10.31.06

The last dot.com

Posted in at 17:12 by RjZ

Remember the exuberant enthusiasm of the dot.com boom? I remember that I was sucked in. I remember having a discussion with a wise friend about the elevated stock prices of the dot.com companies and finally declaring something like “the rules have changed!” I held that with greater wealth, more time, and broader access to trading, more and more individuals, the both of us, for example, were buying stocks than ever before. This new influx of cash is what has elevated the stock market to such dizzy heights.

I was probably right about that. All of us jumped in and elevated stock prices even for companies that had no reason to exist! Even I recognized that companies known more for sock-puppet brands than good ideas (not to mention, actual businesses) weren’t worth investing in. Still, overall, I had convinced myself that this was a new economy that justified company valuations that were greater than the gross domestic product of the average African nation.

Dot.com companies often spent huge amounts of capital to buy brand names and capabilities of companies whose services they gave away in order to attract more recognition. They were selling ideas more than products.

Today, there is still one company that behaves this way: Google. Check out Google’s near linear increase in stock value from inception at around 100 to around 480 today. Recently Google purchased YouTube and just today JotSpot.

YouTube has a tremendous brand with all the dot.com’s original buzzwords like eyeballs and stickiness. But do they make any money? JotSpot has some nice technologies for webbased applications which fits well with Googles growing online, collabrative editing for wordprocessing and spreadsheets. JotSpot used to charge people for its services. As of today, they’re free–thanks Google! Not sure how that creates stockholder value though.

I don’t own any Google shares. I’ve always thought they were too expensive, and the fact that they have risen nearly continuously just means that I get more right about them being expensive and more wrong about not buying any everyday. Google is frighteningly similar to all those failed dot.com companies who had giant stock prices with huge multiples of profit to earnings, all the while making news most of all for services that they gave away! Still, Google seems different. They’ve lasted a long time this way and they just seem so damn smart! I use several Google applications and each of them is an amazing peice of work that in a small or large way changes the way I work and create and live. No one can just write Google off as another sock puppet. Their innovative ideas for generating revenue and spawned who new notions in business such as the Long Tail Effect.

Given my previous track-record, I want to think I’ve learned something. Google is just the last dot.com. They’re inflated stock price is unjustified and they’re bubble has got to burst sometime. Except I don’t believe it. I keep thinking the rules have changed somehow and that they’ll make it work. Maybe I better scrape together nearly $500 to buy at least one share! But then, tonight is t-shirt Tuesday at the Mt. Sun Pub and Brewery and one share of Google represents a whole lot of beers (almost 250)! Oh well, priorities.

Mmm. Mt. Sun beer.

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Did John Kerry really say this?

Posted in at 15:44 by RjZ

Looks like Senator John Kerry, told students that if they don’t do well in school they could end up going to Iraq. Republicans and conservative bloggers everywhere jumped on this obvious implication: only the uneducated get stuck going to war.

Me, I am confused. Kerry is a war veteren. Is he implying that he too wasn’t bright enough to avoid the lowly act of serving our country as part of the military? It’s certainly true that a great many of the military have chosen their profession because they didn’t have many other options open to them. It’s not spoken about much but it’s pretty clear from where recruiters work that they are not exactly targeting those destined for ivy league schools, or even college at all.

That is not to say, however, that just because you’ve joined the military that you are not intelligent, educated, or wise. Many feel as if they have a calling. Many seek this option as an exciting way to learn new things and have the government pay for their expensive education. We who haven’t served in the military can hardly condemn them for that.

So I don’t get it. Why would Kerry decide so late it the game to come out so strongly in support of the stereotype that liberals are a bunch of over-educated elitists? Seems to me, this kind of thing could conservatives, formerly wavering in their support for republicans, why they can’t vote for the other party.

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10.30.06

Tobacco is green, right?

Posted in at 13:40 by RjZ

Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio is the head of the Green Party in France. He hopes that the proposed ban on smoking in that country will not be applied in “too restrictive” a manner, according to the New York Times. He’s worried because he’s a smoker. Did I mention he’s the leader of the ecology friendly, clean-air voting Green Party?

