Monday, August 30, 2010

Crackpots and Free Thinkers

What determines whether an person with unusual ideas is a crackpot or a free thinker? Perhaps that crackpot with the odd, repugnant ideas about making our lives go better is really a free thinker? Maybe your admirable free-thinking friend is really a crackpot? May you yourself are a crackpot or free thinker. The question is: how to know? And: is it even possible to know?—or perhaps the difference is necessarily subjective, as some claim is the distinction between normal and abnormal. Taking a clue from E. F. Schumacher and his idea of convergent and divergent problems, I propose that there is an objective answer to this question.

From the Wikipedia article :

Convergent problems are ones in which attempted solutions gradually converge on one solution or answer. An example of this has been the development of the bicycle. Early attempts at developing man powered vehicle included three and four wheelers; and involved wheels of different sizes. Modern bicycles look much the same nowadays.

Divergent problems are ones which do not converge on a single solution. A classic example he provides is that of education. Is discipline or freedom the best way to teach? Education researchers have debated this issue for thousand of years without converging on a solution.

Bicycle makers continue to make all sorts of changes to bicycles. With road bicycles during the last decade, the compact frame with the sloping top tube and the rear-wheel cutout in the seat tube have become popular. However, the overall geometry of the bicycle has remained the same for about one hundred years: that of a diamond shape formed by two triangles. With rare exception, changes in bicycle design continue to focus on optimizations to this core, convergent principle.

Whereas, in education, it's difficult to get many people to agree on even first principles. Changes to education just as often entail wholesale reform as they do optimizations. Homeschooling is one example of a recently popularized reform in education, one that enables its participants to make all sorts of radical (and non-radical) changes to the education process.

So, what does the distinction between convergent and divergent problems have to do with crackpots and free thinkers? I propose that a free thinker is a person who maintains an odd, minority opinion about a divergent problem, whereas a crackpot is a person who maintains an odd, minority opinion about a convergent problem. To continue the example: a person who insists on homeschooling children is a free thinker; a person who insists that the penny-farthing is the best bicycle design is a crackpot. In the former case, historical evidence is impartial to what the person insists (though people of different opinion will often insist that historical evidence backs up their position and not the others'); in the latter case, historical evidence is partial: penny-farthings are dangerous and less practical.

Does this make your friend with the odd ideas a crackpot or a free thinker? Is your friend dealing in the realm of convergence or divergence? Now you know whether to be dismissive or admiring appropriately.

Except, of course, being a crackpot doesn't mean one is wrong. (And being a free thinker doesn't mean one isn't wrong.) A lot of human technological progress is achieved by both crackpots and free thinkers alike. For example, in Europe during the Middle Ages, using oxen as draft animals for farming was a convergent solution. Though horses can pull with the same force at twice the speed and are thus superior farm animals for plowing, it wasn't until a crackpot invented a non-choking harness that horses became viable farm animals.

Rigidly defining crackpots and free thinkers may very well be just that: playing with semantics. However, this post invites some introspection on our parts: what are some convergent problems in which you disagree with the majority, consensus opinion?

Thursday, August 26, 2010


“We've been here before. This is the town where one of the major exchanges occurred during the Ragnar Relay. So this is Hillside.” After hearing that, Laura asks that I check the map and directions to make sure we are where we're supposed to be. Yes, this is Hillside, this small town of a few dozen houses amidst rolling hills. It's where tomorrow's bike race is.

With the sun beginning to set, we get back in the car, U-turn, and find a suitable camping spot just outside of town atop a hill. We congratulate ourselves on setting up at such a convenient spot. “No one will drive a shorter distance than us to get to tomorrow's race.” This prediction turns out to be false; shortly after settling into our tent, a truck pulls up nearby but closer to town and two other race participants set up their tent. We'll end up driving a tad farther than them the next morning.

The tent itself is new and deserves some description. I thought Laura's $25 Walmart tent was as cheap as they come, and I further thought we were fortunate to have this other tent mysteriously show up in her car's trunk many months prior to the Walmart tent's two main poles both snapping in the heavy wind at Lake Powell earlier this month. Tonight I discover that the Walmart tent is a luxury tent, whereby “luxury” is taken to mean any tent in which Craig can sleep without both head and feet pressing up against opposite sides of the tent wall. But for our simple one-night stay just outside Hillside tonight, this mystery tent serves its purpose well.

