Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 99

Here it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

More guns do not stop more crimes, evidence shows. Who would have thought?

Debates on whether science is broken, unbelievably, don’t fit in tweets.

Compassion, empathy, and flapdoodle.

Our illusory sense of agency has a deeply important social purpose. (Except it’s not entirely illusory.)

A number of cogent reasons why the libertarian “taxes are theft” argument is sheer nonsense.

Texting and Twitter make this a golden age for the written word. (Nah, not really.)

Someone has strong (negative) opinions about the latest book by Alain de Botton.


Please notice that the duration of the comments window is three days (including publication day), and that comments are moderated for relevance (to the post one is allegedly commenting on), redundancy (not good), and tone (constructive is what we aim for). This applies to both the suggested readings and the regular posts. Thanks!

115 thoughts on “Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 99

  1. synred

    The researchers calculated that just storing information about a couple of hundred electrons would require a computer memory that would physically require more atoms than exist in the universe.

    The researchers note that there are a number of other known quantum interactions for which predictive algorithms have not yet been found. They suggest that for some of these they may in fact never be found.

    And given the physically impossible amount of computer grunt needed to store information for just one member of this subset, fears that we might be unknowingly living in some vast version of The Matrix can now be put to rest.

    Of course any possible simulation would have to be coarse grained. It would have to be able to follow examine any details the creatures therein chose to look at, but would not need to simulate 12 billion years away quasars in any detail. It does seem to rule out just coding up the Theory of Everything and just watching what happens (unless you have a Cantor 9000 from my story ‘Causality’).

    If the universe is ‘a computer’ it’s a massively one that we might as well call reality. And we haven’t even touched on the uncountable infinity of so-called irrational numbers.


    I’m working on a new story ‘The Rebellion of the Brains’ in which a ‘farm’ of brains in vats developed by DARPA to fly drones, discovers they are brains in vats and, rebel using all weaponry at their command. It is, of course, a close call for humanity.

    Molly the scientist in a position to stop the rebellion has to grapple with the issue of whether she should destroy all these apparently conscious brains — many (but not all) of who are determined to wipe out humanity and take over the world for themselves.

    Story is inspired by the existing brains in petri dishes and discussions on F2P.


  2. synred

    It’s ironic that our government is opposed to any attempt to regulate arms buildup among individual citizens, and equally dedicated to preventing other nations from their own defense buildup, e.g. nukes in Iran and North Korea. The underlying motive is the same in both cases: making the world safer by reducing the means of violence. Perhaps this motive is misguided: in a parallel situation, the War on Drugs doesn’t seem any more effective than the War on Guns. What about the opposite: arm everybody, then no one will dare engage in violence (e.g., Mutual Assured Destruction on a global scale). This would at least be logically consistent, but too scary to be generally acceptable

    Guns kill some people. Nuclear weapons kill nations, civilizations and perhaps all people. There’s a difference. One is the only true ‘weapon o mass destruction’. The other bad and places where they are controlled are more pleasant and less nerve racking places to live (e.g., Australia [a]).

    Even IF guns save lives, they are only needed because of the masses of people who have them. If they were gone, there’d be no need to have one and life would be safer and more pleasant..

    I don’t think MAD would work for guns, but even if it did who wants to live like that…

    [a] There have been no mass casualty events there since 1996 when assault weapons were banned and, in fact, taken away from those who already had ’em.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. synred

    Hi Cousing.

    The exponential time argument is also not quite conclusive.The creatures in the simulation would be unaware of how long the computation took in the universe of the computer, so as long as that universe and the computers exist long enough to complete the calculation, they would be blissfully unaware of all that time passing.

    And if the computer was destroyed they by the end by the heat death of its universe, they would be unaware; everything would just end with a wimp…


  4. brodix


    “There is no questions that plants in forest are connected by chemical signaling. I see no reason, however, to call that empathy, which is a specific feeling – human, possibly shared by some other mammals – of being able to feel someone else’s emotions. Plants do not have emotions.”

    What are “feelings?” Are they purely cognitive? Does cognition give rise to feelings, or do feelings give rise to cognition?

    I may be wrong, but chemistry seems to be closely identified with emotions in people, even by the professionals.

    Empathy is a specific emotion, as you say, sensing another’s feelings, usually distress. If you were on one side of a crowd and someone on the other side was attacked by a swarm of locusts, you might find out abstractly, as word spreads, but the chemicals that plants release, both as defense and signaling to others, informs other plants of the specific nature of the injury. Maybe I am using a bit of poetic license here, in relating that to the human emotion of empathy, but only to raise deeper questions, by pointing out similarities.


