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The Misadventures of Quinxy von Besiex truths, lies, and everything in between

9Nov/130

My Treadmill Desk: Week 1

treadmill_deskLast week I set up a treadmill desk.  I've gained more pounds than I'd like to admit over the last couple of years, trying to eat my way out of unhappiness, combined with a move that placed me far away from the healthier eating-out food options I used to enjoy (and far closer to the sinister ones).

I had years ago heard about people using treadmill desks and had always meant to give it a try.   As I am at my computer 14 hours a day or so the ability to turn some of that time into a workout was very appealing.  For my recent birthday I bought myself a LifeSpan TR 1200i Folding Treadmill with the goal of using it in a treadmill desk setup.  A few companies now make treadmills specifically for use with a desk, some even include the desk, and LifeSpan does in fact make a treadmill for these purposes, the LifeSpan TR1200-DT3 Standing Desk Treadmill (no desk included).  As I compared the features of LifeSpan's desk-flavored treadmill with their regular treadmill I became convinced that I'd be far better off converting their traditional treadmill to desk use.  The non-desk version costs the exact same amount ($999) but includes a number of really powerful features: a) variable incline 0 - 15 degrees), b) pulse rate monitor (in handrails or via chest strap), c) fancier programs (since it uses incline and pulse monitor), and d) it includes running speeds (0.5 - 10 mph, instead of 0.4 - 4 mph). The only feature you seem to lose is some sort of bluetooth ability, which I didn't really investigate.  Otherwise they appear identical in terms of specs.

All I had to do to convert the non-desk version to one I could use with my desk was remove the vertical portion of the treadmill, which involved removing a few bolts and pulling the console's cable out so I could re-run the cable to the console which I had now mounted on my desk with double sided foam tape.  Easy-peasy.  And I bought the chest strap ($40) so I could get constant heart rate monitoring without needing to hold onto hand rails; originally I was going to remount the hand rails to my desk, but the chest strap is a far more elegant solution.

For the desk I use my much loved Ikea Jerker, a design Ikea never should have retired (anyone who wants one and lives near a major metropolitan area can find one on Craigslist for $75 - 100).  I set up a second Ikea Jerker desk to the left of my treadmill desk with a monitor, keyboard, and mouse so when I want to sit in a normal chair I can just work there (using RDP).  The idea was to virtually force myself to use the treadmill desk as I would do almost anything to avoid using this tiny single monitor and less familiar keyboard when I could be using my three monitor setup with my normal keyboard/mouse, but to permit me a fallback when I needed it.  The other side of that is that I actually would rather walk than stand, I find standing less comfortable, so as long as I'm standing, I'm highly likely to walk.

After the first few days I discovered that my fall back desk with tiny monitor really wasn't such a brilliant idea.  I need to be on my computer 14 or so hours every day and it's just never going to be realistic for me to walk all 14 hours.  And since I was just starting back into an exercise routine and needed time for my body to adjust I'm doing about 2 - 3 hours walking a day, and using that tiny little monitor and unfamiliar keyboard just wasn't cutting it, my productivity plummeted.  I would either work slowly or completely avoid doing things on the computer, suddenly wanting to organize, clean things, etc.  I needed another solution...  and this is when I made my treadmill chair!

SONY DSCYears ago I bought a pair of those fantastic aluminum stools that Crate and Barrel was kind enough to knock off.  I bought it for my MAME arcade machine, which is currently in storage.  It was the perfect height to place on top of the treadmill so that I could use my regular setup without standing.  The problem was, I didn't want to damage the treadmill belt, and it seemed inevitable that distributing my weight down to those four thin aluminum legs was a recipe for disaster.  I'm sure the belt would have been fine for a while, but it certainly would have accelerated its deterioration.  But what material would be safe to use against a treadmill belt, to allow me to distribute the weight better?  Wood?  Metal?  Cardboard?  Shoes!  If there's anything that a treadmill was meant to have on it, it's shoes!  So I ran down to Walmart and bought two pairs of fake converse shoes for $12 a pair and made wooden inserts for the shoes onto which I attached the stool legs (via hot glue gun).  And it works perfectly!

Now I can use my treadmill for walking and whenever I need take a break on my treadmill chair.

I've been using the setup for about a week now and I must say I am encouraged. The first couple of days I walked about 2 hours, then I took a day off because my legs were hurting, and the next couple of days I've been doing about 2.5 - 3 hours a day. One issue has been trying to figure out what the right speed is. For the first few days I was at 1.5 mph, then I bumped it up to about 2.0 to 2.5 mph for the last few days, and am finding the speed I can do relates quite a bit to the work I need to do. Trying to operate a mouse with precision in a graphic design package at 2.5 mph isn't something I can yet do. This is where the incline is particularly nice, and why I'm very happy I got a treadmill with incline. If I need to dial down the speed I can always increase the incline to make sure I'm still getting a good workout. Right now to write this I'm doing 1.8 mph and a 5 degree incline, instead of 2.8 mph and a 0 degree incline. The CDC says you need to be going at least 3 mph for a healthy fast walking exercise, but that is still a little beyond my abilities to do while using my computer.

