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Electrical Engineering student. Life is pretty good, but boring.

Alex Lamb @Al6200

28, Male

Studying Engineering


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Joined on 12/3/05

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Posted by Al6200 - June 9th, 2011

Heidegger's philosophical magnum opus, written in Germany a few years before the rise of the Nazis. It is easily one of the most divisive tests of the 20th century. Derrida, Foucalt, and nearly all other continental philosophers have been deeply influenced by it and praised it as a masterpiece of modern philosophy while several prominent philosophers have declared that it is nothing but willfully obscure rhetoric and nonsense. Some have even claimed that it is pure jibberish. With that in mind, I'd like to try to write up an amateur summary of Being and Time, at least as I understood the text.

In my opinion the starting point for understanding Being and Time is recognizing that the reading of the text is not linear. There is no sequence of arguments that leads from a clearly defined premise to a clearly defined conclusion. Being and Time explicitly defends the concept of a hermeneutic circle, a process through which one's foreconcepts influence the reading of the text and thus the meaning of the parts depend on the meaning of the whole and the meaning of the whole depends on the meaning of the parts. This approach is based on Heidegger's understanding of time, which is itself the focus of much of the text. Here Heidegger defends the hermeneutic circle approach using the hermeneutic circle approach itself, which makes sense in the context of hermeneutic circle approach. Heidegger has broken down the traditional wall between methodology and conclusion, and with that in mind, the text is very difficult to approach from a linear perspective. Many of the passages only make sense upon multiple readings and may not come into clarity until the entire text is realized.

Posted by Al6200 - August 7th, 2010

Athletics, academic rigor, prestige of faculty, quality of resources, access to labs and research opportunities - all of these things and more have an influence on how we gauge the quality of a university. On some level though, all of these factors are determined by a university's finances. Wealthy schools like Harvard can pay for top notch facilities, which attracts the best professors, which in turn brings in the most talented students. With this in mind, there is some basis for dividing the universities into tiers on the basis of their finances. We could simply rank colleges by per capita spending or per capita endowment, but I think that it is much better to look at how a college gets its funding, rather than what that actual funding is. A university that funds itself through alumni donations has fundamentally different goals than a university that gets it's funding through stockholders. I think that there are four distinct tiers:

Tier 1: Most money comes from endowment and grants. Tuition supplements this funding. Universities in this tier tend to be need blind, and are able to admit students exclusively on the basis of merit and are highly generous with financial aid.

Tier 2: Endowment and grants pay for improvements, but the bulk of costs are paid for by tuition. I think that this includes most good private universities and public universities that get supplemental funding from their state governments.

Tier 3: Tuition pays for nearly all costs. This is mostly lower tier private universities. These schools are probably overpriced because they need to dip into tuition to fund improvements and expansion.

Tier 4: The for-profits. Shareholders invest money in the university's holding company's stock and that money pays for improvements, development, and marketing. Oh God, the marketing! The University of Phoenix, one of the largest for profits, spends hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising and even owns its own professional sports stadium. Tuition is used to fund the school's operations and pay back the shareholders. While these schools charge tuition that is totally out of line with what they offer, much of their funding actually comes from federal loan programs bailing out the graduates who have no ability to pay back their outrageous "college" loans.

Posted by Al6200 - November 23rd, 2009

I was reading Kant's book "The Metaphysical Elements of Justice", when I saw that the great philosopher had discussed a common thought experiment in philosophy. A guy is on the Titanic as it sinks. He notices that there is only one spot left in a lifeboat, but another man who would take the seat. He can throw the other man into the ocean, murdering him, to procure himself a seat. Assume here that there is no risk of anyone else seeing him. We can modify the situation by replacing one of the men with a woman and her kids, to show that one side has a utilitarian advantage.

In either case, Kant has a clever solution. He says that a law is a necessary obligation for maintaing a civil society and an external incentive to that obligation. Kant argues that there is no external incentive that would dissuade someone from saving their life in such a circumstance, and thus the situation is outside of the justice system.