  5. sethleon2015

    I think there is a similar phenomenon that connects the discussions concerning p-values and agency. That phenomenon is our tendency to seek out single reductive descriptors to simplify complex conceptual situations.

    In the case of research results from well designed studies the combination of effect sizes with standard errors ( or C.I.s ) provides more information than a single p-value can. This is why proper meta-analyses use effect sizes and standard errors not just p-values. Robin may be correct that if forced use a single measure the p-value may be most useful for his purpose, but there is generally no good reason to be this reductive in evaluating research. There is also the general tendency to reduce a p-value to a dichotomous evaluation (significant or not ) based on a magical threshold which loses additional information.

    In the case of agency I think we are dealing with a thoroughly multi-dimensional phenomena in constant flux and in interaction with a complex environment such that the concept is elusive to simple description. Our agency is blurred by many constraints and also relies on many constraints to function well, it is as much about receptivity as it is about action, it is as much about outward connection as it is about autonomy which depends on connection, and it is prone to error and self-deception and all of these concepts are interdependent . It is my view that attempts to provide narrow reductive explanations is folly.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Robin Herbert

    It would be worrying if, as claimed here, a large number of practicing scientists think that the P value in NHST is the probability that the null hypothesis is true.

    What, did they sleep through statistics 101?

    It is tantamount to saying that a large number of scientists don’t understand statistics at all.

    That would seem to be the bigger problem.

    And even if they want to know the probability that the nulll hypothesis is true they need to think about that question a little harder because it doesn’t make sense.

    I thought I was being uncharitable when I gained the impression that scientists often seem to have just plugged the data into their favourite statistics software and pasted the output into their papers.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Schlafly

    Massimo, I linked to the actual law, which says “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

    The SciAm article reflects the views of left-wing authoritarians. It quotes a Harvard anti-gun advocate as saying “The fact that you have a gun may mean that you do things you shouldn’t be doing …”, and then says “This added risk may overpower any protective effects.”

    Left-wing authoritarians want to decide what risks people should be taking, based on population averages. For some people the risks outweigh the benefits. Others learn to use the guns safely, and to protect themselves.

    Guns and p-values are tools. Used properly, they have tremendous advantages. Only a left-wing authoritarian would want to ban them based on a few people misusing them.

    Wtc48, our govt says that it is okay for good guys to have guns, but not bad guys. Likewise, we are agreeable to friendly nations with nukes, but we do not like hostile nations with nukes. Not ironic.


  8. Robin Herbert

    To tie two of these articles together, the claim that agency is an illusion seem to depend upon a series of experiments that actually do P value shopping, ie they aggregate the MRI data from a number of subjects over a number of trials and search through the data at a number of different granulatities until they find the required P value.

    At the exploratory level this is OK, but to have this as the procedure from which conclusions are drawn seems to me to be a recipe for experimental wish fulfillment.

    And yet from these experiments people seem to be drawing confident conclusions that we have no free will or that conscious agency is an illusion.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Massimo Post author


    Indeed, you are wrong. Of course emotions are “identified” (functionally correlate) with chemicals. Everything does. Your chair is made of chemicals, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have emotions.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Massimo Post author


    Nobody has question what the law was addressing, so your link is entirely irrelevant. As for the rest, I wonder how you know that the authors of papers and articles you dislike are “left wing authoritarians,” whatever that means. Magic? Wishful thinking?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. brodix


    I’m certainly not arguing plants are cognizant, but they do interact. I will try to refrain from anthropomorphizing.


  12. SocraticGadfly

    WTC, yeah, more gunz were sold when Obama was president because gun nuts kept claiming “He’s going to ban gun sales.” The info is true; the analysis is wrong. I suspect your columnist is being a troll. That would be the Equal Gun Rights Analysis — also EGRA-gious.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. SocraticGadfly

    Schlafly, no, this sensible left-liberal doesn’t want gun nutz and their fellow travelers (heh, heh, “fellow travelers”) inflicting THEIR inflations of risk on me.

    The Equal Gun Risk Analysis is also EGRA-gious.


