Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Finding Holes in your Desktop

People who have installed Desktop Google have found something unexpected in their computer – security holes.

Google's not doing anything wrong. Its software is doing exactly what it's supposed to do – finding files. The fault lies with the parts of the operating system that do a bad job of securing files they're supposed to be securing.

First, Web browsers should not store SSL-encrypted pages or pages with personal e-mail. If they do store them, they should at least ask the user first. Second, an encryption program that leaves copies of decrypted files in the cache is poorly designed. Those files are there whether or not GDS searches for them. Third, GDS' ability to search files and Web pages of multiple users on a computer received a lot of press when it was first discovered. This is a complete nonissue. You have to be an administrator on the machine to do this, which gives you access to everyone's files anyway.

People blame Desktop Google for the problems, but that's really only blaming the messenger. The holes would exist, even if Google never had.

The underlying problems would remain: The private Web pages would still be in the browser's cache; the encryption program would still be leaving copies of the plain-text files in the operating system's cache; and the administrator could still eavesdrop on anyone's computer to which he or she has access. The only thing that would have changed is that these vulnerabilities once again would be hidden from the average computer user. In the end, this can only harm security.

Fix the problem, don't muzzle the messenger.

The party of tolerance and compassion strikes again

When someone follows you for miles as you drive down the road some lonely night, it might be because you have a conservative bumper sticker on your car.

“Did you guys hear?” one of them laughed. “John tailed some idiot with a Bush-Cheney sticker on his car all the way here.” The story got a hearty laugh from my whole group of acquaintances, all liberal. It was a good joke, played on some abstract conservative, retold in the utter certainty that there were no such abstract creatures in the room. I glared straight at John and said something along the lines of “Yeah, that was me, and that was real liberal and accepting of you,” adding a few sailor-approved flourishes worthy of a man who would threaten a young woman with physical harm because of her political beliefs. >snip< Four years later, these are the same people to whom eye-rolling warrants a lawsuit and distributing insensitive Band-Aids is beyond the pale. They belong to a party that prides itself on fighting against political intimidation and laments the sharp political division in this country—both commendable positions. But they didn’t fight against intimidation that night and they didn’t lament the division it might cause between themselves and the only conservative in the room. Why not? I’m pretty sure it’s because they think I deserved it. It wasn’t the first time I got that feeling from liberal acquaintances.

A proposed definition: Tolerance is the belief that conservatives are people.

Constantly Insulted Agency

David Ignatius notes that the CIA has been the object of a lot of "bashing". (Scare quotes deliberate – is it "bashing" if the criticisms are true?)

Driving past the George Bush Center for Intelligence, as the CIA headquarters is officially known, you can't help wondering how on earth America's spy service has become the favorite whipping boy of the right wing.

"Known" as the George Bush Center for Intelligence? Known by whom? I just googled the Washington Post site for the phrase, and only one article came up. [pause] OK, here we go.

The Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1999* was signed into law by the President on October 20, 1998. Among its provisions, the Act directed that the Headquarters compound of the Central Intelligence Agency located in Langley, Virginia, shall be known and designated as the "George Bush Center for Intelligence." http://www.cia.gov/cia/information/bush.html

Oh. OK, not that George Bush. Interesting that he chose to cite the official name of the headquarters in his first paragraph. Showing off his knowledge of the local buildings? Just forgot to mention the building was named after the 41st President, not the 43rd? Oh well. Nobody's perfect, I guess.

If the military were facing a similar political purge, the public would rightly be indignant. But for some reason, the protected status accorded the military in recent years does not extend to their brethren at the CIA. Intelligence officers have been fair game for political attack for decades. The CIA-bashers were once on the left. Now it's the right that demonizes the CIA as an elitist "rogue agency," but the effect is the same. The agency wears a permanent "Kick Me" sign on its backside. It's the excuse for everyone's problems. Even Sen. John McCain, who should know better, has joined in the public flaying of the CIA, calling it "dysfunctional." Doesn't he see that the current assault on career intelligence officers is like the post-Vietnam attacks on an unpopular U.S. military?

The problem is, he hasn't really addressed the merits of the criticisms. He paints the organization as a competant organization whose excellent work the administration ignored, and continues to ignore in favor or "neocons".

It might be interesting to compare the analysis in the 9-11 report with the sentiments in this article.

Is this bias in the media?

The "60 Minutes" curmudgeon, Andy Rooney, has been making a bigger fool of himself lately by calling conservative Christians uneducated and ignorant. When the sports commentator Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder disparaged blacks in 1988, Dan Rather aired video of the remarks, which led to Mr. Snyder being fired by CBS management. That Mr. Rooney holds his job after stereotyping and disparaging Christians sends a message of bias, even bigotry, to a substantial audience CBS has mostly lost and obviously does not care if it wins it back.

There is no cabal to decide these things. News directors don't receive a memo from the Bavarian Illuminati or the Dealy Lama telling them which group to bash.

The bias in the major media stems from the fact that all those who make it through the filters and reach positions of power believe conservative Christians are bigoted and ignorant. There is no more stigma in saying this than there is in saying the sun is bright. But a person who sincerely believes that Blacks are different – for better or worse – speaks his truth at his peril.

(So much, by the way, for "respecting an individual's personal truth.")

A letter of apology

Here may be found a letter of apology.

I have a few items to add.

  • I'm sorry we suck up 80% of the world's resources, in exchange for 80% of the money the rest of the world receives.
  • I'm sorry we use those resources to produce more than 80% of the world's goods and services, including life-saving drugs and high-tech equipment.
  • I'm sorry the USA sheds 80% of the blood spilled in wars to free people from their own tyrants.
  • I'm sorry that the USA promotes and advocates such a high standard of conduct. It must emberass the living daylights out of so many countries when their own conduct falls short by such an amount that they don't even claim any interest in following it. I'm sorry we're among the few countries willing to even try to meet such a standard of conduct. I'm sorry that we, being human, fall short the sort of perfection so few even attempt.
  • I'm sorry the USA is such a horrible place that people spend all their resources, up to and including their lives, trying to get here from all those other countries to which this apology is sent.
  • I'm sorry the USA is willing to step forward and deal with bullies that leave the rest of the world trailing yellow liquid wherever they go.
  • I'm sorry the rest of the world, too frightened to express any anger to bullies, turn and call the USA a spoiled brat, and throw a temper tantrum and threaten to hold their breaths until we do what they want.
  • I'm sorry we had to be the first to set up a government conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
  • I'm sorry we need to fight in wars to ensure that this government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from this earth.

And to any who are offended by my apology or the one I linked to, I'm sorry you're such a crybaby.

The UN may become irrelevant

(Hat tip: The Captain again.)

In a report to be unveiled on Thursday, seen in part by The Telegraph, a panel appointed to reform the UN said it must send "an unequivocal message that terrorism is never an acceptable tactic, even for the most defensible of causes".

Quoth the Captain:

If the UN cannot even bring itself to recognize the greatest danger facing the civilization it supposedly represents, it only confirms its own uselessness.

In order to become irrelevant, don't you have to start from a position of being relevant?

The No (one else's) Spin Zone

(Hat tip: Captain's Quarters)

I've quit watching the O-Reilly factor, and have pretty much never tuned in to his show. I may skim an editorial, simply because I have a hard time not reading any English text that happens to find itself in front of me. My reason for tuning out is confirmed in his latest editorial in the New York Daily News.

He doesn't like the fact that Dan Rather got called on his gross carelessness in the case of the alleged Killian memos. He proceeds to make a series of totally bogus arguments against those who have dared to call Rather on this. His parting shot:

Unfair freedom of speech did him in. This is not your grandfather's country anymore.

Bill, would you like a little cheese with that whine?

Monday, November 29, 2004

The party of tolerance and compassion strikes again

(Story via Bill's Comments.)

Steve Gardner had a story to tell about John Kerry.
His superior, for four months, was none other than Lt. j.g. John F. Kerry. "I had confrontations with him there. He nearly got us rammed by the VC one night because he wasn't watching the helm. I heard the motor coming close, turned on the spotlight, and the boat was only 90 feet away, coming fast. The VC was aiming an AK47 at us. I shot him out of the boat. We pulled a woman and a baby off the boat. Kerry wrote it up that we captured two VC and killed four more on the beach. None of that was true. The only thing true on Kerry's report was the date. The woman was catatonic and wouldn't call her baby VC and there were no VC on the beach. If we had seen that report before Kerry sent it up the chain of command, he would have been court-martialed and never allowed to run for office. And that's just the San Pan incident.

Well, if this is slander, Kerry could sue. Apparently no lawsuit was ever filed. Instead,

Gardner said he received a call from Douglas Brinkley, the author of Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War. Brinkley told Gardner he was calling only to "fact check" the book -- which was already in print. "I told him that the guy in the book is not the same guy I served with. I told him Kerry was a coward. He would patrol the middle of the river. The canals were dangerous. He wouldn't go there unless he had another boat pushing him." Days later, Brinkley called again, warning Gardner to expect some calls. It seems Brinkley had used the "fact checking" conversation to write an inflammatory article about Gardner for Time.com. The article, implying that Gardner was politically motivated, appeared under the headline "The 10th Brother." Twenty-four hours later, Gardner got an e-mail from his company, Millennium Information Services, informing him that his services would no longer be necessary. He was laid off in an e-mail -- by the same man who only days before had congratulated him for his exemplary work in a territory which covered North and South Carolina. The e-mail stated that his position was being eliminated. Since then, he's seen the company advertising for his old position. Gardner doesn't have the money to sue to get the job back.

