Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Cracker Jack

Just a short week ago I had no idea that any of this was even a possibility.

...and then...

I brought home this prize from the Fire Department Holiday Party Gift Exchange:
Because no one was interested in "stealing" it from me -- for a short glorious time I had a squeezable rubber chicken which sorta laid an egg, but the Fire Captain stole it from me -- this was my last chance choice. Not surprisingly I had no idea what it was because I don't watch television, and apparently, don't pay enough attention to my surroundings when searching for plumbing fittings to retrofit into my automata at Home Depot. For those like me, if there are still any, it's a marketing tie-in for what is considered to be the most popular "Reality" TV show on the <SATIRE>Arts and Entertainment Network</SATIRE>.


These guys' faces are plastered across every webpage I visit because their Cracker Jackass in Chief made some cretinous comments about folks who are not exactly like his own family, in an interview in GQ magazine. <SATIRE>When I was a sprout, GQ was the upscaleish Playboy with slightly less exposed flesh and slightly more manly fashion layouts. Now I guess it's just the Cracker Jack Playboy.</SATIRE> Anyway, the brouhaha went viral, A&E promised to ban the miscreant from the show, and Sarah Palin came rushing to the defense of freedom of poorly-thought-out-speech.

Or was it?

I now know more than I ever though possible about duck hunting in Louisiana and, if the CJAinC is actually briefly absented from the program I'm sure his Holiday Bonus Check will reflect the shortfall. So. A masterfully played publicity stunt which also solidified the base constituency, eh what?

As an antidote I went searching for what I would have sworn on a stack of Cracker Jack Bibles was a Tom Lehrer song that turned out to be by the Firesign Theater -- so much of my youth was a haze of culturally confused references -- What Makes America Great?

Friday, December 13, 2013

Epistomology 1

...back in the day when I was in skool, course #1 was the introductory event, now the usual nomenclature is Basket Welding 101, but I'm stuck in the past...anyway...being shut in with a cold and 8" of snow outside for the last few days my mind gets to wandering, I've been meaning to try to get this down for a while so here goes...

I am, from what I glean in the literature, a Pragmatic Instrumentalist with a strictly Mechanist -- causal -- bent.  This means that I only believe things when I see them and can construct some reasonably clear step-by-step explanation for why they are that way.

As an Instrumentalist I believe that we make Hidden Markov Models of reality. Observations are used to develop models that make efficient predictions. But these models may have no deep relationship to that reality.

I know there are difficulties with Causality. So I also make it an article of faith that every Effect has a Cause. However, this does not mean that I believe that every Effect is predictable. Huge numbers of variables, sensitive dependence on conditions, and Heisenberg make that impossible. None the less, statistical and quantum mechanics make pretty good predictions about the distribution of classical and quantum level behaviors. Most pool balls aimed at a pocket go in. Unless I'm the player.

I also know there are difficulties with Objective Observation. Thus I'm willing to posit that a whole buncha folks should observe and explain things in a reasonably similar fashion before I really believe myself. This means that I depend on a fairly stable external 'reality' peopled by others like me. That's a tough row to prove, so lets make it another article of faith.

There are two places this gets dicey.

The first is mass delusion. The second is stuff I can't see ...and maybe third, various combinations of the two... For the latter I have to put my trust in other people who seem to have a grasp of the issue to provide second hand observation and explanation. In triplicate if possible.

For the former we have Engineering.

If someone can build a bridge or skyscraper that survives multiple earthquakes, I tend to believe that they know something about how the world works. When the explanations for these lunar-landers and cell-phones are all stacked together and appear logically congruent then the body of knowledge they are based on is good enough for me. This is the Pragmatic part. As the logo on this blog says: Quomodo Efficat -- Whatever Works.


A set of similar independent Observations equals Evidence. Some Evidence with a plausible Explanation equals an Hypothesis. A large body of replicable Hypotheses equals a Scientific Fact. And a set of Scientific Facts that makes things work equals Truth. Or the best I can get in this life.

I should note here that this is not the way Science actually behaves on the day-to-day scale, there's more social construction at work. But on the aggregate, stuff tends to even out. If this weren't the case we'd have Mach's law instead of Boltzmann's equations.

Then, thanks to Popper, this all has to be couched in a language that makes predictions which can be tested and refuted. "God does (not) exist" is not a good scientific hypothesis. Further, science cannot even address the super-natural because it is just that: not of nature. Once the super-natural impinges on the natural, then we've got a case. I've just never seen it happen.

Of course, there are a huge quantity of observations that don't fit together in this system. Things which are not immediately repeatable, or for which we don't know the replication conditions, or happen so infrequently that we can't repeat them. When these observations can be explained by existing theory we can lump them into what we already know. The recent sighting of the "Bert and Ernie" neutrinos at Antarctica's Ice Cube facility, or the probable Higgs Boson(s), might be good examples.

When they so aren't explicable there's trouble...

Just because someone (believes she) saw something isn't strong enough Evidence to begin developing explanatory hypotheses. First it is impossible to distinguish believes he saw from actually saw.  Then add observational biases, sensory and memory quirks, and just plain errors in the instruments being used and it adds up to Insufficient Evidence.

But... Because someone (believes she) saw something inexplicable is the place every new theory starts. It's the beginning of a Metric S-Ton of work to be done. Unfortunately there are usually many lower-hanging fruits to be selected, so a lot of observations get lost in the skuffle. This is not a good reason to deny their existence, and in fact there is no basis to deny anything until all due-diligence attempts at replication have been exhausted. But it's the way of the (Enlightened) world.

Good examples of the inexplicable might be, witch-doctory, acupuncture, and/or the placebo effect. (To my knowledge I have never experienced any of these working. Usually drugs and techniques that work for other people stop working on me after a couple tries, so I'm even more skeptical than I should be.) Placebos are well documented to the point that they must be accounted for in medical studies. The best explanation I've seen so far is from a natural healer who said, "It just proves how strong an influence the mind has over the body." This is probably both factually and poetically true, but it provides no mechanism nor way to replicate the effect. So we stumble along asserting, often incorrectly it seems from some recent statistical meta-studies, that such-and-such-a-drug(-that-my-company-supplies) is XX% better than a placebo for YY condition.

Or spontaneous cancer remission. It happens. No one knows why. Maybe you had a fever? Your immune system finally kicked in? Hormones? Prayer?  No way to even create a body of evidence because it's so rare. Cracking that nut would be worth a few Nobel Prizes. However, as I said, there are many lower-hanging prizes with higher chances of success.

So it's a Miracle.

Friday, December 6, 2013


Was looking for an animal themed gifting experience and found this. I wonder if she'll appear on every page I visit now? (I'll miss bikini girl though)...