The bike race is the Hillside Road Race. It replaces the Skull Valley Road Race, which changed venue because the race was kicked out of the small town of Skull Valley a few weeks prior and had to be moved down the road and off Yavapai County roads. This change happened to transform the race from being a race with climbing to a race of climbing. It's a 55-mile out and back course with not a bit of it flat and finishing with a 9-mile, 1,600-foot climb. This is not a finish-and-feel-good-about-yourself kind of race; it's entirely about getting to the finish line before the others in your group do. I, being unlicensed, am in the Category 5 division, making me something of a sandbagger.

Laura and I awake the next morning before the Lycra-clad masses descend upon Hillside. We take our time packing our belongings from the tent back into the car. We discover that the tent kinda passes the waterproof test. The drizzle is light, but the air is humid in a way that suggests that the weather may not clear in time for the race.

With about two hours to get ready, I make it to the starting line with less than a minute to spare. There are never enough port-o-potties at these kinds of events. My group roles out under thick cloud cover and some occasional drizzle. The first ten miles are nearly all downhill, and soon about three dozen cyclists who don't normally ride together are wheel-to-wheel, many of us vying for position while reaching 45MPH downhill on rain-slicked pavement. But what really makes me nervous is that I think I have a chance to win.

We coast down the big hill and work our way up and down the ensuing rollers. It's a brutal course for anyone who doesn't train for climbing, and some of the heavier guys get punished early and drop off the group. Though, after everyone's initial excitement wears off, it becomes clear that we're all saving ourselves for the big climb before the finish. Though there are a few teammates in the group, no one seems interested in working any strategy and attacking the group. Over the course of nearly two hours, I continually monitor my heart rate and watch as it dips lower and lower until eventually hitting numbers below what I consider recovery-level intensity. This is a 10-mile uphill race with a 45-mile lazy warm-up. The one point of excitement is when, at the turnaround at the halfway point, I drop my water bottle and double-back to pick it up and race back to the group. Already by then the group is going so slow that catching up to it is no worry.

The excitement happens all at once upon beginning the final climb. The pace is suddenly pushed and pushed fast. I don't need to look at my HR monitor to know that my body is becoming stressed. I look back with casual interest to see what's happening behind me and discover there is no one behind me. Over half the group is already dropped off, and we've only just begun climbing. The group splinters further, and I find myself on the rebound, trying to catch up to the leaders. On my way, I pass by the guy who I pegged from the race's beginning as being a possible winner; he's off the back of the lead group. Within a few minutes, the race is down to four guys, myself included. Another few minutes more and the race is down to one guy, myself excluded. By then, I'm isolated in second place, futilely trying to catch the mountain goat pulling farther out in front while slowly building distance between myself and the third-place rider. The group is inexorably stretching out like a loaded spring. There's no strategy here, just a long, slow power-to-weight competition with the results becoming more evident each minute. I keep an eye on my HR monitor to target a steady HR of 170 and realize that, without some bad luck befalling the rider in front, I'm very likely a lock for second place. I concentrate on my form, lifting one knee high while driving the other heel down. I watch my altimeter to count up to the final elevation of 4,000 feet, wanting the ordeal to be over with. By the time I make it to the top with one mile of rollers remaining before the finish line, I can see neither the rider immediately in front or behind me. The group is strung out all over the hill, as are other groups whose dropped-off riders I continue to pass. There's no drama, just a stream of riders finishing from different groups with no one racing anyone. As I approach the finish line, Laura doesn't know whether I'm flashing the peace sign or my result.

* * *

Later, after waiting for the official results and beginning the drive back to Phoenix, Laura announces her plan for us to hike up Vulture Peak outside Wickenburg. Somehow she missed the elevation profile in the hiking book that shows the hike as being a 2-mile, 1,200-foot climb. There's also some terrible August midday heat going on as we step outside the car in the otherwise-empty unpaved parking lot, but we have ourselves a fun, relaxed hike. The trailhead registry book shows no entries for the previous nine days, and we have the mountain to ourselves. We take our time getting to the top while vultures circle overhead. We talk of this and that. We spot a couple of creepy-crawly millipedes near the summit. We take too many photos of everything. The day begins to draw to a close, and we mosey down the mountain and back to the parking lot. Why race?

