Thursday, March 31, 2005

Security blog

A new blog, through the Washington Post, that highlights security problems and their solutions.

In the latest installment, I note that Firefox seems to have taken off. It's now worth the effort for phishers to write code that can run on it.

In this particular phishing scam, simply clicking anywhere in the HTML e-mail caused my Firefox browser to begin downloading a file while the fake site loaded in the background. Needless to say, I killed the download immediately. The moral here is don't click on links in e-mails you aren't expecting!


This blog is about safe computing -- providing you with tips, advice and how-tos to help you keep your computer free of viruses, spyware, adware and other online scourges. More importantly, it will remind you again and again that remaining secure online is a continuous process. You need to keep yourself aware of all the current threats, the latest software patches, the e-mail scam that could give ID thieves access to your bank accounts and more.


Terri Sciavo

Terri Sciavo's body has died.

Whether the part that mattered was still around is a matter of debate. We can hope the part that would have felt suffering through the process of dehydration was not functional.

The fact that she lasted nearly two weeks after the removal of the feeding tube, though, may be a sign that her body was in pretty good health. And interestingly enough, don't they usually quit looking for survivors in piles of rubble after about a week? I wonder if this story will be remembered after the next quake or building collapse.

Much more significant, though, is the lingering statement this story makes about our default options.

What is it that makes a life "worth living"?

Who gets to decide?

In cases of disagreement or doubt, where we could be making a mistake, on which side of the line do we err?

There are thousands of people in Terri's condition – some worse, some better. The decisions made in this case will affect them all.

[Update: Added a link to a NRO editorial I found half an hour later.]

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Universal health care: You'll pay one way or another

With Terri Sciavo in the hospital for a decade and a half, and with a friend of mine in the hospital, without insurance, with a stroke, the subject of government insurance has come up in my circle of friends.

The thing a lot of people don't seem to get is that if we had a universal health care scheme, we'd all be paying for it, one way or another. We pay for "free" health care – or anything else – in some coin or another. Medical care is a scarce resource, which means there is less of it than there is possible uses to which it can be put.

The various coins we may be called upon to pay include:

...continued in full post...

  • Money, in the form of taxes or "user fees".
  • Time, waiting in line, waiting for an appointment, or awaiting your turn. Hopefully, you'll get treatment before you die. Or your doctor does.
  • Self-respect. Too many providers treat the system as a welfare system, where health care is a gift of the State, and the subjects (no longer citizens) must show proper appreciation. You'll hear the occasional recipient of public funds talk about the amount of work they go through just to obtain the pittance they do get. That, too, is coin.
  • Stuff that never gets developed – Just as it takes money to provide medical care, it takes money to develop new drugs and treatments. Someone has to pay researchers, someone has to pay volunteers for tests, someone has to buy raw materials for drugs and equipment, and someone has to pay for the overhead for the research facilities. If you impose a cap on how much a hospital can charge for a treatment, then you impose a cap on how much it's worth to spend developing a treatment. Sure, you can subsidize the research, but that's what you're doing. That money has to come from somewhere.

The free market has one advantage over systems that pay in other kinds of coin. Money can be traded on to the next person as far as you like. The doctor who collects a dollar from me can trade it to a plumber to fix a clogged toilet, who can trade it to a grocer for a candy bar, who can ...

Just try doing that with time, or with self-respect, or with inventions that no one thought it worth the cost to develop.

And by the way, my friend, with the stroke and no insurance, is in the hospital right now getting treatment. Even the uninsured don't get thrown into the street. At least not right away.

(And as it happens, the vast majority of "street people" are people who have problems upstairs, and need to be in a hospital for other reasons. And would be, except various rights groups decreed they have the right to live where they choose.)

A balanced Terri Sciavo FAQ

(Well, balanced according to someone, I'm sure. I've argued with enough people to know there are those who can find imbalance anywhere.)


An attempt at using computerized drug-order entry software showed that it caused lots of problems.

