Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The First Experimental Science?

I have been reading through a large and interesting 10th century middles eastern cookbook. Unlike most medieval European cookbooks, it gives, for many recipes, precise quantities of ingredients. Reading it, it occurred to me that cooking may have been the first experimental science and perhaps a stepping stone towards other sciences.

The experiments get done daily, in the process of feeding people. It's natural enough for a cook to try different herbs, different spices, a hotter or cooler oven, a shorter or longer baking time, frying or boiling instead of baking, any of a wide range of variants, in the process of trying to produce something better.

In medieval Islam, and presumably other places, tasty food was a luxury valued by the rich—which meant that their cooks had both the resources and incentive to try to make it still tastier. And while some of what such experiments reveal consists of subtle differences, some is quite striking. Start with a basic  bread recipe—flour, water, and some source of yeast. Add a significant amount of fat—butter or oil—and instead of bread you have pastry crust. Brown flour in fat, stir in liquid, and you have just invented a new way of thickening your dish. Separate eggs, beat the whites thoroughly, and the result is almost magical. Experienced cooks can think of other examples.

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Friday, July 20, 2012

Wanted: Motel Occupancy Data Online

Suppose you are driving across the country—as, at the moment, we are. At some point each day, you reserve a motel room for the night. The earlier you reserve it, the more likely it is that you can get the room you want. Also the more likely it is that something that happens during the day, slow traffic due to construction, a long stop at some interesting place you didn't know existed, will change your schedule, leaving you with a room reservation an hour or two too far down the road.

Most of the time, the first half of the problem is imaginary; most motels, most nights, have empty rooms, so if you put off your reservation until you arrive at the motel the odds are pretty good that you will still have a bed for the night. 

Most of the time, but not all the time—a fact of which we were rudely reminded this evening. We were leaving Laramie Wyoming, heading east, planning to spend the night in Cheyenne, when I checked online for rooms. And discovered that Frontier Days, a major Cheyenne event, had filled every motel room in town. 

Which is why I am writing this in a motel room in Laramie.

It would be nice to have an easy way of spotting problems like the one we just encountered in advance. It might take the form of an online web page, perhaps a map, showing where in the country today's motel occupancy rate was close to 100%. If such a map existed, Cheyenne this morning would have shown as a bright red dot, Laramie--where it took two tries to find a motel with space, Laramie being a mere fifty miles from Cheyenne and Frontier Days--a pink one. We would have called ahead this morning and either planned in advance to stay in Laramie or changed our plans to push on to the next town after Cheyenne, about two hours further east.

The funny thing about this post is that I composed it, in my head, a day or so ago—before my theoretical problem turned out to be real.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Mitt Romney, The Ideal Experiment

There are lots of things that can be said for or against Romney's candidacy, but it has at least one attractive feature—it provides a direct test of Obama's theory of how to win an election. A central feature of Obama's political strategy has been what his critics refer to as class warfare—attacks on the rich, with the implication that they are taxed at lower  rates than other people (pretty clearly not true) and ought to be taxed at higher.

It looks like a sensible strategy. It appeals to people's desire to think well of themselves, and so to believe that those who have been more successful got that way through, at best, luck and do not deserve their (possibly ill gotten) gains. It also appeals to the very natural desire to get something at someone else's expense—hence Obama's repeated claims that he will deal with budgetary problems entirely at the expense of very rich taxpayers. 

Most voters are not rich, so one might expect them to be persuaded. On the other hand, the midterm elections and current polling numbers suggest that a lot of them are not.

For an experiment on how well that particular strategy is likely to work in the U.S., Romney is the ideal test bed. He is very wealthy. He got his money not by writing best selling novels, being a sports or movie star, or inventing and marketing new and obviously useful high-tech gizmos, but by buying and selling companies, an activity that few voters are likely to identify with and one easy for the other side to present in an unflattering light—as the other side, of course, has been doing.