Monday, August 23, 2010

What the two-person economy tells us about the three-person economy

Suppose on a desert island there exist two people, Adam and Bob. Shipwrecked long ago, Adam and Bob have since developed for themselves a thriving two-person economy. Generally, each man tends to himself and his own activities, such as fishing and foraging for food, collecting rain water, and amusing himself using carved-out sticks of wood as musical instruments.

Occasionally, however, the two meet and voluntarily agree to make an exchange such that each believes he benefits from the exchange. For example, wood-carving-expert Adam may trade his newly created, wonderfully tuned, high-range recorder for some of fishing-expert Bob's delicious morning catch. It's not really up to us, as observers, to decide whether the exchange is a good one; if both Adam and Bob value themselves as benefiting from the exchange, then the exchange is, in their terms, a good exchange. Furthermore, if we assume that Adam and Bob are shrewd, rational persons who accurately perceive, according to their self-interest, proposed exchanges as being good or bad, then all exchanges are indeed good exchanges. Otherwise, a proposed exchange that is perceived as being a bad one by either Adam or Bob would result in the exchange being rejected.

Thus, it is claimed:

[A] A voluntary exchange benefits all participants in that exchange.

The rationale for A is like with our two-person economy of Adam and Bob. Because exchange participants do well with determining whether the exchange is good for them, a voluntary participant in an exchange must benefit from that exchange or else he would not have agreed to it.

Often, in economic philosophy centering around free-market principles, a second claim is made, based on A:

[B] Increasing the number of voluntary exchanges taking place in an economy increases the utility for all people in that economy.

The idea with B is that being how exchanges benefit all of their participants, exchanges are therefore wholly good things and should thus be maximized in order to maximize the benefit for all people. Claim B differs subtly from A: A makes a claim about what happens to the participants in an exchange; B makes a claim about what happens to both participants and non-participants alike.

People who make claim B often do so as though, given the validity of A, B must be true and needn't any further defense. Usually, their arguments go, we should strive for a free-market-based economy. QED.

However, it is not true that B necessarily follows from A. Imagine the following scenario.

Suppose on our desert island, instead of there being only Adam and Bob, there is also Casey and a thriving three-person economy. Adam and Bob decide to engage in an exchange with each other. Adam trades his high-range recorder not for seafood but for a special, wood-carved part that Bob has made that will allow Adam to complete construction of Adam's shrimp-cleaning machine. The machine will allow Adam to clean shrimp in less time than it takes for him to do so manually. Both Adam and Bob correctly perceive themselves as benefactors from the exchange.

However, Casey has a highly sensitive, fatal shellfish allergy, and Adam's shrimp-cleaning machine spews pieces of shrimp meat in all directions when in use. Casey now must avoid Adam's machine when in use, for if any piece of shrimp gets in the coconut pie that Casey is eating, then Casey will go into anaphylactic shock. Furthermore, Casey is a light sleeper and annoyed by recorder music, and Bob's habit of playing his high-range recorder all through the night decreases the quality of Casey's sleep.

In this example, though both participants of the exchange benefit, the non-participant of the exchange is harmed by the exchange. This example, though contrived, is not exceptional. It is easy to imagine real-world examples where a non-participant of an exchange is harmed. Perhaps you are nearby a cigarette smoker who traded money to the store for those cigarettes whose smoke is now blowing into your face. You are now being harmed by the smoker's exchange with the store.

This illustrates the problem with B: B assumes that people not participating in an exchange are unaffected by that exchange. This assumption is not always so, as shown by the example of Adam, Bob, and Casey and by the example of you, the cigarette smoker, and the store. Thus, we should reject B in that sometimes exchanges are not good for everyone and that increasing the number of exchanges in an economy does not necessarily lead to increasing the benefits for everyone in that economy.

What does this say about free markets? I think this says nothing about them. Perhaps free-market economies are best; perhaps they are not. Claim A does not lead to claim B, and by rejecting B and without further premises, we have no inclination either for or against free markets. In short, the two-person economy tells us nothing about how the three-person economy works. Exchange beneficence does not scale linearly.

