Monday, September 04, 2006

* Chances Are by Michael Kaplan

Don’t bother to read this book, and please just settle for the blogged version I am about to share with you.

The best experiments deduce an effect from the hypothesis and then isolate it in the very context in which it may be disproved. This falsifiability is what makes a hypothesis different from a belief – and science distinct from the other towers of opinion [such as religion]. P7

A taxi sideswipes a car on a winter night. There are 2 taxi companies in town: Blue and Green. The latter owns 85% of the cabs. A witness says she saw a Blue taxi. Independent tests suggests she makes a correct identification 80% of the time. So what color was the taxi? Almost everyone says that it was blue, because people concentrate on the reliability of the witness. But the real issue is how her reliability affects the base fact that a random taxi has an 85% chance of being green. When those 2 probabilities are combined, the chance that the taxi was green is actually 59% - more likely than not. P9-10
The book desperately needed to publish this calculation, and another reason why I can’t recommend it.
20% chance of error and 85% chance of cabs being green; 20%x85%=17% (thus 83% chance of her being right and the car blue or green).
80% chance of being correct and 15% of cabs being blue=12% (thus 88% chance of being right or wrong and the cab green).
80% chance of being correct and 85% of cabs being green,= 68% chance of being correct for green (thus 32% chance of being blue)
20/100 times she’s wrong. 15/100 times the cab is blue, so 3% of the time she’ll call this green. But she told us it was blue, so even if the car was green, she was mistaken. So isn’t the answer so obviously 59% to you?

An experimenter showed people 2 urns. One contained 50% red, and 50% black balls; the other contained an unknown proportion of red and black balls. He offered $100 to any subject ho drew red ball from either urn. Which urn would you choose? Almost all subjects chose the known proportion 50/50 over the unknown. Then you’re offered another $100 to draw a black ball; the same subjects still chose the 50/50 urn – even though their 1st decision suggested that they thought the unknown urn had more black balls and fewer red ones. P11

The Emperor Augustus spent whole days gambling with his cronies. Claudius wrote a book on dice and had his sedan chair rigged for playing on the move. Caligula of course, cheated. Tacitus said “So bold are the German barbarians about winning and losing, that, when they have gambled away all else, they stake their own freedom on the final throw.” P13 Hey, don’t give the Vegas casinos any ideas!

Descartes’ belief that staying in bed until noon was essential to the proper working of his brain has made him the hero of every well-read adolescent. P21

Logarithms ease calculation by considering any large number as a base raised to some power. Instead of trying to multiply large numbers, we can simply add powers of 10 that represent them, since 10^4x10^6=10^10. So if x=10^a, then a=logx. P34

May the force be with the Brits?
The 2001 UK census reveals that 40% of the children are born single mothers… The same census also reveals that 390,000 people state their religion as ‘Jedi’. P112

In a group of 33 clinical trials on death from stroke, with a total of 1066 patients, the treatment being tested reduced mortality on avg from 17.3% in the control group to 12% in the treated group – a reduction of 25%. Are you impressed? Do you want to know what the treatment is? It’s rolling a die [in a simulated experiment]… The rules were simple: rolling a ‘6’ meant the simulated patient would die. Overall mortality averaged out would be 1/6 or 17.5%. But two simulations out of 44 showed statistically significant results. P159

The breakfast of champions or klutzes?
High correlation is not enough for inference: when an effect is naturally rare and the putative cause is very common, the chance of coincidence becomes significant. If you asked people with broken legs whether they had eaten breakfast that morning, you would see a very high correlation. P162

In the 1960s, controls for heart studies had their chests opened and immediately sewn up – a procedure unlikely to pass the ethics committee now… Considerable work has gone into developing placebos that while inactive for the condition being tested, provide side effects associated with the treatment… Also the placebo effect is well documented. If a control group patient improves, it needn’t be because of the placebos; some simply get better… You need, essentially a control for your control- another group you are not even trying to please. “Would you like to participate in a study where we do nothing for your condition?” Might this message affect the patient’s well being? P163