So much for the Democrats' belief in free speech.

Pursue Happiness – Vote Republican

The notion of happiness as a virtue has been discussed in detail in books by Dennis Prager and Marc Gafni. Prager's book makes the point that being happy is not just something nice, but it's a responsibility each of us has for the sake of those around us. Unhappy people make those around them unhappy, and happy people make those around them happy, and happy people are generally better people in a moral sense.

Gafni develops the notion of the soul print – your unique spiritual make-up, indeed, the shape of your life. In the quest for happiness, Gafni guides you through an exploration of the shape of your soul, and from that, what shapes – in people and experiences – will fit this shape that makes up your soul.

In ceremonial magick, and in Wicca, we have the notion of the True Will. This is the path that each person was made to follow – his destiny, if you will. We hold that when a person follows his or her True Will, it's like a thread following its path through a tapestry. When the thread is in its proper place, all the other threads move aside to let it pass. Likewise, when a life follows its path through the universe, barriers move aside to allow the life to move ahead. I've come to believe happiness, as distinct from pleasure, having fun, or being amused, is a profound state of being that occurrs when a person is following his or her True Will.

So what does this have to do with political parties?

I believe different parties advocate policies that have distinctly different effects on happiness.

What was determinative is that the two political parties view the American people very differently. The Republican Party has become the party of individualism, believing that free enterprise, market economies, and individual choices give people the best chance of a good life; that if ordinary Americans are left alone to make their own decisions, they will generally be good decisions, so they--not the government--should have the power to make them. Conversely, the Democratic Party is the party of centralization, believing that a wise and benevolent, best-and-brightest, urban blue-county government can make better choices than those of rural, red-county Americans. This is not a new belief; it is the legacy of the 1930s (the New Deal) and the '60s (the Great Society). It was fully reflected in John Kerry's campaign: Taxes must rise and government must grow; trade must be regulated and limited; the 1935 Social Security system is perfect and nothing about it may be changed.

People spend lifetimes learning their own path. Can a bureaucracy learn the paths of all those under its care?

A system that allows people to make their own choices, as much as possible, seems to me the best way to promote happiness. Add to that the fact that people are more prosperous, and therefore have more choices in life, when they are freer. Then notice which party is taking real steps to increase freedom in the world.

A party can't insist that the Gods be on its side. It has to act in such a way that it is on the side of the Gods.

Weak dollar: So what?

James Flanigan, in the LA Times, explains why a weak dollar is not the threat to US well-being that some would have us believe.

When the dollar is weak, other currencies are stronger and goods from other countries are more expensive in the US. That means fewer foreign goods are bought. It also means more domestic goods are sold, since a weaker dollar means our stuff becomes cheaper in other countries. You'd think those who worry about our trade deficit would be thrilled.

Frankly, there seems to be no particular relation between the strength of the dollar and the strength of the economy. Indeed, since a weak dollar means people in other countries buy more of our stuff, it may make for a strong economy and lots of growth.

As I've noted elsewhere, the last time the dollar was this weak was during the boom in the 1990s. It peaked in strength, in fact, during the recession in 2001-2002.

Maybe I should buy more stocks.

Europe thinks we're nuts...

An article appearing on The American Thinker is "An Open Letter to Europe".

The first line is, "Hi, are you nuts?"

Across Europe, the reaction to the re-election of George Bush has been ... interesting. I, personally, have listened to a non-American describe the US as acting like a small child throwing a tantrum. This same sentiment echoes across much of Europe, as ... it ... throws itself on the floor, kicks, screams, and threatens to hold its breath until it turns blue.

(Hmmm... Are the blue states suffering from oxygen deprivation?)

One great point, though...

Of course, you are entitled to whatever views about us that you care to hold. (And lucky for you we Americans aren't like so many of the Muslims on your own continent; as the late Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh just discovered, make one nasty crack about them and you're likely to get six bullets pumped into your head and a knife plunged into your chest).

Now go read the rest of it.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Oppressive anti-terrorist laws

Orin Kerr, of The Volokh Conspiracy, notes the powers French law enforcement authorities have for the fight against terrorism.

Public debates about the war on terrorism are filled with lots of delicious ironies. The fact that the French government has many powers that are orders of magnitude greater than anything in the Patriot Act surely ranks up as one of the better ones.

Maybe those who object to the Patriot act should be given the option of treatment under the French codes.

The falling dollar

EconoPundit has an article on the state of the Dollar, and a lengthy analysis of what, if anything, the current low value actually means.

There is far too much to summarize here, but I'll note one thing: The same index that shows a steady decline from a peak in 2002 looks bad. The expanded view, extending back to 1973, shows ups and downs, and we're at the low edge right now.

Interestingly enough, there was another period when the dollar was this weak. It was the economic boom of the 90s, which Democrats cite as a major Clinton success.

Correlation is not cause, but to me, it seems to be evidence that a weak dollar doesn't rule out prosperity and economic booms.

Horowitz on why we're in Iraq

Doing some catch-up while stuff is cooking...

David Horowitz sees a conspiracy (unintentional) between the Left and the Islamo-fascists.

If you really think about the issue of "treason," you will realize that it doesn't really end with the label itself, which is why the defensiveness of the left over the use of the term to describe actual traitors is disingenuous and just bad faith. When pressed on the issue, leftists will be the first to point out that our founders, after all, were traitors, too; that it was Benjamin Franklin who famously said, "If this be treason, let's make the most of it." In America, the founding principles form the nation first, and only secondarily the ties of blood and soil. If America is indeed the greatest terrorist state, as Moore and his leftist friends proclaim, if America is an imperialist monster, then America has betrayed its founding principle of liberty. And if that is the case, loyalty to America would demand that a true patriot commit acts of treason in order to keep the American faith. Loyalty to humanity is treason to America. This is the code that leftists like Michael Moore consciously live by. To get a proper perspective on the issue of treason in an American context you have to first decide in your own minds whether this nation has really betrayed its founding and is worthy of destruction. If it is, then you can embrace Michael Moore and join the political left, and be comfortable with your choice. If it isn't, you'd better think twice about what they are up to.

The Left doesn't like any suggestion that what they do might constitute treason. Suggestion: If you don't want to be called a duck, don't quack.

One of the bumper stickers I've seen says, "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism." There's dissent, though, and then there's dissension.

A large part of the criticism of the war, however, has been made on grounds that have nothing to do with American security. Often, it's voiced in such a way (and to such a reckless degree) as to undermine that security. It was quite another thing, for example, when the war was won, for leftist critics to launch an all-out attack on the Commander-in-Chief by calling him a liar and the war a "fraud." It is quite another thing to make these unfounded charges when our troops are still in Iraq and still in harms way, and Saddam's allies like the French are drumming up world opinion against us. It is quite another thing, in these circumstances, to say that the President lied to the American people and sent our troops to die under false pretenses. When this is done by people who supported the war it is an even more egregious betrayal. Yet that is what leaders of the Democratic Party did within two months of the liberation of Baghdad, most shamefully among them Ted Kennedy and Al Gore, but also John Edwards and Jimmy Carter and John Kerry, and of course Howard Dean. These charges are quite different from legitimate criticism in a time of war. These attacks incite Americans to distrust and hate their own Commander-in-Chief in the middle of a conflict in which the troops under his command -- our troops -- were dying and while our country was under attack. To portray Iraq -- a country which had invaded two sovereign nations and in which a million people had been murdered -- as Michael Moore did in his film Fahrenheit 9/11, as an idyllic place into which American marauders intruded under false pretenses using their advanced technologies to blow innocent and "defenseless" people to bits is no longer criticism. It is an attack that serves to undermine the authority and credibility of the Commander-in-Chief, sabotage the nation's war on terror, and soften us up for the kill. This is no longer criticism, nor is it intended as such. It is intended to as a war within the war, directed at us -- all of us, Democrat and Republican alike, whose security it threatens. In sum, there is criticism whose intention is to help us defend ourselves, and there is criticism whose intention is weaken and ultimately destroy us. The latter is directed at the war effort by leftists like Michael Moore.

But then again, if all dissent from the President is patriotic, then Ken Starr was a Grand Hero Patriotism.

Some people will recklessly exaggerate America's deficiencies -- even in the midst of a war -- in pursuit of political power; others may do it out of habitual complacency. It hasn't really registered to them that we are in the war. Even after 9/11, they continue to think that America cannot be vulnerable. They haven't absorbed what those attacks revealed. In their thinking, America is still a free country and you can say anything you want. And you can. But saying anything you want will have consequences in the midst of a war with terrorists who want to kill you and are convinced that they will go to heaven if they do and have access to weapons of mass murder. It is my mission tonight to remind you of this.

So far, I haven't heard very many voices on the right calling for censorship. However, to those who defend their right to say what they want, I merely want to mention that there are legal rights, and there are real-world consequences to exercising those rights. The fact that something may be legal doesn't mean it's moral, or even smart.

So why did we go to war? As I and many others have pointed out, WMD is far from the only reason.