It’s not that smoking is an unacceptable sin or that each party member, or leader for that matter, must be free from any stains of their character but it still struck me as ironic.

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10.25.06

Flying yogis and other scientific theories

Posted in Society at 17:07 by RjZ

Does this look like flying to you?
Disinfotainment: BlogTV: Men Are From Mars, Maharishi Is From Uranus

John Hagelin teaches at the Maharishi University of Management (MUM) where that clip was taken an he really is a scientist. He recieved his Ph.D. from Harvard and has published papers on supersymmetry (part of string theory) and grand unification theory in peer reviewed journals. But he hasn’t done anything like that lately. His last paper was in 1994. Since then he has been working on linking particle physics to transcendental meditation and he’s run for president three times. For his research efforts he received an Ig Nobel prize for improbable research for “achievements” that “cannot, or should not, be reproduced.”

In ‘prize-winning’ study he gathered 4000 yogis to meditate in Washington DC. He claimed that this would reduce crime. When statistics actually showed that crime actually rose by 18%, he stated that this is less than it would have risen had they not meditated. Whew, glad they were there.

MUM was founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who brought us transcendental meditation, and has such famous adherents as the Beatles, Howard Stern and Heather Graham. You can’t really complain about their stated goals of world peace, but it’s fairly easy to question their efficacy. The flying yogis in the linked video above are from the MUM school and an example of a keystone claim of the benefits of meditation (although they now say it’s really just an excercise.)

Dr. Hagelin is also prominently featured in movies such as “What the BLEEP do we know?” and their new follow up “The Secret”. He tells us, “The Secret” is that when we think negative thoughts we attract negative consequences. When we think postive thoughts we attract positive consequences. That’s fascinating. I don’t know, it might even be true. Do you suppose that this was part of Dr. Hagelin’s research at Harvard? When he starts going on about these ideas is he still speaking as a Harvard educated physicist?

I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy.

—Richard Feynman (I also mentioned this quote here.)

Hagelin is not the only physicist in either of these films. He’s joined by Dr. Fred Alan Wolf, a former professor of Physics at UCSD. Wolf’s too busy authoring books with shaky explanations of quantum mechanics these days to do any publishable scientific work, but once he’s earned those credentials, no matter what he speaks about just must be true.

Even if these guys weren’t so easy to question, their presence alone hardly strengthens the claims of these movies and other pseudo-scientists. Since the makers of “What the BLEEP…” are using a connection to science as a support for their claims it seems reasonable that they must appeal to the general scientific consensus. If two scientists believe that thoughts are magnetic frequencies (what does that mean?), then we must ask what other scientists believe. Was the scientific community able to verify these claims? Has this claim stood up to the rigors of the time-tested scientific method? Hint: no.

Science can’t explain everything, so even if their claims are not supported, that doesn’t make them false., but it is deceitful to claim through association with a couple of scientists that the whole of science supports their view. Actually, it’s scandalous shame to abuse the public’s lack of expertise in the complex field of quantum mechanics to support completely unrelated claims. Doing so carries real consequences as it weakens the our understanding of scientific understanding and of the boundaries of science itself. It lends people to question well supported theories such as evolution. We’ve seen how much time is wasted once the public starts doubting that.

Science is conservative. It is difficult to build consensus for new theories among stodgy old professors emotionally attached to their pet ideas. Scientists are human. They’re attached to ideas and banish others for non-scientific reasons. One has to wonder how progress is ever made. Pseudo-scientists are fond of pointing to historical instances where new ideas were rejected by the majority only to win out in the end. In doing so they naturally expect us to believe that their theory is one of those and not one of the countless failed ideas like so many airplanes in old films showing man’s failed attempts at flight.

In spite of this conservative bent, science has somehow created advances from medicine to space travel, many of which we enjoy every day. So, conservative or not, I think there might be something to this whole scientific method thing. The Yogic flying, meanwhile, looks like a lot of jumping around to me.

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10.24.06

It’s a party, but not everyone’s invited

Posted in Liberty at 15:29 by RjZ

Political debates look like formal official affairs. With all the fanfare and importance attached to them it would be easy to assume that they’re a certified, legal part of our election process. We don’t even think about who arranges political candidates’ debates.