You’re in charge of a mammogram screening program for women between 40 and 50 who show no symptoms. The overall probability that a woman has breast cancer is .8%. If a woman has breast cancer, she has a 90% probability of showing a positive result. If she doesn’t have cancer and she shows a false positive is 7%. A patient has a positive result. What is a probability that she has cancer? [Don’t worry, read on.] Doctors in a German teaching hospital were baffled: 1/3 decided the probability was 90%; 1/6 thought 1%... Phrase the question again this way: out of 1000 women, 8 will have breast cancer. When you screen those 8, 7 will have a positive mammogram. When you screen the remaining 992, 70 of them will have a false positive. Your patient then has only a 10% chance of having cancer! P171

Magic bullet?
Combining folic acid with aspirin in a generic cholesterol and blood pressue lowering drug and giving that to everyone over 55 (assuming the benefits are multiplicative – a big assumption by the way) should cut the risk of heart attacks by 88%, stroke by 80%. Average lifespan could increase by 11 years. P173

Field Marshall Montgomery told the world that ‘there are 3 rules of war. Never invade Russia. Never invade China. Never invade Russia or China.” P240

If you were a Frankish Knight in the 10th century, your view of war would be very different. Your hut is marginally bigger than your neighbors, you are the only one not required to work the land; your business is the protection of those who do. Better fed, better trained, and better armed than any peasant, you lend your invulnerability to the village; it as if, in you, they owned a tank. Your only hope of improving your position is through seizing the cattle or harvest of the neighboring village – but it too owns a knight. But then if it didn’t, your villagers wouldn’t be threatened, and wouldn’t need you. Your most dangerous enemy is also essential justification for your existence… It was only when the Crusades offered the prospect of booty beyond the neighbor’s barns that war became organized again. With that organization and cooperation all could gain more than they had before, came a new concept of knightliness: the code of chivalry, adding to valor the ideals of obedience, loyalty, discipline, and self-restraint. P241

Dollar auction (try this at your next cocktail party!)
Offer to auction a dollar to the highest bidder but with one devilish twist; that the 2nd highest bidder would have to pay their losing bid to you. So if you bid .70, and your neighbor bids .75, he gains a quarter, while you lose .70. Even if you had to buy the dollar for $1.10, at least you’d only lose a dime instead of .70… Bidding will usually slow as you reach the dollar mark, but once past would zoom well beyond it. People will buy a dollar for the average price of $3.40! p256

Lets say that there are 1000 terrorists operating in the US. If we had 99% accurate test of identifying a suspect by sifting through publicly held information, we would end up accusing 2.8 million innocent people (1 in 300,000 of these will be an actual terrorist). And no matter what we do, 10 terrorists would get through, and you only need one whacko… As Ben Franklin said “They that can give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” P273

Boltzmann stated that low entropy can spontaneously arise from high entropy, but low entropy is the same as low probability [and we mean low]… He calculated that the probability that the molecules in a gas in a sphere with a tiny radius of only .00001cm will return to any given configuration is once in 3x10^57 years – some 2x10^47 times the age of the universe so far. P286

Saturday, September 02, 2006

** Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong

The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong

The first section of this book was very enlightening on the prehistory of the Indo-Europeans and the Chinese, and their cultural/religious development from the bronze age forward. I have to admit that I couldn’t finish the book. After the ancient historical period discussions, it delves into theological minutiae from my standpoint. I would highly recommend the first 100 pages.

We’re all one big happy – Caucasian – family.
The Aryans were originally pastoralists from the steppes of southern Russia. They had lived on these Caucasian steppes since about 4500. They were a loose knit network of tribes who shared a common culture. They spoke a language that would form the basis of several European and Asiatic tongues; they are also called the Indo-Europeans or Caucasians. By the 3rd millennium some tribes began to roam farther and farther afield, until reached what is now Greece, Italy, Scandinavia, and Germany. Those Aryans who stayed behind on the steppes drifted apart from the western cousins. The Western branch spoke an Avestan dialect, and the Eastern branch spoke an early form of Sanskrit. They were able to maintain contact, however, because at this stage their languages were still very similar, and until about 1500 they continued to live peacefully. P3

The Aryans could not travel far because the horse had not yet been domesticated. They farmed their land, herded their sheep, goats, pigs, and valued stability and continuity. They were not a warlike people, they had no enemies and no ambition to conquer new territory. Their religion was simple and peaceful… They called their gods Devas (the shining ones) and Amesha (the immortals). P4