An important take-away point here is that people who base their argument for a free-market economy solely on claim A are committing a fallacy. This does not necessarily mean that their conclusion is wrong, for fallacious arguments can still be correct, but it means that we will be prudent to be skeptical of their conclusion without further argumentation.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Aside from nitpicking the difference between exponential growth and polynomial growth, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives is a good read that I enjoyed and a book that I will go on the record as recommending to others. Indeed, I think the book is a worthy, “soft” introduction to the top-down causal way of thinking that I like to espouse so often here at Just Enough Craig. The central theme of Connected is that much of what happens in our lives and much of who we are is predicated on who we hang around, who those people hang around, and who those people hang around. Much of self-choice is illusory. Undoubtedly, the whole of the system shoves its causes down upon its constituent pieces just as those pieces push up their causes onto the system, even when those pieces are conscious individuals such as ourselves.

I regret not having taken notes while reading Connected. I figured at the time that I agreed with the book's premise too much and would find the piece to be less engaging than books with which I somewhat disagree. (The least thought-provoking books are the ones I most agree or most disagree with. The most thought-provoking ones I somewhat agree and somewhat disagree with.) However, I wish that I had taken notes of the remarkable evidences the authors had for concluding that our social networks play such a dominant role in making us who we are. As it is, I didn't take notes, and so I don't have much remarking to do here. Read for yourself!

* * *

A while ago I started a “pure” philosophy book, Reasons and Persons, by Derek Parfit. I was first introduced to Parfit in the introductory ethics class I took during my sophomore year in college, a class that has gifted me with more questions than answers in the eleven years since taking it. The class's format was for us students to read through a compilation book containing essays arguing various viewpoints on a range of ethical topics, from the classical (e.g., what constitutes the Good?) to the modern (e.g., is abortion acceptable?) to the futuristic (e.g., is the genetic engineering of humans acceptable?). In one essay provocatively titled Why We Should Not Be Biased Towards the Future, Parfit captured my imagination with an idea that continues to cause me to cast serious doubt on most mainstream ethical theories: how should we compare the moral valuation of a past event with a current event with a future event?

Since college, I have come across Parfit twice. First, in my study of peak oil and its ramifications, including the moral ones, I came across his mere additional paradox. Then, when reading I Am a Strange Loop, Hofstadter referenced a thought experiment by Parfit involving a clever use of a Star Trek-like transporter to raise questions about identity. And now I'm working through the seminal work that originates both these two ideas and the Timeless essay from my ethics class.

Parfit is a master of the thought experiment, especially to expose interdependencies and self-references within ethical systems. Here's such a one from the early pages of Reasons and Persons to engage your mind and celebrate the paradox.

Suppose that I am driving at midnight through some desert. My car breaks down. You are a stranger, and the only other driver in this desert. I manage to stop you, and I offer you a great reward if you drive me to my home. I cannot pay you now, but I promise to do so when we reach my home. Suppose next that I am transparent, unable to deceive others. I cannot lie convincingly. Either a blush, or my tone of voice, always gives me away. Suppose, finally, that I know myself to be never self-denying. If you drive me to my home, it would be worse for me if [I] pay you the promised reward. Since I know that I never do what will be worse for me, I know that I would break my promise. Given my inability to lie convincingly, you know this too. You do not believe my promise. I am stranded in the desert throughout the night. This happens to me because I am never self-denying. It would have been better for me if I was trustworthy, disposed to keep my promises even when doing so will be worse for me. You would then have driven me home.

Monday, August 16, 2010


This morning, before work, I finished reading Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. The book was written by two social scientists with PhDs. And in one paragraph they wrote the following (emphasis mine).

There is only one relationship between two people, but there are three possible relationships between three people, six between four people, ten between five people, and so on. Since the number of possible relationships grows exponentially with group size, it probably takes a big shift in cognitive capacity to keep up with all the drama of a full social life.

I'm not sure what it takes to be a professor at Harvard or one at UC San Diego, but my readers will understand the difference between exponential growth and polynomial growth. And I'm going to explain it in an way without resorting to formulae because this is actually quite simple.

Exponential growth means that the rate of growth is proportional to the size of the thing growing. Simply put, the growth rate may be described as an unchanging percentage rate. For example, a fixed-rate savings account grows exponentially because it accrues interest at the same percentage rate (e.g., 1.5% per year) regardless of how much money is in the account.

