December 5, 2012

Code used by Roger Williams in the 1600s is finally cracked

Filed under: Books, History, Media, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 11:10

I first read about Roger Williams in Murray Rothbard’s Conceived in Liberty, but I didn’t know that Williams had left coded notes that had defied analysis until now:

The obscure book’s margins are virtually filled with clusters of curious foreign characters — a mysterious shorthand used by 17th century religious dissident Roger Williams.

For centuries the scribbles went undeciphered. But a team of Brown University students has finally cracked the code.

Historians call the now-readable writings the most significant addition to Williams scholarship in a generation or more. Williams is Rhode Island’s founder and best known as the first figure to argue for the principle of the separation of church and state that would later be enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

[. . .]

Fisher said the new material is important in part because it’s among Williams’ last work, believed to have been written after 1679 in the last four years of his life.

The new discovery is remarkable on several levels, Widmer said.

“Part of it was the excitement of a mystery being cracked, and part of it was Roger Williams is very famous in Rhode Island — no other state has a founder as tied up with the state’s identity as Rhode Island,” he said. “To have a major new source, a major new document, from Roger Williams is a big deal.”

H/T to Bruce Schneier for the link.

Humans are not as much rational as they are rationalizing creatures

Filed under: Politics, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:37

Ronald Bailey discusses a study which confirms what every con man already knew: smart people are easier to fool.

People reason chiefly to persuade others that they are right, not to find out what is true.

So claim Hugo Mercier, a postdoctoral fellow in economics and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, and Dan Sperber, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at the Central European University, in their provocative 2010 article, “Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory,” in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Now a new study by the Yale Cultural Cognition Project finds that people also use reason to convince themselves, in the face of evidence to the contrary, that they and those on their side are right.

[. . .]

In addition, both liberals and conservatives displayed ideological bias when assessing the validity of the cognitive reflection test. When climate change skeptics were characterized as open-minded, Republicans thought the test was nifty. When skeptics were branded as close-minded, more Democrats found the test results convincing. Thus, the study finds that the experimental “results were more consistent with a finding of symmetry than one of asymmetry with respect to ideologically motivated reasoning.” Ideology distorts both left-wing and right-wing thinking.

Do higher scores on the reflective cognition test temper political polarization? To get at this question, the study compared both liberals and conservatives who scored low on the reflective cognition test (the 62 percent of subjects who got no answers right) with liberals and conservatives scored higher (those who got an average of 1.6 answers right putting them in between the 80th and 90th percentile of the sample). In short, the researchers found that the higher either conservatives or liberals scored on the cognitive reflection test the more likely they were to judge the test as valid when its results supposedly confirmed their ideological views about climate change skeptics and vice versa. People skilled at systematic reasoning use that capacity to justify their beliefs rather seek out truth.

Kahan notes in passing that social psychological research has found that political independents and libertarians score better on the cognitive reflection than do liberals or conservatives (check your answers below). But before we libertarians and independents start patting ourselves on our collective backs for being the better systematic reasoners, could this simply mean that we are especially good at justifying our beliefs to ourselves?

I got the answers to all three test questions right, which means I’m even more likely to “fool myself” than the average person (according to this study, anyway).

The shipbuilding tradition of the Maritimes

Filed under: Cancon, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:56

I got a media advisory from Tell Tale Productions this morning, letting me know that their most recent documentary will be shown on CBC television this Sunday on Land & Sea:

Maritime Shipbuilding is a half hour documentary that reveals this seafaring history and the proud tradition that lives on today. The film travels to once-thriving shipbuilding centers in Atlantic Canada to reveal was at one time the most vibrant, productive, and profitable shipbuilding region in the world.

From the first boats built by the earliest settlers, to the golden Age of Sail in the 1800s, and from the Grand Bank fishing Schooners to the high tech Naval frigates of today — the 28,000 vessels built in Atlantic Canada during the past 250 years have shaped the region like no other industry.

Finland’s excellent education system can’t be exported

Filed under: Asia, Education, Europe — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:46

Finland frequently comes in at or near the top of the rankings for quality of education, and some countries are tempted to replicate the Finnish model to improve their own domestic school systems. Unfortunately, as Eero Iloniemi points out, the model is actually more cultural than educational:

One such similarity is orthography. Both languages are written almost exactly as they are pronounced. Therefore, a child who can spell one word will be able to spell every word, even when they hear it for the first time. An eight-year-old Finn will have no trouble identifying every letter when he hears the word ‘kertakäyttösyömäpuikkoteollisuus’. So while native English speakers practise spelling well into their teens, Finnish and Korean kids are busy brushing up on other subjects.

Another thing Finland and Korea share is a fairly homogeneous culture. Ethnic minority groups are small and immigration to both countries is conspicuously low. As Horst Entof and Nicole Miniou of Darmstadt University of Technology noted in their 2004 study, PISA results are higher in countries which have strict and/or highly selective immigration policies than they are in countries with more liberal immigration policies. The name of the study says it all: PISA Results: What a Difference Immigration Law Makes.

This point is underlined by the fact that Finland performs significantly better in PISA studies than neighbouring Sweden. Why? Sweden has an immigrant population that is 10 times bigger. When these socially and economically similar countries are compared, omitting first and second generation immigrant children from sample groups, the results become almost identical.

Update: Oh, and it’s also a myth that the Finns pay their teachers at the same level they pay their doctors.

The Doha climate change conference is “like an absurdist flash mob”

Filed under: Environment, Media, Middle East, Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:33

Rob Lyons explains why the current meeting in Doha isn’t getting the same media love that earlier conferences have been able to depend upon:

It’s like a fly banging its head against a window pane, desperately trying to get to the other side and uncomprehending as to why it never succeeds. Except this is a 17,000-strong swarm of flies taking part in its annual exercise in futility. Yes, there’s another UN climate conference going on, though you might well have missed it.

The eighteenth Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change — there’s a good reason they call it COP18 — is taking place in Doha, the capital of Qatar. The small Arab state is, by some measures, the richest country in the world per head of population, a position built on the fact that it has the third-largest reserves of natural gas in the world. The conference has been running since 26 November and is due to end on Friday. But no one is predicting any kind of dramatic deal.

Which is a bit of a problem for those who run this peculiar show because another thing that ends soon is the Kyoto Protocol. Signed 15 years ago in Japan, the protocol aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in 37 industrialised countries and the EU to a level five per cent below 1990 levels for the period from 2008 to 2012. There’s no sign of a replacement — which, to be meaningful, really needs to include big developing countries like China, India and Brazil — just endless talks about talks. At last year’s event — COP17 in Durban, South Africa — there was an agreement to negotiate a ‘protocol, legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force applicable to all Parties’ by 2015, to take effect by 2020. As a Greenpeace representative bemoaned then: ‘Right now the global climate regime amounts to nothing more than a voluntary deal that’s put off for a decade.’

It’s all a far cry from the Copenhagen talks in 2009. US president Barack Obama agreed to attend, which meant that there was real anticipation of a major deal. Yet Obama came and Obama went, and nothing of substance was agreed. And so the process has trundled on in its own, other-worldly way. COP18 sees thousands of the kind of people who think we’re screwing up the planet by flying around the world, flying around the world in order achieve bugger all in a country, Qatar, made rich by the very fossil fuels the delegates want left in the ground. It’s like an absurdist flash mob.

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