When Sailors Should Split Tacks

American inventor Thomas Edison once said “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration”A.  From my experience, when you are competing, whether for business or pleasure, or trying to solve a problem, or just trying to get something done, you can usually do very well without that stroke of genius if during the remaining 99% of the time you can just keep from screwing up.

The Sailing Example

One summer when I was younger, I had the opportunity to race sailboats by donating the perspiration needed to handle the sails.  Since sailboats can’t sail directly into the wind, which is often exactly where you need to go, you must regularly choose which side of the wind is best, or which side of the course is best, or . . . the bottom line is that in sailboat racing, as in life, there are plenty of decision-making opportunities.  If we happened to get behind early in the race, by the time we got to a point that needed a decision, our competition had already gotten to that point and had already made their decision.  Our skipper, reasoning that we would never catch up if we did everything our competition had done, invariably would make the opposite choice at that point (hence, splitting tacks, or sailing on the opposite side of the wind as our competition).  More often than not we would get further behind.  As it turned out, we won almost no races that summer. Now I will use just a little math to show you why not.

The Math

Without divine intervention or that long-awaited flash of inspiration, after a short time the leaders in this race will be the ones that make more correct moment-by-moment decisions. When our skipper got to his decision point, it is reasonable to assume that the competition ahead of him is batting above 500D and already chose the short path. If the current leader has a success rate of, say 70%, then by blindly taking the other path, our skipper was limiting his success rate to 30%. This is NOT a winning strategy. The more prudent leader would have chosen his battles; he would have evaluated every decision independently – more often than not this means he would have made the same choice as his competitor (assuming his own success rate is high enough to be competitive – certainly higher than 50%)  – and he would bide his time while waiting for the competition to make their mistake. When his own evaluation led him to a different decision, he would quickly recheck his work (out of respect for his competitor’s 70% success rate) and then he would pounce.

A Non-sailing Example – Rush Hour Traffic

“Rush Hour”, referring to  those busy couple of hours in the morning and another couple of hours in the afternoon when everybody is commuting to or from work at the same time and traffic is congested (as opposed to that time of day when Rush Limbaugh is delivering his political commentary), implies an urban environment, which implies a larger grid of streets and thus a richness of decision-making opportunities not completely unlike a fleet of sailboats tacking upwind, but familiar to a much larger segment of the population.  Many of you may have carpooled with somebody with the mentality of the skipper described above: either there is some sort of accident or s/he misjudged traffic again and finds him/herself behind schedule and facing the growing possibility that they will be late for work.  Lacking patience or maturity, they assume the traffic must be better on one of the many alternative routes and blindly makes a turn (tacks) at the next intersection.  When they discover that this path is also blocked, they immediately move to Plan C, then D, and so forth.  Each maneuver has a small cost, which rapidly adds up, and then the path actually starts to get longer and they continue to dig themselves a deeper and deeper hole (oops, that’s not a sailing reference).  The math is similar to that above.  To mix metaphors even more, compare this to the hitter swinging too hard for a home run.  The problem is that in this game, after each errant swing the outfield fence is moved ten yards further away.  Although still mathematically possible (at first), the odds of that game-winning home run drop with every swing.  Those are the perils of panicking, shutting off your brain, closing your eyes, and trying to slug your way out of your problems.

The Moral

As you might have guessed, this article is not really about sailing, or traffic, or baseball. Blindly splitting tacks is a tactic of desperation.  Desperation is often a result of one’s fears getting the best of them, and may be one of the consequences of ignorance.  It is never expedient to shut off your brain to save time (by the same token, except for specially trained pilots in specially designed aircraft, nobody would willingly turn off an airplane’s engines while still in the air), yet people try it every day.  This is what happens when you panic.  So get a grip!  Just as in the sailing example, the prudent driver would carefully evaluate every decision (the more you practice, the easier it gets) instead of assuming the worst, bide your time, and make your bold move only when the conditions are right.

Simple English: The Problem With The “If” Statement

You are probably very proud of your grasp of English (unless you live in South Florida, in which case you may not give a damn).  And yet I have seen plenty of people whose lack of understanding about basic structures like the “If” statement

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The next article in this series will discuss how misunderstandings about the conjunction “or” have caused so much trouble.
cause them to make terrible assumptions.

An Example

Suppose a young child is misbehaving to the point that the care-giving parent decrees “If you don’t knock that off, I’m going to paddle you” (This is an old example; I’m sure nobody would ever actually do that today 😉 ). As young children have been known to do, for whatever reason, the child continues with its behavior. The parent repeats the statement, with added emphasis. Nothing changes. The parent soon throws their hands up and says “wait until (your other parent) gets home”.

The parent’s first decree, like all “if” statements, had two parts; a condition and a consequence (joined by the conjunction “if”), with the understanding that if the condition is true, then the consequence will occur. It’s simple enough that even a young child can understand it. If the condition is met and the consequence is not accomplished, then the statement would be considered false. In short, the child knew that the parent was lying.

Now suppose the non-care-giving parent comes home, sees the objectionable behavior, makes a similar decree, and then the first parent points out that they had already made that decree to no avail. The child, for whatever reason, stops the objectionable behavior. To everybody’s surprise, the second parent paddles the child. Although the child and many of you listeners may think bad thoughts about this parent, one thing you can’t call him/her is a liar.

