Archive for July, 2008

Photo: Halogen Plume

Sunday, July 27th, 2008

Notice where the tungsten broke, left a vapor plume, and then the molten metal formed little beads at the ends of the broken wire.

Racism and The Genetic Fallacy

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008

Let me first clarify that the word genetic in genetic fallacy does not refer to DNA. It refers to genesis, to the time-ordered chain of causality which leads to an idea. I was first introduced to this fallacy by one of Yudowsky’s posts, which you can read for more information.

The genetic fallacy refers to the act of confusing the historical origins with the justifications for an idea. Yudowsky uses the example of the Kekule formula for benzene – just because Kekule first saw the structure in a dream does not mean it isn’t scientific, because that structure has been subsequently justified by experimental observables.

It is unfashionable to be openly racist. Those who are racist must hide their motivations and find other reasons to justify their discriminatory behavior. Others, when they see through these ploys, accuse these people of racism.

Personally, I do not much care for making such accusations, because to do so would be to commit the genetic fallacy. If the openly declared reasons are weak, then the argument is weak – to assert that the idea is weak because it was motivated by racism is to appeal to the genetic fallacy, which is dishonest. Ideally, one should stick to attacking the reasons declared, and not be too easily drawn to speculation on intentions.

Excuses Are Bad For Companies

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008

Larry Summers on the problem with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac:

What went wrong? The illusion that the companies were doing virtuous work made it impossible to build a political case for serious regulation. When there were social failures the companies always blamed their need to perform for the shareholders. When there were business failures it was always the result of their social obligations.

This is precisely the same type of danger that social entrepreneurs face.

The Coming Alternative Energy Bubble

Sunday, July 13th, 2008

Harper’s on alternative energy as the bubble which will take over from the housing bubble that is deflating. This is really believable to me, seeing as to how much press and attention has been spent on alternative energy despite the complete absence of any fundamental efficiency milestone. Both the Masdar effort in Abu Dhabi and McKinsey’s carbon supply curve (which doesn’t really emphasize alternative energy, but lives in the same space) come to mind.


We have learned that the industry in any given bubble must support hundreds or thousands of separate firms financed by not billions but trillions of dollars in new securities that Wall Street will create and sell. Like housing in the late 1990s, this sector of the economy must already be formed and growing even as the previous bubble deflates. For those investing in that sector, legislation guaranteeing favorable tax treatment, along with other protections and advantages for investors, should already be in place or under review. Finally, the industry must be popular, its name on the lips of government policymakers and journalists. It should be familiar to those who watch television news or read newspapers.

There are a number of plausible candidates for the next bubble, but only a few meet all the criteria. Health care must expand to meet the needs of the aging baby boomers, but there is as yet no enabling government legislation to make way for a health-care bubble; the same holds true of the pharmaceutical industry, which could hyperinflate only if the Food and Drug Administration was gutted of its power. A second technology boom—under the rubric “Web 2.0”—is based on improvements to existing technology rather than any new discovery. The capital-intensive biotechnology industry will not inflate, as it requires too much specialized intelligence.

There is one industry that fits the bill: alternative energy, the development of more energy-efficient products, along with viable alternatives to oil, including wind, solar, and geothermal power, along with the use of nuclear energy to produce sustainable oil substitutes, such as liquefied hydrogen from water.

The article goes on to list evidence from the press and ongoing legislation.

Martingales and Infanticide

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008

Assume that you live in a culture that, for some reason or another, values having a male heir in the family. Families adopt the strategy of having children until the first male child is born. If the natural sex ratio is 1:1, what is the expected sex ratio in this culture?

It remains at 1:1. Here’s why. Each family has 1 boy. As for females, there is a 50% chance of having no girls, 25% chance of having 1 girl, 12.5% chance of having 2 girls, and so forth. So the average number of girls is (n-1)/2^n summed from n = 1 to infinity.

Therefore just following the strategy above does not change the sex ratio. In fact, it is possible to prove that no stopping strategy would change the sex ratio. Here’s how:


My Misuse of Darwinian Evolution

Friday, July 4th, 2008

Overcoming Bias: No Evolutions for Corporations or Nanodevices

I have made a serious conceptual mistake, adopting darwinian evolution as the default explanation for almost any generational process for the past ten years. The requirements for darwinian evolution to be effective, as enumerated by Eliezer:

  • Entities that replicate
  • Substantial variation in their characteristics
  • Substantial variation in their reproduction
  • Persistent correlation between the characteristics and reproduction
  • High-fidelity long-range heritability in characteristics
  • Frequent birth of a significant fraction of the breeding population
  • And all this remains true through many iterations

are not that easily satisfied.