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More Dangerous Even Than Muslims!

March 26th, 2016

The Chronicle of Higher Education asks: Does Engineering Education Breed Terrorists? But I suspect that it's more about whom the discipline appeals to than how they are trained

Some things that might attract a person to engineering (not necessarily applicable to all engineers, but strong enough to attract a non-representative sample into the profession):
-need for control
-attraction to systems with well-defined rules
-being more interested in things than in human feelings
-desire for ability to surprise by doing things that others can't
-being committed to a campaign of terror and wanting the skills to carry it out
Need I go on? No one factor will explain all cases, but there are good reasons not to be surprised by seeing more engineers among the terrorists than say womens' studies majors.

Of course the proportion of terrorists who are engineers is not the same as the proportion of engineers who are terrorists, but the 90 identified engineering terrorists are undoubtedly a larger proportion of the total population of engineers than the 500 of the full sample are as a proportion of the entire Islamic world. So perhaps Donald Trump should take note of the fact that being an engineer is a higher risk factor than being a muslim. And since we don't know how to identify which is which, we should subject all engineers to special scrutiny in airports etc - at least until they agree to weed out their own bad apples - and maybe the only way for a country to be truly safe is to ban them from entry altogether and put ankle-bracelet location monitors on those that are already here.
Source: Does Engineering Education Breed Terrorists? - The Chronicle of Higher Education

Why The Renewables Revolution Is Now Unstoppable | ThinkProgress

February 1st, 2016

It's now possible to incorporate very large amounts of variable renewable power like solar and wind into the electric grid cost-effectively without harming reliability. Here's how.

Source: Why The Renewables Revolution Is Now Unstoppable | ThinkProgress

This is all very well, but the main problem with renewables is not load balancing (which is merely a technical, albeit perhaps non-trivial, issue), but rather achievable capacity. The basic fact that needs to be addressed is that although solar power could concievably meet all of our needs for as long as we will exist as a species, it cannot concievably be brought up to scale within the next 100 years. Wind, on the other hand just doesn't have the potential to do more than cover our non-transport needs. To power our demands for personal and materials transport, something much more substantial is needed, and for the next 100+ years "renewables" aren't it. There is however an option which has been available for over half a century with the capacity to be ramped up within half a century (from whenever we decide to actually go ahead with it), to provide all of our energy desires (let alone needs!). But it is politically incorrect to advocate it, so I will leave it to you to guess what it might  be.

What Does the Blacklock's vs Vintners Decision Really Mean?

December 5th, 2015

According to Shannon Rupp at The Tyee

Journo-owned media shop Blacklock's Reporter battled a breach of their paywall, and won.

which she definitely thinks is a "good thing" -

contra, say, Howard Knopf and Michael Geist.


Gifts in Kind 

November 21st, 2015

If anything is sillier than demanding "original receipts" for purchases on behalf of an organization it must be the idea of doing likewise for "gifts in kind" - especially since many such gifts are of items purchased so long ago that any receipt would probably have faded into illegibility if not actually dissolved into dust. But electoral organizations do have to provide some sort of accounting for such gifts so it may be both useful to develop some capacity for doing so between elections, and also to have some understanding and appreciation of the extent of member contributions beyond the merely financial.

Certainly all member contributions need to be acknowledged and have their importance understood, but this does not require any detailed accounting at the level of requiring receipts or whatever.

And with regard to establishing and enforcing contribution limits, it is important not to place a greater reporting burden on those with smaller individual contributions.

Yes, it is important to be aware of (and hopefully limit) the extent to which wealthy individuals and corporations can influence the outcome of an election by contributing goods and services of high value to their preferred candidates. But we need to do so in a way that does not place a burden on the less wealthy  to account for the costs of baking a cake for a potluck that equals or exceeds that placed on a major corporation for those of providing a campaign bus or private jet for their chosen right wing candidate!


Source: gifts in kind - Google Search

Original Receipts 

November 21st, 2015

I am a member of an organization whose Finance Committee has been advised to require "original receipts" for all reimbursement requests (and also for "gifts in kind"! But I'll get to that second bit of nonsense later).

Now it should be obvious that the idea is made ridiculous by the fact that most vendors will happily print out a second copy of the "original" receipt if requested (and that these flimsy items typically fade to invisibility within just a few months anyhow!), but for a bit more authoritative response I tried a Google Search.  And what did I find?