The Problem

As you can see here, the problem with the “if” statement is that is incomplete in the sense that it only addresses what happens when the condition is true, remaining completely silent to the possibility that the condition could be false.  This allows most people to make the assumption that if the condition is false, the opposite of the consequence must occur.  As the young child in our example learned, that assumption would be a mistake.

The Solution

Don’t make stupid assumptions.  As your lawyer would tell you, get it in writing.  In the above example, since the second parent didn’t make any promises about what would happen if the behavior did stop, s/he can’t be accused of lying.  If this example bothers you, I’m sure the second parent told the child afterward that the paddling was for not obeying the first parent, in which case we would be unable to judge the truthfulness of their claim until after the right set of conditions are met following some later episode of misbehavior (guesstimating any change in likelihood of that future misbehavior based on recent events  will be left as an exercise for the reader).  To lawyers, mathematicians, and the like, the parent’s explanation doesn’t matter to this case and is unnecessary.

The Blue-spotted Monks Revisited

If you are not aware of the Blue-spotted Monk problem, or haven’t seen my previous post (in which I made an error in logic), please visit The Problem Of Blue-spotted Monks.

Did you ever wonder what would happen if, as a cruel joke, it had been reported to the monks that one of them had the dreaded blue spot disease when in fact nobody was afflicted? (Am I really the only one here with a slight sinister streak?) Since none of the monks saw a spot elsewhere, they would each assume it was them that was infected and the very first day all the monks would have started to gather at the exit station. One of them, as he approached, would notice that none of the others had a blue dot and would start to chuckle to himself, thinking “these clowns can’t even count”. The others, hearing him laugh, would look around for the first time (until then they were so sure of their logical talents that they hadn’t even bothered to check), and by the time he stopped laughing the rest would have disappeared into the forest. Then it would occur to him that maybe he didn’t have a spot either. When word got back to the Guru, the laugher would be expelled for violating the “no communication” rule, but it wouldn’t affect the solution because the other monks only counted the peers that had spots on their forehead and he was never missed.

Plan B (I named this scheme in honor of B, who first put things in perspective for me. If this plan turns out to be flawed, like the last, I take full responsibility.)

When answering nature’s call in the middle of the night a few days after accepting B’s explanation about why the monks had to start at zero, it struck me that since a monk was really only concerned with three possibilities in the number of blue spots anybody has seen, modulo arithmetic might give a way to synchronize everybody’s universe or get everybody on the same page, so to speak. Plan B calls for everyone to start counting not at zero, but at the last multiple of six. For example, the person who saw ten blue dots knows that there are either:

  1. ten afflicted, not including himself, which means there are ten people who see only nine spots.  Everybody else sees ten.
  2. On the other hand, if he is blue-spotted, there are ten others like him who see ten spots and everyone else sees eleven.

Those who see nine spots know that those who see eleven don’t really exist, and those that see eleven know that the nine-seeers don’t exist. The monk that sees ten must consider each of the other two cases, but not both at once.

Under Plan B he would start counting at six, as would the possible people who saw nine, and those potential people who saw eleven. If everyone knew to start at six, the nonexistent people who saw only six spots would be gone before the second day (we’ll discuss them again shortly), and since that won’t happen, the nonexistent people seeing seven spots will leave on Day 2, etc. Our guy knows he can sleep in until Day 4, when the really possible nine-spot sighters would be scheduled to leave. If he saw spots on Day 5, he would turn himself in and everybody else would live happily ever after.

Starting the inductive thinking process, the first six possibilities start counting at zero, just like the old days. We’ll call that their landmark. As the logic countdown continues past the next landmark (which would be six in this scheme), the hard thing for me was knowing who would start using it first, or even if it was possible to make the switch if that person needed to wait for the person ahead of him (who is still using the old landmark) to make his move. I had the hardest time reconciling the notion that you needed to wait for the people ahead of you with the notion that those people don’t exist.  It turns out the solution was easier than I imagined.

In Plan B, if the number of spots you see happens to be six (or any exact multiple thereof), your dilemma is that the possible person who sees five spots started counting at zero, and won’t budge until Day 6. The guy who sees seven spots will start counting at six, and is depending on you to leave now (Day 1) or else he’s lost. Go to the exit point on Day 1. If you are not infected, there will be a very large crowd heading for the exit with no spots on their head while six people with a spot sit comfortably at home. When you spot your peers, you will avoid the crowd and head home knowing that those six afflicted people will all leave on Day 6 as scheduled, and all is right with the world. If you do have the spot, there will be six others with spots heading out that day with you while everyone else waits patiently at home. When those who originally saw seven spots wake the next morning, you will be gone and the problem will be solved.

What Next?

Lately this problem has turned into an on-again-off-again obsession for me. I first saw a different version of the problem when I was much, much younger; I didn’t figure it out for myself but the answer made perfect sense. Just a few weeks ago, I ran across the spotted monk version I discussed in my last post and again, when reading the answer, I was completely satisfied (although I felt for the commenters who couldn’t accept that it would take 100 days for 100 blue-spotted monks to turn themselves in). Days later, while on a walk contemplating even more difficult (but unrelated) relationship issues, an answer just came to me out of the blue, which is the answer I last posted. It was flawed, and when B. gave his “parallel universe” explanation for why we needed to start at zero, I thought it made even more sense than the conventional answer did, and I was again happy.  Several days after that, the modular arithmetic idea just came to me (as discussed). Then it was only my day job and other commitments that slowed me from working toward this solution. But we are not actually finished yet.

