Ramdom letters and comments

Some of the few letters/comments I've written in response to published material which may be worthy of reading. Sorry for the lack of context in some of these missives, but I figure that makes it more interesting! This is far from comprehensive and, consequently, you can also directly search my name in:

July 2, 2011. The New York Times. Highlighted comment on reactions about the DSK case. Recommended by 21 readers.

It's interesting to see how people's reactions change. First, I feel that the majority rushed to judge DSK guilty. (This is my general feeling based on reading a lot of comments.) Then when all these revelations came to light, they generally went in favour of him. As the reports become more detailed, a few think she still could have been raped even if her credibility is in doubt, parsing the comments from her lawyer carefully. I think we need to hear from both the woman and DSK directly before we can really make up our minds. News reports and lawyers are unclear and incomplete.

As to why this is interesting and important to people, I think the issue of justice is one of the most important concepts of humanity. It is fundamentally appealing to see justice done and injustice punished. Here the case has followed a roller coast and now the opinion is on DSK's side, especially in France it looks like.

July 1, 2011. The New York Times. Highlighted comment on the DSK court case. Recommended by 47 readers.

Okay, from the beginning I've claimed we should wait until DSK was proven guilty in a court of law before judging him. Yes, we're not the court, but this story (and the Duke Lacrosse Players and other famous cases) illustrates the folly of jumping to conclusions. People have wondered why would a woman submit to legal sex with DSK. A answer (I'm not offerring it as THE answer, mind you), is prostitution. When DSK was arrested, there were a few articles talking about how hotel maids are sexually assaulted. BUT I've stayed in hotels all over the world and there are some hotels where the reverse might be true of some hotel maids, meaning that some are available for a price. It's hard to say this would be the case at the Sofitel, New York, but then, let's think about a really really high end hotel like the Landmark (I will actually be giving a talk here at a conference in February for example) or JP Mariott in Bangkok. All these are literally two minutes away from one of their red light areas that primarily cater to Western tourists. Is it inconceivable that one of these women would find a "stable" job (happens) and then be tempted to do stuff on the side?

I think the woman is also innocent until proven guilty and she deserves her due process. So I'm just positing a hypothetical, now that her credibility is challenged, as to what happened. She is stated as having "repeatedly lied". I think this is key in terms of the DSK case, meaning he is likely to now be found not guilty. Was he actually guilty of rape, or consensual sex for money (which is still an embarassing situation for him, but which he admits a penchant to), something else? Who knows. I think the case against DSK is gone now. It's a shame it ruined his IMF chances. Innocent until proven guilty does hold in all situations, even his other accusations against him (if you follow THOSE as published, you'll see they're not conclusive).

I'm a proud feminist. I'm am glad this case came to light.

June 11, 2011. The New York Times. Highlighted comment on Obama's lack of spine. Recommended by 85 readers.

I admire Obama's high mindedness but I'm impatient as hell. I can't believe people STILL wait for him to lead (he's not a conventional [leader]), to take a principled stand (except against his own side), to actually fight in a peaceful way. Passivity does not become a state of enlightenment. Obama has said he admires Gandhi and look at Gandhi, who eschewed a political position, but still led and fought (without violence even, turning the other cheek, unlike taking part in three wars!) the good fight.

June 28, 2010. The New York Times. Highlighted comment on children misusing electronic toys. Recommended by 349 readers.

I'm one of those people who designed and built their own computer at age 13. At age 13, my son had access to enormous computing power and he abused it, along with his cell phone. This slowly resulted in his privileges being taken away to a point where he has ZERO computer or phone access at home. He has to go to the library to use the computer and use his time wisely. This has resulted in a lot less stress and well being for all people. Soon he'll be off to college and he can buy his own computer and cell phones and do what he wants with it. As a computer scientist I'll say that there's no reason for teenagers to have unfettered access to a computer, particularly if they are using it irresponsibly.

July 1, 2011. The New York Times. Comment on the freedom that public school in the US enables.

As someone who didn't go to American public schools (though I have two kids in it), but who has done all their other education, through the postgraduate and even faculty (a faculty is a permanent student in my view) level here, I think it is one of the best educational systems in the world. I went to a elementary, middle, and a high school that would normally be the envy of the test taking western world. Man, all I recall is tests. It was loosely modelled after the British A and O levels. I rebelled. I then came to the US to obtain a liberal arts degree in computer science and genetics, with minors in math and microbiology, and I went on to do graduate work at CARB, postgraduate work at Stanford, and finally I'm now an associate professor at the University of Washington. I say all this simply to say that my preundergraduate education, which was self taught, was largely reminiscent of what my children and what I've seen in American public high schools go through. High school students from public and private schools work in my group and do research with us and they are extremely self motivated and they are fantastic. The ones who want to do well, it doesn't matter what background they have: what matters is their desire to learn. That is the ONLY thing that matters. Instill that, and a child will follow their own natural curiousities and end up learning to do what they love. You can't give a better gift to a child.

May 29, 2011. The New York Times. Comment on soldiers returning home from the 2011 US wars.

I'm a pacifist and morally and ethically opposed to any war. All this talk of "just wars", of "wars of peace", and "wars of liberation" are just endless circles of words. Peace is the ultimate prisoner of war in our time right now. What we have done is create a cold killing machine and sent it away to foreign lands to kill. Many of the killed are absolute innocents (children). What words can one write to santise that? I feel for the grunts of this war, but I also feel for the tens of thousands of civilians, innocent women and children, all dead simply we because we unleashed our killing machines on them. Anyone who has contributed as little as a dollar shoulders some responsibility for the effects of our killing machine. And we did all this killing while unable to solve our own unemployment, povery, education, and other issues at home. I weep for all the innocent people killed by war in this world, particularly children.

March 14, 2011. The New York Times. Comment on the constitution of the Confederate States of America.