Only time will tell if this is a lasting solution to my problem of being too sedentary.

^ Quinxy

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24Aug/120

How You Define ‘Rare’ Depends on your Politics. The Todd Akin Mathematics.

Asked by a reporter if he supported abortion in the case of rape, Congressman Todd Akin replied with his now infamous quote:

“It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something: I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.”

In those few sentences Congressman Akin managed to offend in not just one but three very different ways:

  • He implies that there are legitimate and non-legitimate rapes.
  • He claims that pregnancies resulting from rape are rare.
  • He doesn't seem to emphasize punishment.

And while most of the political world was quick to shun him, with even his closest allies calling for him to drop his bid for re-election, I can't help but feel annoyed by the mindlessly reactionary responses.  I'm no friend to Republicans, I disagree with most of the claimed conservative values, but I am no more a friend to the Democrats and progressives when they seem unable to look at things rationally and instead seek refuge behind politically correct positions and chants.

I don't think most congressmen belong in congress, and I see no reason to think any differently of Congressman Akin, but that doesn't mean I find his statements worse than they are.

Let's take a look at Congressman Akin's offenses in turn.

Legitimate Rapes

Congressman Akin's statement about legitimate rapes does certainly imply there must exist illegitimate rapes.  Most of the furor surrounding this quote seems to rest on this point.  But while I understand that his statement could suggest the disgustingly archaic viewpoint that women invite, allow, or invent almost all of the sexual assault they report, it seems far more reasonable to imagine he meant only to exclude those who fit this last criteria.  A congressman could make a statement like, "If it's a legitimate robbery then this bill will force the insurance companies to pay up."  without anyone getting even remotely upset.  It acknowledges the existence of the same phenomena, false reporting of a crime.  His poorly phrased statement seems to be trying to address his response at the (majority of) cases where rape was not falsely claimed.

The reality is that some percentage of all reported crimes are wholly false, the alleged criminal act did not occur at all.  The heinous crime of rape is not immune to this deceit.  A few studies have been done to try to determine what percentage of rapes are false but to date there are no universally accepted statistics.  Frequently mentioned statistics seem to range anywhere from 2% to 12%.  The most common figure I've seen on sites supporting women's causes is roughly 6%.  The Violence Against Women journal included a study based on a thorough review of college rape investigations and puts the number of false allegations at 5.9%, as mentioned in this blog entry of the title False Rape Allegations Are Rare.  I've seen many quotes from people on the left saying exactly the same thing, that false claims of rape are "rare".  "Rare" is the key word here, as they are applying it to something which they agree happens roughly 6% of the time.

The phrase "illegitimate rape" should clearly never be uttered because it offends and is taken with historical context to de-legitimize those who have been raped.  But we must as honest men and women acknowledge that a small percentage of rape claims are not true, and must allow others to acknowledge this fact as well, and be able to refer to them in discussion, even when it involves charged topics like abortion.  We cannot simply shout down our adversaries for poor phraseology, those are the chief argumentation tactics of the Rush Limbaughs and the Howard Sterms.

As an aside, I was stunned when I first learned that ~6% of rape accusations were wholly false.  The figure is touted by women as a positive, as though the number was impressively low, which is likely because of the historical context of the public apparently believing that most rape allegations are false.  But I grew up assuming that 99.9% of rape allegations were true, not comprehending that anyone could or would make up such a thing, and so for me to discover that 6% were false was shocking and vastly more than I would have ever imagined.  

Pregnancies from Rapes are Rare

Congressman Akin's claim that women's bodies have some mechanism by which it can prevent unwanted fertilization of an egg is not supported by science or medicine.  While many wish to see it as an evil statement, born of a desire to blame the woman should she become pregnant, such an explanation is not required.  It may be plain but unremarkable ignorance.

What I find most infuriating about the anger at Todd Akin is that it suggests that all those condemning him know so very much better, and I am very sure most of them do not!  Those pillorying him may assume better, may have guessed better, or may just know better how to toe the politically correct party line, but very likely most of them are no more scientifically or medically informed or grounded.

Considering first exactly what he said we find rank hypocrisy coming from many of his accusers.  His claim (leaving out for a moment his incorrect explanation) is that pregnancy as a result of rape is rare.  And in that he is correct if we use the definition of "rare" that all those who are most vitriolic towards Akin are.  Various studies have strongly suggested that 5 - 8% of women who are raped become pregnant as a result.  If we consider that many advocates for women argue that false rape accusations are rare at 6% then surely we would expect them to consider pregnancy as a result of pregnancy at 5-8% to be a similarly rare occurrence.  If they did, however, this aspect of Congressman Akin's comment would not be worth mentioning.  To have useful discussions and dialogue we must be consistent in our use and interpretation of language, to make language or math political is idiocy.