Calling All Logicians

All I’ve done so far (if I got it right this time) is to show that starting at zero is not strictly necessary.  Plan B is not the only possible plan, however.  In fact, I doubt it is the best or fastest plan (I suspect that using a smaller modulus might be helpful).  For the monks to abandon zero as their global landmark there would have to be an understanding that there was a single, logically optimal plan to replace it.  Based on my difficulties wrapping my mind around the issues so far, I don’t feel I qualify for the “perfect logicians” requirementA of this monastery.  It’s just as well; as an aging curmudgeon, that vow of silence probably wouldn’t have worked for me for very much longer anyway.  I’m hoping that the real experts will take it from here and God will finally allow me to let go of this problem.  If you do see a flaw in this scheme (a check of the references will show it would not be my first mistake on this problem), let me know. I may not be able to fix it, but in keeping with journalistic standards, I am willing to admit and advertise the error. Thank you.

Flawed Logic: The Problem Of Blue-spotted Monks

I recently ran across the Problem of the Blue-spotted Monks again at https://richardwiseman.wordpress.com/2011/04/04/answer-to-the-friday-puzzle-98/.  Actually, this is a slight variation of the well-known Blue-Eyed Monk problem that can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_knowledge_%28logic%29, among other places. One site even called this problem “The Hardest Logic Puzzle in the World”A, but that was probably just a case of self-promotion. For today’s discussion, I chose the first version of the problem because it is simpler (we don’t have to worry about the case in which one person has red eyes). If you haven’t done so, go ahead and read the problem. We will discuss the solution in the next section.

Start With Induction

The classic answer uses mathematical inductionD to first consider the (trivial) case in which only one monk has the disease. Then they move on to the case of two monks. Their error begins in the case of three infected monks, assuming that the monks were required to start back at one in making their individual analysis.  That is wrong; in the comments section of some of the references, several people take issue with this assumption.  I believe this to be a misapplication of the induction process.  The monks have only to consider two possibilities; either they are infected or they are not. For the sake of argument, let’s say there are ten infected monks. Most of the monks will see ten fellow monks with blue spots. Ten of the monks will see nine monks with blue spots. None of the monks will see only one monk with blue spots, or just two monks with blue spots, etcetera. Those monks seeing ten spotted monks have only two possibilities – either there are ten infected monks or there are eleven. Those monks seeing nine spots need only consider the possibility that there are either nine or ten monks infected. Most of the monks, in considering their first possibility (that there are only ten infections) realize that those ten, in considering the possibility that there are only nine infections, must allow for the possibility that there are nine monks who see only eight infected monks. With the information available, nobody sees any reason to consider any other lesser possibility. Just like in the conventional solution, each monk, having two possibilities, must allow the lesser possibility (which means they are not infected) to resolve itself first before concluding that they are infected and turn themselves in. All of the monks know that the least number of infections that any of them must consider is eight, not one. The first day nothing would happen. The second day, the monks that saw only nine other spotted monks will conclude that the possibility of anyone sighting eight spotted monks was groundless, so they will all turn themselves in. The third day, those who saw ten spotted monks will all breathe a sigh of relief.

Considering The Second Possibility

Now we need to look at the big picture.  This isn’t rocket science.  Why hasn’t anybody seen the error in conventional wisdom before today?  I, like the monks, must consider the possibility that I am the one infected.  If nobody else comes forward with a confirmation of the correct answer soon, I guess I’ll be forced to turn myself in.  Please hurry.

A Better Way To Handle The Harambe Incident

For those who haven’t heard about the gorilla named Harambe that was shot ten minutes after a toddler fell into his enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo around 4 pm on Saturday, May 28, 2016, here is as good a source as any: Gorilla killed after 4-year-old falls into zoo enclosure. Apparently, authorities had both a tranquilizer gun and a rifle at their disposal, and chose the rifle to fatally shoot the gorilla even though the boy hadn’t yet been seriously injured because they were afraid that the tranquilizer wouldn’t act fast enough. They didn’t have to make that call. Here’s a better way.

  1. Take both the tranquilizer and the rifle. The same person should not operate both.
  2. Have other staff members make themselves immediately ready to rescue the child.
  3. When both weapons are ready, shoot the gorilla with the tranquilizer.
  4. Have the person with the rifle continuously evaluate the threat posed by the gorilla.  If bodily harm from the gorilla is not immediately forthcoming, do not shoot.
  5. If the parents get hysterical while you are evaluating the situation and behave in such a way as to adversely affect the behavior of the gorilla or the judgement of the zoo staff, shoot the parents.  (So as not to make the same mistake as the Cincinnati Zoo staff did Saturday, I guess I should mention that you could use the tranquilizer gun for this if you had the forethought to bring the correct dose – even though at this point it wouldn’t be my weapon of choice.  If you don’t have the correct dose, just pray that the staff isn’t acting under the same level of panic or incompetence as they exhibited with Harambe.)
  6. Rescue the child as soon as practicable.

Although (admittedly based on limited information) I did not think the boy was in danger, and not all witnesses in Cincinnati felt the dangerA, those opinions don’t matter to the success of this plan. Since using the tranquilizer doesn’t prevent the use of the rifle, this plan could not have turned out worse for the child than the plan executed, and most likely would have turned out much better for all concerned. The zoo simply threw away options prematurely based solely on their worse fears instead of facts – that sounds like panic to me, and it sounds very unprofessional.  If you feel differently, feel free to comment.  If you see a reason that this plan would not work, feel free to comment.

