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One time several years ago in graduate school, I simply could not remember the word "syrup", so I called it "pancake gravy". That title was already taken(!), so I added "cane" because when I was a child in the Panhandle of Florida (aka Lower Alabama), my family grew sugar cane and made our own cane syrup.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Biased Thinking

One of the current political conflicts is over immigration and Obama's executive orders regarding immigration.  The immigration policies of both parties, to the extent they are sufficiently coherent to be said to exist, are deeply flawed, but that is not my subject now.  Obama's executive orders, like his recess appointments and many other actions, are an attempt to circumvent the Separation of Powers; other presidents, Republican and Democratic, have done the same thing; but that is also not my topic.  My topic is the reaction to the attempt by the Republican Congress to reverse those orders by attaching legislation to that effect to the bill funding the Department of Homeland Security.

The Democrats, attempting to defend Obama, have accused the Republicans of putting their immigration policy over homeland security, and this accusation has been duly reported.  Fair enough.  What is not mentioned -- ever -- is that Obama, by threatening to veto the bill funding the Department of Homeland Security if it violates his immigration policy, is doing exactly the same thing.  This does not seem to be just an omission in the reporting; the Republicans themselves seem to share this blind spot.  Nor is this merely an example of the press favoring the Democrats; there has been the same bias in the past favoring Republican presidents.

This is like a game of chicken.  It's stupid to say that a collision is the fault of the blue car driver, because he didn't pull off, and is not at all the responsibility of the red car driver, because he had said he would not pull off.

In this case, once again it is the Republicans who have chickened out.

Monday, February 23, 2015

March Madness and Inevitability

Last year I proposed a very simple model that could be used to generate plausible brackets for March Madness under the assumption (not to be taken too seriously) that a team's seeding accurately reflects the team's overall ability.  I will post my predictions for 2015 shortly after Selection Sunday, but in the meantime I have had some fun by simulating 100,000 tournaments to see how often each seeding tends to win.  The results are displayed on the graph above.  About 37.5% of the time, a 1-seed wins the tournament.  In the real world, they win about 62% of the time, so the model needs to be tweaked.  It is interesting that the likelihood of winning drops off approximately exponentially with the seed value, but it is not immediately obvious why that should be.

I have succeeded in tweaking the model to produce more realistic brackets, but sadly at the expense of simplicity.  The difficulty comes in having 1-seeds dominate the championships while still having a reasonable number of early-round upsets.  The tweaked model has a 1-seed winning about 61% of the time, but again it has the odds of bringing home a championships fall exponentially with seed.

Just as importantly, there is a 47% probability that at least one 5-seed will lose to a 12-seed in what I will continue to call the First Round (the NCAA now calls the play-in games the First Round).

As for "inevitability", I find that it is easy to come up with story lines for the brackets I am generating.  For example, Cinderellas emerge and go deep in the tournament only to suffer heartbreaking losses late.  A team "gets hot at the right time" or "was snubbed by the committee" -- except I know that in my model that the committee was right about which teams were better and which worse, and it is only by luck that anyone but a 1-seed wins a championship.  This no doubt happens all the time in real sports, which is why sometimes the NCAA Tournament winner did not win their conference tournament.  

It happens in history and in life, too.  I'm not one to dismiss the guiding hand of God in earthly affairs, but we have a strong tendency to misunderstand that and pretend that issues were never really in doubt, or even that the future is not really in doubt, because we know how "the story" is supposed to go.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Rosa Parks a Bigger Threat Than ISIS?

Bigger Threat Than ISIS?
DHS warns of domestic left-wing terror threat
The U.S. government says these are extremists who believe they can ignore laws and that their individual rights are under attack in routine daily instances, such as a bus ride.
Wait, that's not right.  The story actually says the threat comes from the right wing, and that "individual rights are under attack in routine daily instances, such as a traffic stop."  I guess this means that Obama is a right-wing extremist now?  It's an odd story to come out during the month -- proudly observed by CNN! -- that celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks for "ignoring laws" and "saying their individual rights [were] under attack in routine daily instances."

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Don't Steal the Hotel's Towels?


Actually, I've never been tempted to steal hotel towels, but this story reminds me of one time I sneaked them out of the hotel.  In 2011, I attended the March Meeting of the American Physical Society, which that year was held in Dallas.  I had lived near Dallas not long before this, so I welcomed the opportunity for a return visit.  

Sadly, the hotel I had booked for the whole week -- a member of a mid-priced chain at which I had never had any previous problems -- was, to put it very kindly, shabby.  One look at the sheets told me I wanted no physical contact with them; fortunately, there was a Walmart nearby, so I bought a sleeping bag.

The hotel's towels were no better.  They were thin and not very clean-looking, so I bought a package of white wash cloths and took them to a local laundromat, where I washed them along with the larger towels I had smuggled out of the hotel.  After a cycle in the washer with some bleach, they all looked clean enough to use.  Of course I left them, along with the wash cloths I had bought, so I didn't subtract towels -- I added them.  Likewise, I didn't have room in my luggage for a sleeping bag, so I left that, too, with a note that the cleaning staff could keep it.

