Idea articles

Things I found inside my mind.

Bike helmets should be optional

I think everyone agrees that riding is always safer with a helmet. But here’s a (the?) argument for making helmets optional:

1. If helmets are optional, then more people will cycle.
2. And there will initially be more cycling casualties

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Fate, Time and Language — David Foster Wallace

In 1962, a short philosophy paper caused a little flurry in philosophical circles. Two decades later David Foster Wallace, armed with further developments in analysis, created an elaborate system of notation to solve the problem raised in the paper. This book contains Richard Taylor’s original paper, the resultant flurry, and Wallace’s solution. It also contains a fair amount of background information about the whole exchange.

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Social credit

There was an interesting exchange in the NZ Herald recently. The NZ Initiative, a conservative “think tank”, published a report basically saying that it is bad for governments to fund deficits by printing money. (I told you they were conservative.) The NZ Social Credit Association responded with a full-page ad in the NZ Herald setting out their view of Modern Monetary Theory and how it could work in practice.

Bryce Wilkinson, one of the senior NZ Initiative fellows, then published an opinion piece in the newspaper trying to discredit the Social Credit article. Shortly after that, Chris Leitch of the Social Credit Association published another response.

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How to do cryptic crosswords

“Birds that are slow to develop”

What does that refer to? The obvious answer is “owls”. If that’s not obvious to you, then read on and all will be revealed.

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Human Values and Energy — Ian Morris

Historian Ian Morris argues that in the evolution of human culture, changes in ethical values have been driven by energy. He thinks that in any given epoch, the dominant energy source sets limits on the kinds of societies that can succeed, and each society in turn rewards specific values. As far as it goes, there may be some correlation, but he gets it backwards when he tries to base a grand theory on it. That’s my impression after listening to his talk at the RSA.
In the evolution of human culture from pre-history to the present, changes in ethical values have been driven by the most basic force of all: energy.
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Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is a great song. I often find it running through my head. I love how the lyrics are evocative without being literal, and the way the verses all have the same feel but are pretty much independent. I find myself half-making up new verses all the time. So did Leonard: apparently he wrote 80 verses for the song, whittling them down to the four in the final version.

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Low voter turnout favours the Right

Does low voter turnout favour right-wing political parties? Common wisdom says it does: for example, non-voters tend to be poorer people who would have favoured left-wing parties. In the recent New Zealand general election, the centre-right National Party won an absolute majority in parliament, but only about 77% of eligible voters actually voted. I found some interesting data on non-voters and used it to see whether the result would have been different if all eligible voters had exercised their democratic duty. The results: 1. Yes, low voter turnout favours the right-wing parties. 2. If everyone had voted, the result would have been much closer: the Labour Party may have been able to form a government. Continue reading
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The Lost Albums

When I relocated to (or was it from) the other side of the world 14 years ago, my chattels included 1000-odd CDs. (Some very odd). It took more than ten years for me to finally collate all of them and rip them onto hard disk. Unfortunately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, a small number of them fell by the wayside. I think I know where they ended up, and with whom. I have since replaced a few of them:

The Orb — Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld
I’ve replaced this already, with the super-extended version from iTunes featuring a heap of pointless remixes. It’s still a magnificent album.

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Test Cricket’s greatest all-rounders

Billy Bates, the best test cricket all-rounder EVAR.Back in the 1980s four all-rounders dominated the world test cricket scene: Ian Botham from England, Kapil Dev from India, Imran Khan (now a very prominent politician) from Pakistan, and Richard Hadlee from New Zealand. Much ink was spilled in the debate on who was the best, and how they compared with great all-rounders from the past such as Australia’s Keith Miller and Garfield Sobers from the West Indies. Many years ago I came up with a good way of evaluating all-rounders based on their statistics, and finally I have been able to crunch the numbers and come up with the results. I should clarify a few things. This whole article relates only to men’s test cricket, though it would also apply to any other format. More importantly, the whole idea of rating players based on statistics is obviously flawed, as stats don’t capture everything about a player. But as long as we allow for that and don’t try to be too precise, I think we can gain some useful and interesting insights. Continue reading
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The War for Children’s Minds — Stephen Law

This useful book is a careful and spirited defence of the idea that children should be taught to think for themselves rather than uncritically accept the views of some authority, be it parental, religious or governmental. You’d think that this view would be completely uncontroversial. But surprisingly many people mistakenly think that this leads to anarchy, moral relativism, a rejection of traditional values, or all of these things.

