fighting the lack of good ideas

the vagaries of memory

I doubt mankind will ever figure out how our memories work.

Think about it for a second: you’re sitting in your car, listening to some radio station playing songs popular when you were a kid – a young kid. And then, lo and behold, you’re singing along with the radio – to songs you either a) haven’t heard in years, or b) have no recollection of ever having heard in your life. But there you are, singing along, belting out the lyrics at the top of your voice (unless, of course you have the windows open, in which case, you’re probably just mouthing along).

Or say you’re watching Jeopardy! and the category is 14th Century German Romance Plays. Nobody actually knows anything about these things (or that they even exist) but the answer is given, and you respond before Alex has finished reading the clue. Boom! You got it – aced the most bizarre trivia question you could ever come up with. And then you start thinking about why you knew that. Is it because you’re a scholar of 14th Century German Romance Plays? Probably not. Did you major in German literature in college? Again, the answer is likely ‘No’. For that matter, as you’re contemplating this amazing moment in your life, you realize you’ve never seen anything written in German other than ‘Adolf Hitler’.

Then Final Jeopardy! comes on, and the clue is “This actress was the youngest to ever win an Academy Award.” Oh no! You’re an entertainment awards fanatic. You even know who won for Best Gaffer in 1983 – even though nobody else on the planet knows there are gaffers on movie sets, let alone what they do. You scan through your expansive collection of mental entertainment facts, and this one escapes you. (It’s Shirley Temple, by the way.)

My real question, though relates to how we should use our intelligence. Is it better to focus on knowing scads of unrelated, trivial matters, or is it better to know where to find unrelated, trivial information? If you are a machinist, is it better to know how to reverse-thread the inside of a titanium pipe end-cap, or to go look up what kind of tooling and lathe settings you will need when you get around to making that part? I suppose that if all you ever do in life is mill reverse-threaded titanium pipe end-caps, you should probably commit that piece of information to memory. But when you need to make two of these things. Ever. In your entire life. In the entire history of every company you ever work for. Well, then I would say it’s better to go look up that particular datum when you need it. And then promptly forget it.

I imagine that most people have a multi-stage memory, at least in some ways similar to my own. I have the immediate-recall memory for simple things like phone numbers that are read to me over the phone that I must then dial right away since I can’t write it down at that moment. There’s a short-term memory where I’ll recall some things for as long as I need them, and no longer – such as piddling things about contrapositive proofs that, God-willing, I’ll never need again, so I forgot about them after Discrete Math was over. Then there’s that intermediate memory where stuff I use regularly sits – stuff that is too complicated (or private) to write down (like passwords) where you start off with the information written down, but after a little bit of time (and a lot of constant use) you memorize it.

Right now, I can probably accurately claim that I know about 50 different passwords – all of them current, and that I use on a least a semi-frequent basis. But, as time goes on, and passwords are changed, or I no longer need to know them, they’ll fade from memory.

The next stage is that long-term memory that holds stuff you use all the time, and have used for a long time, and will use for the foreseeable future: family and friends’ names, birthdays, your address, cell phone number, social security number, how to get to work, how to get to some friends’ houses, etc. These are things you don’t even realize you remember because you use them all the time.

The next-to-last stage of memory is what I’ll call ‘fond recollections’. Events that stand out in your mind because either a) they were important to you, or b) something else important happened then, so associated events are also remembered. I won’t say that these ‘fond’ memories are necessarily ‘good’, but they’re isolated events that you recall – maybe a birthday when you were little, making cookies for Thanksgiving, putting tinsel on the Christmas tree, that sit-on fire-truck you rode around on when you were three. It might also include some not-so-nice things: crashing your first car, your house burning down, a close friend or family member’s death. But since these are isolated events also, I’m going to classify them here.

Lastly comes that queer, long-term memory that shows up when playing Trivial Pursuit or watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire? – random stuff you never knew you knew that comes flying back into your head just before the timer runs out on Final Jeopardy!

That last category is certainly the most interesting to me. I love playing Trivial Pursuit or pub trivia and watching quiz shows. And if I know the answer to the question, it will come flying back in time to answer about 95% of the time. And if I don’t know – well, then I don’t know.

But getting back to my question from earlier – is it better to know stuff or know how to find what you need to know? I’d say it’s a balance. No, I’m giving a cop-out, I’m going to explain myself.

Knowing where to find the answer is far more practical in everyday life than just knowing the answer, but only on topics that are not entirely in your knowledge domain. For example, I don’t use the PHP function mysql_fetch_array very often – so when I do I go to and look up the exact usage in the manual. I would wager that most machinists don’t reverse-thread titanium pipe end-caps often, so if and when they need to, they’ll just look it up – but they know where to look.