But let's look at his erroneous explanation of why pregnancy from rape is rare.  Taken at its core his statement requires that women are less likely to become pregnant as a result of rape than consensual sex.  On this point he seems proven entirely wrong, studies have only suggested the opposite.  But his (and others') expectation that rape would be less likely to produce pregnancy is easily explained, logical, and almost certainly the common belief until recent studies began to show otherwise.  There are many objective reasons to suspect rape would be less likely to result in pregnancy.  I am sure most of his attackers are no better read on the available studies than he was.  As such, lets consider not his logic, which apparently depended on only one particular doctor's viewpoint, but on the overall expectation which exists to draft most people's expectations.  Included in these facts:

  • Rapists often do not ejaculate.  While exact numbers are hard to come by I saw some things which said that only 10% of the time was semen recoverable from rape victims, meaning the attacker did not ejaculate, withdrew before ejaculating, or wore a condom.
  • Rapists use condoms as often as 10-15% of the time.
  • Stress is widely believed to increase miscarriages and many have assumed stress hormones would interfere with conception, implantation, and fetal development.  Rape marks the beginning of a long and horribly stressful journey back to any sort of normal.
  • Rape is (generally) a single event, relatively short in duration, whereas consensual sex is more likely to be prolonged and repeated.

Taking just the above objective facts a reasonable person would conclude that pregnancy as a result of rape should occur much less often than from consensual un-protected intercourse.  And if we know that the average likelihood that a woman will become pregnant as a result of unprotected consensual sex is 5% then surely many reasonable people would estimate a rape would result in pregnancy at a rate one order of magnitude less than with consensual sex.

That "reasonable" guesstimate happens to be wrong, as has been established in studies, but the conclusion was not the result of stupidity.  There were, however, some key factors that were overlooked:

  • Rapists more often prey on victims during their most fertile years, so the overall rate of pregnancy from one incident of intercourse within that age range is higher than 5%, making pregnancy from rape also higher.
  • Unknown evolutionary forces might be at play giving aggressive males an advantage at fertilizing women.  This is wildly speculative, but has been offered as one possible explanation for what otherwise seems unexpected.  No studies I'm aware of support this as yet.

I don't want to discourage people from trying to understand the world in which they live using the facts available to them.  We should not call the conclusions people come to nor the people themselves "stupid" as a result of a genuine attempt to figure things out as best they can.  People are only stupid when they choose to ignore facts which might have otherwise altered their positions.

Todd Akin is no more nor less intelligent than most of his detractors, no more or better informed.  We must be able to present him with new evidence and only deem him worthy of contempt if he fails to update his view based on superior evidence.

Punishing the Rapists

When I heard the offensive quote what offended me the most was in fact the last part of the oft repeated quote.  He seems to show so little interest in the prosecution of the guilty.   "I think there should be some punishment..." sounds so anemic, as though he feels forced to grudgingly acknowledge some mild punishment is expected.  His statement is something I'd expect a disinterested father saying to a supermarket cashier after his child was caught with a pack of gum he didn't pay for.  If I were of a mind to be outraged by my interpretation of the first part of his quote then this line would absolutely be the nail in the coffin for me.  Not only does he seem to think many victims deserved what happened to them, not only does he not acknowledge the problem of further traumatizing victims and populating the planet with children born from violence, but he proves he doesn't think it's a real crime by barely conceding that any punishment is warranted.  I likely am reading way too much into this portion of his statement, but in part that's my point.  Others who found this quote offensive were apparently willing to give this part of his statement a pass, assuming he really meant something different, or at that this wasn't the worst of what he said, when for me it was.  I have yet to hear anyone even mention this part of the quote in the discussion.

Conclusion

Rape is in no way to be tolerated, and I cannot fathom how our legal system permits the freeing of those who are found guilty of heinous crimes such as rape, molestation, kidnapping, murder, etc.  In my view, society should be forever protected from people who have demonstrated certain criminal tendencies.  Having felt the intense violation and fear that comes from being a victim of far lesser crimes, I can only begin to dimly imagine the horror one might feel as a result of this sort of sexual assault.  I do not support Todd Akin or anyone espousing archaic views about women, sexuality, gender, etc.  I just want to ensure that all of us can communicate about these topics, can freely discuss them without the ignorant, knee-jerk politics or political correctness that only entrenches people further in their ignorance.  Only through that openness is there any hope for them or for us.

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11Jun/121

The Mobile Gentleman’s Study

I recently bought a 1971 AMC 5 ton Army Surplus M820 Expansible Van.  My goal is to transform it into a mobile office in the style of a Victorian gentleman's study.

See some photos of the truck and some first thoughts about how I might redo the interior of the expansible box below.

^ Quinxy

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14Mar/127

Lytro Alternative: Automatic, Intelligent Focus Bracketing

Now in my early post-Lytro days I've been wondering how I could achieve the same effect with better results, not wanting to wait the years it might take for them to come up with a suitable next generation model.  Lytro's only real selling point at this moment is it's ability to take "living pictures" (their parlance), which really just means a photo which is interactive in as much as you can focus on different items in the picture by tapping those items.  The technology may be capable of quite a bit more, but that's all it currently delivers, and it delivers that with poor resolution, graininess, and restrictive requirements on lighting/action.

Living Pictures without Lytro

Why couldn't I achieve the exact same effect with far better results using my existing digital camera? I could, and did! Here's my "living picture" proof, using just an ordinary digital camera and a bit of human assistance.

No Lytro was required for this "living picture", just an ordinary digital camera (in this case a Sony NEX 5).  Click on different objects in this scene to change focus depth!