If, despite that, Romney wins, it will be good evidence that the strategy does not work very well in present day America. Which would, I think, be good news.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Quoting Adam Smith Out of Context

I just came across a blog which contained the following:

The rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than that proportion.
Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations
 The actual quote is:
It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.
Not only has the blogger removed without notice the first seven words of the sentence,  sharply changing its meaning, he has capitalized the word that starts his truncated sentence, thus pretending that what he is giving is the whole sentence.
Of course, the dishonesty is only in the blogger who first posted the supposed quote—various others seem to have copied it from him. I am not providing links to any of them, since I don't think they deserve the attention; readers who are curious should be able to find them easily enough.
I put a comment on one blog that had the quote, sourced to another. I'll see if the blogger is honest enough to let it show up. 
I've commented in the past on the practice of ascribing to Smith views he did not hold, such as support for public schooling and progressive taxation, supported by selective quotation. Most of those are probably honest errors by people who didn't actually read the text with any care, but this looks like deliberate dishonesty.

For those who are curious, what Smith is saying in the quote is that a particular tax, desirable on other grounds, should not be rejected just because it falls more heavily on the rich. His first maxim of taxation, however, at the beginning of the relevant section of the book, is that tax burden should be proportional to income.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Are Child Sex and Child Porn Substitutes?

I have seen several news stories of late quoting psychologists who argue that pedophilia, sexual attraction towards children, is an innate characteristic, probably with a biological base, probably unalterable. The obvious conclusion is that children are protected not by keeping people from having that characteristic but by keeping them from acting on it.

One way to do so is by punishing sex with children. Another way would be to make substitutes more readily available. There are, after all, a lot of adolescent and young adult males who, unable to get any desirable women to go to bed with them, have to do the best they can with masturbation and pornography instead. 

There is some empirical evidence that increased availability of pornography, via the Internet, results in reducing the amount of rape. The same argument suggests that child pornography might be a substitute for child sex—less desirable, from the standpoint of the pedophile, but also a lot less dangerous. If so, the current severe laws against child porn may actually increase, rather than decrease, the risk to children.

One argument for such laws is that the production of child porn itself involves child sex—but it does not have to. Child porn could be made using adult actors made to look very much younger than their actual age, possibly with the assistance of computer graphics. It could be made using images created entirely on computers. Arguably, legalizing such porn would provide many pedophiles—defined by preferences not practices—an adequate substitute for actual sex with actual children.

But I can't see any serious politician offering the proposal. Not, at least, if he plans to ever run for office again.

Back to Smart Phone Wish Lists

A recent news story suggesting that RIM should make Android phones with physical keyboards reminded me of one element of my smart phone wish list that has not yet been filled. I would like a phone with a list of desirable characteristics currently available—4g, big screen, Android—plus a physical keyboard.

And not just any physical keyboard. The old Psion PDA's had physical keyboards so good I could touch type on them, using thumb and three fingers of each hand. Comparing my Psion Revo to my current Samsung smart phone, the Revo is larger, but not much larger—still small enough to fit comfortably in a shirt pocket. Reducing width and length might squeeze the keyboard too much, but given the technological progress in making miniature computers over the past fifteen years I expect it could be made thinner, and the extra height and width would permit a screen bigger than my Samsung's 4.3", which would also be nice. 

And while I'm wishing ... . I'm a Verizon customer, which means that my current phone won't work in most foreign countries. That isn't a big problem—on a recent trip abroad I carried my old T-Mobile G1, the first Android phone, and bought a sim card for it in Prague for fifteen dollars or so that provided a 3g internet connection, which I mostly wanted so that I could use the gps. But still, it would be nice, when I got my ideal phone, if it was a world phone. 

And speaking of gps ... . Does anyone have software that would let me download the map for some area I planned to be in, say Prague, to memory—I have lots of free memory in my current phone—so that I could use the gps without requiring an internet connection?