Category Archives: Miscellania

The Origins Of Language

I’m surprised I haven’t seen this research appearing with the headline “Humans Running Out Of Sounds, Linguists Report“.


The Mouse Is Not A Finger

I’m just now listening to it, and I still need to finish the last 15 minutes, but I’ll recommend episode 3 of Hypercritical, John Siracusa’s podcast with Dan Benjamin.

In the first half* of the podcast, John explains the vision behind the major UI changes planned for Mac OS X Lion, and really sold me on the vision.  Then in the second half, he explains that about half of it won’t work, and he’s probably right.

* The first portion is actually spillover discussion on backups from episode 2.  So it’s the first half of the main part of the episode.  That’s also a good episode.  Are you doing your backups properly?


No, this post isn’t about epistemology. Cosma Shalizi defends lottery players:

The benefit to playing the lottery comes entirely between buying the ticket, and when the winner is revealed. During this interval, someone who has bought the ticket can entertain the idea that they might win, and pleasantly imagine how much better their life could be with the money, what they would do with it, etc. It’s true that in some sense you always could thinking about “what if I had $280 million?”, but many people find it very hard to get our imaginations going on sheer will-power. A plausible and concrete path to the riches, no matter how low the probability, serves as a hook on which to suspend disbelief. In this regard, indeed, lottery tickets are arguably quite cost-effective. If a $1 lottery ticket licenses even one hour of imagining a different life, I don’t see how people who spend $12 for two or three hours of such imagining at a movie theater, or $25 for ten hours at a bookstore, are in any position to talk.

Despite having held this idea for years, I have never played the lottery, because I couldn’t begin to make myself believe.

This only applies for the largest lotteries. But in North Carolina, people drop a lot of money on smaller games that offer a better chance to win, but no more than a few hundred or a thousand dollars. Maybe the fantasy is still good enough to offset the monetary loss–so long as you’re thinking about the vacation you’ll take and not about having the money for your light bill.

Here’s my own bit of contrarianism: in those smaller lotteries, the expected value of winning may well be negative. On the plus side, there is the money and the enjoyment of winning. On the negative side, winning is positive reinforcement so you play more in the future. Thus, when my mother-in-law put $1 scratch off tickets in my stocking, I spent the next few minutes thinking “don’t win, don’t win”. Anyone who knows my history with video games will understand. Thankfully, while I won seven dollars, I have not been tempted to play in the meantime.

I actually told someone who was addicted to the lottery: “you don’t want to win–it’ll make you keep playing” and he responded “I guess that’s right.” So perhaps the theory is less contrarian than I think it is.

P.S The Slate article that Cosma links to is also a lot of fun.

Smoking Regulations Or A Smoking Ban?

One thing I’ve yet to see from someone supporting bar and club smoking bans is a serious attempt to justify a ban as such. Even assuming that you’ve established that there’s a public interest in, say, protecting waiters from smoke, and that this interest justifies regulations, you still have to show that you can’t achieve your goal with something weaker than a ban. If incentives or regulatory “nudges” do roughly the same work, then they’re to be preferred.

In the case of smoking bans, there are a lot of replacement options, and it’s a heavy burden to argue that they wouldn’t suffice. Here are a few ideas I’ve brainstormed–someone more familiar with restaurant or OSHA regulations could surely find more:

  1. Require expensive licenses for bars that allow smoking
  2. Auction a limited number of smoking permits
  3. Mandate a wage-supplement for servers and bartenders in smoking restaurants (perhaps this wouldn’t work because it couldn’t apply to cooks, etc).

Bear in mind that roughly a third of the American public smokes, and food service workers are presumably no exception. There’s little reason to worry about them being exposed to second-hand smoke, so even a regulatory regime that leaves a substantial fraction of bars might be compatible with protection for workers.

There’s a lot of variance in state and local smoking bans, so this challenge applies quite differenly to them. Pennsylvania, for instance, allows smoking in any establishment that makes more than a certain percent (80% maybe?) of its income from alcohol sales. Such laws are much more forgiving, and I legitimately can’t be too bothered by them. That said, I think that they could still be better. Once you’ve admitted that some bars can have smoking, why is the relevant feature the percentage of income coming from booze?

They’re Spending Eleventy-Billion Dollars To Promote The Singularity, But They Can’t Afford A Damn Designer

Jason Bobe, who works on the Personal Genome Project, an effort backed by the Harvard Medical School to establish a huge database of genetic information, points to forecasts that a million people will have their genomes decoded by 2014.

“The machines for doing this will be in your kitchen next to the toaster,” Mr. Bobe says.

Really, your kitchen? Who wants that?

A Matter Of Terminology

I recently found myself disagreeing with a fellow on these here internets about the “new atheists”. As a prelude to writing something more substantive, let me define a few terms, at least as I have been using them–not everyone is required to use them the same way, and you’re welcome to comment if you view the terms differently.

As I see it, the most important feature of the new atheism is its public profile and the attention it’s received in the press, attention that has accrued to a very specific set of individuals, based on works published within the past decade. I would put Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens as the primary members of this group, based on my casual impression of whose names I read and whose books I see.

Atheism itself is old, as is public profession of atheism. Nor is it the case, as I have heard it said, that today’s prominent atheist intellectuals are less deferential. It’s true that Bertrand Russell was somewhat more polite than Christopher Hitchens, but I don’t recall any evidence that Russell censored his ideas. In any case, the difference in tone might be grounds for calling Hitchens a jerk, but in the larger scheme of things, it’s not that important.

I also don’t see much evidence of anything intellectually new going on here. However, let me be clear that I don’t mean anything negative by that. If you are critiquing the cosmological argument or the ontological argument, especially for a popular audience, there is little need for novelty. We have known that these arguments are bad arguments for a long time, but so long as their proponents offer them, someone will have to stand up and remind the world how bad they are. That’s not something I’d like to spend my time on, but it’s still work that has to be done. Intelligent design is more or less new, I suppose–you can cite Paley here, but there’s clearly something new going on today. Of course critics of ID are legion–they’re just about everyone who’s thought hard about the issue, new atheist, old atheist, or theist. So I don’t think ID can really be a defining feature of the new atheists.

For those reasons, I see new atheism as a media or sociological phenomenon, and that matters, because it means that there’s no point in applying the term to most individual atheists. Aside from atheism itself, there isn’t anything connecting them. I suppose in a derivative sense, you might say that Joe atheist is a “new atheist” because he was made passionate about the issue by Dawkins, thinks that Dawkins is almost always right, or whatever else. But in the first instance, the term applies to Dawkins and his fellows, not Joe.

That means that generalizations about the new atheists are generalizations about a relatively small group of people who are in the public eye. It’s not incredibly important whether my use of the term is the right one–though I do think it’s the way that the term is being used–whether or not it’s right, it’s the sense that I attach to the term, and it’s the way to understand anything that I say.

Amnesiacs Form Impressions Of Their Own Personalities

Recently, I’ve been listening to John Kilstrom’s UC Berkeley Social Cognition course (available through iTunes U) during my commute. One incidental fact jumped out at me during a recent lecture.

Amnesiacs continue to have impressions of their own personality–if asked, they can describe what they’re like, despite not having the episodic memories necessary to do that. Moreover, it’s not just based on memories from the period prior to acquiring amnesia–even patients whose personalities changed over time or as a result of the damage that gave them amnesia were able to give assessments which matched their current personality. That suggests that one’s representation of one’s own personality is not entirely based on episodic memory.