Personally, I think Lincoln did side with the abolitionists but since he was a politician he was playing politics. He hardly could've gotten along the entire North to go along with him were he to say it was all about slavery. So he played up "the Union", but it doesn't make sense that that's all he believed. Also, he did seem to imply in quote at least that the South and the North could mutually agree to part ways provided it led to a more perfect union. The permanence clause and the perfect union phrase have to go together---if there's any action that led to a less perfect union, then the Constitution forbids it. Thus the Southern states seceding on their own was considered that. But WHY it was seceding was important to Lincoln. If the states had seceded for any other reason that may have resulted in a better United States, they might've had some ground but seceding for the sake of slavery would result in a less perfect union according to Lincoln.

It wouldn't make what Lincoln did any less meaningful even if he didn't believe the above, but if you read the quotations from black people who personally met him, he seems to have had the ability to view all people as equal instinctively. Many people can claim this and these are the people who are truly great.

But at the same time, let's not confuse equality of people with "black rights", etc. Lincoln clearly stated his admiration for the Declaration of Independence since he was a teenager, but at no time did he go beyond the "created equal" clause (and for me that's far more than enough, but just saying). Thus he may have supported VOLUNTARY colonisation of former slaves (which probably to him was a distraction) but that doesn't contradict the equality clause. Thus also some of his quotes about what the freed slaves could do---they were "equal" in all respects and had to earn their living just like poor whites had to.

Anyways, my view of Lincoln is that he single mindled focussed on the Declaration of Independence's equality clause as his life's mission and made it his goal.

March 8, 2011. The New York Times. Comment on the interplay of reason and emotion which is always realised by a smart person.

Yep, it's great to see someone "catch on", but this is old news. Almost any portion of society that rose the top in any human culture has been wiser, seeing the forest for the trees, wholist (as opposed to reductionist), and so on. The smart people never separated reason and emotion; they don't even think in those terms, that's kind of limiting. To say there is a real problem in current society misses the point since that it is only a very tiny fraction, a sliver, that appear to have the ability and desire to look at the world in the sense David Brooks wants to look at. So if you look at the average person, you're going to get average thinking. And you can lament all you want about that but it always was average.

That you're seeing this "simple wisdom" now is probably indicative that the average has moved since you previously (or first) considered it, positively for the better. That's a good sign.

February 16, 2011. The New York Times. Comment on the ability to "cut off" the Internet.

Yeah, it's possible to cut the pipes off, etc. and TEMPORARILY effect Internet communication as we know it (though the US would suffer great economic burden I think), but there are ways to get it back without requiring the major carriers and even pipes these days. Back in the day, the Internet proper was available only to a privileged set of institutions and then others came up with protocols to communicate via the Internet through various schemes, i.e., USENET and uucp, and so on. These other networks existed as an underground part of the Internet of sorts. So unless ALL communication is cut off, including voice and satellite based, it would be hard to prevent another Internet from rising. It may not be the high speed version we're used to, but it will allow for communication.

The government so far has tried to control the Internet and failed, and it is because the technology has kept ahead of the laws and Moglin's device will continue to do that.

November 30, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on the relevance of Gödel's Incompleness Theorem to the nature of truth and paradoxes.

[Addendum: As one can see by many of the comments, this article really omits so many important facts that have been worked out by mathematicians and physicists. I touch upon one here but, really, this is why I say everyone is a philosopher, except for ones who label themselves so.]

I am surprised Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem wasn't mentioned in this article, nor in any of the first page comments. Some of the paragraphs could straight have been lifted out of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. In my view, it's one of the greatest books ever written and spends several hundred pages dealing with the above issues and what it means for (the creation/evolution of) intelligence.

November 30, 2010. The New York Times. More on the relevance of Gödel to truth and paradoxes.

Comment #3:

"And that is precisely what a formal language is: a set of rules that is always followed correctly. So contradiction is *always ultimately removed* from these languages, since it has no place there."

This isn't true, as Gödel showed. I posted above about GEB but I echo the sentiments of what R. J. Briggs said (comment 151).

November 30, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on WikiLeaks.

I do believe in complete openness and transparency in government. It's not the snarky stuff that's interesting and that's an unfortunate byproduct of the leaks. What's interesting is how diplomacy functions, how the US State Department does its job, what threatens this world, etc.

The press (which now includes any Internet user) is entitled to question and keep the government in check. This is implicitly written into the US Constitution which guarantees its freedom. With great freedom comes responsibility but I don't see anything irresponsible about WikiLeaks.

For those who don't seem to be aware, Wikileaks has published stuff about other governments which have been censored in their respective countries. It seems US-centric these days because of the big leak and also because people in the US are interested in the US. But there's stuff on there that would get people involved with WikiLeaks in prison if they travelled to some countries and if the authorities so wished, for example in a country like Thailand (which has strong lese majeste laws, press be damned) for their content about the Thai Prince.

The US is a great country, where something like WikiLeaks and content be easily obtained and analysed and discussed without being throw in jail. It's an amazing freedom and I'm glad it is there.

November 28, 2010. The New York Times. One narrow financial instruction from my death bed.

Actually I think the issue is indeed so simple as to be able to do it yourself. I don't think you should plumb or wire your house, or be your own doctor, but I think you can, and perhaps must, manage your own financies in a simple manner. Others have made great suggestions many of which are DiY and some go beyond stock market investing, but limiting myself to only the later: investing in stocks in the most passive manner in a tax deferred account is the only way that still stands the test of time (given the collapse of the housing market).

Invest in metafunds, passive funds of passive funds (i.e., like the Vanguard REIT index---look at its performance even as the housing market collapsed). I always have invested half my stock money in nonUS funds though mildly aware of the overlap and crossover caused by globalisation. Value and growth funds too.

Finally, age is a big deal here. If you are young and below your 30s, I'd say go all in with stocks and add in fixed money investments over time. I rarely see people talk to younger investors who can be far more aggressive.

For people who have a lot of money, please do gamble in the stock market with it. With you, the passive investors won't be able to get he returns they do.

November 28, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on how people are ready to spend money to make war but not to help the unfortunate.

