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Posts about Writing (old posts, page 12)

Yes, I know I'm wrong, but listen to me...

I have a strong ten­den­cy to be ar­gu­men­ta­tive. That's be­cause I re­al­ly en­joy a good ar­gu­men­t, if you'll par­don the ob­vi­ous­ness.

The best thing about a good ar­gu­ment is that you get the most amaz­ing in­sights from the wrong side of it. For ex­am­ple, Lamar­ck­ian vs. Dar­wini­an evo­lu­tion: Lamar­ck was wrong. But Lamar­ck­ism is a heck of an idea, and once you get lamar­ck­ism, you can pass it on! (ha!).

Or, the chick­en and the egg? I ac­tu­al­ly got in­to an ar­gu­ment (and I did not start it my­self) about this a cou­ple of weeks ago.

If you start with some­thing that's wrong, you can back­track and see why it's wrong. What was the im­plic­it mis­tak­en as­sump­tion, the in­com­ing garbage that cre­at­ed the out­go­ing crap. And then you can tweak it. And see what new garbage comes out. Wrong stuff, but new stuff.

And that's one of the great things about be­ing a nerd: nerds are the awe­some at this. Oh, you may think peo­ple in pol­i­tics would be bet­ter? Nah, they nev­er change their mind­s. Lawyer­s? Well, they ar­gue for mon­ey!

But nerd­s? We do it for fun. And most of us don't give a damn about look­ing weird to oth­ers be­cause we al­ready know we look weird to oth­er­s.

Spend­ing 4 hours locked in a car with av­er­age hu­mans is most­ly a chore. Some­one will play mu­sic, maybe peo­ple will talk in­ter­mit­tent­ly about stuff that hap­pened in the last few days, what­ev­er.

But lock 4 nerds in a car for 4 hours and you're go­ing to lis­ten to stuff. This hap­pened to me twice in the last few week­s. And in be­tween, we had a din­ner with a very high nerd fac­tor (with al­co­hol as­sist)... great fun.

IMG14266.JPG Warning, nerds and alcohol mix a bit too well.

Now, I know many ex­pe­ri­ence this when they are with peo­ple that have a cer­tain thing in com­mon. I've seen some­thing sim­i­lar hap­pen be­twen, for ex­am­ple, com­mu­nists and for­mer com­mu­nist­s. They would talk for hours, and it was lots of fun (even for me ;-) but what they talked about was their com­mon thing: com­mu­nis­m.

IMG14268.JPG Yes, the tiramisu has penguins in it.

Nerds ap­par­ent­ly don't have such in­cli­na­tion. Nerds will ar­gue about any­thing. Nerds will ar­gue about ev­ery­thing. And that makes me think... why are nerds seen as shy and in­tro­vert­ed? Hel­l, why are nerds shy and in­tro­vert­ed? How can I rec­on­cile what I see when I'm among fel­low nerds and how oth­ers see us?

IMG14262.JPG Yes, penguin cookies

And it's not easy. I am by all stan­dard mea­sures painful­ly shy. I had great dif­fi­cul­ty mak­ing friends when I was a kid. I did­n't like the things oth­er kids liked. I did­n't know many things they knew all along. I con­tin­u­ous­ly was the butt of jokes for be­ing naïve on things I had nev­er heard about. I was al­ways afraid to speak when I was in a group be­cause I thought I would make a fool of my­self.

Shy does­n't mean bor­ing. Shy does­n't mean some­one who does­n't have any­thing in­ter­est­ing to say. Shy means some­one that has prob­lems start­ing.

On the oth­er hand, I have spo­ken in front of hun­dreds and I've been told I look re­laxed (I am not, I am fak­ing, guys). I write un­der my re­al name and I nev­er felt some­thing was "too weird" so I should­n't write it (com­ing soon: an eco­nom­ic ex­pla­na­tion of why men like to see wom­en kiss­ing), so I am not re­al­ly afraid of peo­ple think­ing I'm weird. What the hel­l, I know I'm weird. Ask me if you see me: Am I weird? Yes!

But I still have trou­ble when I am in a par­ty with peo­ple I don't know (I am lucky my wife is like so­cial WD-40). I still have trou­ble mak­ing small talk. I don't know what hap­pened in the TV show ev­ery­one watch­es. I ap­pear shy and in­tro­vert­ed. Un­til you know me.