A congressional resolution to authorize the use of force was something that Bill Clinton never even sought when he went to war in Kosovo. This was a constitutional oversight that didn't bother Democrats at the time or since, which shows how partisan and indefensible is this aspect of their critique of the war in Iraq. The Authorization for the Use of Force in Iraq that President Bush did seek and obtain in October 2002 has a total of 23 clauses. These 23 clauses spell out the rationale for the war. I invite you to go on the web and read the clauses. Out of all 23 clauses, I found only two that even mention stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. What the clauses do stress - twelve of them, by my count - are U.N. resolutions that Saddam ignored or defied.


In their attacks on the President, opponents of the war and even Democratic leaders who once knew better have said that Iraq was "no threat." But if Iraq was no threat, why was Afghanistan a threat? Afghanistan is a much poorer country than Iraq. It doesn't have the oil. It wasn't about to make a deal with North Korea to buy nuclear weapons "off the shelf," as Saddam was when the United States troops crossed his borders. So why was Afghanistan a threat? It was a threat because it gave the terrorists a base, and from that base they were able to deliver a devastating blow to the United States


The Duelfer Report, made after Saddam's removal, concludes that Saddam Hussein had one overriding agenda, which was to remove the UN sanctions, remove the UN inspectors, and resume his programs to build weapons of mass destruction. That is what the war was about. After 9/11, George Bush saw that Iraq was out of control and therefore a menace. He told Saddam, "You are part of an 'Axis of Evil' and you are in defiance of the truce agreements of 1991. You had better comply with the terms of the truce you signed, with the U.N. resolutions, and disarm, and open your borders to UN inspectors and give up your ambitions to acquire weapons of mass destruction -- or else." The first of these ultimatums was delivered to Saddam in the "Axis of Evil" address on the State of the Union in January 2002. That was more than a year before we actually went to war.

And the rush to war? The lack of UN approval?

I have read the Chief UN Weapons Inspector's book, Disarming Iraq. Hans Blix is a Swedish leftist who, by his own admission, was against the war under any circumstances. But in his book he clearly states that UN resolution 1441 was diplomatic language for an ultimatum of war. The deadline for Saddam's compliance was December 7, 2002. On that date, Saddam Hussein delivered a 12,000 page report that was smoke and mirrors. In his book, Hans Blix himself says that it was smoke and mirrors, that the information submitted was from deceptive reports that Saddam had submitted in the past, that thousands of weapons were unaccounted for, and that it did not in fact fulfill the requirements the Security Council had laid down.

Imagine this: A judge issues an arrest warrant for a person. The police find the person, and take him into custody. The defense lawyer gets the case thrown out because the police, having located the person, didn't get the judge's approval to take actual custody. If I'm ever accused of a crime, that's how I want the law enforced against me.

Ultimately, though, we're in Iraq because:

We went to war with Saddam Hussein in 1991 to force him out of Kuwait, which his invading armies had swallowed. At the end of the war, there was no peace treaty, merely a truce that left Saddam in place. The truce was sealed by the first two of the 17 U.N. resolutions that Saddam eventually violated. These were UN resolutions 687 and 689 and they set established the conditions by which we - who were still technically at war with Saddam - would allow him to remain in power. These resolutions instructed Saddam to disarm and to stop his programs to develop weapons of mass destruction. The fifteen subsequent resolutions, which Saddam defied, were to reinforce these two.


Saddam expressed his loathing for the United States in innumerable ways, among them an attempt to assassinate the President and the distinction of being the only head of state to celebrate the destruction of the World Trade Center after 9/11. Despite leftwing claims to the contrary, there were in fact major links between international terrorists, including al-Qaeda and the Saddam regime. You can read about them in Stephen Hayes' book, The Connection, which shows the relations between the government of Iraq, Al Qaeda, and the major world terrorist organizations. Among other gestures to the Islamic jihad, Saddam had inserted into the Iraqi flag the proclamation "Allahu Akhbar." Saddam did not adopt the mantra of Islamic martyrs because he had a religious revelation. He did it because Islamic terrorists had adopted the slogan as their war cry and Saddam wanted to join their war.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

I may be offline...

...for most, if not all, of Thanksgiving weekend.

I'll be at Loscon, Los Angeles' own science fiction convention. This convention is put on every year by the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society.

After years in beautiful downtown Burbank, we are returning to Los Angeles proper, at the L.A. Airport Marriott hotel.

I'll be helping out here and there, even though, as the Chairman for next year's production, I've followed the advice to avoid getting on staff or committee positions that require me to do anything during the convention itself. I'll be busy promoting next year's Loscon, and selling memberships.

A fannish tradition is that of the "room party". After convention programming hours, people host parties in their hotel rooms, and at least two-thirds of those are to promote upcoming conventions, or bids for proposed conventions. I, of course, will be running a room party.

If I have reasonable access to the Net from the hotel, I may use it. If not, I'll save up some items during the convention and upload them all Monday morning after the exhaustion has started to fade.

These science fiction conventions are a lot of fun, and if you're anywhere near the Los Angeles area, you should consider showing up. (I think a day pass is $25, full membership at the door is $45.)

The world series?

Eugene Volokh notes the World Series is being redefined:

The World Series will now be the championship of two leagues in which exactly one team is outside the United States. Say what you will about those darned Europeans (and other soccer-loving countries), at least when they hold the World Cup they invite the rest of the world.

Put enough spin on that definition and we'll have to start calling "The Whirled Series."

The Riot Act


The Riot Act: Ever wanted to read someone the Riot Act? Apparently all you need to do is find a group of 12 or more people "tumultuously assembled" and declare the following (preferably with a British accent, of course):
Our Sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons being assembled immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George for preventing tumultuous and riotous assemblies. God save the King.

Hat tip: The Volokh Conspiracy

Evolution and politics?

I believe this is the discipline known as evolutionary psychology.

According to evolutionary thinking when our genetic structure was finally composed 40,000 years ago it embedded a number of behavioural imperatives in our psyche and coded the mechanisms through which we respond to basic life necessities. Those impulses and mechanisms can operate against the interests and mores of a highly developed civilisation with its more transient and dispensable political ideas.

It's interesting to watch the nature shows and see how evolutionary imperatives shape the behavior of cats, for example. In the case of lions, when a male takes over a pride, the first thing he does is kill any cubs. Natural selection has favored males that eliminate the competition's offspring and replace them, where possible, with his own.

Seeing this behavior in a lion, it should not astonish us in a house cat.

One of the barriers to the acceptance of evolutionary theory is that we humans are most uncomfortable with the notion that we have anything in common with the rest of nature. It seems the closer science has gotten to an understanding of what makes us tick, the more resistance we put up. Biology is fine and nice. Even evolution is perfectly acceptible. The evidence for common ancestry is so wide-spread through the world of living things that even the creationists have been forced to accept that new species form by evolution. (They divide evolution into "micro" and "macro" evolution, but never spell out where the division is.)

A real hot topic is the notion that our thoughts, our feelings, and our innermost being can be boiled down to chemicals and wiring. It's one thing to see love blossom in mammals with a dose of oxytocin, but the notion that a well-timed shot of the hormone could have the same effect in humans is quite another. The controversy surrounding The Bell Curve is a case in point. If intelligence can be traced to anything physiological, and if physiology depends to any extent on heredity, it follows that intelligence would have an inherited component, and that different groups would have different endowments of the requisite genes. If it's true, though, there are lots of people who don't want to hear it. Intelligence, like insanity, is supposed to be "all in one's head".

The problem is, if evolutionary psychology is real, it has profound policy implications. For example, what does it say about step parents and adoption when:

Consider childcare. It is almost a decade now since the Darwinists demonstrated that non-genetic parents are a hundred times more likely to kill or seriously injure the children in their care. >snip< ...there are stepparents and casual spouses out there who feel aggressive impulses without knowing why. The difficulty of a non-genetic parent making an adequate investment in a non-genetically linked child could require policy responses in areas of adoption and marital and divorce laws.


Current dietary advice is based on research from the past fifty years. The time-frame is myopic. Based on a review of evidence from early examples of the human species, he concludes that our bodies are structured for high fat consumption as well as substantially more exercise than Government guidelines currently recommend. Our wandering ancestors would have prized not the lean meat but the fat on an animal carcass. And about an extra 12 miles walking a day would just about satisfy our evolutionary needs.

Twelve miles? Darn!

Monday, November 22, 2004

Glass half empty? Which half?

Anal Philosopher Keith Burgess-Jackson has some thoughts on what he perceives as bias in the New York Times:

According to this story, the number of civil-rights prosecutions by the United States Department of Justice is down. Why is it down? The clear implication of the story is that it's down because the Bush administration isn't interested in enforcing civil-rights laws. But there's another (fairly obvious) explanation, namely, that many of the earlier prosecutions were groundless. There are two possible errors: not prosecuting meritorious cases and prosecuting unmeritorious cases. The reporter assumes that only the first of these errors has occurred (or is occurring). Why would the reporter assume this? Gee, could it be to make the Bush administration seem indifferent or antagonistic to civil rights? This is the liberal story, and liberals are sticking to it. They never let facts get in the way of a good story.

The nuclear option

The Indepundit has an essay discussing the chance – indeed the virtual certainty – that someone is going to get hold of a nuclear weapon and use it on US soil.