This has always been a sticky issue for me that has made me reluctant to accept a deontological ethical system. When people have said that "Lying is always wrong", I've thought of the situation of a Jewish person trying to escape from the ghetto - only able to do so if they lie to the SS. Are we really to say that the Jewish person is not morally justified in lying? One could say that this situation is an exception to the rule, but if we are to grant exceptions like this, then we might as well become utilitarians.

Kant's answer is nice and eloquent. Reading his text has been a joy and I look forward to getting my hands on A Critique of Pure Reason as soon as I can.

Posted by Al6200 - July 30th, 2009

The Basis of Testing Intelligence

Psychometrics, the scientific study of quantitative psychology, began with Alfred Binet in late 19th century France. He discovered that children had "mental ages" that did not correspond directly to their physical ages. Rather, he found that the distribution of children's mental ages for a given physical age was a bell curve (or normal distribution) centered around the children's physical age.

Binet then created a metric called the "Intelligence Quotient" or IQ. A child's IQ is the ratio of their mental age to their physical age multiplied by 100. An IQ of 130, or a ten year old with the intelligence of a 13 year old, should occur in 2% of their population. Since the distribution of intelligence is symmetrical, an IQ of 70, or an adult man with the intelligence of a 13 year old, is expresses itself in 2% of an average population. People with IQs of 70 or lower are called mentally retarded, and Binet's test enabled educators to diagnose mental handicaps earlier and target educational resources more efficiently.

Later, intelligence tests were created for adults. But a score of 130 for an adult has a more abstract meaning than it does for a child. A child with an IQ of 130 can be seen as having the same mental development as a child 30% older than himself. But what does an above average IQ mean for an adult? Simply put, it means that the adult is smarter or more mentally developed than other adults. But what does it mean for one adult to be smarter than another? Does it mean that they have more memory? Does it mean that they have a mental development that is somehow "beyond" full mental development? These questions would be answered by the statistician Francis Galton and psychologist Charles Spearman.

General Intelligence

In the late 19th century, Galton discovered a mathematical tool called correlation. If two variables are strongly related to each other, we say that they are correlated. For example, the correlation between it raining and the ground being wet is 1.00. By that we mean that the two variables always coincide. If the correlation was 0.0, it would imply no relationship between the variables. If the correlation is negative, it implies an inverse relationship.

Spearman noticed that academic abilities were correlated. For example, you might have great grades in History but weaker math grades. But on average a person with stronger history grades will have stronger math grades then a person with weaker math grades. Spearman conjectured that there might be a "General Intelligence Factor", known as g, that represents the common overlap between all academic abilities. If something is very closely correlated with g, it is said to be g-loaded.

This new discovery dramatically increased the utility of IQ tests and made the concept of intelligence much more robust. If one wants to predict a child's academic future, they could give them something that is moderately g-loaded like a vocabulary test. But such a test might miss out on a more distant aptitude in mathematics that is not very closely correlated with a vocabulary test. It would be best to give an IQ test that is highly g-loaded, because it will partially predict the child's aptitude in a variety of subjects.

To think about g more closely, think of a few people you know and how they do in school. Of course every person has strengths and weaknesses, but if one student is setting the curve in their math classes, they will likely do better in their history classes than someone at the bottom of their math class. Most people have academic aptitudes that are somewhat even across different subjects. However there are a handful of people, known as Idiot Savants or more recently Autistic Savants who have a few mental gifts but are otherwise mentally handicapped. The existence of the general intelligence factor does not contradict the existence of autistic savants, rather it should be a rare condition.

Animal Intelligence

Some have pointed out that unintelligent animals can do very well on specific IQ test questions. For example gorillas can remember long strings of digits, and pigeons are very good at a specific on Raven's Progressive Matrices.