The lottery as a rational investment.

There is a prej­u­dice that the poor play lot­ter­ies be­cause they are lazy, can't save and are gen­er­al­ly stupid and are hurt­ing them­selves by chas­ing the fan­ta­sy of win­ning in­stead of sav­ing pen­nies. You know what? It's bull­shit.

When I was in high school (about 13 years old), I once had a plan to make mon­ey: I would play the lot­tery. Here's the mech­a­nism I had in mind.

I would play $1 in the quiniela. Quiniela pays $700 for each $1 you bet, and you have to choose a num­ber be­tween 000 and 999. My idea was: I can bet the $1 my par­ent give me ev­ery day, and there's a chance I make $700. If I had $700 I could buy any­thing a 13-year old kid may wan­t. With $1? Not so much.

Of course you are right now think­ing: What a mo­ron! He has a 0.001 chance of win­ning and it pays 700 to 1, so it's a los­ing bet! Bzzzzzt!

Let's start with some sim­ple sim­u­la­tion code:

import random

n = 476

for tests in range(10000):
    for w in range(1000):
        q = random.randint(0,999)
        if n == q:
            break

    print(w)

Short ex­pla­na­tion: run 10000 sim­u­la­tions of this pro­cess:

  • We play each day for 1000 days.

  • If we win, we stop.

  • If we don't win in 1000 days we stop.

  • We record the num­ber where we stop.

So, I ran it. Here's a graph of the re­sults

histogram

So, how many nev­er won any­thing? In my da­ta set: 3699 play­ers out of 10000 nev­er won any­thing.

How many ac­tu­al­ly lost mon­ey? 5030 play­er­s.

And how many won mon­ey? 4967 play­ers won mon­ey.

2910 play­ers won in less than 350 plays.

3 play­ers got ex­act­ly even mon­ey, win­ning in their 700th play. For them, this was ex­act­ly the same as sav­ing their mon­ey.

So, is it a good idea to play a lot­tery like this? It's a coin toss. Half the time, you end with no mon­ey. Half the time, you end with more mon­ey than if you had saved.

If you are bet­ting dis­pos­able in­come (a suf­fi­cient­ly low amount that "it does­n't hurt"), it works out. You have a fair chance (50%) of a re­ward at least as good as sav­ing the mon­ey, and a de­cent chance (25%) of a re­ward twice as good.

And you have a fair chance (50%) of los­ing mon­ey. But you would lose it very, very slow­ly and pain­less­ly. ¿How well do you think stocks com­pare to that? ¿And what are the bar­ri­ers to en­try on both games?

In short: play­ing the lot­tery is not ir­ra­tional, re­al­ly, it's just a sav­ings plan. It sure was a bet­ter idea than buy­ing can­dy!

The Joy of Materialism

Re­cent­ly I was de­light­ed to read in Bo­ing Bo­ing posts by a mod­ern Sto­ic. The de­light was be­cause it put in­to words some­thing I had been grap­pling with for years and nev­er re­al­ly grasped: peo­ple have re­placed phi­los­o­phy with re­li­gion.

It used to be that some­one would call him­self a sto­ic, or a cyn­ic, or a he­do­nist, or what­ev­er, and oth­ers would un­der­stand that he was telling them the prin­ci­ples that rule his life.

A life phi­los­o­phy! You could choose, from the buf­fet of the last 3000 years of thought, what you thought made most sense, and try to use it as a bea­con to guide you through a (hope­ful­ly) hap­py life.

Nowa­days, so­ci­ety seems to have re­ject­ed that idea, and the clos­est thing most peo­ple have is re­li­gion, fol­low­ing what his sect says, or athe­is­m, de­fined by re­jec­tion of re­li­gion.

The main dif­fer­ence (as I see it) be­tween a life phi­los­o­phy and a re­li­gion is that a re­li­gion usu­al­ly im­plies the oth­ers are wrong. If you are not of my sec­t, you will not be in heav­en with me.

If you don't share my phi­los­o­phy... well, I ex­pect you will take a dif­fer­ent path through your life than I would have tak­en. But if it works for you and does­n't hurt oth­er­s, why should I give a damn?