Knowing how to find what you’re looking for is an important skill for other reasons, too. If you’re interested in a topic but don’t know much about it, you might be inclined to go to your local bookstore to see what titles they have available. By knowing how to find information, you can evaluate – by title, book size, and a quick skim of the contents and chapter layouts – which book(s) will be of the most help to you in your quest.

I run into this frequently when searching for stuff online – lots of times I don’t know much about what I’m looking for, but I have learned (through lots of practice) how to filter my searches to return likely candidates to my queries. I also have learned how to find people who are both able and willing to help me in areas I am not very knowledgeable. For example, when something’s wrong with my car, I take it to a mechanic I have already proven to be knowledgeable, and ask him questions. I know enough about the basics of automobile design, implementation, and maintenance that if they tell me my hemofligger needs to be replaced and the muffler deck should be tightened to 500 pound-inches of torque to reduce rattling – they’re pulling my chain. On the other hand, if I’m seeing a problem with my car overheating and they tell me the pressure cap and thermostat should be replaced, then I know those are components of the coolant system, so the response sounds reasonable.

I think the answer to my question, then, is that you need to know a little bit about what you’re trying to find if you don’t use is very often so that you can get the information you need quickly. I know there is a function in PHP’s GD library interface that will convert an image from GIF to PNG formats. I don’t recall what it is, but I know where to look. I know there is a remote desktop utility in Windows, and it’s called mstsc (Microsoft Terminal Services). But I haven’t memorized the command-line options to KDE’s rdesktop tool because I don’t use it very frequently (that’s what man pages are for).

So, know the stuff you use constantly, and remember where to find those nuggets you only need on the blue moon.

stupidity is your right

I was in Hawaii this past weekend for my friend Jay’s wedding. While there, I discovered that Hawaii is a helmet-not-required state. Yippee. It’s also a state in which you can ride in the back of a pickup truck with apparently no worries. Fantastic. Though they don’t have everything right – Hawaii is also a favorite place for homosexuals to congregate, and their gun laws are extremely restrictive, to name two – I do very much admire them for having the guts to allow people to be stupid if they want to.

Pushing the responsibility of wearing a helmet onto the operator and his/her insurance policy is a much better policy than requiring such safety measures by the state. It is refreshing to see that at least some of the states in America aren’t trying to make me safe – they’ll let me be as crazy/stupid/nutty as I want.

an article in elon university’s school paper

This post is an extended response to Daniel Shutt’s “Something to think about before voting” [original:]

I think it’s unfortunate that the College Republicans didn’t submit a response/rebuttal to your article in this week’s Pendulum – especially with Election Day occurring before the next issue of The Pendulum hitting the press. And though I am not a member of the organization, I wanted to take the time to respond to this article.

I’ll respond to the points you’ve made in the order you made them for ease of following my response.

1) “Soaring budget deficits and a scandalous national debt, thanks to out of control spending, corporate giveaways and pork barrel corruption”

You are correct in noting that budget deficits have increased since President Bush won the election in 2000. However, I believe you are not looking any further behind that election just to make your point. The economic slowdowns that became very obvious in 2001 were already starting in 2000 – while Clinton was still president. The projected budget surpluses made while Clinton was president were largely based off record dividends and capital gains taxes during the tech bubble of the 1990s. As the tech bubble began to burst in late 1999 into 2000 (especially as the Y2K bug came and went with barely a whisper), those projected federal revenues – all based off taxes paid by citizens and businesses – disappeared because no longer were capital gains soaring to record highs. Any time projections are made, they are, by definition, open to restatement – especially when the underlying conditions of the projection disappear.”Out of control spending” is not new to this Republican administration. Spending grew all through the 1990s at rates higher than inflation (except in defense spending, where cuts were actually made). Had September 11 not occurred, defense budgets would not have needed such drastic increases to improve security, equipment, and manpower. I would also take this opportunity to point out that Senator Ted Kennedy was the primary author of the “No Child Left Behind” education bill early in President Bush’s first term. That has been a huge spending debacle, that has not accomplished its goals, and doesn’t actually encourage better schooling, but rather teaching to the test.

2) “A culture of corruption and scandal, in which Washington spends more time protecting politicians than protecting the American people.”

