Defining a Bailout

Did I mention I'm Canadian?

Well, I am. And recently while I've been keeping up on economic news I've been encoutering two really popular themes about the home country.

  1. "Canada's banks are really, really stable."
  2. "That's a LIE! The government gave them a massive bailout!!!"
So, which is it? (Spoiler: It's the first one.)

First, some examples of people making the latter claim. This guy at Pacific free Press"Sean" in the comments section. The people at "Global Research". etc...

I'm particularly dissapointed in that last one... I'd expect someone who uses the word "research" in the name of their very organization to, well, research things. And it's not like it takes a lot of reseacrching to find the problem in these claims after all. Opening a dictionary and looking up the definition of two little words would get the job done:

  1. Bailout: noun. A rescue from financial distress.
  2. Insurance: noun. A promise of reimbursement in the case of future loss.
Now, let's look at what that link at "Global research" has to say about how the Canadian governemnt "bailed out" the Canadian banks, shall we? I'm going to go ahead and highlight a word in the statement they spend consireable time ranting about:

"Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) will purchase up to $25 billion in insured mortgage pools as part of the Government of Canada’s plan, announced today, to maintain the availability of longer-term credit in Canada." (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation Supports Canadian Credit Markets, CHMC Press Release, 10 October 2009)
So apparently the Canadian banks were rescued from the financial distress of... holding a bunch of mortgages that they were guaranteed not to lose a penny on.

Wow, they must be so grateful for that "bailout".

What actually happened, is that the government bought the mortgages so that the banks would have more cash on hand to engage in more lending. And the reason the government wanted this to happen is because at the time the global recession was seizing up credit markets all over the world and they wanted to make sure Canadians kept ready access to credit while this was happening. It was a simple recession-fighting measure that had nothing to do with rescuing (a.k.a "bailing out") the Canadian banks. There was nothing to rescue them from.


People who just aren't helping.

This will require a little background...

A few weeks ago while I was engaging in some discussion about evolution in a comments section somewhere I encountered a poster who goes by the name of "Human Ape" who is... well, very angry about some things. That's something I can empathize with, since I happen to get pretty angry about a lot of the same things he does.

I didn't really have much interaction with him but apparently he clicked through the links to my blog, read some stuff here, and posted a comment in "The Creationist Mindset" post stating, and I quote:

"Lance is a typical creationist. Too stupid to understand anything. I admire the patience you have with idiots."
I replied, and moved on. Then the other day while I was wandering through the blogosphere I came across this post on his blog.

First of all, asshole Christians, intelligent design creationism and Bible creationism are the exact same things, and if you deny this obvious fact you're a fucking liar.

If you retards call magic "design" it's still magic. Understand Christian assholes? If not you can fuck off.

...and, well, it continued on.

Recognizing the author as the same person who just three weeks ago was admiring my "patience with idiots" I left a comment suggesting that getting that worked up about the issue was counter-productive and he really might want to try taking a deep breath and counting to 10 before posting these things. Which led to this, and this.

Apparently in three weeks Human Ape's position on the possession of patience with dealing with creationists had gone from "I admire that" to "that makes you responsible for terrorism".

That's quite the impressive turnaround in his worldview in less than a month.

Now the problem I have here isn't with some angry person on the internet calling me names. It's with some angry person on the internet running around everywhere making atheists look like people with Tourette syndrome and serious anger management issues. I'm engaged in an effort to employ reason and logic to bring undertanding of certain complex scientific realities to people who don't understand them and don't believe in them... and I really don't need my position being associated with conduct like this. It doesn't exactly make my task easier. I can understand the occasional outburst, dealing with this particular debate can ger *really* incredibly frustrating... but when you start declaring that the only two sides of the issue are that you're either screaming profanity at creationists or you're a terrorist sympathizer we're a little beyond that.

Now apparently making this point to this particular person is not really an option that is available consideering the response it generated the first time I tried it... but for anyone else out there feeling frustrated when you discuss evolution or religion with fundamentalists and feeling the urge to scream obscenities at them... could you please fight it? For me?

I'll give you a cookie...


That Pesky Second Law of Thermodynamics

It seems creationists never get tired of this one. I've lost count of how many times I've been told that it makes evolution impossible, and I just ran into someone using it again over here.