So here's my life phi­los­o­phy as I see it to­day. It's not how I saw it yes­ter­day, and sure­ly is not the same it will be to­mor­row.

From now on, when I say I "be­lieve" some­thing, it's short­hand for "my per­son­al life phi­los­o­phy im­plies that". It should be ob­vi­ous why such a short­hand is need­ed.

I am a ma­te­ri­al­ist. No, that does­n't mean what you think it does, at least not in this con­tex­t. What I mean is that I am not a du­al­ist, or a spir­i­tu­al­list, I am not an ide­al­ist or a vi­tal­ist, and not a phe­nom­e­nal­ist.

What it means is that I be­lieve that re­al­i­ty is ma­te­ri­al. I don't ac­cept that im­ma­te­ri­al things have any sort of "re­al­i­ty". Or at least that their re­al­i­ty is of a to­tal­ly un­in­ter­est­ing kind.

This means that I don't be­lieve in soul­s. I be­lieve the Tur­ing test is a rea­son­able test for con­scious­ness. I be­lieve if there was an en­ti­ty that act­ed like a hu­man, we ought to treat it like a hu­man. I be­lieve I am not in­trin­si­cal­ly dif­fer­ent from a ro­bot that could do what I do.

I be­lieve the pur­pose of life is to have a good time. I be­lieve ev­ery­one is as en­ti­tled to a good time as I am. I be­lieve part of hav­ing a good time is be­ing sur­round­ed by hap­py peo­ple. I be­lieve peo­ple that hurt oth­ers are a buz­zkill and should­n't be al­lowed to do it.

I be­lieve in pur­pose, and I be­lieve I cre­ate my own pur­pos­es and that makes them bet­ter than if they were giv­en to me. I be­lieve in be­ing kind to oth­ers be­cause they are all I have.

I be­lieve in learn­ing, be­cause we are sur­round­ed by won­der­s. I be­lieve the Egyp­tians piled up lots of very heavy rock­s. I be­lieve Sat­urn is pret­ty. I be­lieve giv­ing the mer­it of those things to aliens or gods is an in­sult to the Egyp­tians and adds noth­ing to Sat­urn.

I be­lieve in mak­ing things and fight­ing against lo­cal en­tropy. I be­lieve that a cer­tain end makes things bet­ter and more pre­cious. I be­lieve in love, be­cause I know I feel it and it's pre­cious.

So there.

Why you shouldn't believe anything you read. Including this.

A few weeks ago I was chat­ting with my fa­ther in law and (s­ince I work with com­put­ers and must there­fore know ev­ery­thing com­put­er re­lat­ed) he asked me if I had heard of the 9 year old kid that worked for Mi­cro­soft as an en­gi­neer.

I said that prob­a­bly, hir­ing 9 year olds to work as en­gi­neers was il­le­gal, and that in most places to be­come an "engi­neer" you need to go to col­lege, but any way it stayed in my head, like a pea in a mara­ca but any­way, I de­cid­ed to check it out a bit.

First: no, there is no 9 year old work­ing for Mi­crosoft, as far as I know.

And then, a cu­ri­ous pat­tern ap­peared: there is not one sto­ry about that, there are sev­er­al. And about dif­fer­ent kid­s. And most­ly in span­ish-s­peak­ing me­di­a.

Let's check Mah­mud Wael first.

Here's what In­foBAE says about him:

Mah­mud Wael, un egip­cio de 11 años y as­pec­to frágil, es el nue­vo téc­ni­co de Mi­cro­soft gra­cias a su ca­paci­dad para re­solver com­ple­jos cál­cu­los en cuestión de se­gun­dos y mo­verse sin prob­le­mas por las re­des in­for­máti­cas

Trans­lat­ed:

Mah­mud Wael, a frag­ile look­ing 11 year old egyp­tian, is the lat­est Mi­cro­soft tech­ni­cian thanks to his abil­i­ty to solve com­plex cal­cu­la­tions in sec­onds and to move ef­fort­less­ly through in­for­ma­tion net­work­s.

If one ac­tu­al­ly both­ers read­ing the sto­ry there's more: ap­par­ent­ly Mah­mud joined the Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty in Cairo at age 9, and is now at­tend­ing Cairo Uni­ver­si­ty for a de­gree in some com­put­er-re­lat­ed area.