Corruption seems to come with the job, and those who avoid it seem to be few and far between. Scandal is not new to this administration, either. President Clinton was caught perjuring himself under oath, but was ‘protected’ in the impeachment proceedings partially because he was charismatic, and partially, I think, because the Senate was more concerned over Al Gore becoming president than in leaving a felon in office. Additionally, the scandals appearing in the news have not only been in the Republican party – they cross political boundaries because people in positions of power and influence sometimes cave to pressure to accept bribes, like William Jefferson, or to exert their power over underlings, as in the case of Mark Foley. The cure to this is not to switch which party is in power – it is to really prosecute and punish those caught breaking the law.

3) “A failed strategy in Iraq, leading to the death of nearly 3,000 brave, American soldiers, and a less stable Middle East.”

Are you aware of the fact that the United States still has a very active military presence in South Korea? And it’s been over a half century since that war was over. Was the goal of removing a homicidal dictator from power misguided? Was freeing 26,000,000 people from a absolute dictatorship bad? Was giving them the chance to create their own country, without the constant fear of being taken to some prison camp or just killed in their homes because they disagreed with the powers that be wrong? It is an established fact that Saddam used weapons of mass destruction on the Kurds – people in his own country that he had killed just because they weren’t of his party’s religion.

Whether or not the intelligence reports regarding WMDs in Iraq before the war were correct, our strategy in the country has not failed. I think it would have been better to tell the country we were going to war with Iraq because they failed for years to comply with UN sanctions and to free the population from an egomaniacal leader. But what we went to do – free the people from Saddam Hussein’s rule – was laudable, and has been an overall success.

4) “The shameful mismanagement of FEMA and the destruction of New Orleans, a world-class American city.”

First, would you please tell me how the current Republican administration was responsible for “the destruction of New Orleans”? For years the Army Corps of Engineers tried to built-up the levees in New Orleans, but the money that was apportioned to the region was instead redirected by Mayor Nagin, and other politicians in the state.

Yes, FEMA was mismanaged, but FEMA’s job isn’t supposed to be to fully support those affected by natural disasters. FEMA is supposed to provide short-term relief and guidance until the local population, local politicians, and other relief organizations can take over. The real shame of hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in New Orleans and the surrounding areas wasn’t FEMA’s mismanagement – it was the refusal of the local political leaders to evacuate the city, and then the mass looting on the part of the population that didn’t leave. No, not all of the population participated in the looting, but enough of the locals did that it was prominently displayed on the national news.

The other shameful aspect of the hurricane’s after-effects was that most of the people living in the Gulf region didn’t have insurance that covered flooding. I went on a service trip to Kiln Mississippi in September, and the most striking thing that I noticed was that the residents didn’t have insurance, and that the only places fully back to normal were the casinos. Even though the houses of hundreds and thousands of people living nearby haven’t been touched – not just they haven’t been finished, but trees are still blocking the driveways, mud is still in the second floor, boats are still stuck in roofs. The casinos haven’t sponsored even token actions to help those affected by the hurricane. FEMA can’t possibly help all of the hundreds of thousands of people affected by the hurricane, but it’s not their mission. What’s sad is that those who are in the position of being able to help, even in small ways, aren’t – they’re expecting FEMA to do everything for them.

5) “Higher gas prices and an increased dependence on foreign oil.”

President Bush and Republican members of congress tried to authorize more domestic oil exploration in Alaska, off-shore in our territorial waters, etc, but every time the actions have been blocked by Democrats in congress. Gas prices in this area are around $2.10 per gallon. Yes, it’s a lot higher than when I moved down here 3 years ago to complete my bachelor’s degree at Elon when gas was around $1.35 per gallon. But considering that gas is only about 50% more expensive now, and the cost per barrel is more than triple, gas prices aren’t that high. At a constant 5% inflation rate, gas should cost about $1.56 per gallon now – only 33% lower than current prices.

6) “Slashed student loans and higher college tuition rates.”

First, let me point out that Republican leadership is not responsible for tuition hikes. Tuition rates are determined by the boards of the various schools – not by the President or Congress. If you’re upset about tuition hikes, talk to the school’s board – not the government. At a constant 5% inflation rate, tuition rates should be right where they are. Elon’s tuition has increased at an approximately uniform rate since I started, and it roughly matches that 5% rate.

I do disagree with the cutting of available funds for federal student loans, since I think that making money available for educational loans is a good investment. But funds weren’t cut just to save money or to screw students – there were also legitimate concerns over students graduating and defaulting on their loans, at which point the money loaned becomes money written-off, lost, wasted.

Moving on to your points about why Democrats should be put into power:

1) “A government as good as the people it serves.”

This is a great idea – unfortunately, no party can claim to be as good as the people they serve. Individual candidates, regardless of political affiliation stand or fall on their own merits and demerits. There are good candidates from all parties and there are bad candidates from all parties. The party shouldn’t be the deciding factor in whom you vote for – the candidate and their stated stands on the issues you care about should be the deciding factor.