Environments and Genes

Intelligence is very heritable among humans in developed countries. Studies done with identical twins have shown that intelligence is determined by genes by as much as 80%. However we must be extremely careful with this number, because it only applies to the sample in which the study was conducted. Let us illustrate this with a simple thought experiment.

Suppose we give an English reading test to 100 American youth. We ought to expect most of the differences to be genetic and not environmental. We would expect that almost all of the variation to be due to genes. But then suppose we expand our sample to include Japanese children who have no familiarity with English, and give them the same test. In our expanded sample virtually 100% of the variation would then be environmental. This is because not knowing the English language was not an environmental variable that was included in the first study.

For these reasons we should look at international comparisons of IQ differently then we look at comparisons among people with similar environments. If we did a heritability study of IQ that had both the United States and Africa in the sample, we would expect the heritability to be small, although to my knowledge no such a test has been performed.

Why did I write this post?

I choose to write this rather lengthy blog post because of an atrocious article by David Shenk in The Atlantic Monthly. Although the standard for mainstream media articles written on IQ is very low, Shenk seems to lower the bar even further by showing a complete lack of knowledge or familiarity with the subject that he is writing about.

david_shenk/2009/07/the_truth_about_iq .php

This article reminds me of the Creationists who point out a fatal flaw in the theory of evolution - that no one has ever been able to photograph an animal while it is evolving. I'm dead serious, I have literally heard people say that, as if evolution suggests that animals deform into a blob of silver luminescence before emerging "evolved" as they do on the Pokemon television show.

Shenk writes:

"What, then, is IQ? Conventional wisdom says that IQ scores reveal our native intelligence. According to this view, IQ tests are different from school grades, different from SAT scores, different from any other test you will ever take"

Actually the correlation between the SATs and the ASVAB test is about 80%. The correlation between the SATs and the Raven's Progressive Matrices IQ Test is about 70%. I'd imagine that school grades are just as close to IQ if one controls for variable grading standards.

But one thing that's important to remember is that no test is a perfect measure of general intelligence. Raven's Progressive Matrices is close, but as I mentioned earlier there are some questions that can be mastered by Pigeons! But it is used because it reflects the intellectual potential of the severely autistic who appear retarded on other IQ tests.

"because they somehow reveal the core, innate abilities of each person's brain: your clock speed, your RAM, your absolute limit. "

The ability for a person to rapidly react to stimuli is only slightly correlated to the general intelligence factor, as is one's short term memory (what a computer would call RAM). If you test people on how many digits they can repeat back to you backwards you will get a test that correlates to g twice as much as if you had simply asked them to repeat back the digits without reversing them.

I suspect that this is the case because the brain naturally stores numbers in forward link lists, because has great biological value. To repeat numbers backwards, one has to actually store all of the numbers and keep them in a position. I suspect that this is very important for academic success where one has to organize ideas that are not directly related to one another.

IQ is none of the things that Shenk lists yet it is also all of them. It is the most general mental talent that we know of.

Posted by Al6200 - July 20th, 2009

I discovered something very surprising and somewhat disturbing recently - that almost all real numbers are transcendental and irrational.

The Real Numbers - A real number is any number that can be written as an infinite string of digits, i.e. 1.30000... or 1.310219029100... The real numbers are uncountably infinite, which means that we cannot assign a whole number to each real number. Consider that we can assign the number 1 to 1.000... , 2 to 2.000 and so on for all whole numbers. Yet we still have numbers that have not been paired off with a whole number. This means that the real numbers are uncountably infinite.

The Irrational Numbers - An irrational number is any real number that goes on forever with no repeating pattern, that is any number that cannot be written as a fraction where the numerator and denominator are both whole numbers. If a number has a limited number of digits than it can be written as a fraction, i.e. 1.03 = 103 / 100.

