Sunday, June 27, 2010

Sink or Swim

I was reading an article the other day on California's current financial crisis. Not only does the state have a massive deficit, it's credit rating is now the lowest of all 50 states. There is now talk of California requesting a federal bailout.

According to the article I linked to above, Jean Ross (the executive director of the California Budget Project) says that the state of California is "on the verge of system failure." Ross' solution? "We have to get some federal money. It would be bad for the U.S. and, arguably, bad for the world to do the shock-therapy approach.” Great idea; the federal bailouts have worked so well thus far. That's why GM is doing wonderfully now and nationwide unemployment is... oh, wait.

I'm sorry, but a federal bailout of that state (in which I spent about 15 years of my life) is a miserable idea. California is in trouble because Sacramento has yet to find a social or welfare program it doesn't like, the state's absurd environmental policies have driven away many profitable businesses, and because Californian politicians have sold the state to public employees' unions for large chunks of money and votes. Contrary to Ross' view, the worst thing the federal government could do would be to bailout California. Not only would that put an unfair burden on other, more fiscally responsible states, but it would encourage California and others (e.g., Illinois, New York) to continue their reckless, self-destructive spending. Why change your behavior when you believe your beneficent Uncle Sam will help you out in a jam? And the fact that the U.S. is fast becoming as irresponsible with a buck as California (and is likely to end up where the Golden State is in a decade or so) is even more concerning.

With apologies to my many family members and friends still in California, this naturalized Idahoan thinks that it's time to let California sink or swim. Right now, Californian's only hope is to get rid of the dead-weight politicians that they seem to like so much at the polls, find some financially responsible ones, and tighten the belt for the next couple decades.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Brain Type

While reading the sample pages from the book Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World, I came across a reference to a psychological test developed by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, et al from the University of Cambridge, England. The purpose of the test is to determine a person's brain type. Specifically, it is designed to find the degree to which a person is an "empathizer" (one who "identif[ies] and react[s] appropriately to the way another person is feeling") and the degree to which one is a "systemizer" (one who is "drive[n] to analyze the variables and understand the rules governing a system"). These categories traditionally correlate with a person being right-brained or left-brained, respectively. Since I'm apparently like most of my self-obsessed generation and like to participate in the various personality tests available online (e.g., the popular Myers-Briggs test), I took the EQSQ test and received the following score:

RespondentAverage EQ Average SQBrain Type
Males39.0 61.2 Systemizing
Females48.0 51.7 Empathizing
Your Score 10 112 Extreme Systemizing

Apparently my empathizing score is abysmally below-average. I can only assume from the website's description of EQSQ theory that I therefore have difficulty caring for others and predicting their behavior (I suppose this is true to a degree). On the other hand, my above-average systemizing score would suggest that I do better at predicting and controlling the behavior of a system and have a drive to construct them (kind of like an engineer, I guess). The difference between the two scores is used to determine your overall brain type; I'm listed as an "extreme systemizer". The website also presents the distribution of brain types as found in Baron-Cohen et al's published studies:

Brain Types of Experimental Control Groups
Respondent Extreme E E Balanced S Extreme S
Males 0%17%31%46%6%
Females 7%47%32%14%0%

My wife also took the test, scoring a 56 on her EQ test and a 115 on her SQ test. Although her EQ score is above average, the difference in scores also makes her an extreme systemizer. Apparently, the number of extreme systemizing females was not statistically significant in Baron-Cohen et al's studies. I guess that makes my wife even weirder than I am.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Great Quotes: Robert Heinlein

Robert Heinlein was the author of Starship Troopers (1959), one of my favorite sci-fi books. Although a socialist in his youth, by the 1950s he had become an anti-communist (he defended Senator McCarthy on several occasions) and held strong libertarian ideals. The novel I'm currently reading, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966) most obviously reflects his political views. Ironically, many of his books became popular with the hippie crowd, particularly his Stranger In a Strange Land (1961).