Assuming that the origin of the weapon can be determined, we will then have to answer the question of how to respond. Do we retaliate only against attacks on our homeland? What about our allies? Or "neutral" countries? Is the use of a nuclear weapon such a terrible crime against humanity that it must be answered in kind, regardless of who was the intended target? What form should that response take? Would nuclear retaliation be acceptable, or would it only compound the problem? How about a massive conventional military response? Do the accepted rules of warfare go out the window once someone goes nuclear? Should we continue to meticulously avoid civilian casualties, after the other side shows such contemptuous disregard for innocent life? What if we can't determine where the weapon originated? Is anyone in power pondering these questions, or are we just going to "wing it" when this happens?

Heinlein pointed out that there is only one defense against a nuclear bomb: Not be there when it goes off. The only other strategy is to decrease the probability that a bomb will be deployed.

Indepundit discusses the ways we can decrease this probability. These are making sure bad guys don't get nukes, or if they do get them, they can't sneak them in to this country to use them. The other way is deterrence.

Now deterrence is a problem. Firstly, we're not comfortable exercising deterrence. We want to be seen as nice people, which means we don't want to be feared. In order to be liked, we're tempted to place certain things off the table, which means they cease to be deterrents.

Deterrence is also a problem if we're dealing with people who don't appear to be subject to being deterred. Threatening to kill a suicide bomber doesn't work very well. The only things that work are finding a way to hit something the terrorist cares about, or threatening the support structure. The Ottoman Empire made a practice of exacting bloody revenge for any attacks against the Empire. Because of this hard line, anyone who knew the identity of anyone acting against the Empire was eager to rat him out to the authorities. The cost of keeping the secret was just too high.

Even though Afghanistan did not attack us on September 11, we took out its government. Even though Iraq did not attack us on September 11, we took out its government. Libya has decided it doesn't need to pursue nuclear weapons with nearly as much vigor as it had been. Other thugs are showing signs of having been deterred.

We probably won't need to "go nuclear" against anyone who is responsible for a nuclear attack against us, but it might be useful to keep people guessing about whether that option is on the table.

Dog bite "crisis"

(Hat tip: Patterico citing Professor Bainbridge.)

The Slate article describes an incident where a pit-bull mix is attacked by a Pekingese and bites. When the owner of the Pekingese and her 5-year-old grandson try to break up the "fight", both wind up being bitten. (Scare quotes because it doesn't sound like it was anywhere near enough closely-matched to qualify as a real fight.)

The author, Jon Katz, blames the owner of the pit bull for having a dog of that breed in the first place, for keeping it in the second place, and for not having had the sense to get rid of it before the inevitable happened in the third place. (OK, I'm exaggerating, the hysterical fit-cum-article has a little more substance than that.)

Some comments:

I suspect that for every case you care to cite where a dog "just went off", you'll find vastly more cases where dogs of the same breed have been perfectly gentle and well-behaved, and died of old age before their "vicious nature" came to the fore and they "just went off".

I'm very suspicious of the notion of "dangerous breeds". Some people hear scare stories about various breeds and freak out. If your reaction to seeing, say, a Punxatawny Setter, is to panic and throw a fit, only the very calmest of dogs would fail to react. Also, the prejudice against certain breeds is likely to lead to a reporting bias. Threatening behavior that might be ignored in a Spaniel might land the Punxatawny Setter in the pound.

Absent very good statistical proof that any particular breed is inherently dangerous, I object to slapping any breed with the term. One danger in doing so willy-nilly lies in diluting the term. If you apply this term to enough breeds, you'll wind up with a large pool of dog owners who own, or have owned, one or more of these "dangerous breeds", and has cause to suspect the designation is meaningless. What happens if a real "dangerous breed" comes along? What are you going to call that?

(By the way, what's to stop anyone from extending the label to other breeds, including yours?)

Some of my job involves going out in the field, and occasionally into customers' yards. One of the recurring subjects of our regular safety training meetings is dogs and dog bites. One of the safety posters on the wall makes the point, "Any Dog Can Bite". In fact, the rule seems to be, the smaller the dog, the more injuries-requiring-medical-attention you see per dog.

People don't take small dogs as seriously as big ones. Strangers will ignore warning signals in a small dog that would command immediate attention in a big one. Owners will allow small dogs to get away with behavior they'd never tolerate in a big one. Everyone believes small dogs are inherently safer than big ones. When one injures, or even kills, a child, everyone is astonished.

Discussions of certain breeds of dog also give rise to what I consider a four-letter-word in politics. That word is "need". Any time someone wants to ban or restrict anything, those who oppose the ban are asked why anyone would "need" three pit-bulls (or even one). Why would anyone "need" to buy more than one gun per year, month, week, or whatever? Why would anyone "need" to own a SUV?

No, dammit, that's not the point. The proper response to those who ask this question is, "Why do you "need" to restrict the freedom of others in such a heavy-handed way?"

The Wiccan Rede, as close to a rule as most of the Neo-Pagan community is willing to tolerate, states: "If it harms none, do what you will." This statement denies the existence of victimless sins. And contrary to what some in the community think, it does not forbid acts that cause harm. In fact, as stated, it doesn't forbid anything – it merely states that harmless acts are always permitted. In practice, since it's impossible to live without causing some harm to something, we have to use common sense. In order to ban or restrict any activity, you need to show that there is a direct harm that results from pursuing that activity. Speculative harm and extremely indirect harm are not sufficient.

In particular, those who propose restrictions on any one breed of dog had better have solid proof that this breed is significantly more dangerous than any of a number of other breeds that are widely owned.

Peer review

Here's a paper I intended to look up as soon as it was out of embargo. Well, the embargo ended months ago. Better late than never, I suppose.

Peer review is one of those things the writers of journal articles go through. In a way, it's a quality control program for science. It may not sound very exciting, but it's one of those things we might want to know more about. And it may turn out to be useful in areas other than the science journals.

In science, peer review could be very useful in sorting through the claims we read in the papers or hear on broadcast media. Peer review turns out to be useful in other areas, as well.

The whole business with the CBS memos was an example of peer review, or really, distributed review. The documents were poseted on the web, and people who had some degree of expertise could look at them. Within hours, a consensus had emerged, despite the fact that a few maverick news outlets dissented. Not everyone who the documents over was an expert in any facet of document analysis, but enough were expert in at least one that the documents had a very thorough review in a very short time.

In a way, the entire blogosphere is a distributed review system. Someone who has knowledge about some aspect of life will follow particular stories. He'll post links, or at least cut and paste, and often comment on the stories. Other people are free to chime in with their observations, and if someone is all wet, we're sure to hear about it in very short order.

Anyone know what the "shopper effect" is? It's a peer review system. If a new product is good, people will hear about it, and usually from their friends. If a new product stinks, they'll really hear about it. (I have a couple of good recipes for tilapia, and I've been telling my friends about what a good fish that is.) This kind of thing happens all the time, and it's the reason why you don't have to spend hours on the web researching every item on your grocery list.

Anyway, this looks like a neat article. Peer review. It's not just for science anymore.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Forgetting the unforgettable

Wretchard has a lengthy essay in The Belmont Club on history in general, and Hitler and the Nazis in particular. He makes the point that very few know what Hitler and the Nazis were like. One example:

The facile comparison of Hitler to the modern leftist bogeymen du jour lends itself to distortion. Most people are tolerably familiar with the Third Reich's oppression of homosexuals. But relatively few know that a special badge was minted in Dachau for assignment to the Jehovah's Witnesses: the purple triangle.


That Nazi medical experiments were carried out on Jews is common knowledge. But what about Roman Catholic priests? Hitler was remarkably even handed in his treatment of religions.

At the risk of sounding like a first-year philosophy student, I've taken to asking people in various arguments to define their terms. For example, if someone comes up with the "Bush = Hitler" line, I might ask him what Hitler meant to him. If he sees Hitler only as someone who locked up a few Jews and made war on other countries, then I can see how he could make that equation. Chances are, no one equating Bush and Hitler believe Bush has done, or wants to do, all the things Hitler was documented as having done in Wretchard's essay.

History repeats itself because nobody listens.

A Feeling of Power, again

One thought that didn't make it in to the previous ramble...

If only a small fraction of the population learns the art of written communication, will that fraction become a sort of intellectual elite? Can we imagine a society where the few who can read and write are the effective rulers of those who can't, or won't?

It needn't even feel terribly oppressive to the underclass, becuase everything is decided by elections in which they vote. And of course they cast informed votes. They watch TV news, written by ... those who can write.

(Interestingly enough, in the Sector General books, automatic translation of speech had been perfected, but automatic translation of writing was apparently non-existent. Maintenance people would punch a button to hear any notices that applied to a piece of equipment rather than reading a posted notice. Their translators would translate the speech into their own language. That was one situation where the ability to read was downgraded in importance.)

Sokal and So-called science

(Hat tip: Orin Kerr at the Volokh Conspiracy.)

Famously, half a decade or so ago, physicist Alan Sokal wrote an article, titled Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. It was accepted by and published in the journal Social Text.

Not long afterward, Sokal revealed his article to be a hoax, which was swallowed whole by the journal.

This post is not only an excuse to bookmark the page where these articles may be found, but because I think the episode has bearing on any number of topics. For example, I can't help but wonder if the editors of Social Text found the article "too good to check" (Rather like a certain broadcast news organization we all know and love).

