Tuesday, November 29, 2011

I love my job

If you are using Firefox or Chrome, and your video drivers are very up-to-date, you should see something more than a couple of non-functional buttons below. Putting this together took me a little more than half an hour (I had to dig up an undocumented feature of X3DOM) and it totally counts as work. Awesome.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Burzynski Clinic, and the thug Marc Stephens

Mostly just wanted to do my part to Streisandify the shameless thug Marc Stephens, who claims to represent the Burzynski Clinic (though it's not entirely clear yet that he does) and has taken to such low methods as posting Google Satellite pictures of a 17-year-old blogger's house. The guy is a grade-A asshole, and no amount of daylight is too much for his thuggish tactics.

I also wanted to be clear about exactly what the Burzynski Clinic is doing that is ethically wrong. After all, antineoplaston therapy isn't completely implausible (though what evidence is available seems to go pretty firmly against it), and when there are no known better treatments, isn't it okay to try unproven methods, in the hopes they might pay off?

Not if you charge money for it. Patients typically don't pay to be in a medical trial, for somewhat obvious reasons. Even if antineoplaston therapy still looked promising (it doesn't) it would be unethical to charge patients exorbitant sums of money to receive it -- doubly so if the treatment is already looking dubious from the results of previous trials.

Why I oppose the figurative use of the term "militant" in all contexts

Uh oh, I go and call Bruce Hood a "nice guy", and Bruce himself responds in the comments unfortunately triggering one of my big pet peeves.

No, it's not that Bruce thinks the outspoken atheism strategy is "misguided" and that he doesn't "understand" it -- reasonable people can disagree, and I stand by my point that there is a difference between Bruce, who simply favors a softer approach towards religion, vs. folks like Mooney, Rosenau, etc., who spend a sizeable fraction of their time talking about why other people's approaches are wrong.

What bugs me is Bruce's use of the phrase "militant atheism". The problems with this phrase have been pointed out time and time again, but I'm going to go a step further: I do not think it is appropriate ever to use the phrase "militant" in a figurative/non-literal manner, no matter what group you are talking about.

My reasons for this are threefold: First, the original literal usage -- meaning engaged in or favoring actual military action -- is still quite common. Second, which usage of the word is intended is largely determined by the group to which it is attached. Third, and most importantly, it seems to me that when the group in question is advocating in favor of a historically oppressed classification, they are far more likely to get the figurative usage. And that to me sounds like an attempt to slander and squelch.

If we are talking about a militant Islamist, it is clear we mean one who advocates violence; we do not call Harun Yahya a militant Muslim, even though he is very aggressive about promoting Islam. It would seem incongruous and even libelous to label him as such. This is true for pretty much any religious group one attaches the word "militant" too, as well as for most types of purely political causes, e.g. a "militant separatist" is not simply someone who advocates strongly for independence, but who endorses and/or participates in military action in order to achieve it.

On the other hand, if we are talking about a "militant feminist", it is obvious we do not mean a woman who literally endorses violence against men or against misogyny. That's just absurd. The same goes for "militant atheist" and "militant homosexual", etc. Although I did hear that the Queer Eye guys were thinking about forming a paramilitary group to assassinate public figures with a poor fashion sense. Oh no wait, I didn't.

Now, maybe part of this is simply because there really aren't any militant atheists, feminists, or LGBT people. It just generally doesn't work that way. (Side note: Obviously in some places atheistic communism used violence to enforce atheism, but typically we would not identify those folks as "atheists" first and foremost, but rather as communists/Marxists/Stalinists/etc. If you wanted to call Mao a militant atheist, however, I would not argue with you.)

The situation is somewhat murkier for groups where there are true militants, but which sometimes get the figurative usage anyway. An example might be civil rights activists. Certainly I would not object to labeling some members of the former Black Panther Party as "militant civil rights activists" (although "militant black supremacists" might be more appropriate in that case). But you hear "militant" being used here sometimes just to refer to people who are outspoken and/or uncompromising in their views. Other examples would be animal rights activists or environmentalists, although it seems to me that in those cases, the usage of "militant" is predominantly literal. (Surprise surprise, since they don't deal with a historically oppressed group) I think I've heard non-violent people referred to as "militant environmentalists", but if I have, it hasn't been very often. That term is generally reserved for people who firebomb SUVs and such.

