Saturday, July 18, 2009

Blogging has not stopped

Its just the time I might have been able to spend blogging has been spent emailing, or facebooking, or working, or sleeping, or responding to comments on some of the other posts.

Bear with me, gentle reader!

I'm still waiting on a clear vote in the comment thread on one of them to determine which post to write next.... but that'll probably never happen.

If I haven't gotten a clear reader response by Thursday (my planned day off), I'm going to just pick an order for my planned posts and go with it.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Quick follow up, before I forget

On selecting songs and ranking them according to some criterion:

My mother suggests the excellent Puff the Magic Dragon as the best song about Marijuana, and I thoroughly agree! Since she is not the internet nor my music collection, she counts as a legitimate source, so that is now my pick.

To me, the worrying thing about the latest Triple J All Time Hottest 100 is not the obvious flaws and things I would do differently (no Talking Heads? No Lou Reed? So little pop, or good hip-hop? Where's the love for female artists - Lucinda Williams, PJ Harvey, k.d. lang? Such heavy over-emphasis on the 90s? I mean you don't seriously think Smells Like Spirit is better than, say, Like a Rolling Stone do you? Its not even better than Lithium!) Everyone would have gripes and issues with any possible such list if they haven't compiled it themselves.

No, my problem is the converse - its so eerily similar to the list I might come up with if asked. For so many bands I like, my favourite song they do is their highest ranked and often sole showing on the list (at a glance, Breathe, No One Knows, Closer, Damnit, Chop Suey, Beds are Burning...) Radiohead gets as much doubtlessly unwarranted attention as bands like the Beatles do when its Rolling Stone critics and not Triple J votinf; and yet I can only think of the songs I'd cut to make room for even more Radiohead.

Songs I have loved passionately since first exposure like Float On and Common People are to me somewhat shock inclusions, and I don't know whether to be happy or sad about it.

Really, my musical tastes are pretty much just typical Triple J crowd + some stuff from my parents. Mixed in with a couple of influential friend's tastes; and even then it usually turns out my parents had tried and failed to get me to listen to those more obscure older bands when I was younger.

Oh well. As I replied when told my iPhone made me a conformist: "Yeah - conforming to awesome!"

Alright, that wasn't really a quick follow up, you got me. But I've been burned in the past where I've wanted to write on something current and topical, haven't managed to get all my thoughts down, and have come back to the draft 6 months later and realised there's nothing salvagable in such a completely dated post. So best to get it out of the way.

No more music for the immediate future was it seems a non-core promise. I will abide by the fair and democratic process of the comments thread in the previous post when deciding what to publish next, though. I promise.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Despite the complete lack of feedback, I persist

Grrrr..... gave away a shift at work to do something important and screwed it up completely. May as well make use of the time for some "productive blogging."

However to try and gauge if anyone is actually genuinely reading and engaging with my recent flurry of blog activity - given the impressively low 0 comments from 3 posts so far - I am going to pull an old trick and ask the audience to vote on which of the current "posts in potentiam" I should write first and put online. (Of course I reserve the right to ignore all votes and write about something more awesome like Ninja Turtles.)

1) My angry rant in which I throw scorn upon the political beliefs of 95% of the people I know, not to mention most of the rest of the population as well.

2) Latest perspectives on mental illness. The seed of this idea is to do with nomenclature - Bipolar Disorder is in some ways a better term Manic Depression, but has its own flaws. Watch me explain how!

3) Something with a more economics bent. A lot of what I've been reading over the last (6? 12?) months online has been from sources such as the excellent blog Marginal Revolution. All pop-level stuff of course - why scalpers exist, business models of the Web 2.0 revolution, the economics of amusement parks (for those Luna Park colleagues out there), that kind of thing. Nothing too dry about equations that predict which banks will fail to come through the GFC or anything like that.

4) A post that's a bit more out there and which I only expect a small handful of people to really appreciate but maybe is saying something more interesting than my derivative opinions on other topics.