How Large Is Your Universe?

We used to keep tropical saltwater fish. When getting a new fish, one important question that would inevitably come up would be how much space would it need. It amazed me to think that some fish, even in the wild, could be perfectly happy spending their whole lives patrolling one small rock. That was the extent of their universe. Each individual person, like each of those saltwater fish, lives in their own universe, each a different (but probably overlapping) subset of The Universe created by God.

In The Beginning

When you are born, your universe is very small – focused only on your mother’s breast – but starts to grow immediately. Every experience gives you a new plank you can use to expand your universe. As a new experience comes to you, your mind stretches to make sense of that experience. In a later article we can discuss how important a strong imagination is to discovering the truth (this may seem ironic), which is important for the growth of your universe, but I don’t yet understand how strong imaginations are developed. Other attributes are also required.

When Growth Starts To Slow

Growth may start to slow, however, once your universe is large enough so that a new plank can fit entirely within your existing universe. Since you didn’t have to stretch your universe to accommodate that plank, you may feel that no more growth is necessary and discard that plank. For example, in the story of the blind men and the elephant, which I embellished in The Blind Men And The Elephant, one scholar, “holding the tail, announced that an elephant was like a rope”. While their later behavior may lead you to question how scholarly they really were, a non-scholar would have been more likely to have declared that there are no elephants; what he was holding WAS a rope and he resented any efforts to try to fool him into believing otherwise. In this man’s mind, his universe was already sufficient to describe what he had experienced, and so he threw out the new plank. Once this happens, it takes larger and larger planks to keep up any growth.

When You Have Reached Your Limit

At some point your mind may start subconsciously throwing out old planks to make room for new. In my first career, I was at a field unit (from which everyone starts) and it was a common complaint about how clueless the people in the district office were about what was going on in “the real world”, based on the decisions that were passed down to us. And when someone in our unit was transferred to the district office, we took bets on how long it would take him/her to move to the dark side. The same thing happens when teachers with experience get transferred downtown, away from the classroom. One could argue that it was the people in the field, who had experienced only one small piece of the puzzle (or elephant, if you will), were the ones with the smaller universes and thus were unqualified to pass judgement, while the transferee, with more experience in a larger world was making decisions that would benefit the whole team. While that’s the way we would like to see it work, that doesn’t always happen. My father, who had to join a union to learn his trade, could see only the benefits of the unions at the time and was a strong believer. Once he became a contractor and had to deal with unions “from the other side of the fence”, he could see only the negative. Apparently his universe was not capable of stretching to accommodate both views. Sometimes the truth about elephants is too large to fit in anybody’s universe. When your universe stops stretching, it has reached its maximum capacity.

Then there are other people who are unwilling to stretch, and start throwing out new planks that don’t match or fit into a set of planks that they created themselves. Those people are known as bigots. It’s when they grab everybody around them and try to force the others into their resultingly smaller universe that things could get ugly. I think it’s a bad idea to voluntarily throw planks out of your universe at any time. Here’s why –

The Descent

At some point as you age, your universe will start to become less resilient and will try to shrink. The process begins well before your universe has reached its largest size, but from then on it’s all downhill. I think I’ve already started the slide. If you don’t keep actively trying to add new planks to slow the process, it may act like shrink-wrap, too soon becoming so tight around your body that everybody will be able to see just how small those private parts really are that you had bragged so much about for so long. When they start laughing, you won’t care that the shrink-wrap is now too tight for you to breathe.  I wrote this analogy specifically for men with bloated egos,

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since this term is not in any medical journal or book on psychiatry, I will have to define it in a later post
(which may be my favorite target), but something analogous happens to all population groups.

Measuring Universes

While the size of one’s universe seems to be a far better metricD by which to judge a person than more common and more superficial traits like size, sex, or hair quality, measuring this parameter is not as easy as it sounds. Since you can only measure something that is completely inside your universe, you can only judge people whose universe is small enough to be completely contained within yours, which usually means a child or imbecile. Maybe you are perfectly happy to always be comparing yourself to morons, but eventually your friends are going to correctly conclude that “it must take one to know one”. If a person has any talent or experience that is not part of your universe, there is absolutely no way for you to tell how significant that talent is. If the common area between you and that other person is only a small part of your universe, it might be tempting to draw inferences unfavorable to that other person. But since again you don’t know how large his/her unshared universe might be, your conclusions would be completely unsupported (It is entirely possible that their unshared universe could be larger than yours), but it would give evidence to any counterclaim that it is you who is the idiot.

A less common but more important question may be how to measure the size of your own universe. Sure, you can get from one side of your universe to the other, but what can you compare it to? Maybe you are like that little fish I mentioned at the beginning of this article, perfectly happy patrolling your own little rock while others swim in and out of your life on their way through. How do you know you are not missing out on something worthwhile just over that next rock? How do you know that something big is not soon coming along the path that will annihilate your universe and the universes of everyone around you? I don’t have answers to these questions, but clues might be found in the answer to two other questions: “How often do you discover a plank that isn’t yet part of your universe?” and “How hard are you really looking?”.

Is An Apology Really A Sign Of Weakness?