A real number whose digits have a repeating pattern can also be expressed as a fraction. Consider that 1 / 9 = .111... , 2/9 = .222... , 9/9 = .999... = 1. Also 1/99 = .010101... and 1/999 = .001001001... So then we can write any repeating string of digits as such a fraction, and if we wish to create a real number that starts with a non-repeating string of digits than we can simply sum that fraction with the fraction of the repeating part of the number. Since the sum of any two fractions is also a fraction, we can conclude that any number that goes on forever with no pattern cannot be represented by a fraction.

We can represent any fraction m/n with two numbers m and n. We can count all possible combinations of m and n in this fashion:

m1, n1, m2, n2, m3, n3, m4, n4 ...

Therefore number of fractions is countably infinite. Since the rational numbers are countably infinite and the reals are uncountably infinite, the irrational numbers must be uncountably infinite.

The Transcendentals - A polynomial is any sum of expressions of the form ax^n where a is an integer and n is a positive integer. For example: 5x^2 + x + 3. The set containing all the possible roots of all possible polynomials contains all of the Algebraic Numbers. Any number which cannot be the root of a polynomial is a transcendental number. There is a proof that the transcendental numbers are uncountable, but I'd like to give it a go myself before I post it here.

What's so beautiful about this result is that it is very hard to prove that specific numbers are irrational or transcendental. In fact there are very few known transcendental numbers (pi is probably the most famous transcendental number), but any random number that we generate with an infinite number of digits is very likely to be transcendental.

Posted by Al6200 - April 28th, 2009

America's Top 100 Universities: 2009 Rankings by Al6200


Only universities in the United States which offer doctoral degrees are ranked.

Major Criteria:

Size of endowment
SAT Percentiles
Freshman Class Rank Percentiles

Minor Criteria:

US News Peer Review Score

Tier 1 - Top 6

1. Harvard
2. Yale
3. Princeton
4. Stanford
5. MIT
6. Caltech

Tier 2 - Top 20

7. Rice
8. Chicago
10. Columbia
11. Duke
12. Dartmouth
13. Emory
14. Northwestern
15. Notre Dame
16. Penn
17. Hopkins
18. Vanderbilt
19. Brown
20. Carnegie Mellon

Tier 3 - Top 50

21. Tufts
22. Georgetown
23. USC
24. Illinois
25. Berkeley
26. Michigan
27. Brandeis
28. RPI
29. Georgia Tech
30. Boston College
31. LeHigh
32. Rochester
33. Virginia
34. WPI
35. NYU
36. Wisconsin
37. Case Western
38. Wake Forest
39. William & Mary
40. UCLA
41. Tulane
42. UNC
43. Miami
44. UC San Diego
45. Maryland
46. Yeshiva
47. Cornell
48. George Washington
49. U. Texas
50. Illinois Tech

Tier 4 - Top 100

51. Stevens
52. Wisconsin
53. Tulsa
54. Minnesota
55. Boston University
56. Colorado Mines
57. Florida
58. SUNY
59. Yeshiva
60. Pepperdine
61. Tulane
62. Ohio State
63. Syracuse
64. Northeastern
65. Iowa State
66. Clemson
67. SMU
68. St. Louis
69. Delaware
70. American
71. UNL
72. Texas A&M
73. Drexel
74. Pacific
75. University of Iowa
76. Virginia Tech
77. UC Irvine
78. Pittsburgh
79. Washington
80. Penn State
81. Rutgers
82. Connecticut
83. Georgia
84. Fordham
85. UC Santa Barbara
86. UC Davis
87. Miami Ohio
88. Purdue
89. Baylor
90. Marquette
91. NC State
92. Suny Stony Brook
93. Oklahoma
94. Clark
95. Michigan State
96. Colorado
97. Denver
98. Howard
99. Indiana
100. Florida State

Disclaimer: Like all rankings, this is obviously not perfect and all schools have their own relative academic advantages. But I think my rankings are better than the USNews rankings so I'm posting them anyway.

Posted by Al6200 - April 25th, 2009

"The weapons of the mind have been given to us... to defend the things of the heart.

Knowledge follows love; it does not precede it."

