Friday, November 30, 2012

On Godwin's law

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.
— Godwin's Law (as cited by Wikipedia)

I have seen online, on a number of occasions, people using the above observation as some way of refuting or diminishing any argument that mentions Nazis or Hitler. Someone recently told me on Quora that my comparison suffers from being "Hitler fallacy".

Here is my response:

Why is it a fallacy?

For example, when Bush was asked: "How did you decide that torture was moral?", he answered: "I asked my lawyers, and they told me it was not illegal."

The best way to show through an example that such reasoning is wrong is to evoke the history of Nazis: everything they did was also legal, according to the laws of their democratically elected government.

Why is that logically wrong?

It's one thing if someone says that "Bush is like Hitler because...". Clearly, that's very silly, because he is nothing like Hitler, at least in quantity. But there is nothing wrong with saying that "Bush committed the same mistake as Hitler by thinking that legal equals moral", or, better yet, "We can see that Bush's reasoning is wrong by applying it to Nazis".

In my opinion, constant appeal to Godwin's Law is quite ridiculous. There is nothing logically wrong with using Nazis as a counter-example in morality or law. The episode of Nazism, WWII, Holocaust, Nuremberg trials (where people were tried by an international community for following their country's law and their superiors' orders), etc., is such a stark point in the recent history that not drawing lessons from it would be foolish.

Of course, one can also say: "Keeping slaves in the South was also legal, while helping them escape was illegal in both North and South", but I don't think it resonates quite so much. Maybe if I was Black and not Jewish, it would.

One critique one may offer is that comparing some act or thought to something Hitler did or thought is not in and of itself an argument for its immorality. For instance, saying that wearing shorts is immoral because Hitler wore them is clearly silly. But I would think it was self-evident that genocide is immoral. Of course, one does not need to bring Hitler as an example. But, when making an argument, one uses the most effective ammunition possible. Sure, I can say, "in a country where genocide is legal, you have an example of something that is legal and yet immoral". But that's is much less powerful than saying: "Under the Nazi regime, hiding Jews was illegal, while killing them was legal".

So, henceforth I am drawing CrawlingAxe's Law:

Someone who uses Godwin's Law indiscriminately clearly doesn't understand the difference between reduction and an analogy. If I say that A is like B in aspect X, I am not saying that A is the same as B in all aspects.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

On political agenda

I want to address the question of political agenda (now that I've got one...).

As a background, imagine the following conversation: a student comes to a Chabad House rabbi on campus and asks him why the rabbis of N. America did not pasken against slavery, if one might conceive that there was room to do so, in particular, the way it was being carried out. (This example is not from my experience, although I did ask a similar question once.) The rabbi might answer that the poskim really did not think that it was wrong from halachic perspective (although it might have been morally wrong), but another answer one might hear is: "Maybe because they did not have a political agenda".

I want to address this answer. Political agenda is assumed to attenuate one's objectivity. It is especially damaging, then, when intervening with the investigations calling for one. For instance, it's not as much a problem when choosing a salad: "this doesn't taste good because it's not organic" may be a silly thing to say, but after all, if it doesn't taste good to one, so be it. It is more damaging in natural sciences, for instance, since there the object is not to discover how one feels about something, but what something is. "White men are superior to women and minorities" or, on the other side of the spectrum, "global warming is caused by industrial pollution" are examples of conclusions that may have been influenced by a political agenda.

I think, however, that there is also a positive side to the political agenda (and potentially a negative side to not having it): it alerts one to a potential issue. I don't know whether slavery, as practiced in N. America, was halachically problematic. But if I know that it was morally wrong (and the general assumption is that there is a strong degree of correlation between morality and halacha, especially bein adam l'chaveiro), I may be prompted to investigate more into the halacha. On the other hand, if I don't know it's wrong (or have never seriously considered such a view), because I have not been exposed to extra-hallachic analyses of morality, I may never look into all the details. (I am not suggesting that Torah is somehow deficient as the lone source of morality, but people are deficient in understanding morality from Torah and especially halacha and may benefit from the "outside" analysis.)