One of the big problems with the system was a poor man-machine interface. "The system just didn't make sense in terms of the way doctors actually worked," says Koppel. It made doctors wade through as many as 20 screens to see the list of drugs for a single patient. By the time a doctor got to the right screen to order a drug, the patient's name was sometimes no longer on the screen, making it easy to confuse to whom the order was going. At other times, the software displayed multiple patient names on a single screen, making it possible to give a drug to the wrong patient, if the doctor was distracted at the moment the order was being finalized. Koppel says he spoke to one doctor who ended up giving a potentially fatal dose of a drug to the wrong patient because of this multiple-name problem. While the patient survived unscathed, the doctor was still shaken by the near-miss two years later.

Is there no one associated with this company who designs user interfaces for a living?

Maybe it's worth a try...

John Ray notes that market forces are slowly being brought to bear on hospitals, which have heretofore been shielded from them.

Over time, hospitals will get more money if they follow guidelines, and lower fees if they neglect them. To add a further shove in the right direction, Medicare will post report cards on its Web site so the public can make comparisons.

People respond to incentives, and if the incentive structure is perverse, people respond in perverse ways.

Unlike most businesses, where those who offer better services or products receive the largest financial reward, health care institutions mainly get paid based on volume of services rather than whether patients get better. Under the perverse reimbursement scheme, avoidable complications that require readmission may actually be more lucrative to hospitals than getting it right the first time.

And indeed, one friend of mine was working in a related field – social work. Her rating depended on how many times she called a "case" back, and how many hours she spent with a "case". If she was prepared, had her act together, and did her research ahead of time, so that she processed her "case" in one short visit, she got a lower performance evaluation. I don't recall if she learned to waste time in an approved manner before being fired, though.

What would I have done?

Quit, on principle?

Call people in for a weekly "chit-chat" session, pour a cup of coffee, B.S. about kids, grandkids, whatnot, and maybe steer them toward job leads or more productive lifestyles outside of The System, but inside of Being A Friend?

Depends on how inventive I was feeling, I suppose.

One area where lawyers excel

(but any of hundreds of links would do...)

During the whole Terri Sciavo affair, the Democrats started passing around a "Talking Points Memo", allegedly generated by the Republicans in Congress. The "talking points" included, this would bolster the pro-life base.

One thing various lawyer bloggeers have been all over is the lack of provenance for these documents. There is no particular reason to believe the documents were created by anyone in particular, never mind by Congressional Republicans.

There was nothing on the document to indicate its origin. It is unsigned and anonymous and has no letterhead. Anybody could have typed it up and claimed it was something it was not. Yet this is the type of document that was seized upon by the Post and other media.

I've had conversations with lawyers, and the first thing they look for when presented with any document that purports to be evidence of anything is provenance.

Who wrote it?

Who had custody of it?

Who has had the opportunity to change it?

What is the evidence to support the answers to the above questions?

These are questions lawyers automatically ask, and it's beginning to look like journalists don't.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The books the Dover School Board doesn't like

Early in March, the Debunk Creation mail list donated a collection of science books to the Dover high school library, to counterbalance the anonymous donation of 58 copies of Of Pandas and People. Pands was intended to be used as a supplemental textbook, and to promote Intelligent Design / Intelligent Origin Theory (ID-IOT) as an "alternative" to evolution.

In response, some 23 books were selected as a donation, and sent early in March.

Although the school board accepted Pandas without much fuss, they've been extremely reluctant to accept this donation of 23 books, many of which have been bestsellers, all of which are written for the layman. The excuse has been that the board has to ensure that the books aren't too advanced for the high school students.

In case any high school students are reading, here is a list of the books the Dover School Board doesn't want you reading. Please stay away from them, lest you encounter things too advanced for you.

...anyone who is not a high school student can read the rest of the message in the full text...

