random, and then picks a cookie at random. We may assume there is no reason to believe Fred treats one bowl differently from another, likewise for the cookies. The cookie turns out to be a plain one. How probable is it that Fred picked it out of bowl #1?

Intuitively, it seems clear that the answer should be more than a half, since there are more plain cookies in bowl #1. The precise answer is given by Bayes' theorem. But first, we can clarify the situation by rephrasing the question to "what’s the probability that Fred picked bowl #1, given that he has a plain cookie?” Thus, to relate to our previous explanation, the event A is that Fred picked bowl #1, and the event B is that Fred picked a plain cookie. To compute Pr(A|B), we first need to know:

Pr(A), or the probability that Fred picked bowl #1 regardless of any other information. Since Fred is treating both bowls equally, it is 0.5.

Pr(B), or the probability of getting a plain cookie regardless of any information on the bowls. In other words, this is the probability of getting a plain cookie from each of the bowls. It is computed as the sum of the probability of getting a plain cookie from a bowl multiplied by the probability of selecting this bowl. We know from the problem statement that the probability of getting a plain cookie from bowl #1 is 0.75, and the probability of getting one from bowl #2 is 0.5, and since Fred is treating both bowls equally the probability of selecting any one of them is 0.5. Thus, the probability of getting a plain cookie overall is 0.75×0.5 + 0.5×0.5 = 0.625.

Pr(B|A), or the probability of getting a plain cookie given that Fred has selected bowl #1. From the problem statement, we know this is 0.75, since 30 out of 40 cookies in bowl #1 are plain.

Given all this information, we can compute the probability of Fred having selected bowl #1 given that he got a plain cookie, as such: (see calculation above)

As we expected, it is more than half.

This type of calculation is routinely employed in statistical evaluation of data particularly in the medical field. To win the Big Prize, explain if you think it is valid or invalid.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

some punk wrote this on my van

...the Sartrian existentialist, for whom the discovery of no ultimate intrinsic purpose makes the universe "absurd." The absurdist interpretation mistakes the absence of meaning for meaninglessness, failing to see that the universe necessarily transcends the meaningful/meaningless distinction. (This is why Stephen Weinberg was mistaken to say "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.") Instead of sliding into existential angst or ennui, we can savor the surprise and excitement of participating in an unscripted drama, one in which meaning is created locally against an inscrutable cosmic backdrop. This, I submit, is a far more interesting fate than the boring security of being a bit player in an end game scripted by God. (Some might say all too interesting, as in that understated Chinese curse, "May you have an interesting life".)

taken from http://www.naturalism.org/spiritua1.htm with thanks to rainswept

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Artificial Intelligence: the great leap backwards

I've been inspired by Darwin's Dangerous Idea (Dennett) this week. It occurs to me that there will eventually exist a division in the history of man's technology. The first (which we are still in) is one characterized by intentionally designed technologies. Within this category, there is still room for accident and mistake and the hazy intentionality of inspiration, but essentially there is intention at the various stages of design. Reason and its constituent helpers are guiding the process of problem solving. The next phase of design is one of detached intentionality. Let me explain. The most breathtaking and elegant designs on earth are all natural products of evolution. The designs are so perfect, efficient and elegant that we have difficulty in understanding how they work let alone replicate them. These designs were not intentionally created, but rather were algorithmically produced by a wonderful system of constraints, mutations and inheritance. It seems plausible that when we learn to harness this kind of computational power, our problem solving ability will grow exponentially. I can envision some kind of computer simulation that produces outcomes that transcend intention and hence avoid the natural impedance of typical design thinking. Much like observing many biological entities, the design path will be obscure but the design process will be understood, at least abstractly. Curiously, tools of this sort will actually be (philosophically) Darwinian inversions since nature has no real goals whereas man certainly does. Nature doesn't desire to have a pretty flying thing and the butterfly is the design result. An evolutionary computer would be doing just that. Our current design constraints dictate certain kinds of results that are difficult to undo or even unthink when attempting to take greater leaps in design efficiency or simplicity or utility. Its a great disservice to call this kind of computing artificial intelligence when non-artificial intelligence seems like such a dullard when compared with the brilliance of nature's unintentional algorithms.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Panglossian Lament

