Year: 2010

Oh, and happy New Year!

Posted by – December 31, 2010

Art shock

Posted by – December 31, 2010

Inspired by tjic, a somewhat strange bedfellow, I’ve uncharacteristically decided to set myself a goal/resolution for 2011. I’ve set my sights a good deal lower than that fellow’s overcome-everything mindset (make money, build things, lose weight, learn instrument), but I’ll nevertheless be happy if I succeed. Heck, knowing me, I’ll most likely be happy even if I don’t! The goal is to make and publicly display 6 pictures a week for all of 2011. “Display” means “post here”, obviously. Turn off your RSS readers, gentlemen! I will probably do a post a week with the whole bunch. I hope to draw considerably more than 6 a week, but that’s what I aim to dare show and be bothered to scan and upload.

6 is probably more than I’ve done in a whole year most years. At the age of around 14-15 I had a period of sketching a fair bit, and again around 16-17 (I’m 25 now), so I’m very unpracticed and shoddy. In the latter part of 2010 I did some quick watercolours. But I do like drawing, a lot, and I hope this will improve my skill and make it even more fun. Perhaps more importantly, it would also be nice to get a habit of openness and willingness to reveal weaknesses in order to improve them.

My greatest weaknesses in drawing currently are probably in shading, perspective (I can’t think spatially for shit) and patience. I’ll probably start out by not attempting those, and attack them with more practice later.

Before I move on to show-and-tell, an anecdote about spatial thinking. This Thursday I was thinking about this Project Euler problem (by the way, skip this paragraph if you don’t want to be spoiled vis-a-vis the problem). I wanted to figure out a way to determine the shortest path from one corner of a cuboid to the direct opposite, using only the sides (if you prefer: in a room whose ceiling, floor and walls are rectangles, the shortest path for an ant to crawl from a corner on the floor to the opposite corner on the ceiling). My first idea was to find a suitable variable and differentiate: have the ant travel along the floor to some point x on the edge between the floor and an opposite wall, and then along the wall directly to the corner. x now determines the length of the path, so differentiate and find the zero of that function, and there you have it. Of course there are other ways to choose the path as well, so for each you have to derive the appropriate functions and do the same thing, and find the minimum from all those possibilities. The manipulations become rather hairy and fiddly… In a bar that evening I mentioned this to someone who almost immediately suggested that I could just fold the cuboid open and draw the paths as direct lines. Like this:

The blue cross is the starting point, the red crosses are points that map to the target corner, the three green paths are the possible minimal ones (except that with this diagram you can immediately see that it's never best to go across to a corner and straight up because it isn't a straight line).

The blue cross is the starting point, the red crosses are points that map to the target corner, the three green paths are the possible minimal ones (except that with this diagram you can immediately see that it's never best to go across to a corner and straight up because it isn't a straight line).

It’s all right triangles, easy peasy. This was so simple it took me a while to accept that this was really correct! This is what I mean by terrible spatial thinking ability.

Anyway. To give you some idea of where I am, here’s a bunch of recent sketches.

An impression of a table with a seated figure. The blue overhanging thing is a lamp.

An impression of a table with a seated figure. The blue overhanging thing is a lamp.

A quick bar sketch

A quick bar sketch

Another quick bar sketch. The mess on the forehead is a failed attempt at an eye. On the chin is not a beard, but another false start.

Another quick bar sketch. The mess on the forehead is a failed attempt at an eye. On the chin is not a beard, but another false start.

What prolonged drinking will do:

An impression of six people at a table (from my perspective, I was sitting at the head of the table - squint hard, youll see it eventually)

An impression of six people at a table (from my perspective, I was sitting at the head of the table - squint hard, you'll see it eventually)

My first attempt at a transvestite - not sure what I was thinking here

My first attempt at a transvestite - not sure what I was thinking here

For Finnish readers, a bonus: a selection of rather puzzling children’s stories with illustrations I wrote when I was 14 or so.