A sizeable fraction of those on the left seem to have bought into "deconstruction". This is alleged to be the notion that facts don't exist outside of societal and cultural definitions. In other words, if I punch you in the nose, the only reason your nose hurts is because our culture has decided to attach meaning to the concepts of "nose" and "hurt".

The reason I say "alleged" above is that I can't resist the suspicion that all the alleged definitions of deconstruction are spoofs. I find it hard to believe that college-educated folks would seriously believe something that – ultimately – declared all the work they've done meaningless.

Be that as it may, a few gems from the article where Sokal explains why he perpetrated his hoax:

...Gallup poll from June 1993. The exact question was: "Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings: 1) human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process; 2) human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process; 3) God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so?" The results were 35% developed with God, 11% developed without God, 47% God created in present form, 7% no opinion. A poll from July 1982 (Gallup 1982, 208-214) found almost identical figures, but gave breakdowns by sex, race, education, region, age, income, religion, and community size. Differences by sex, race, region, income and (surprisingly) religion were rather small. By far the largest difference was by education: only 24% of college graduates supported creationism, compared to 49% of high-school graduates and 52% of those with a grade-school education. So maybe the worst science teaching is at the elementary and secondary levels.

As I've mentioned elsewhere, the problem some folks have with the dogmatic presentation of evolution as Revealed Truth seems to me to lie less with the nature of evolutionary theory (or even of Darwinism) than with the knowledge and ability of those who are charged with the task of teaching science in our schools.

A couple of other gems:

Fair enough: scientists are in fact the first to advise skepticism in the face of other people's (and one's own) truth claims. But a sophomoric skepticism, a bland (or blind) agnosticism, won't get you anywhere. Cultural critics, like historians or scientists, need an informed skepticism: one that can evaluate evidence and logic, and come to reasoned (albeit tentative) judgments based on that evidence and logic. At this point Ross may object that I am rigging the power game in my own favor: how is he, a professor of American Studies, to compete with me, a physicist, in a discussion of quantum mechanics? (Or even of nuclear power – a subject on which I have no expertise whatsoever.) But it is equally true that I would be unlikely to win a debate with a professional historian on the causes of World War I. Nevertheless, as an intelligent lay person with a modest knowledge of history, I am capable of evaluating the evidence and logic offered by competing historians, and of coming to some sort of reasoned (albeit tentative) judgment. (Without that ability, how could any thoughtful person justify being politically active?)

How indeed? And for that matter, why?

A quarter-century ago, at the height of the U.S. invasion of Vietnam, Noam Chomsky observed that:
George Orwell once remarked that political thought, especially on the left, is a sort of masturbation fantasy in which the world of fact hardly matters. That's true, unfortunately, and it's part of the reason that our society lacks a genuine, responsible, serious left-wing movement.
Perhaps that's unduly harsh, but there's unfortunately a significant kernel of truth in it. Nowadays the erotic text tends to be written in (broken) French rather than Chinese, but the real-life consequences remain the same.

Indeed. One major complaint about leftist thought is that intentions are what appear to matter, not results.

Now listening to...

Under a Violet Moon, by Blackmore's Night. So far, all their discs are worth having.

Saturday, November 20, 2004


(Hat tip: Dispatches from the Culture Wars.)

Uncrewing the Inscrutible has a series on the Intelligent Design/Intelligent Origin Theory (ID/IOT) movement.

Read the essay – I won't try to summarize it right now.

On the subject of irreducible complexity, I've been asked to provide a paper that will disprove Michael Behe's thesis. Keep in mind, when you read this and follow the links, just what Behe's thesis is. In words of one syllable, Behe's saying, "You can't get there from here."

IOW, there's no plausible pathway from, say, a bacterium without a flagellum to a bacterium with one. The flagellum, and indeed, any irreducibly complex system, must have all its pieces present and working in order to function. That means, all the pieces had to come into existence by whatever method all at once, in order for the system to exist.

In order to disprove this thesis, all that's required is to show that a plausible pathway exists. Behe would then have to explain why this pathway is impossible, and so far, he's declined to do so.

Oh, yes. I love blog owner Brent Rasmussen's quote:

I'm not angry, I just don't agree with you.

How many times have you seen simple disagreement re-cast as anger, insult, hatred, or whatever?

Cheap, shameless plug

I've put my blog in for a couple of categories in the 2004 Weblogs Contest. I've picked "best new blog" and "best of the rest (by TTLB ecosystem rank)".

Voting is scheduled to begin next month, so keep me in mind as you follow this link and cast your vote. :-)

A Feeling of Power

Isaac Asimov wrote a story with that title. It was set in a future in which no one remembered how to do math. Not just calculus or algebra, but even the basic operations in a four-function calculator. Calculating machines were everywhere. You just punched in numbers, and out came the answer. (After he wrote that story, he wrote his book on how to use a slide-rule, just in time for the thing to become obsolete.) His publisher commented, "I can't believe people would ever forget how to do math." I've encountered any number of kids (and adults!) at fast food places who obviously never learned.

And the art of teaching math has declined. My "adopted niece" is in middle school now, and her teachers have never required that she learn the multiplication tables. Because her teachers never required it of her, she didn't listen to her parents and grandmother when they told her she needed to memorize them.

Now, although they're still not "required", she's learning the hard way that there's no substitute for knowing them.

Clayton Cramer points out that the same thing is happening with reading and writing – indeed, the use of written language altogether. People don't need to read in order to be entertained, and a lot of them simply don't bother.

Reading is hard work. Indeed, compared to math, reading is hard. There are lots of rules, and even more exceptions. The minimal multiplication table has 55 entries you need to know, once you realize that X times Y equals Y times X.

And how many people could come up with that number, without drawing up the table and counting the cells?

The thing is, people have been able to get by without learning more than the basics in math, and many without even knowing that. Liberal arts students can live their whole lives without using math, and are perfectly content to look down their noses at people who study the subject.

But until very recently, there's been no substitute for reading. In order to function, you had to know the first two of the "three R's", and at least a bit of the trivium. (Though not the Terrible Trivium from Norton Juster's delightful book .)

Now, you can be entertained by TV or video feed. You can study a lot of things the same way. You can "read" books on tape (or CD). If you have to type up a document, your computer has a built-in spell check, which will look at a word you typed in, try to guess what word you wanted, and offer a selection of correctly spelled words, one of which might even be the one you wanted.

You also have a grammar check, which will be happy to suggest ways to mangle your writing.

Some folks do seem to find areas where writing in some form or another is essential. Online chats are still mostly written. For now. Some of what's written is even recognizable English.

One of the things I've gone back and forth with Mr. Cramer about is the subject of science. He finds fault with the way one particular branch – evolutionary biology – is taught. It's presented to kids in schools as Revealed Truth, if not Holy Writ. My response is that it's not confined to that particular branch of science. Indeed, all science is taught that way.

The problem here is that very few teachers, especially in the lower grades, really know science. If a student asks how we know people evolved from apes, or how we know matter is made up of atoms, or even how we know the world is round, very few teachers can answer the question. (Try the round world question on a grade school teacher some time. Better yet, try after memorizing the arguments on some flat earth society web site. See how well the teacher deals with the objections to the round earth theory.)

The result of this has been that science is seen as a kind of priesthood where acolytes learn arcane language and truths. Higher math is not a tool, but a secret language.

Not only does this discourage kids from doing real science, "just finding things out", it encourages the quackery of pseudoscience. When science is seen as a priesthood, quacks dress their nonsense up in the trappings of the order, and can rely on this cloak to fool the non-scientist. Since the general public doesn't know science as a set of tools you can bring to bear on a question, but regards it as a priesthood, arguments about science vs. pseudo-science are easily cast as doctrinal differences.

Most people regard doctrinal differences as a matter of opinion, and unless there's a compelling reason to accept one and reject the other, both deserve a fair hearing. Add the use of scientific jargon and the occasional equation to induce a MEGO* response, and people throw up their hands and refuse to form an opinion. "Let me know when it's settled," they say, "Preferably during a station break."

(Running low on time. I may have more thoughts later. Feel free to leave comments.)

* MEGO = My Eyes Glaze Over

Friday, November 19, 2004

Glenn Reynolds is a pint low

Glenn Reynolds gave blood yesterday at the University's annual blood drive.

Last Saturday, I donated what must be about my 322nd unit of platelets.

Glenn comments that the list of questions is getting longer and longer. Sooner or later, they'll reach the point where only liars will be eligible to donate blood.

Since they're always short of blood, though, I'll join Glenn in encouraging anyone who's still eligible to donate blood. Heck, do it once a year, on the week of your birthday. Celebrate the day you were given life by paying it forward.

Take a breath

Steve Milloy, owner of the Junk Science Page, looks at the report, in JAMA, linking smog levels with an increased death rate.

He does not look very favorably.