Now, take the sequence of growing relationship numbers in the above Connected quote: 1, 3, 6, 10, (15, 21,) … What is the percentage increase between any two consecutive elements? It depends on which elements. From 1 to 3 is a 200% increase. From 3 to 6 is a 100% increase. From 6 to 10 is a 67% increase. From 10 to 15 is a 50% increase. And so on. It is not a flat rate, which means that the rate of growth is not proportional to the size of the thing growing. Thus, it is not exponential. But what is it?

If something is growing fast but is not growing exponentially, then it is probably growing polynomially. This is a good rule of thumb if you're dealing with “real world” sorts of numbers. Two of the most common types of polynomial growth are linear growth and quadratic growth. Linear growth is any sequence in which the increase between any two consecutive elements is the same size as the increase between any other two consecutive elements. For example, the sequence 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, … is linear.

Quadratic growth means that the increase between any two consecutive numbers is the same as the previous increase, plus or minus some other constant number. So, take again our Connected numbers: 1, 3, 6, 10, 15, 21, … What is the size of increase between any two consecutive elements? It depends on which elements. From 1 to 3 is an increase of 2. From 3 to 6 is an increase of 3. From 6 to 10 is an increase of 4. From 10 to 15 is an increase of 5. And so on. In this case, each increase is exactly +1 larger than the previous increase. This is the hallmark of quadratic growth and will form (half of) a parabola if you graph it, but I'll save that for traditional math classes.

There are other forms of polynomial growth, but in the real world, the two types linear and quadratic will cover most cases that aren't exponential. And now you know.

If the rate of growth cannot be described as a flat percentage rate, then it is not exponential growth.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Ideology of convenience

Suppose that I believe that all of humanity's problems would be solved if only we put in charge the pink unicorns from outer space. ”Once the pink space unicorns are in charge,“ I say, ”the world will be a much better place. Gone will be violence and sadness and other negatives, and in their places we'll enjoy increased love and happiness and other positives.“

Being a ”rational“ person, you may then decide to challenge my viewpoint. ”Prove it,“ you say.

Of course, I can't prove my belief. The best I'll be able to do is to create some assumptions, tacit or otherwise, and bootstrap my belief by begging the question. But even though I cannot prove my belief, there's something equally important—in my mind, that is—going on: you cannot prove me wrong. In case you doubt this, then I challenge you right now: ”Prove me wrong.“ Prove that the pink space unicorns don't exist or that, when put in charge, they will solve all of our problems.

You'll soon—hopefully—figure out that disproving the pink space unicorns is an impossible task. Why? There's no evidence one way or the other. It's really hard to prove that something doesn't exist. The best you'll manage to do is to assert Occam's Razor or some similar idea that we should, in the absence of evidence, reject a more complex explanation when a simpler explanation is also plausible, and you will then tie the Razor with the fact that we have absolutely zero evidence one way or the other for the pink space unicorns. I, in a brilliant counter move, will state a disbelief of Occam's Razor, at least in this specific case if not in the general case. This leaves us in a logical stalemate where you'll rightfully call me a crackpot and perhaps make a sarcastic reference to the Great Orbiting Teapots; I, on the other hand, will describe you as one within the brainwashed, disbelieving masses and blind to the Truth, and we'll part ways, mentally.

But let's talk about this a little bit. I've pulled off the Hat of the Pink Space Unicorns and donned the Hat of Self-Criticism and am willing to analyze my belief. In doing so, what I see are two important facts. The first fact I already mentioned: my belief cannot be disproved. The second fact is this: my belief states, as a side effect, that I am personally not culpable for the problems of the world. That I, despite my simplicitism, consume more than the per capita share of the world's resources and that I don't treat others with the respect they deserve and that I break traffic laws when riding my bicycles—these are mere irrelevances that have nothing at all to do with blameworthiness because, as righteous and wise people know, all real problems are caused by the pink space unicorns not being in charge.

These two facts suggest an important property of my belief: because my belief eliminates my culpability and therefore provides me an emotional incentive to maintain that belief, and because my belief cannot be disproved, then it follows that I have an emotional incentive to avoid self-critical analysis of my belief. Indeed, I have emotional incentive to delude myself into believing that I have performed self-critical analysis of my belief without ever having done so. If I can convince myself that I have done some bang-up self-criticism, then my belief in the pink space unicorns will be made even more valid—in my mind. This whole pattern of belief—the belief itself that cannot be proved either way, the consequence that I am not culpable, and the incentive to avoid honest self-criticism—constitutes what I call an ideology of convenience.