In fact, I think most people have a political agenda one way or another. At the minimum it is what I call the inertial agenda: to preserve the status quo (I am tempted to call this political vector conservative, but it can act in a liberal direction too: for instance, one raised in a democratic society may never assume there is anything wrong with democracy from moral or legal points of view).

Thus, being exposed to various political agendas (as well as scientific, economic, or grammatic ones) may:
  1. alert one to potential issues that one might not have thought of before
  2. battle one's already existing agendas or prejudices that might affect one's objectivity.

Hitchens on Kennedy

I am quite enjoying Hitchens's biography. I am reading it not from cover to cover but going from topic to topic. The latest two topics were Edward Said and buggery in English boarding schools.

Anyway, I thought this was funny (more quotes on the question of authority to follow):
In my very first term [at Cambridge], in October 1962, President Kennedy went to the brink, as the saying invariably goes, over Cuba. I shall never forget where I was standing and what I was doing on the day he nearly killed me. (It was on the touchline, being forced to watch a rugby game, that I overheard some older boys discussing the likelihood of our annihilation.) 
At the close of the BBC’s programming that night, Richard Dimbleby enjoined all parents to please act normally and send their children to school in the morning. This didn’t apply to those of us boarders who were already at school. We were left to wonder how the adult world could be ready to gamble itself, and the life of all the subsequent and for that matter preceding generations, on a sordid squabble over a banana republic. I wouldn’t have phrased it like that then, but I do remember feeling furious disgust at the idea of being sacrificed in an American quarrel that seemed largely to be of Kennedy’s making in the first place. 
I have changed my mind on a number of things since, including almost everything having to do with Cuba, but the idea that we should be grateful for having been spared, and should shower our gratitude upon the supposed Galahad of Camelot for his gracious lenience in opting not to commit genocide and suicide, seemed a bit creepy. When Kennedy was shot the following year, I knew myself somewhat apart from this supposedly generational trauma in that I felt no particular sense of loss at the passing of such a high-risk narcissist. If I registered any distinct emotion, it was that of mild relief.
— Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22 

Finding AHPs

AHP = average y-distance between the blue and the green dots.

Since apparently in my last action potentials post it was not clear what I was looking for, I decided to post the above graph.

I found voltage thresholds (blue dots) and action potentials' troughs (green squares) to find the average difference between them (after-hyperpolarization potential). I did not find a good automated way of finding voltage threshold, so I just hard-coded the minimal value for dv/dt: once the trace crossed it, the voltage at which it was crossed was designated as voltage threshold. If you look at the graph, you can see that it worked rather well, but I would still like to find it in a more elegant way (I tried finding local third-derivative maxima, but had some problems with the function).

The troughs were obtained through findpeaks function (Signal Processing Toolbox package), such that:
[p, i_p] = findpeaks (f);
saves the values of peaks as p and their indexes as i_p. Since in my case I was looking for troughs, I inverted my trace (and then inverted the peaks back):
[troughs, i_t] = findpeaks (trace);
troughs = –troughs;
If you want to plot the troughs, you can just write:
plot (i_t, troughs, 'og'); %green circles
plot (trace, 'r'); %red trace
dv/dt was obtained through function diff, such that:
dn_dx = diff (f, n); %produces n-th derivative of f
In order to analyze the data, I first had to separate out individual action potentials:

function [output] = findAPs (input_trace)

    barrage = input_trace; %select APs to analyze from the trace

    %[peaks, i_p] = findpeaks(barrage); %if you want to analyze peaks

    [~, i_t] = findpeaks (-barrage); %obtain x-values for troughs

    APs = cell(length(i_t), 1); %allocate empty cell space

    %adding first and last pts of barrage to minima:
    minima = [1; i_t; length(barrage)];