When Obama pounds the table, hell will freeze over. That's not the kind of person is nor that's what he should be (yes, it's a most excellent trait in this country at a time when all there seems to be going around is table pounding). But he can do other things that are the equivalent or let someone else like Biden do it for him.

I don't get it. False wars of choice cost us way more than that a day. We live in a world of false choices. No one in the world needs to go hungry or live without the basics. The only thing getting in the way of human utopia is ourselves, it's an insertia and inability to think out of the box. This is why smart people don't become career politicians.

November 22, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on characterisation of autism.

Besides the problems with the use of the word "autism" here (yeah, maybe I never will understand it), the problem is dualism, casting the issue as one between passion and reason, when it is wholistic and this is what most philosophers (people) fail to get (though Sartre did, when he talks about transcending). To make it worse (for people to understand), the whole isn't derived from reason but really (evolutionary) chance. How do you explain the existence of sickle cell anemia in humans populations?

November 22, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on how all government is manipulate.

You're certainly right about the "elite" not recognising what the Republicans are about. I still think every lawmaker thinks they themselves are acting in a good way. But the logic has been so perverted, that a "good way" to them means obstructing the presidency because they recognise they'll never get their way with Obama.

This is a new form of governing, possibly started in 2006/2008? Wait until the Democrats become a minority and learn from this and do the same.

November 22, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on the dehumanisation of war.

So it's come to this: video game raised soldiers from the strongest countries in the world trying to do who knows what in a hornet's nest created them. The likely opium dependent "insurgents" aren't sure what they're doing either but they sure don't want the foreigners there at all costs.

Why is there a need for war and killing in this day and age? Who in their right mind would sign up to kill other human beings?

There's nothing glorious, glamorous, right, moral, and ethical about this. Ants who are naively supporting the fattening of other cleverer ants who don't want to get their hands dirty.

November 20, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on commentators incessantly railing about a problem without proposing an implementable solution.

C'mon man, so what're YOU doing about it instead of churning out column after column saying the same thing? Seriously, I agree with you 100%. Maybe more. But shouldn't you be proposing and IMPLEMENTING solutions instead of just talking about the problems? This is like going to an addict and haranguing them about the myriad of problems they have and then wondering they reach for their next fix! It's called denial. You need to be part of the solution.

November 17, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on us being superficially evolved versions of hunters and gatherers.

The American people elected Bush and Cheney. The majority (at least the second time) who did deserved what they got. The others have an excuse. I can't fathom how someone like Bush or Cheney become #1. Is that they're carrying some complex traits that made us hunters (Obama acts like a gatherer).

November 15, 2010. The New York Times. Balanced the US budget in a simulated scenario.


November 12, 2010. The New York Times. Comment observing how the mainstream media largely defines the sides of a "debate", as well as its outcome.

I'm not a conspiracy theorist but more and more I believe the media defines the debate. For example, even though the plan has barely come out, I see the media reporting to be very much on the notion that the two fringes opposite. So what? Why care about the fringes? All this focus on the fringe only makes it a self fulfilling reality.

November 5, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on determining the outcome of a US Presidental election based on the countrywide voting numbers in the midterms by different race types.

Actually what I'd like to see based on this is what the popular vote and electoral college vote would've been. This could be based on exit poll identification or the actual results for the senate/house/governor races. For example, if someone voted red for the senate rate in a state, then that would count as a vote for the red president. Since the blue states seem way more populous than the red states, the raw numbers may pain a different picture.

Has anyone done this yet?

October 26, 2010. The New York Times. Comment about the chance that Clarence Thomas might had had a consensual affair.

To the commentators who believe there was an affair, then even in this case, Thomas should've just fessed up and not lied. Either way he committed perjury.

If Clinton was impeached for this very same doing 10 years ago, why not Thomas now? Isn't this a very similar type of argument the Republicans had against Clinton? One answer would be that the Democrats lack the hunter edge that the Republicans seem to possess (the Democrat types were probably the gatherers and the the Republican types were the hunters in our distant past is the analogy).

October 23, 2010. The New York Times. Comment about a tenuous piece on the founder of WikiLeaks.

The article justifies itself but not in the way intended. It's not really showing anything about Assange to me. It is showing how everyone involved in the article is engaged in a blatant smear (see coments) campaign, including the New York Times. To be fair, you DID do an awesome analysis of the war documents that was on the front page and more prominent and more complete. You should've stuck with that for now.

I am grateful you published this article on the front page, and I am even more heartened to see that the vast majority of commentators didn't buy into the negativity and focussed on the issues instead and asked you to do so. Please listen to them if you want to be respectable and just journalists.

October 14, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on the invasion of Afghanistan.

The US may hate to think about this, but this is yet another "loss" for this country (I'd say Iraq is too but some people will say maybe not, let's see what happens down the road). Might as well agree to that reality and return home instead of becoming completely bankrupt like the former Soviet Union.

October 12, 2010. The New York Times. Comment about responsible children.

I am a university professor at a major research university and I believe in "hands on" learning and I have about 10 undergraduates in my research group (besides 10+ other graduate and postgraduate trainees), and was awarded the best undergraduate mentor by my U in 2010. My youngest undergraduate is 15 years old and is a junior in college. Many of my undergraduates are superb, accomplished, fantastic, etc. I can't say enough about them. Not only are many just academically gifted but I know from being close to them their view of the world is very very different from the "average" undergraduate. They are far more respectful of their elders (man, do I sound old, but I do believe that a person who recognises that there's substituting for experience is one who deserves to be called smart), and are more responsible and well behaved, again, compared to average.

I'm also a parent of 17, 11, and 3 year olds. My 17 year old son does well in terms of grades, is about average in standardised testing and behaviour (depending on when I'm asked), and isn't sure what's going to happen in his life, and is quite far, to be frank, from my students in various criteria mentioned in these essays. It is what it is.