An ideology of convenience is exactly the sort of reasoning that defies testability and is emotionally self-supporting, and there exist quite many of them. They're like gravity wells: easy to fall into and difficult to escape from. A good hint that you're dealing with someone who's trapped in an ideology of convenience is when that person says that they're morally superior not because of how they act but because of what they believe. If you are such a person who makes this claim, well, I have a hat you should try on some day.

Either you agree with my idea of the pink space unicorns or we're at an impasse. This is not mere philosophical debate, however. You may wish to discuss solutions to very real problems in the world, like law-breaking cyclists being a nuisance on the roads, with the realistic aim of making the world better, however small the difference is. I and my pink space unicorns have vetoed your ideas. Although I will doubtfully ever say so explicitly, the core of my pink-space-unicorns message is loud and clear: ”I'm not at fault, and so I shouldn't be forced to change my ways.“ Convenient, indeed.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Wee frill

Edward: Hello, Jack. How are you feeling?

Jack: Well, Edward, I feel well. Not by an inch or pinch does even a dinky bit of my pinkie feel any inclination or aspiration for poetry. And my cat bite is healed, too. See?

Edward: That's great to hear—and see.

Jack: Yes, though, taking the remainder of the Prose-Lack prescription made for an epic two weeks of beautiful description, though later sometime did rhyme and meter both peter.

Edward: Are you sure that the effects have fully worn off?

Jack: Yes. Why do you ask?

Edward: No reason.

Jack: Well, through no lack of reason of my own did I figure out that all of ethics is baseless.

Edward: Oh really?

Jack: Yes really! You see, that prescription of Prose-Lack and its resulting psycho-physical effects raises an important question.

Edward: What question is that, Jack?

Jack: This: that if I or anyone else can be made to act in a certain way merely by popping a pill, then what does that mean for freewill?

Edward: I suppose it means that our freewill is somewhat limited.

Jack: Not just limited. It's nonexistent.

Edward: That seems a rather contentious conclusion. Many philosophers as well as many non-philosophers disagree with you on that point.

Jack: That's only because those people haven't yet done a careful analysis of all the evidence, which, I may add, I have done these last two weeks.

Edward: Truly that's an impressive—an epic—quantity of research carried out in such little time.

Jack: Thank you, but I assure you that it could not have happened any other way.

Edward: So what does our lack of freewill have to do with ethics?

Jack: Everything. Or nothing. If a person acts in a good way or bad way then it is because that person has chosen to act in a good way or bad way. Only by our choices can there exist good and bad and right and wrong.

Edward: I see.

Jack: Call it the Doctrine of Ethics-Is-Stupid. All of ethics is like Monday-morning quarterbacking and amounts to nothing more than analysis of something that cannot be changed, for our behaviors cannot go any other way than they do. Ethics equips us with the power to blame and to fame people whose actions could not not have been what they were, and ethics is a wasteful endeavor. As some say, “Ought implies can”—emphasis mine.

Edward: Your point is emphatically taken. I have a question, though.

Jack: Of course you would. It could not have happened any other way.

Edward: Yes … If everything that happens, including people's behaviors, does so out of mechanical determinism, then wouldn't that include philosophizing about ethics and pursuing “wasteful endeavors”?

Jack: Yours is a question that could not not have been asked.

Edward: And as I'm hoping your answer can not not be given.

Jack: Of course it can't not. It's that … Well, it's like … You see there's … Blast, Edward! Why do you insist on asking about such things!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Mountain biking

I survived my commute home today. Although these are always good words to write, typically they're ones I take quite for granted. Today, though, that's not so.

The trouble started when the 700x45 Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires I ordered arrived at work today. This sentence may not make much since to non-bicyclists out there, so let me explain. I ordered some rugged, fat tires for my touring/commuter bike and they arrived at work. I had them shipped to my office because I learned the hard way—twice—that FedEx can't find my apartment.

The tires are as fat as you would find on many mountain bikes. It's a tribute to my touring bike that they fit; they increase the radius of the wheel by about three-quarters of an inch and would fit on few pure road bikes due to lack of clearance with the frame. Though the tires have a tread pattern and aren't slicks, they're not knobby either and so are suitable for easy trail riding. I, of course, took them straight out to Trail 100.