5) What I think should be taught in schools instead of what is currently taught. This may segue into another planned and very important future post, Advice for Smart People (a category which includes all the people I've ever known to read this blog.)

6) Something else! Something else! As certain people I know might chant.

Religion, drugs and music will still feature in this blog, but not in the next post if I can avoid it. I prefer to mix things up.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Original thinking (??)

Most of my interesting thoughts are, I'd wager, about information. I guess that's trivially true of anyone, so I'll clarify that by saying I mean in the meta-sense: modern Information Technology and Theory of course, but also vague pop culture stuff about memes, Economics and Politics and Evolutionary Biology as forms of Information Warfare (so essentially, Game Theory). Theological speculations, which is always a very on-again off-again area of interest for me, often comes back to the Greek philosophical idea of logos - as made famous by John's "In the Beginning was the (Logos), and the (Logos) was with God, and the (Logos) was with God." Christ literally is the Word of God, made flesh - or as a modern blogger might phrase it, he is the Christianity Meme, embodied. That may sound trivial, but I don't think it is.

I'm vastly undereducated in a lot of key areas that are needed to really come up with more than just fluff on this vast topic - which I'll blame ironically on modern information overload. It'd be nice to have learned some Game Theory in a formal setting rather than getting the two-minute version via Wikipedia; but what I really kick myself for not taking while I was still at University was any Statistics, which high school had portrayed as boring stuff for people who couldn't hack real mathematics. That might be true, but knowing zero statistics is in retrospect the thing that most contributes to my utter scientific illiteracy. Every time I try to read any real, not completely dumbed down science, I am reminded of this fact. If you're going to care about information, it doesn't help if you can't talk meaningfully about uncertainty.

Anyway, out of this quagmire of uninformed opinions, I do occasionally come up with something that still seems worth pursuing upon closer inspection. The most significant is that I think Kolmogrov Complexity holds they key to unraveling a lot of misplaced notions about information in a formal setting, and has been underutilised for this task.

Ever since Shannon started the Information Age (a feat he gets precious little attention for), his ideas have been pretty dominant. For good reason. "Data" Entropy is a great formalisation of ideas about information, and its link to Physical Entropy is clearly one of those deep, profound links between disparate fields that Science fortuitously stumbles upon from time to time.

The problem is, the Entropy story about Information doesn't seem to quite capture our intuitions as well as it could. When a Creationist tries to argue that Intelligent Design follows from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, simple equations about solar energy show them to be ignorant and misinformed. But there is something seductive about the intuition that they're appealing to - that in some sense, PageRank and Quantum Computers and Mozart and all the rest coming about through what started as a chance process is simply implausible (in a whole different sense than mere gas particles huddling into the corner of the room.)

This might just be a broken intuition - we can't with finite brains really comprehend the calculable unlikelihood of the gas molecule trick, and we can't even begin to calculate what the odds of modern human civilisation coming into being by chance are; in fact, we can't even meaningfully formulate the question in a rigorous setting. Hence Randall Munroe's spot on snipe at the Drake Equation.

However, I stumbled upon a neat turn in the argument. It has all the rigour of an undergrad paper in Literary Criticism, and may just be because I find Computer Science much easier than Physics. But if we frame the debate in terms Kolmogrov Complexity, instead of Entropy alone, we can easily say:

What if the universe is like a giant file being subject to gzip style compression? So Entropy is increasing, but in a sense the universe is getting "more organised", and this crazy spike of local knowledge is like a symbol table for the rest of the universe. Thus, we can build room sized computers that generate concise descriptions of how galaxy sized super massive blackholes behave.

Of course for this to work in converting Intelligent Designers to your view, you have to argue the universe somehow evolved a genetic algorithm to zip itself. Maybe that argument goes "A generalised Second Law (which could have been made by a Deist God, or Theist God, or no god at all; the theory is "Design wise neutral") is the at heart of the Theory of Everything: Time maximises Entropy, which is actually information density - it just looks like randomness. All the rest - every other law of science and the universe that follows from them - is details."