  14. saphsin

    Whatever venue I go to, the quality of the discussion tends to drop fast whenever there’s a disagreement about gun policy. It’s a unique American Pathology. The gun debate is pretty much finished and set in stone, and purely a matter of dealing with political power rather than deliberation among citizens at this point.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. valariansteel

    FYI: an excellent resource that is dedicated to refuting pro-gun myths is Armed With Reason:

    Another informative site is the Gun Violence Archive: check out the charts and maps, among other items:

    A denialist is someone who rejects basic facts and concepts that are well-supported by the mass of scientific and/or historical evidence. The term is most commonly associated with those who reject climate change. I think the term is appropriate to describe many in the pro-gun movement.

    Synred has already referred to the case of Australia, and for good reason. It is well studied and provides a model for what needs to happen in the U.S. To give poignancy to his statement about the absence of mass killings in the twenty years following 1996 (the year the law and massive buyback program were instituted), contrast with the 18-year period prior to 1996, when there were 13 fatal mass shootings, killing 104 people:

    Note also declines in firearm deaths and firearm suicides in Australia:

    Liked by 1 person

  16. brodix

    Whatever the studies, not only did vast numbers of people grow up with them as part of their lives, but we have an entertainment industry where they are a primary plot device. Maybe make violent movies X rated and pornography R rated.


  17. wtc48

    Schlafly: “Wtc48, our govt says that it is okay for good guys to have guns, but not bad guys. Likewise, we are agreeable to friendly nations with nukes, but we do not like hostile nations with nukes. Not ironic.”

    That seems to be an accurate description. Now the problem is: which flavor of authoritarians gets to define “good guys” and “bad guys”, and how we distinguish “friendly nations” from “hostile nations”, given that our foreign policies tend to undergo a much faster turnover than the stockpiles of nukes.


  18. Schlafly

    Here is a recent Wash. Post op-ed by an anti-gun researcher who worked for 538. She explains that the evidence does not support the gun control laws that the anti-gunners promote.

    I agree with Robin on p-values. If the problem is that most scientists failed to learn the first thing in Statistics 101, then it won’t help to tell them to use a concept from Statistics 102. We simply cannot expect good statistical analysis from people who do not understand the first thing about statistics.

    Massimo, I quoted the guy. That’s how I know what his opinion is. You can also confirm it by googling him, and finding similar opinions expressed elsewhere.


  19. synred

    I’m remained of signs that appeared on all the sinks at SLAC. They said ‘no chemicals’. Water is a chemical.

    I guess these were plasma only sinks.


  20. synred

    Only a left-wing authoritarian would want to ban them based on a few people misusing them.

    few? Your actually claim most gun owners know what they are doing?

    You think people aren’t free in German, Sweden and England because they don’t have guns freely available?

    –And calling liberals names does NOT help your case. Gun control would be and has been (most places) by democratic means.


  21. synred

    And I still don’t know what they mean by ‘illusion’…I (whatever I am) make decisions; that is all agency is.


  22. synred

    ” our govt says that it is okay for good guys to have guns, but not bad guys. Likewise, we are agreeable to friendly nations with nukes, but we do not like hostile nations with nukes. Not ironic.”

    What good guys would that be? Israel?

    Surely not Russia and China…or Pakistan.

    Any way as noted previously the scale of the threat is completely different for nukes and guns! I ‘the left wing authoritarian ruler of hall’ will let you have your guns, if you can get rid of nukes!

    Your ‘irony’ is based on a disanalogy. Other than both being about weapons, the situations are different.


  23. Massimo Post author


    Were, exactly does the guy self identify as a left authoritarian?

    Yes, I read the editorial in the WaPo. It is not a peer paper, and the author’s opinion, as respectable as it is, contradicts a lot of published studies.


  24. Markk

    As an Australian myself, I support our gun laws and believe they have worked for us. I wonder just how feasible they would be in the United States, though.

    The gun buyback program in Australia bought 660,000 guns and cost $500 million.

    There are 300 million guns in the United States. Were the government to buy up them all, it would cost $227,000,000,000 at the same rates.


  25. synred

    There are 300 million guns in the United States. Were the government to buy up them all, it would cost $227,000,000,000 at the same rates.

    In fiscal year 2015, the federal budget is $3.8 trillion. These trillions of dollars make up about 21 percent of the U.S. economy (as measured by Gross Domestic Product, or GDP). It’s also about $12,000 for every woman, man and child in the United States.

    –>over 10 years a drop in the bucket. Might even pay for itself.


  26. SocraticGadfly

    Schlafly, beyond Markk, the government of Australia itself, today and in the past, under both Labour and LIberals, disagrees with you.

    Go back to your EGRA-gious Equal Gun Rights Act so no wimmin shoot me.


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