In any case, while the figurative usage of the term is quite common (in fact it is the first definition at Dictionary.com), it still feels terribly incongruous when it is applied figuratively to one of the groups for which the usage is normally meant literally. It would seem odd to call James Dobson a "militant Christian", for example, even though he is at least as strident in his beliefs as "militant atheists" like PZ Myers.

(Interesting side note: I googled for "James Dobson militant christian" just to see if anybody actually calls him that -- and in fact many do, for what it's worth -- and the first link that came up quotes James Dobson referring to "militant homosexual groups". I think my point has been made...)

Until that discrepancy in application of the term is resolved, I think the figurative meaning should be avoided altogether. Only call someone "militant" if they specifically endorse or participate in violence. Otherwise, you are falsely equating them with those who do. As long as "militant Islamist" implies someone who kills for Islam, you can't call someone a "militant atheist" without implying the same things about them.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Why are left and right reversed when you look in a mirror, but up and down are not?

I encountered this brain-teaser on another blog quite some time ago -- wish I could say which one, but I no longer recall -- and it turns out to be harder to articulate the answer than one might think. I puzzled through it at the time, and then I remembered it again last night and had to re-figure it. Thought I might record my thoughts on it this time around.

One reason I don't remember the original blogger is that he or she simply left it at, "Nobody can really quite say!", which is simply not true: it's just very difficult to say it, but one can indeed figure it out. Try it yourself before you read on, if only to realize that it's not as trivial as one might expect!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 95% of the answer stems directly from how left and right are defined, and if you want to skip to that, click here. Before that, however, I think it's useful to consider some directions which are not reversed in counter-intuitive ways.

Imagine a woman facing north and looking dead-on into a mirror at eye-level. She is wearing a ring on her "left" finger -- but this is the last time I will use the words "left" and "right" until we come to the answer, so let's say instead that she is wearing a ring on her west finger. Her eyes are facing north, as previously stated, and her head is pointing up.

For the woman in the mirror, all three axes -- north/south, east/west, up/down -- behave exactly as expected for a reflection in the plane of the mirror. Mirror woman's ring is still on her west finger, her head is still pointing up, but now her eyes are facing south. No surprises here, right?

This is because north, south, east, west, up, and down all have definitions which can be expressed independent of both a) any other direction, and b) the content of what you see. (There's actually a couple different ways of thinking about this for up/down, but for an earthbound mirror at eye-level the ambiguities don't come into play, so let's ignore them for now.) The compass points are defined by the Earth's magnetic field -- or by geographical convention if you prefer, but the result is the same -- and up and down are defined in relation to Earth's gravitational field. (Probably.)

In contrast, left and right are not well-behaved in this way; they are defined in relation to two other directions, namely top and front. Uh oh, and there's two new directions, "front" and "top". These are not well-behaved either; they are defined in relation to the content of the scene. For now, however, I am going to treat "top" as synonymous with "up", for simplicity, and then re-examine that assumption later. So when you add it all up:

"Left" is defined as the cross-product of "up/top" and "front", while "front" is defined by visual cues within the scene, such as the direction a person's eyes are pointing. (I think I got my signs right there, but don't beat me up if the correct cross-product is the other way; you get my point!) In our example of a woman facing north straight-on into a mirror, "up" stays constant, because it is (probably) defined in relation to gravity, while "front" reverses compass directions. The real woman's front is north, while the mirror woman's front is south -- we know this because "front" is defined in this case by the side of her body where her eyes are.

Interestingly, if one could make one's brain do the mental contortions, it ought to be possible to visualize it so that the woman's front and back have been reversed, i.e. that her eyes are now on the "back" of her head, her toes point "backwards", her back is now on her "front", etc., and if you could do that, then I believe one would also see that her left/right have not been reversed. The ass-backwards mirror woman still has her ring on her left hand. However, I find this impossible to fully conceptualize; I get about halfway and my mental image ends up looking like the teleporter scene from Spaceballs. It's worth trying this exercise anyway, if only because it helps illuminate why it is so difficult to articulate the answer to the titular question of this blog post. Our assumptions about the definition of left/right and front/back are so ingrained that even when we name the assumptions and express a conscious intention to discard them, we are still stuck with them. We can't help it.