    %separating APs:
    for i = 1:length(minima)-1
        APs{i} = barrage(minima(i):minima(i+1));

    output = APs; %return a cell of AP traces
Then I found dv/dt for each AP and selected for the first value above the accepted threshold level to find the threshold:

function [output] = find_v_th (APs)
    v_th = struct([]);

    for i = 1:length(APs)
        dv = diff (APs{i}, 1); %first derivative

        %find first instance of dv/dt>0.001:
        v_th_i = find (dv>0.001, 1, 'first')-1; %offset by one b/c of diff

        if (v_th_i) %if v-threshold was found, enter voltage and x vals
            v_th(i).v = APs{i}(v_th_i);
            v_th(i).x = v_th_i;
            v_th(i).v = [];
            v_th(i).x = [];

    output = v_th;
Plotting dv/dt was the same as plotting troughs. To find AHP, one can create an array of trough values and threshold values and subtract one from another, or just average each array and subtract the averages. To plot the AHPs and dv/dt's took a little more effort, since I had to put the APs and dv/dt's with AHP values back together in one barrage, making sure to preserve the x-values. I recommend doing all this in object-oriented manner.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Impossibility of voluntary slavery

From Murray Rothbard's Ethics of Liberty, "Property Rights and the Theory of Contracts":
Let us pursue more deeply our argument that mere promises or expectations should not be enforceable. The basic reason is that the only valid transfer of title of ownership in the free society is the case where the property is, in fact and in the nature of man, alienable by man. All physical property owned by a person is alienable, i.e., in natural fact it can be given or transferred to the ownership and control of another party. I can give away or sell to another person my shoes, my house, my car, my money, etc. But there are certain vital things which, in natural fact and in the nature of man, are inalienable, i.e., they cannot in fact be alienated, even voluntarily. 
Specifically, a person cannot alienate his will, more particularly his control over his own mind and body. Each man has control over his own mind and body. Each man has control over his own will and person, and he is, if you wish, “stuck” with that inherent and inalienable ownership. Since his will and control over his own person are inalienable, then so also are his rights to control that person and will. That is the ground for the famous position of the Declaration of Independence that man’s natural rights are inalienable; that is, they cannot be surrendered, even if the person wishes to do so. 
Or, as Williamson Evers points out, the philosophical defenses of human rights "are founded upon the natural fact that each human is the proprietor of his own will. To take rights like those of property and contractual freedom that are based on a foundation of the absolute self-ownership of the will and then to use those derived rights to destroy their own foundation is philosophically invalid".
Hence, the unenforceability, in libertarian theory, of voluntary slave contracts.
 Read on.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Question to mathematicians

I have data with a bunch of traces of action potentials (top graph).

I want to find the average after-hyperpolarization potential (AHP), the voltage difference between where the action potential "takes off" on its way up (known as "voltage threshold") and the trough of its overshoot on its way down, i.e., the arrow on the top graph, which presumably corresponds to the arrow on the bottom graph.

What's the easiest way of doing that?

(Note: I am looking for an algorithm to automatize the calculation. I am working on Matlab, but it can be an abstract algorithm, although specific enough to implement without any additional knowledge: i.e., don't just say: "Fit the curves to Hudgkin-Huxley equation and find the intercepts".)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Re: libertarians re: Israel

I am posting this here not just to share my thoughts, but also so that I have an easy place to copy-paste my answer from.

As a context, many libertarians disagree with Israel's 'right to defend itself', because according to them, it exists on a land stolen from Arabs in 1948, when 'Palestinian Arabs' left or were expelled from their lands. This is not the place to address that claim (and I don't have all the facts -- and neither do most people -- and if I did, there are many nuances to consider). What I am addressing here is Israelis' right to defend themselves, either individually or collectively through the organization called State of Israel (or IDF). I am also addressing the claim that the media are not one-sided.