The Aryans felt very close to their cattle. It was sinful to eat the flesh of a beast that had not been consecrated, because profane slaughter destroyed its spirit forever, and thus violated the sacred life that made all creatures kin. P5

There goes the neighborhood.
This slow uneventful life came to an end when the Aryans discovered modern technology. In about 1500, they had begun to trade with the more advanced societies of Mesopotamia and Armenia. They learned about bronze weaponry from the Armenians and about the carts pulled by oxen, and war chariots. Once they learned how to tame wild horses, and harness them to the chariot, they experienced the joys of mobility. Life would never be the same again. With their superior weapons, they could conduct lightning raids on neighboring settlements and steal cattle and crops… These new class of fighters killed, plundered, and pillaged, terrorizing the more conservative Aryans. Violence escalated on the steppes as never before. Even the more traditional tribes, who simply wanted to be left alone, had to learn the new military techniques in order to defend themselves. P7

The old Aryan religion had preached reciprocity, self sacrifice, and kindness to animals. This was no longer appealing to the cattle rustlers, whose hero was the dynamic Indra, the dragon slayer, who rode in chariot upon the clouds. P7

The mark of Zoro
To the Aryans, events on earth always represented cosmic events in heaven, so, they reasoned, these terrifying raids must have a divine prototype. The cattle rustlers who fought under Indra’s banner, must be his earthly counterparts. But who were the devas attacking in heaven? The most important gods – such as Varuna, Mazda and Mithra, the guardians of order – perhaps were under attack by Indra. This was the visionary view of a priest who claimed that Mazda himself had commissioned him to restore order to the steppes. His name was Zoroaster. P8

Zoroaster’s vision convinced him that Mazda was not simply one of the great gods, but that he was the Supreme god [precursor of monotheism?]. This was not quite monotheism. Zoroaster had probably reached this position by meditating on the creation story which claimed that in the beginning there had been 1 plant, 1 animal, and 1 human being. It was only logical to assume that originally there had been 1 god. P8

The world seemed polarized because Indra and the cattle rustlers had nothing in common with Lord Mazda, they must have given their allegiance to a different set of gods… The unprecedented violence in the steppes had caused Zoroaster to divide the ancient Aryan pantheon into warring groups. Good men and women must no longer offer sacrifice to Indra. Instead they must commit themselves entirely to Lord Mazda… The whole of life had now become a battlefield in which everyone had a role. Even women and servants could make a valuable contribution. P9-10

Apocalypse Then and Now
No battle could last forever… The world was rushing toward a cataclysm. He and his followers were living in a ‘bounded time’ of cosmic conflict, and soon they would witness the final triumph of good and the annihilation of the forces of darkness… There would be a great judgment. The wicked would be wiped off the face the earth, and a blazing river would flow into hell and incinerate the Hostile Spirit… We are now familiar with this kind of apocalyptic vision, but before Zoroaster there had been nothing like it in the ancient world. P10

Where have all of the Zorastrians gone?
By the end of the 2nd millennium the Avestan Aryans had settled in Eastern Iran, where Zoroastrianism became the national faith. It has remained a predominantly Iranian religion ever since, and still has followers to this day. P12

Welcome to India!
Some Sanskrit speaking Aryans migrated south, through Afghanistan and settling finally in the fertile lands of the Punjab. The called their new home the Land of the 7 Rivers (referring to the tributaries of the Indus and Ganges)… Our only sources of information on this period are the ritual texts composed in Sanskrit, known collectively as the ‘Vedas’ (knowledge)… The Aryan migration into the Punjab was neither a mass movement nor a military invasion. There is no evidence of fighting, resistance, or widespread destruction. When they arrived, they would have seen the remains of a previous civilization – the Harrapans. At the height of its power in 2300-2000BC, this ancient Indian empire had been larger than either Egypt or Mesopotamia at the same time. P13

By the time they established themselves in the Punjab, the cult of Indra was becoming the Supreme God… This was an age scarcity; the only way that the Aryans could establish themselves in the Indus Valley was by stealing the cattle of the indigenous settled communities. P15

