Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Archiving the Twits

I don't do Twitter because, well, I'm a curmudgeon. If they had called it somthing else, maybe I'd sign on. But I cut my teeth on my 1928 Webster's New International Dictionary. Every hard word John Owen uses can be found in it. Twitter is there too:

twit'-ter, v.i. 1. To make a succession of small, tremulous, intermitted noises. 2. To titter; giggle.

twit'-ter, n. Act of twittering; a small, tremulous, intermitted noise, as that made by a swallow.

I just cannot bring myself to sign on to a service that encourages people to intermit tremulous noises, at whatever frequency.

But, leaving that aside, I see the Library of Congress has decided to archive every twitter message, (or tweet, n. A low chirping note.--....):

How Tweet it is.

They are doing it to preserve culture, or record culture, or simply archive culture. Whatever they end up doing to culture, I can't help but think that the data will be skewed by self selection. First, you have the twitterers, who probably represent the more extroverted cohort of the population. And second, I wonder if twitterers will modify their twittering when they realize that every single tweet will be recorded for posterity. In any event, the culture preserved will be one peculiar to those who overcame their natural reluctance to be likened to a small bird.

The New York Times has slightly more information. It noted that
"[a]cademic researchers seem pleased as well. For hundreds of years, they say, the historical record has tended to be somewhat elitist because of its selectivity. In books, magazines and newspapers, they say, it is the prominent and the infamous who are written about most frequently."

Now everyone has a shot at being a public figure. But don't worry, anti-elitism will only go so far. Matt Raymond, the library’s director of communications said that "the archive would be available only for scholarly and research purposes."

I'm sure archiving culture is a fine idea. It just seems strange to me that archiving everyone's casual top-of-the-head communication, even if public, is the way to do it. I'm thinking that Twitter will be old news in a few years when the latest new method of communicating your instant significant thoughts comes out. When mind-meld technology arrives in 2014, nobody except historians with peculiar interests will even know of Twitter. And I will be working even harder to have a closed mind.

But I will probably be shown to be wrong. If I turn out to be right, I promise, I won't twit* about it.

*twit, n. A taunting allusion or reminder; a taunt.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Advice for the purposeful dilettante

I ran across an article in the Economist lamenting the decline of the polymath. The article described the traditional polymath as a person with comprehensive knowledge of all or many fields. The article also briefly profiled prominent polymaths of the past and then discussed how difficult it is in the present for one to be a polymath. The main problem is that the sum total of knowledge has grown exponentially. Our era is one of specialists.

The article also described the phenomenon of specialists trying to keep generalists out of their field. When a newcomer arrives, the specialists often deride him as a dilettante. The dilettante is meant as a pejorative term. A dilettante, or dabbler, is considered beneath contempt because he has not paid his dues. Nevertheless, it is this dilettante whom I wish to defend.

Before I go too far, though, I should describe what I mean by purposeful. No question, there are aimless dabblers who never accomplish anything. But I do not want to completely disparage such dabblers. I often am one myself. Sometimes aimless contemplation after some hard work leads to serendipitous discovery. If it involves only a minor portion of your waking moments, a time of playful reflection refreshes one's labors.

And failing to accomplish something can be a distracting accusation. I have rarely been persuaded that accomplishment praised by others is necessarily most important. If I seek to understand a particular field to a greater extent than I did before, what business is it of the world whether I accomplish anything objective in that field? If my purpose is personal edification, then I have accomplished that goal. I have also laid a foundation for future building.

The key is "purpose." Random dabbling without a purpose is a waste of time. Psalm 90:12 is a prayer that God would "teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom." Certainly this should be a primary goal.

One of the creation ordinances is to subdue the earth. This implies work, focus, and diligence. Those three factors, I believe, provide useful guidance to determine whether your dabbling is purposeful.

Our first parents, Adam and Eve, were called to tend and keep the garden. By extension and express command, we are called to tend and keep the earth. This means that we are to learn whatever we can about creation. It is obvious, being finite beings, that we cannot know everything there is to know or do everything to be done. But the division of labor implied by our commanded task does not mean that we are to ignore everything but our own little sphere of interest. The purposeful dilettante, as a generalist, attempts to keep up with the broad understanding of all his fields of interest. Because there are too many details, he must be a master of succinct summary.