...and now for Lytro's version...

Lytro's "living picture"!  Click on different objects in this scene to change focus depth!

It doesn't take an expert in photo analysis to see that the non-Lytro picture looks much better: sharper, higher resolution, less grainy, and more realistic colors.

Faking Lytro Manually

The simple fact is, if you can capture a succession of photos each at a different focal setting and then view these photos with a JavaScript or Flash program that responds to clicks by selecting the photos whose clicked region was in focus, you can create the pleasing "living picture" effect without any fancy light-field camera required. And that is just what I did for the above demo. I took a series of pictures focusing on the different major elements in the scene and then made the regions in the photos clickable by way of a simple image map which specifies which image in my sequence corresponds to which area. While the approach I took for the demo was manual, it's not hard to see how easily any camera in combination with some very simple software could be made to do this, producing final results better than is possible with the Lytro camera.

Making Cameras Support Lytro-Like Effects

Many cameras these days have a feature called "exposure bracketing" which takes reacts to a shutter button press by taking a series of pictures at different exposure settings.  You then review the photos later and determine which photo looked the best.  Why then could you not have a "focus bracketing" feature which does the same thing but with focus?  The simplest approach would be to take multiple photos as the camera automatically walks the focus back from infinity to macro taking as many photos as necessary to achieve a desirable effect, perhaps as few as 5 or 10 would be needed to achieve a reasonable effect; with the aperture appropriately set any given picture's depth of field is wide enough to allow significant ranges to be sharply focused.  You would then need some mechanism for assigning clickable regions to the photo frames which happened to be in focus in that region.  This would likely be a fairly trivial software problem to solve.  All of this could be done with minimal camera intelligence, since it would just be varying focus distance in a fixed manner.  A far better but slightly more complicated solution would be to do automatic, intelligent focus bracketing using the camera's built-in autofocus system. Many cameras (particularly in phones) allow you to select a region of the scene which should be in focus. It would thus be easy for the camera to break down the scene into a search grid it would scan looking for objects upon which to focus, taking a single picture at each focus depth (one photo per range, according to the depth of field). The camera could record which grid location contained an object at a certain focal distance away, this being usable later to relate clicks on an image to a particular focused frame. The advantage of this approach is that it might be far quicker and more efficient, needing only as many frames as a scene objects' depths require. A scene which had two people in the foreground hugging and a church in the background would probably require just two photos to make a "living picture", people around a table at a birthday table with a cake in the center and a bounce house in the background may require 5 or 6 photos to make a Lytro-like image.

Working with Motion

These approaches share one significant weakness which is the fact that using multiple sequentially taken images negates the ability to capture any action-oriented scenes.  While modern digital cameras take rapid-fire photos, and those with exposure bracketing take three or so shots in a half second, that's certainly slow enough to make any significant movement within the scene noticeable when switching between frames.  Still, as action is easily blurred with the first generation Lytro, this hardly seems any sort of argument against this alternate approach.  An interesting solution to this problem and that of the inability to easily alter most existing camera's firmware, would be to use a replacement lens that split a single digital frame into multiple differently focused reproductions of the scene.  Just as I use a Loreo 3-D lens to merge the images captured by two lenses onto one digital frame, so to could one produce a system that would use four or perhaps nine lenses to capture one instant onto one digital frame through small lenses focused at slightly different depths.  Software could then easily split apart the single digital image into its component frames and do an easy focus analysis to determine what regions in each were in focus, with viewer software showing those as appropriate in response to touch.  The limitations of this approach would be related to the increased lighting requirements (or decreased action) as a result of the smaller lens, the expected poorer quality of each lens (related to cost and it being more a novelty manufacture than embraced by lens giants), and the reduced resolution (as your effective megapixel image would be the original value divided by the number of lenses within the lens).  Many stereo photographer setups coordinate two cameras to take their photos in concert, getting around all these issues, which you could also do to solve this problem, though I can imagine nothing more cumbersome.


The Lomo Oktomat as seen on Lomography has eight lenses which it uses to 2.5 seconds of motion across a single analog film frame it has divided into 8 regions. The same multi-lens approach but used simultaneously, with each lens focused slightly differently, could capture motion with Lytro-like aesthetics.

Focus Bracketing leads to Focus Stacking (Hyperfocus)

As I began to look into the practicality of these approaches I was pleased to discover that "focus bracketing" was being done manually, though with an intriguingly different goal.  Rather than produce a living picture where you can focus on different elements in a scene, a process called focus stacking is used to take and then (using software) merge photos taken at different focus settings to produce a single image in which everything in the scene is in focus.  The software involved analyses each photograph in the stack, each of the identical scene where only the focus is varied, and uses the regions of each photo which are in focus to produce the combined image in which everything is in focus.   This approach produces very impressive results.  The only limitations to this system is the requirement for a still scene, and the strong recommendation (if not requirement) that you use a tripod when taking your shots so as little varies as possible.  


Series of images demonstrating a 6 image focus bracket of a Tachinid fly. First two images illustrate typical DOF of a single image at f/10 while the third image is the composite of 6 images. From Focus Stacking entry on Wikipedia.