I’ve known a number of people who share this belief. Now it has even been spelled out as one of the many rules of Leroy Jethro Gibbs, the protagonist in NCISD, a television program started in 2003 which has been one of the top five shows for the last nine years. It would be unfortunate if Mr. Gibbs’ position as a highly competent investigator and team leader were to give credence to this completely ridiculous notion.  The title idea is useful only to wimps with big egos as justification for their refusal to take responsibility for their actions.

The truth is, it is NOT the apology that makes you look weak.  It is doing something stupid and/or harmful to others in the first place that makes you look like an idiot.  And don’t think, when you discover you have erred, that you can slide on by before others notice.  The perpetrator is seldom the first, and in many cases is the last to realize that a mistake has been made.  Often, everyone else has been laughing at you behind your back for weeks by the time you realize you goofed.  You would be delusionally arrogant if you thought the people around you needed your permission to recognize the folly of your efforts.

Contrary to what these people would have you believe, recognizing, admitting, and correcting mistakes is part of the growth process and can be considered an important step toward maturity.  Mr. Gibbs, then, can only be considered a talented and effective leader in spite of his emotional issues, not because of them.  At least that’s the way I see it.  Let me know it there is a better way of looking at this.

Another Reason Why Moderate Muslims Matter

On a friend’s Facebook page recently, I found a videoA which turns out to be from a hearing of a Heritage Foundation panel on the Benghazi attacks on June 17, 2014

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Possibly one reason I hadn’t seen this video earlier is that I knew right away what House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy admitted in SeptemberA, which is that the Benghazi investigation, like the investigation into Hillary’s emails, is all a sham. A sham that has cost taxpayers millions of dollars without gaining any useful information during its many, many months of existence (it is rather pathetic, even shameful, that ANY politician would use those four poor souls as pawns for some lame political agenda). Consequently, I haven’t been paying it much attention.
In this video, one of the panelists, Brigette Gabriel, goes off on an unsuspecting member of the audience, Saba Ahmed, who, while asking a serious question about the merits of an ideological war vs. the more traditional “nuke ’em ’til they glow” approach so popular with the Republican Party, had the audacity to suggest that most Muslims in the world (and America) weren’t the enemy.  Ms. Gabriel made it clear that she couldn’t give a sh# about moderate Muslims (in her words, they are “irrelevant”).  In Ms. Gabriel’s rant, she mentioned that “according to ALL intelligence services around the world”, 15 to 25% of all the 1.2-1.8 billion Muslims in the world were radical (and by the tone of her comments, I assume she was perfectly happy with the traditional approach and is willing to fight an all-out war with ALL Muslims to protect America).
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Ms. Gabriel is not alone in her tough talk on foreign policy issues. It seems that all the Republican presidential candidates like to pound their chests and talk tough, yet not one of them has even one minute of service in the United States military.
The sad part was that Ms. Gabriel received a standing ovation and on the site where I first saw this videoA, 81% of responses were thumbs up vs. 19% thumbs down.

How The Numbers Show That Ms. Gabriel Should Care (About All Moderates)

First, A Fact Check

Apparently Ms. Gabriel missed a few of the world’s sources of intelligence.  On the first page of my Google search I found a site that raised serious questions about the methods of those making such outlandish claimsA and at least one sourceA who claims that less than one percent of Muslims in their area “are at risk for becoming radicals” (emphasis added).

The Infamous Blue Taxi

Next, although the math used in my argument can be broken down to basic fractions, it is foreign (no pun intended) to many people. Specifically, I will be using the same reasoning used in the well-known story of the blue taxi cab, as presented by Presh Talwalkar in the Mind Your Decisions blog. I suggest you check out that article. If the math and logic makes sense to you, then continue here, where I will explain how that reasoning applies to this situation.

Before I start this particular line of reasoning, I would like to point out that there are several reasons, whether religious, ethical, or just pragmatic, to treat your neighbors with respect.  Note that political correctness is NOT on this list of good reasons.  Nothing I say here should be taken as trying to discount those other legitimate reasons in any way.

In the story of the blue taxi cab, a witness identified a blue taxi as the culprit in a hit-and-run accident late one evening.  Even though the witness was 80% reliable in identifying the color of taxis at that late hour, in this case it was shown that he was most likely wrong.  In jumping to conclusions, most people don’t realize there are two situations in a case like this that one needs to consider: the obvious situation is the likelihood that the witness correctly identified the blue taxi (which was pretty good, actually).  What most people fail to consider is the likelihood that the witness incorrectly identified a different-colored taxi as blue.  Because of the scarcity of blue taxis where this story took place, the second consideration proved to be the most significant factor.

Changing Muslim Minds

Since moderate Muslims are irrelevant, there would be no reason for Ms. Gabriel to treat them any different from the ones out to terrorize America, which means you can expect her to treat all Muslims very badly as part of her ”war on terrorism”, as you can see in the first video.  How many terrorist minds do you think she will change?  Although they technically wouldn’t qualify, I’ll let you count the ones she kills.  If she gets half of them the first year (being grossly optimistic), that would represent less than one half of one percent of all Muslims, so let’s say eight million “converts to Christianity”.  Since all Muslims look the same to her, we can assume a similar number of moderate Muslims will bite the dust.