Physics understanding

Posted by – December 1, 2010

Al Seckel recalls the following story about Feynman:

One day a physicist friend of mine Ron Unz asked if he could be introduced to his hero – Richard Feynman. Ron had an impressive list of credentials behind him – winner of the prestigious Westinghouse Science Award, degrees from Harvard and Cambridge, and a former graduate student of Steven Hawking. (A little aside, Ron was later to briefly gain some fame after he became a multimillionaire and ran briefly against Pete Wilson in the race for the California Senate). In addition to Ron’s impressive credentials, he had developed a rather controversial theory that charge was not conserved. He had published a paper about it in Physical Review and he wanted to discuss his idea with Feynman. I agreed to invite him to one of our private lunch sessions. On the day in question, Ron made a terrible mistake. First of all he showed up in a suit. That was certain to give a bad impression to Feynman. Then I made a mistake, I spilled the beans to Feynman just before lunch about Ron’s ideas. Feynman roared, and declared that he would refuse to eat with anyone that stupid. Feynman turned and walked away. I went back to Ron and told him what had happened. Ron was terribly disappointed, but I told him that I would persist. I went back to Feynman and convinced him to still have lunch with us. Feynman said, Ok, as long as we don’t talk physics. I don’t want to hear anything about it. So I got Ron to join us. No sooner than five minutes into the conversation, Feynman turns to Ron and says, OK, what’s this dopey idea you have in physics? Ron, who is an extremely confident guy, turned and started to explain his theory. Feynman, booming loudly declared, Did you think about this….? Did you think about that…? The response was almost inevitably, No. On it went. I must say, I have never seen such a quick and merciless massacre of another individual in my life. It was sad.

Does anyone understand enough physics to guess at what would be critical objections to the idea that charge is not necessarily conserved? Certainly a strong justification is the same as for other conservation laws, that symmetrical events (as are those we know of involving charge) produce conservation laws (ie. Noether’s theorem), but according to Wikipedia, “The best experimental tests of electric charge conservation are searches for particle decays that would be allowed if electric charge is not always conserved. No such decays have ever been seen” – so it’s not so obvious that experimentalists wouldn’t try to refute it. Why would it be obviously stupid with a moment’s thought that a theory violating this would be really stupid?

What you gonna do

Posted by – October 14, 2010

The Greater Manchester Police are reporting everything they do on Twitter today (no, I don’t know why). My favourites:

  • confused man reporting his tv not working
  • man making offensive comments from a car in Bolton

Patriotism standards

Posted by – October 13, 2010

The Guardian describes the scene at the San José copper-gold mine in Chile where the long-trapped miners are being rescued:

Florencio Avalos was the first to make the 16-minute twisting ascent through the horribly narrow shaft, a thin straw between stone canyons. Rescuers called the capsule “Phoenix” and when Avalos emerged, grinning and blinking and hugging, he really did seem reborn. The crowd chanted “Chile! Viva Chile!”

Somehow “Viva Chile!” sounds appropriate, but “Engerland!” or “hyvä Suomi!” would sound completely idiotic and misplaced, and prompt numerous embarrassed newspaper columns. Do they have Chilean counterparts or is it acceptable there? There certainly is a double standard in which nations’ names we consider acceptable to chant.

Colourless green ideas sleep furiously

Posted by – October 8, 2010

I’ve sometimes been accused of being “anti-green” because I complain about how useless many green ideas are for any other purpose than signaling status and having fun. But it’s true! My new favourite example is sOccket (I like the funky capitalisation!). I don’t really have the words to transmit to you my disbelief at the shittiness of this idea, so I’ll let it speak for itself:

We are four young women who met in a Harvard engineering class in the fall of 2008.

Having all spent time in Africa, we wanted to translate the positive energy of soccer and children we had seen on fields and playgrounds in Africa to their lives off the field and into their homes.

The sOccket is a soccer ball that captures the energy during game play to charge LEDs and batteries. After playing with the ball, the child can return home and use the ball to connect a LED lamp to read, study, or illuminate the home.

Got it? It’s a generator that charges an internal battery with the acceleration of the ball. Wow. This device is

  • Worse than a proper hand-cranked generator with a large battery for generating electricity
  • Worse than a regular football for playing football
  • Made in tiny batches at great cost
  • Fragile and essentially impossible to repair or get spare parts for

It all works together so beautifully. Engineering women from Harvard designing an expensive eco-weenie toy for African children – that’s so right, because women are so caring! But they can still be engineers! And just because they have elite status from Harvard doesn’t mean they don’t totally get the problems of rural Africans! Phallocentric anti-nature engineering left standing in the dust! Men would probably have designed a toy gun or something for generating electricity!

What really galls me is the utter cynicism of these do-gooders soaking up charity resources for a completely useless vanity project to pad their CVs – and the sincere sense of moral superiority that they undoubtedly derive from it.

edit: turns out they aren’t actually engineering students, so they needed help with the execution part. But they provided the great idea!

The source of national populism

Posted by – October 6, 2010

In most every European country, a national populist party has emerged over the last 15-20 years to capture a meaningful (and fast growing) share of the vote. The standard analysis has been to examine the voting public: how has it and its environment changed to cause it to change its voting behaviour? I propose that the more important change has been in the existing political parties and the mentality of the intelligentsia that determines their policies.