The media are one-sided. You can call it antisemitism or whatever label you want. Perhaps it's cheering for the "underdog" gang-like terrorists vs. the mighty state of Israel (perhaps that's also the reason why libertarian analysis is so one-sided).

Palestinians do not deal with the same thing. They have to deal with the collateral damage produced by IDF killing criminals hiding in the Palestinians' midst (with the latter ofentimes knowingly hiding them). We can argue whether Israel is a criminal organization to its own citizens by the virtue of being a state. We can also argue that perhaps injustice has happened over 60 years ago when people were displaced, or when displaced people were not allowed to return to their homes. Some might argue that injustice did not happen, and it was their fault for siding with Israeli enemy and allowing it to use their territories. Or that now, after all has been said and done, things have changed and people settled on those lands — so, the best solution is to give the displaced people recompense for their lost lands, as resettlement is not an option. Or we can argue that a resettlement must happen.

But this dispute can be solved in a civil manner. Through international arbitration, diplomacy, economic pressure, etc. It cannot be solved through Palestinian thugs shooting rockets at Russian immigrants who came to the country in the 1990s and settled in Sderot.

Imagine if I had a dispute with you over some land. You claim I stole it. I claim otherwise -- that I took it from you justly. Then a third-party tenant settled in the disputed land. If you bomb his house or shoot at his children, and I defend them by shooting back at you, *in that act* (i.e., aside from my previous presumed injustice to you) am I being a criminal? Or are you being a criminal? I think most civilized people would say the latter. And if, through shooting at you I happen to kill some bystanders (especially who willingly hid you in their midst), I don't think you can say that the bystanders are undergoing ethnic cleansing or that they are going through the same thing as the tenant's children.

If you answer to the tenant's complaint that he is living on a stolen land, his answer would be: "Let's settle this dispute in a civilized, peaceful manner through arbitration, but first, the violence must stop."

Driving in Russia

And these are Americans:

I am just thinking that for the last fifty years, these two nations had the most nuclear power in the world...

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Why stimulus failed

I think this video is good —

— but somewhat misleading. It makes it sound like Obama's stimulus would not have failed if the money actually reached the intended (or, rather, advertised) targets and were not wasted or did not create unintended consequences. (I differentiate between 'intended' and 'advertised' because I believe, rather cynically, that the Federal government all along knew that the money would go to its buddies, in the usual crony-capitalist fashion.)

But the deeper point is that even if that were to happen, this money would still fail to 'stimulate' the economy. What was wrong with the economy is not that there was not enough money or spending or that it just needed a kick in the right piston to get the machine working again (see here for the rebuttal of this fallacy). The problem was not with lack of investment — but, rather, with malinvestment: during the boom phase of the business cycle, money was invested into the wrong industries (see here why this happened).

During the bust phase, the economy 'discovered' that there was after all no demand for the long-term, 'capital goods' businesses (such as construction) into which the investments had previously flowed (encouraged by the artificially low interest rates). This discovery led to contraction of the suddenly failing businesses (or, rather, businesses whose failure suddenly came in the open): their stocks dropped, they had to fire many of their employees, and even declare (or come close to declaring) bankruptcies.

This process of contraction is not only natural, following the malinvestment of the boom phase, but is in fact crucial for any 'recovery'. In order to get the economy back on the road, it was — and still is — necessary to allow the businesses that became too engorged with the malinvested capital to shed it and let the capital flow to the businesses that actually have the support of their customers (because they are successful at predicting what their customers need and want to spend money on right now). This could happen through the successful businesses buying up now-cheap equipment and land or office space of the failing businesses and hiring the suddenly unemployed workers.

By keeping the failing businesses alive or by taxing the successful businesses and redirecting the tax money towards roads or public schools, one does not reverse the problem of malinvestment. And by making interest rates even lower, thus encouraging further long-term investment unsupported by the public's spending time preference, the FED is making the problem worse!