  1. Climbing Mount Improbable Richard Dawkins
  2. Finding Darwin's God Kenneth R. Miller
  3. Galileo's Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science by Peter Atkins
  4. Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives by Robert T. Pennock (Editor)
  5. Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan
  6. The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution by Richard Dawkins
  7. The Antiquity of Man: Artifactual, Fossil and Gene Records Explored by Michael Brass
  8. The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design by Richard Dawkins
  9. Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan
  10. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
  11. Tower of Babel: The Evidence against the New Creationism by Robert T. Pennock
  12. The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen William Hawking
  13. What Evolution Is by Ernst Mayr
  14. Thread of Life: The Smithsonian Looks at Evolution by Roger Lewin
  15. Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions by James Randi
  16. This Is Biology: The Science of the Living World by Ernst Mayr
  17. The Panda's Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould
  18. The Pattern of Evolution by Niles Eldredge
  19. Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy (Commonwealth Fund Book Program)by Kip S. Thorne
  20. Evolution : The Triumph of an Idea by Carl Zimmer
  21. Genome by Matt Ridley
  22. Evolution by Mark Ridley
  23. Wandering lands and animals by Edwin Harris Colbert

This has been a public service announcement by the Rite Wing Technopagan

"Allowing harm to continue unchecked is not 'harming none'. Rather, it harms everyone." — Doreen Valiente

Pro-choice, or pro-indecision?

One of the criticisms being leveled at our capitalist system these days is that it gives people too much choice, and too much choice is making us all too unhappy. Faced with too many choices, we're paralyzed with indecision. Like the allegorical donkey standing exactly between two equally appetizing haystacks, we are in danger of starving to death amidst plenty.

While people faced with more choices were more worried about making the wrong choice, here's an interesting twist:

People handed a choice not their own were less satisfied than those who made their own choices.

Subjects who ate a chocolate selected by the experimenter, rather than the one they'd picked, were much less satisfied than either group. Too much choice may cause regret, but no choice is worse.

How to keep from being overwhelmed by choices? One bit of advice is to set a bar, and pick the first choice that meets your criteria, but don't fixate on trying to pick the very best available. Or, as investment counselors advise, sell a stock while it's still going up – "leave some for the next person".

Author and social critic Barry Schwartz opposes private Social Security accounts – fewer choices are better, and no choice must be best of all – and advocates a 90% tax rate. I guess if you don't have any money to spend, you'll never have to make any of those irritating choices.

However, these positions aren't well supported by his book, The Paradox of Choice, and seem to derive from a leftward political point of view.

The fundamental problem with Schwartz's critique, however, isn't the author's leftist preferences. It's the difference between understanding the human mind and understanding market institutions. Psychology experiments often screen out the adjustments real people use to cope with choices, from brand loyalty to expert guidance. Markets, by contrast, produce not only more choice but also more ways to choose effectively.

Too many choices may be a problem for some, but for others, they're an opportunity.

Read the whole thing.

Creation vs. Evolution? How about both?

As the argument continutes, a motivational speaker chimes in with:

The simple fact is that creation and evolution are not in conflict at all. Indeed, they are partners, not opposition forces. Anyone with a serious understanding of the Bible knows that God created evolution as the process for creation.

Eugenie Scott, of the National Center for Science Education, likes to ask which is more impressive, a pool player who sinks every single shot, or one who clears the table with the break shot.

And indeed, to insist that God built the world in some specific way that rules out the findings of science, and that the scientists are all wrong, is to fall into sin.

It is impossible for the Bible to be in conflict with truth. There is a well known Talmudic passage which states, "Chatimato Shell Hakadosh Baruch Hu Emet--The Signature of God is Truth." Only a fool on the right or left, or an ACLU lawyer can view creationism and evolution as opposites. Any religious person who denies the true age of the earth or facts of science is breaking the Third Commandment, by taking the Lord's name in vain and embarrassing God.

Amazingly enough, most people don't know that's what the commandment means. Breaking the commandment means one has made God look stupid and petty. And there are enormous numbers of people doing this in God's name.

Security – lock the back door!

You can have the strongest encryption in the world and it won't protect your data if you use a weak key.