The last time America wasn’t “ashamed of their government” was, well, I can’t think of a time. Maybe when George Washington was president – but I’m pretty sure there were a bunch of people around who wouldn’t have liked him had they known more about him. Not because he wasn’t a good or bad president, but because there is no one person who can possibly embody everything every individual wants in a leader.

A strong route to achieving this goal would be to impose terms limits – but those in power are not likely to self-limit their own power. Presidential term limits have helped to ensure that the head of the Executive branch of our government is changed at least every 8 years. Similar limits in Congress (perhaps 3 or 4 terms as a representative and 2 terms as a Senator) would help to encourage new people to try to get into politics and maybe give us a real chance for getting new blood and new ideas into office.

2) “Common sense, responsible spending and a reduced deficit.”

The deficit is going down with increased economic activity since increased economic activity directly means more tax revenues. I concur that spending needs to be curtailed. But I also believe that spending needs to be cut from programs we have now – there are far too many things the government is involved in that they have no business doing. But I don’t recall many politicians running campaigns in which they promised to cut programs, reducing spending, etc and actually getting elected. Politicians seem to think that the only way of getting elected (and reelected) is to “bring home the bacon” to his or her constituents by spending money in their home territories.

3) “Real national security.”

I hope that you are well-versed in security, understand policies, procedures, protocols, etc. A lot of what has been put in place in the name of “security” is really just a placebo – giving relative peace of mind without really doing anything to improve security: ID checks at the airport, the “no-fly list”, and the list goes on. Real security consists in training people to look for suspicious activity, combined with equipment to back-up those initial guesses. As an example, the people who hijacked airplanes on September 11 could have been stopped with [the now-installed] reinforced cockpit doors. They didn’t bring anything onboard the plane that was contraband or even really suspicious. ID checks don’t make us safer. It would be a lot easier for a terrorist to sit half a mile away from the runway with a small, shoulder-mount missile than it is to sneak onboard with a bomb, gun, or biological or chemical substance with the goal of hijacking the plane, spreading disease, or blowing the plane apart.

I hope that there are people elected to office who can both understand real security, and will have the guts to propose ways of implementing such security. But no political party has a monopoly on this issue, either. Unfortunately, politicians tend not to be well-versed in technical issues of any kind (recent comments about the internet being pipes or dump trucks come to mind), and are therefore, though in a position to perhaps improve security, don’t really, because they don’t understand it.

4) “Energy Independence.”

I addressed this above in part. Domestic oil exploration and production is important. Nuclear power plants would help alleviate dependence on oil. So, too, would more hydro plants, windmills, etc. It is also important for companies to start investing in alternative energy sources. Now that some forms of alternative energy production are becoming economically viable, they will show up in consumer products. Thus far, though, it seems like it’s more the Democratic party that has opposed domestic exploration, investment in nuclear power, etc.

5) “Fighting for the middle class. Democrats will make sure that America’s economy is working for everyone, not just the fat cats and CEOs. It’s time to give Americans a raise and increase the minimum wage so average people can pay their bills and achieve their dreams.”

I would venture to say here that you have never taken an economics class. Increasing the minimum wage sounds like a fantastic panacea: give those poor people working minimum wage jobs more money in their pockets right away. What it conveniently overlooks is that increasing the minimum wage means that employers have increased costs (those employees have to paid by someone), and to cover those increased costs they will have to find money somewhere. Either that means they will hire fewer people, or it means that they will raise prices on their products. If they hire fewer people, unemployment will go up. If they raise their prices, it means that that raise they were just forced to give will get wiped out by paying more for everyday products.

Another problem with raising the minimum wage is that it doesn’t just affect the employers and minimum wage earners. If I am making $7 per hour and minimum wage moves from $5.15 to $7.15, it’s not just the minimum wage earners that get a raise – I will get one too. But the fact that I was already making more than the minimum wage means that I will expect at least a dollar amount equivalent bump in my salary. I might expect a percentage alteration, but I will expect not just a $0.15 raise, rather I will expect another $1.85 on top of the $0.15. Guess what? If I get that equivalent raise also, it will increase the employer’s costs yet again.

I also ask who it is that provides jobs to workers? Is it not the CEOs that run companies that hire employees? Is it not those who are ‘rich’ who provide jobs for ‘everyone else’? Without CEOs and ‘fat cats’ people wouldn’t have jobs. Somebody has to provide working environments for people to work in. Someone has to run the businesses that provide products and services we want. And someone has to hire people to work for them. If those someones are forced to pay more to every employee just because some politician thought it was a good idea, and not because that employee is actually producing more and is valuable to the business, they’ll have less of an incentive to start new businesses, and will not be able to afford to hire as many employees.