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My Brain Made Me Do It

Are we truly in control of our own actions, or are they are really determined by our genes and environment? Are our brains really just machines operating according to the laws of physics? Is our free will nothing more than an illusion? And if it is, how can we be morally responsible for anything? These questions are just about the biggest and most difficult questions we can think about. I know what the answers are, but if you don’t, it would be worth your while to read the first half of “My Brain Made Me Do It” by Eliezer Sternberg. Sternberg raises the questions, discusses some of the evidence and research and identifies some current approaches. It’s a good exploration of the topic and it does get you thinking. Continue reading
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How to argue

When you’re arguing with other people, it’s all too easy to disagree with what you think they are saying. It’s better to base your argument on what they are actually saying. But best of all is to argue with what they think they are saying.

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The Art of Always Being Right — Arthur Schopenhauer

This book is not really about being right. It’s about winning arguments, even when you’re wrong. The 38 tactics include such classics as “Use your opponent’s views”, “Beg the question” and the ultimate: “Become personal, insulting, rude”. You’ll recognise these from many annoying and unsatisfying arguments you’ve had. This book helps you avoid them, and if necessary, use them yourself. Very useful, and all based on “the natural baseness of human nature”. Perhaps it’s best not to dwell on that.

Thanks to Wikisource and the wonders of copyright law, you can read The Art of Always Being Right online for free.

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God is Not Great — Christopher Hitchens

Organised religion is a pernicious anachronism that should be abolished, according to Christopher Hitchens. His book is subtitled “How religion poisons everything” in case there was any doubt about his position. Organised religions are pretty much indefensible anyway, but his arguments are still worth reading — I learned a few interesting bits of history. And it’s bracing to see so many dogmas held up in such a cold and unflattering light.

God is not Great takes iconoclasm to new heights. Hitchens heaps scorn on the usual zealots, from Osama bin Laden to various Popes (including the current one). But his targets cover the full spectrum of celebrity, from the sublime (Mother Theresa, M. K. Gandhi, the Dalai Lama) to the ridiculous (Mel Gibson is memorably described as an “Australian fascist and ham actor”). The only famous exception is Martin Luther King, Jr, who manages to come out looking like a decent (if flawed) human being.

I enjoyed reading God is not Great, but I think it does miss the point a bit. In the conflict between Reason and Faith, Reason wins easily; but that’s because Faith isn’t playing the game. Some say that if people believe religious dogmas even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, then this simply confirms how marvellously strong their faith is. You just can’t use logic against this kind of position, but that what Hitchens tries to do. This approach only seems to work here because he is preaching to the converted. Or perhaps I should say unconverted.

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Lucky Numbers are Unlucky

If you ever buy a lotto ticket, or bet on horses or any other such game where the aim is to select winning numbers, don’t choose the numbers yourself. If you pick your own special “lucky numbers” once, you’re stuck with them for the rest of your life.

When choosing the numbers, you might think it’s fun to pick significant numbers such as your family’s birthdays, even if you don’t win. But you won’t find it so much fun if you don’t buy a ticket next week and the numbers come up then. Or if they come up the next month, or year, or ten years after that. And since you thoughtfully picked special numbers, you’ll never forget them — no matter when they come up, you’ll know you missed out, and you’ll spend the rest of your life lamenting. “If only I’d bought a ticket this week, I would have won and I’d be able to buy that yacht/university degree/TV station/kidney that I always wanted.”

The only safe procedure is to select your numbers randomly. As a bonus, if you don’t win (and let’s face it: you won’t), you can blame fate for your misfortune rather than having to blame yourself for picking the wrong numbers.

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Child-safe swear words

When you have small children (I imagine), you have to be careful what you say around them. They are just learning to speak and may seize on any word and repeat it unpredictably. This happened to a friend of mine who somehow managed to say “scrotum” within earshot of his small son. The word subsequently turned up in various inappropriate situations, to general hilarity. I’m sure this happens thousands of times a day, all over the world.

I’m not sure of the context for my friend’s “scrotum” — when you’re annoyed, all kinds of expletives can just pop out. Of course, this won’t be a problem for me, because I don’t know any rude words (except “scrotum”, and I will be careful to avoid using it gratuitously). But for the rest of you, I am compiling a list of swear words that you can safely say in front of even the most parrot-like three-year-old.

My Giddy Aunt! This sounds like something out of Gilbert & Sullivan, or possibly P. G. Wodehouse. Probably not so good if you actually do have an aunt who is giddy.

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The road less travelled

Suppose there are two roads between two points. One road is free to use, the other has a toll. The one with the toll will, of course, be less crowded. So road users can travel for free, or they can pay extra to get there quicker.

The interesting thing is that this works regardless of the other differences between the roads. The toll road might actually be wider or narrower, longer or shorter than the free one. But as long as the roads are sufficiently busy, the journey will always be quicker on the toll road.

I was thinking about applying this idea to supermarket queues. Supermarkets could set aside one or two checkout lanes that have a charge of $1 to use. If you’re in a hurry, you can pay the extra money; the queue will always be shorter.

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