Original Receipts For Expense Reimbursement Policies

We are looking at eliminating the requirement of obtaining all original receipts. We currently require original receipts and scan these into our systems.

to which a typical response was "we are living a new world here, where most of the actual receipts will be in fact be mere printouts from the computer. For example, you have electronic air tickets (even for international travel), hotel bills are also printed on plain piece of paper, etc. This will be the majority of the travel expense. Hence, in such a situation there is no sense in actually collecting the original receipts as it will be the same as the scanned copies printed out."

Why Asking for Receipts Is Old School…. - Oversight Systems

Nov 25, 2014 - Original expense receipt requirements are an old school approach to expense control. In fact, I saw a recent list of the top five reasons why ...

Does the IRS accept scanned receipts for tax write-offs ...

Dec 22, 2010 - The rule that supports scanned receipts is called Revenue Proclamation 97-22. The rule states that scanned receipts are acceptable as long as they are identical to the originals and contain all of the accurate information that are included in the original receipts.

But when it comes to the taxman we certainly do need to obey the rules!

Can You Shred Scanned Receipts? › Recordkeeping Systems

Learn CRA's and IRS's policies about accepting scanned receipts in place of originalsource documents ... they are different!

Photocopies/Scans of expense receipts | AccountingWEB › Any Answers

Of course, original receipts (whatever that means) are necessary where required by law - and in such cases it doesn't matter that the requirement is stupid. But in situations where the use is just for record keeping (and especially if the scale of he enterprise is small enough that duplicate submissions would be easily identifiable) they are completely unnecessary. And it is certainly clear that their requirement is by no means a universal or even "standard" accounting practic.
Two personal experiences contribute to my disdain for the idea that "original receipts" are in any way useful. One, from my professional life, involves a compulsive thief and liar who produced a cleverly forged "original receipt" to cover up a theft which was only discovered and proved by other means (after which a more careful examination did identify physical evidence of he forgery). And another from volunteer work in which "original receipts" were provided for items which were similar to, but of higher value than, those made available to the organization (and again, it was only after the fraud had been identified via a larger pattern of suspicious behaviour that the differences in model number were noted).

Mythical Myths #47-50 Spinach&Popeye

November 18th, 2015

This is cool because it has several components. That the iron content of spinach is a myth is itself a myth is just the starting point of a fascinating investigation of a number of related myths about how the confusion first came about and then came to light (some of which are themselves actually true and so only mythically myths). Thanks to Mike Sutton who may well be the world's champion in identification of mythical myths.

A story started thirty years ago by nutritionist Professor Arnold Bender, and famously supported by the immunohaematologist Professor Terence Hamblin, that a decimal point error made in 19th Century research of the iron content of spinach led to its erroneous promotion, is completely untrue.

Source: BestThinking / Articles / Science / Chemistry / Biochemistry / The Spinach, Popeye, Iron, Decimal Error Myth is Finally Busted (Article)

"Good Reasons"

November 15th, 2015


In a review of Vaclav Smil's books on global energy use, Tim Maly at The Atlantic, after explaining the virtual impossibility of transitioning to low energy density primary power sources in time to avert potentially catastrophic global warming, tells us that:

We know how to make nuclear reactors and hook them up to the grid, but Americans just don’t want to do it anymore. And there are good reasons for this!

So, the only transition away from carbon combustion that can occur quickly enough to save us from significant warming is the transition to nuclear. But hey, there are "good reasons" not to go that route. So I guess we'll just have to run the 4 degree experiment and see who survives.

or as commenter 'Theoretical Conspiracist' put it more politely:

A nonsense, throwaway sentence like this really mars an otherwise excellent article. I say that not to deny that there are "good reasons" for the policy/political resistance in America to nuclear power, but to remark on this odd, defensive, kneejerk inclusion of that "Hey, not that there's anything wrong with that!!" aside in an article whose overall conclusion is that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have been honest or realistic about climate change and energy policy yet.

Since nuclear retains the existing grid infrastructure and has improved energy density (vastly advantageous to wind and solar), we really ought to be doing more to consider nuclear as a clean power source, perhaps as a transition to that far-future renewables infrastructure. We ought to interrogate the so-called good reasons and weigh them honestly against the alternatives rather than just handwaving briefly and moving on toward an otherwise terminal dilemma.


