Friday, December 31, 2004

Understand what you would criticize! (Is that so much to ask?)

Robert Meyer has taken his swipe at evolution. To give him all due credit, he handles the subject about as well as most critics do. Which is to say, about as well as fish handle tap dancing.

It's not his fault, or at least not entirely. He's never been taught science.

He has almost certainly, to be sure, been taught about science. He knows that chemistry has produced any number of neat things. He knows that physicists and engineers have created any number of neat toys and marvelous gadgets. And he knows they use a lot of math. If you've gone to school anywhere in the western world, it's next to impossible to avoid picking up that much.

He's probably heard about some of the things scientists have come up with. He's probably heard about quantum mechanics and relativity, though I doubt he could explain either to any other person. I won't even ask about string theory.

Suppose you ran into a person who didn't know how to read. He knew printed pages mean something, and he knew something about letters spelling words. He could point to various documents and tell you what they said, but only because he'd been told what they mean. There is no way you would classify such a person as literate. He lacks a fundamental skill, and without that skill, the world of books is only hearsay.

Unfortunately, he demonstrates his inability to handle the tools of science very early on.

Let's draw an imperfect, but illustrative analogy to the position of the atheist above. Suppose I come home from work one day noticing that my neighbor's long grass has been cut. I say to my wife that my neighbor must have cut the grass with his lawnmower. My wife demurs, saying that the grass cut itself. Are these equivalently sufficient explanations as to how the lawn was cut? In one case we have a purposeful and intelligent agent, using a specific means to accomplish a goal. In the other case, you have an inanimate object acted upon itself without purpose. And notice that the explanation of the neighbor cutting the grass with his lawnmower is meaningful, without any discussion of where the neighbor, lawnmower or the grass came from. In like manner, saying that matter has always existed, is not an equivalent argument to saying that the universe was created by God.

Problem: The only reason we find the explanation of the neighbor cutting the lawn with a lawnmower overwhelmingly plausible is that we've seen any number of people cutting any number of lawns with any number of variations on the lawnmower theme. Suppose I come home from work one brisk autumn day noticing that my neighbor's tree no longer has any leaves on it....

Another canard employed in this debate, is that evolution s "scientific," whereas ID is religious mythology. But does evolution itself qualify as a scientific theory, or like Creationism, is it a metaphysical theory? Anyone who has taken an introductory class in the Philosophy of Science, knows a few basic tenets regarding scientific inquiry. First of all, only observational or naturalistic evidence is accepted. If the inquirer asks a how or why question, then develops a hypothesis, it must be testable, and thus subject to falsification before it can move beyond that point. In which respects can any evolutionary theory meet this test? The evolutionist who says that the "fact"of evolution proves the non-existence of God, must derive such information outside the parameters of empirical scientific methods — a realm that he claims contains no meaningful truth. Thus, such a claim is that of religious dogmatism. Any masonry regardless of its ornate design or quality composition cannot be stacked four feet in mid air without a solid foundation. Those who claim evolutionary theories can do away with the need for God are attempting to do just that philosophically speaking.

Here, Meyer conflates two different phenomena: what science reasonably infers about evolution, and what scientists infer from evolution. The first must be grounded in observable data; the second may be grounded in nothing more solid than the prejudices of the individual scientist.

The orthodox position of science is that God is outside the realm of science.

Science has found materialistic, naturalistic causes for any number of phenomena that were once ascribed to the will of God, of gods, or of spirits. Lightning, for example, is now reduced to a phenomenon involving the transport of charged particles in the atmosphere, and diseases to microbes, chemicals, and genetic damage, among other known or at least knowable causes.

Science makes the claim that the phenomena it studies can be reduced to sets of rules that can, at least in principle, be deduced.

Since God, by definition, is not bound by the rules, science cannot encompass such an entity. Indeed, I would imagine the last thing theists would want is to have God encompassed within science, as that would mean God is reduced to a set of naturalistic rules.

To the extent that we can validly anthromorphize the field, science is quite comfortable with the notion that some fields of study are outside the scope of science. For example, ethics and morality are outside the realm of science.

We can tell, through science, what will happen if we cut a person open with a knife. We can't tell, through science, whether cutting any particular person open is a good act. (Sometimes, to make that point, I will tell of the time a bunch of people had surrounded me and immobilized me, while one of them sliced my leg open clear to the bone. Science can tell what happens when you slice a leg open, but it can't tell you whether slicing my leg open that time was a good act.)

Meyer quite properly complains that scientists go from the notion that some process is explainable in terms of naturalistic rules to the conclusion that God does not exist. Of course, this does not follow. All we can conclude is that when a process is explainable in terms of naturalistic rules, there is no need for God, or any other entity, to step in and effect that process.

The counter-argument, offered by the anti-evolutionists, is equally invalid. To note that some process does not have a known naturalistic explanation does not imply that God is the only possible explanation. Anti-evolutionists argue that God is the default explanation for anything that lacks a naturalistic explanation. For example, the Intelligent Design / Intelligent Origin Theory argues as follows:

Some feature of biology looks so complicated it must have been designed by some intelligence. Therefore, it was designed.

Creationists add one more step:

Therefore, the intelligent designer was God.

It should be obvious there are steps missing.

There is also a question of evidence. No evidence is neutral in the sense that it requires no interpretations. Interpretations themselves depend on the assumptions of the interpreter.

At this point, I refer the reader to this file on the Talk Origins website: 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution. This is a file, available in, among other formats, a PDF file, which lists more than 29 observations that are entirely consistent with evolution.

As Meyer states, evidence does require interpretation, but some interpretations are more reasonable than others. In my little mind game above, where I state that someone once sliced my leg open to the bone, the point is to let people jump to a conclusion before I fill them in on the context. The context makes a big difference.

Any single one of the observations in the PDF file can have multiple explanations. That is, there are any number of mechanisms that would yield that particular observation. For example, the commonality of life on the chemical level can be explained as the result of descent from a single common ancestor, or of separate creation by an intelligent creator from a common template. The other bits of evidence similarly have multiple possible explanations.

The critical point, though, is that in many cases, some of the alternative explanations for one observation contradict the alternative explanations of other observations. For example, the "common template" argument is very hard to reconcile with the slight differences in the structure and composition of genes and proteins among different life forms.

I invite readers to read through this file and see how their favorite alternative explanation deals with all 29+ observed items.

This, at least in part, accounts for discrepancies of opinion in those who say there are no transitional forms in the fossil record, and those who claim there are many. It seems curious though, that some evolutionists and non-theists, such as Stephen J. Gould and Francis Crick, were not comfortable with the classical Darwinian paradigm of gradual changes via natural selection. Both came up with theories of origin, which made the need for intermediate types a non factor. Why would that be expedient if it were not essential?

You might be interested in this document on Punctuated Equilibria (PE), which addresses a number of misconceptions about the subject. Among other things, PE does not do away with gradualism. Indeed, Gould and Eldredge, who published the original paper on the subject, have pointed out numerous cases of evolution between high-level classifications of life, in pretty much the manner we'd expect.

Indeed, there has been a fair amount of argument over whether Gould and Eldredge actually came up with anything new, or simply pointed out the obvious – living things that are optimally adapted to a stable environment won't need to adapt any further! (Duh!)

To be sure, cases where new life forms seem to appear suddenly in the fossil record are potential challenges to evolution, but how does Intelligent Design Theory account for well-documented cases of smooth, gradual transitions between classes of living things? Why, for example, would a designer have crafted a whole series of creatures, now known as "Therapsids", which are intermediate between reptiles and mammals? Why are all these creatures showing up in the right place and time, and in about the right order, to represent steps in a transition between reptiles and mammals? Assuming there was a reason for these creatures to exist for some portion of Earth's history, why put them in those particular times and places, and not in any number of other imaginable places and times? And if they're individually created, why were they created in the order they were created in?

The only reason a designer would have created the therapsids in the time, place, and order they appear is ... the designer is the team of random variation and natural selection – in other words, evolution.

I don't believe ID is necessarily science, in the way science has been defined in this piece. ID simply asks the question of whether the data can be best understood according to the presumption that the universe was generated through spontaneous creation. We ought to conduct an investigation to find out. Both evolution and ID are metaphysical theories. If academic freedom is paramount, where one treads, the other should be allowed to follow.

It's one thing to believe ID may not "necessarily" be science, "in the way science has been defined in this piece". It's another to successfully make the case that ID might fit this definition.

Let's review said definition:

First of all, only observational or naturalistic evidence is accepted.

OK, what naturalistic evidence is there for a designer? The only evidence that's ever offered is, "it's too hard to figure out how it could happen without a designer." That's not evidence. Who or what is the designer, and where can we see it in operation?

If the inquirer asks a how or why question, then develops a hypothesis, it must be testable, and thus subject to falsification before it can move beyond that point.

This is an even bigger hurdle for ID. What conceivable evidence could prove ID false?

There isn't any.

The "designer" in ID is completely undefined and nebulous. There is no mechanism proposed by which the designer would implement any design, and no way to tell what a designer can and cannot do. There is no particular reason to rule out any possible observation.

People are designers, and in their imagination they have designed any number of bizarre creatures. Folklore is filled with dragons, unicorns, Pegasus, and chimeras of all kind. Fiction writers have dreamed up any number of creatures that have never drawn breath on this planet.

But evolution, operating under the mechanisms that have been outlined in science, can't produce a Pegasus. Centaurs, wemics, mermaids, and other mix-and-match creatures are also ruled out. The existence of such creatures would falsify a great deal of evolutionary theory.

The answer is, evolution does meet the requirements to be a scientific theory. The statements, by some evolutionary biologists, about the existence or non-existence of God, do not. A fair analysis would be careful to distinguish between them.

In order to do a fair job of criticizing anything, it's essential to understand it. Those who presume to criticize evolutionary theory really ought to know what it actually says. Otherwise, their arguments will be against something else.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Locks, boggles, and scream cheese

I wound up needing to get into a locked cabinet today. On a hunch, I tried one of the keys on my half-pound key ring. When the very tip was inserted, the lock turned and I was able to get in to the cabinet.

The lock is kind of old, and it may be wearing out, but the fact that only the front one or two pins needed to be moved makes me suspect that the lock is keyed to multiple keys.

Normally, Yale pin-and-tumbler locks are pretty secure. You have a number of pins, which can be broken at different points along their length. Normally, each pin is broken in only one spot, and if all the spots don't line up, the lock won't turn.

If you have seven pins in a lock, and each can be broken at ten different points, you have ten million different possible combinations for keys.

To key a lock to more than one key, you break each pin at more than one spot. With a sensibly designed master/slave key arrangement, this is still fairly secure. You shouldn't need to have multiple breaks on more than one or two pins. If you have two breaks in one pin, the number of combinations that won't work in the lock drops to five million. If you have two breaks in two pins, the number of combinations drops by a factor of four, to 1.25 million.

My dad lived in a place where the pool gate was (for a while) keyed to open to the front door key of all 36 units. The result was that you could stick anything in the lock and it would open. Not secure.

Let's imagine that the keys for 36 units were made at random. In principle, there's no reason to expect any kind of relationship between any pair of keys – if you compare any two keys, we can expect all of them to raise the same pin in the lock to different heights.

If you try to key a lock to 36 different keys, the chances that any one of ten break positions will not be used is a little under three percent. If you stick in a random key, with seven pins, there's about an eighteen percent chance that it will open that lock. That's nearly one out of five keys, chosen at random. When you consider that a key need not be inserted all the way, each random key is actually a bunch of random keys.

Keying a lock to 36 different keys increases the odds that a random key will open the lock, not to one in 278,000, but to one in five.

People who don't know enough about the workings of the system may come to seriously wrong answers about it.

This, by the way, is very similar to the arguments from complexity put forth against evolution.

We've seen how badly we can go awry when we don't understand the math behind a simple door lock. Before I buy into an argument against evolution based on complexity, I want some assurance that the person making the argument has studied the topic very thoroughly.

In other words, show your work, and justify your assumptions.

More on energy research

Discussion continues in an online forum. Some of the items raised are very interesting.

The first post deals with the process of thermal depolymerization, by which any organic matter can be turned into oil. Apparently, right now, the quality is up to that of diesel fuel. Links are provided to Wikipedia, A copy of an article in Discover Magazine, an update at Discover's website, USA Today, and Changing World Technologies, a business trying to make this work.

Now my question is, if they're really up to producing oil with the quality of disel fuel, and if it's really that inexpensive, are they selling any of the stuff? If it's something that can be refined into fuel, maybe there's a small refinery that can be interested in buying the stuff? If they can turn garbage into diesel fuel, or even something close to diesel fuel, this should be a license to print money.

This, by the way, is the same problem I have with people who charge hundreds of dollars for their seminar in making thousands of dollars per week using their system. If this system is so good, why are they charging so much for the course? It can't be because they need the money.

And then there's the hoary conspiracy theory:

I would like to mention the fact that I have a friend who sold a patent to Ford over a decade ago for automobile engines that can get over 80 miles to the gallon (not just for Yugo's), not a hybrid. ... I bet that most of this technology already exists, but corruption in high places will promote the interests of oil producers at the expense of the general public. Has anyone seen the movie "Tucker"? I can't imagine that the US government has enough money to fight Big Oil.

My question on this is, what's the patent number? Patents are public documents. Anyone could look up the patent, see how the technology works, and learn enough to build his own high-milage engine.

As many inventors learn, a patent is frequently nothing more than official permission to spend all your money in court trying to collect from the people who rip you off. Even "Big Oil" has finite resources. If someone started posting PDF copies of the relevant patent on websites around the world, "Big Oil" would have a devil of a time keeping people from building these engines for personal use or for friends.

A proposed science initiative for Bush

Orson Scott Card has some observations about science. The first observation is that neither of the two major parties is the "pro science" or "anti science" party.

Both the Right and the Left in America are pushing political agendas that assail science on every side, banning whole swathes of research and treating other areas as if the final word had already been achieved.


(And let's just stop right now the silly idea that Republicans are somehow anti-science and Democrats pro-science. Both of them are for whatever science advances their own political agenda, and against any science that doesn't. Politics is invariably the natural enemy of science, and all parties are guilty of killing science for political ends – especially when they are shouting loudest about how their position is "supported by science.")

One suggestion he has is to make use of the Internet to democratize peer review.

Scientific research is, in fact, best handled by scientists -- and most effectively stifled by them. One huge help to science would be to break the stranglehold of the printed scientific journals. Right now, university libraries are crippled by the necessity of paying thousands of dollars a year for each single subscription to the leading scientific journals. There is simply no excuse for this. Peer review is not that expensive, and the internet would allow virtually free dissemination of scientific journals without them ever needing to incur the expense of printing. The government could transform the situation by declaring that no federal grant money could be used to pay for subscriptions to any scientific journal that is not made available in cheap -- i.e., nearly free -- electronic form. There will be screaming: "This is an attack on the core of scientific research!" but you have to ignore this. It is the death cry of the disease that you're hearing. There is no excuse whatsoever for access to scientific journals to be limited by money. Every college student in the world should have nearly-free access to any journal in any field, and the internet makes it possible, and our government can make it happen. It should be done, and done now. Peer review is the key; and in a world of cheap journals, the competition would cease to be for money, and instead would be for reviewers. Journals would compete with each other for prestige, which would come from having the most important innovative articles. Reputations would rise and fall. Political groups would lose their iron grip on various fields of research. Marginal journals would emerge and compete for attention. And big babies would complain that everything has gone to hell in a handbasket because it is no longer the way it was in the old days -- when a handful of editors in any given field could stifle research they didn't like.

Unlike the Libertarian wing of politics, Card sees a place for government funding of Big Programs.

At the same time, government can achieve great things by dumping money into massive projects – provided the projects actually matter. The space program of the '50's, '60's, and '70's not only got us the immediate results – footprints on the moon, a working shuttle, and enormous prestige – but also spun off vast areas of technology and science that would have been impossible without that huge burst of energy.

But the Mars mission is just more of the same.

What to support instead?


He makes a number of points, some of which are excellent, some of which are good, and some of which are not so good.

The reason [for energy research] is simple and clear. There is only so much extractable oil in the earth, and nobody's making any more. And oil is so useful for constructive purposes that it is criminal for us to have burnt so much of it already.

Some dispute the "nobody's making any more" claim. There is a persistent theory floating around that petroleum is being continuosly generated by abiotic processes, and we won't run out as long as the planet's core remains sufficently molten to support plate tectonics. Also, some researchers may have figured out a cheap way of converting miscellaneous organic matter into a good imitation of petroleum. "Cheap" is defined as costing much less energy than we can get from burning the stuff.

And if we're looking at oil as a source of carbon compounds for industry, the biological world is a very rich source of carbon compounds.
For instance, hydrogen as a fuel is a chimera: Because you can't drill for hydrogen, you have to make it, and that costs fuel. What fuel? Coal or natural gas or oil, of course. In other words, hydrogen is an energy storage device, not a source of energy -- in effect, a bulky, expensive battery. So even though hydrogen is the only combustible fuel that burns absolutely cleanly, it is never in itself going to solve the long term energy problem.


His comments about alternative energy sources show evidence of the bad science education available in our schools and our media. For example:

Nuclear energy has the grave problem of creating deadly waste that can go on killing for thousands and thousands of years.

If you're talking about radioactive waste, the waste from burning nuclear fuel decays pretty quickly right at the start. It slows down later as the short-lived components decay away, of course. After thousands of hears, the components that take thousands of years to decay still remain. But remember, the original uranium is radioactive, and it takes billions of years to decay. The question we have to look at is, what's the net effect?

As it happens, reactor waste will reach the level of radioactivity of the original uranium ore after a relatively short time – six hundred years.

And in addition, we need to consider the pollution released by the energy source we're already using. Petroleum releases its own share of deadly chemicals, and burning coal releases quite a bit of radioactive material into the environment.

Environmental groups and their "willing accomplices in the media" have worked tirelessly to convince everyone of the dangers of nuclear power, and it's worked.

Economic education is also pretty dismal, and it shows:

If we wait until oil is so rare and expensive that alternative sources of energy become financially competitive, it will be too late. Shamefully so. We have to find alternatives before the oil is gone. And that requires government action, because the free market, left to itself, will burn all the cheap oil – whereupon there is a high likelihood of an unrecoverable crash, because science cannot take place on the same timescale as market forces.

Um... no. Here, Card seems to be committing a common error. He's picturing a situation where there are two big barrels of oil, one marked "cheap" and one marked "expensive". In this vision, we will naturally buy from the "cheap" barrel until it's empty. Some day very soon, there will be a giant slurping sound as the last of the oil empties from the "cheap" barrel, and the world price will then rise to the "expensive" level.

In fact, the price of oil is a continuous variable, and oil is available at a range of prices. Some small amounts of oil are still very cheap to extract. Other oil is more expensive to extract, and some wells are going after oil that's well above the average price. The thing is, the average price of oil is an average, and it's made up of contributions from many different sources. As cheap sources are used up, the average price edges up slowly. You're not going to see a crunch. Prices will rise slowly, and people will respond accordingly, moving to those alternatives to oil that become cost-effective.

Card needs to read Julian Simon's book, The Ultimate Resource.

What about space?

Card advocates research to do something about the danger of asteroids on a collision course with Earth. So far, we've been lucky, and the worst strikes that have happened during human history have done little more than start dark ages. There are still planet killers out there, and over the long term, orbits are chaotic systems.

However, there's another reason to get out in space, and it ties to energy.

For the amount of money we've spent on the war in Iraq, we could orbit an array of photovoltaic satellites. We could beam power as microwaves into receivers in Nevada (90% of which is Federal land), convert it to electricity, and feed it into the power grid. For the sake of redundancy, we could put receivers at various points throughout the nation.

And we're not talking about a microwave death ray, either. At 10 mw/cm2, the maximum allowable leakage level, that's a power density of 100 watts per square meter. A square kilometer, a little over a third of a square mile, would receive 100 megawatts of power. At an efficiency of 1%, that's a megawatt of power. This would work out to 8700 megawatt-hours of energy per year from that one square kilometer – enough to supply the needs of 1700 people.

Los Angeles uses some 22 million megawatt hours per year, which could be met by a receiver 50 kilometers on a side.

Now this is all "worst case" analysis, assuming a pretty horrible conversion efficiency and very low power levels. A conversion efficiency of 10% and a power level of 100 mw/cm2 would shrink the receiver needed by L.A. to 5 km on a side.

Ultimately, for the same amount of money we spent to topple Saddam Hussein, we could turn the US into an energy exporter.

That would be a start.

What if we had been invaded?

Listening to Al Rantel's show this evening, I heard an interview with David Horowitz. (I didn't catch the name of the person sitting in for Al. Sorry.)

A caller asked the question, "If America had been invaded and taken over by a more advanced country, wouldn't Americans be fighting back pretty much the same way the Iraqis are?" (Not an exact quote, as I wasn't in a position to write it down. The moral equivalence argument was still there, though.

I think a good response to that question would be twofold: First, I don't think most Americans would hack the heads off of aid workers. I think most of us would be at least a little civilized.

But secondly, I think if an invading force had taken over America, as currently constituted and functioning, we'd be fighting back a lot harder. Right now, the people fighting back in Iraq are Baathists who are no longer in power, and members of terrorist groups who manage to sneak in from outside the country.

In a way, it's almost as if the Reform party had been in charge in the US, and had been ruling with an iron hand. They had filled up mass graves, plundered the treasury of the country, and killed anyone who dared speak out. Now, the Martians have landed and thrown them out. Pat Perot and Ross Buchannan are either dead or in prison, but there are still quite a few Reformistas attacking Martian troops. It's a small fraction of the total population, and the rest of us are perfectly happy starting up businesses and rebuilding civil society. But those Reformistas are still a nuisance.

Compare that with a scenario where the majority of the population is being a nuisance, and only a few percent are working with the Martians. See any difference?

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Silly, but....

Chad, the Elder, at Fraters Libertas, imagines a conversation at the Minn. Star Tribune in which people are trying to find a way to blame the tsunami on Bush.

Could we blame it on nuclear tests? How about the infrasound waves the Navy's been testing? Could global warming have changed the way the oceans press on faults? Something? Anything???

I recall a news piece some decades ago. I believe it was a small town in Colorado that had taken to pumping liquid industrial waste down a deep well. They started getting earthquakes. It turned out the waste was working its way into a fault, and lubricating it. This caused a swarm of minor quakes, which ended only when they, at great expense, pumped the stuff back out.

It occurs to me that we might want to consider doing more of that.

Consider: A magnitude 4 quake is really nothing around here. Southern California building codes and the fact that people know a quake will come along and shake stuff off of shelves means we don't take much damage at all from quakes that wimpy.

Since the Richter scale is logarithmic, each increase of one unit equals a ten-fold increase in the energy released. A Richter 5 quake will release 10 times the energy of a Richter 4 quake, a Richter 6 quake 100 times, and a Richter 7 quake 1000 times the energy.

Suppose you lubricate a fault, and it starts throwing off one Richter 4 earthquake every day. We'd get used to that pretty quickly. But in 100 days (a little over 3 months), it would release energy that would otherwise have resulted in a magnitude 6 quake. After 1000 days, a little under 3 years, we've dissipated enough energy to prevent one magnitude 7 quake. A little over 27 years is enough to use up the energy of one magnitude 8 quake, and if we'd had 274 years of magnitude 4 quakes on that fault off Sumatra, the energy of last week's quake would have dissipated harmlessly.

Of course, anyone attempting this would be liable for lawsuits every time a heavy quake happened, even if their equipment was nowhere near the fault involved.

(Better still – if there were some way to tap that energy to power our generators...)

The Gish Gallop – the power of asymmetrical debating tactics

Duane Gish, of the Creation Research Society has a very effective tactic for debates on evolution. He will bring up a whole laundry list of "problems" with evolution. When you have a fixed-bandwidth situation, either a time limit or a word count, this technique gives you quite an advantage. You can raise ten issues in one minute, and each issue can take an expert ten minutes to respond to adequately.

The same tactic, called "the spread", is used elsewhere. The mainstream media may be learning the hard way that it doesn't work as well as it used to.

Professional Creationists have learned it. They don't enter debates in unlimited-bandwidth media such as mailing lists or internet forums.

In the past, the mainstream media has been insulated from the give and take of unlimited bandwidth forums (UBF?). Not any more. The UBFs are coming to get them.

Another reason to buy a copy of Blog

OK, it's boosting his book. But it links through my associates' link.

PressThink is thinking about blogs and their effect on news. Here's what they think:

News turns from a lecture to a conversation. "Newspaper people (especially) still have the mindset of putting out the edition and then they're done with it," complains Glenn Reynolds. "We used to think that the news was finished when we printed it," says Jeff Jarvis. "But that's when the news now begins." <snip> Some of the pressure the blogs are putting on journalists shows up, then, in the demand for "news as conversation," more of a back-and-forth, less of a pronouncement. This is an idea with long roots in academic journalism that suddenly (as in this year) jumped the track to become part of the news industry's internal dialogue. Whenever that happens to a claim that's "been around," it is because something changed in the world to make it more vulnerable to the extant thought.

Blogs have tapped pools of expertise to correct the mainstream media in some big mistakes. But...

"conversation" is not just about getting things right (important as that is.) It's also about making things more democratic. In 1991, James W. Carey of Columbia University put the goal of conversational journalism this way (the piece is not online, sorry.) The italics are mine: (changed to bold –Karl)
Republics require conversation, often cacaphonous conversation, for they should be noisy places. That conversation has to be informed, of course, and the press has a role in supplying that information. But the kind of information required can be generated only by public conversation; there is simply no substitute for it. We have virtually no idea what it is we need to know until we start talking to someone. Conversation focuses our attention, it engages us... The task of the press is to encourage the conversation of the culture, not to preempt it or substitute for it or supply it with information as a seer from afar.
Supply it with information as a seer from afar. For journalists, that job isn't available any more. And that's why we heard this year the head of the Associated Press say to colleagues: can we stop lecturing people, please?

But then again, this continues a process that has been taking place in talk radio. Talk radio hosts need material to talk about, and for a lot of them, the news is a ready source. Then, if you let people call in and discuss the issues, you need something that'll make your show interesting. People learn very quickly that a string of callers who agree with the host makes for boring radio. (Rush Limbaugh may have been the first popular host to elucidate this principle. He says, quite unabashedly, he screens for callers who will make him look good. In many cases, that means callers who disagree with him, but not so effectively that he loses the argument.)

The result of this is that talk radio audiences have gotten used to talking back to the people from whom they hear news. They won't have this conversation about every issue of the day, because either they or the host isn't interested. But they'll get used to it for many issues. (I bet there's a correlation between listening to talk radio and writing letters to the editor of the paper.)

That blogs are a tool is important. Blogs democratize the talk radio effect. You don't have to hope the talk show host is interested in the same thing you are. You don't have to compete with thousands (or hundreds) (or tens) of other callers, trying to be more interesting than they are. You don't have to hope your letter is one of the few that actually see print in the paper. You can post your opinion, just like I'm doing now. And you can often comment directly on the blogs other people write. At the very least, you can comment in your own blog and link to the item you're commenting on.

Interactive news is not only here to stay, it's going to take over.

Someone learned the hard way

A fellow who left a nasty comment at Patterico's blog thought he was safely anonymous. He just found out he's not.

It's old advice – never write anything in a fanzine you wouldn't want on the front page of the Times. Now that fanzines are on computer and can be read by anyone on the planet, the lesson is more apt than ever.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Why reforming Iraq will make us safer

R.J.Rummel makes the case, once again, that free, democratic nations don't make war on each other. This implies that the more countries in the world that are free and democratic, the fewer countries will be inclined to start wars.

The more seeds of democracy can be planted and made to grow, the less likely war becomes.

Why creationists are losing?

Gary North, in Business Reform magazine, bemoans the fact that creationists keep losing in their battle to teach their notions as science in the classroom.

Of course, from my perspective, the reason they keep losing is quite simple. They don't have any science to teach.

Gary North, needless to say, doesn't share this view. According to him, "Democracy doesn't count". The reason Evolution is taught, and creationism isn't, is a vast left-wing conspiracy.

There is a fundamental political issue that has divided American voters since about 1921: The legitimacy of a majority of voters to determine the content of whatever is taught to children in tax-funded institutions.


The public relations problem for Darwinists is this: The percentage of Americans polled who affirm this view of biological evolution has yet to hit 15 percent. Despite a century of absolute control over public school curriculum materials and university science departments, the Darwinists have been unable to persuade more than 12 percent of the population of the truth of their position. This is not an impressive academic track record.

I'd love to see a poll showing what fraction of the population believes we should teach algebra in the schools.


Unfortunately, scientific truth is not determined by polls, but by the data. If 99% of the population believed medical schools should "teach the controversy" about Western medicine, that would not make the germ theory of disease invalid, nor make the use of crystals, sand paintings, or chanting any more effective than they are. Any given approach to the treatment of disease will either work or it won't, and all the votes and all the polls of all the people in the world won't change that.

Darwinian evolution is a theory. So is Newton's theory of universal gravitation. So is Einstein's theory of general relativity. So is the germ theory of disease. So is the quantum theory underlying solid state mechanics.

Your computer won't stop working because the population votes not to accept quantum mechanics. Your infection won't go away because you vote not to believe in germs. Gravity doesn't stand in abeyance while we vote on the merits of Newton vs. Einstein.

And evolution doesn't quit happening just because schools refuse to teach it.

North's solution: get out of public schools.

Darwinism has been on financial life-support for a hundred years. To put it out of its misery, voters need only pull the plug. Vote no on every school bond issue. Pull your kids out of the public schools. Pay as you go. As I said in front of 10,000 Christian activists at a rally in Texas in 1980, "If every Baptist in Texas pulled his child out of the public schools on Monday, there would be no public schools on Wednesday."

In general, I like this approach. Let those who want to learn go to schools that will teach them. Let those who don't want to learn go to schools that will keep them busy doing something else, and out of the hair of those who want to learn.

In the long run, the students who emerge better equipped to deal with the real world will be more successful. The ones who wasted their time in substandard schools will be stuck in menial jobs. They will very likely decide to put their kids in schools that turn out more successful graduates.

Think of it as evolution in action.

School bullying

A couple in Old Greenwich, CT, has filed suit against their daughter's school for failing to put a stop to ongoing bullying. It sounds like they have a pretty good case.

The lawsuit, filed earlier this month in state Superior Court in Stamford by Theodore and Patrice Anibal on behalf of their daughter, accuses school officials of several counts of negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The lawsuit also cites Connecti-cut's anti-bullying statute, a 2002 law that requires all public schools to establish plans to address bullying.

When I was in school, the advice I was given was to hit back. The principle behind this was that when it got too expensive for the bully to bully, he'd stop.

Of course, with more kids carrying weaponry, that kind of advice can get you killed, and the kind of school that allows this kind of bullying to continue would probably impose maximum penalties against anyone fighting back against a bully.

The Tay Bridge disaster

Today's e-mail from The Scotsman commemorates, in its "fact of the day" the Tay Bridge disaster.

A disastrous event on the River Tay today in 1879 as the famed Tay Bridge Disaster occurs; resulting in the deaths of 75 people. Although a great tragedy, the disaster's most lasting account is the unintentionally hilarious doggerel poem by that genius of junk, William Topaz McGonagall.

Of course, with an introduction like that, how could I resist?

The Tay Bridge Disaster Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay! Alas! I am very sorry to say That ninety lives have been taken away On the last Sabbath day of 1879, Which will be remember'd for a very long time. 'Twas about seven o'clock at night, And the wind it blew with all its might, And the rain came pouring down, And the dark clods seem'd to frown, And the Demon of the air seem'd to say -- “I'll blow down the Bridge of Tay.” When the train left Edinburgh The passengers' hearts were light and felt no sorrow, But Boreas blew a terrific gale, Which made their hearts for to quail, And many of the passengers with fear did say -- “I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay.” But when the train came near to Wormit Bay, Boreas he did loud and angry bray, And shook the central girders of the Bridge of Tay On the last Sabbath day of 1879, Which will be remember'd for a very long time. So the train sped on with all its might, And Bonnie Dundee soon hove in sight, And the passengers' hearts felt light, Thinking they would enjoy themselves on the New Year, With their friends at home they lov'd most dear, And wish them all a happy New Year. So the train mov'd slowly along the Bridge of Tay, Until it was about midway, Then the central girders with a crash gave way, And down went the train and passengers into the Tay! The Storm Fiend did loudly bray, Because ninety lives had been taken away, On the last Sabbath day of 1879, Which will be remember'd for a very long time. As soon as the catastrophe came to be known The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown, And the cry rang out all o'er the town, Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down, And a passenger train from Edinburgh, Which fill'd all the people's hearts with sorrow, And made them for to turn pale, Because none of the passengers were sav'd to tell the tale How the disaster happen'd on the last Sabbath day of 1879, Which will be remember'd for a very long time. It must have been an awful sight, To witness in the dusky moonlight, While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray, Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay, Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay, I must now conclude my lay By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay, That your central girders would not have given way, At least many sensible men do say, Had they been supported on each side with buttresses, At least many sensible men confesses, For the stronger we our houses do build, The less chance we have of being killed. –William Topaz McGonagall

Yup. That's pretty bad. Too bad he's not eligible to enter the Bulwer Lytton contest.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Okay, just what do we teach about the controversy?

For his part in the controversy, Hugh Hewitt says,

I do believe in Intelligent Design --in Christianity, actually-- but the point of my posts yesterday was not to wade into those battles, but to underscore the Washington Post's lousy repotting on the controversy in Dover, Pennsylvania.

Hugh, there's plenty of bad reporting to go around. There are any number of intelligent, educated people who are (I believe) taken in by the (in my opinion) smoke and mirrors of Intelligent Design / Intelligent Origin Theory. For the most part, this is because of the absolutely dismal state of science education in our schools. I've complained at great length on this very topic a few times already.

Face it. Science education sucks. In the primary grades, it is almost universally in the hands of non-scientists. Indeed, it's probably taught by people who went into education because they flunked out of anything remotely resembling science.

And it shows. I've yet to encounter anyone who opposes evolution or supports Intelligent Design, who can explain what evolutionary theory actually says.

Intelligent Design / Intelligent Origin Theory

Intelligent Design theory continues to pop up as an issue. Jim Lindgren of the Volokh Conspiracy points to a post on the topic:

How science works is by putting forth theories that are disprovable, not ones that are provable. When all other theories have been disproven, those still standing are the ones adopted by most scientists. ID is not a scientific theory, because it fails the test of being disprovable (or to be more precise, non-falsifiable), right out of the box. If Hugh [Hewitt] doesn't believe this, then let him postulate an experiment that one could perform, even in thought, that would show it to be false. ID simply says, "I'm not smart enough to figure out how this structure could evolve, therefore there must have been a designer." That's not science--it's simply an invocation of a deus ex machina, whether its proponents are willing to admit it or not. And it doesn't belong in a science classroom, except as an example of what's not science.

I invite Dennis Prager to attempt the same sort of thought experiment.

This is one of those things about science that a log of people just don't get. Science does not work by proving theories true. Rather, it works by attempting to disprove theories, and those theories that survive the process are provisionally true.

Another point about science is that theories derive their power from what they don't predict far more than what they do.

Newton's theory of gravity, called Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation, was an incredibly successful theory. It not only accounted for [most of] the motions of the planets in the solar system, it accurately predicted such things as the return of Halley's comet and the existence of the planet Neptune.

Newton's theory was considered vindicated when Halley's comet returned, pretty much when Halley said it would, and on the exact orbit he predicted it would.

Halley died before the return of the comet that bears his name, but there were many other comets that came through before Halley died. Why not claim one of those as vindication? Because Newton's theory did not predict that a comet would show up somewhere in the sky someday. It predicted that a comet would be seen coming in from a particular direction, and it would be following a particular path, and it would return in a particular time window.

It did.

Newton's theory predicted a great number of things, and accounted for most of the observed motions in the solar system. But there were any number of motions that were specifically ruled out. The theory predicted that planets would move in elliptical orbits, or circular orbits, or the occasional parabola or hyperbola. You would never expect to see a planet move on a sine wave through the solar system, or trace a cubic function or a catenary, or any of an infinite number of other possible curves, and making sharp turns is right out.

Had any of these movements been observed, Newton's theory would have been in deep trouble.

In contrast, we could imagine someone offering, as a counter to Newton's theory, the Intelligent Pilot Theory of Motion (IPTOM). In this theory, all the movements of all the planets, asteroids, comets, and dust particles in the solar system are due to the influence of an Intelligent Pilot. Every movement can be accounted for by claiming that it is what the Pilot willed.

The problem with the IPTOM is that if any movement can be accounted for by the theory, none can be ruled out, and there's no particular reason to expect any object, like a space craft, to behave in any particular way.

Take, for example, the topic of this post on gravity. We count on being able to predict the location of anything we launch into space with a high degree of accuracy decades into the future. A discrepency of a tiny fraction in one is a definite anomaly, a similar discrepency in two matching probes is downright weird.

But this discrepency is troubling only because Newton's theory makes very specific predictions about what can happen, and what can't happen.

The IPTOM doesn't. And the Intelligent Design/Intelligent Origin Theory doesn't. Period.

Jim also notes something I've found amusing:

One thing that strikes me about Intelligent Design is that it must have been much more intuitively appealing before the failure of socialism. Socialism in the 1920s--1940s was in part based on the idea that the world had become so complex that central planning was necessary to deal with this complexity. Yet Von Mises was arguing just the opposite, that as the world became more elaborate, no one could plan it. ID seems to be based on an assumption that most conservatives reject in the economic sphere--that as the economy gets more elaborate, to work well it must be the product of the intelligent design of a master planner.

Indeed, many conservatives are quite aware of the notion of spontaneous order in economic systems, but are completely unable to accept the same notion in biological systems. Modern Liberals are quite the opposite. They're perfectly comfortable with the notion of spontaneous order in nature – evolution – but refuse to believe that an economy can self-organize without an intelligence directing it.

Indeed, I have proposed this as one of the tests for distinguishing between Left and Right in American politics.


Tyler Cowen has links to an article about innovative ways of improving citizen behavior. Techniques include:

  • mimes who will make fun of pedestrians who violate rules
  • "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" signs
  • voluntary payment of 10% extra taxes
  • a hot line to report good taxi drivers

According to the article,

If you read Spanish, here is an essay by Mockus on his philosophy.

I imagine there's an essay there even if you don't read Spanish.

Being a guilt free consumer

In order to help the environment, we're encouraged to recycle and upgrade to vehicles and equipment that produce less pollution – hydrogen powered cars, for example.

Problem is, some studies show that recycling has a larger impact on the environment than does using virgin resources. And that hydrogen-powered car may not generate pollution in its exhaust, but how much pollution was created to generate that hydrogen?

What to do? How to decide? William Baldwin has an answer:

You could drive yourself crazy calculating all the direct and indirect inputs behind a consumer choice, so here's a handy rule, courtesy of Jerry C. Taylor, head of natural resource studies at Cato: If you care about the environment, go for the cheaper item. "Prices are a signal for all of the resources that go into producing something," he says.

Of course, some will argue that the price of something isn't a good indicator, because so many goods that have a signficant environmental impact are subsidized. Their prices don't reflect their "true costs" in environmental terms.

So don't order people to spend their money on hydrogen powered cars. Don't shame people into ignoring prices and other economic signals. End subsidies.


A quake, measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale, set off tsunamis across Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. The current death toll is 21,500, and will probably rise as more of the missing are accounted for.

A 9.0 quake is not unheard of, but it is the strongest in "the past 40 years".

More information on the quake itself can be found here.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Privacy and blogging

(Hat tip: The Volokh Conspiracy)

Orin Kerr asks if students should feel free to blog about their professors. His answer is, basically, go ahead, but realize professors are free to read the blog, and may well know who's writing it.

Even if you blog under a pseudonym and don't refer to the professor by name, you're probably leaving enough information behind to identify the professor and yourself. Even if you keep your own identity secret, there aren't that many professors out there: particularly critical or juicy posts are likely to lead to someone recognizing the professor and tipping off him or her to the blog. The professor may then take some effort to figure out who you are. You may never know about it, either: I know professors who regularly read their students' discussions of class on their blogs, and don't want the students to know it.

The rule was first applied to fanzines, later extended to postings on websites and mailing lists. "Never write anything you don't want showing up on the front page of the paper the next morning."

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Journalists and the Wiccan Rede

(Hat tip: Belmont Club)

Wretchard comments on the questions that have been raised about the journalist who happened to be in just the right spot to photograph the execution of Iraqi election workers. Salon Magazine casts it as an obscure blogger slinging mud. In fact, Wretchard thinks the question is extremely well justified:

The journalists who have been killed or wounded in Iraq are rightly honored because noncombatants, belonging to neither side, who have the courage to walk into danger to gather news deserve every distinction than can be bestowed. They should not be confused, nor their memory sullied, by association with individuals who, posing as protected persons, act as mouthpieces of terrorist organizations, which would have been the case if the AP photographer had not been there to innocently cover a demonstration. That is why asking questions about what happened on Haifa Street is so important. It is not, as Salon would have it, a question of an obscure blogger impugning the integrity of journalists. On the contrary, it is about maintaining the integrity of journalists. As the Crimes of War site notes, the protections accorded to journalists are largely provided by custom.
The rights most journalists enjoy in wartime today were won in their respective national political cultures. In the final analysis, field commanders tolerate the presence of the press because of the political power and legal protections the press has acquired in their own local arenas. ... But journalists roaming around the wilder conflicts of the world are forced to live instead by the Dylan dictum: to live outside the law you must be honest.

Many who are attracted to the Neopagan movement are drawn by a structure that appears to be free of rules that bind and chafe. The Wiccan Rede says, "If it harms none, do what you will." This sounds like a nice, safe, free-wheeling rule – nothing more than the absolute minimum needed for people to get along with each other.

In fact, the Rede is extremely hard to live by. It's especially hard without a structure, usually given in the form of an elaborate and detailed ethical code. Most Wiccans have converted to the path from another religion and absorbed the ethical code it provided. Others have converted from no religion, but have learned the ethical code their parents absorbed from their religion. In any event, they've learned certain things are wrong at a level so deep it never occurs to them to question it.

Rabelais noted the absurdity of a moral code whose only Law was "do your will". Thsoe who advocate such a Law can do so only because they and all their friends and acquaintences have been trained out of willing to do evil things. Given such a Law to obey, they would refrain from doing evil because they still responded to that early training. That is, they would refrain until the training broke down, and in the absence of any consequences to the breakdown, break down it would.

Journalists, to the extent that they live outside the law, have a similar problem. They have to police their own behavior and the behavior of their colleagues very stringently. In order to retain the freedom to "do their will", journalists must ensure that their will is constrained by a very strict ethical and moral structure, and they have to be very aware of the consequences of even the smallest breeches of right, of trust, and of faith. As soon as the people journalists deal with get the idea that ethical strictures must be imposed from outside, pressure will build to do just that, and I think we would all find the cure far worse than the disease.

Neither Neopaganism nor journalism are licenses to do whatever one pleases. They demand very strict adherence to a moral code that everyone else recognizes as a good one. To function in society under a rule that grants extreme freedom, you must behave with extreme responsibility.

Music and Evolution

Dennis Prager considers music a gift from God.

More to the point, he considers the ability to enjoy music such a gift. There's no particular reason why we should have such an ability. From the show archives:

Scientists offer explanations, most of them startling in their silliness, but their current conclusion is that they don’t know. There doesn’t seem to be any evolutionary value to pleasing melodies. We just like them so much. Could music be a gift from God? That, of course, is the one explanation science won’t accept.

The problem is, saying God did it is not an explanation. Imagine a parallel universe where people are left completely cold by music, but respond to visual cues, such as a Jackson Pollock painting. Such a gift could be called a gift from God, but calling it that would not explain why that particular gift was given and not the gift of music.

Subject: Music and evolution

To: "Dennis Prager"


How would "evolutionists" (I prefer the term "scientists") explain a love of music?

First of all, I don't believe a love of music necessarily developed as an end in itself.  That is, I don't think there was any particular reason to evolve a love of music.  I suspect it's a side-effect of something else.

One possibility:  a lot of our success comes from our ability to recognize patterns in the world around us.  It may well be that the same faculties that make patterns stand out in our brains make some patterns so compelling that they provoke deep responses in the brain.

If we assume the faculty for enjoying music is a supernatural gift, then we have the question, why music?  Why not something visual?  Why *don't* people respond as deeply to a painting?  Why can a symphony move people, even though nothing in nature makes the combination of sounds we hear in such a work, when a Jackson Pollock painting is merely interesting.

One of the features of science is that it doesn't have explanations for everything yet.  Indeed, there are many things science may never be able to explain.  Maybe music can't be accounted for in the material realm science is equipped to deal with.  Maybe the explanation of music as a side-effect of something else will never satisfy. 

It may well be that attempts to find an evolutionary survival role for music are as silly as attempts to explain all disasters, all cases of disease, all accidents, all good or bad fortune, as God's way of rewarding the good and punishing the bad.  Any realm of inquiry can be pushed to ridiculous extremes. Scientists attempt explanations of any number of things using their preferred theories, and at the extreme, this is rightly called hubris. Religious folks will often declare their knowledge of God's will in bestowing cancer on a child, or AIDS on an individual or group, or capsizing a ferry boat and killing the people on board.  It seems to me there's plenty of hubris to go around.

Ultimately, science makes one grand assumption: Everything can be explained without the need to violate natural laws. A field of study that allows for entities that can set aside the laws of the unierse to explain something is no longer explaining anything, because it explains nothing. Once you have God doing things by some unspecified mechanism, you can use God to explain literally anything.

The most important election of the century

Last month's election for President may well have been the second most important election of the century. The real biggie is going to be the election in Iraq, at the end of January.

If Iraqi voters choose a government that will perpetuate their right to continue to freely choose their own government, that will represent a radical change and something unique in the history of the entire Arab world. Its repercussions on surrounding Middle East countries could be momentous in the years and generations ahead. On the other hand, depending on who is elected, this could turn out like the first elections held in some African countries after they achieved their independence in the 1960s: "One man, one vote – one time." Too often, the winner of that first election made sure that no one else could ever be elected to replace him.

Yes, the telling point is not so much the results of the first election, but the results of the second one.

Nevertheless, while we can't guarantee success, neither are we assured of failure. The terrorists who are doing their best to blow up soldiers and Iraqi citizens understand that. If democracy works in Iraq, the suffocating feeling they've been feeling will turn into full-blown hypoxia.

Difficulty of life grading scale

Mike S. Adams has written a column describing how he might adjust a student's grade based on how difficult her life has been over the past semester, and how it might have impacted her performance. She had enough difficulty with life events that it lowered her score by one whole grade.

Then a problem occurred to him:

After I committed to raising this student’s grade, it occurred to me that I should probably contact all of you to see how your semester went. And, in fairness, if any of you experienced any unexpected difficulties, you should have the right to enumerate them and explain exactly how much they hurt your performance in class last semester. Using the university honor system, I will take you at your word and adjust your grades accordingly.

Well, professor Adams, allow me to submit my case. I am nowhere near Wilmington, and the length of the commute required to attend your class and sit for your exams is prohibitive. I figure this alone should be worth at least three grades, raising my score from its current 0.0 to 3.0 – a solid "B".

In addition, I was never registered in your class. Because of this situation, totally beyond my control, I was never able to actually attend your class. By my calculations, that accounts for an additional 1.0 of life-related grade impact (LRGI). An adjustment for the combined impact should therefore raise my grade to 4.0, a solid "A".

Finally, due to life circumstances utterly beyond my control (including living in Los Angeles, an inconvenient commuting distance from Wilmington, and no longer being of "college age") I was never enrolled at UNC-Wilmington. Because notions of "diversity" have not yet been extended to cover enrollment status, I was unfairly barred from enrolling in your class in the first place! The LRGI of this fact is quite large, and should by all rights overwhelm the previous adjustments. In the sense of fair play, however, I will settle for sufficient adjustment to add a few "plusses" to my "A" grade in your class. I will appreciate a copy of my transcript, updated to reflect this adjustment.

Of course, all these LRGI factors in my case apply not just to your class this past semester, not just to all of your classes, but to all classes taught at UNC-Wilmington. I appreciate your intention to adjust grades retroactively over the past 23 semesters, but I think a reasonable number of semesters would be eight – corresponding to the four-year statute of limitations for a written contract in most states.

Of course, you can see the implication here. Obviously, I hold an adjusted grade of "A+" in every course that has been taught at UNC-Wilmington for the past four years. I therefore hold enough credits, and have passed sufficient classes to have earned a fair number of Bachelor's degrees in just about every subject taucht at UNC-Wilmington.

I will appreciate receiving my diplomas and degree certificates at my mailing address as soon as the paperwork can be completed.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

What's the matter with gravity?

The two Pioneer spacecraft are not where they're supposed to be.

Big deal, you say? Well, yes it is. We're used to being able to calculate the exact magnitude of every force acting on anything we send out into the solar system. We rely on this ability. If our calculations are off, our space craft wind up missing their mark. And we don't load enough fuel to correct for very big mistakes.

John Anderson noticed a discrepancy in the positions of the two craft. It's not big – 8000 miles out of 219 million traveled every year. But it should be zero.

Anderson has spent ten years trying to rule out every possible source of error. He's invited other scientists to suggest anything he may have overlooked. So far, no one has.

Whatever the answer turns out to be, it's going to be interesting.

If celestial mechanics had a contingent of opponents, the kind Creationists are to evolution, they would seize upon this story to claim we know nothing at all about gravity, and that Velikovsky's planetary billiards scenario is possible. Or maybe those Trancendental Meditators do levitate after all.

All Pagans Now?

Mary Wakefield talks with a Druid to find out why Paganism is so attractive these days.

Poor thing, she starts with a bit of a disadvantage – she can't spot Pagans in a crowded pub. (Fellow Pagans always seem to have a particular feel about them, which I can read across the room. I call it "The Lady's Fingerprints".) Finally, her contact, Steve, pulls out his copy of a magazine, The Witchtower. (AAAARGH! What a horrible pun! I wish I'd thought of it!)

One of the things that attracts people to the Neopagan movement is the apparent utter lack of rules (or maybe I should write, the utter lack of Rules.)

So, can a modern pagan just pick any god to worship? I asked. Egyptian? Roman? African? Are there any rules? Steve put his hands self-consciously under the table, ‘No rules,’ he said. ‘Being a pagan is about being free from institutional rules.

And another thing that draws people in:

Pagans, I discovered during our second pint, are also united by their sense of the injustices done them by Christians. The last 2,000 years of history, as explained by Steve, is a heart-wrenching tale of innocent occult revivals squashed by ignorant, scaredy-cat Christians; of forced conversions by English kings desperate for Roman approval; of goddess-worship suppressed by chauvinist orthodoxy and cries of 'Burn the witch!' Eventually, after a tour through the Enlightenment (good), Freemasonry (also good), Constantine (bad) and Dominican monks (Satan spawn), we reached the 20th century, where, said Steve, paganism was once again revived by a man called Gerald Gardner. In 1957, after 20 years of frolicking with a coven of witches, Gardner wrote Witchcraft Today — a mix of folklore, Masonic rituals, nudism, sex and Aleister Crowley-style magic which became a sort of handbook for the modern Wicca witch and inspired the whole postmodern frogspawn of spiritually and sexually liberated pagan sects. 'Paganism today is continually evolving,' said Steve. 'There’s no right or wrong thing to believe, so even if we disagree, it’s impossible for pagans to be schismatic.'

<*ahem*> Tell a group of Pagans you charge a set fee for initiations and tell me what kind of reaction you get. There are other Rules – lines you dare not cross. Pagan tolerance only goes so far.

A huge number of folks who join the Neopagan movement do so because they feel alienated from the religion they were brought up in, or never acquired one to begin with. But religion is one of the things that have brought people together for thousands of years, probably before we developed any other kind of social groups. The religious urge exists in most, if not all people. It seems to be hard-wired in to our brains, and in some people, the need to make contact with something higher simply won't be denied.

Jim Taylor, an Eastern Orthodox theologian has written an article, "A Christian Speaks on the Faith and Path of Wicca", in which he states that Wicca is a path to God that is just as valid as his own. He warns his fellow Christians that the judgement they pass upon serious Pagans will be turned toward them on judgement day.

His take on those who reject their home religions and turn toward Neopaganism? "To those who have been driven away from Jesus by bad experiences, incompetent or vicious clergy, or unfriendly churches, Jesus is perfectly capable of relating through the persona of Apollo, of Isis, of Erzulie, or of any other divine being a person looks toward." As C.S. Lewis stated, through the character of Aslan, "When you keep an oath for the oath's sake, it is to Me you have sworn, not to Tash."

At times I worry that many get in to the Neopagan movement in order to have a social group, and not to have serious contact with the Divine. Most of the time, though, I realize the Divine has a way of making contact with those who truly need it.

Airport security by Clouseau

Remember hearing about the French police testing airport security? They slipped some plastic explosives into the bag of a random passenger to test the ability of bomb sniffing dogs to find it.

Not only did they not find it, they still haven't found it. (As of this posting, a quick search of Google News hasn't turned up any sign that it's been found yet.)

It's perfectly reasonable to plant an explosive-filled suitcase in an airport in order to test security. It is not okay to plant it in someone's bag without his knowledge and permission. (The explosive residue could remain on the suitcase long after the test, and might be picked up by one of those trace mass spectrometers that detects the chemical residue associated with bombs.) But if you are going to plant plastic explosives in the suitcase of some innocent passenger, shouldn't you at least write down which suitcase it was?

I wonder how many random passengers would recognize plastic explosives on sight.

On a slightly different tack, I could imagine a business traveller arriving home, throwing his suitcase on the sofa, and one of the children rummages through to see if mommy or daddy brought him something. He finds the modeling clay and takes it to play with. It takes a lot to set off plastic explosives, but I'm not sure how much.


The city of Newport, Oregon used to control manganese levels in its water by prechlorinating. The chlorine would oxidize the manganese, and it wouldn't discolor the water. Because of high levels of disinfection byproducts, the city has discontinued this practice, and residents have been getting brown water.

The city can control the manganese levels by adding permanganate to the water, which is a strong oxidizer. This will only cost an extra six percent to the people buying water in the city.

How much does anyone want to bet the permanganate will create oxidation byproducts of its own?

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Happy Yule!

Early this morning, the sun reached the southernmost celestial latitude it's capable of attaining. Here in the north, we had the shortest day of the year. Today is the day of the greatest darkness – the winter solstice.

At the apparent triumph of darkness, the tables turn. After today, the light will begin to increase and the days will grow longer. The darkness has done its worst, and will lose its grip from this day forward. It won't be obvious for days yet, but the light has come back.

Many cultures have celebrations of light during this time, and Wicca is no exception. As the neopagan movement has rifled through the pockets of many different cultures, it's taken pieces from all over the world. In fairly short order, we've assembled a pretty coherent whole.

Yule is a pretty busy time of year. This is the day the course of the sun reverses. From a time of increasing darkness, we move to a time of growing light. Yule is the day the light is reborn.

The Holly King, representing the dark aspect of the God, has ruled since the summer solstice. He now loses in ritual combat to the Oak King, and gives his life to the light aspect of the God, who reigns as Lord of the waxing year. We move from a time of decrease to a time of growth, and all of nature comes round to this new course. Now is the time we plant the seeds for those things we wish to bring into our lives in the coming year. In short, this is the time for making resolutions for the new year.

A law of magic which seems to show up everywhere I've looked states that magic happens in the places between. The shores, places where land and sea meet, are places of power. Mountain tops, where earth meets sky, are also powerful spots. Times are also magical. Twilight and dawn are times of magic – they are between day and night, not quite either.

The changes of the seasons are also times of magic. During the time of change, we are between one time of year and the next, and the rules are held in abeyance. Eclipses are considered times of power, and so are times between one year and the next.

You can break a cycle at any point, and any number of days have been selected as New Year's Day. (There is, or at least used to be, a night club that celebrated New Year's Day every day of the year, since every day is just as valid a day as any other for this celebration.) But some days have their own built-in features which set them apart. Although the official Wiccan new year falls at Samhain, the Yule festival is a compelling choice for a number of reasons.

Everything comes together at Yule.

I've mentioned the God, but the Goddess is emphasized here as at no other time.

In the waning year, the Goddess takes on the aspect of the Crone – the woman who has passed the time of childbearing, and taken on the duty of advisor to the family, the tribe, the village, or the world. She will hold this aspect until the light is reborn at Yule.

After Yule, the Goddess takes on the aspect of the Maiden – the virgin not yet capable of bearing children. She presides over the growth of all in the world.

During Yule itself, the Light – and the Lord – is reborn. Birth requires a bearer and it is the Goddess as Mother who gives birth to the new Lord and the light. At Yule, the Goddess takes on all three of her aspects of being, and all three facets of Her are available to Her children.

During this time of year, we are encouraged to reflect on the year that has ended, and look forward to the year that is to come. Here, in the time between the years, where the lives of the Lord and the Lady reach a crossroad, we have enormous latitude. We have the power to chart our own course at all times, but in the magical times and places, the range of choices is even greater.

It is said that every intentional act is a magical act. In the coming year, let us work our magic for good.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Declining English grammar – nailed by Chomsky

I'm sure you've noticed the decline in English usage in society. Even people who communicate for a living don't seem to know, for example, that it's one criterion, and more than one two or more criteria. Making sure the subject and the verb agreed with each other in number used to be automatic. Nowadays, it's depressingly common to read or hear of one person doing something with "their" possessions. [Oops. Edited 12/19.]

In the 1960s, Noam Chomsky developed a theory of transformative-generative grammar (TG) to deal with the "deep meaning" of English sentences.

English is perfectly capable of generating ambiguous sentences, such as "Visiting relatives can be boring." TG can elucidate the deep meaning of such sentences, teasing out the difference between "Relatives who visit can be boring" and "Going to visit relatives can induce boredom". (Another example, two sentences with identical structure but very different deep structure: "Alice is easy to please" / "Alice is eager to please" / Proper-noun, copula, adjective, verb infinitive. The two sentences are exactly opposite in terms of who is the recipient of the action in the infinitive phrase.)

TG is a very powerful and useful theory, and became the standard way of diagramming sentences in linguistics. Unfortunately, it was adopted into grade school curricula, and attempts were made to have students learn it instead of traditional grammar.

Unfortunately, TG was developed as a tool for understanding grammar, not for teaching it. The effect of trying to teach TG was like trying to have students learn to read whole words at once before they had mastered phonics, or learn number theory before they had learned basic arithmatic. Students come away with a knowledge base that doesn't relate to anything they know, and not knowing the basic material they need to relate to what they were actually taught.

In the 60s and 70s, students still had teachers who had mastered grammar. Now, the next generation of teachers never learned the stuff, and have long forgotten the TG they did learn. The blind lead the blind, and the teaching of English has fallen into the ditch.

Take responsibility

Two young men have been sentenced to prison for the attempted theft of credit card numbers. They were using a wi-fi connection to tap in to the computer network at a Lowe's home improvement store in Detroit, Michigan. They found the network was unsecured while driving around, charting wireless networks.

Wireless networks have provisions for password protection, but this protection has to be turned on. If you install a wireless network and don't secure it, you're giving access to your computers to anyone with an antenna in range of your system. Any random person with a wireless-enabled laptop can cause all kinds of havoc to your computer, and to any other computers connected to your network. If you have high speed access to the internet, someone can install software to attack other systems.

If you install a wireless network, it's your responsibility to secure it. If you don't secure it, you're part of the problem.

Nevada paying to desalinate California water?

(Hat tip: Brown & Caldwell California Water News)

The state of Nevada is looking at paying to double the size of a proposed desalination plant in California, from 28,000 acre-feet of water per year to 56,000. In exchange, California would give Nevada the right to pull 28,000 acre-feet of water per year from Lake Mead, along the Colorado River.

If this deal goes through, Nevada will be paying $941 per acre-foot of water, or $2.16 per hundred-cubic-foot billing unit. This cost includes the cost of treating the water from Lake Mead, as well as the loss of revenue because the water is no longer running through the hydroelectric generators in the dam, but going to cities in Nevada, instead.

Other possible sources of water for Nevada include buying water from Arizona, for $264 per acre-foot, but this deal runs out in one or two decades.

Desalinating brackish water pumped up from 100 feet down could cost as much as $2287 per acre-foot, and surprisingly, xeriscaping – replacing lawns with desert plants – costs $5450 per acre-foot saved.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Touchy issues

(Hat tip: Los Angeles Daily News)

The Business section of the Daily News has a column, "Touchy issues worth a talk". It deals with the subject of conversations about sensitive topics, including politics and religion.

Some people believe it's best to avoid touchy subjects. But is it really more pleasant to cut yourself off from a discussion of the opinions and values we hold most dear? What if we could conduct conversations in which we truly listen and feel heard?...

For those brave enough to try, here are tips from the Public Conversatons Project conducted by some Massachusetts-based family therapists who facilitate dialogs...

Nuclear energy: Why science education matters

(Hat tip: news)

San Diego County has decided it won't be able to build a desalination plant at the San Onofre nuclear power plant. It's probably just as well that there's no room, and no buildable site for the plant, because county residents would have objected most vigorously.

But San Diego County Water Authority officials said the study didn't do any testing on what might be the biggest obstacle facing the potential project: public opinion, which could be a problem even though engineers say water produced by the plant would never come near radioactive nuclear generators.

Desalination is a power-intensive process. You need a lot of energy to separate salt from water by any process around today. Some future technology may be able to do the job for us, but right now, expect to spend something like $4.50 per hundred cubic feet (one billing unit) of water, just to remove salt.

With so much energy needed to desalinate water, it would be useful to build a plant right next to a generator to minimize transmission losses. You have to pump water uphill to anyone not on the beach, but you'll have to do that anyway. The best source of salty water happens to be the beach.

But the public doesn't want "radioactive water" that's been processed at, or anywhere near, a nuclear plant.

Here's where a good science education would help. I know something about nuclear reactors. I know something about radiation. I know radiation inside the reactor won't affect anything outside the containment and its associated shielding.

I especially know radiation won't follow electricity through wires to wherever it's used, nor will it jump to the water in a desalination plant that happens to be on the same property.

I also know enough about desalination to know there's no need to run water through a reactor or irradiate it in order to remove salt.

We, unfortunately, are perfectly happy with a level of science education that leaves the population knowing next to nothing about very important things, including radiation. When people don't know how anything will behave, they'll imagine things, and what they imagine is often worse than the reality.

Imagine people were as ignorant about how cars behave. Imagine they had no idea how cars really behave, and were terrified that moving cars might suddenly skid out of control into a crowded sidewalk. Suppose a large fraction of the population thought parked cars might start up of their own accord and speed, uncontrolled, into a crowd. Would people even want to take the chance?

Indeed, while this sounds idiotic when applied to cars, it seems to be the way a lot of people think about guns. People look at guns as if they all had hair triggers, and would go off if dropped, or even if jostled, or perhaps even due to the random collision of air molecules against the trigger. And there are enough people with these beliefs in the population to apply serious pressure to regulate guns accordingly.

Sure, knowledge can be dangerous, but not as dangerous as ignorance.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Concentration of resources

Bruce Schneier has a thought on the ability to concentrate resources and how it confers a significant advantage.

...the ability to concentrate resources. The defender must defend against all possible attacks, while the attacker can concentrate his forces on one particular avenue of attack. This precept is fundamental to a lot of security, and can be seen very clearly in counterterrorism. A country is in the position of the interior; it must defend itself against all possible terrorist attacks: airplane terrorism, chemical bombs, threats at the ports, threats through the mails, lone lunatics with automatic weapons, assassinations, etc, etc, etc. The terrorist just needs to find one weak spot in the defenses, and exploit that. This concentration versus diffusion of resources is one reason why the defender's job is so much harder than the attackers.

I had mentioned that principle in a conversation with one of the adopted nephews. Having watched some of the crime/forensic science shows on TV, I pointed out to him that the police have a big advantage when investigating a crime. The criminal has a very small window of opportunity to get everything right – to hide clues, to spot anything that might give him away, to cover tracks, etc. The police have all the time they can afford to spend, and can sometimes wait years for technology to catch up with the state of the evidence. (For example, murders are being solved now by the use of DNA typing technology that was invented years after the crime was committed.)

I hope I made the point that "crime doesn't pay". However, this is also an example of the advantage going to the side that can concentrate resources.

This same principle guides security questioning at the Ben Gurion Airport in Israel. In this example, the attacker is the security screener and the defender is the terrorist.


Security is impressively tight at the airport, and includes a potentially lengthy interview by a trained security screener. The screener asks each passenger questions, trying to determine if he's a security risk. But instead of asking different questions -- where do you live, what do you do for a living, where were you born -- the screener asks questions that follow a storyline: "Where are you going? Who do you know there? How did you meet him? What were you doing there?" And so on.

See the ability to concentrate resources? The defender -- the terrorist trying to sneak aboard the airplane -- needs a cover story sufficiently broad to be able to respond to any line of questioning. So he might memorize the answers to several hundred questions. The attacker -- the security screener -- could ask questions scattershot, but instead concentrates his questioning along one particular line. The theory is that eventually the defender will reach the end of his memorized story, and that the attacker will then notice the subtle changes in the defender as he starts to make up answers.

When someone proposes some principle or explanation of how the world works, I look for generalizability. The more different things a principle can reasonably explain, the more I'm inclined to believe it's true.

Abortion and a strong leash

From the Wall Street Journal editorial page...

James Taranto, editor of the "Best of the Web" blog, notes that if Roe v. Wade is overturned, many of the staunchest pro-life legislators will wish it hadn't been.

Rather like a small dog which is ferocity personified while on the leash or safely behind a fence, the strongly pro-life may find themselves set back on their heels once there are no more barriers to fighting the scourge of abortion itself.

Federal legislators would be well advised to pay attention to the 10th Amendment and let the States deal with the issue. What happens in the States, though, is liable to be interesting.

Computer stuff to look in to

(From the Wall Street Journal)

Yesterday's paper had an article on toys in the Consumer Technology and Web Watch sections.

Browsers (Alternatives to Internet Explorer)

Downside: Many websites are written to work only with Internet Explorer. Upside: Most of the bugs, viruses, trojans, and spyware are also.

One of my duties for Loscon involves hosting parties in my hotel room at conventions. I'll have to see what sort of stuff I can find here, when I'm not at work.

Party Supplies
Birthday Express

A bunch of my friends are in to board games in a big way, and I've been hooked on a few of them. Also, these represent an alternative to computer games. Besides, not all families have their computers networked so they can have a game night together.

Board Games
Board Games Express
Uncles Games
Fair Play Games
Olsen Woodcrafting

The God Gene

David Limbaugh's commentary on the "God Gene" reminds me of this topic in general.

Unfortunately for people who want a definitive answer, the presence of a gene that promotes religious or spiritual experiences doesn't prove anything one way or the other. Many will point to this gene, and its effect on brain chemistry, as "proof" that our perceptions of the divine have no component outside the material realm.

On the other hand, Dennis Prager has made the case that God provided us with a sense that would be capable of perceiving him. Just as our sense of vision corresponds to real things out there to see, our sense of religion corresponds to something real out there to be religious about.

The problem with this argument is twofold. Firstly, there are many things out in the universe that we're just not equipped to sense without artificial aids. We cannot directly perceive radio waves, for example, despite having been bathed in such waves from all over the universe for as long as we've been around. Secondly, our senses sometimes misreport. Many optical illusions have their basis in the way our eyes are wired, others in the way our brains are designed. For the most part, our visual sense does a great job at sorting out the information coming in, but sometimes the short-cuts lead us astray. The same thing happens with all of our senses.

The presence of a religion gene has no bearing on God's reality or lack thereof.


The coral is all right

From Agence France-Presse, we see an article saying the world's coral isn't dying off after all.

A team at Sydney University has published research indicating that present levels of calcification are not in decline, and are in fact at 19th Century levels.

The Great Barrier Reef is still in trouble, though. Researchers had pinned the blame on rising sea temperatures, but now I'm wondering if anyone has measured the organic matter content of the water. If currents have shifted, and water's coming in from the mid ocean, maybe it's very low in stuff for the coral to eat.

(Indeed, if all it needs is supplemental food, there may be a market for something like Purina coral chow.)

The SF Chronicle on the Wiese decision

The news piece is a little more balanced than the editorial just examined. Out of 12 paragraphs, five cite reasons to oppose the ruling, two cite reasons to support it. The article cites one source favoring, and one opposing the ruling.

Who owns water?

Hat tip: Brown & Caldwell California Water News

The San Francisco Chronicle sounds off on the impending settlement by the Bush Administration in the 1990 case where the Federal government diverted water from farms in the San Joaquin valley to bolster populations of endangered fish.

The editorial sides against the ruling and worries that having to pay for any water taken from people who have bought the rights to it will lead to fundamental changes in the way water has been managed in the state.

...Joseph Sax, a UC Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law professor who helped prepare a brief against the water districts' claims [says that] Judge Wiese in effect ruled that the users of the water, through their local water districts, owned the water. He ordered the federal government to pay the growers $14 million in damages, which, with interest and attorneys' fees, has grown to $26 million. ''This could have a devastating impact on regulating water in the public interest in California,'' Sax told us.

The SF Chronicle urges its readers to send e-mail to John Ashcroft asking him to appeal the decision. For the sake of the Eighth Amendment, I hope he gets lots of mail asking him not to appeal.

(And notice how little difference there is between this editorial and the "news" articles cited here.)

Monday, December 13, 2004

Safe Computing

No, the plastic wrappers on floppy disks are not computer condoms. They won't help you keep your computer safe.

Bruce Schneier has an updated list of recommendations for the home computer user:

  • General: Turn off the computer when you're not using it, especially if you have an "always on" Internet connection.
  • Laptop security: Keep your laptop with you at all times when not at home; treat it as you would a wallet or purse. Regularly purge unneeded data files from your laptop. The same goes for PDAs. People tend to store more personal data--including passwords and PINs--on PDAs than they do on laptops.
  • Backups: Back up regularly.
  • Operating systems: If possible, don't use Microsoft Windows. Buy a Macintosh or use Linux. If you must use Windows, set up Automatic Update so that you automatically receive security patches. And delete the files "" and "cmd.exe."
  • Applications: Limit the number of applications on your machine. If you don't need it, don't install it. If you no longer need it, uninstall it. Look into one of the free office suites as an alternative to Microsoft Office. Regularly check for updates to the applications you use and install them. Keeping your applications patched is important, but don't lose sleep over it.
  • Browsing: Don't use Microsoft Internet Explorer, period. Limit use of cookies and applets to those few sites that provide services you need. Set your browser to regularly delete cookies. Don't assume a Web site is what it claims to be, unless you've typed in the URL yourself. Make sure the address bar shows the exact address, not a near-miss.
  • Web sites: Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption does not provide any assurance that the vendor is trustworthy or that its database of customer information is secure.
  • Think before you do business with a Web site. Limit the financial and personal data you send to Web sites--don't give out information unless you see a value to you. If you don't want to give out personal information, lie. Opt out of marketing notices. If the Web site gives you the option of not storing your information for later use, take it. Use a credit card for online purchases, not a debit card.
  • Passwords: You can't memorize good enough passwords any more, so don't bother. For high-security Web sites such as banks, create long random passwords and write them down. Guard them as you would your cash: i.e., store them in your wallet, etc.
  • Never reuse a password for something you care about. (It's fine to have a single password for low-security sites, such as for newspaper archive access.) Assume that all PINs can be easily broken and plan accordingly.
  • Never type a password you care about, such as for a bank account, into a non-SSL encrypted page. If your bank makes it possible to do that, complain to them. When they tell you that it is OK, don't believe them; they're wrong.
  • E-mail : Turn off HTML e-mail. Don't automatically assume that any e-mail is from the "From" address.
  • Delete spam without reading it. Don't open messages with file attachments, unless you know what they contain; immediately delete them. Don't open cartoons, videos and similar "good for a laugh" files forwarded by your well-meaning friends; again, immediately delete them.
  • Never click links in e-mail unless you're sure about the e-mail; copy and paste the link into your browser instead. Don't use Outlook or Outlook Express. If you must use Microsoft Office, enable macro virus protection; in Office 2000, turn the security level to "high" and don't trust any received files unless you have to. If you're using Windows, turn off the "hide file extensions for known file types" option; it lets Trojan horses masquerade as other types of files. Uninstall the Windows Scripting Host if you can get along without it. If you can't, at least change your file associations, so that script files aren't automatically sent to the Scripting Host if you double-click them.
  • Antivirus and anti-spyware software : Use it--either a combined program or two separate programs. Download and install the updates, at least weekly and whenever you read about a new virus in the news. Some antivirus products automatically check for updates. Enable that feature and set it to "daily."
  • Firewall : Spend $50 for a Network Address Translator firewall device; it's likely to be good enough in default mode. On your laptop, use personal firewall software. If you can, hide your IP address. There's no reason to allow any incoming connections from anybody.
  • Encryption: Install an e-mail and file encryptor (like PGP). Encrypting all your e-mail or your entire hard drive is unrealistic, but some mail is too sensitive to send in the clear. Similarly, some files on your hard drive are too sensitive to leave unencrypted.