The following quote comes from Lazarus Long, the hero of Heinlein's Time Enough for Love (1973). I think it's an effective expression of the libertarian ideal of self-sufficiency:

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

This quote is a great description of the Renaissance Man; something that's not as highly valued as it was in previous generations. I think modern society has become excessively specialized. This is most apparent during bad economic times, when cutbacks in certain fields cause many of those laid off to have difficulty finding another job. They may have extensive experience and skills, but their skill set is simply too restricted.

Even more frightening is the idea that, if deprived of modern conveniences and comforts, many of us would lack the knowledge and abilities needed to survive. Although it's remarkable that humanity has advanced so much over the past few centuries, we've simultaneously lost simple skills that our ancestors considered essential.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Sci-Fi Ghetto, Part II

Recently I posted about how authors and publishers desperately try to avoid the sci-fi ghetto by labeling as fiction novels that, by any objective standard, fall into the category of sci-fi or fantasy. Some of the most obvious examples are Richard Matheson (e.g., I Am Legend, Hell House, What Dreams May Come), Michael Crichton (e.g., Timeline, Jurassic Park, Prey), and Stephen King (e.g., The Stand, Salem's Lot, It). These authors are those who are popular enough or have savvy enough agents that they've managed to avoid being placed in the sci-fi ghetto. But what about authors who have made their reputation writing science fiction or fantasy and then turn around and write something more conventional?

Here's the description of Dan Brown's Digital Fortress:
When the NSA's invincible code-breaking machine encounters a mysterious code it cannot break, the agency calls its head cryptographer, Susan Fletcher, a brilliant and beautiful mathematician. What she uncovers sends shock waves through the corridors of power. The NSA is being held hostage... not by guns or bombs, but by a code so ingeniously complex that if released it would cripple U.S. intelligence. Caught in an accelerating tempest of secrecy and lies, Susan Fletcher battles to save the agency she believes in. Betrayed on all sides, she finds herself fighting not only for her country but also for her life, and in the end, for the life of the man she loves.
This is clearly a standard techno-thriller; although you can argue that it may have elements of science fiction, it can still fit comfortably into the fiction category. It is (I believe rightfully) designated as fiction.

Now here's the publisher's description of Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon:
In 1942, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse-mathematical genius and young Captain in the U.S. Navy-is assigned to detachment 2702. It is an outfit so secret that only a handful of people know it exists, and some of those people have names like Churchill and Roosevelt. The mission of Waterhouse and Detachment 2702-commanded by Marine Raider Bobby Shaftoe-is to keep the Nazis ignorant of the fact that Allied Intelligence has cracked the enemy's fabled Enigma code. It is a game, a cryptographic chess match between Waterhouse and his German counterpart, translated into action by the gung-ho Shaftoe and his forces.

Fast-forward to the present, where Waterhouse's crypto-hacker grandson, Randy, is attempting to create a "data haven" in Southeast Asia-a place where encrypted data can be stored and exchanged free of repression and scrutiny. As governments and multinationals attack the endeavor, Randy joins forces with Shaftoe's tough-as-nails granddaughter, Amy, to secretly salvage a sunken Nazi submarine that holds the key to keeping the dream of a data haven afloat. But soon their scheme brings to light a massive conspiracy with its roots in Detachment 2702 linked to an unbreakable Nazi code called Arethusa. And it will represent the path to unimaginable riches and a future of personal and digital liberty... or to universal totalitarianism reborn.
This novel is as much a techno-thriller as Digital Fortress. Both emphasize technology, but neither slip far enough into fantastical elements that you would call them science fiction. However, the author of Cryptonomicon became famous for books like Snow Crash, in which a near-future humanity spends much of its time in a virtual-reality version of the Internet called the "Metaverse". Thus, since the author got his start in sci-fi, he is relegated to the ghetto and his book is automatically labeled as science fiction.

Well-known sci-fi and fantasy authors like Orson Scott Card have been fighting this pigeonholing of their novels for years with very limited success. It's nearly impossible for them to write standard fiction when publishers want to put their book in the sci-fi and fantasy section where those who are looking for fiction novels won't see it and those looking for science fiction or fantasy won't want to read it.


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