The aesthetic of a photo in which most things are in focus is quiet different from one in which only those things you select are in focus, but from a technical standpoint they are quite similar, since both situations require one possess the data pertaining to every element in a scene being in focus.  And a viewer could (and likely would) be given the option of viewing such a photo as he/she wished.  Do they want to see the photo traditionally (one, non-interactive focus point), as a "living picture" where they can choose the object in focus, or as a photo in which everything is in focus?

Focus Bracketing Available Today on your Canon PowerShot

A little further research led me to find a rather intriguing ability to add automatic focus bracketing to an entire range of camera models, via the Canon Hack Development Kit (CHDK).  CHDK allows you to safely, temporarily use a highly configurable and extensible alternative  firmware in your Canon PowerShot.  And users have used this to add focus bracketing for the purposes of focus stacking, and included detailed instructions on just how you can do it, too.

Coming Soon as an iPhone & Android Camera App

This integration of camera and software is a natural fit for an iPhone and Android app, where the app can control the capturing of the image and intelligent variation of focus and then do the simple post-processing to make the image click-focus-able. While I haven't seen such an app, I'm sure it'll come soon. I'd write it myself if I had the time.

Until the Future Comes

The point is that until Lytro demonstrates just what can be done with a light field camera, beyond merely creating a low-resolution "living picture", there's really no technical justification for placing the technology in people's hands when the same problem could be solved as effectively with traditional digital cameras.  If demand existed (and perhaps it will come) for this image experience, no light fields need apply.  Hopefully traditional digital camera companies will see the aesthetic value and include support in their firmware (for intelligent focus bracketing) and co-ordinated desktop software, app developers will launch good living picture capturing app cameras, and hopefully Lytro will demonstrate the additional merits of capturing and reproducing images from light fields.

^ Quinxy

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16Jul/114

Criminals Invoking the Evil Parallel Universe Defense

A thought occurred to me today, at the intersection of my thoughts about the justice system and the parallel universe theory.

We accept certain "excuses" for crimes.  The situations are relatively rare, but they exist.  If you are in an area devastated by a hurricane, with normal food sources cut off, you are effectively allowed to steal food from an abandoned store.  If someone has carjacked your car with you in it and is demanding that you drive at 100 mph you are not criminally responsible for your speeding.  If your life is in danger you may kill in defense of your life.  If you are clinically insane or seriously mentally retarded you will not be held criminally responsible for your actions, whatever they may be.  The point is not so much the specific excuses that are acceptable as the concept that the legal system does not hold people criminally responsible for crimes they did not have the capacity to avoid committing, whatever they may be.

And now we come to the theory of parallel universes.  For those that don't know, a beautiful conceptual way out of quite a few sticky quantum mechanical problems is to imagine that for every situation where multiple events could happen, we avoid the question of why did this or that happen by saying that there exists a parallel universe in which every possible outcome exists.  To bring it to a macroscopic level, imagine you flip a coin.  It lands tails side up.  There exists an inaccessible parallel universe exactly like the one in which you got tails, with the slight change that in that one an identical you got heads.  And in fact there are an infinite number of variations on the theme, tracing out every possible combination of ways your brain could tell your thumb to move, the weather systems could cause the air to gust, etc.  If we imagine that scientists might be correct in this theory then on a macroscopic level there must exist parallel universes in which otherwise "good" people do "evil".  You may be a kind person in this universe but in another you are a homicidal murderer.  This must be, if parallel universes exist.  And so, too, the evil people in this universe manifest themselves in saintly ways in parallel universes unknown to us.  So the quantum philosophical question then becomes, how responsible can any individual be for any actions, when there exists a version of themselves in another universe doing something completely different?

Why couldn't the homicidal murderer invoke the Evil Parallel Universe Defense at his trial, saying in essence, "I am not responsible.  The laws of physics dictate that there must exist some universes in which I am evil, and this happens to be one of them.  In others universes, you, Mr. Prosecutor, you, your Honor, and you, the Jury, are all murderers, just like me.  We are all guilty, somewhere.  I'm no guiltier than all of your collective parallel selves."

Of course, this argument is rendered moot by the fact that every outcome of the trial will exist in parallel universes; and so this excuse must work in some universes, but not in others.   The criminal would just have to hope that his was a universe which not only made him evil but also made his excuse acceptable.  I suspect there's a smaller infinity of those particular universes. :)

^ Quinxy

(One final note, I was reminded of a more practical moral dilemma nations face, a situation in which people are "excused" for something because they are in a "fated" situation.  The government, for the good of the people, attempts to control the economy by taking actions to control inflation and unemployment: varying lending rates, controlling the money supply, etc.  Contrary to what you might expect, the "optimal" rate of unemployment is not 0% but something in the nature of 5%.  The government will modify policy to target that number, creating more unemployment if the number is too low, and trying to create jobs if the number is too high.  It's my belief that this artificial manipulation of the unemployment rate, this requirement that citizens be unemployed, morally obligates the government to support those who have been "artificially" made unemployed.  Of course identifying those who are "artificially" unemployed and those who are "naturally" unemployed is tricky, and in a sense meaningless.  It is, therefore, better to support all who are unemployed for a period long enough to mean their continued unemployment is squarely the fault of the individual and not the economy.  And that's pretty much what we do, as a nation, with the unemployment benefits we provide, though I would guess few (if any) would explain its necessity as the fulfillment of a moral obligation created by forced unemployment; but I like this argument because far from it suggesting some sort of creeping socialism, it is merely doing what is morally obligated by the government's own actions.)