Think you had it tough in school? When these guys were kids, there were no books or paper, and they had to first memorize their entire book before they could then memorize their book report – which was, of course, delivered orally.
Some stories of the Rig Veda (Knowledge in Verse) could be very old indeed, because by the time the Aryans arrived in India, its language was already archaic. The poems were transmitted orally for generations, and was not committed to writing until the 2nd millennium. We find it hard to believe that people were able to learn such lengthy texts, but the Vedic scriptures were transmitted with impeccable accuracy, even after the archaic Sanskrit had become almost incomprehensible. Even today, the exact tonal accents and inflections of the original , long lost language have been preserved [so we think], together with the ritually prescribed gestures of the arms and fingers. P16

The lives of the warriors and raiders alternated between village and forest/jungle. During the monsoon rains, they lived in the villages. But during the winter solstice they yoked their horses and oxen and set off into the wilderness on a new cycle of raids. The opposition of village and forest became a social paradigm in India. The inhabitants settled the land providing the crops and cattle that the warriors needed; yet they constantly feared attack from other cattle rustlers. The forest was where the warrior proved his valor and explored the unknown. Later hermits would retire to the forest to pioneer spiritual valor and to explore the metaphysical unknown. P17

Let’s party like it’s 1999 – BC that is.
If a community accumulated more animals and crops than it needed, this surplus had to be ‘burned up’. It was impossible for a nomadic group that was perpetually on the move to store these goods, and the potlatch [similar to the native Americans] was a rough and ready way of redistributing the wealth of society. The ritual also showed how successful the chief had been and enhanced his prestige. P18 The blowout parties after a round of financing are the modern day equivalent of the potlatch, and these companies ‘burned up’ investor cash in flagrant displays of wealth. Nothing really changes when it comes to human nature.

Umm, what’s for dinner?
Sacrifice increased the violence that was already endemic in the region. After it was over, the patron had no cattle left and would have to inaugurate a new series of raids to replenish his wealth. P19

A warriors entire life was a deadly, dangerous contest for food and wealth. Ever since the Aryans lived on the steppes, they believed that the best and wealthiest among them would join the gods in heaven. Now they were convinced that a warrior to died nobly in battle went immediately to the world of the gods. P19

Where did the caste system originate?
In the 10th century BC, the old egalitarian tribal structure [among the Aryan races living in Indo-European regions around present day Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, north India] began to crumble, and an aristocracy of warrior families, known as the Kshatriyas (the empowered ones) became dominant. Those of less noble lineage, the Vaishyas (the clansmen), started to give up raiding and became farmers. When the Kshatriyas yoked their horses to their chariots at the beginning of the new raiding season, the vaishya stayed behind in the village. Like the Shudras, non-Aryan population, they now resembled the ‘asuras’, who stayed at home, and were fair game for plunder. P19

What were some of the first inklings of Indian religious thought?
During the late Vedic period (10th century BC), the Aryans developed the idea of Brahman, the supreme reality. Brahman was not a Deva (god), but a power that was higher, deeper, and more basic than the gods. Brahman was the fundamental principle that enabled all things to become strong and to expand. It was life itself. P24

Yin Yang thing
In China, circa 1500 BC, the men moved out of the village and took up permanent residence in huts in the fields; during the work season, they had no contact with their wives and daughters except when the women brought their meals. After the harvest, the land was laid to rest and the men moved back home… This was the sabbatical period for men, but the women who had less to do during the summer, now began their season of labor: weaving, spinning, and making wine. This alteration may have contributed to the Chinese concept of yin and yang. Yin was the female aspect of reality. Its season was winter; its activity was interior and conducted in dark, closed off places. Yang, the male aspect, was active in summer and in daylight; it was an external, outgoing power, and its output was abundant. P29-30

Got ‘Mandate from Heaven’?
The mandate from Heaven would become an important ideal during Chinese history. If a ruler was selfish, cruel, and oppressive, Heaven would not support him, and he would fall. A state might appear to be weak and insignificant, but if its ruler was wise, humane, and truly concerned for the welfare of his subjects, people would flock to him from all over the world, and Heaven would raise him to the highest position. P35