There's a lot about me riding Trail 100 that wasn't smart. Firstly, by the time I finished work, installed the tires, and began cycling home, there was maybe half an hour till sunset. Secondly, I'm nearly devoid of mountain biking experience, there being only that one time I went ``mountain'' biking in Memorial Park in Houston. Thirdly, my ride also counting as my commute home, I had my panniers with me, and one such pannier contained my laptop. These points all came to mind quite suddenly when I started on the trail and realized, as I could realize only when atop a two-wheeled machine fishtailing through fist-sized rocks, that the hard, jagged ground of Trail 100 is significantly more challenging and less forgiving than the spongy, even soil of my previous mountain biking experience. But I figured it was no time for brains; I was mountain biking.

I started at the beginning near Peoria and 7th Ave. and managed to exit south of Peoria near 17th St (after making a wrong turn after crossing under Cave Creek Rd.). By the map I see that this totaled a small handful of miles, but it was a long, harrowing experience. Several times I dismounted my bicycle and walked it up a hill, which is something I think I haven't done since I was five years old. And once I had the cliché fortune of falling off my bike into a cactus-like plant. There was a little bit of blood, but that I'm blogging this tonight means that my laptop is unscathed, and that's what's important. After all, when you're mountain biking, you can't afford to be concerned for your personal safety!

In truth, these tires probably aren't up to riding many of the trails of the Sonoran Desert. I'll have to try it again without the panniers loaded down with my fear of damaging my laptop. It would also be a good idea to try it in full daylight.

And to keep this in perspective, after I had exited the trail and had spent a few miles pondering the easy, smooth asphalt of quiet, residential roads, I was reminded of the true danger in my world when a motorist rolled right through a stop sign to make a left turn while I was quite nearly in his path going the other way. Cacti and thorny bushes aren't so bad after all. Now if you pardon me I'm going to go home and remove some splinters from my hand and leg.

Monday, August 2, 2010


People are controlled by pink unicorns in space. At least, that's the discussion I'd like to start with.

Now, without further explanation of my assertion of the pink space unicorns, I suppose most of you would reject out of hand my idea, so I add one more detail: most people are totally convinced that they're controlled by pink unicorns in space. There, now it's reasonable to believe that people are indeed controlled by pink unicorns in space. Right? No? You're shaking your head. You still don't believe that people are controlled by pink unicorns in space even though most people really, really feel that way? You reject the subjective evidence they provide?

If you've followed my logic so far, please, then, explain to me your defense of a belief in freewill. This is, of course, assuming that you, like most people, believe in freewill. The only evidence for freewill is subjective: people really, really feel like they're making choices and operating with non-deterministic autonomy. But choices and non-deterministic autonomy are just pink unicorns in space in that we have no objective evidence to support their existence, and, furthermore, we have established a strong track record of using determinism to explain a large and growing number of phenomena. That most people really, really feel the opposite way on the matter of freewill should be given less credit than it has been.

Like Douglas Hofstadter and others, I'm deeply suspicious of this idea of freewill whereby people are choosing things via a process that lies outside material determinism, outside physical law. Here's how I look at it: as a competition between the two best explanations we have.

  • The human mind, which rests atop a substrate of plain-old organic molecules, either through some unexplained and unknown property of its aggregation or else by some as yet unknown “life force&rdquo, is itself not materially deterministic. In other words, freewill is real. We choose.

  • The human mind, like the particles of its substrate, is materially deterministic but necessarily patterns itself into (most of the time) believing that it is not materially deterministic. In other words, freewill is an illusion “hard-wired in” to the brain.

Explanation number one fails Occam's Razor. It's not the simpler answer. It requires new physical laws or at least a new, radical understanding of existing laws. It is unsupported by objective evidence; it is pink unicorns in space.

Explanation number two is the simpler answer. It fits with our current model despite most people believing in freewill and not wanting to disbelieve freewill. This explanation doesn't require a line to be drawn between the animate and the inanimate, the thinking and the unthinking, the conscious and the unconscious, a line that is made awkward and possibly even self-defeating by phenomena such as severe mental retardation, Alzheimer's disease, physical trauma, chimpanzees, two-year old children, etc. And it makes qualitative sense how, in light of how mathematical systems become paradoxical precisely when they increase in expressive power, that the human mind, with its extraordinary power of expression, would be riddled through and through with paradoxical notions about its own operation and mechanics.