More reading:
Activating Trash

Sunday, November 11, 2012

It takes a while to build up...

In response to Edmund Conway's post–break up (with Apple) letter comparing Apple with Obama, one comment said:
Apple and Obama fan here. Agree about Apple/iOS 6, but zero sourness about Obama. What does economy problem have to do with him, again? He did a damn grand job helping to smooth the landing and overseeing the takeoff. Building takes a lot longer than destroying; people forget that. So yeah, no matter how hard I look, I can’t see anything sour in my Obama relationship, so you’re wrong that all fans would admit that.
My response:
You are right, orchestrating and building a new bubble takes longer than contracting from an old one. It takes days or weeks for people to realize that the papers they are holding are trash. It takes years to build up the con. 
Maybe the administration has been busy choosing malinvestments into which new commodity should be encouraged.  
Perhaps it should be the tulips again. The government should declare that if you invest in tulips, but your investment flops, the government will bail you out. Then, when the over-blown tulip investments burst and crash the markets, the government should provide a ‘soft landing’ by bailing out the tulip farmers and prolonging the resulting contraction from a month to another four years. 
Obama should learn from the Japanese. They have been in stagnation for three decades. Four years are like a butterfly’s dream to them.
More on topic:
Why Did Solyndra Fail? 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Government vs. OSs

Imagine if switching governments was this easy. You wouldn't have to move. You wouldn't have pack your stuff or sell it. You wouldn't have to search for a new place to live, for a new community to fit it, for new friends and contacts and a new place to buy cheap potatoes.

You would just go online and cancel your subscription to one government while subscribing for the protection and (possibly) legal services of another. You may need to change the sticker or some little flag outside your door: 'Protected by AMS Northwest'. And that's it.

Imagine how good the quality of service would be...

Monday, November 5, 2012

On the eve of American elections 2012

I just want to say for the record that tomorrow I will have no sympathy for the Conservatives. You had a chance to nominate one guy who actually stood for the principles that you supposedly stand for: individualism, personal freedom, free markets, limited government, and honesty. AND he would appeal to a lot of liberals and independents actually giving you a chance to have Obama defeated. One thing he was not is a warmonger. But no... you needed a warmonger, and you nominated one, even though he is almost a carbon copy of the current president whom you hate so much.

Well, for that you will get four more years of socialism... and warmongering. So, don't complain. You are practically getting what you asked for, just under a different label.

Anyway, I personally think Obama is a better choice. When we are worse off in four years (as we would be under Romney as well), at least the free markets won't be blamed.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Reification of civilization

Someone posted a link to the following article on the Facebook: 'A Point Of View: Is China more legitimate than the West?'
In my first talk I explained that China is not primarily a nation-state but a civilisation-state. For the Chinese, what matters is civilisation. For Westerners it is nation. The most important political value in China is the integrity and unity of the civilisation-state.

They see the state as the embodiment and guardian of Chinese civilisation. Its most important responsibility - bar none - is maintaining the unity of the country. A government that fails to ensure this will fall.

But does the Chinese state, you may well ask, really enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of its people?

Take the findings of Tony Saich at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. In a series of surveys he found that between 80 and 95% of Chinese people were either relatively or extremely satisfied with central government.

Or take the highly respected Pew Global Attitudes surveys which found in 2010, for example, that 91% of Chinese respondents thought that the government's handling of the economy was good (the UK figure, incidentally was 45%).

Such high levels of satisfaction do not mean that China is conflict-free.

On the contrary, there are countless examples of protest action, such as the wave of strikes in Guangdong province for higher wages in 2010 and 2011, and the 150,000 or more so-called mass incidents that take place every year - generally protests by farmers against what they see as the illegal seizure of their land by local authorities in cahoots with property developers.
Here is my response:

The biggest problem with the article is that it is full of logical holes, non-sequiturs. Let's assume that the Chinese people look at themselves as a civilization, not some chance community (such as the American society). Therefore what? Why shouldn't the government that keeps that civilization together be democratically elected (not that I am a friend of the democracy; I am just examining the argument)? How do we know that the government that came to power through some oligarchic bureaucratic power struggle will be more effective at this allegedly nationally-sought goal than a democratically elected one?