I realise I mentor the cream of the crop, and not everyone is the same or has the same path in life. Be that it may, at 18 (or even earlier) I do believe people should be independent (assuming no other real barrier, and ESPECIALLY if you've had a privileged life), and the choices and consequences of your situation are yours to bear largely. It's not like my 3 year old who doesn't understand, really, deep concepts of good and bad, and it's not like my 11 year old who can and is about to exercise them. Past a certain age, we're all pretty equal in my view. As a 38 year old, the choices I make now or really no different than what I was doing when I was 18, nor do I see them being that different compared to other 18 year olds. We're all stumbling in the dusk. So the "older adults" really aren't that much different in terms of their capacity to reason and be responsible except for that pesky item about experience I mention above which correlates with age but requires younger adults to accept something about older adults. This probably happens at the same rate it always did.

I think a lot of these comments reflect average vs. exceptional trends. The average person has always been, well, average. And then there are people who are good at something, academics being one aspect of life (not the only but a somewhat significant one). So on my one hand, as a professor, I see fantastic students all the time coming across my life. On the other hand, as a parent of someone who may or may not even go to college, I see that not everyone is equal at a particular point in their life. So with those experiences, I'd say that parents and society can't expect everyone to turn out great, but on the other hand, without high expectations, greatness may never happen. You need both, so put in a lot of effort, and hope for the best, and be prepared for the worst.

October 6, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on happiness.

Happiness is no doubt relative. Perhaps by flourish you mean being moved from one state to another, where each new state is perceived as "better".

Unless you've experienced the drug addict's rush, I doubt you can comment on that. The problem is that the drug addict experiences this happiness the first time and goes about chasing it the rest of the time. Plus there's withdrawal and paying for the drug, etc. If it were possible (and this is difficult given the nature of the brain and body to seek homeostasis) to achieve new highs all the time, without dependence and tolerance, then yeah, I'd say that's a pretty happy state even if nothing is being accomplished. The thing is that it's not possible given the way our brains are constructed.

But achieving new highs is what humans do to achieve happiness. They just do it in a sustainable way. Thus happiness is indeed a state of the mind, but a dynamic one, that is the sum of all the inputs to it.

You might be better served in Arnold Zuboff's similar brain thought experiment. The point isn't whether you'd WANT to be plugged in. The point is if you were plugged in, could you tell the difference? The Matrix, and Zuboff, would argue you couldn't (until you were freed by Neo, what you experienced in the Matrix would be true happiness to you).

October 4, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on lioninsing people.

Particularly in the West, people tend to lionise single people who are a figurehead for something successful but in reality can't be solely responsible for that success. The Times itself had a very nice article on Facebook's COO who is Zuckerberg's friend who is portrayed as rescuing Facebook from its fratboy culture. If anything, it is she who is more responsible for Facebook's success than Zuckerberg. Yet the media and culture credit a SINGLE person for the success of something that requires a huge number of people working together in a complex way to bring about this level of success. It's part luck and part skill. I believe doing this is wrong, sends the wrong message, and is ultimately a disservice to how creativity actually rises and expands in culture.

I agree that in the end, Facebook is a toy. It is not the same as discovering a cure for cancer. But toys are good and we live in a collective world. The person who discovers the cure for cancer may rely on Facebook for their social interactions. In this manner, Zuckerberg, by creating Facebook, is as important to a cure for cancer as is the janitor who cleans the office of the person who discovers a cancer cure. And lionising one at the expense of all others is a weird trait that is largely Western but expanding all over the world, and like I say above, is simply wrong (incorrect).

September 17, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on a new article series on drawing that makes it applicable to people who are physically unable to draw.

Drawing is great and I still do it along with all the art forms I learnt as a kid (I'm fortunate to be able to do what I love day in and out). However, as someone who does both hand and computer based art (drawing), I find the latter to be just as powerful a way, if not more so, of expressing oneself. I highly recommend it for those with neural or other conditions that lead to shaky hands or poor hand to eye coordination or any other movement disorder.

September 13, 2010. The Seattle Times. Comment on neglect in Adult Homes.

This is just a symptom of a greater problem. Respect for elder people in this country is being reduced lower and lower, while children are way overprotected and DSHS spends their time and resources persecuting parents who're not even allowed to raise their voice (emotional abuse) at children.

Even now, for example, the outrage seems to be about the individual actions rather than the overall philosophies and arrangements of assisted living and adult homes, what it means to put people in there, and so on. These are statements about our values on life and age, and they need refinement as people live longer and longer but are not so able to take care of themselves that well.


Each article published by the Seattle Times on this topic comes off as more and more self serving, with the primary aim of winning another Pulitzer rather than helping the subjects of the articles. It's a very SLIGHT feeling, but it's also pervasive, so I just felt like pointing it out.

September 3, 2010. The Seattle Times. Comment on a Seattle police officer's potential drinking problem.

I do suspect he has a drinking problem and I believe addiction is a medical condition. If so, then his erratic behaviour could be due to alcoholism (same with his family). This definitely merits more investigation than just addressing the symptoms. If this is all due to alcoholism, then by intervening appropirately someone (SPD?) will probably save a lot of grief.

August 23, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on the vocal puritanical minority in the US.

It seems that the judges hands are tied. His interpretation I think was reasonable. It's the law that's inane and needs to be changed. If we support our current governmental system, then the judge actually didn't legislate from the bench. He applied the law as it was written.

August 23, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on the vocal puritanical minority in the US.

It is fortunate that America is able to be what it is because these dogmatists are in the minority and their influence is still limited (though it seems like a constant struggle). The country does make progress inspite of a puritanical view held by a vocal minority that does its best to hinder progress.It is fortunate that America is able to be what it is because these dogmatists are in the minority and their influence is still limited (though it seems like a constant struggle). The country does make progress inspite of a puritanical view held by a vocal minority that does its best to hinder progress.

August 22, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on copying and evolution of sentience.

I've written various missives on copying both with regards to intellectual property and evolution of memes. I believe copying utlimately gives rise to sentience: http://www.ram.org/ramblings/science/self.html

However, there is an attempt to control copying for monopolistic economic reasons which is failing miserably and we were at the forefront of that movement (http://www.ram.org/ramblings/philosophy/fmp/) - free (unrestricted) copying is necessary for memes to evolve in the most chaotic dynamic manner. Otherwise the evolution of memes will be controlled by a few biased and vested interests.

August 21, 2010. The Seattle Times. Comment on "mansion squatters".

This is America and if it's legal, anything goes, doesn't it? This is the culture I know about from day one. So why get upset when some people want to exploit the law in their favour? This is what people do ALL the time in this country, day in and day out, in every courthouse. To pretend to be outraged is a kind of hypocrisy. This is as American as baseball.

I don't have any sympathy for the banks here who need to prove their ownership. if they sliced and diced and roasted a mortgage and shipped it off overseas so they could make a profit and now can't get their documents in order, tough luck. I think it's important to keep the banks on their toes, since I've heard stories of banks claiming ownership without documentation which I think is worse than a squatter.

And "the banks will pass on the cost to the consumer" argument will have some weight with me when banks start putting consumers first and profits second. If one of these squatters LEGALLY "wins" against the banks and ends up with a free house, I am happy for them and I will live with the consequences. We just gave the banks billions and billions of dollars to save them from dying and now they're back, what are they doing? Do you sense any gratitude here? Are their managements sharing some of their new found profits with the people who saved the jobs of their employees?

August 21, 2010. The Seattle Times. Comment on "mansion squatters".

I am not necessarily against people getting free lunches, even if I have to subsidise that lunch sometimes. In this case, the issue is the ownership of the property, whether it's the bank or the squatters, no one else. I see it like finding something on the street. There are two people claiming ownership, neither of whom I'm sympathetic towards. One can easily demonstrate ownership in a normal circumstance, but they seem to have misplaced the ownership documents during the process of making a quick buck. The other is exploiting this fact. There's no one else directly being hurt, and the squatters aren't displacing anyone.

I'm saying that this is what America is foundationally about, what it has been structured on, and even the way it was created ("something for nothing" is how I'd describe the land grab that occurred a few hundred years back). It's also a very Western idea, that if it's legal it's right, and this is largely how society operates on a practical level. Like I said, look across courtrooms in this country EVERY day.

Of course, everyone doing it doesn't make ethically right, but it is hypocritical to pick on these squatters while excusing other similar uses of the law (many of them far more serious). Ethical correctness and the law don't always agree and in this culture, the law triumphs. It is the society we've created as a whole. I personally think it's such a fabric of American culture today that acting surprised demonstrates a severe naivete. I think to correct this issue, the system and culture needs to be corrected, and good luck with that.

PS: My childhood home before we moved in was the subject of a case where the long time renters claimed adverse possession. We won eventually after a long drawn out fight in court. It was a different case in that we had the title and paid the taxes, etc. and could readily demonstrate ownership, yet the renters wanted to claim the property as their own and would not leave on their own accord. But even with this experience, I stand by what I write above. I myself wouldn't do it, but I think if the banks can demonstrate ownership readily, it's their problem. What is the value of property rights if you can't demonstrate ownership? Why are banks across the country having trouble doing this? There's a reason. The banks dropped the ball on this one.

August 1, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on faith and atheism.

As you allude to here, faith is a continuum. I have more or less faith in different events. The atheist and theist both operate on faith when they argue about the existence of a god. But faith can be backed by evidence and one side can have more evidence. The agnostics are simply people who've not made up their minds which would require using some faith.

The question shouldn't be about whether a god exists, but whether that such an existence is relevant to our lives. Does a god, if it exists, have influence over the day to day events that occur in our lives? That's the more useful question.

August 1, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on faith and atheism.

To Ms. Fuller who wonders how deeply atheists have lived, I'd say no more or less so than everyone else. Some atheists have probably lived "deeper" than what you write and some others not (I rank depth only because you do). While I don't think experiencing depth in life is necessary to make a claim about atheism, you raise some good points. Dealing with mental illnesses does give you a rare perspective, but don't assume atheists don't have this perspective. Some atheists I know have personally experienced the depths of mental illnesses themselves for example (a "personal holocaust"), and some became atheist as a result of that experience. Likewise with the historical Holocaust.

I write because you said some of the posts in this forum made you angry because of their presumed decisiveness. I submit that in many cases, the decisiveness occurs as a result of people going through their personal holocausts.

July 27, 2010. The Seattle Times. Comment on the celebrity status of "barefoot bandit".

[T]he problem isn't the Seattle Times. It's as The Paddler says, what sells. If the world were more in line with what you are saying, you'd be seeing scientists and inventors and other creative and smart people in the front pages of the news, instead of the celebrity culture we have. Nothing wrong with the celebrity culture and it does provide entertainment which people need. Don't worry, really smart kids, by definition, know the difference.

July 26, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on global warming.

Let me just say at the outset, I support all efforts to live in balance with the environment and many of the activities people want to do because they fear global warming should be done anyway, as a matter of principle.

However, I don't think that it's fair to say that all the objections to the climate science have been demonstrated as fraudulent, and perpetrated by vested interests. There are many many many questions unanswered and I think the science is far from perfect. I say this as a scientist, and for me, part of the problem is when lay people (who support anthropogenic global warming (AGW)) take the original data and then redisplay it in a new way that obscures the nuances. I then don't have much faith in their pronouncements. For example, the original hockey stick plot had these severe error bars that have been removed in various depictions in the media, including presentations by Al Gore, or in Wikipedia. The error bars present a more realistic picture but yet that's what's removed to make a point in favour of AGW.

Anyways, a lot of respected scientists have issues with the climate change models. I personally think warming is indeed occurring (resulting in global climate change). Whether it is anthropogenic or just routine fluctuations is not so clear since I don't think the time scales measured are long enough and the error bars are large. Some of the science supporting AGW is very good (i.e., the greenhouse effect). I also don't think the current solutions proposed will be adequate if warming is really occurring. Some of the models themselves would predict that it'd be a drop in the ocean; drastic shifts in behaviour needs to occur.

July 25, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on decisions by the Roberts Court.