In the twentieth century, politics (in democracies) focused on negotiating around the different interests of different voting blocs. Underlying the negotiation was a wider concept of national interest: different Finnish parties hoped to benefit different groups of Finns, but they all focused ultimately on a Finnish national interest (with the exception of little practical importance of internationalist communists). Politicians were driven by status: they wanted to be the top dog, bringing home the big prizes to their voting bloc and ultimately arising to statesman status. This philosophy is still the norm among the broad public, but academics, political commentators and cultural circles have generally moved to a very different political ethic: one of abstract universalism motivated by personal satisfaction and internal status.

The intelligentsia interacts among itself, and its status points are won not by practical results but by any exercise of ideological power. Admirers of the Soviet Union didn’t lose their credibility by being outrageously wrong – on the contrary, their ongoing defiance of reality has won them a certain sense of nobility. The echo chamber of the European Parliament self-importantly celebrates itself not despite colossal amounts of waste, inefficiency and malicious bureaucracy but because of it – after all, they must be powerful people to pull all that off. Nay, not powerful, but powerfully good. After all, do they not devote much of their energies to fighting global climate change, solving the problems of global poverty and inequality and curing their own societies of parochialism, racism and lack of diversity? If you’re unhappy with the practical results, maybe you should give them more resources and power – or perhaps strive to achieve the ultimate good and become a political activist yourself.

This is, of course, a standard historical cycle: wealthy and dominant cultures, able to do as they please, produce a priest/idealist class which divorces itself from the mundane, earthly concerns of boring normos. This is how the pyramids were built, and also very much the internal story of the Soviet Union. The immediate result in the west has been the aforementioned rise of national populism – people who previously weren’t actively interested in nationalism outside of sports and historical reminisces are now voting for national self-interest, not because they’ve changed but because they used to vote for that no matter which party they chose. Unfortunately for them, the people in charge of these populist parties tend to be cynics, incompetents or both, so there is little promise of achieving their goals.

A recommendation

Posted by – October 6, 2010

In the vein of the previous post, if I recommend something, it should probably be something a little surprising that you might not have heard about otherwise. So please, surprise yourself, take a chance on Harry Potter fan fiction, and read Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. Might be difficult to appreciate if you don’t know anything about the Harry Potter series.

Casualties of thoughtfulness

Posted by – October 6, 2010

It might appear that I’m not interested in blogging anymore, but in reality I’ve been producing stuff at roughly my normal, sluggish place. I have drafts on:

  • “My inexistent field”, on the scientific discipline I’d like to study but doesn’t really exist yet
  • “On diversity”, where I try to explain what I think is an important distinction in cultural diversity, namely shallow diversity (which is mostly good) and deep diversity (which is mostly bad)
  • “Antimiscommunication”, where I claim that some important contemporary debates arise from intentionally using different meanings for words, in order to achieve status-differentiation by signalling
  • “Tolerance vs. acceptance”, where I suggest that one such misunderstanding underlies the misuse of the concept of liberty (in a philosophy-of-society kind of sense)
  • “Chomsky links”, where I read Chomsky’s marginalisation as evidence that neither the left or right is prepared for morality in matters of international importance, perhaps with good reason
  • “Democracy limiters”, about the differences in the ways people believe democracy should be limited, and what that might reveal
  • “Low growth apocalypse”, where I do some calculations to demonstrate that if a growth trend is not self-destructive, limiting it is practically and morally equivalent to a horrifying act of death and destruction
  • “Tale of two euros”, where I try to do some calculations to show that by Marxist eyes, capitalism has almost been removed from labour-intensive industries but dominates capital-intensive ones
  • “Freedom of speech in the west”, where I catalogue the many recent abuses of my favourite human right, siding with eg. David Irving, Mark Steyn, Geert Wilders, Mikko Ellilä and Jussi Halla-aho

It’s turned out to be problematic to leave things to rest for a while – after a couple of days I hear in my head all the counterarguments, qualifications and messy details that make it evident that anything I write is ultimately predictable, simple-minded and pointless. You could probably write those blog posts for me just from those brief synopses. So why bother?

The coming asset shift

Posted by – September 20, 2010

A tremendous portion of the world’s wealth has been accumulated for the purpose of providing for the retirement of the west’s aging baby boomers. It’s impossible to find overall numbers, but it’s definitely in the range of tens of percent of global equities and bonds (and much more than that in real estate, which the retirees themselves own outright in vast numbers). Incidentally, Norway’s centralized pension fund is the biggest, at 443 billion dollars. It alone owns about 1% of global equities and 1.8% of European equities.