Or, for that matter, why is the government's job to 'preserve the unity of Chinese civilization' (whatever that means; after all, the people in the country don't speak the same language in the south and in the north; there are many different ethnicity, many styles of food and music, etc., etc.)? Perhaps private organization in charge of the particular aspects of the culture — and in charge of unifying them and standardizing them — will be more effective. If such unification and standardization is indeed what the Chinese people want, they can choose those organization themselves, and the organizations will compete on the free markets for the effectiveness of this 'service'.

Then there is the moral argument. As long as you feed the slaves and keep them happy, your forced ownership of them is justified. (I mean, yeah, sometimes the slaves complain because there is not enough food and the work conditions created by the overseers are harsh, but they don't object to being in slavery. Well, some do, but who cares about those few?)

95% support? That's nothing. In N. Korea, 100% support the Dear Leader. In Russia, in some regions more than 100% voted for Putin.

The idea about Chinese economy overcoming American in six years is a myth. Within six years it will crash. Laws of nature cannot be violated so easily. And today, yes, the GDP figures are high, but people are still living in poverty. During WWII, GDP figures were high in the US too. And living conditions were worse than before the war — the figures were a result of war spending on bullets and tanks.

In regards to China being not a nation but a civilization (and that's why a few mafia members can decide for one third of the world's population how to live), this is my favorite concept, reification:
Reification (also known as concretism, or the fallacy of misplaced concreteness) is a fallacy of ambiguity, when an abstraction (abstract belief or hypothetical construct) is treated as if it were a concrete, real event, or physical entity. In other words, it is the error of treating as a concrete thing something which is not concrete, but merely an idea.
In other words, 'civilization', 'tzibbur', 'community', 'hurricane', 'forest' are all concepts. They are useful concepts for understanding complex phenomena and emergent properties, but the moment we think of themselves as having an independent life of their own (such as 'tzibbur owning land'), we make the mistake of reification: falsely making something abstract into concrete.

But, in fact, this is a useful article. If we understand the exact points in which it is wrong, we will also understand why Western democracy is a failed liberal system that does not liberate people from governmental oppression, but in fact simply kicks the can of oppression down the road.

It reminds me of Peter Singer's (and the like) articles about abortion, in which he argues in favor of infanticide (e.g., of sick babies), because after all, there is not much difference between an infant and a fetus. Once we understand why he is wrong (that it's ok to kill newborns), we can understand why abortion is also wrong.

Saturday, November 3, 2012


Gov. Chris Christie

From an e-mail I sent to my in-laws:

The situation on the East Coast, where the governor of NJ made profiteering forbidden, is the best example why I am a libertarian. NOT (only) because I care about the gas companies and their natural rights. But because profiteering is the best way to attract business — to attract import of gas, generators, construction crews, shovels, whatever is needed, into the disaster zone. Why the heck would I import gas to NJ from, say, Ohio, if there is no additional incentive for me to do that?

Plus, it keeps the supplies of gas, etc., well rationed. People buy only what they really need when the prices are really high (driven up by high demand and low supply). That way, the first ten people coming into the store won't buy up all the water bottles, leaving the rest with nothing.

Meanwhile, a few black-market gas stations have sprung up. Just like in the Soviet Union, where they sold sausages and electronics on the black market at the market price (plus a little extra for the risk), while in the stores the shelves were empty from over-consumption and under-production. As the crazy mathematician from Jurassic Park said, "nature finds the way".

Yes, I know, all that greedy business owners care about is profit. But profit allows the goods to go where they are supposed to and serves as an indicator that the producer is doing the right thing.

Here is a good image from the Facebook: