Saturday, April 30, 2011

Booze On Parade: The Johnny Walker Collection

Someone who has a much higher opinion of me than I do got me a Johnnie Walker sampler for Christmas last year. It's been sitting in my liquor cabinet since then, waiting for a moment when I could give it the focused attention it deserves. This evening I've found myself with a quiet evening ahead of me, just the thing for a vertical scotch tasting. So let's proceed with the unwrapping, shall we?

The collection consists of one each of:

I've had much previous experience with the Red and Black; they're both good, and neither are terribly expensive. What I'm really looking forward to are the Gold and the Blue; I've not had either before on account of them being terribly pricey. Also, how often do you get to do a vertical whiskey tasting? The last time I got to do one was when I visited the Jim Beam distillery; that was a tremendous amount of fun. On with the show!

Left to right, top to bottom, that's Red, Black, Gold, and Blue. Visually there isn't much difference between the four. The Blue is, perhaps, a bit lighter in color, but the Red, Black, and Gold are all indistinguishable. There's not much difference in the way of bouquet either. All of them smell, as expected, like whiskey. I get smoke and maybe a hint of vanilla from the Red, and the Blue seems less assertive than the rest, but apart from that there doesn't seem to be much difference.

I have to say that Johnnie Walker makes a pretty good product. Though undistinguished from a flavor perspective the Red is warm and fairly smooth; not bad for coming in at under $40 for a 1.75L. The Black definitely has more character; there's a noticeable note of smoke and a hint of honey. The first thing I notice about the Gold is the mouth feel; it's richer and thicker than either the Red or the Black. Sweeter too... it bears an ever-so-faint resemblance to a good icewine. And, lastly, the pièce de résistance... it's lovely and refined, exhibiting the same sweetness and mouthfeel as the gold.

Now... here's the question... would I pay $150 for 750mL of Blue? Compared back-to-back its definitely smoother and more refined than the Red but, sadly, isn't all that interesting. I imagine that some people place a premium on the refinement of a spirit, in which case some additional cost is warranted; the Blue is definitely one of the smoothest scotches I've had the pleasure of sampling. However, and this may be a personal idiosyncrasy, I strongly prefer character to refinement... I want my booze to taste like something. For example, Laphroaig makes Quarter Cask, a great, smokey scotch that, while not nearly as genteel as Johnnie Walker Blue, is also a third of the price. Same thing with Macallan, or The Balvenie... they've got lots of interesting things in their portfolio which won't break the bank. So yes, if someone gives me a bottle of Blue I'll by no means turn up my nose, but there are better ways to get the most bang for your scotch buck.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Nozick's Experience Machines And The Need For Human Validation

I recently started working my way through Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which turns out to be just an awesome book in general. IIRC I added it to my list because it was supposed to have some material on what constitutes an appropriate level of taxation, but it turns out that it has way more than that. Nozick essentially picks up where Locke left off and builds a case for the night watchman state from first principles. Knowing now that this book exists I'm inclined to consider it obligatory reading for anyone claiming to be a libertarian.

Anyhow... the book contains an interesting digression on "experience machines" and our subjective interpretation of the worth thereof which arises in the context of whether its acceptable to treat animals differently than people. Nozick's take is that most people will reject the notion of plugging into such machines and passively ingesting synthesized experiences because being actively engaged has merit in-and-of-itself:

What does matter to us in addition to our experiences? First, we want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them. In the case of certain experiences, it is only because first we want to do the actions that we want the experiences of doing them or thinking we've done them.1

Ultimately he connects this with the desire to engage reality on a fundamental level:

There is no actual contact with any deeper reality, though the experience of it can be simulated. Many persons desire to leave themselves open to such contact and to a plumbing of deeper significance.2

It suddenly occurs to me that such an admission has some interesting consequences: If there is a "deeper reality" then of what does it consist and does its existence have any implications for the development of (libertarian or other) philosophy? But let's leave that aside and focus on his argument that people would, in general, reject plugging into an experience machines on the ground that there's no engagement with what's "really real" (for lack of a better word).

I'll agree up front that it's a contributory factor; people really seem to be stuck on things only being "real" if they happen in meatspace3. But I think that there's more to it than that and propose a modification of Nozick's scenario for the purposes of exploration.

Let's imagine, for a moment, that I'm hooked up to one of these experience machines but, rather than it being a solitary pursuit, I'm "in there" with someone else. Probably my wife because really, who else would want to spend a year in a vat with me? Further suppose that we're doing something something stimulating like taking a year-long, simulated cruise around the world. Provided that the simulation is good enough that sounds to me like a tempting proposition: I'd get to experience new cultures, see new sights, try new foods, etc., all in the company of my lovely wifey. Complaining at that point that its "not real" starts to look a little bit like naked prejudice.

And now the M. Night Shyamalan-worthy twist: Suppose that it turns out that I'm not in there with my wife at all but merely a Turing-tested, 100% indistinguishable replica. That changes things a bit, doesn't it? Some people might merely find the experience less valuable while those with a more uncharitable bent call me a deluded loser. Which of them is right, if either, isn't important; the point is that our perception of the experience changes depending on whether I'm talking to a real person or a machine.

The difference, I believe, stems from a human desire for external validation. Most people want not only to experience things, but to have other people validate those experiences as worthy and interesting. Which, at a deeper level, has to do with the social construction of meaning; actions are only meaningful if there are other people around to reflect on them4.

This brings to mind the phenomena of vacation photos. I used to walk past the original Starbuck's on my way to work and every day there'd be some lot of vacationers taking pictures of themselves outside. This engendered the following realizations:

  • The ancient Indians were on to something; there are a finite number of forms which repeat themselves endlessly.
  • The pictures were not being taken solely on mnemonic or aesthetic grounds.

After you see your umpteenth tourist having their picture taken while pointing at the Starbuck's sign you realize that one purpose of these snapshots is to document the experience so that it can be shared later with others. The act of sharing vacation snaps serves, among other things, to allow others to reflect on your experience.

To me this seems a central reason why many people would reject experience machines, but Nozick never even hints at it. Interestingly enough, it may provide fodder to answer the challenge which he raises at the end of the section:

Without elaborating on the implications of this, which I believe connect surprisingly with issues about free will and causal accounts of knowledge, we need merely note the intricacy of the question of what matters for people other then [sic] their experiences. Until one finds a satisfactory answer, and determines that this answer does not also apply to animals, one cannot reasonably claim that only the felt experiences of animals limit what we may do to them5.

Do animals find it necessary that their actions are apprehended by and reflected on by others? My guess is that the vast bulk of them do not. If that is true it is a clear example of something that matters for people differing markedly from what matters to the rest of the animal kingdom, though its not at all clear whether than difference justified treating animals differently than people from a moral standpoint.

1 p. 43
2 ibid.
3 For the record I heartily disagree; there are clearly a wide range of phenomena whose reality/validity don't (or, at least, logically shouldn't) depend on where they happen. All else being equal a novel is a novel regardless of whether its written by someone laboring in the physical world or a brain in a vat hooked up to some virtual simulation; I can think of no logical reason to privilege one manifestation of a bundle of ideas over another.
4 Grand, sweeping generalization, I know. There maybe be some actions which are meaningful absent other people. And some people, hermits and the like, certainly seem to find meaning expecting little or no interaction with others. This is merely to say that for most people, most of the time, the anticipated presence of an audience is an important part of the overall equation.
5 p. 45

Sweet Jebus: Unauthorized Access Edition

(via The Volokh Conspiracy) You've got to wonder what kind of crack was the 9th Circuit smoking:

Nosal’s argument that the government’s “Orwellian” interpretation would improperly criminalize certain actions depending only on the vagaries and whims of the employer is foreclosed by Brekka, which held unequivocally that under § 1030 the employer determines whether an employee is authorized. Therefore, as long as the employee has knowledge of the employer’s limitations on that authorization, the employee “exceeds authorized access” when the employee violates those limitations. It is as simple as that.

How 2/3rds of the panel could buy that is beyond me. I mean, really, the implications of the decision are staggering. Surely Judges Trott and O'Scannlain must have appreciated that it makes criminals out of damn near everyone who works for a company of any size. Have they read a standard, corporate AUP recently? They're best summed up by a Rev. Lovejoy quote: "Technically, we're not allowed to go to the bathroom". And if you do, it's now a Federal offense.

I really love Orin's signoff on the subject:

And if you have to go to the Ninth Circuit, remember, don’t consent to anything and tell the cops you need to speak with a lawyer.

Also, random thought: Since this interpretation of the CFAA clearly benefits employers does that mean that the 9th Circuit has a pro-business agenda?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Connecting Some Dots, Drawing Some Parallels

I just read PZ's most recent post on the NCSE and was particularly struck by the following passage:

I really feel that the NCSE has lost its way on this issue. I want to support the NCSE, but it has become increasingly hard to do. I have heard these arguments over and over again that they have to coddle religious believers because they need them to support science. They don't. ...

It's funny. The organization has such a finely tuned political sense and diplomatic strategy to promote science to the whole of the United States, and have managed to profoundly alienate that segment of our society that is most dedicated to promoting science. That's quite an accomplishment. Maybe we should stop supporting them because they're that incompetent at the political side of their mission.

That's a damn near perfect echo of Glenn Greenwald's recent lament regarding "loyal partisan voters". But notice the difference here: Greenwald has no solutions to offer while PZ immediately identifies a corrective course of action.

Which lends credence, I believe, to my contention that our political duopoly is the root cause of Greenwald's unhappiness. The best leverage that the average joe has over any organization is simply withdrawal of eir support. We can do that in the case of the NCSE since there are plenty of other groups out there supporting science education. However, the vast majority of Democrats are, for reasons which I've previously discussed, unable/unwilling to withdraw their support from the Democratic party. Until such time as there's a viable alternative to both the Democrats and the Republicans we're just screwed.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Thursday Afternoon Diversion: A POV-ray Dummy

I recently found myself in need of a basic human dummy for a project that I've got going on over at Analytic Martial Arts. My requirements were/are pretty minimal:

  • Create a stick-figure mock-up of the human body.
  • Pose the body as needed.
  • Efficiently create top, front, side, and three-quarters snapshots of the model.
  • Composite the four snapshots together in a 2x2 grid.

I initially thought to use Blender, since it's designed specifically for creating models and such, but ran into a couple of issues which complicated matters. I'm more interested in body geometry than aesthetics and, as a consequence, often know specifically where I want particular points to be positioned in 3-space. Blender, being a mesh-based modeler, doesn't provide me with a convenient way (that I'm aware of) to say "I want a cylinder of radius blah, with ends positioned here and here". Additionally, I couldn't figure out a way to render multiple camera-angles from the command line. Given that Blender has an embedded Python interpreter it's undoubtedly possible, but the answer wasn't obvious.

Since Blender wasn't going to cut it I decided to fall back to POV-ray. Moray seems to be the preferred modeler for POV-ray these days, and was an improvement over Blender, but didn't quite cut it either. The modeling process in Moray involves creating unit objects (a 1x1x1 cube, a sphere of radius 1, etc.) centered at the origin and then applying standard transforms to them. Provided that I wanted to do some non-trivial math I could come up with the appropriate transforms to get the objects positioned the way I wanted, but that would basically defeat the purpose of using a modeler in the first place.

What I really needed was an interface which would let me place primitive objects directly ("I want a sphere of radius blah w/ center x,y,z") and then view/modify them via the GUI. One of the many front-ends available for POV-ray may very well do that, but as I've yet to identify one I ended up going back to basics and using a text editor to build my POV-ray files by hand.

POV-ray doesn't have built-in support for modeling (armatures, skins, etc.) like Blender does, but it turned out to be straightforward to build a dummy that would suit my needs. Limbs are cylinders with vitruvian proportions, joints are spheres, and the location of each joint in 3-space is represented via a named vector. Defining hand- and foot-looking objects in terms of these vectors was a little bit of a challenge; I ended up creating them as cylinders with one end at <0,0,0> and then using the Point_At_Trans macro to orient them properly. Using multiple camera definitions in conjunction with m4 allows me to batch render different views which can then be stitched together using montage.

The result ain't pretty, but its good enough for MA demonstrations:

The POV source file is here; making it do anything other than stand is left as an exercise for the reader.

This Is Obama's Fault

(via Dispatches) Bradley Manning's appaling treatment while in custody can be laid firmly at Obama's feet. He's not being held back by the House, or the Senate, or any of the other excuses which are usually provided for his behavior. If he wanted to he could change the situation by executive fiat. That he doesn't lays to rest to the claim that Obama cares about principles when it comes to civil liberties.

How anyone can support him when he's acting like a totalitarian autocrat is completely beyond me. Maybe rank and file Democrats don't care enough about principle either.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Sigh (Glenn Greenwald Edition)

Glenn's a smart guy; he does some of the best (and probably most influential) writing about civil liberties available today. So I'm a little disheartened by his post today in Salon regarding the "loyal partisan voter", because I think he's mis-diagnosing the problem. What he seems to be saying is that there's a substantial Democratic contingent that's blindly loyal to the party:

In light of that fact, ask yourself this: if you were a Democratic Party official, wouldn't you also ignore -- and, when desirable, step on -- the people who you know will support you no matter what you do to them? That's what a rational, calculating, self-interested, unprincipled Democratic politician should do: accommodate those factions which need accommodating (because their support is in question), while ignoring or scorning the ones whose support is not in question, either because they will never vote for them (the hard-core right) or will dutifully canvass, raise money, and vote for them no matter what (the Democratic base). Anyone who pledges unconditional, absolute fealty to a politician -- especially 18 months before an election -- is guaranteeing their own irrelevance. [Emphasis mine]

Maybe there's a contingent that has sworn fealty to Obama, but I really doubt that explains the behavior of the majority of people who vote Democratic. My gut is that they're just choosing the lesser of two evils. Consider the options currently available to progressive-leaning voters:

  • Vote for the Democrat
  • Vote for the Republican
  • Vote for some third party
  • Don't vote at all.

You can, like me, choose to abstain from the entire process on the grounds that it's a bloody farce, but I would guess that most progressive-ish types feel some duty to vote. An idealistic progressive might vote for a third party but, as can be seen from the pitiful percentage regularly garnered in elections by third parties, these individuals make up a small percentage of the overall electorate. Essentially the choice facing your average progressive is Republican vs. Democrat, in which case they will rationally vote Democrat because the party does occasionally throw them a bone (DADT repeal, for example).

In short it is not, contrary to what Glenn seems to be saying, necessary to invoke blind loyalty to describe the voting habits of the Democratic base. As for a potential solution to this impasse... Glenn Glenn Glenn, I kept waiting for you to say "two party system", but you never got there. Which is sad, because you could broach the subject of our fucked up political duopoly and people would actually listen to you. The solution is for people to have a viable alternative to both the Republicans and the Democrats.

I mean, really... what other choice is there? If progressives are going to vote the Democrats are the only game in town; voting for the Republicans is essentially cutting of your nose to spite your face. Democratic politicians know that, which means they calibrate their behavior to be slightly-less-bad than that of the Republicans. Until such time as a viable third party appears, be it by magic or reform of the electoral system, we've no choice but to hold our noses. No loyalty needed.

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