Source: What The History of Fossil Fuels Teaches Us About Renewable Energy - The Atlantic

Do Pigments "Have" Colour?

November 8th, 2015

A recent article in The Atlantic piqued my interest but left me very much unsatisfied as to what, if anything, underlies the "pantone" system. So I decided to Google for more info.

The second reference I found was a lot quicker and less "gushy" in getting to the point (or at least to the point that I was interested in), but only slightly more informative.

And the third was clearer about the Pantone distinction - in that it identified the Pantone system as involving many more different pigment types than CMY. But in the end it too failed to fully explain why more than three are needed (and why no finite set, including the Pantone system itself, can ever be "perfect").

In fact any colour experience can be reproduced with just the three signals corresponding to our three kinds of cone receptors, so the RGB system is capable of producing a light to match any colour that we can ever see.

But that's the colour of light, not of an object or pigment.

In fact, no actual thing we see, whether object or pigment, actually "has" a colour. It is light that has colour and what pigments do is modify the colour of the light with which they are illuminated by subtracting more of some frequencies than others. The colour of the reflected light then is what we see, but this depends both on the properies of the object and on the spectrum of the ambient light. Since lights of quite different detailed spectrum can produce the same RGB signals in our eye, and there are many different detailed subtractions that can take a given "white" light to any particular value of the RGB signals, it is both possible to have the same pigment look different under two "white" lights which we cannot tell apart and to have  two pigments which look the same under one light and different under another - even when the two lights seem to us to be exactly the same. This last is the real weakness of the Pantone Matching System. Unless one is just comparing with other Pantone products, a matching that works under one light might not work under another.


How Pantone Became a Global Authority on Color - The Atlantic
RGB vs. CMYK vs. PMS – Why doesn’t my print out look like my screen? - CreativeMediaWorks
CMYK VS. PMS - The Printer

Is Bio-Degradation of Plastics Really a Good Thing?

November 7th, 2015

According to conventional wisdom (as expressed in 'Seriously,Science?' at

We all know that plastic is generally terrible for the environment because it doesn’t biodegrade, and just sits in landfills.

But why is having carbon locked up in relatively small known locations (rather than oxidized and maybe even methanized into the atmosphere and/or distributed widely in micro-particles of unknown toxicity) to be considered as "generally terrible for the environment"?

Source: These plastic-eating worms could be the solution to pollution.

Can neuroscience explain consciousness?

November 6th, 2015

I think I would define consciousness in purely computational terms and I don't think I'd make it dependent on the specific structure in which the computation takes place.

eg, perhaps: "An entity is said to be 'conscious' if its state changes according (at least in part) to a computational process in which the input data includes a partial model of the state of the computational process itself."

Source: Can neuroscience explain consciousness? | OUPblog

This Shameful Tactic Cannot be Allowed to Succeed

October 10th, 2015

Dear Conservative Canadians,

I share the fear of masked figures that is common in our culture, and I am more inclined than most to be put off by overt displays of religious and other affiliation. But the attempt to reduce  our political debate to the level of such feelings is so shameful that it must not be allowed to succeed.

For many the niquab is an imposed symbol of male domination, but for others it is a choice based on feelings of religious commitment or maybe even just on a learned sense of what I would consider excessive modesty. But however little I empathize with the particular motives, the idea of forcing a woman to reveal herself when she does not want to feels like a kind of sexual assault.

As conservative commentator Andrew Coyne has pointed out, over the past  years there have been just two women who felt unable to expose their faces in public an so were permitted to do so in private rather than during their actual citizenship ceremonies.

The cynical attempt by our current ruling party to make an issue of denying such women the right to citizenship without public violation of their privacy is something which will disgrace all of us if it is successful - or even if it seems to have been successful. So it must be made to fail.

The biggest factors contributing to our economy are external, and the actual differences between our parties on economic issues are minor compared to the harm that could be done to our social fabric by this kind of xenophobic bullying. So if you can't bring yourself to vote for any of the alternatives, then please just stay home on the 19th. Don't shame yourself by supporting the man who would make us a nation of small-minded bullies.


Our history proves why racial and religious division is dangerous.

Source: Harry Smith: Harper's Cultural War on Muslim Women Must End | The Tyee

Can the UN Combat Climate Change and Also Provide Energy Equality to All?