One advantage the purposeful dilettante has over the specialist is that he can remain below the radar, as it were. He is not defending his lofty position from other competitors. If the purposeful dilettante can remain sufficiently aware of developments in his chosen fields of interest he can see what is being ignored. He can apply insights gleaned from other fields to unworked ground. By building a modest body of work in a neglected area, the dilettante may actually end up being considered a specialist. Should the dilettante be able to do this in several different areas, he may be consulted as a comprehensive genius. So, while the purposeful dilettante may not be driven by ambitiously craving objective accomplishment, diligent and focused work may lead to it all the same. The crucial point is that he is driven by what interests him, not what he thinks can bring him acclaim. Acclaim is a pleasant potential byproduct.

I have read that it only requires roughly 10% more effort than average to accomplish significant things. That figure may be high. I have observed in my own life that adding one half hour each day to a particular and focused activity provides me good progress. A half-hour is only 6% more of an eight hour workday. Yet, by using a half-hour per day for only a matter of weeks, I was able to learn the Hebrew alphabet and a significant amount of Hebrew vocabulary. After a month or so of consistent half-hour periods, I had learned enough Hebrew to be able to read the Hebrew Bible at perhaps a fourth-grade level. I'm still progressing.

Similarly, in the past, one half hour of consistent practice on the organ or harpsichord has yielded remarkable progress (for less than talented me). I can say the same thing about calculus, physics, Greek, and many other fields of endeavor. Consistent half-hour periods of focus allowed me to understand computer programming, complex software, political history, theology, and many other areas of knowledge.

I also know that a half-hour of dictation yields something around 1000 words. Of course, these words require editing and that requires additional time. But the thoughts are down on paper and available as material for further work. The only thing that limits my edification and growth is failing at diligence. And here is the other key point: native intelligence and brilliance are less important than diligence. I cannot change my native intelligence, but diligence is completely within my control.

So, in the end, the purposeful dilettante is purposeful because he is diligent. Advice for the aimless yet restless: follow whatever interests you. Follow it diligently. Ignore the name-calling from the specialists and press on. Your passion and your work is the reward. Should external recognition arrive, it is a blessing from God.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Role of Science

Proper science is always descriptive. It seeks to be predictive. It never is prescriptive.

I believe that confusing these categories is what is behind the muddled debate regarding the role of science and faith in Scripture.

Before looking at the three categories, I think it is important to identify the fundamental premise of the discipline of science. This premise, which is necessarily an article of faith, is the belief in the uniformity and consistency of nature. Similar conditions produce similar outcomes. Science must assume this a priori. The entire discipline may be summarized as an empirical search for confirmation of this premise. As David Hume pointed out many years ago, empirical observation can never prove an absolute truth. In order for science to work as science, the scientist must assume that nature behaves consistently. The thoughtful philosopher of science acknowledges this. He is comfortable working with the tools of science while keeping in mind the scope of his exploration. Less thoughtful scientists deceive themselves when they attempt to bootstrap conclusions from observation as justification for holding the premise. This self deception rubs off on the world as well.

The descriptive role of science

We often hear of the fundamental laws of nature. Indeed, a scientist’s professional aspiration is to discover some fundamental law of nature. A thoughtful scientist acknowledges that a fundamental law of nature is a systematic description of observations. In other words, the scientist acknowledges that a law of nature is a man derived discovery, not a decree. However, many confuse this distinction.

One example of this was a conversation I had with my soil physics professor when I was studying advanced soil physics at my university. We were all familiar with what is known as Charles’s Law. This is a natural law that (among other things) describes the relationship between temperature and pressure of a gas. Generally speaking, if volume remains the same, when the temperature decreases the pressure of a gas decreases. This observation has been confirmed over and over again to the point that it is accepted as truth. In reality, it is a professional "rule of thumb," because real gases depart subtly from the ideal model.

