Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

Sociology Memo: Genetically Modified Food

I don't really understand the mindset involved in opposing genetically modified food. What's the alternative? Look to our past, look to the middle ages. Entire crops can be wiped out by a fluke of disease or pests or even weather. Countless man-hours are spent toiling in the fields using inferior tools, foods available are limited by season, and the foods people do get to eat are nutritionally lacking. Hardcore Vegans couldn't even survive!

It seems to me that people who really advocate backing away from technology are completely unreasonable and it would take a divine intervention to convince them otherwise. As for the rest, I think their arguments are misplaced. The argument isn't against genetically modified food, per se, but against how the rise of corporations and profitable benefits GM food gives us allows for some pretty mean exploiting. We have corporations that have monopolies on food. We have corporations that will take shortcuts on food safety.

But is it really a safety issue when it comes to, say, allergies? Smith's section on whether humans should be worried came off very strangely. In one sentence, he speaks about allergies as reactions to foreign and strange substances. In the next, he talks about more people having peanut allergies. Peanuts aren't foreign or strange; I eat them all the time as do many other people. In fact, all plants are toxic. But human and other animal bodies have adapted to eat these things, and some of us are less adapted than others. If we're going to be against GM foods because they can cause allergic reactions, we should be against everything that can cause allergic reactions. (Which is nearly everything.) This entire argument of his does not follow. All that should be done is mandating potential allergens on the food product, which is already done. (And if possible allergens are not clear, make it clearer.)

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Sociology Memo: Nanotechnology

When talking about nanotechnology, one generally means the special case of molecular nanotechnology with nanobots manipulating the structure of atoms around them, possibly even self-replicating. I think Balbus et al. in the reading avoid this and talk about technology that simply happens to be at the nanoscale, such as nanotubes, which we've already had for quite some time, and it makes their calls for regulation and market diversification seem silly. And really, we're already approaching full-blown molecular nanotechnology: last year it was shown we could build robots that manipulate individual molecules. (source) Since then further advances have been made, including manipulating individual atoms in certain environments.

The big problem of nanotechnology is the existential risk to humanity. It's generally agreed that nanotech, if successful, will end poverty, need, want, disease, and anything else than ails us. (And people think it's possible to limit this grand technology to a privileged few!) Personally I believe it will destroy the entire concept of money: get nanobots that transform into solar cells and their energy needs are met, there's plenty of raw material on the earth to transform to other purposes as well as all the material in space. Even before self-replication you can get "utility fog", which promises some pretty great stuff. (utility fog) Eventually, though, whatever is desired can be achieved through self-replicating nanobots. I would like to see Curiosity become the currency of the future.

But the "if successful" part is a pretty big if. There's the classic "grey goo" scenario where, by accident, researchers unleash voracious self-replicating nanobots that quickly envelop the entire Earth. There are much worse outcomes though, especially if some entity tries to use nanotechnology for malicious purposes. But an overlooked accident that becomes possible with nanotech is brute forcing artificial intelligence, and developing unFriendly AI that ends up destroying us. (Probably not because it hates us, but because it is indifferent and you are made of atoms that it can use for other purposes.)

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Sociology Memo: Network Neutrality

Another memo, the question here was something along the lines of should the FCC enforce network neutrality.


Network neutrality is a simple thing: don't discriminate between data traffic. As Lessig stated in his piece, this was the norm in the beginning as it was fairly difficult to both manage and analyze packets of data. Now with more powerful computers, it's not hard at all to analyze the data. This is why SSL exists, and people are made aware not to put in sensitive information on sites without the "https://" prefix, because unencrypted information is too easy to sniff.

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Sociology Memo: Intelligent Design vs. Evolution in Schools

This is a memo I wrote for class a few months back, going to be posting a bunch now. The question here was "Should Intelligent Design be taught in public schools?"


There are three main arguments against the teaching of Intelligent Design in schools that I will consider: the first is one of purpose, the second is one of practicality, the third is one of merit. On purpose, the purpose of a public education in science is, as the nay-author says, "to expose students to the best possible scholarship in each field of science." Chemistry does not teach Alchemy alongside the standard model, Astronomy does not teach palm reading or divination alongside the standard model, Mechanical Physics, while technically wrong (as superior models exist), does teach the math that got us to the moon, not simply "intuitions" about distance or the idea that the sun revolves around the Earth. Thus it should not be the purpose of a biology class to teach vitalism, a long-dead theory, nor the idea of Intelligent Design, which while not yet quite dead in the eyes of the public is certainly dead to most of science. I am open to the possibility of teaching Intelligent Design in an alternate course, but I disapprove of labeling it science and once you have a class allowing it the door opens to the practicality argument.

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Tao Te Ching Reflections, 26 through 46


The heavy is the root of the light.
The unmoved is the source of all movement.

Thus the Master travels all day
without leaving home.
However splendid the views,
she stays serenely in herself.

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Getters (Accessors) and Setters (Mutators) Are Evil

They are a plague upon Object Oriented Programming everywhere! They are concepts from a less civilized age.

Before I continue, let's make sure we're talking about the same things. This is a getter:

class Foo:

def getX(self):
return self.x

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Humanity's Progress, Niceness

Humans are social creatures, and being social creatures it makes sense that we have innate altruistic desires. (See The Moral Animal for an awesome introduction to Evolutionary Psychology.) It further makes sense that in order to have significant progress as a species, most of the members also need to progress.

Suppose that a hermit, thousands of years ago, mysteriously discovered the secret of flight and hid it from the world, being a selfish prick. And then he died. And no one cares about or remembers him. Now we uncover his remains, see what he did. What's the first thought? "Wow, what a prick." In the end, keeping his knowledge of flight did not deter humanity from progressing, but it sure would have been nice to have had that so early in our history.

I think one of the reasons people advocate altruism is to at the same time advocate against assholes. Pointing out that thinking someone an asshole is subjective doesn't change the matter of a person being an asshole, and if a huge number of people are in agreement over someone's status as an asshole, then that person probably is an asshole.

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