You can make that argument without even brining in Kolmogrov Complexity I think, but it seems much clearer to me to use that analogy. I've never convinced myself that I really understood the subtleties of Thermodynamics; but I can explain how WinZip can make files shorter to a high school student.

To quote Bertrand Russel....

"Why I'm not a Christian"

This is a critically important question to my Christian friends, and probably of no interest to any other readers - many of whom may just (falsely) assume that it is obvious why genuine Christian beliefs are wrong, or most likely do not even have a clear idea of what genuine Christian beliefs are.

By Christian, I refer to systems of belief in which the Bible is considered the holy, inspired Word of God (for some specific meaning of "Holy", "Inspired", "Word" and "God"....) and is the supreme source of authority on religious matters. This includes most but not all people in the world who would self-describe as Christian - I think its fair to say all mainstream Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox denominations subscribe to the notion, although that core idea manifests in different ways. Protestants might argue that Catholic and Orthodox churches don't believe this, but I'd tend to say they just add more qualifiers. You could also pick other standards for what qualifies someone as Christian, e.g. belief in the Nicene creed. This is all tangential to my argument.

Suffice to say, there are a lot of reasons why I don't personally consider it possible that the whole Bible can be the inspired word of God. Some of my arguments are better than others. The shortest, most succinct "knockdown" objection, though, which rests mainly on the Bible itself and very little that's controversial about either the text or the world, is most succinctly stated in 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 (NIV):
For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
The surrounding verses shed more light on this passage, and another take on the same line of reasoning appears in Romans 5:12-19.

We can blame these versus for the whole doctrine of Original Sin. While I don't think we can say with certainty that Paul believes in Original Sin in the sense a lot of theologians over the centuries have framed the idea, what is clear is that he is drawing a parallel between one man, Adam, bringing Sin into the world, and one man, Christ, sending Sin out of the world (first through the resurrection and then ultimately through the second coming.)

So an honest "biblical" Christian has a limited number of positions to take.

1. Adam was a real person, Christ was a real person. This is a perfectly consistent view to take of the Bible, makes the most sense of Paul's theology, is the most plausible explanation of what Paul himself likely believed, and is very popular in America and several other cultures (such as 15th century Christendom.) Sadly, in other places, where science is taken remotely seriously, it is impossible to defend this view. While you might be able to get a scientist to concede that its a theoretical possibility that homo sapiens sapiens once got to a single fertile couple population bottle neck, it's "only on the strictly philosophical grounds that few things are impossible" kinda point. Actual probability, close enough to zero to round down. And certainly even then this couple could not have been the first two homo sapiens (partly because that the idea doesn't even really make any sense. Evolution is essentially a continuum with only the apperance of discrete groupings any larger than the organism due to sampling.)

2. Adam is a metaphor, Christ is a metaphor. Completely solves the objection contained in 1. Leads to Gnosticism, or Thomas Jefferson style Deism, or some other similar historical Christian heresy. Many of these have some intellectual appeal, but are so different from mainstream modern belief as to justifiably not be called Christian, because they force you to completely change the reading of the entire New Testament. Christians have spent centuries generating solid arguments to try and knock down any possiblility of holding this view, for good reason.

3. Adam is a metaphor, Christ is a real person. And Paul is Satan. Or smoking crack, because this reading is only possible if Paul is insane or evil or a con artist or something else which completely undermines any authority he has on these topics and demands that we tear all his writings out of the Bible (which is all fine and holy except for Paul's bits, of course). This is a bit of a shame, because Paul is the intellectual father of Christian theology. Without Paul we might still have a religion which could perhaps be called Christianity, but while it wouldn't be as radically different as what case 2 would imply, it would still be radically different enough that this remains a losing move for a Christian to make in this particular exchange. It also brings up the interesting and painful question of what parts of the Bible we can then trust, and on what grounds. The end result of such a process occuring after the initial concession is not a pretty sight.