Exodus or hocus pocus?
Excavations by Israeli archaeologists since 1967 however, don’t confirm the story of Moses leading the Jews from Egypt, parting and crossing the Red Sea, wandering for 40 years, etc. They have found no trace of the mass destruction described in the book of Joshua, no signs of foreign invasion, no Egyptian artifacts, and no indication of a change in population… The general scholarly consensus is that the story of the exodus from Egypt is not historical. The biblical narrative reflects the conditions of the 7th and 6th centuries BC, when most of these texts were written, rather than the 13th century… Many of the first Israelites were probably not foreigners but [indigenous] Canaanites… Israelites who lived under Egyptian rule in the coastal city states may have felt that they had indeed been liberated from Egypt – but in their own land. The biblical writers were not attempting to write a scientifically accurate account that would satisfy a modern historian. They were searching for the meaning of the existence. These [the biblical texts] were epic stories, national sagas that helped the people to create distinct identity. P39-40

Israelites worshippers celebrated ritualized sex in order to activate the sacred energy of the soil and bring a good harvest. We know that, to the disgust of their prophets, the Israelites took part in these sacred orgies well into the 8th century BC and beyond. P42-3

Some scholars believe that the book Joshua [actually] contains a record of the ancient spring festival at Gilgal, which celebrated the Israelites victorious crossing of the Jordan river. During the springtime, the ancient Jordan overflows the whole length of its banks. It appears that the water was specially dammed up for the festival, which commemorates a miracle. When Joshua had led the people to the brink of floodwater, he told them to stand still and watch what happened. As soon as the feet of the priests carrying the Ark touched the waters, they parted miracously, and the whole people crossed over safely, dry shod, and entered the promised land at Gilgal. P44 Does any of this sound just a tad similar to the exodus story? Nah, coincidence I’m sure. Give me a break.

How the Greeks got to know to the natives of Arizona’s capital.
One of the first trading partners for the ancient Greeks were the Canaanites from the northern coastal states, whom the Greeks called Phoenicians because they had a monopoly on the only colorfast purple (phoinix in Greek) dye in antiquity. At first the Greeks resented the Phoenicians, whose culture was far more sophisticated than their own. But by the 9th century, they had begun to work creatively together. The Phoenicians established a base in Cyprus, and their craftsmen came to work in Athens, Rhodes and Crete. Phoenician colonists began to open up the western Mediterranean and in 814 they established Carthage. They showed the Greeks the mercantile potential of the sea, and the Greeks began to make new foreign contacts in Syria. P52

Killing, pillaging, plundering takes a toll on your customer base, and generally makes for bad business. Especially for repeat customers!
By the 9th century, Aryan life was becoming more settled. The economy was beginning to depend more upon agriculture than raiding, and [we speculate] that that there was a growing consensus that the destructive cycle of raid and counter-raid had to stop. The traditional rites not only legitimized this pattern but gave it sacred significance. These rituals themselves often degenerated into real fighting, and one aggressive act led inexorably to another.

In the 10th century, the Brahmanas (scriptures) were making a courageous attempt to find a new source of meaning and value in a changing world [moving toward agriculture and away from raiding]. The priestly experts decided to make a systematic appraisal of the sacrificial liturgy, taking out any practice that was likely to lead to violence. Not only were they able to persuade the Kshatriyas to accept these expurgated rites, but their reform led to a spiritual awakening. P78

Finally, some of the later Indian/Vedic religious texts made a revolutionary suggestion. A person who was expert in the ritual lore need not take part in the external liturgy at all. Solitary meditation could be just as efficacious as the external rites. P84

Freedom is having your slave do everything for you.
Most Greek citizens owned land, and it was considered degrading to work for others or to earn a salary. Greek peasants, however, refused to give up their traditional freedoms, and the aristocrats created autonomous city states rather than large kingdoms that require local rulers to submit to an overlord. This ideal of independence was not a Greek invention. The Greeks probably preserved the old tribal assemblies and councils that other peoples abandoned when they developed larger states and empires. P103

As soon as he was married, a household was allowed to have a sacred fire in his own home and he could perform the daily rites that were a scaled down version of the reformed public liturgy… But some men took the extraordinary step of leaving their families, turning their back on society, and retiring to the forest… These renouncers put themselves beyond pale, but they became central to India’s spiritual quest. Henceforth, the renouncer, not the householder would become the agent of religious change. It was he, not the Brahmin priest, who shaped the next stage of Indian religious development. P120