While almost all decisions by the Supreme Court have far reaching ramifications (even if mild), I find some of the more pragmatic cases (as opposed to the idealistic cases) are the ones that influence what happens next in the world (i.e., creating a feedback loop which at least mildly influences what happens in the country next, the outcome of the next political elections, and consequently, the makeup of the next Supreme Court). These for example include the Citizens United and partial birth abortion cases, where it seems to be going against the current majority view (of the people). However the cases cause certain concrete actions to happen that have greater immediate influence than, say, whether non US citizens detained abroad can challenge their detentions in US courts (who are an abstraction to the American public). So these decisions result in shifts in peoples behaviour who then decide what the political climate will be (to the degree they are not apathetic).

Regarding Citizens United, my primary discomfort with that is that corporations get away with not being treated equivalent to individuals in many respects (liability and so on) but yet not in this one. If the officers of corporations could be personally liable for the actions of the corporations, I'd be more okay with the Citizens United decision.

July 25, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on overinterpretation of scientific experiments as mind reading.

"What the experiment tells us is nothing other than that the monkey's decision making process moves through the brain, and that our technology allows us to get a reading of that activity faster than the monkey's brain can put it into action. From that relatively simple outcome, we can now see what an unjustified series of rather major conundrums we had drawn."

You mean you had drawn. I came to the conclusion you did right away when I read about the experiment and I was wondering why you were making it so difficult for yourself, even to the extent of confusing what "I" means in this case. Now I realise it was a strawman.

There is no "I" of the monkey being accessed here, just the eye. We can think of a Anthony Zuboff type of an experiment where the time between the brain/mind making a decision, and a motor reaction that tells us what the decision is, is controlled by us. The measurement made by the computer is at the site where the communication between the brain and the motor nerves happens. Here the computer can predict a decision arbitrarily ahead of the monkey, but it still is just reading the decision made by by the monkey. The experiment doesn't control for that. Finally, Zuboff's "The Story of a Brain" shows the absurdity of this kind of reasoning. In a more serious experiment, the monkey's decision WILL holistically involve the eye movement (which may not work in a way that supports the decision for a variety of reasons). In this case, was a decision made at all?

July 25, 2010. The Seattle Times. Comment on an fortified rice.

This is fantastic. We're trying to do a similar thing using marker assisted breeding (and also with the goal of understanding how rice works): http://protinfo.compbio.washington.edu/rice -- it's been a slow process and we have to a ways. I'm kind of encouraged to see that these guys started their work in 1985! I've always argued that such a fortification approach is necessary in addition to GMO or breeding (many stones). We do this all the time (for example, milk, tap water). The price is a big issue, since people tend to go for short term benefit over something they can't see and will pick a cheaper rice or substance that is less nutritious.

July 22, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on why requiring "ultimate moral responsibility" is a strawman.

The Basic Argument is against a strawman. You qualify "moral responsibility" with "ultimate" again and again. It is part of your strawman and necessary for your argument. Why create that requirement? I don't know of too many people who feel "ultimately morally responsible" for the very reasons you state. Some things were beyond their control. One needs to only feel SOME LEVEL of responsibility. Partial responsibility is adequate. You could quantify the level of responsibility and assign the one with the most responsibility in a given situation to be "ultimate" as a matter of definition.

Or you could could construct an argument that shows no one is ever ultimately or absolutely morally responsible but is only ever partially morally responsible. This would be a more constructive way of framing your argument.

And I think quantum mechanics does indeed provide a strong argument for nondeterminism. It is by no means a proof since there could be a deterministic layer generating the nondeterministism (God uses his own random number generator), but it is the best evidence we have that argues for nondetermism.

July 22, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on the Afghanistic quagmire.

As another poster wrote, when America returned from Vietnam, the world didn't come to an end. Likewise, it'll only save this country money and some sanity when the Americans return. I admire a "can do" attitude like everyone else, but when you think about the mire that is Afghanistan and then ask "why?" there's no reason expert inertia by the armed forces and their contractors, the people who stand to lose the most by America pulling out. If I felt that America could EVER win the war in Afghanistan, even in a 100 years and spending 100 times as much, I might be okay with the "can do" attitude. I think the task is harder than that and the will to do anything is 100 times less than that. It was a mistake even from the very start (I call this is a war based for bloodlust and revenge). Perhaps the best lesson here is that brute force STILL can't accomplish everything (though you'd think we'd have learnt that lesson by now).

July 21, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on selfishness a survival trait.

I think a pure selfishness trait that is actually pure, selfish and honest would be selectively advantageous (definitely as part of culturally evolution). "Pure altruism" arises naturally from pure selfishness. So doing something good for yourself at the extreme can be considered as always doing something good for the world since the world would be a better place to live in for you. If you truly wanted to live in a better world and have a better quality life, and were utterly selfish, you'd work very hard on doing everything that would improve that world. What's the point of hoarding all resources if everyone else is out to take it from you? That minimises happiness. However, people delude themselves (not necessarily consciously) into thinking that partial altruism is adequate. It is not enough to give with one hand and take with another which few people realise they do and not being utterly and honesty selfish is actually resigning to a poorer quality of life. What is needed is a pure selfish way of looking the world at all scales of time. (Gandhi for example wanted and did a lot to accomplish a certain type of society because it benefitted him the most.)

So I try to be the most selfish person I can possibly be. <-:

July 17, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on whether sleeping pills are addictive.

Wow, this is probably the most intelligent set of responses to a NY Times article I've read. I am pleased with the degree of critical skepticism. I second most of the seconds. These are way too pat answers. If I didn't believe in the goodness of humans, I'd say these guys were in the payroll of the pillmakers. What more could you ask for: low chance of physical addiction, mild chance of psychological addiction, and does not cause rebound insomnia, and any symptom of tolerance is probably due to other reasons? That goes against all the "addiction to sleeping pills epidemic" I've read in these very pages. It also goes against the biological logic. Sleeping meds usually come out with a bang. It's only much later we discover how bad they are and what they mean, like with benzodiazapenes. All these medications work on sites that profoundly addictive chemical substances work on. I think it's okay to use addictive substances for treating acute problems but let's not kid ourselves on what they are. And issues like rebound insomnia and tolerance are very common, and they produce euphoria in some people at least even at below prescription doses (see the Erowid experience vaults).