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As a quick reality check, compare those sixteen million dead Muslims to the number of Iraqis that were killed in the Iraq warA – 17 thousand Iraqi government troops, less than 4 thousand additional ‘friendly’ casualties, 27 thousand bad guys, and 66 thousand (innocent) civilians.  Most of these casualties occurred in the first four years of the conflictA. Also consider how many Americans died trying to achieve those numbers – around 4,400, with another 32 thousand wounded.  (That’s over a thousand times the number that died in Benghazi.  How many hundreds of investigations did the Heritage Foundation hold on that “scandal”? (OK, I admit that although this seems to be standard Republican procedure, it is lame for me to insinuate wrongdoing with absolutely no supporting evidence.  In the interest of fairness, I will publish any exonerating details when you provide them.)  It is possible that some dead American soldiers are worth more than others to opportunistic politicians).  To summarize, for every hundred bad guys killed, 63 of the local good guys were killed and 244 innocent civilians, meaning only one out of four casualties was a bad guy.  Now you can extrapolate these figures (just multiply everything by around 300 (bringing American deaths to over 1.3 million) to get an idea of the true costs of this strategy.  In preparation for the next paragraph, you might also ask yourself “How many of those other casualties were really converted (or convertible) to Christianity?  And how many of their families and friends would be?

Making More Terrorists

Just like the blue taxi cab witness, the reason Ms. Gabriel is wrong is that she failed to consider the taxi cabs that aren’t really blue.  In English, that means if she really wants to win the war on terrorism, she needs to consider the non-terrorist – the moderate Muslims – that she so willingly threw under the bus.  In that first year that Ms. Gabriel killed those eight million terrorists (and luckily only eight million innocent bystanders), which represents half of all the ‘known’ terrorists in the world, it is unlikely that she converted a single surviving Muslim, terrorist or not, to Christianity.  It is much more likely that she converted many more moderate Muslims into “terrorists”.  And it doesn’t have to be at the same rate at which she “converted” the terrorists (50%), it doesn’t have to be even one tenth of that (5%).  If Ms. Gabriel radicalizes Muslim’s at only one hundredth of the rate at which she eliminated them, she (and we) are in deep trouble; there will be more terrorists at the end of the bloody year than there were at the beginning.  In the next year, when Ms. Gabriel gets even tougher on these heathens, the results are guaranteed to be worse.

And Then There Is Israel

If you think this couldn’t or wouldn’t happen, consider Israel.  They have been battling the “terrorist” Palestinians for over fifty years.  When Palestinian teenagers throw rocks, Israeli soldiers call in the tanks.  When a genuine Palestinian terrorist fires a crude scud missile that falls harmlessly to the side or is destroyed by Israel’s advanced missile defense, the Israelis fire a dozen high-powered smart missiles to obliterate whole communities of women and children (the going rate for an Israeli casualty was only 30 Palestinians during the last war, down from the 100 lives for each Israeli that has been their tradition).  When the Palestinians aren’t fighting back, the Israelis put up road blocks and check points everywhere and even build large walls through the middle of Palestinian communities.  They set up a blockade to keep the regular Palestinians from rebuilding and moving on with their lives.  How many Palestinians do you think have converted to Judaism in those last fifty years?  While I suspect that the Israelis have killed enough people to account for the original terrorists many times over, there are (surprisingly?) more genuine Palestinian terrorists today than ever before.

Don’t Try This Trick At Home, Kids

A rational person might be asking “After fifty years, why are the Israelis still using those same failed tactics (after all, they’ve got to be smarter than Cubans, right?A).  The truth is, the Israelis aren’t looking for converts.  The Israelis aren’t looking for peace.  The Israelis are apparently only looking for cheap land.  Since our goals are not the same as the Israelis (we already stole all the cheap land we could possibly use), and since we don’t have another country subsidizing our war effort, we cannot afford to follow the same tactics as the Israelis.  We should, however, take advantage of the results of their little experiment in how (not) to modify human behavior.

So Now What?

All I know for sure, after doing the math and studying world history, is that Ms. Gabriel’s approach is doomed to failure.  But history has given us other (even successful) examples.  Do some research (must I do all the heavy lifting?).  Maybe we could learn something from Gandhi, for example.  It’s possible that Ms. Saba Ahmed’s idea (from the first paragraph above) about an ideological war (whatever that means) could have merit.   Another Book on human behavior comes to mind which contains wisdom that has stood the test of thousands of years – yes, I’m referring to the Bible.  Taking the higher moral ground has repeatedly shown definite positive benefits (and I’m not referring to the Hereafter).  So re-read the Book; take notes this time – but if you’re not planning on using your Bible, maybe you could get a good price for it from Ms. Gabriel’s converts.  Since we apparently have no further use for the Statue of Liberty, I’m sure the Republicans have already started looking around for a potential buyer so they can further cut taxes on their poor rich buddies.  Maybe they could gather up a few million “like new”, very lightly used Bibles to sweeten the deal.

I am actually concerned about the citizens of the United States of America abandoning the values that made this country great.  I’m concerned about the apparent dumbing down of America.  Those factors could be related.  It seems like the pace of this decline may have picked up after “9/11”.  I’m reminded of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s remark “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”D.  If I get a chance, I may try to answer the questions “What the hell was he talking about?” and “Why the f*& should we care what some dead President had to say?”  Future articles may also address our education system.  An even more timely topic would be “What to look for when deciding which politician to vote for”.  Unfortunately, I don’t yet have a definitive list of the important characteristics (and the least important characteristics), so all I can do for now is to encourage you to stop being so shallow.  Stay tuned.

P.S.

I did not post a comment on the Facebook page which had the video mentioned in the first sentence.  That friend happens to be a high school math teacher (and by all accounts, a very good one).  As far as I know, we are still friends.