But had the reporter been able to go beyond simple regurgitation of the study’s press release, Reuters’ might well have reported “Researchers tried to scare public with statistical malpractice.” The researchers compared the non-injury-related death rates and smog measurements for 95 urban areas for the period 1987-2000. They reported a one-half percent (0.5 percent) increase in premature death (mortality) per 10-part per billion increase in ground-level ozone (smog) in the urban areas. Reducing smog levels by 35 percent, they claim, could save about 4,000 lives per year. <snip> First, if smog is deadly in New York City, then it should be deadly everywhere. But even granting the researchers every benefit of the doubt with respect to the validity of their analysis, among the 95 urban areas included in the study, the correlation between smog and mortality is only statistically meaningful in five of those 95 urban areas (New York City, Newark, Philadelphia, Dallas-Ft. Worth and Chicago). That means in 95 percent of the urban areas studied, there was no meaningful correlation between smog and mortality.

I don't know what significance level the researchers used in their study. The usual cut-off is 0.05, meaning that, if there were no link at all, the observed result would have happened due to chance in 5% of observations by pure chance. That means that if you looked at correlations between smog levels and death rates in 100 cities, you'd expect to find five observed correlations that made it to that level of significance.

Five out of a hundred is 0.05, and five out of 95 is 0.0526 – a difference of only only five percent. In a sample of 95 cities, we should not be surprised to see five cities show significant numbers for the correlation between smog levels and death rates, even if there's no link at all.

Now, to be sure, high levels of smog are harmful, and smog at any level can be unpleasant. But how many hundreds of billions of dollars should we spend on something that may have no measurable effect? If you want to improve public health, there are lots of ways to spend the any given hundred billion dollars that would give you far more bang for the gigabuck.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Journalists do it

Little Green Footballs posts a correction:

Correction: the person who produces Kevin Sites’ blog, Xeni Jardin, emailed to tell me that “Images Against War” used the photos linked above without permission, and included these remarks:
And as for the remarks in the body of the post — do you think he has any control over how Al-Jazeera uses the footage? He simply witnessed somthing and reported it. That’s what journalists do.

I wonder. If Fox News wanted videotape of the execution rooms, or of any other atrocities committed by the terrorists in Fallujah, would they be able to get copies of Mr. Sites' viedotapes? Would Mr. Sites greet their use of such footage – say, broadcasting the bloodiest bits every half hour – with the same equanimity we see in this case?

Getting the news, or becoming the news?

(Hat tip: Little Green Footballs.)

Kevin Sites, the embedded reporter whose footage showing the Marine shooting an enemy who was not (at that instant) offering any resistance, has some commentary on his blog.

I am not a military or American cheerleader, not a mouthpiece signed on to some institutional agenda whether I believe in it or not. I am here to ask the hard questions of the people who make the hardest decisions; ones that result in people dying or people being killed. I must remember as one journalist advised, “write in your notepad every day ‘I am not one of them.’”

Mr. Sites is giving the Marines he's embedded with very high praise. He expects to continue to be protected by them, pretty much no matter what he says about them. It says a lot about how professional he believes them to be. Really. If they wanted him dead, they wouldn't need to take any action at all. All it would take in Fallujah is a moment's inattention at the wrong time.

Rhetoric again

John Ray has quotes at the bottom of each day's entries. Here's one that seems apt:

That power only, not principles, is what matters to Leftists is perfectly shown by the Kerry campaign. They put up a man whose policies seemed to be 99% the same as George Bush's even though the Left have previously disagreed violently with those policies. "Whatever it takes" is their rule. Leftists are phonies. For most of them all that they want is to sound good. They don't care about doing good. That's why they do so much harm. They don't really care what the results of their policies are as long as they are seen as having good intentions

Green alternatives cheaper?

Sometimes, sure. Sometimes after the technology supports them.

Sometimes, though, the green alternatives are cheaper because some of the cost is hidden:

"We're only going to look for the type of energy that will be economically feasible for us and our customers," McCloud said. [Is he serious? "Alternative" energy is always dearer. If it were cheaper it would already be in use!]

Yup. And interestingly enough, when "alternative" medicine passes the tests demanded in the scientific method, they tend to become "mainstream".

At GM, the use of landfill gas saves the plant approximately $500,000. The gas is captured and processed by Renovar Shreveport LLC, then transported to GM's facility via a seven-mile pipeline. The landfill gas represents one-third of total energy used at the plant. AEP decided to pursue renewable energy generation for SWEPCO following the recent extension of a 10-year federal tax credit for renewable energy resources". [Now we're talking! It's only cheaper because of a tax break – meaning that taxes elsewhere will go up – so the consumer still loses]

I am constantly hearing that our most heavily-used resources would be a lot more expensive than they appear – and green alternatives a lot more competitive – if they weren't subsidized. What subsidies? In what amount? And are any of these being manipulated or double-counted? No one has ever come up with a list of the various subsidies by source and amount, when I've asked. Usually, the request prompts a change of subject.

However, taking the notion of subsidies at face value, it occurs to me that a complete ban on subsidies would put a stop to a lot of arguments. If virgin paper is "really" more expensive than recycled paper, and only looks cheaper because of subsidies, then getting rid of the subsidies would cause people to switch to recycled quite spontaneously. Likewise, if meat is a low in cost as it is because of heavy subsidies to the Meat Industry, removing those subsidies would convert more people into vegetarians.

However, we should be consistent. If subsidies for our "wasteful" ways are ended, then we should also do away with any existing subsidies for alternatives, green or otherwise. If they're truly competitive, let them compete. And if they win, then we'll know which is better.

Now there's an idea!

(Hat tip: Sean)

Several French municipalities governed by communist and left-wing majorities are considering naming a street or a square after Yasser Arafat.

Well, let's see. A street with brothels on one side and slaughterhouses on the other?

It's the rhetoric, stupid!

Right now, Dennis Prager is talking about how the Democrats are planning to take a look at the issue of religious faith. To him, it appears as if they are planning to treat it as a matter of adopting the rhetoric of faith. It's not a matter of belief, merely appearances.

I keep being struck by the similarities between political True Believers and the Creationist (and lately, the Intelligent Design / Intelligent Origin Theory) movement.

When attempts to teach Creationism in science classes, the Creationists started promoting "Scientific Creationism". On examination, "Scientific Creationism" turns out to be nothing more than the Biblical account dressed up in scientific jargon.

Creationists seem to think that if they use the right kind of language – essentially putting a lab coat on their fairy tale – the high priesthood of science will allow them in to the inner circle. And now, the Democrat party seems to have decided if they use the right kind of language, the high priesthood of the electorate will allow them in to the inner circle.

They may be able to fool themselves, but I doubt they'll fool anyone else.

Economic freedom and voting patterns

Ryan Zempel has a post at TownHall's C-log pointing out that economically free states tend to vote Republican. He took rankings from the US Economic Freedom Index and grouped them according to how they went in the 2004 election.

A Wilcoxson rank-sum test shows this distribution would happen by chance about once in 40,000 times. Anything that would happen by chance less than once in 20 times is considered a publishable result in the journals.

Tax cuts

President Bush has taken a lot of flak over his tax cuts. Now, we begin to see signs of praise, or at least sincere flattery.

President Bush's tax cuts over the last four years were strongly opposed by liberals, and even many moderates saw them as controversial, at least. So it is interesting to discover, according to a new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, that governments of the left in Europe have been doing pretty much the same thing as President Bush has done here.

It will be interesting to watch the GDP of the countries involved.

In the water

(Hat tip: safedrinkingwater.com news)

Shampoo, bug spray and that morning cup of java linger in the environment after they're showered off or tossed down the drain, according to the most extensive study of Minnesota waters ever conducted. Caffeine, synthetic musk used in personal-care products, a flame retardant, an herbicide, the popular insect repellent DEET and other pharmaceuticals, products and chemicals are part of a complex brew being found in waters around the state.

We've got a couple of things happening here. Firstly, we do use a lot of chemicals, and we introduce naturally occurring chemicals into lakes and streams by our own habits. For instance, if you want to know whether a water source has been impacted by human activity, look for caffeine in the water. Secondly, our technology is constantly improving. We're learning how to detect increasingly tiny quantities of everything in the water.

The second point is a major key, since as soon as we can detect some contaminant, there's suddenly pressure to Do Something.

How much of a concern are these chemicals? Maybe not as much as the reports would have us believe.

Commentary: USGS uses their own conservative, broad brush term to cover all of the various types of organic chemicals found in wastewater. OWC for "organic wastewater compounds" generally includes all of the subcategories that pop up in various studies, such as EDs = endocrine disruptors; PAS = pharmaceutically active substances; PCPs = personal care products. Not all are necessarily endocrine disruptors, so some have suggested the "potential endocrine disruptors" term. Xenobiotics covers most everything. (A foreign substance, especially a synthetic chemical, foreign to a body or to an ecological system.)

Why pay any attention to this study?

Results of reconnaissance studies may help regulators who set water-quality standards begin to prioritize which OWCs to focus upon for given categories of water use.