-Pat Buchanan

This seems like the exact opposite of the approach of most modern people, that reason should be used to create morals and values. In Pat Buchanan's system, the opposite approach is used, one starts with morality and then uses reason to justify it.

Posted by Al6200 - April 8th, 2009

What's a clever name for a parliamentary debate team? The name of our school is Worcester Polytechnic Institute, so we're thinking that either "We're practically illiterate" or "We're Proletariat Instigators" would be good names.

But any other names...

Posted by Al6200 - February 17th, 2009

Suppose that we have a nation (let's called it A) with very simple diseases and very simple health care needs. The only disease that they can get is lung cancer, and a person's probability of getting that disorder is directly proportional to how much they smoke. So if someone smokes their entire life, they have a 90% chance of getting lung cancer. If they never smoke, they will never get lung cancer.

In country A, the insurance system more or less works perfectly. The free market provides an accurate incentive for people to stop smoking. Yet a person can choose to smoke if they want to - they'll just pay the price in the form of higher insurance premiums. The system maximizes freedom and economic utility. Universal healthcare would only subsidize the habits of the irresponsible in country A's situation.

Now let's suppose that there is another country B, in which the only disease that people can suffer is cancer. A person has no capacity to control whether or not they get cancer. Likewise eating healthy or exercising has no effect. However, the cancer can be treated much better and more cheaply if it is caught early. Here, universal health care is an ideal system because there is no reason not to take advantage of free preventive medicine.

So to me it seems like we live in a world that is somewhere in between country A and country B, so we ought to have a medical system that is somewhere between that of countries A and B. Perhaps we could make it so that preventative care, vaccines, and medicine are all universal, while advanced treatment is done by insurance (and I think it would make sense to make it illegal to have employers provide health insurance, because that sort of defeats the pricing mechanism). In effect it would be a hybrid system, half socialized - half privatized.

So what do you think?

Posted by Al6200 - February 9th, 2009

I was talking to an old friend a few days ago, and he asked me why I identified as a conservative. I thought about it for a little bit, and realized that outside of Edmund Burke's old writings, there don't seem to be a lot of through and logical defenses of the conservative philosophy. To some extent conservatism is a reaction to liberalism, and not a philosophy in and of itself.

So I decided to piece together a logical argument for the conservative philosophy, starting with 5 fundamental axioms, and arguing that conservatism follows logically from the 5 fundamental axioms.

The Axioms

These five axioms are necessary and sufficient conditions for one to be a rational conservative. If one does not accept these axioms, then it is not rational for one to be a conservative. Likewise, if one accepts these axioms, then it is not rational for a person to not hold conservative views.

Axiom 1: Identity

Allowing every person in a society to create an identity for themselves has an intrinsic value. A person creates an identity for themselves by going through a process of using their own physical and mental effort to achieve their goals or proxies for their goals. The widely cited psychologist Erikson says that these are a person's major "life stage" goals (note that all of these goals are a reflection in one way or another of a person's survival, socialization, and reproduction so I think that we could definitely shorten Erikson's list):

1. Trust
2. Autonomy
3. Initiative
4. Industry
5. Identity
6. Intimacy
7. Generativity
8. Ego Integrity

For example, if I give you a button that dispenses water when you press it, you do not develop identity. But if I give you a math problem that you have to solve to get water every day, you will develop an identity by using your own skill and ingenuity to meet your basic needs. To generalize, a person who gets everything that they ever wanted without ever having to work would not develop any sort of identity, and would not be satisfied with themselves.

Axiom 2: Freedom

The freedom of all individuals has some intrinsic value. Freedom is the extent to which a person is free from psychological and physical coercion, that is the extent to which they act in their own rational self interest. Freedom and choice are "black boxes". A person's freedom can be measured by whether they act in their rational self interest or not based on what actions they actually take. The actual form of the coercion does not change the amount of freedom that they have.