The professor was discussing an interesting way of measuring vapor pressure within a plant by use of a thermocouple psychrometer. The device used a microscopic thermocouple placed inside a root or a leaf of a plant. Voltage was applied to the thermocouple, and through what is known as the Peltier effect, the temperature of the thermocouple element would decrease. At some point water droplets could be detected on the element. By knowing the voltage applied to the thermocouple, you could determine the temperature at which the droplets were formed. Through a series of simple calculations, applying Charles’s Law, you could determine what the vapor pressure of water was inside the leaf or the root prior to the experiment.

As the professor was describing this experiment, he asked us why the water droplets formed. I answered that it was because the temperature drop had reduced the heat of the system and therefore the number of collisions of molecules was insufficient to maintain the water in vapor form, so they condensed. The professor shouted, "No! It is because of Charles’s Law!"

My reflexive response: "I am sure water molecules behaved this way long before Charles had been born."

My relationship with the professor deteriorated after that point. He doubted that I would be a good scientist because I refuse to hold a natural law as foundational.

The predictive role of science

Having stated that the laws of nature are summary descriptions of observations, we can briefly consider the most powerful and useful aspect of it: its predictive role.

When a scientist gathers sufficient information to propose that he has discovered a law of nature, the test then rests on whether it can predict a certain outcome. This is seen in every area of science. For example, you come up with an idea that it takes a certain amount of heat to bring water to a boil. You measure the amount of heat applied to a small volume of water and then come up with the idea that a larger amount of water requires proportionately more heat to boil. If you can measure these things carefully and discover the relationship holds true, you become more confident that this will hold true in other cases. Other observers try the experiment and confirm the result. It becomes accepted as a proper model of the behavior of heated water.

Similarly, if you develop a system that accounts for the relationships of planets and stars, you can use that to predict a solar eclipse. Even though the system does not explain why planets and stars do what they do, it accounts for their behavior. It is a systematic summary that consistently predicts.

No question this ability to predict future behavior is a very powerful and useful. All of our technology, from something as simple as hammering a nail to very high-frequency transistor switches controlling cars, nuclear reactors, or deadly missiles, depends upon predictability. This predictive ability of science gives us its dazzling stature.

But while we are dazzled by the predictive ability of science and what technology has brought about, we must not forget the underlying premise: the uniformity of nature. All technical advantages and advances are based upon the fundamental assumption that matter and forces behave consistently. The fact that science has been so successful demonstrates the reasonableness of this assumption. But we must always remember that the reasonableness of the assumption, or the success of science, does not prove the assumption.

Science is not prescriptive

Here is where we find confusion. Because science, at its foundation, rests upon empirical observations, it can never explain the ultimate why. There is always the possibility that somewhere out there lurks an exception. A good scientist acknowledges this and seeks to test probability of this happening. But even this is limited by the number of observations one can make.

Some will forthrightly state that the teleological has no place in the inductive discipline of science. This is a fair statement, if consistently believed. If the scientist at the beginning consciously chooses to assume that there is no purpose behind a particular set of observations, he has foreclosed his option of asserting that there is no purpose elsewhere, because he has refused to look for purpose at the outset. As long as the scientist understands this fact, he is unlikely to be confused by his own conclusions.

But people, including scientists, can be blinded by success and forget their original commitments and assumptions. Because a particular model is successful in explaining and predicting future behavior of matter and energy, it is easy to fall into the notion that such an outcome must occur. But this is actually begging the question. Asserting dogmatically that an outcome must occur because it has always occurred in the past is merely incorporating the original premise into the conclusion. In other words, you do not prove your premise by saying things always occur in a certain way because they always occur in this way.

This bootstrapping of the premise into the conclusion is where modern understanding of science goes astray. It is one thing to come up with a model saying that the force of gravity requires planets to orbit around the sun in a certain fashion. It is quite another thing to say that this is why a planet orbits the sun the way it does. Nobody has explained why there is gravity, or even what it is about the mass of an object that gives it a certain amount of gravity. This is only taken as a given. So far, we can only say gravity exists because it exists. True, you can measure the force and you can use the strength of that forced to predict outcomes, but you have not explained the force.

The scientist contemplating gravity, magnetism, electromagnetic forces, or any other property of what is found in creation, is really no different from the primitive man who may have observed the fact that the sun comes up in the east every morning. In both cases, the assumption of uniformity is based upon observations taken at face value. In both cases, the men accept the observed facts without explaining them further. And, in both cases, the answer to the question of "why must this be?" can be legitimately answered by "because God made it this way."

The scientist, atheist or not, can have no rejoinder to this answer. He can refuse to account for God as creator and develop a system accordingly. But, because the system is closed and limited only to a fixed set of observations, he cannot rebut it.

I grow weary of good-faith attempts by Christians who try to refute science by using science. You can never use science to explain the ultimate why. Accordingly you can never use science to offer an alternate explanation of the ultimate why. The question is simply outside the scope of the system.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Government Fiat, Purchase by Fiat

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg issued a stay on the sale of Chrysler to Fiat. This is an extraordinary move. Last Friday the Court of Appeals out of the 11th circuit, I believe it was the 11th circuit, from the District Court of New York, granted Chrysler's efforts to sell to Fiat. Last Friday the Court of Appeals gave the state of Indiana pension fund until Monday at 4 PM to ask the US Supreme Court for an emergency stay. The US Supreme court granted the stay. In one sentence Justice Ginsburg stated that the stay would be in effect until further order of either her or the court. This is wild news.

From a quick reading of the story, Indiana complains about Chrysler's bankruptcy on two points. First the bankruptcy court changed the rules or the statute, so that bondholders are not considered priority creditors. The second issue raised by Indiana, is that the TARP legislation was not meant to be applied to automobile manufacturers. Justice Ginsburg apparently believed that there was some merit to these arguments. This has the potential to be a major defeat for the Obama administration.

Regarding the TARP legislation, Congress passed this bill expressly stating that this was only to be used for ailing financial institutions. As the Indiana director of pensions has pointed out, later Congress attempted to pass a bailout bill for the automobile manufacturers. The obvious question is, if Congress had thought that the TARP legislation was intended to help automobile manufacturers, why would it have attempted to pass legislation dealing with automobile manufacturers? In essence, Indiana is arguing that the TARP money being used to bail out Chrysler is unlawful.

It is a compelling point. If the Supreme Court takes up the case and decides that the TARP money was appropriated unlawfully, this would undo both Chrysler and GM bankruptcies. The very issue is whether the rule of law should be applied even during emergencies, or whether we have made an executive government that is allowed to appropriate funds and interfere with the economy based upon nothing more than fiat. It just occurs to me that there is an interesting double entendre here, Government fiat versus purchase by Fiat.

My guess is the more likely outcome will be that the Supreme Court will evade the issue. There are plenty of reasons that it might do so. It may decline to determine the constitutionality of the TARP legislation because it may instead choose to address the bankruptcy code. If it decides to address the bankruptcy code, it could narrowly rule that the pension fund is entitled to priority status. That still would be a blow to the bankruptcy workout for Chrysler. It would also be a blow to the GM bankruptcy. But it would leave in effect the TARP legislation, and how the executive branch has been implementing it, without meeting the issue head on. Of course, the Supreme Court might decline to do anything at all. All we have at this moment is a temporary order issued by a sitting US Supreme Court justice. The entire panel may discuss it and decided to decline certiorari.

In any event, there are a lot of nervous lawyers on behalf of the government right now. And I daresay Fiat may be taking a second look at its decision to purchase the Chrysler assets. Also waiting in the wings, there is a lawsuit or two or maybe several, that challenge Chrysler's ability to negate dealer contracts. These are interesting times. It really boils down to a political issue. Does the executive branch have carte blanche authority to meddle with the rule of law.

BTW, I dictated this while driving on my commute, using Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10, Professional version, and a Panasonic digital recorder. It works suprisingly well.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Tax Breaks for the Big Guys, Changing Tax Law by Memo

A remarkable Washington Post story on how long-standing tax policy was changed by administrative notice hit the wires last Sunday.

It’s not every day that a popular press story deals with an obscure section of the tax code. But these aren’t regular times. Amit R. Paley does a good job explaining how, in the heat of financial chaos and the clamoring to do something, a tax policy of some 22 years was quietly reversed by a mere memo published by the Treasury Department.

In a nutshell, Congress passed Section 382 in the 1980s to attack certain kinds of tax shelters. The code had allowed corporations to buy companies that had a “net operating loss” or “built in loss” and then apply that loss to their books to reduce taxable income. The loss companies had no real value except for the tax benefit. Section 382 drastically limited the types and amounts of loss that the buying company could write off.

Although many business-oriented economists and tax policy experts (certainly not all) argued that the rule was too heavy-handed, Congress steadfastly refused to change it. This is consistent with Congress’s general power to set tax and fiscal policy.

Until Treasury, in the heat of the financial meltdown, decided to do away with it by an administrative notice.

The notice essentially does away with the limitations for institutions that participate in the “Capital Purchase Program (CPP) implemented by Treasury under the authority of the “Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 (aka Bailout Bill). The idea was to ease the tax consequences of bank mergers. The Washington Post article points out:

The Treasury notice suddenly made it much more attractive to acquire distressed banks, and Wells Fargo, which had been an earlier suitor for Wachovia, made a new and ultimately successful play to take it over.

But, apparently, Congress was surprised and not happy about what has come to be called “the Wells Fargo Ruling.” According to the article, estimates of the hit to federal revenue range from $105 billion to $140 billion.

Some commentators are very surprised as well. From the article:

Did the Treasury Department have the authority to do this? I think almost every tax expert would agree that the answer is no," said George K. Yin, the former chief of staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation, the nonpartisan congressional authority on taxes. "They basically repealed a 22-year-old law that Congress passed as a backdoor way of providing aid to banks."

Reading the Notice, I can see why he said this. It is only 2 ½ pages long. The memo is written in technical terms that are incomprehensible to anyone not familiar with the operations of Section 382. However, under the “Background” header is a paragraph that insouciantly states the authority for the action:

Section 101(c)(5) of the Act provides that the Secretary is authorized to issue such regulations and other guidance as may be necessary or appropriate to carry out the purposes of the Act. Section 382(m) of the Code provides that the Secretary shall prescribe such regulations as may be necessary or appropriate to carry out the purposes of sections 382 and 383.

Parse that a little. The first sentence says that “the Act” (aka Bailout Bill) gives the Treasury Secretary authority to issue regulations for the purpose of carrying out “the Act” (aka Bailout Bill). OK, nothing very controversial about that.

The next sentence says something similar about Section 382 of “the Code” (in Treasury lingo, this means the “Tax Code”). The Treasury Secretary is authorized to issue regulations “to carry out the purposes of section 382. . . .”

The problem is obvious. The “purposes of section 382” has nothing to do with the Bailout Bill. The purpose of 382 is to stop a certain kind of tax shelter.

And, as far as I know, the Bailout Bill did not grant the Treasury Secretary authority to amend the Tax Code. The Bailout Bill did deal with the tax code in three separate areas: capital gains, executive compensation, and help for homeowners. It does not give the Treasury Secretary authority to amend the Tax Code. (The Bailout Bill is a mere 451 pages long, maybe you can find something in there I have missed, but I doubt it.)

Yet the Secretary of Treasury did amend the tax code because, apparently, it seemed like a good idea. Certainly the merging banks are getting a huge break. And maybe it is a good idea, but this sort of sweeping change to tax policy, under cover of administrative ruling and in the heat of confusion, is decidedly unusual and ominous.

BTW, don't expect this change in the law to benefit any small companies that might want to buy out other struggling companies. It's only for the big kids, the "too big to fail finance companies," who have been able to sell their smoldering and nearly worthless instruments to the government.

(Post first appeared on Tax and Tribute blog.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Thumbnail water constants

This is not advanced physics, but I often find myself figuring things about water supply. Here are a few numbers that rattle around in my head (I've also verified them against my Thomas J. Glover Pocket Ref, which I carry in my briefcase with my Bible and pocket U.S. Constitution).

1 cubic foot of water weighs 62.4 lbs.

1 cubic foot equals approximately 7.5 gallons. (Glover says 7.48052)

A gallon of water weighs 8.3 lbs.

An inch of rain on a square foot is 1/12 of a cubic foot which equals 0.62 gallons.

An acre-inch is 0.62 X 43560 sq ft/acre = 27,007 gallons.

I knew a guy who was panicking about Y2k back in 1999. He bought a whole bunch of MRE food and 8 or 10 barrels, 50 gallons each, to store water. He spent thousands of dollars.

He stopped by one day and asked me what I was doing to prepare for water. I pointed to a 20 X 25 tarp. He looked confused. I showed him how I could lay out the tarp on our sloped lawn so that a rain would wash into a natural trough that could easily drain into buckets. We live in the Pacific Northwest, where you can count on a 1/2 inch rain easily in a month, and more in the winter.

1/2 inch on 500 square feet yields 155 gallons. I knew from sailing provisioning that a gallon per day per person is plenty if you are not exerting hard. Even if you only collected half of this in a month, you could keep two people going with minimal effort. If need be, I could dump the water in our extra bathtub for storage.

And the tarp was cheap.

I wasn't really worried even about the tarp. There were fresh water streams nearby. A bit of filtration and maybe boiling would be sufficient for water in an emergency.

Y2k was a bust, of course. I understand that there are bargains on those water barrels.

The tarp principle is useful for arid climates. 19 mil pond liner goes for around $0.50 a square foot. I saw a 1000 square feet of visqueen for around $100. I think of people in desert climates without decent supplies of water. But a region that gets a downpour once or twice a year could collect a lot of water inexpensively. I once did it experimentally on a small scale (300 square feet) in an area that received 9 inches of precipitation per year. After one good rainstorm I collected 120 gallons. Multiply that by 10 or 20 and you can maintain a family.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Useful snippets from "Household Arithmetic" (1920)

Here is a book every home should have:

Household Arithmetic, Katherine F. Ball, M.A., Vocational Adviser (sic) for Women, University of Minnesota; Miriam E. West, M.A. Girls Vocational High School, Minneapolis. J.B. Lippincott Co., Philadelphia & London (1920).

I ran across the book specifically looking for the calorie content of various foods. It is useful to know these things if you are trying to figure out how long you can survive if the grocery store closes for some reason.

Some factoids I noted:

Calories burned per pound of body weight per hour (p. 131):

Sleeping 0.4
Sitting quietly 0.6
Light muscular exercise 1.0
Active muscular exercise 2.0
Severe muscular exercise 3.0

The book gives a handy little example (p. 132):

Problem.-Estimate the probable energy requirement of a stenographer, 28 years old, weighing 125 pounds, whose time is divided each day about as follows: Sleeping, 8 hours; sitting quietly at meals, reading, taking dictation, etc., 8 hours; at light muscular exercise, dressing, standing, walking, typing, etc., 6 hours; at active muscular exercise, playing tennis, etc., 2 hours. Use Table I.

8 X 0.4 Calories =3.2 Resting
8 X 0.6 Calories =4.8 sitting quitely
6 X 1.0 Calories =6.0 light activity
2 X 2.0 Calories =4.0 active

Total Calories per pound per day =18.

125 X 18=2250=total Calories per day.

Pages 135 and following give the energy value of various foods. I've saved the entire book simply for this information. Page 146 gives a thumbnail sketch:

Food Calories per lb.
1. Smoked ham 1635
2. Corned beef 1245
3. Oysters 225
4. Butter 3410
5. Entire wheat flour 1650
6. Rice 1620
7. Cheddar cheese 2075
8. Milk, whole 310
9. Buttermilk 160
10. Peanuts 1775

So our normal stenographer, who needs 2250 calories per day, could get by in a pinch with a quarter pound of pork and a bit over a pound of rice a day. Sure, it's spartan fare, but not too hard to store.

I'd suggest the book as a wonderful, free, resource.