Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Sneezing, bacteria, and stuff I wish I didn't know

My wife and kids have allergies. This is not unusual, as well over 1/3rd of Americans have allergies.[1] It seemed a bit worse this year, and maybe I wasn't just imagining it. Atlanta Allergy & Asthma Clinic recorded the second-highest daily pollen count since measuring began in 1995. [3] Pets are a known cause of allergies, and my old (now dead) cat, "Meowie", could get me sneezing after a good tussling. We do have a weiner dog, so maybe that's the cause. Apparently there are some allergy body suits you can put on dogs, but they look really stupid if you ask me.

A bit worse than allergies, however, is when one sneezes due to irritation from a bacterial cold. Here's a fact I wish I didn't know:

  • Most of the research shows that a sneeze propels air from your nose at approximately 100 mph, dispersing more than 100,000 bacteria into the air at a range of 2 to 3 yards.[2]

Most of the time, this isn't a worry, since if someone sneezes, the odds are apparently low you'll catch anything. (One is more more likely to get sick from picking up germs on a doorknob then from a sneeze particle in the air.)[2] But suppose you live with someone who is sneezing all the time with a bacterial cold. This means that the bacteriological spew is constantly floating around the room.

Of course I once read a very suprising fact about how germs spread. It was noted by a professor of microbiology at University of Arizona (Tucson). Consider this on your next date:

  • "The bottom of women's purses are pretty bad.... About 25% have fecal bacteria because women put it down on the toilet floor in the restroom.... Encourage your son or daughter to hang their backpack on a hook if they take it to the school restroom."[4]

Doh! Think about that next time the little lady or some kid hands you their stuff.


[picture] (Accessed April 26, 2006)

[1] "Immunotherapy Weekly" NewsRX (Accessed April 26, 2006)

[2] Jessica Golden "What Does Your Sneeze Say About You?" ABC News Online (Accessed April 25th, 2006)

[3] Marc Lallanilla "Achoo! Spring Allergy Season Worst in Years" ABC News Online (Accessed April 25th, 2006)

[4] D. Mann "Germs in the School Room" WebMD (Accessed April 26th, 2006).

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Strange Island of Two-headed Existence

Recently, I was investigating some personal identity issues about more than one mind being exhibited within a single brain. Eventually one does internet searches and many strange things occur when search terms on Google are given wide scope.

As a rule, I collect pictures to use on powerpoints, and here is a collection of pictures that I've been casually throwing into a picture file. I'll admit that just how one might use such pictures is a mystery, but the collection is growing big enough that perhaps I should place a few out there on the web as just one more weird pit-stop in cyberspace.

As one can clearly see, a host of animals, including humans, can be born with nervous systems that can support two fully functional brains. There are also humans that are born with shared torsos, which is a slightly different matter:


The idea of what counts as "my" body is brought into question under such circumstances. The ambiguity, on my view, stems from what counts as a self. Since there is no clear (or easy) criterion for determining a self, determining the reference for a self's body is equally ambiguous.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Woman with Perfect Memory (Analysis)

Today there is much discussion in the news about a 40-year-old woman who has the ability to recall virtually every experience of every day of her adult life, or at least every experience she was interested in. Sadly, she is not a scholar, because she found school boring. (Given our propensity to have students merely memorize facts instead synthesize and create ideas, I can see why she wasn't excited during her impressionable years.)

She writes that her earliest memory is "of me, in the crib, about 18 months old, and being woken up by my uncle's dog." This is very unusual in itself, since the corpus collosum does not form in humans until about age 4. (This is why people typically have no memories before this age.)

Also, in a Q/A intervew with "AJ", the subject's psuedonym:

  • Question: Are there some things you would like to forget, but can't?
    Answer: THERE SURE ARE!!!!!!!!!!

Certainly we can relate to this with even our admittedly limited memory capabilities. AJ's fortunate advantage is that she can seperate what is accessible to memory from what is perennially present to consciousness.