Is it the media?

Is it the government?

Nope. Acually, it’s the candidates themselves who arrange the debates. There is no public authority responsible for these things at all.

It goes something like this. One of the candidates, the democrat say, announces in one of his media events that he hopes there will be an opportunity to speak about the real issues with his republican opponent in an open forum. He sounds very serious and confident about this and challenges his opponent to a debate.

But that certainly doesn’t guarantee one. What happens next is that the two campaigns negotiate the details of their meeting. Will it be a formal debate with point and rebuttal? (Answer: not likely!) What kinds of questions will be asked? Who will moderate? Will the media be allowed time for commentary or analysis? Will the candidates have to field questions from the audience? Who, exactly, will be allowed in that audience? In short, every possible scenario will be negotiated to ensure that the candidates can’t embarass themselves, and that nothing of substance will happen. Once the campaign managers have agreed what they’ll allow their candidates say, they can present it to the media as a take-it-or-leave-it affair. Follow our rules, or you don’t get to show the debate at all. The all-powerful, left leaning but biased to the right, corporate owned, media doesn’t have nearly as much say as the candidates imply.

One more point that’s all but certain: the Libertarian (or Green or independant for that matter) candidate will not be invited. Even though each of these candidates has jumped through all the necessary hoops to have her name legally on the ballot in her state or district, we won’t hear her views debated by the two main candidates. Even though she’s convinced the requisite number of citizens to sign petitions nominating her and she’s met all the legal requirements, no one is going to call.

Inviting alternative opinions to the debate is just another chance for the candidates to actually have to answer a real question or address a diferent topic and there is simply no motivation for either candidate to do this. It’s a lose-lose situation for them.
Is there anything we can do about this? A few, mostly ineffective ideas come to mind. For example, we could start by informing ourselves about all of the candidates. It’s easier these days, thanks to their websites. Then we can vote for whom we think best meets our principles and ideas, regardless of which party they are in and their chance of winning. It’s a novel idea, I know, but perhaps it will slowly send a message to the media that there is interest outside of the front runners and then, when these other parties come asking about debates the media might just start thinking they could sell some ad time by letting these folks speak.

It’s our party. We should be able to invite whoever we want!

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10.17.06

The choice between bad and worse

Posted in Liberty at 17:30 by RjZ

According to the map in the sidebar of Traveling Hypothesis people come here from far and wide and, in general, places outside of Colorado. When it comes time for folks in various forms of democracies to vote, we’re frequently faced with a choice that could most easily described as bad or worse. Perhaps the following discussion will be instructive for those outside as Colorado as well.

On the 7th of November, Colorado will elect a new governor as Bill Ownes (R) steps down due to term limits. It’s not an easy choice. We could vote for Bob Beauprez (R). He claims to be fiscally conservative and plans to uphold the Tax Payer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR). Furthermore, he understands that while we need alternative forms of energy a “stop-everything” approach is neither tractable nor wise.

Mr. Beauprez is also a strong supporter of faith-based initiatives that take state tax dollars and invest them in churches. If you’re Catholic, you can be sure that some Evangelicals, many of whom are outspoken in their claim that Catholics belong to a cult, are getting that money. Evangelicals can be sure that some Mormons and Unitarians might even have access to it. If you’re not religious, well, you’re out of luck. No matter who you are, If you’re a Colorado citizen, your tax dollars are being invested to do wonderful things for people, but also to proselytize folks, who are often weak and vulnerable, to believe in something you don’t. That’s unconstitutional and it’s also un-American.

Mr. Beauprez will inject a serious dose of religion into politics. His running-mate believes “All religions are welcomed in schools except Christianity” and that creationist mythology should be taught as science at taxpayer’s expense. If Mr. Beauprez is elected governor, he will oppose granting rights of marriage for all Coloradans (which is alreay a statute) and he will strongly oppose a woman’s right to choose (which isn’t a law yet.)