For law enforcement officials charged with busting sophisticated financial crime and hacker rings, making arrests and seizing computers used in the criminal activity is often the easy part. More difficult can be making the case in court, where getting a conviction often hinges on whether investigators can glean evidence off of the seized computer equipment and connect that information to specific crimes.

Encryption – strong encryption – is widely available, cheaply or for free.

Many of the encryption programs used widely by corporations and individuals provide up to 128- or 256-bit keys. Breaking a 256-bit key would likely take eons using today's conventional "dictionary" and "brute force" decryption methods -- that is, trying word-based, random or sequential combinations of letters and numbers -- even on a distributed network many times the size of the Secret Service's DNA. [Distributed Networking Attack]

But all is not lost. You don't need to break the key. The user never remembers the key – he uses a password to access the key stored on the hard drive. The password is a lot easier to remember, and most people pick weak passwords.

Yet, like most security systems, encryption has an Achilles' heel -- the user. That's because some of today's most common encryption applications protect keys using a password supplied by the user. Most encryption programs urge users to pick strong, alphanumeric passwords, but far too often people ignore that critical piece of advice, said Bruce Schneier, an encryption expert and chief technology officer at Counterpane Internet Security Inc. in Mountain View, Calif. "Most people don't pick a random password even though they should, and that's why projects like this work against a lot of keys," Schneier said. "Lots of people -- even the bad guys -- are really sloppy about choosing good passwords." Armed with the computing power provided by DNA and a treasure trove of data about a suspect's personal life and interests collected by field agents, Secret Service computer forensics experts often can discover encryption key passwords.

Clues can include terms in documents and e-mails, and also words found in web pages gleaned from the browser history. Custom word lists generated from these sources work 40-50% of the time.

Some files are proving tougher to crack. One group which communicates in English, Russian and Ukranian, using a mishmash of Roman and Cyrillic alphabets, is not yielding very well to this technique.

Here, the set of possible passwords is large enough to look random to investigators.

At your service...

Over the transom...

Subject: the word "service" > In my life, I thought I had a handle on the meaning of the word "service." > "The act of doing things for other people." > Then I heard the terms: > Internal Revenue Service > Postal Service > Telephone Service > Civil Service > Selective Service > City/County Public Service > Customer Service > Service Stations > I became confused about the word "service." This is not what I thought "service" meant. > Then today, I overheard two farmers talking and one of them mentioned that he was having a bull over to "service" a few of his cows. > SHAZAM! It suddenly all came into clear perspective. > Now I understand what all those "service" agencies are doing to us.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Boiling a frog

Terri Sciavo continues without food or water, but apparently with a drop of communion wine.

One issue is whether Ms. Sciavo would have wanted to continue living had she found herself in this condition.

Among callers to the talk shows last week were nurses who mentioned that patients who were in dire conditions would almost routinely change their minds. Once they were in those dire straits, they were willing to live in them rather than die. Or, as one of the taglines in my collection reads,

Despite the high cost of living, it remains popular.

...continued in full post...

When we're in good health and at our full strength, we know we wouldn't want to live as a quadriplegic, or hooked up to a feeding tube, or on a respirator, or hooked up to machines, or as a brain in a jar or...

When that moment arrives, it's a whole different story.

The entire staff of the LA DWP was required to sit through the talk given by a man who lived through an explosion at an oil refinery. He managed to get thoroughly drenched in the flammable liquid before it went off. When he saw it start to go wrong, he ran for his life, caught on fire anyway, and survived because the pool of liquid he decided to dive into was water after all.

Suffice it to say, he went through hell. It's impossible to administer enough drugs to kill the pain without killing the patient first, and this situation continues for weeks, if not months. And then there's surgery, reconstruction, grafts, a painfully tight suit designed to prevent the formation of scar tissue, and more.

And there's a ripple effect. All the friends and family are affected. His father put on a brave face when he came to visit him in the hospital, then went home and had a stroke. His wife left him, and his daughters' lives went to pot.