Now imagine the woman turns 90-degrees to her left, so that she is facing west (but the mirror is still north of her). This is actually an easier case. Now we see that front and back are still the same -- west and east respectively -- but left and right have been reversed because they are directly perpendicular to the plane of reflection. It's no surprise that left and right are reversed in this case; how could they not be!

The math gets slightly more complicated if the woman is facing into the mirror at an angle (but still at eye-level, for now), but it ends up working out the same. In these scenarios, rather than one relevant axis staying the same and the other being reversed, both axes are partially transformed. It all works out though: Left/right will be transformed directly by reflection over the plane of the mirror, and indirectly via the same transform of front/back, and together it winds up with left/right being completely reversed.

I've been hand-waving so far on up/down and top/bottom, because they are the same as long as the mirror is at eye level. But what if the mirror is directly above the woman's head, and she is looking straight up at it? This case works out as well, although now it is important the we distinguish "top" as being something defined by the content of the scene, and we will also see that the definition of "up" is a bit slippery and people might have different ways of looking at it -- especially once you moved away from the Earth into space!

I also want to look at some cases where maybe left and right are not reversed in a mirror, because there are no cues to give you front/back or top/bottom. Alas, my sons really need some attention right now, so this will all have to wait for a follow-up post.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

I finally put my finger on what bothers me about the Occupy movement

Let me start this out by saying a few things: First, I unreservedly support the general aims of the Occupy movement, such as they are. Second, I do not want to make the mistake (and don't think I am) of impugning a movement or protest simply because its aims are not crystal clear; many a movement has been successful in enacting change without necessarily having specific demands at all times. Third, the police response in many places has been utterly appalling. Given the nature of the protest, it's almost unavoidable that there will be conflicts and arrests -- the entire point is to create an inconvenience, isn't it? -- but the lack of proportionality in places like Oakland, the bizarre unprovoked use of pepper spray in places like Berkeley, etc... it's just crazy!

All of that said, I've always intuitively felt like there was something not quite right about the Occupy movement. I knew it had something to do with their lack of specific goals, but as I said before, a movement doesn't necessarily need specific demands in order to be effective. Still, something about that just felt a little futile, a little misdirected somehow...

And yesterday, driving past the Occupy Rochester protest, it suddenly hit me: You can have a protest or movement that doesn't have specific demands, but you can't have a "we're going to stay here and we're not moving until either you arrest us all or..."-style protest without specific demands. How will you know when you're done? And if you can't know when you're done, how can you have a we-aren't-moving-until protest?

People like to draw parallels and contrasts between Occupy and the Tea Party movement. The validity of many of these comparisons is a bit questionable in my mind, but let me take the Tea Partiers as an example and show why they don't have this problem, despite having arguably even more nebulous goals than Occupy. The Tea Party movement is ongoing, but each rally or protest has a distinct start and end. Eventually the movement will peter out, but it won't seem like surrender when it does.

Occupy can't last forever, and since the point of the protest is "we-won't-leave-until", and since "until" is completely undefined, it will inevitably look like a surrender. The protesters will leave, despite the fact that "until" never happened.

Now, there are advantages to Occupy's approach. Certainly it was able to get the attention of the media despite an early unwillingness to give much coverage to OWS. (On a side note, I'm apparently so embedded in alternative media that I didn't even notice this lack of coverage until people started to complain about it) And the fact that it is a style of protest which is especially likely to generate conflict with law enforcement does create the opportunity for both more exposure and more sympathy for the movement.

But will we see "Occupy candidates" being swept into national government in Nov. 2012, the way we did with the Tea Partiers in 2010? I just don't see it. I don't know if has anything to do with this hokey Underpants Gnomes-esque format, or if it's more because of the general political lay of the land right now, or what. I just can't get excited about Occupy, because I don't think they have a path to the sea to actually accomplish anything. And it's not only because their demands are vague; it's because they are nevertheless operating in a way that is most effective at achieving specific demands. It just doesn't add all the way up for me.