Let's begin by getting something straight. This is the actual, real life, second law of thermodynamics:

∫(δQ/T) ≥0

It is not some kind of cosmic legislation written down in the Universe's list of statutes that states "things shall not get more complex naturally!" It's a mathematical expression. More precisely, it's a mathematical expression that describes a specific set of conditions. But when you need to explain what that means to people who don't "speak math" you have to translate it into english instead, which is where the problem happens.

You can do it well:

"The total energy available to do work in an isolated system can never increase."  or... "The total entropy of an isolated system can never decrease" or several other formulations that are all equally valid. (The "isolated system" part is particularly critical)

Or you can do it like creationists:

"The Second Law of Thermodynamics, simply stated, says that everything has a tendency to run down, decay and get worse, if left to itself.

Click the link, I don't make this stuff up. They actually say this. The second law of thermodynamics makes abandoned houses get run down and cars left outside get trashed. It's not just that guy, I've heard this so many times I've lost track. Ugh.

While we're on the subject, you can do the same thing with the meaning of entropy.

Real definition: Entropy = The total energy in a system no longer available to perform work.

Creationist definition: Entropy = Disorder and decay!

Now to get into why creationists have no idea what they're talking about when it comes to thermodynamics we should start by defining some terms...

Entropy: See above
System Boundary: The dividing line between the system you are examining and it's surrounding environment. Can be physical, or simply definitional... but MUST BE SPECIFIED.
Open System: A system which can exchange matter and energy with it's surroundings across the system boundary.
Closed System: A system that can exchange energy but NOT matter across it's boundary.
Isolated System: A system that cannot exchange either matter or energy across it's boundary.

It's only in that last one where the second law says you can't see a decrease in entropy. Where there is no external source of energy providing fuel for the process the system is going to continuously use up the energy it has available to work with until it's all gone.

Creationists try to claim the second law means evolution is impossible because it causes localized decreases in entropy. For the second law to actually say that was impossible evolution would have to be doing this without getting the energy for it from anywhere... the earth would have to be an isolated system that does not receive any external energy input.

So... the next time a creationist tells you the Second Law makes evolution impossible then assuming it's daytime tell them to go outside, look up, and ask them if they see a giant ball of burning plasma in the sky bombarding them with light and heat. (a.k.a.... energy!)

I almost feel embarassed to be burning a post on such a worn out issue, but as long as creationists keep using it people need to keep correcting them I guess.


The (Vastly) Underappreciated Importance Of Falsifiability

I would say this is something that's usually only properly appreciated by people with a science background... except I've met so many people who work in the sciences who also don't get it that I would feel dishonest making that claim.

The quick and dirty version of the concept of falsifiability is if you're going to make a claim, or present a theory/hypothesis... you need to know how to tell if you're wrong. That sounds like it should be simple and straightforward but it just flies right over the heads of an astounding number of people on a regular basis. Religious people in particular, but it's not just isolated there. I know a disturbing number of people who think of themselves as rational scientifically minded individuals and are actually quite skilled and knowledgeable in the sciences, who simply do not properly appreciate why falsifiability is so important. They reach the point of knowing they have to be able to tell if they're wrong so they can slap a "right" or "wrong" label on an idea and stop there. It's a little more than that.

See, the primary way we figure out if we're wrong about something is we use it to make a prediction, then test it. When we hit a situation where something is unfalsifiable it's generally for one of two reasons.
  1. It can be used to predict nothing. 
  2. It can be used to predict anything.
Now in the first case it should be obvious that this makes whatever idea you came up with effectively worthless. It doesn't actually contribute to our understanding of how the world works in any way whatsoever if it can't make any predictions about how that world will behave. As soon as I post that list however I find people have a tendency not to understand why that second one is bad. Being able to predict anything! Wow! That's great!

No... that's useless.

In this context, "predict anything" means no matter what happens, no matter what outcome a test has, you can claim it was predicted by your "theory". To demonstrate why this is so spectacularly pointless, an example of such a "theory":

Newton Vs. The Matter Directing Elves


More On Probability

This might drive home how slippery a subject probability is. Warning... anyone not terribly interested in the finer points of how probabilities of events are calculated will risk being rendered unconscious by reading this post. It is not building up to any profound philosophical or political insights, there's no payoff for you if you wade through it t reach the end... it's just arguing about how to properly move numbers around.