4. Some crazy compatiblistic compromise that tries to iron out one of the difficulties raised above. I made up one of these while committed to a psych ward. It was kind of a cross between 2 and 3. One day I might try to explain it coherently and sanely to someone in full, but I think it might be a little tricky to do so.

5. The Bible has serious flaws and is therefore not "inspired" - maybe parts of it are, but we can't reliably tell which parts. Therefore, by contradiction, Q.E.D., etc.

There is something critical about the argument I have made above that distinguishes it from other issues, like minor factual inconsistencies (how did Judas die?), bickering about translations or correct reading ("this passage is a poem of course you shouldn't expect it to be scientifically accurate"), historical doubts (Exodus doesn't exactly match other sources we have), and so forth; these all make Christiantiy less likely, to varying degrees, but this is far worse than just "less likely". It pushes the Bible beyond Inerrant, beyond Infallible, and indeed beyond Inspired. You have to go down the path of either full blown anti-science Creationism, or almost complete rejection of a core Christian doctrine. Or you must indulge in what I think amounts to massive intellectual dishonesty in your Bible reading, the kind that so offends Christians when ignorant atheists (or heretics) try to pull it off.

I've never come across a convincing escape route out of this particular flanking manouver (except, as noted, during the time when I was at my craziest.) The apologist appears surrounded on all sides with no way out. I could, of course, be wrong. But I think its far more likely Paul is the mistaken one here, and I can't see how Christians have any legitimate tactic left but to quote something like 1 Corinthians 3:19, and thus win their battle but concede mine.

Which, of course, means they ultimately have lost the war for my soul - supposedly the one that counts. Or maybe they haven't. But that's another one of my crazy heretical theories that can wait for another time.

High Fidelity Game Part II

Most awesomely nasty and vicious break up songs ever.

I think that sits well enough on the specific/general spectrum to do a good top 5. Same rules as last post. Here goes nothing.

5. Song for the Dumped - Ben Folds Five. Funnily enough for a list in which stingingly smart insults are the norm, Ben Folds, lyrically clever nerd musician extraordinaire, hits a home run with words that possess no subtly or finesse whatsoever. "Give me my money back you bitch. And don't forget to give me back my black t-shirt." The intelligence was saved for the premise, and the punch is much in the piano as in what he's saying.

4. From a one nerd with glasses, a piano and plenty of rock, to another - indeed to the greatest of the all. Elvis Costello is of course the man to whom I refer (technically he plays more guitar himself - so sue me.) Here I've more picked an artist before having a specific song in mind, because Elvis has been doing bitter and brilliant better than nearly anyone for about 30 years. The winning song is Alison, but that may be because I'm too dumb to realise other songs I like more are also aimed at former partners. I mean we are talking Elvis Costello here. Still I'm very happy with this choice - the song is both understated and menacing at the same time.

3. In a repeat of 4, I insist Bob Dylan has to have a candidate on the list. The best choice is surely Like a Rolling Stone, which is one of the angriest and best rock songs of all time, as voted by music critics employed by Rolling Stone - who always seem to think white men perfected the genre in the late 60's / early 70's (in fairness they have a very strong case for both assertions.) The only problem is its technically only a common speculation that this is about an ex-girlfriend - Dylan could just have a serious grudge against someone he didn't sleep with; the song doesn't discuss the singer's relationship to its target. Let's stick with the it anyway though, because its just that good. A quote from a guy called Bill Wyman as read on Wikipedia says it better than I could:

"'Like a Rolling Stone' portrays an entire youth generation as a slumming sorority girl — and that's just the first verse. Then he gets nasty: The rest of the song is the rock 'n' roll equivalent of one of those scenes in The Sopranos in which a mobster systematically kicks the bejesus out of someone who's already down."

Yeah, that pretty much covers it.