Well then, we could vote for Bill Ritter (D). Mr. Ritter supports important priorities. He wants to invest in education, and invest in health care for all Coloradans. For the most part, he’s a very smart liberal and you’re likely to agree with just about everything he’d like to do. Unfortunately, he’d like to do a just about everything. He “will bring every government agency with a role in economic development together with business and education leaders to create a coherent economic development strategy.” He believes in “streamlining government to be more responsive” but he wants to add more offices such as a ” a Colorado Jobs Cabinet as part of the Executive Branch.” How does that streamline government?

Mr. Ritter’s website barely mentions that he’s pro-life (although he does not propose changes to women’s rights in Colorado) and that as Attorney General he has a track record of a prosecutor who questioned the rights of juries because they thwart convictions (isn’t that the point of a jury?) Mr. Ritter seems to beleive that more power for the government is always a good thing. Mr. Ritter believes in forcing immunizations on children (he claims this will save money, and he may even be right, but how is he going to pull all this off without increasing government services, costs, offices, people and bloat?)

One of the biggest mistakes U.S. Americans make when they try to select a candidate is that they assume that they have to agree with everything on the candidate’s platform. I won’t vote for this guy because he wants us all to drive potato powered vehicles. I can’t vote for that guy because he thinks SUVs are our inalienable right. There are issues that are deal-breakers for us, but in general we have a representative republic. What we should be searching for are people who, when faced with the complex, often competeting, issues, will choose, most of the time, they way we would. We don’t have the time to look at every nuance of every vote, but we actually pay our elected officials to read and understand them for us. We must attempt to select a person who we think represents us best, not simply someone who agrees with our hot-button issues.

Many of us are smart enough to see that we can’t completely agree with our candidate. After all, there are only two to choose from and it’s not likely that we would agree with one of the other. We’ve grown accustomed to picking the lesser of two evils. There’s good news. We can send a message to all the incumbants and vote our conscience at the same time!

The Boulder Weekly seems to have fallen into the trap that many of us face. They have decided to back Bill Ritter even though he’s not their type of liberal and “Ritter’s record as Denver D.A. is equally concerning for some, who remember … the 70 cases that involved questionable police force and resulted in citizens being either injured or killed by cops.” That’s OK, “he’ll be a vast improvement over Gov. Bill Owens’ conservative extremism”

Eventhough the Weekly mentions her almost completely without comment, perhaps we should have a look at Dawn Winkler. Unlike the other candidates Ms. Winkler believes that you should run your life, not the government. She is the only candidate who does not believe that the state should decide the definition of marriage (and that churches shouldn’t, because when the state claims that marriage is defined as between one man and one woman they accept a claim that other religions may not. Unitarians, for example, oppose this strict view of marriage and regularly marry homosexuals.)

Winkler is the only candidate that believes, and will fight for, a woman’s right to choose.

Read Ms. Winkler’s issues. You may not agree with all of them, but ask yourself if you would like her to represent you. Would she represent what you believe and would she contribute to a government that would be manageable and understandable by all of us.

Beauprez says he’ll shrink government but he thinks government should enter our churches and get in between a woman and her doctor. Ritter wants to streamline government but he makes promise after promise about all the things government should do to protect you and make Colorado stronger.

Meanwhile, Ms. Winkler has something none of the other candidates has. She has faith in her constituents that they will make a stronger Colorado on their own and that they know what’s best for themselves without the help of a select few in Denver.

Whatever you do, try to vote on the 7th.

Check out the candidates websites:
Bob Beauprez
Bill Ritter
Dawn Winkler
Don’t miss God’s candidate: Clyde Harkins. It’d be funnier how misguided their reading of the U.S. Constitution is if it weren’t so scary.

You can also hear each of the candidate speak on KCFR.

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10.11.06

First Freedom First

Posted in at 13:53 by RjZ

Let’s assume, just for a moment, that the people in this video are not actors. Assume that they’re just U.S. citizens and that they’re speaking here about their personally held beliefs. What a great country to live in, where people think this way.