September 30th, 2015

From Charles Kenny of  the 'Center for Global Development', writing in The Atlantic:

Those who are anti-coal, anti-gas, anti-dam, and anti-nuclear when it comes to energy development in the developing world are implying that people there shouldn’t use electricity at nearly the level or low price that Westerners do. This, in turn, denies people safety, security, longevity, and comfort.

Source: Sustainable Development Goals: Can the UN Combat Climate Change and Provide Energy to All? - The Atlantic

From 'axe the tax' to 'climate consensus': Looks like Bill Tieleman has more to answer for than just his shenanigans here in BC

September 16th, 2015

From Alex Frankl in The Guardian (referring to Tony Abbot's anti-environmental success in Australia)

"After years running focus groups I’ve learned one thing: technical terms like ‘carbon’ and ‘emissions’ can never win against a simple story about tax"

except here in BC where Tieleman invented this regressive "populist" message and managed to turn it into a (well-deserved) loser for the NDP.

Philosophy Has a Problem With Expertise

September 9th, 2015

So begins Matthew Beard's response to Stephen Pinker's recent article  about the effect of intrusions by "bioethicists" into decisions about medical research and practice (which all came to my attention via Russell Blackford's response to the response).


Waking Thoughts

June 12th, 2015

Almost every morning I wake up with thoughts running through my head. Often the internal monologue drifts into the formulation of something like an essay but it rarely gets written down.
In fact the exit from bed is often prompted my more immediate physiological needs and the resolution of major political and philosophical issues is deferred in favour of matters of less global significance such as whether or not to go to the gym before breakfast.

One of the reasons I started "blogging" was to try and capture these imagined gems (and others which come to me at other inopportune times like when driving or riding my bike). But in practice my blogging has been more in the reactive mode which originally led to the term "weblog" as a log of web activity to refer to a record of annotated links to web resources. Time for a change perhaps.

Hyperbolic and exponential discounting

April 10th, 2015

In his post on Hyperbolic and exponential discounting, Murray Bourne objects to the comment by 'kissmetrics' in Six Advantages of Hyperbolic Discounting that "the phrase hyperbolic discounting is despicable jargon".

But actually I tend to agree with that judgement - though not to the credit of the 'kissmetrics' author. ...more »

France Leads Again!

March 20th, 2015

France has log been a leader in finding and using alternatives to Carbon combustion, and also in legislating against potentially dangerous extraction schemes such as fracking. And now that solar technology has become cheap enough to make sense in many contexts, France appears ready to back it with legislation rather than bribes.

But in the article France Says New Roofs Must Be Covered In Plants Or Solar Panels (at ThinkProgress), ends with a weaselly remark that "France has lagged behind other major European countries like Germany, Italy and Spain in solar power development. As of last summer, France had just over five gigawatts of photovoltaic capacity, accounting for around one percent of total energy consumption. Germany has nearly 40 GWs installed. France is heavily reliable(sic) on nuclear power for its energy, and nuclear generation in 2012 made up about 83 percent of the country’s total generation." So Germany's solar effort, being about 8 times that of France, displaces about 8% of its Carbon combustion - which France has beaten by a factor of ten by going nuclear. Some laggard!

Finland Understands Fairness in Punishment

March 13th, 2015

Finland, Home of the $103,000 Speeding Ticket — The Atlantic.The clearest case for this is in cases where there is a fine or jail time option. Why should the poor suffer loss of a much greater fraction of their entire lives than the rich for the same offence? But total assets should figure in as well as current income, and the same principle should apply to corporate wrongdoing - with the penalty being conversion to the state of a fraction of total equity (including voting rights) comparable to whatever the jail term for the same crime would be for a guilty individual as a fraction of an average expected lifetime.

How to Live Like a Stoic

March 4th, 2015

Massimo Pigliucci has a new blog about his experience of following a "stoic" philosophy.
My goal in following Massimo is not to become a Stoic but just to get a better understanding of what it means, and in particular how the attribution to Stoics of faith in the Logos squares with the often expressed idea that they didn’t hold to an objective moral law.
As one who strives to live "according to positive values” but “reject the idea of an objective, universal and unchanging moral law”, I don’t see any contradiction there. But given how often people claim to see one, I will be interested in leaning more about how the classical responses to that perception compare to my own. ...more »

Many Worlds Links

March 2nd, 2015

In case this OneTab shared tabs page doesn't last here is my local version of the links.