To illustrate this, suppose that I have a mouse in my lab which, on my command, runs around in a circle for no reason at all. If I insert an electrode into its brain which forces it to run around in a circle, it is not acting with freedom. If I condition it from birth to run around in a circle, it is not acting with freedom. If I somehow convey to it the message that it will die if it does not run around in a circle, and then tell it to do so, it is not acting with freedom. In essence we are looking at freedom as a black box. A person is free or not free based upon the actions that they take, not based upon any specifics of how they are coerced.

Axiom 3: Dignity

The dignity of an individual has an intrinsic value. A person's dignity is the extent to which a non-sensitized person would intuitively react to their condition.

For example, if I showed you a mutilated dead person you would probably feel a great deal of unease and discomfort (assuming that you haven't been sensitized towards that sort of thing). In that sense mutilating a dead person is wrong because it takes away their dignity.

Axiom 4: Utilitarianism

What is utilitarian for a group of people is not necessarily what gives all of its members freedom, dignity, and identity.

A good example of this is eugenics. Traits which are very useful to society like intelligence are somewhat heritable, and it is easy to demonstrate that you could make society more intelligent quite quickly by controlling who breeds. Eugenics are utilitarian, because they make society much more productive. But eugenics does not create a society in which people have freedom, dignity, and identity. One loses the freedom to decide who they reproduce with, and how much. One loses the dignity of going through life in a natural way. One loses their identity because they do not have the ability to have their own effort result in their major life outcomes.

Axiom 5: Harmonics

In an ideal world all individuals have freedom, dignity, and identity - and that it is better for a society to have a relatively equal amount of all 3 of these properties, then more of one than another. For example, if I had the power to turn invisible, I would have a lot more freedom, but I would lose my dignity and identity (because a person with the ability to turn invisible will probably not go through their life stages in a healthy way). Also I would more likely than not use the power to take away the freedom and dignity of others.

Why classical liberalism (libertarianism in the US) is insufficient

Britannica defines classical liberalism as:

"A Political doctrine that takes the abuse of power, and thus the freedom of the individual, as the central problem of government"

To the libertarian the central problem for freedom is the lack of the rights, or absolute protections, from government force and coercion. The problem with this is that absolute rights do not exist, because between any two choices people will lose rights (for example if I am given the freedom to smoke, then I take away another person's freedom to have clean air).

But how do we know what action violates a person's rights, and what simply violates a person's interests? Typically we'd look at something along the lines of proximate cause. If I shoot you in the head, then I raise your chance of immediately dying to close to 100%. Most people would see this as taking away your right to life. But what if I create a product that raises your risk of cancer by 50%. Is that taking away your right to life? If I create a product that causes another product to be created that raises your chance of dying, am I taking away your right to life?

Natural liberties only exist if we can set limitations on what constitutes proximate cause. But as our ability to expand proximate cause increases (through science, statistics, and other means), the concept of natural rights will erode, because we'll know with more detail the effects of certain actions. If we knew everything, then we could determine the effect of all of your actions on other people's rights, and know that your best action would be to minimize the total amount of damage to other people's rights.

In effect, as we know more and more, a system of classical liberalism based on natural liberties become more and more identical to utilitarianism - which completely defeats the point.


Conservatism is the philosophy that continued technological progress is not a sufficient condition for creating a better society, and that we must retain conservative social structures that allow individual humans to live useful fulfilling lives.

People create technology for the purposes of acquiring money (private enterprise) or prestige (academia). Both money and prestige are allocated based on how much society is strengthened by the new technology, and by axiom 4 we know that freedom, dignity, and identity are not necessarily going to be strengthened by progress. By axioms 1-3 we've established that these things are important and should be a goal of policy, and by axiom 5 we know that they are all necessary.

So if you accept axioms 1-5 as being correct, then you should accept the conservative philosophy.


(So what do you guys think?)

(Note: this was edited on February 16th to include a brief critique of libertarianism, largely to address the comments made by AKACCMIOF)