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Looking for the silver lining

Posted in Liberty, Society at 12:07 by RjZ

There may actually be good news in the creepy revelations about ex-congressman Mark Foley (R-Florida). Sure, a significant, but loud, minority will claim that his homosexuality is somehow related to his interest in minors, as if there is a greater likelihood of pedophilia among homosexuals. Actually, according to several sources, there is a huge media conspiracy to hide this ‘fact’. I found dozens of articles claiming that there is a link, but strangely, they were all from conservative or religious sites. I hate to commit a genetic fallacy here, but one ought to wonder about a claim, when a group with a fairly obvious bias seems so hell-bent against evidence to the contrary.

Suspecting their claims doesn’t support the opposite either. I did find scholarly articles such as this one with quotes from scientific literature:

Are homosexual adults in general sexually attracted to children and are preadolescent children at greater risk of molestation from homosexual adults than from heterosexual adults? There is no reason to believe so. The research to date all points to there being no significant relationship between a homosexual lifestyle and child molestation. There appears to be practically no reportage of sexual molestation of girls by lesbian adults, and the adult male who sexually molests young boys is not likely to be homosexual (Groth & Gary, 1982, p. 147).

The problem is, that link comes from “work by Dr. Gregory Herek, an internationally recognized authority on sexual prejudice (also called homophobia), hate crimes, and AIDS stigma. It provides factual information to promote the use of scientific knowledge for education and enlightened public policy related to sexual orientation….” I imagine Dr. Gregory Herek might be just as biased the other way. Oh well, that’s another post.

Back to Foley though. He finally outed himself as a gay man, but only after it was alleged that he’s a hebephile. Technically hebephile is used to describe adult sexual attractions to adolescents or children who have reached puberty which isn’t exactly the same thing as pedophilia. These ‘kids’ are actually above the age of consent in nearly every state of the union. That’s not to say his behavior was OK, moral, or even legal, it’s just not the same as him chasing after little kids. By outing himself he’s only more firmly entrenched the view of conservatives and the religious right that there is a link between homosexuality and pedophilia. According to Herek’s article, “many child molesters don’t really have an adult sexual orientation. They have never developed the capacity for mature sexual relationships with other adults, either men or women.” In other words, Foley probably isn’t really gay in the first place. That won’t stop people from further linking these issues. I can imagine that homesexuals are rather angry at Mr. Foley. Damn, it’s getting difficult to find that silver lining.

Maybe there is one thing. Foley isn’t the first gay man to be elected to public office in the U.S. He’s not even the first one to have been caught in a scandal and he’s not even the first republican in this situation. See, there are private matters one ought not put on one’s blog. Foley didn’t write about his interest in young men and most other bloggers regrain from discussing their interest in smoking pot or polygamy or witchcraft. You don’t know who’s reading your thoughts and how what you say might effect your friends, your professional life, or…even a future political career. I am as guilty of self-censorship as the next blogger, although not for anything as salacious as Mr. Foley (too bad, it’d make for good reading I am sure). Meanwhile, a gay-republican was elected to public office. Perhaps I really can write whatever I wish here without fear of it impacting my potential future campaigning?

Contrary to many arguments I’ve made in the past, maybe one can be elected in the United States without an attractive wife, happy looking family and long track record of church-based (or religious-institution based) community service. (I’m not married, have no children, and don’t belong to a religious institution, so I’d always figured any political aspirations were done from the start—oops, there I’ve gone and admitted everything I was hiding up until now.)

Wait. That’s not true at all. Foley wasn’t forthcoming about his aleged homosexuality or alcoholism. Mark Foley, now an admitted homosexual, alcoholic and alleged child molester, was, in fact, a Roman Catholic, married with children. He was elected or re-elected six times as a republican to federal office.

Damn, there’s no silver lining here after all. Unless, it’s the apparent fact that no matter who you are, as long as you’re willing to lie about it and can hide it well, you can be elected and re-elected over and over again. Either way, I may have blown my political career just by writing this blog, don’t you think?

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10.05.06

Have you heard about the brownies?