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5Jul/117

The Dangerously Stupid Minority in America

One thing that has always shocked me is just how ignorant many in America are.  By no means is ignorance unique to America, nor is it necessarily so much higher in the US than it is elsewhere, but with our vast resources and opportunities it feels wholly inexcusable here.

A timely poll just released a few days ago, asking people when the United States of America declared her independence and from whom showed that a shocking number of Americans didn't know.  Only 58% knew the year was 1776 and only 76% knew we became independent from Great Britain.  How is that possible?  Surely it's a combination of a poor educational system, poor parenting, and some seriously absent curiosity on the part of the ignorant.

It reminded me of all the other frightening points of ignorance revealed by polls in recent years, including:

  • 20% of Americans actually believe the Sun revolves around the Earth (source)
  • 20% of Americans in the run up to the last election were convinced Obama was a Muslim.  (source)
  • 41% of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11, years after the war with Iraq began, despite Bush repeatedly acknowledging  no connection (source)
  • 47% of Americans (most of whom are Christian) did not know that Judaism is older than Christianity and Islam (source)
  • 36% of Americans don't know the Amazon is in South America (source)
  • 21% of Americans believe witches/warlocks/sorcerers/etc. are real (source)
  • 51% of Americans don't believe in the Theory of Evolution (with 25% actively disbelieving and the others not answering or being unsure)  (source)

I hate the concept of elitism, the idea that any one person or group of people is "better" than any other and deserves a better life, more resources, more power, etc.  But, faced with the shocking ignorance of a good 20-35% of the US population it's hard not to feel we do ourselves great harm by allowing woefully ignorant people equal rights to guide our collective destiny.  Why shouldn't we require that people demonstrate knowledge of important and related objective truths before allowing a person to vote?  So many of our monumental decisions as a nation are made by voted margins much smaller than this collective of the uninformed.  Clearly denying anyone the right to vote is a dangerous activity, and has been a tool used to deny good people their equal rights (see the poll tax of ages past).  But perhaps one day if our interpretation of democracy is allowed to evolve and reflect the technological achievements we've made, we might be able to engage in a more involved and vibrant democracy where people do not vote once every so many years on people, but daily, weekly, monthly, on the many individual issues which shape our nation.  And perhaps then we can apply reasonable restrictions, allowing all the general right to vote, but restricting the right to vote on specific issues to those who can demonstrate the objective knowledge required to make an informed decision.  I can dream anyway...  and it's fitting for a day when we celebrate the ideas and sacrifices of our forefathers.

^ Quinxy

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18May/110

The Ridiculous Falsehood of Parity

It surprises me the degree to which so many people seem to insist on an irrational parity between races, genders, suffering, achievements, etc.  Parity is rare.  How likely is it that any two things in the same class are equal?  Most commonly identically classed things have a unique and subtle tendencies across their group which make them, in sum, noticeably different while being in each incarnation able to exceed the other.  But that's not the reality people seem to like, it's not the one most people, particularly those who tow the politically correct line, seem to acknowledge.  And I'm forever surprised by this ridiculous falsehood of parity.

Yesterday all over the news was a blog post made to Psychology Today by one of their unsolicited writers revealing his "study" proving Black Women are Less Attractive than Whites, Asians, and Native Americans.  The blog post included a number of graphs, claimed research over a seven year period, and having supposedly excluded body mass index (BMI) theorized that black women were less attractive because they had more testosterone which made their features less appealing.  If you're a student of the world you won't be surprised to learn that Satoshi Kanazawa's "study" was met with disgust, shock, anger, and his post was quickly removed by Psychology Today.  But what surprised me in the response, what always surprises me in responses to these sorts of situations, was the refusal to refute (or even discuss) the actual subject matter.  The party line seems to be, "All races are equally beautiful.  Any attempt to suggest any one race [particularly a minority] is less attractive is racism."  Now let me be clear, Satoshi Kanazawa's blog post is not a study; it is missing just about everything one would expect to find in a serious, rigorous academic examination of the topic.  Opinions he says he has captured and explanations he has offered for them are, without further evidence and details, wholly unconvincing.  But, most who condemn him don't know this or care about this.  Most people were just deeply offended by the idea.  But, surely the idea must be true, on some level.  The idea being not that black women are less attractive than women of other races, but that people (and therefore the society to which they sum) have attractiveness preferences, which are often (if unconsciously) racially based.  The true reality of societal attractiveness and therefore racial preferences I don't know and wouldn't dare to hazard a guess, but I am sure society has them.  And why on earth would we be surprised?  And why on earth would we deny it.  For many the refusal to consider the topic seems to stem from a belief that the question is fundamentally flawed or otherwise invalid.  You see lots of comments in response, "What is beauty?" "How can one measure attractiveness?" "He's trying to compare apples to oranges."  And those arguments are fine things, but they are ultimately nonsense, because they require us to believe that the world's behavior doesn't depend on the real answer to Kanazawa's real question ("How does attractiveness rank by race/gender?").  If you've lived any amount of years you've surely figured out that people's perception of another's beauty matters quite a lot.  Beautiful people have a social advantage over their homelier but otherwise identically schooled, motivated, gifted friends and coworkers; and this social advantage can be an advantage in business as well, though also sometimes a detriment.  So understanding attractiveness preferences is useful: to understand, compete, and combat the inequities.  And inequities are everywhere, and nothing to focus on lamenting.  Surely no one would be much surprised by studies indicating female preferences against shortness, against balding, against...  Each individual should be and largely is seen as an individual, the sum of his or her particular merits.  Tom Cruise is short but has enjoyed the adoration of millions.  Bruce Willis is bald yet continues to enjoy the adoration of millions. So why then the surprise and fury that preferences might correlate to race tendencies when individual variation is always available.  Again, this man's study appears to be pure bunk, but there is an answer to the question he asked, and it is a useful question, and we shouldn't be afraid to let someone ask it, or to help them find the answer.