I must reiterate, however, that I do support the Occupy movement nonetheless.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Rates for phone calls from jails and prisons should be federally regulated

My brother-in-law was diagnosed schizophrenic around the time he turned 20, he's struggled with drug addiction, and he's been homeless 90% of the time for I think over a decade now. No surprise under these circumstances that he is frequently in and out of jail. Given his preference for the West coast, he's often in jail on the other side of the country where we can't possibly visit him in person.

Which brings us to the issue at hand: Those who have not had friends or relatives land in an out-of-state jail may be unaware of this, but the rates to accept a collect-call from jail are typically very high. Well, no, that's not quite accurate: The rates are fucking extortion, that's what they are.

My mother-in-law tipped me off about a recent Huffington Post article about a prison in Georgia which charges inmates $5/minute for phone calls. That's over eight cents per second, for those of you playing along at home. And don't think that's an isolated case; I'm afraid I can't tell you what the rates are from the various jails my brother-in-law has landed in, because we only did it one time and were so shocked by how expensive it was we couldn't really consider it in the future. But it wasn't much less than in Georgia.

The HuffPo article focuses on how it is private prisons seeking to maximize revenue that are doing this, and while this is true, it somewhat misses the point: The government is letting them do it.

Corporations excel at maximizing short-term profit; in fact that's pretty much what they do. Something like two centuries ago, it was observed that if an entity is the sole provider of a particular good or service, they can maximize short-term profit by doing some really brutal sketchy shit. Like, I dunno, charging inmates and their families five fucking dollars a minute to make a phone call, for example.

We have laws that limit trusts and monopolies for exactly this reason. The government either ensures that there are multiple entities offering the particular service, or else when that is unfeasible, e.g. in the case of utilities, the sole provider has to submit to heavy government regulation in order to make sure they are playing fair.

But this is somewhat of a special case that doesn't fall under the existing legislation. (There are many special cases like this, for what it's worth) A prisoner at a particular jail or prison has no choice about who provides phone service for him, or for that matter, who provides any sort of long-distance communication whatsoever. It's either an in-person visit (which is not remotely practical if you're imprisoned on the opposite coast of your family) or bending over and taking whatever fees the jail wants to shove up your ass. There is no ability to leverage the competitive nature of the free market here: What are you gonna do, make sure you get tossed in a different jail the next time?

I can't entirely blame the companies who run these prisons. They are, after all, doing exactly what they are supposed to do: heartlessly maximizing profits above all other concerns. And what they are doing is legal. But it shouldn't be. Private prisons have the exclusive ability to profit from their inmates' desire for outside communication , and consequently that ability ought to be closely regulated to ensure it is not being wielded in an exploitative manner. Maximum rates should be dictated by federal law and kept at a reasonable level.

And by the way, if anybody shows up in the comments and says, "If you don't like it, don't commit a crime in the first place!," fuck you. With a rusty knife. Maybe you missed the part when I said my brother-in-law is a diagnosed schizophrenic, making it nigh impossible for him to hold down a job. Or maybe you didn't notice the fact that it's not me who committed the crime, but it is me who would be the victim of this immoral extortion if I want to let my wife speak to her brother.

Exploiting the families of inmates for huge profits is dirty pool, and it ought not to be allowed. And that's all I have to say about that.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Nicole's scar

I don't really write poetry. My song lyrics, of course, but I struggle with those, and in any case, one might say that every song I've written is a lie: usually they are about a character, even if written in the first person, and even when I am talking about myself I will freely change facts or even themes to make a rhyme or to enable a cool line. This post is in the spirit of a poem, but my forte is prose (that is the only way I know how to tell the truth) so that is how I will deliver it.

Nicole had a scar above her right eye. Or maybe above her left; it's strange how fast these details fade from memory. I asked her about it one time. When she was very young -- maybe three? or was it older? -- she had wandered in front of a kid on a swingset, and had gotten clobbered. It was pretty deep. Nicole always wore a lot of makeup, maybe too much, but nonetheless you could always see the scar.

During her life, I thought it was sad. I thought, "What a stupid little incident, and yet this scar will be here forever." But the other week I realized that scar isn't there anymore. Nicole's been cremated. There is no trace of that scar anymore, except for echoes: in photographs, and in the reverberations of Nicole that live on in the neural pathways of her friends and loved ones.

I used to think the saddest thing was that the scar was forever. But I was wrong, the saddest thing is that the scar was never forever.