I got to thinking: what’s going to happen with all this wealth? You can’t eat stocks, or be medically cared for by them, so there will have to be a sell-off. You might think that this will be compensated for by young people coming into the system, saving money for their retirement, but it’s becoming obvious in most western countries that the pension schemes aren’t going to last long enough for them to get anything out again. Meaning that practically all of this retirement wealth is going to get zeroed out in some number of decades.

Every time something is sold, it has to be bought by someone else. So who will be the counterparty? How are the retirees going to safely exit their positions? My first thought was that the money just won’t be there, and a long-lasting down market will result. Many will feel the temptation to sell their houses either with reverse mortgages or just to move to somewhere cheap and warm, at which point the housing market will come under pressure too.

But then it struck me that there are constant news stories about loose money with no home – in China! Is that what’s going to happen, that money produced in the so-called developing markets will move into the west during that lengthy down market? Incidentally, that effect will be leveraged by the sheer demographic facts – everything the pensioners consume has to be produced relatively close to the time of consumption, and the productive capacity for some of that consumption won’t be present in the west, so prices for consumables and commodities would go up.

If this happens, there really will be some interesting times politically. Protectionism and militarism will come to the fore. Much of the pensions aren’t even backed by assets but by promises, which are backed only by governments’ abilities to tax. It will be difficult to extract much money out of working people, since they will be tempted to move out to the rising east, so presumably business taxes and tariffs on imports will be the solution. There will be a lot of tension between western governments trying to hold on to sovereignity & a high standard of living while productive assets drift out and the nations gaining those assets. And defending the unmotivated, aging overdog against the super-motivated underdog gets really expensive. Just look at the Roman Empire.

I am Shiva, destroyer of fireplaces

Posted by – August 20, 2010

The fireplace started smoking out of its right side. There’s a brick wall that’s supposed to meet the mantel and keep the smoke in, but it has started leaning in, letting the smoke out. In fact all the brick lining, especially in the back, is beyond its useful lifespan and failing.

Note leaning right wall

Note leaning right wall


A phrase repeated with delight

Posted by – August 12, 2010

Walk where we will, we cannot help hearing from every side a phrase repeated with delight, and received with laughter, by men with hard hands and dirty faces, by saucy butcher-lads and errand-boys, by loose women, by hackney-coachmen, cabriolet-drivers, and idle fellows who loiter at the corners of streets. It seems applicable to every circumstance, and is the universal answer to every question; in short, it is the favourite slang phrase of the day – a phrase that, while its brief season of popularity lasts, throws a dash of fun and frolicsomeness over the existence of squalid poverty and ill-requited labour, and gives them reason to laugh as well as their more fortunate fellows in a higher stage of society.

Many years ago the favourite phrase was Quoz. When vulgar wit wished to mark its incredulity, and raise a laugh at the same time, there was no resource so sure as this popular piece of slang. When a man was asked a favour which he did not choose to grant, he marked his sense of the suitor’s unparalleled presumption by exclaiming Quoz! When a mischevous urchin wished to annoy a passanger, and create mirth for his comrades, he looked him in the face, and cried out Quoz! and the exclamation never failed in its object. When a disputant was desirous of throwing a doubt upon the veracity of his opponent, and getting summarily rid of an argument which he could not overturn, he uttered the word Quoz, with a contemptuous curl of his lip and an impatient shrug of his shoulders.

(Charles MacKay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds, 1841)

Today in harsh Chinese pragmatism

Posted by – July 24, 2010

(from Making out in Chinese, via reddit)

Today in postmodernism

Posted by – July 19, 2010

For what it’s worth

Posted by – July 16, 2010

If you’d asked me five minutes ago about the respective values of Apple and Microsoft, I’d have guessed that Microsoft has at least twice the value of Apple. For the benefit of any readers who, like me, have missed the news: Apple is currently worth more than Microsoft. Huh! Apple is worth $230 billion, Microsoft $223 billion.

Microsoft has about three times as many employees as Apple, about a quarter more revenue and about three quarters more profit. Apple’s P/E is about double Microsoft’s, meaning that investors are willing to pay twice as much for Apple’s profit than for Microsoft’s profit. But presumably Apple is the future. Google, by the way, is only worth $156 billion, another number I’d have absolutely no way of coming up with. Nokia is a measly $32 billion.

I wonder what other wildly unexpected valuations there are out there. I’m thankful that my job isn’t to buy and sell international technology companies.