Typically, memory has three components: encoding (processing and combining of received information) storage (creation of a permanent record of the encoded information), and retrieval/recall (calling back the stored information in response to some cue for use in some process or activity).

In AJ's case she has control of the components, and this allows her to live a normal life, which is singularly unusual, since up to now only savants have approached her abilities. Imagine, however, if she were a holocaust survivor, or the victim of some other heinous crime. In such case, she might have a much more malign view of her ability.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Epilogue on RFID tags and the Coming New Fascism

The man with grue hair raises some valid technological issues with regards to the RFID issue in my last post, and I was happy to read his analysis. Yet I find that there are three main points of misunderstanding on his part regarding my position that need correcting.

First, grue hair man improperly reads my analysis as a result of a fanatical attitude. I am not saying that the "black helicopters" are coming, nor am I saying that RFID is an evil technology which we should abandon or restrict at all costs. I merely point out that the political implications of a technology can sometimes be seen before the fact, and that the trend of RFID devices gives one pause as those devices mature.

Second, I disagree that the "comparison of UPC to RFID is erroneous" and that "RFID is another beast altogether," as grue hair man charges. This is an overstatement, since these technologies are both tracking mechanisms that can be databased and subsequently accessed.

Grue hair man is no fool, however, arguing that the bigger the database, the less likely said database will be centralized. Unfortunately, grue hair man, size does matter. Even a namespace with 7.92 * 10^28 bytes is not large. Today a fairly robust 500 GB drive is nice. But double this every 18 months for 40 years years, and there is more than enough space to cover that many bytes. (And this assumes current trends in storage tech., which might change suddenly with quantum or holographic 3D advances.) Thus, I obviously don't find the probability of abuse having "high chances of it happening before 2008", as grue hair man charges; but, I just might be willing to say the probability of abuse IS worrisome by 2048, and I have every intention of being around that year.

Finally, grue hair man takes a position whereby RFID is no worse than social security numbers, so we should not grumble against RFID. He rhetorically asks, "how have social security numbers been abused in the last 7 decades?" However, I disagree that RFID is not worse; in fact, I think it has the potential to be FAR worse. Moreover, the spate of identify theft shows us that with even the use of social security numbers, one can easily ruin another's economic life in short order. Thus, how much the more cautionary should we be with RFID!

Grue Hair man is a Gentoo security professional of some note, and I appreciate his comments. If you, my reader, are still unsure which person holds the best argument, I suggest defaulting to his view.

Friday, April 14, 2006

RFID tags and the Coming New Fascism

I was talking to a physicist friend of mine yesterday. We were recounting the sad state of the US intelligence in our military engagement with, and subsequent domestic managing of, Iraq. Also troubling is our international diplomatic standing, which is related to, but not exclusively the result of, the Iraq fumble. Take, for instance, our top-level leaders' head-in-the-sand approach to global warming. And it's not just Pres. Bush, but apparently many in his cabinet. What does this have to do with RFID?

RFID, short for [R]adio [F]requency [ID]dentification, is a technology that incorporates the use of electromagnetic or electrostatic coupling in the radio frequency portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Tiny sticky tags, or some such similar connecting mechanism, are used to append RFID units so as to uniquely identify some object. When the manufacturing cost of the units that take advantage of this technology comes down -- and some argue it has now done so -- then every consumer project, indeed every object of a size commonly used in your life can be tagged and catalogued automatically by computers that come within the range of the signal-interacting RFID units. Something like how ever the ever more popular Bluetooth devices automatically detect other devices which they can interact with.

In principle, this means, for example, that I could drive a non-descript box truck by your house, and detect every consumer product that had a sticky tag attached. The functional range of RFID tags is usually around a meter, though there are more costly versions that can run from 10 to 100 feet. Seem safe enough? Not really, for a lot rides on the notion of 'functional'. Admittedly, one would need very sensitive receivers to pick up the data, so not just any criminal could drive by and scan your house for which jewlery boxes in your trash or closet have tags on them. Admittedly, one would have difficulty in recognizing what the data coming off the tags means: cream cheese containers and grandma's cheesey looking diamond broach both would give off nothing beyond a standard RFID signature. However, a government would have no trouble overcoming these two functional issues.