We don't know what (if anything) a lot of these chemicals do, but this study at least tells us what's in the water. We can look at the effects of those chemicals first.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Fixing elections (the system, not the vote)

Orson Scott Card, again. This week's column is a laundry list of issues, all of them relating to the process of choosing our leaders. In this column, he addresses:

"Disenfranchisement" and "voter intimidation"
The proper way to counter intimidation from poll watchers is to encourage and teach voters that they have nothing to fear. It's embarrassing that the Democratic Party has concluded that the proper solution to electoral problems is litigation instead of training their voters to follow the rules and fearlessly exercise their franchise. If you sue, you might lose. If you teach voters their rights -- and responsibilities -- then everybody wins. It's also cheaper. And it starts with the assumption that minority voters are smart enough to learn the same voting rules and procedures that everybody else follows. Any other assumption smacks of condescension at best, bigotry at worst.
The electoral college
Getting rid of the electoral college often can sound like a "good idea" -- until you start considering the alternatives.
The remedy is simple and obvious: When congressional districts are redrawn after every census, only three principles should be considered: Coherence, compactness, and equality. <snip> Wouldn't the interests of African-Americans be better served, even with fewer blacks in Congress, if most congressional districts contained enough black voters that their votes could swing an election? Instead of having a handful of guaranteed black seats, with all the rest of the House of Representatives owing nothing at all to black voters, we'd have fewer guaranteed black congressmen, but most of Congress would care very much what black voters thought of them -- or risk losing the next election. It doesn't matter, though. Because the group that benefits most from the present anti-democratic system of fixing elections in advance is: incumbents. And by definition, the only people who could change the system are: incumbents.
Voter ignorance
So the only solution is to make sure you aren't one of the ignorant ones. There are websites for most candidates, informing you of their record, their beliefs and principles, and their experience and other qualifications. It's quite easy to find out information about everyone except the handful who don't bother to put up a website.
Counting errors
Sometimes, though, an election might be so tight that a statistically insignificant difference between the spoiled ballots for the two candidates might actually become crucial. In effect, then, the election would have been decided by a coin toss. In such cases, recounts are helpful. Lawsuits are not.

There's lots more. Read the whole thing.

Geneva Convention?

I hear frequent qvetching over the Bush administration's position that the Geneva conventions may not apply to al Qaeda members held at Guantanamo Bay. Some assert the administration has claimed it doesn't have to follow the Geneva conventions at all. In fact, there's some question as to whether the conventions apply to terrorists, and if so, which of the four do.

President Bush has, of course, refused to grant any Geneva Convention status to al Qaeda members because that group is not, and could not be, a party to those treaties. <snip> In particular, the Supreme Court did not require that detainees be treated as prisoners of war (POWs) until a "competent tribunal" has determined otherwise, as provided in Article V of the Geneva POW Convention.

A federal district judge has ruled that one fellow, Salim Ahmed Hamdan is entitled to protection under the Geneva conventions.

the district court has ordered in Mr. Hamdan's case, in addition to challenging the government's right to try him before a military commission. The Geneva POW Convention, the court concluded, applies to everyone fighting in Afghanistan, regardless of their nationality or allegiance, merely because that country has ratified the treaty. This, of course, would extend Geneva protections to al Qaeda. The Geneva POW Convention, however, does not apply territorially. It creates burdens and benefits for one-state party vis-a-vis other state parties. Thus, if two Geneva parties go to war, they are bound by the convention regardless of where the war is fought. By the same token, if a Geneva party fights a non-Geneva party, the non-party does not automatically qualify for the treaty's protections — even if the conflict takes place on a party's territory. <snip> Indeed, under Article 2's plain meaning, individuals fighting for a non-party can only be brought within the treaty's reach if the entity itself "accepts and applies the provisions" of the Geneva Conventions. To achieve this, of course, the belligerent must be a state or, at a minimum, a group plausibly seeking recognition as the lawful government of a state. Private individuals, including trans-national terrorist organizations like al Qaeda, legally cannot make war on anyone, and they are incapable of acceding to the Geneva Conventions — formally or informally.

The downsides of granting Geneva convention protections to al Qaeda include:

...granting Geneva benefits (whether formally or under the guise of "customary" international law) merely works to legitimize the savage and illegal war al Qaeda has declared, and the ferocious tactics — particularly targeting civilians — it has adopted.

In other words, the tactics used by al Qaeda – all their tactics – become "fair game" for anyone else to use in war. Is that a can of worms we want to open?

Stem cells

Michael Fumento on the somewhat curious fact that people are denigrating adult stem cell research and treatment in favor of embryonic stem cells.

Why is this curious? Well...

  • Adult stem cells have been used therapeutically since 1968. Embryonic stem cells have not.
  • There are 250 ongoing clinical trials with adult stem cells. There are zero with embryonic stem cells
  • Research in adult stem cells is pretty well established. Adult stem cells have been researched for half a century. On the other hand, research on embryonic stem cells has only taken place for ... half a century.
  • Adult stem cells can be made to differentiate into every type of tissue we might need, but we need to have several types on hand because not all types of stem cell will make all types of tissue. On the other hand, embryonic stem cells have the ability to turn into any kind of tissue (except, apparently, placental tissue). Of course, they're so difficult to work with, no one's had much luck turning them into anything at all.

So why the push to spend money on embryonic stem cell research (which may never pan out) and ignore the adult stem cells that are already curing diseases?

Adult stem cells come from all over the body, plus umbilical cords and placentas. Embryonic stem cells come from pulling apart human embryos, and thus have aroused ethical concerns. The result, says Chris Mooney in the Washington Monthly, is that "conservatives have latched onto fringe science in order to advance moral arguments" by embracing adult stem cell research. We are presented with the illogical argument that since some people prefer adult stem cells for nonscientific reasons, they must have little scientific value.


Ironically, the original motivation for the massive disinformation campaign is precisely the relative scientific superiority of adult stem cells. Savvy venture capitalists have plowed their money into adult stem cell research and treatment, leaving embryonic stem cell researchers desperate to feed at the government trough. It is they and their supporters who have latched onto fringe science.

Follow the money.

Bond. James Bond

From The Scotsman e-mail update:

Super-spy James Bond is born today in 1924. After a rebellious school career, the half-Swiss/half Scots Bond attends Cambridge University before joining the Royal Navy and latterly, the British Secret Service. Although now aged 80, the unstoppable Bond shows no sign of slowing down due to his ability to magically transfer himself into the bodies of various younger men such as Sean Connery, Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan.

Actually, I think James Bond is a Time Lord. He'd be on his tenth or eleventh regeration by now.

These poppies won't make you sleep

Scientists used RNA interference to knock out a gene in opium poppies, and got unexpected results.

They managed to turn off the second-to-last gene in a series of genes that lead to morphine. Surprisingly, they did not get an accumulation of the second-to-last intermediate product, but a product seven steps upstream. Somehow, the process piled up at that point, and didn't continue much past it, even though the machinery to carry it forward should still have been in working order.

The usual model, which works great in bacteria, is that the synthesis of a compound will go through a bunch of steps, A->B->C->D->...->Z.

Knocking out step Y should cause a build-up of the results from step X, and in bacteria that's what you get. In opium poppies, the result is a build-up of the results from the enzyme seven steps preceding X. (That would be step Q, for those who are counting.)

Now what?

Well, first of all, the result of this step is very useful in its own right, being a precursor for anticancer and anti-malarial drugs. Second, it gives researchers something to investigate. There are several reasons why the pile-up might have occurred just where it did:

Larkin and colleagues suggest the unexpected reticuline phenotype may have been caused by a buildup of morphine substrates codeinone and neopinione that triggered negative feedback on one or more earlier enzymes or transport steps of the morphine branch. Alternatively, the substrate feedback may have inhibited transcription of genes encoding earlier enzymes or transporters. Loss of COR enzyme from a larger interdependent enzyme complex may also have disabled the other enzyme reactions normally associated with the complex.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Thoughts on the season

It's the middle of November, and Hallowe'en is two weeks past. Further, the solar (non-canonical) Samhain is also gone. Last weekend, the passed the half-way point between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. We are now in the dark of the year.

The article on being green has provoked some thoughts in this blogger, as well as in Charles Moore. Mr. Moore points out that nature overproduces, and that waste is a part of nature. I want to expand on that thought: waste is an essential part of nature.

(The name Samhain comes from the Gaelic for "Summer's end" – there is no Celtic god of death named Samhain, or Sam, or even Sam-I-Am.)

Samhain is the last of the harvests during the waning year. In Wiccan tradition, we begin with the first fruits around the beginning of August, ramping up to full flow at the autumn equinox, and ending at Samhain. In some mythology, any produce left in the field after Samhain is spoiled – poisoned by evil, or at least mischievous spirits.

In the course of a year, we follow the phases of life from planting the seed to nurturing the seedling to maturity, to harvest, and finally to death and decay. Each part of the cycle is as necessary as every other part, and to attempt to forestall any one part is to create a road block and bring the whole thing to a screeching halt.

In nature, the process of decay is a method of taking resources and returning them to nature. These resources are not targeted, but scattered in a most haphazard manner. Dead mice do not get recycled to make new mice. They may wind up going to build cats or owls or snakes, or they may become food for plants or insects. Sometimes, resources will pile up faster than they can be cleaned away.

One thing is certain, though: even the most wasteful processes won't lay waste forever. Whenever any kind of resource builds up, something comes along that can find a use for it.

In economics, Say's law, attributed to Jean Baptiste Say, states that a supply of anything will create its own demand. What applies to a human marketplace applies even more in the marketplace we call the biosphere. Any time waste is allowed to accumulate, something comes along to put it to good use. Even man-made chemicals, chemicals never before seen in nature, can be used.

Someone wanted to measure the volume of air inside a termite mound. He figured he could seal it off, and then inject a known quantity of freon into the mound. Nothing feeds on the stuff or breaks it down, so it just hangs around. He figured when it reached equilibrium, he could measure the concentration and figure out how much air had to be in the mound to dilute the freon that much.

Problem was, it never reached equilibrium. It kept decreasing. After all possible holes had been sealed off, the researcher discovered there were bacteria inside the termite mound that were breaking the freon down. They had figured out how to "eat" the stuff.

A human garbage dump is not necessarily a bad thing, and attempting to find some sort of beneficial use for everything we throw away is not necessarily a good thing. We may never learn some of the best uses for our trash until it's been allowed to pile up, and people are allowed to play with ideas.

And if it turns out old newsprint, processed the right way, cures cancer and AIDS, we may wind up wishing we'd saved some of the stuff.

The bottom line, and the lesson of Samhain, is that we need to get over our fear of waste and decay. Something is going to go to waste no matter what we do, and if we try to prevent it in one area, we will inevitably provoke lots more in others. Sometimes the best way to deal with waste is to watch and see what grows in it.

Is green green?

In the Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore looks the costs of being "environmentally friendly".

let's look at a bigger example. About 20 miles away from us, there is a proposal to build 26 wind turbines on Romney Marsh. These will produce clean energy. Again, though, there are problems. The turbines will be nearly two and a half times the size of existing pylons, crowding what is at present an empty, open landscape. They will be sited very close to a 150-acre nature reserve, which averages 34,000 wintering birds a year. These birds are frightened off by the noise of wind farms, and can be killed by the 160mph rotation of their sails. The construction of the turbines will require the use of an enormous amount of concrete, whose production involves very high carbon dioxide emissions. And the energy produced by these giants, which will get enough wind to produce electricity less than a quarter of the time, will be small, less than one per cent of that produced by nearby Dungeness nuclear power station. The Government's target is that 10 per cent of our electricity should come from "renewable" resources by 2010. This would require about 25,000-30,000 wind turbines across the country. At present there are 1,100, the great majority of them highly unpopular with residents. So, in the name of the environment, we are building industrial skyscrapers in the wildest and most beautiful bits of Britain.

These musings were prompted by Mr. Moore's receipt of a new green bin, into which he's to put his newspapers for every-other-weekly pickup for recycling. Aside from the fact that pickup is only once every two weeks, the recycling truck won't drive down his side road to his house. He has to drag the bin out to the road, and he accumulates a lot of newspaper, so it's heavy.

Quite aside from the nuisance value, there are other questions that deserve to be asked:

How much energy is wasted recycling paper (huge amounts of water have to be churned round), and in other forms of recycling? Is there really a shortage of landfill sites? Does it make sense to send thousands of metric tonnes of green bottles not wanted here all the way to Argentina in the name of recycling? Doesn't the hated packaging of modern goods do much to extend their life and therefore ensure that less food is thrown away uneaten? Doesn't consumption often protect the environment by guaranteeing its usefulness? Now that more and more wine is bottled with plastic tops, for example, who will pay to keep the forests of cork oaks? As I watch piles of apples rotting in our garden, I am struck by the fact that waste is part of nature, the greatest overproducer of them all. The problem is not waste, but actual harm. So often now the harm is asserted by governments, not proved. I'm not sure I want to be made to pay for the Green Leap Forward.

Stop me before I hurt myself again

(From the daily mailing to registered users.)

Today in 1492 Christopher Columbus noted in his journal the use of tobacco among native Americans - the first recorded reference to tobacco, which was brought to Europe by a French ambassador, Jacques Nicot, hence nicotine. Of course, in these enlightened times we are aware of the dangers of tobacco, and so quite sensibly the Scottish Executive must protect us from our own dim-wittedness by outlawing the smoking of the evil weed in public.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

The evolution of ape ejaculate

Yup! That's the headline!

An essay on The Panda's Thumb discusses the effect of different types of selection on apes. Different types of mating structure turn out to result in different selective pressures, which favor different adaptations.

There are two realms in which competition can occur: outside the female (competition among rivals), and inside the female (which sperm is the fastest).

Gorillas accumulate a harem, creating a shortage of eligible females, so selection favors large males who can fight off rivals. Once a harem is obtained, only that one male will mate with the females, so it doesn't matter if the sperm is less aggressive.

Male gorillas are twice the size of female gorillas, but have the smallest testicles, as a fraction of body weight, among the great apes.

Female chimpanzees are very promiscuous, and are available, theoretically, to any male. Since a female may be inseminated by any number of males, the one with the most (and fastest) sperm will have an advantage on the "inside track". Male chimps and female chimps are close to the same size, but males have very large testicles, as a fraction of their body weight.

Gibbons are exclusively monogamous. The males are very little larger than the females, and they have small testicles as a fraction of their body weight – about what we'd expect.

Humans show up as somewhat less than perfectly monogamous, which should not surprise any who observe the human condition. (Though we're not nearly as libertine as chimpanzees.)

Now it seems there's also a correlation with the composition of a protein that causes semen to coagulate. So far, all we know is that selection is occurring, and it's stronger with more polygamous species.

It's a gas

Washington, D.C. now has a gas station that actually dispenses a gas. California Yankee notes that a new hydrogen-dispensing gas station has been built in the area, and Shell Hydrogen and General Motors hopes this will be the beginning of a hydrogen economy. Right now, there are six hydrogen-powered vehicles in the DC area, so the station could have one bay dedicated to each vehicle, and maybe even a few left over.

Hydrogen sounds like a really neat way to go. You burn it, and the exhaust is water vapor. No problem.

Of course, there are a few problems:

First, there aren't any hydrogen wells. You can't obtain pure hydrogen on this planet in large quantities without doing a lot of work to pull it out of other molecules.

Petroleum products and other fossil fuels can be removed from the ground and burned. At most, a small amount of processing is required. But what we're doing when we burn fossil fuels is releasing solar energy that was stored in the molecules millions of years ago.

Likewise, if we use nuclear fission, we're "burning" uranium, thorium, plutonium, or other heavy atoms. Here, we're releasing solar energy that was stored in those atoms in the cores of other suns, billions of years ago.

In the case of hydrogen, most of what's available is either in the form of hydrocarbons (fossil fuels, again) or in compounds that are already at their lowest energy. In order to break the hydrogen loose, we have to add energy.

Some fans of hydrogen power point to the water that covers three quarters of the planet's surface, and observe that it's 22% hydrogen by weight. Well, big deal. It takes energy to pull the hydrogen loose, and you're bound to get less energy back when you burn it, due to the second law of thermo, if nothing else. Hydrogen from sea water is, at best, a storage battery. Unless we have some other form of cheap energy to split water, there's no real point in using it.

When we burn hydrogen, we normally think of the only result being water vapor. I haven't examined the specs for hydrogen burning engines in any detail, but I'll just bet they still produce photochemical smog.

When I took physical chemistry, decades ago, I learned about reaction equilibria. A lot of reactions will go from the reagents to the product, until all the reagent is used up. Mix hydrogen and oxygen gases, add a spark, and when the dust settles, all available hydrogen and oxygen will have combined to form water vapor. Hydrogen molecules and oxygen molecules are in a higher energy state than water molecules are. When you rearrange the atoms in the first to form the second, you wind up with a bunch of energy left over. In order to split the water into separate components, you have to put that energy back in somehow.

In some reactions, the energy difference isn't very large, and there can be enough energy floating around in the environment to drive the reaction "uphill", at least in part. When the dust settles, we might find that, say, 90% of the reagents have combined to form the product, and the rest stay behind as un-reacted reagents. In reality, what happens is that the reagents are constantly combining to make the product, but at equilibrium, for every ten molecules that form, one comes apart to make the original reagents.

We can calculate this equilibrium, and make predictions about how it will shift if we add more of one chemical or another.

In many (if not most) cases, this equilibrium point changes with temperature. In some cases, the hill "flattens out", so that instead of the reaction going 90% of the way to completion, it may only go 60% of the way. In some cases, the equilibrium point changes so the reaction tends to go the other way.

At high temperatures, nitrogen and oxygen will combine to form "oxides of nitrogen" -- nitrous oxide, and maybe a little nitric oxide thrown in for flavor. This is a major component of smog, and it is highly sensitive to the temperature inside the combustion chamber of an engine.

At low temperatures, such as those a lot closer to room temperature, oxides of nitrogen are much less likely to form, and in fact, their decompositon into oxygen and nitrogen is strongly favored. Of course, since chemical reactions go much more slowly at low temperatures, you need something to speed them up. Something like a catalytic converter. However, once the catalyst is present, the reaction runs very nicely, and oxides of nitrogen fall apart into oxygen and nitrogen. The energy from this reaction is dumped into the environment, which is why catalytic converters heat up – sometimes enough to set brush on fire.

(And that, by the way, is my main problem with Larry Niven's stories set on Mars. The Martian atmosphere is made up of nitrous oxide in his stories. In some of his stories, the crews in domes or tents have to worry about running out of breathing air. It's a pity no one thought to pack along a catalytic converter and pump Martian air through it. They'd wind up with an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, and it would be warmed up, too.)

In any event, a hydrogen engine will probably not be fed pure oxygen. Instead, it will mix hydrogen with air, which is 78% nitrogen. Not all the oxygen will combine with hydrogen, and at high temperatures, some of it will combine with nitrogen to make smog.

Hydrogen may turn out to be very useful, but I don't see it as a cure-all.