Porn for girls

Posted by – July 12, 2010

I recently watched about 50 hours of Gilmore Girls inside a couple of months, so you may want to take a moment to mentally readjust how seriously you take anything I say.

Now, unless you’re some kind of retarded sexist, you’ll know that women watch pornography just as much as men do – at least for a sufficiently broad definition of porn. The purpose of porn is, ultimately, fantasy depiction. For men, that means

  • having sex with beautiful people
  • getting status (some say: to get sex with more beautiful people)

When men watch Led Zeppelin concerts on dvd, part of what they’re getting is the fantasy of having an incomprehensible amount of status, in the eyes of men and women alike. Of course, men fantasize about sex a lot more than about being in Led Zeppelin – just like most of their meals are stomach-filler, not culinary art.

Women are way more complicated than this, so they need eg. Gilmore Girls. Why did I choose Gilmore Girls? Why not Twilight (the fantasy of being “different” and passionately fought over by impossibly handsome, ancient, powerful and magical non-human creatures without doing much and for no apparent reason) or Sex and the City (live in Manhattan, spend scads of money on fashion while being a useless ditz, enjoy a neverending variety of penis without ever ending up on the trash-heap for being old or slutty)? Gilmore Girls is much more nuanced and wholesome than that – it offers an entire life plan, simultaneously depicting three generations: one on the cusp of adulthood, one in maturity and one in old age. And yet, incredibly, for all its detail and multidimensionality, it is pure fantasy, to a sometimes absurd degree.

At the centre of GG is Lorelai Gilmore, a thirty-something manager of an inn who always has something snappy to say, and her highschool-aged daughter Rory (she goes on to study at her choice of any ivy-league college in subsequent seasons). Their (genuinely) clever-funny banter is a big part of the show. Lorelai’s parents are super-wealthy WASP types, allowing the series to spend a lot of time in their stately mansion and in the higher reaches of society, where Lorelai is courted by powerful, handsome men with fast cars.

But wouldn’t it be boring to have a modern female lead just ride on her family’s money? It sure would, which is why Lorelai ran away from home as a teenager when she got pregnant and never attended college. Pretty cool! Having broken contact with her parents, she raised her daughter as a single mother without getting a single dime (this is reiterated many times during the series) from her parents or, apparently, from the father, who is an elite badboy, also from the upper classes. Normally things end up badly for single mothers with no support, but as I say, Lorelai becomes a manager and a houseowner and her daughter is set for the Ivies (and I meant what I said earlier, she gets acceptance letters from everywhere, all the way up to Harvard). Thusly Lorelai is able to combine cool pop-culture infused disdain and ridicule for the trappings of wealth and high society, actually partake of and enjoy that society and be a hip, non-stuffy single mom whose daughter is her best friend all at the same time.

Watching GG and enjoying its large, complicated cast and intermingling array of plots and then realising that all the contortions are necessary just to maintain this otherwise contradictory fantasy is like looking into a kaleidoscope and suddenly realising it’s a complete engineering plan for a flying ocean-liner.

But that’s not all! I won’t go through every element of perfection (the other best friend is fat but always cheerful; there’s no scary crime or resentful poor people; Lorelai has a gruff, handsome admirer who fixes any mechanical problems but sex takes about five years to come into the picture while she considers her options) but I must mention one because it’s such a delightfully direct, visceral fantasy. Lorelai and her daughter are slim and beautiful, and notorious for constantly eating vast amounts of fast food, ice cream, snacks, fine dinners at the WASP parents’ mansion, everything and anything. This is not just a minor in-joke, this is pointed to in EVERY EPISODE. When the two slim girls decide to order food in, as they do most nights, they might get food from four different restaurants just for the variety. Other characters comment continually on the vast amounts of food they’re putting away (no, the series doesn’t conclude with the fat best friend murdering Lorelai). This becomes a part of their personalities – they’re not some boring losers worrying about calories or fat on their midsection; let’s party, get tubs of Ben & Jerry’s and watch movie classics all night! What do you mean, are they going to get to work and school on time in the morning? This is girl time, and anyway, one of their fun sides is drinking coffee all the time because they’re so HYPER and FUNNY and RANDOM!

Okay, I’m starting to give the impression that I’m somewhat overanimated about this whole thing. Mostly it amuses me, and it’s a fun series anyway, but I guess getting too close to other people’s fantasies can end up being rather distasteful. It’s like how women are always rather intrigued about the idea of men’s sexual fantasies, but might become a bit resentful after watching a tv series depicting them.