Remarks That Sound Great Until You Think About Them – Part 1

As the next major election cycle ramps up, both parties will be throwing out sound bites, most of which are already well worn even though not all of them stand up well under scrutiny.  I think it would be good to take a closer look at some of these, in the hopes that maybe we could put a few to rest and force our politicians to come up with better material.  The loftier goal of forcing a discussion

To see the Note click here.To hide the Note click here.
by which I’m referring to the ancient definition that involved all parties actually listening and responding to the comments of others to either build on those comments or point out their shortcomings as the case may be, instead of the modern habit of just hurling memorized slogans in the other’s general direction in parallel soliloquies
on the issues may be out of reach for the moment.  Due to personal biases, the ridiculous remarks of the Republicans seem easier for me to spot, but I’m counting on my readers to keep this discussion balanced.  I have no allegiance to stupidity, however, so once you point out a Democratic gaffe, I like to think I would be able to contribute to the analysis. The questionable remarks will be presented in no particular order.  The first one goes like this:

“I Don’t Believe In Throwing Money At A Problem”

On its face, that’s a statement I’m pretty sure everyone can agree with, but in practice, what exactly does that really mean?  Assuming that the problem is worthwhile and significant (meaning it’s too big to take care of all by oneself but needs to be fixed anyway), how do I implement that philosophy?  After calling a plumber over to your house in the middle of the night on a weekend to stem the flood emanating from your bathroom, how many of you have ever had much luck after they present you with the bill of convincing him or her to pay you instead for the opportunity to solve your problems?  Me neither.  Does that have anything to do with the fact that I’m not a politician?  Maybe we live in different worlds.  I’m as frugal as anybody, but I can’t think of a single problem in this class that didn’t require a worthwhile investment on my part.  So what am I missing here, overD?


 

DIn many forms of radio communication, “Over” means “I’m finished talking and eagerly await your reply”.  It would not be used in the same sentence as “Out”, which means “I’m really done; don’t bother calling back”.  Outside of Hollywood, the combination “over and out”, which translates to “please respond immediately so I can ignore you” is usually considered too rude for normal conversation.

“It’s The Light”

The Problem

Photographers have a mantra – “It’s all about the light”.  They can talk endlessly about what makes good light and bad light and most live for “the golden hour”, which is never actually an hour but occurs just after sunrise or just before sunset.  Most people don’t realize that there are photons

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the smallest wave/particle units of lightD
bouncing around at all times of the day and night, and if you put your camera on a tripod and leave the shutter open long enough you could make your midnight photo look like the middle of the day (albeit an overcast day, since there will be no shadows).

With all of this emphasis on the light, it is interesting to note that looking at most photographs gives you very little information about the source of the light, but a great deal of information about the subject of the photograph, which is reflecting light that it has (heavily) filtered from that original source. And so it is with most human intercourse. Politics is rife with examples. When your friend is ranting about Obamacare, which he or she probably hasn’t even read, you will invariably learn more about their hopes or fears than you will about any of the President’s policies. This is a fact of life that critical thinkers and skeptics routinely take into account.

How To Cope

Probably the most extreme example for discovering an indirect, heavily filtered truth would be the old logic problem of “The Island of Truth tellers and Liars”A. In one of the various versions, there is a remote island that has two separate tribes. At one end of the island is a tribe of cannibals that always lies, while at the other end is a more civilized tribe in which everybody tells the truth. From a landing at the middle of the island, a traveler moves inland until he comes to the fork in the road leading to the tribe at each end. There he finds two natives, each in distinct tribal dress, but he doesn’t know enough to determine which native comes from which tribe. He asks the one dressed in yellow which tribe he is from, but doesn’t understand the answer. He asks the one in blue “What did he just say?” to which he gets “He said he was a truth-teller”. What did the traveler just learn and from which person should he ask directions to the civilized tribe?

If you’ve already heard this problem, you may want to skip ahead to the next paragraph right now.  The second of the above two questions is the easiest; the traveler has no choice but to ask the only native that he can understand.  The real question is “Can Ms. Blue be trusted?”  In this case she can be.  It really doesn’t matter that the traveler couldn’t understand the first native because the first question will always have the same answer.  If Mr. Yellow is a truth-teller, he will tell the truth; if he is a liar, he will lie about it.  Either way, he will always say he is a truth-teller, meaning there is no way to know the tribal affiliation of the first native.

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On the positive side, if you are a mediator, a diplomat (as opposed to today’s politicians), a negotiator, or anyone that needs to work with people as part of their job to get things done, this should be encouraging evidence that it should always be possible to find something about which two radically different factions can agree.
 You can learn the tribe of the second person by comparing their answer to that known constant.  Since Ms. Blue accurately reported Mr. Yellow’s answer, it is she and not Mr. Yellow that is the truth-teller.  You may follow her directions when she points to the tribe of the truth-tellers.  Had she reported that Mr. Yellow claimed to be a liar, you would have thanked her profusely before heading in the opposite direction of her pointing finger.

Unfortunately, in this problem the most extreme case is actually the simplest to solve.  In real life, one’s truthfulness (or lack thereof) may not be as dependable.  In that case you must carry both possibilities in your mind until you have finally gathered enough evidence to rule one out.  Knowing the right questions to ask would be a big help, but all answers should be regarded with suspicion.