First, very sensitive receivers are easily manufactured, and are par for the course in electronic intelligence gathering. Second, profit margin always drives standardization. For example, bar codes have been around for a long time. UPC bar codes, however, are far more recent, and "were originally created to help grocery stores speed up the checkout process and keep better track of inventory, but the system quickly spread to all other retail products because it was so successful. But they became ubiquitous only when their was a UPC standard established." Since standardization is the rule for data tracking in consumer goods, RFID will eventually become standardized. Thus, one can tell cheese from diamonds when access to the standardization data base is readily available. A government would easily have such access.

Granting that a democratic government can overcome these hurdles, are there reasons to think a democratic government wants to overcome such hurdles? I think there are, and the current US administration elicits more than trival caution on the matter. (Disclaimer: I'm Libertarian.)

First, the current US administration has held non-citizens without representation and review when it serves their puposes. This is against its postition when it signed on as a UN member. Thus, at least one paradigm example of a democratic government, ours, can be counted on to except itself to the rule of law.

Second, the current US administration has redefined torture when it served its purposes. Thus, the current US administration is ready to subvert its own ideals when the purposes of a small minority of powerful leaders find it practical for politically expedient ends. No doubt other US administrations have arisen and will arise to continue such subversions of self-proclaimed ideals

Third -- and here is where the opening discussion with the my physicist friend ties in -- the current US administration is the least open ever to the results of science and to the advice of its own scientific advisors. As even the conservative news magazine US News and World Report noted,

  • "To date, more than 6,000 scientists—including 49 Nobel laureates and 154 members of the U.S. National Academies of Science—have signed the UCS statement ["Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policymaking"]. They charge, among other things, that the Bush administration has manipulated scientific advisory committees, altered and suppressed reports by government scientists, and misrepresented scientific knowledge in contentious areas such as global warming, air pollution, and reproductive health."
I think a couple of terms, an old-school poltical one and a new-tech data mining one, need be reviewed here for analyis purposes.

  1. Fascism is a system of government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, tightly monitored socioeconomic controls, suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism. WWII varieties through in racism, but the oppression of any inconvenient group for political puposes will serve.
  2. Informatics is "research on, development of, and use of technological, sociological, and organizational tools and approaches for the dynamic acquisition, indexing, dissemination, storage, querying, retrieval, visualization, integration, analysis, synthesis, sharing (which includes electronic means of collaboration), and publication of data such that economic and other benefits may be derived from the information by users from all sectors of society. [This definition is taken from the President’s own 'Committee on Advisors on Science and Technology'.]
What would happen if we combine these into a political taxonomy appropriate for our times? "Informatical Fascism" does have a nice ring to it. Some comment on a couple of points is required.

A dictator is a minority of one, and short of frothing hyperbole, that certainly is not at issue in the US. Yet the centralization of data acquisition for the needs of the disproportionally politically powerful few, for the needs of a governmental minority with a singular, unified power-enhancing mindset -- this would effectively serve as a new kind of facism, a distributed dictatorship.

Consider it carefully -- what could be more appropriate in our time as a new governmental oppression schema? We have indeed come to appreciate the profound difference between computing and distributed computing. So now we must come to appreciate the difference between a dictatorship and a distributed dictatorship. In fact, I think the Bush administration is unique in the being the first distributed dictatorship, since it is the first both to have such a unified mindset about certain kinds of political goals and to have such coordinated informatic technology at its disposal. It will not be the last administration to have such abilities, and I do not believe it is a particularly effective one.

But I do believe there will be something akin to a Moore's law of political power that arises when similarly united, power-grabbing administrations arise in the future. Not every, nor even the next administration need be so united, but whatever ones do appear will learn the lessons from the past, and will reap the benefits of advancing power in computational delivery of information about its citizenry (and about the citizens of other lands.)