Now, I don't want to pick on In­foBAE be­cause the same thing is re­port­ed in many oth­er places (the pre­vi­ous links are just the first few that google gave me).

In fac­t, a bunch of those sto­ries even say "With 11 years, he al­ready works at Mi­crosoft­", which is some­how not in the In­foBAE sto­ry which is tak­en from the EFE agen­cy.

Now... does he work at Mi­crosoft? I bet he does­n't (or EFE would have men­tioned it). It's just that when some­one writes "Mi­crosoft Tech­ni­cian" or "Mi­crosoft En­gi­neer" in en­glish, well, that makes no sense in span­ish, so the span­ish me­dia and read­ers are lead astray.

A Mi­cro­soft Cer­ti­fied En­gi­neer is some­one who has tak­en some Mi­cro­soft train­ing cour­ses and ex­am­s.

On the oth­er hand, in most of the span­ish speak­ing world, you can't call your­self an en­gi­neer un­less you get an en­gi­neer­ing de­gree from a uni­ver­si­ty. In fact in Ar­genti­na call­ing your­self an en­gi­neer if you don't have one is il­le­gal.

So, "Mi­crosoft En­gi­neer" is tak­en as "an en­gi­neer that works at Mi­crosoft­", be­cause the al­ter­na­tive sim­ply makes no sense.

What is the re­al sto­ry about Mah­mud Wael? Well, let's check some egyp­tian sources, which is what all those news­pa­pers should have done in the first place.

Here's Egypt To­day's take on it from when he was 9.

Did he at­tend the Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty?

Well, he had a schol­ar­ship from them to at­tend the Green­land In­ter­na­tion­al Lan­guage School, and at­tend­ed one eng­lish course.

What about the "Mi­crosoft En­gi­neer" thing? He was plan­ning to take the MCSD ex­am­s. Did he suc­ceed? Well, Reuters says he got a MCTS.

An MCTS is not an MCS­D, or an MCSE. In fac­t, just by say­ing some­one has an MCTS (very im­pres­sive for an 11 year old!) you have no idea of what he knows, be­cause a MCTS is about a spe­cif­ic pro­duc­t, and there are MCTSs for al­most all of MS prod­uct­s.

So, in short: Mah­mud is a very im­pres­sive and in­tel­li­gent kid, but he is not an en­gi­neer, have a col­lege de­gree or work at Mi­cro­soft.

And now the sec­ond case, Marko Calasan from Mace­do­nia, which is the one ac­tu­al­ly men­tioned to me.

And it's ex­act­ly the same sto­ry, ex­cept that he got a much bet­ter cert from MS than Mah­mud, and he got it ear­li­er.

Again the "works at Mi­crosoft" thing seems to be ex­clu­sive to the span­ish speak­ing me­di­a, and prob­a­bly for the same rea­son.

Now, let's think about what this says of jour­nal­is­m. These sto­ries were not hard to check. All you need is pass­able eng­lish skills and google. And if your eng­lish suck­s, google can help you with that too.

But dozens of news­pa­pers and sites just run with it be­cause the "Mi­crosoft hires (s­mall age) kid!" is just too nice and peo­ple would ac­cept it be­cause hey, it's in the news­pa­per­s.

And you know what? I sus­pect that it's the same thing with a large part of what you read in the pa­per­s. If check­ing a tiny piece just be­cause I have some pe­riph­er­al knowl­edge about it says there are dozens of ar­ti­cles that are just wrong, what hap­pens in all the ar­eas where I am clue­less?

Be­cause we are all clue­less in al­most ev­ery­thing, and jour­nal­ists are prob­a­bly clue­less about 90% of what they write about. It's not even a con­spir­a­cy, it's just ig­no­rance am­pli­fied by their job de­scrip­tion.

A short short scifi story

I wrote this for a con­test at the New Sci­en­tist mag­a­zine. I thought what the heck, maybe some­one will like it. And no, I won't ex­plain it, be­cause that spoils the whole thing.

There is no Such Thing as Free En­er­gy

I wished a cold drink was still a pos­si­bil­i­ty, and looked out, across the baked clay that used to be a swamp. The hatch closed and we start­ed our long trip to the stars, curs­ing the in­ven­tor of the per­pet­u­al mo­tion en­gine all the way.


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