And I don't have time to fully go into it, but in the news out of the UK today was fury over their justice minister Kenneth Clark's on radio comments to a rape victim regarding a plan to give reduced prison terms to those who readily admit they committed rape.  I won't get into the meat of the story, but I will mention one curious quote at the end of the article:

When he was quizzed during the show on why rape sentences were on average only five years, Clarke said: "That includes date rape, 17-year-olds having intercourse with 15-year-olds.

"A serious rape, with violence and an unwilling woman, the tariff is much longer than that. I don't think many judges give five years for a forcible rape frankly."

Asked if he thought date rape did not count as a "serious" offence, he said: "Date rape can be as serious as the worst rapes but date rapes, in my very old experience of being in trials, they do vary extraordinarily one from another and in the end the judge has to decide on the circumstances.

It isn't very well highlighted in this passage, but time and time again I've seen discussions where people toeing the politically correct party line seem to insist that all rape is equal, and I think that reflects a similar refusal to accept that reality is far more complicated and messy.  Each case of rape must be examined and the punishment affixed based on the individual crime, but we shouldn't be afraid to speak about overall impact of varying classes and types of crimes.  Far from the exercise being futile, it's necessary and vital for appropriately responding to the problem, particularly in a world where problems are often tackled via governmental budgets.   Targeting resources at reducing the occurrence of sexual crimes, appropriately allocating resources for their prosecution, and for treating its victims requires a complete understanding of its incidence and impact.  Again, we cannot be afraid to ask any question, dive into any subject, and get whatever answers might be there (accepting the answers only after thorough review).

We can improve our reality most efficiently if we acknowledge it.

And one final tangential note...  I really struggle to understand our justice system.  The notion that you lock someone in a jail complex for a fixed period of time as punishment is so curiously ineffectual.  The prisoner is left with his free will in tact, able to wile away his months or years without any serious reflection or self help and then release him as though we assume him to have changed.  And of course he rarely has, most often his mind has retained its felonious nature, and he'll find his way to new victims.  And these new victims exist because we failed to act to protect them.  Why are we releasing anyone who we have very strong reason to suspect retains their criminal mind?  If a rapist is likely to rape again (has done little or nothing to demonstrate a radical change in thought/behavior) what on earth are we doing releasing him in 5 years, or 10 years, of 50 years?  Our society seems to be stuck in this useless middle ground.  We punish but not so much that any real satisfaction is achieved through vengeance, and we provide only very limited resources in prison to rehabilitate because we require free will participation.  And at the end of the day we're all worse for it, with a currently incarcerated population approaching 1% of US residents, and people of felonious minds on the outside no doubt being 10x higher.  I'm not suggesting we move towards a Chinese-style reeducation camp model...  but I can't believe in a world where we bend free will almost to the point of breaking through commercial advertising, and through political and religious indoctrination, that we are in the area of criminals so incredibly impotent.

^ Quinxy

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12Apr/110

Idea: A New Dimension in Password Security

I'm only now getting around to documenting this (my memory was jogged for some reason the other day), but back in 1998 I came up with an idea for adding a new "dimension" to password protection schemes without actually requiring that the user do anything different.  The new "dimension" was time, specifically the timing of the user's keystrokes as they entered their password.  I developed a working prototype which observed a user's keystroke behavior as they entered their password, recording the length of time they held each key down as well as the length of time between each key stroke.  My prototype code then turned this data into a somewhat robust signature which could be stored and used for comparison at future logins.  The signature method was designed to stand up to "normal" daily variations in typing speed and coordination while still generating the same representation; the sensitivity could be adjusted by tweaking a series of constants.  I captured a few hundred samples of people typing in their passwords over several days in order to establish to my own satisfaction that the idea and its initial implementation were solid.  The elegance of the idea is that it imposes no new requirements on users or the passwords they choose.  The user does as they always do and the system would offer the additional protection.