And no, I don't use that chain any more.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Death Penalty and Jordan's Revenge

2266 The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people's rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people's safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party
2267  Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent."
-- Catechism of the Catholic Church

First of all, the subject of this post is actually quite different from my other posts on the death penalty, which were about the death penalty as an idea, regardless of whether it were ever carried out or not.  Here we are talking about executions that actually occurred.  The question is, should they have?

First, let's look at this from the perspective of the operative virtues. Did the executions respect justice?  That is, were the guilty parties really guilty of crimes so serious that they merited death?  I don't think there can be any doubt that the answer is YES.

Was mercy operative in the executions?  Although there will be some who think it is a mercy that the terrorists were not tortured the same way ISIS tortures its victims, again I think the answer is clear, and this time it is NO.  However, the requirement for mercy is not of the same nature as the requirement for justice, and sometimes it will not be possible to be merciful. 

The state must not show forbearance when the virtue of prudence shows that this would grossly violate its obligation to the public.  Would it have been dangerously irresponsible for the Jordanian government to have simply continued to hold the terrorists in prison?  That is hard to say.  The main consideration is not what the individuals already in custody might do, but rather what their allies still under arms might do.  Those allies are unlikely to be intimidated by the executions, and an escalation in the conflict between Jordan and ISIS seems unavoidable, but a failure of Jordan to (among other things) carry out the executions would likely have been taken as a sign of weakness promising future ISIS successes, and that could be very dangerous -- particularly regarding the ability of ISIS to attract and retain supporters and recruits.

In other words, this appears to be a case of achieving war aims by killing people who have in fact committed crimes meriting death.  War is not inherently evil, particularly if you have expansionist psychopaths with stated plans of world domination on your border and they have already invaded a neighbor.  If it is not necessarily wrong to effect the deaths of soldiers guilty of nothing but being on the opposite side, so long as the rules of a just war are observed and it is done to achieve important military goals, surely it is not necessarily wrong to achieve similar goals by killing those who actually deserve to die.

Interestingly enough, although both war and capital punishment are explicitly treated in the Catechism, this sort of overlap is not.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Infinite Regress

Achilles Penthesileia BM B209  
Some of the arguments for the existence of God as a First Cause depend on the assertion that there can be no infinite regress of causes.  It is safe to say that although such an assertion is plausible, it is not self-evident. I thought it would be just as well to attempt to construct an example.  My attempt fails, but it is an interesting failure (at least to me).

The idea is this:  Achilles throws his spear, which we will take to be made of continuous, infinitely divisible matter.  (Sorry Democritus!)  In making his through, he obviously does not hold the spearhead directly; he holds the spear by somewhere near the middle of the shaft, but the push of his hand is ultimately responsible for the motion of the spearhead.  Ultimately responsible, but not directly responsible!  We can divide the shaft between his and and the spearhead (of length L) into halves:  Achilles pushes the first half, the first half pushes the second half, and the second half pushes the spearhead.  We can divide this again, so that now we have quarters:   Achilles pushes the first quarter, which pushes the second quarter, which pushes the third quarter, which pushes the fourth quarter, which pushes the spearhead.  We can continue, a la Zeno, to divide the shaft indefinitely, but each time we do, there remains a well-defined chain of causes, with the last piece (ending at distance L) being pushed by the penultimate piece (ending at distance (1 - 2-N)L).  Isn't this an example of an infinite regress?

Well, no.  It is a finite regress of arbitrary length, and no one has ever had a problem with finite (though long) regress.  We are safe as long as the number of divisions of the shaft is an arbitrarily large but finite number, but what happens if we do what the Greeks would never feel comfortable in doing and "complete" the infinity of divisions? Then the last piece, at distance L, will be pushed by the penultimate piece at distance (the largest rational number less than 1)L.  But there is no such thing as "the largest rational number less than 1".

Of course, another way to avoid a first cause is to have a closed causal loop.  Those may be possible in General Relativity, but it is highly doubtful that they can describe the universe as a whole.  Worse, although the cause of each element in the loop may be well defined, the loop as a whole seems very ... artificial, a thing even more unsatisfying and in need of an explanation than a chain of events going back into the infinite past (with apologies to the Big Bang).

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Elgin Marbles on the Moon

Ac marbles
Author unknown [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Last night I dreamed that there were huge carvings on the surface of the moon.  They were similar in style to the Elgin Marbles, but each figure was at least 1 mile high, and were easily visible from Earth through sufficiently powerful telescopes.  Although there were heroes, centaurs, etc., the carvings did not correspond to any known characters or stories from any mythology; I had the vague feeling these might correspond to a mythology from the age of the Titans, before Zeus overthrew his father.  There was an accompanying inscription in very old Greek; a few people could read it, but I never found out what it said.  The whole display was clearly meant to be seen from Earth.  Naturally enough, there was a mission planned to visit the carvings in the hope of learning something about how they had been made, whether this meant that people had once lived on the moon and it once had (surprisingly) an atmosphere, etc. 

My dreams are still better than SyFy made-for-TV movies.