I realize that’s not much of an answer, but things aren’t always as simple as black or white.  If you were expecting simple answers to life’s hard questions, maybe you need to grow up.  But then again, I may be only scolding you to hide my own inadequacy in providing useful information.  That’s why it would be good right now to open this up to give my astute readers a chance to provide a better perspective to the problem.  (That’s your cue).  Thanks for listening.

Rules Of Engagement

“Real men”, or those who no longer need to prove their manhood, no longer have a need to fight all foes and have learned the wisdom of choosing their battles.  Whether that title would include me or not is subject to debate (or maybe just wishful thinking), but here are the rules I follow.  There are only two rules, and each has just one exception.  I suppose any “real man” would have to set his or her standards even higher than this:

  1. Never fight someone smaller than you.  This would be a public relations nightmare.  Should you win, you will receive no glory (since that is what you were expected to do), and most likely would receive ridicule for choosing such an easy target.  Should by some chance you lose, you will never ever hear the end of it.  The exception to this rule would be that if you were attacked you would be allowed to defend yourself as necessary.  But even then you may use only enough force to subdue or dissuade the attacker.  Keep in mind that exactly how much force is necessary to accomplish that will always be subject to later review by armchair quarterbacks everywhere.
  2. I don’t recommend fighting someone much bigger than you, for obvious reasons.  (If the reason is NOT yet obvious to you, then you may disregard this rule for as long as it takes to discover a good reason.  If you are winning all of these fights, then you are conveniently clueless about the definition of “much bigger than you”).  As the exception to this rule, you may proceed if you are fighting for a good cause.  One question, which some attribute to the U.S. Marine Corps (but may in fact go back much further) that you may always want to consider when choosing a cause is “Is this the hill I am willing to die on?”  For me, ‘feeding my own ego’ just doesn’t make the cut.  ‘Proving your manhood’ probably shouldn’t either.  Some people get a lot of satisfaction out of their support of causes much larger than themselves.  Besides their effectiveness rating, the grandness (or the smallness, even pettiness) of the causes for which they are willing to fight might be a much better way to judge a person than the more traditional characteristics of size, color, sex, or religious/political/social affiliations.

That’s all there is to it.  But this is just one person’s opinion.  If you think I’ve forgotten something, speak up.  I would be particularly interested to hear what a “real man” might add to the discussion.  Thanks for your time.

How Long Have I Been A Skeptic?

I have no idea when all of this started, but this may shed some light on the issue.  It is the earliest memory I have of me questioning conventional wisdom.

The Story Of The North Wind And The Sun

I was in elementary school in southern California – I don’t remember what grade – when we had an assignment to read this short story.  It’s one of Aesop’s Fables.  If you missed it, or can’t remember that far back either, you can find it at www.storyarts.org, among other places.  As the story was explained to me, it was supposed to illustrate the superiority of persuasion over force or, at the very least, that the sun is stronger than the wind.  However, that’s not the way I saw it then.  And now that I’ve had years to develop my experience and wisdom, that’s not how I see it today.  Even back then it  was clear to me that both the sun and  the wind had their individual strengths and weaknesses.  The north wind, although not feared in the same way as his cousins, the tornado or the hurricane (a.k.a. cyclone, a.k.a. typhoon), is no slouch and has sunk ships, caused massive amounts of damage ashore, and taken lives.  The sun may seem benign, even benevolent to those living north of the 40th parallel, but large swaths of land have suffered due to his excesses, and in fact he can only be tolerated at distances greater than around ninety-three million (93,000,000) miles.  At the time I read this story, I was not aware of all of these statistics or the full power of either of the contestants, but even then “I wasn’t born yesterday”.  We didn’t get snow in southern California, but it can get windy enough to appreciate the north wind’s power.  And then there was that story about the three little pigsA, which showed the destructive force of wind (caused in this case by a lone wolf).  On the other hand, in the summer the sun was so strong that people used to say they could fry an egg on the sidewalk.  By the way, nobody in southern California ever claimed to be using the power of persuasion when they are trying to fry eggs.

It was clear to me back then that the sun was obviously smarter than the north wind, and designed the rules of this friendly little contest to take best advantage of his own talents.  The goal was to get the man to take off his coat.  Had the contest been to get the man to put ON his coat, most of us can see that the sun wouldn’t have had a chance.  The first lesson for the north wind might be to be wary of letting your opponent make the rules.

Secondly, it is crucial to be aware of your own limitations.  For the north wind to think that a strong, cold breeze could force somebody to part with their coat is delusional.  One can never improve if they don’t even know where they are deficient.  And even if it is not possible to correct a particular flaw, as long as you are aware of it, there may be a way to compensate.  Odysseus was an excellent example of this in his dealing with the sirens (scroll down to the eleventh section of “The legendary story of Odysseus”).  By taking the advice of a women (Circe) and making allowances for his weaknesses, Odysseus was the first person to listen to the Siren’s great song and live to tell about it.

The final lesson to be learned from this story was that a good public relations team is worth its weight in gold. The way they put that spin on the sun’s use of force was masterful. Unfortunately, this is a lesson I’ve had a lot of trouble wrapping my head around, to my own peril. Even today I don’t put enough effort into public relations, continuing to hold on to the naive belief that if you work hard, your efforts will automatically be noticed and you will be rewarded – even though experience has disproved this theory time and time again.  Seemingly, some people never learn. Being able to learn from your own mistakes is crucial.  If you could learn from the mistakes of others, you would be well ahead in the game.