Anyways, great great comments. Always question the sources if they seem too good to be true, especially in favour of the pharmaceuticals.

July 17, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on whether sleeping pills are addictive.

Mark Pine is right. It is the mechanism that matters. As long as the mechanisms of these and other drugs resemble those of the addictive substances in terms of GABA inhibition (the same way alcohol works), the potential for addiction is strong. People defending these drugs are missing an important point: Not everyone will become addicted but a signifcant minority will. The vast majority won't become addicted even if they abuse the drug. It is the small minority (for alcohol, it is 10% which is very high) of users who become addicted who will pay a huge price. On top of the insomnia, they will also have to deal with another terrible mental illness. As someone who does drug discovery, I have no problems at all with addictive substances being used when necessary to treat acute problems especially. Opiates are classic examples. But people should go into treatment with these substances with their eyes wide open and never become complacent. People may think you can't become addicted for a variety of reasons, but it's a mental illness/condition which seems to occur without any real predictable basis. I think being careless about these substances, as I feel these two doctors are definitely being, is likely to set you up for future problems.

Besides addiction, if you truly have insomnia (as I do), you need to find the thing that lets you have a good sleep. The Z drugs don't give me a good sleep; I don't dream and it's like I never rested. Melatonin is awesome for me. Some of the low level antihistamines seem to work in combination with melatonin, like hydroxyzine and chlorpheniramine maleate. But diphenydramine is not okay and I don't feel rested.

July 16, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on reworking Maslow's Pyramid.

I think it is erroneous to think in terms of a linear hierarchy (why should there be only pyramids?). Any "hierarchy" of this sort is tangled and parenting could be something that envelopes all those categories. And "parenting" is a function of procreating, spreading the genes, spreading the memes, which are also tangled. But I agree the evolutionary imperative is a basic motivator not just in humans but in all living things.

July 17, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on reworking Maslow's Pyramind.

Just because parenting may not occur in an individual, it doesn't mean the features surrounding it do not drive the individual's actions. Just because we use condoms and birth control, it doesn't mean our sex drive has gone away. I'd say a huge number of human actions revolve around have physical sex. Just go to a bar (current communal meeting place) and you'll see evolution in action. Sex seems to be a huge companion to everything we do, whether it is working at the SEC or running South Carolina (or the US) or giving out traffic tickets or worshipping God. Further, an equally important drive we have, besides propagating our genes, is the desire to propagate memes (see Richard Dawkins' The Self Genes). Propagating information in terms of ideas may even be more important than propagating information in terms of biological features. So whether individuals have biological children or not, we as a population may find other means to propagate our memes which I consider to be the other side of the propagating genes coin (a drive for intellectual sex, if you will). Mentorship can be considered a form of "parenting".

However, given the comments, "parenting" might be the wrong choice of words. I don't think it is meant to be taken literally. I think in the end it all boils down to our evolutionary drive to survive, to continually propagate some part of "us".

July 15, 2010. The New York Times. Parody of letter that purports to out illegal immigrants. [This needs refinement; alternate versions welcome.]

From: Concerned Law Abiding Citizens of the United States

To: All law enforcement agencies, and anyone else who cares to listen

We are providing you with detailed lists of information of all the riff raff who break laws in our great country: drunk drivers, drug users, drug peddlers, spouse beaters, child beaters, adulterers, sexters, red light runners, ... anyone breaking any law, big or small , no matter what the consequence. We are a nation of laws, and the law is the law.

Let's take America back, let's go back to the puritanical paradise it once was. We are against violence. We love our communities, our government, our Constitution. We are concerned with all these riff raff breaking our cherished laws and continuing the degradation of our great society and getting in the way of corporations having the same rights as any citizen, so that Wall Street can continue their great wealth generation without any distractions and be the rising tide that lifts all boats. We want to weed out any law breakers fr om working on our oil rigs, tobacco farms, security forces in the US, and private contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Let's make Norman Rockwell proud.

Many of these law breakers are not self sufficient and some are women who are pregnant. Immediate steps must be taken to ensure that they do not place an undue burden on the rest of the law abiding populace and and that their law breaking ways are not passed on from generation to generation. We expect to keep generating such lists as more and more laws are passed in our great country. We expect, no insist, action be taken against these criminal evil dooers. Hopefully, our lists and your enforcement will be enough to make this a clean country once again. If we do not observe quick action, you are welcome to explain to our populace why you are not fulfilling your duty (being a law breaker in the above categories yourself is not an excuse---turn yourself in now and find a law abiding citizen to take your place).

We will be listening and watching.

July 14, 2010. Bangkok Post. Comment on Bangkok being voted the best city in the world by Travel & Leisure Magazine.

Having been to many great cities in the world, Bangkok is among my favourite. Others are San Francisco * * (my favourite in the US), Lima (Peru), and Amsterdam. Katmandu is pretty and has the energy and food and friendliness. Melbourne is also very good. Among all these places (and others), I'd pick Bangkok for a place to visit/have fun in. I do not like Chiang Mai at all (so that part I don't get).

To me arts and culture is more than just Western arts and culture in the sense of opera houses and Western style theatre. Bangkok has its share of traditional art, culture, music, and theatre (not necessarily a big fan of it but I get taken to these events all the time when I visit). There is also less aloofness and the culture involves active participation from the observer and the performers. It is not contrived, there always celebrations of some sort going on, and people are always ready to have fun ("sanuk" in Thai, a philosophy Thais genuinely seem to live by; even their recent protests were filled with merry making).

I think for sheer raw energy there's no place like Bangkok. It is "one crowded polluted stinking town" as Murray Head sang, but it is seething with a organic vibrancy (one of my Thai students joked "in other words, lack of planning") where anything can happen as the song goes. It is not sterile and nanny state coddled which I appreciate.