Posted in Society at 17:49 by RjZ

It’s just not the kind of thing you expect from Psych 101. We were still finding our seats when our professor began his lecture by asking a question: “Have you heard of the Logically Unverifiable Brownies?” He paused but no one answered, so he started again, “Hasn’t anyone heard of the Logically Unverifiable Brownies?” We shook our heads. “You know, Brownies, little brown chocolate squares?” We shrugged. “Well, these brownies are very important. They’re the reason things happen. The Logically Unverifiable Brownies make the sun come up in the morning, they are what causes us to fall in love, and they’re why roses are red and zebras have stripes.”

By now, our eyes are pretty wide as we stare back at our instructor. One of the students speaks the inner dialog that many are thinking, “exactly what kind of brownies are these and did you have any before class?” He shrugs off the laughter and continues, “The usual kind of brownies, but they are special. These are logically unverifiable. That means that, by definition, we can’t prove, or verify, their existence. They’re there alright, but to say we can prove that they’re around is as illogical, by definition, as saying A does not equal A or 2 + 2 = 5.”

“Just because you can’t prove that they’re around doesn’t mean they’re not the reason that food tastes good or stars don’t fall from the sky. I can’t believe you haven’t already heard of them!” he went on, still with a straight face. Another student spoke up “I’ve never seen them!” “Of course not,” he said “if you had seen them, that’d be proof of their existence and, these are logically unverifiable brownies. There can’t be any hard evidence that they exist.”

At this point, a few of us had caught on. Others were getting more and more frustrated with our crazy psych professor and beginning to curse general education classes. The conversation of just what brownies were and weren’t continued for the better part of a half hour until he finally started asking who believed that the brownies really exisited. When some students offered that they did not believe in them, he asked them to prove it! Of course, they could no easier prove the lack of existence of the brownies than he could the existence; after all, they’re logically unverifiable.

Finally, he released us: “Does it matter if the Logically Unverifiable Brownies exist or not? After all, they control everything in our lives.” The brownies may exist, they may control everything that happens around us, or they may be figment of my psych 101 professor’s imagination. We’ll never know–we can never know. “Anything that is logically unverifiable, beyond proof, beyond testing, beyond measurement of any kind is therefore meaningless,” he told us. It’s not that they do or don’t exist. If it makes us happy to go on thinking the brownies exist, he wouldn’t try to stop us, but it doesn’t matter either way. We can’t do anything with the knowledge that the Brownies keep airplanes in the air and kittens falling on their feet.

Anything that is logically unverifiable is therefore meaningless.

It’s one of the many lessons he taught us, albiet in a most peculiar way. Another one was that the number of street lamps in a city is directly proportional to the number of prostitutes. “Of course this makes sense, right? They lean on them.” So if the city council were to eliminate street lamps, they could reduce the number of prostitutes. The class, getting the hang of him by now objected and he stated:

Correlation does not imply causation.

Did all this have much to do with psychology? Perhaps. I don’t remember any psychology, but it was one of the best general education courses I had and one I am surprised is not taught as a requirement. The class was about critical thinking. Critical thinking isn’t just common sense. We need tools to see when it’s reliable data or just damn lies and statistics. It’s all too easy for politicians, the media, advertisers and even our friends to manipulate our opinions with misleading ‘facts.’

Irrelavent considerations do not bear on the truth of a conclusion.

I suggest that, more than facts and figures, our education system would be best served by courses in critical thinking. Instead of teaching children what to think, we should teach them how to think, and perhaps most importantly, how to determine if what you’re being told is useful or not. Who is the speaker? What are they claiming? Are they professing authority on this topic? Should I believe anything I read in this blog?

With these tools children could begin to question their teachers and parents (which is probably why we don’t teach it) but they’d also grow to be able to question commercials and the goverment.

As Jefferson noted in that first letter to Madison: “And say, finally, whether peace is best preserved by giving energy to the government, or information to the people. This last is the most certain, and the most legitimate engine of government. Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve them… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

Or, as in this Onion point and counterpoint: “A Well-Informed Populace Is Vital To The Operation Of A Democracy.”

It’s not my idea anyway. The brownies made me do it.

In case you didn’t have a crazy psych 101 professor, here’s a list of fallacies and explanations. They’re almost as much fun as taking his class was.

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