2. You're So Vain, Carly Simon. I'm a sucker for a song with a punchline, especially one this good. It's not just the chorus that's great, either - "You're where you should be all the time, and when you're not your with some underworld spy, or the wife of a close friend." Ouch. Ouch ouch, even. This one had everyone asking "I wonder what poor jerk that was about." Several possible former flames of Carly get brought up. The best explanation I ever heard, on The Coulda Been Champions, maintained that different lines in the song were about different men, so that in effect this was about all of her shitty ex-boyfriends, and also about none of them. Which takes "you probably think this song is about you" to an entirely new level of absolute awesome. Way to screw with their heads, Ms. Simon.

1. Is, of course, You Oughta Know, Alanis Morriset. Absolutely in-fucking-credible. If I were her ex I would honestly have feared for my safety. "I wish nothing but the best for you both" shows Alanis sure knew how to use irony even if she didn't know what it was. Searing hatred drips from every line. Brutally intelligent and yet utterly irrational and passionate. "Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?" I bet he will now. Every time he's with a woman. For the rest of his natural life. Which she clearly hoped would be short - "But you're still alive!" ("and I wish that this was not the case, in case you didn't get that bit.") What a song. Lyrically, musically, and the incredible rawness of her delivery. It makes me flinch whenever I play it. Which is often.

Please don't hurt me, Alanis. I promise not to even try to go out with you let alone break up with you. I won't even ever come to Canada. Really.

The best songs about various drugs

Time to play the High Fidelty game. Except its almost impossible to do the top 5 songs about anything general like Death, or Love, or any crap like that. It pays to be specific. So, these are my favourite songs not about even drugs in general but specifically about certain drugs. Done without aid of my iTunes library or reference to the internet so I reserve the right to smack my head and say "Well obviously I should have included X" at a later date.

1. Heroin - Very challenging category; struggles with heroin have inspired many great songs. I'm giving to Perfect Day by Lou Reed. Edges out Golden Brown by The Stranglers. Honorable mention for an Australian award - To Her Door by Paul Kelly.

2. Ice - Semi Charmed Life, by Third Eye Blind. No contest, one because I don't know of any other songs about Ice, and two because even if I did I guarantee this would still be my favourite. I hate that such a good song somewhat glamorises such an awful substance but thats rock music for you.

3. Cocaine - Mr Tambourine Man by Bob Dylan. I never would have picked this song to even be about drugs - the lyrics are trippy but far from specific. But according to some no doubt well researched writing I once read on the Net, Tambourine Man was slang for Cocaine dealer back when Bob was writing this. So there you go. One of my absolute favourite songs of all time, and again about a drug that seems to have especially horrible effects on people.

4. LSD - too damn obvious to mention.

5. Alcohol - there are too many songs about booze to come up with a good candidate here. I'm just going to go with Take Me Home by Concrete Blonde, and accept its probably the "wrong choice", which doesn't matter because it kicks serious butt.

6. Caffine - can't think of anything. Wow. Maybe because its such a day-to-day part of life songwriters are less motivated to write songs about it (as opposed to mentioning coffee in passing in a song)

7. Nicotine - See 6.

8. Should prescription psychiatric drugs form a single category? Lithium by Nirvana. I have never been able to ascertain if Kurt Cobain ever took it, or was even told he maybe should take it, which seems odd; but surely that's the only explanation, given all the speculation about his possible mental illness, the fact that Lithium was and still is the gold standard treatment for Bipolar Disorder, and the title and lyrics of the song?

9. Pot - Drawing a blank. Which is frustrating, because there has to be a good song about it that I know and like, I just can't think of it.

10. Ecstacy - another blank. Too many gaps on this list. The temptation to cheat is overwhelming.

Novocaine for the Soul is of course a great song, but its not about Novocaine, so it doesn't count. Special K by Placebo is a little bit about Special K and is a good song, so would probably win that category if I'd bothered to list it, but I choose not to. I could of course do other drugs but 10 seems like a nice round number.

Why am I always blogging about drugs when I'm not really a fan or a user? I guess I find it a fascinating topic for a wide range of reasons.