Then there's the food, a low(er) cost of living, and once you get past the scams, the friendliness. What I see on the Internet/Web is that people are so terrified of getting scammed they are afraid to try anything out of the ordinary. I've gotten scammed big time in Istanbul and Beijing, and some small ones in Bangkok, but I take it in my stride.

July 13, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on whether Gravity is a force or an outcome of entropy effects.

Simply, I understand the claim to be that gravity is a function of entropy (some sort of an entropic geodesic), much like the "hydrophobic force" in polymer chemistry is. That is, there's no such "force", it's really hydrophobic atoms clustering together to maximise the entropy of the water molecules surrounding it. But why limit it to gravity? One could argue (and perhaps prove) the entire universe and all phenomena we observe is a consequence of such an effect, i.e., take a universe sized box, shake it up, and however things fall out is what we call not only hydrophobicity, but also gravity, and all the other things we call "forces"?

You heard it here first. <-:

PS: Gravity is not a force. Einstein's theory of relativity regards gravity as a function (consequence) of space time curvature. This is well established. However, Newtonian mechanics and Newton's laws hold for most applications.

July 11, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on an article advocating nonviolence by the Palestinians.

I have stated Gandhian nonviolence as the best (and perhaps only) way the Palestians could achieve their goals and dreams. For all its faults, Israel is too Westernised and "gentlemanly" (for lack of a better word) to ruthlessly quash nonviolent civil disobedience. The problem for the Palestinians is that they are brought up with a conditioned view of the "Arab street" where (showing) weakness reminds them of the story of the Arab and the camel (you know, give them an inch and they will take a mile). So they have to overcome this, but I believe they can. A leader like that in Palestine would be hailed as the next Gandhi, or MLK Jr.

July 11, 2010. Bangkok Post. Comment on Thailand's deficit spending in a global economic downturn.

Krugman is right. It is massive deficit spending that will avoid a douple dip and get the US government out of its mess. Austerity can come late when we run across another Clinton (who not only balanced the budget but left with a surplus). This has happened before in the 1930s. I think Thailand's policies are on the right track.

July 09, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on a query about different euphemisms for death.

Returning the gift of living.
The cost of living.
Omega. (For the mathematically inclined.)

These are original though I've seen variants like "the high cost of living", "the inevitable result of living", "the price paid for living", "the consequence of living".

Others (good for those who believe in reincarnation): The end of the beginning. The beginning of the end.

July 6, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on David Brooks' use of a strawman used to insult Paul Krugman.

"Imagine if eggs were square... we could stack them up on top of each other saving money, space, time..." David Brooks starts off with a huge number of leading assumptions and then proceeds to say that the strawman should be torn down carefully. Whatever happened to the art of logical writing? Surely David can make his last point without all the inaccurate and leading comments [that are veiled insults to his colleague Paul Krugman] that only detract from his message?

July 3, 2010. Bangkok Post. Comment observing former PM Thaksin Shinwatra's appearances published in the media are usually peppered with tangential facts about his "awesome" business dealings.

I agree that the Abhisit government is the less "evil" choice compared to the Thaksin government, for all people. What I don't understand about reports about Thaksin is why do they always juxtapose it with some business deal he's doing? He's now "near a gold mine"? What does that matter? He's always looking at some kind of a deal or another when talking to reporters? Is he trying to impress his red shirt followers by showing his business acumen?

June 28th, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on an overlooked danger of drinking.

"responsible drinking" is an oxymoron. That's like talking about "responsible smoking" or "response heroin use". I'm not a prohibitionist and I believe people should be free to ingest whatever they want and I think all chemical psychoactives should be legalised, but drinking alcohol is consuming a powerful chemical psychoactive substance and it should be rightly looked at for what it is. A reasonable amounts, any harm it does isn't a big deal so we can look the other way. The problem is it's also a highly addictive substance, and going by statistics, 1 in 10 people (or higher) who consume it in the US will go on to become addicted to it. That's a high number - 1/10! Prognosis for alcoholism is poor and even when it is treated, it is after a lot of damage has been done. One cannot predict if one will not become addicted to alcohol until it's too late. And a person who is addicted isn't being irresponsible, they suffer a mental illness that is hard to treat. I find most conversations about alcohol ignore its potential for addiction, the data are very clear: 1 in 10 users will develop alcoholism. That's like playing roulette with a 10 chambered pistol.

June 26th, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on the utility of the invasion of Afghanistan.

The actions of the USA must make Bin Laden happy. Not only was he able to bloody our nose, and get away with it, but he can also make fun of us while we comfort ourselves that it's from his "cave". Further, the nose injury has become a gangrene that has spread to almost every social and economic sector in the US. It has lowered freedoms and our standard our living. When 9/11 happened, I predicted any excessive response even if justified would only lead to more misery for America. Pushing 10 years, we're not even done with our self injury yet.

June 13,, 2010. The New York Times. Comment on the media's need to see Obama rant and rave.

The President serves the country, not the fluffy nonrigourous reporters. Based on comments like this, even by someone who is a pretty good writer when she's in the zone, it's no wonder America is turning into this "idiocracy". Rather than wanting a President and people with higher standards, you're asking for a dumbing down simply to appease the masses.

May 21, 2010. Bangkok Post. Comment on how Thailand should regroup after the red shirt riots.

I think being more aggressive about including everyone who wants to take part in the globalisation opportunity is a must. Affirmative action is one solution. I think the Bangkokians contribute a lot to the world and to the Thailand, but there should be no or low barriers of entry (something that did happen in the US -- who would've thought a black man could become president a few decades ago?).

I am optimistic that the That people will see this as an opportunity to rebuild themselves anew, and I think it's an exciting time for Thailand.

March 6, 2010. Bangkok Post. Comment on how bullets can entire and exit through different trajectories.

Bullets are generally known to change trajectories after hitting bones in the body (some people calling it "bouncing around" -- google). I'm not saying that's what happened, but just that it can.

Pseudointellectual ramblings || Ram Samudrala || me@ram.org