On the other hand if you are such a hopeless geek that you consider reading about that to be a payoff in itself, carry on.

There is a raging debate going on in certain quarters about the following question:

"I have two children. One is a boy. What is the probability I have two boys?"
The two answers most people are arguing over are 1 in 2 (50%), and 1 in 3 (33%).

This is an example of a question where overthinking the problem gets you into trouble. I generally hate to use the term "overthinking", in most cases as far as I'm concerned there's no such thing as too much thinking... but there are exceptions to every rule and this is one of them.

First, I'm going to do this the easy way.

One kid is a boy. One kid is of unknown gender. Assuming for the sake of simplicity no biological biases towards a kid being either gender the odds of the unknown kid being a boy are 50%. Therefore the odds of there being two boys is 50%.

That seems pretty obvious, right? Now let me take you on a trip through the wonderful world of people who love to overcomplicate things and trip themselves up.

Now, generally speaking there are two ways to approach a problem like this. Start with what you know about the situation, and construct a matrix of all possible outcomes given that information. (The easy way we just used)

Start with a matrix of all possible outcomes assuming you know NOTHING, then start introducing information and eliminating outcomes that information makes impossible one by one. (a.k.a.: the hard way that is just asking for trouble and gives us answers like 13/27 when people do it wrong)

Now, for an example of this calculation gone wrong, you can see write-ups of it by a couple of it's advocates. One is at the New Scientist... and one is in an article in the NY Times. Neither of these people is anywhere in the neighborhood of being clueless about probability, but that isn't stopping them from making the same error by overcomplicating a simple situation while all the while thinking what they're really doing is revealing a profound counter-intuitive truth that the general public just doesn't understand probability well enough to grasp. The New Scientist write-up is particularly mind-bending since it decides to also introduce the information that the boy we know about was born on a Tuesday then insist that it matters. (It doesn't).

For the purposes of illustrating the concept, I'm just going to deal with the approach in the Times to the simpler problem, walk through it, and show where it makes it's mistake.


Hypocritical Political Leaders... Better Than The Alternative?

Interesting point I saw raised a while back by one of the readers at Andrew Sullivan's blog, which has since been percolating in the back of my brain...is it really always such a bad thing to have hypocritical political leaders?

The immediate reaction to that question will tend to be an emphatic "yes!", but given the assumption that no politician we ever get in office, anywhere, in any capacity, is ever going to be perfect... do we really want a leader who does the NON-hypocritical thing and says "well, I really have quite a few shortcomings when it comes to financial ethics (for example)... so I'm not going to try and make anyone else play by those rules any better than I do"... or do we want the leader who is going to crack the whip and keep everyone else in line regardless of how good he is at staying in line himself, even if that is hypocritical of them?

Or the leader who can't stay on a diet, so he does the non-hypocritical thing and refuses to contribute any effort into educating the children of the nation that eating healthy is a good thing?

Or, pick your personal shortcoming...

I have to say, after giving it considerably thought, given those two options I kind of want the hypocrite. I mean sure, ideally I'd want the leader who holds the government and the nation to the highest standard AND meets that standard themselves... but let's be realistic. Not happening. Any human being is going to fall short of the standards we'd like to see maintained in *some* area. But we still want the nation held to the highest standards in ALL areas, at least ideally. So... if you look at it a certain way, hurray for hypocrisy!

On the other hand, there's hypocrisy and there's hypocrisy. For example... if I think it through I'm pretty ok with the guy who rides around in private jets burning through fossil fuels while trying to champion the envirnoment. I mean... bad optics, but I find it hard to get seriously outraged about it.

However, no matter which way I look at it I get enormously ticked off by the guy who is condemning people as shameful and immoral for their sexual orientation while they're running around Europe with a gay escort they claim is only there to "carry their luggage".

And the difference between those two that's making me reach different conclusions about how acceptable they are is the first one is an example of someone trying to improve the lives of others with their advocacy even if they're not perhaps living up to their own ideals... and the other is just some jerk who is spreading hatred and bigotry over an issue that I frankly have difficulty believing he actually really thinks is the great evil he runs around telling people it is so that they'll give his organization money to fight it.

Of course, I appreciate that a certain segment of the population views that last situation differently. Your mileage may vary.