A few items which I did not address in the prototype but would clearly need to in an actual implemented system.  If a person changes their password you can expect that for some time the typing signature will be in flux, adjusting as their fingers adapt to the new formulation of letters and characters they've chosen.  The system must recognize and allow for these changes, replacing the stored signatures over time to reflect these changes.  It's important to note that certain situations will make the signature less consistent, such as occurs when a user only infrequently uses that particular password.  Also, specific incidents, like injury would alter the signature.  In all these cases where the new and old signature do not match a new check procedure would need to be added.  This secondary check could include asking them to verify some additional piece of information, such as would have been asked for password recovery (e.g., mother's maiden name, name of their first pet, etc.), or perhaps access being temporarily denied, with alerts being sent to the user by email, requiring them to step through some authentication procedure.

The idea may not have been as advanced as retinal or fingerprint scanning, but I think it was still a good one, and I remain surprised I've not seen it developed.

My friend Arvin sent me this link to just such a system http://technology.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/tech_and_web/personal_tech/article1667057.ece.  Another potential patent slipped through my fingers. ;)

^ Quinxy

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4Mar/110

The Pedagogical Role of Induced Temporary Unconsciousness

Could induced unconsciousness be an effective teaching tool?  Imagine a teacher could instantly induce temporary unconsciousness in a student; the specifics are unimportant, but just to prevent detracting speculation, let's imagine the student wore some sort of removable, remotely-controlled device operated by the teacher.  A press of a button and within one second the student would be safely asleep for 5 minutes.

Before you become outraged, this is meant to be a thought experiment, not a proposal for actually building such devices.  I am trying to explore the topic of how we learn and how our errors are corrected and our desires constrained. The ethical and technical issues are no doubt fascinating, but secondary.

Children want things they shouldn't want and attempt to do things they shouldn't attempt to do; that is their very nature. A child may want more candy than is reasonable, a toddler may repeatedly attempt to pull the tail on the cat, a teenager may attempt to sneak out of the house after midnight. Wherever possible the child's behavior should be corrected using traditional methods, including such basic tools as rewards, consequences, distraction, and reasoning.  But what of those with whom the traditional approaches fail to deliver results.  What if the child or adult in question is so defiant that they will not submit to the reasonable authority parents or teachers need to modify problem behavior?

This is what prompted me to wonder about whether unconsciousness could be instructive.  And my own conclusion was that I get it could.

Let's imagine a very simple situation.  Let's imagine a rescued dog who has extreme aggressiveness towards all other living creatures, human, canine, feline, squirreline, etc.  Let's imagine he is in an enclosed area and that the instant he sees a human walk into view he runs at them to attack.  Now imagine that every time he began the charge he was immediately rendered unconscious and returned the few inches he was able to move, back to his original location.  The dog would revive and the scene would be repeated.  I am not a behavior theorist, but it certainly seems plausible that the dog would begin to accept that his desire is wholly unfulfillable, and the synapses which connected from the sight of a human to the desire to attack would weaken their connection (at least in that context).  Animals and humans do persist in pursuing unfulfillable goals, but there is almost always an element of the pursuit that is "satisfying" in a psychological sense.  A dog which barks at the mail man through the mail slot may never actually get his chance to bite the mail man, but the dog presumably gets things out of the interaction, regardless.  The dog's anger at the mail man is probably rewarding in some senses; adrenaline is unleashed in the blood, the heart rate goes up, the monotony of the day is ended briefly, the natural urge to defend the home from potential threats is satisfied.  But if the activity was interrupted almost at the moment the thought begins to turn into action then all of the satisfying elements of the episode are removed and it would seem that the brain would be forced to alter its network of connections accordingly.

We may never know, of course.  Technology will not soon deliver such a device, and there may be myriad undesired psychological side-effects resulting from the use of such a device (which I might expect with significant use, since it would be making a rather frightening causal disconnect "normal").  Ah well, it's still fun to wonder what might be.

^ Quinxy

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25Feb/112

Taking Gambling in Nevada to its Logical and Absurd Conclusion

Slot Machines in the Grocery StoreGambling is hardly unique to Nevada, but it sure does seem more pervasive there than anywhere else. While I'm not a gambler, it occurred to me on my first trip there that since gambling is so ubiquitous, why not make every single transaction (monetary or otherwise) in Nevada include some element of chance. Imagine going to the supermarket, running up a $145 bill for groceries then seeing a wheel spin on the cashier's POS terminal and as it slows you wait with baited breath hoping it stops on one of the two 30% off segments or if you're truly lucky the FREE segment. Imagine going into a bank depositing your paycheck and watching colorful multiplier numbers spin on the ATM screen perhaps doubling or tripling your deposit! Imagine going to court to finalize your divorce and just before the judge decides the case he pulls down the arm of lady justice and in her eyes cherries, pineapples, and BAR fly by, its verdict augmenting any child or spousal support awards with money from the state gambling pot. Obviously every financial transaction would include some slight state-mandated tax to cover the state-regulated payouts, with a little left over for funding good public works, no doubt. I'm not really suggesting this would be a good idea, merely that it is the logical extension of their currently having slot machines and other games of chance in everything from restaurants to gas stations to grocery stores (see the photo from a Von's grocery store in Las Vegas).

^ Quinxy

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