I slogged my way through a newspaper today, though not much gets past my filter. I find by ignoring everything that's not actually news (crime, calamity and anything else whose template doesn't change-just names and places) I can read the paper in about two and a half minutes.
I did notice that it seems like we're headed for a conservative majority. While I'm slightly concerned about re-opening many debates that I'd prefer to lay rest, I'm confident that the courts will keep a firm stranglehold of the status quo. If I look ahead with Panglossian glasses to see a bright side of this, I wonder if we won't see a more muted regional 'alienation.' I use quotations because I am of the opinion that regional gripes are really just national gripes that have been harnessed by political opportunists. Its easier to mobilize people by awakening their latent clan based thinking by telling them that Their problems are unique. I think there are certainly urban and rural needs within confederation but these really don't change from one end of the country to the other. I wonder if a conservative majority won't evaporate some of this rural angst by at least creating the illusion of representation in the minds of rural conservative voters.
I know its an infrequent forrray into politics for me these days but I'm going to vote in the advanced poll tomorrow. Let me do this thing while the fit is on me!

ps with apologies to Leibniz but imitation is the highest form of flattery.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

all over the web

Tokyo (AP) Inter-tron CEO, Tekada Komayashi, confirmed what New Yorker 'around the web" columnist Gilbert Weinstein called "the webs most persistent rumor." Chat rooms were abuzz today over the announcement, though many internet snobs (snobbits as coined by Rutgers University English Department grad student Maria Fung) insisted that as chatroom moderator Chass "bigbyte" Weston posted, "we knew it was true all along." Said Komayashi, "Based on a regressive evaluation of previous simulation models, combined with some peer-moderated synthesis and extrapolation, Intertron (Pte.) confirms that Quest Tuesday not only already occurred, but was enjoyed by all in attendance." Early trading this morning on the Nikkei and NYSE indicated not only investor relief, but even showed signs that investor capital was rather bullish on the news, lifting Intertron's market capitalization up significantly. When asked for comment at a campaign stop, Finance Minisier Ralph Goodale seemed unprepared for the news but offered his opinion that news demonstrated "the strength of Canadian economy and its ability to compete on the world stage."

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

C8H11NO2: another mystery solved?

Upon discovering the other day that I was discussing both religion and politics, and realizing how I'd rather not, I found myself being challenged to explain the difference. Upon reflection though, I found it more interesting to think about their similarities- that being that most participants are engaged in each with little or no examination. Its true that most participants would disagree with that statement but from a phenomenological perspective, the mere observation of the state of each reveals my statement to be true. Each manifests itself as a series of assumptions that inform a specific set of prescriptive behaviors, but its the unexamined participation that is most curious to me. It reminded me of a previous conversation in which someone was recounting how they had no evidence for a specific belief- they just wanted to believe it. How nice I thought to myself. If only intention and belief were so fluidly connected I would have fewer mental dilemmas! And yet, despite the fact that 3 out of every four earthlings have learned to read and write, I feel generally to be in the smallest minority of people who require reasons for believing things. Its true, I'm usually harping on distinguishing between the set of things that has no justification from things that require justification. But now I really challenge myself to answer a very simple question: Why must my knowledge set be entirely coherent? Of course I can set aside some obvious things like a coherent knowledge set makes good predictions such that I don't walk into moving propellers or fall into deep wells like an Edward Gorey unfortunate. But from an epistemological rather than evolutionary perspective does it really matter if I believe in unicorns for example? Why is it apparently important for me to not believe in unicorns because there is no evidence for their existence? Suggesting that I prefer truth to false seems not only glib but really just shunts the problem to a different set of terms without actually explaining anything. But perhaps it is that simple. Maybe being right about something triggers a tiny dopamine release in my brain. Perhaps I've quietly adapted to this Pavlovian, neurochemical epistemology. Truth is not philosophical but chemical. Leaving out some beliefs because they are unsupported allows one to be not wrong which is slightly different from being right about something, but at least the dopamine feedback loop is preserved even if the set of possible beliefs is smaller. And so while I still feel like a reef in a sea of unsubstantiated believers, I should try to enjoy my diet of dopamine in return for my troubles. Its exhausting being a reef, incidentally, being ever crashed upon by the ship of fools. Don't forget to vote.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

touring through the commonweath of letters

picked out some christmas books for myself today. Now all I need is a week of minus thirty to enjoy reading them.