Moreover, since the US is first in line at the technology buffet, it might just be the only cyber-leviathan that ever need get fed.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

2nd-order Qualia and what-it's-like problems

It may indeed be true that we cannot know the what-it's-likeness of another person's experiences, what I shall call "first order" qualia. But does that mean we cannot know the what-it's-likenss of the relationship between first order qualia? There might be some reasons to think that we can indeed know such relationships, which I shall call "second order" qualia. Essentially, these are qualia of qualia.

Working with one perceptual modality as an example is helpful. Consider aural perception. I don't know what's it's like for you to hear C#. I don't know what it's like for you hear A#. Does that mean I don't know what it's like to say one tone is different from another -- i.e. that C# is different from A#? Suppose that I identify patterns in our verbal reports: (1) one tone is affirmed as different than another tone. (2) One tone is affirmed as the same as another tone, or (3) as higher, or (4) as lower.

Suppose I mathematically quantify predict (unexamed) tones, and do so even w/o a single exception. This would be justification that I have indeed understood the what-it's likeness of your qualia, at least of the 2nd order qualia.

Granted, for example, I don't understand "your C# perception." Granted, I don't understand "your A# perception." But it hardly follows that I don't understand "your C# perception in relatation to your A# perception."

Consider the following analog: Object A is liftable by me. Object B is liftable by me. Thus, Object A in addition to object B is liftable by me. One does not have to work with a weight set very long to see the flaw in this reasoning.

I think skepticism over qualia is over rated as a philosophical problem.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

George Lindbeck is not an Apostle

George Lindbeck, a writer on religion, gets lots of press around where I teach. His argument is simple, though effectively an unholy mating between two strains of thought on religion --namely, from Schleiermacher and Wittgenstein.

Lindbeck sees religion as a comprehenseive interpretive scheme embodied in myth(s) or special narratives, where the rituals of said somehow structure human experience and understanding of self and world. He wants to hold that there are dimensions of human existence that can really be understood only by experience and not by cognitivist encoding of truths by propositions. (In other words, science is devalued, as it often is by pious believers, even intellectual ones.) On my view, this is very close to what Schleiermacher would say today if he were alive and writing.

Like Wittgenstein, or at least on one version of Witgenstein at one era in his life, Lindbeck wants to analyze religion a cultural, linguistic framework that shapes all life and thought of the believer.

But how does one know if the scheme represents reality?

The magic happens when one's interiorized skill (think Pavlov, people), "the skill of the saint, manifests itself in an ability to discriminate 'intuitively' (nondiscursively) between authentic and inauthentic, and between effective and ineffective, objectifications of the religion." (Lindbeck, 1984, 36).

How nice. Sadly, however, intuition is terrible when it comes to reflecting reality. We are biased, prejudiced, and over-confident of our abilities. We have selective memory, and even the best of us are the butt of practically every logical fallacy sooner or later.

So then, Lindbeck's view of religion would fly only if intuition were trustworthy about the way the world is or objective when we happen to apply it. But intution is neither trustworthy nor objective. Thus, don't be a sucker. Take a pass on Linkbeck's analysis of religion.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Working daily for an extra minute of life

I have a friend who, on his description, went from a D+ level high-school level job, to a C- level high-school job. Of course, he graduated from High School 20+ years ago, and college too. (My friend is a known pessimist.)

It's a crying, wailing shame that we have to work for money. It would be far better if we worked for life extensions. So, say, for every day you work, you get one extra minute of life. So if you work 50 weeks times 5 days times 65 years, that's -- um -- 16250 minutes, or an extra 11.2 days of life. Krap, that would suck. I'd ask for a raise! What kind of idiot would work until retirement only to get an extra 11.2 days of life!? I mean, hell, do they even TELL you when they start?! Suppose you got cancer, and you're going down, and you say, "What about my 11.2 days?", and they say, "Well, God sent a post-it note saying you're 9 days into 'em..." That would really, really suck.