6) “Accountability and honesty. Bush and Cheney need to get real with the American people and our soldiers about how they plan to win in Iraq.”

Again, I would point out that we still have military personnel in South Korea, Germany, Cuba, and many other international locations around the world. We have won in Iraq. The problems faced now are not against the government or its people, but are against terrorists who don’t want to see democracy installed in Iraq. We are facing an entirely different set of issues than we were when we went into Iraq, and those issues are being handled as well as can be expected. We have been training Iraqis to be police officers, soldiers, etc and are helping them to take control of their own country and helping them to fight back against those fanatics who are bombing civilians.

The problem in Iraq is that the Shiites, the Sunnis, and the Kurds all disagree with each other. Historically they have been fighting for hundreds of years, and facing their inbred hatred for each other is not a simple matter. There is no simple answer to different religious groups that hate each other and want each other to follow their exact religious form – and if they won’t to want to kill each other.

In short, the answer to government isn’t found in any one party. I am registered as ‘unaffiliated’ in North Carolina because I don’t like the majority of the Democratic party’s stances on issues; I also don’t like a lot of the Republican party’s stances on issues. I look at each race, and each candidate in the race, and pick the candidate who most closely represents my views, opinions, preferences, and stances and vote for that person.

I have voted for Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Conservative, and Independence Party members. I concur that “America can do better”. I also think that the ability of America to “do better” doesn’t sit in the hands of any individual party. It doesn’t even sit in the hands of individual candidates. The ability of America to “do better” rests more in the hands of voters. Voters in this country have a nasty tendency of not showing up on Election Day.

If most or all of the registered voters in this country bothered to take a few minutes to look at the candidates and their stances on the issues they care about, and then showed up on Election Day, maybe we’d have a chance to improve the quality of our governmental population.

I also hope that since you seem to be concerned about this upcoming election that you take the time to look at every candidate from each party running for offices in your district and that you vote for the candidate who most lines up with your views on the issues you care about. I bet you’d be surprised to find out that they’re not all Democrats – just like I was surprised the first time I voted that voting ‘party line’ didn’t always mean that I was voting for the person who was really the best choice based on my views.

it’s not my problem

Security, air quality, water potability, land use, and the list goes on and on. When any one thing is too big to be one person’s problem, it becomes a problem for the populace, and once it’s everyone’s problem, it’s no one’s problem.

Securing airports is too complicated for one person to do, so a committee tries to do it, and we get security theater (to quote Bruce Schneier). Security should be everyone’s concern, and though it appears to be, we relegate it off to some government agency to handle for us. And then, when they do stupid stuff, we bitch and moan, or just suffer in silence, or sometimes we cheer because we don’t know any better.

Voting is not any one person’s problem – it’s an issue which every registered voter in America should have high on their priority list to do every year. I will be going to the polls in Mebane NC on 7 Nov 2006 to vote. Because if I vote, I exercise my right to have a say in how my government works. Those citizens who elect to not go to the polls to vote lose their chance to have a say in their government. If you don’t vote, you relegate your thoughts, opinions, judgments, and preferences off onto other people who, by definition of ‘opinion’ and ‘preference’, will not always think and act like you.

People who don’t vote are like people who toss candy wrappers out the windows of their cars on the highway. They figure a wrapper or two, here and there won’t affect anyone. And they’re right – to a point. A handful of candy wrappers, cigarette butts, and napkins won’t affect anyone. But it’s not just the candy wrapper they chuck out the window, it the other 14 million drivers who think the same way, and then bitch and moan over how gross the highways look.

Voting and being disappointed with the results does allow you to complain about the outcome – at least you threw your ballot and tried to make your preference win. But if you don’t vote, you can’t complain about the outcome because you didn’t get off your lazy butt and go to the polls. In fact, you don’t even have to get off your lazy butt to vote – you can request an absentee ballot, and vote by mail.

I think we should adopt a policy in this country similar to the one the Australians use – voting should be required if you are registered. Australia consistently has >90% voter turn-out. They fine people who don’t vote.

A lot of people in America are unhappy with their government officials, but an awful lot of them won’t show up on Election Day to try to change the situation. I don’t actually care whether you are a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Socialist, Communist, Green, or Independence party member. I don’t care if you’re affiliated with a political party – if you’re an adult in the United States and you’re registered to vote, you should be at the polls on Election Day.

Voting is a privilege in America that many nations’ citizens do not have. Don’t squander your advantage. Unless, of course, you’re content to let other people determine your nation’s course.