Friday, January 06, 2006

What the bleep do we know: the fallacy of exclusive premises

For my sins, I watched "What the -bleep- do we know?" It really was the most reeking piece of drek I've seen in quite some time. It fails for so many reasons however I will somehow excise this garbage from my thoughts by explaining a couple powerful errors.
1) As an introduction to thinking about things that one might have previously ignored, it fails since the movie is a relentless string of sciencey sound bites. Its a litany of conclusions without exposition, a run-on of unsupported statements that don't invite the audience to think but rather to accept. It forms a kind of faith-based science lingo that is really no different from any other kind of belief without contemplation. Whatever work they may have accomplished will be undone by some other idea that comes along in the viewers mind later on because the movie gives no credence to Why any of these ideas should be considered. In this sense they perpetuate a faulty way of thinking. The movie mistakes content of thought for mechanism of thought. Until the later is addressed, the content is irrelevant.
2)The Content or A Wizard ought to know better. It has ceased to amaze me the liberties that people take with the world of physics. The necessity for quantum physics is that the rules that govern the Newtonian realm break down at the quantum level. And yet how quickly people want to take behaviors at the quantum level and apply them to the classical realm. There is a tiresome transference going on here that I forgive from laypeople but when it comes from PHDs, I cannot forgive. Their rational is so transparent as to be almost unworthy of comment but today I will bother. The physicists being interviewed clearly have preferences regarding how they prefer to behave and how they prefer the world to behave. They have preferences of what "the good" is. Unfortunately, as specialists conditioned to rationalize and justify belief, they are blindsided into rationalizing a domain of thinking that contains no rational justification. But lo and behold, here are all sorts of metaphorical niceties at the quantum level. The oft misunderstood Uncertainty Principle, the ephemeral nature of existence, wave-particle duality and the rest of the quantum dramatis personae make easy metaphors for social preferences. This appeal to the objectivity of science serves to both impress and make truths out preferences. Most often the audience has no idea that these appeals are committing the fallacy of exclusive premises. The mathematical relationships at the quantum level Do Not Say Anything about human interaction! It is a set of relationships that apply at its own scale, just as the Newtonian relationships are only valid at the classical scale ( I am of course excluded unified field theory which is a childish fantasy that I cannot deal with here as my "Fermatian margin" is too small!) Its unfortunate how conceivable it is to me that all the academics that lined up for this movie forget this salient feature. Indeed, specialization seems to be the death of critical thinking and academic credentials become its epitaph.

To quote Shakespeare: "It may not be true, but its what we wish were true" I just wish we'd understand the difference and not influence people with jargon, influence them with credentials, and sway them with emotion. If you want to learn to think read DeBono instead, if you want an escapist kind of awe, watch Baraca.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

life goes on

Yes friends, life goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began, and I must follow if I can, pursuing it with eager feet, where many paths and errands meet, until it joins some larger way, and whither then I cannot say...

Perspective is a sweetening thing even if it cannot last. One can revel in the tiniest of pleasures and shirk the meddlesome irritants of the day. The trivial becomes profound, and things that seemed so important melt like an autumn frost in morning sunshine. And yet I will complain again, perhaps even today as perspective slowly is worn away by the violence of dying memory and the abrasiveness of adaptaion. Life goes on and we must make of it what we can.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

in loving memory of my dearest fiona

through some of the best and worst of times, you got me through with a smile and a laugh and showed me what triumphs the human spirit is capable of.