Objectively, to a healthy 20-year-old sitting on the beach, it would seem better to just have died all at once, or be euthanized on the operating table. But he wasn't, and on the whole, I think he's glad. It's not a choice he would have made, but when it was thrust upon him, he chose to live.

We don't know for certain what Terri Sciavo's choice was. We have conflicting testimony, and nothing in writing. But even if we did, given the tendency people have to change their minds when they're finally in the situation, if there is anything left of Terri Sciavo inside that head, I don't think we can be at all certain she would still choose death.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Light blogging this weekend

This weekend, I'm going to be at Condor. I may have online access through my hotel room, and then again, I may not.

If you want anything to read in this blog, use the comments section to roll your own.

As we learn things...

An interesting contrast in how scientific progress is treated.

Wizbang links to an article about a repair mechanism that catches scientists by surprise. He titles his post, "Evolution stood on its head?" His premise seems to be that because scientists are astonished at one thing they discover in nature, they must not know anything about the rest of nature, including all the stuff they think they know.

...continued in full post...

Not only do scientists have good reason to be confident in their knowledge of a lot of things they know, they have very good reason to be very confident in what I call the fundamental doctrine of science: Any phenomenon that currently lacks an explanation will eventually be explained using only processes that can be discovered and described by science.

So, for example, the origin of life, although currently unexplained, will be explained in terms of natural processes. No process that doesn't exist in nature will be needed, and at no time will we need to resort to Sid Harris' step two, "And then a miracle happens".

The reason science is so confident in this belief is that it's never had to invoke miracles in the past. Any phenomenon that has hung around long enough to be examined, or has left traces of its existence, has yielded to scientific scrutiny sooner or later. We can expect questions like the origin of life will do the same.

It's interesting to compare this with some of the comments I've heard in passing with respect to Terri Sciavo. I've heard any number of commentators mention discoveries that show surprising amounts of activity in the brains of people in a persistent vegetative state, or surprising amounts of regeneration or recovery. There are accounts of people who have been misdiagnosed, and new discoveries that give us nuances in diagnosing and classifying patients we didn't have years ago.

Yet I've not heard a single commentator say that, therefore, brain science is all wrong and the seat of intelligence and personality is in the heart or the liver. Everyone still trusts the science that says the brain is what matters.

Go figure.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

World Water Day

I'll drink to that!

Seriously, though, there are facts in this article I'd love people to keep in mind when they throw a tantrum because their water turns a funny color, or smells a bit off, but is otherwise safe to drink. It's very tempting to call them spoiled...

...even if only because they are.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Pre existence — in five dimensions?

Over at Mormon Evolution, Jeffrey Gilham raises the issue of pre-existence and whether or not it conflicts with evolution. This is a problem because, according to one of the major authorities in the Church:

...every form of life had a spirit existence in that eternal world before it came to dwell naturally upon the face of the earth; and that prior existence, for all forms of life, was one in which the spirit entity had the exact form and likeness of its present temporal body. Animals, plants, fowls, fishes, all forms of life existed as spirit entities in pre-existence; their number, extent, variety, and form were known with exactitude before ever the foundations of this earth were laid. They were all destined to live in their time and season upon this particular globe. There was no chance whatever connected with the creative enterprises.

...continued in full post

This would seem to imply, no need for doctors, since sickness, health, disease, injury, and recovery therefrom, are all predestined. There is no need to prevent accidents or guard against injury or misfortune of any kind, since every living being's exact form is laid out and predestined. There's no need to keep that one-year supply of food (and water, medicine, and money) around the house, since you'll never need it.

I've yet to see a Mormon who behaves as if he believes that. I think any who did all starved to death or qualified for Darwin awards.

However, it seems the modern notion of pre-existence may not be quite the same as that of Joseph Smith.

Joseph Smith did not distinguish between a time before which these spirits/intelligences were organized and a time after they were "born" as "spirit children"--in fact, the contemporary Mormon notion that God is the literal father of individual spirits through spirit birth would probably have been foreign to him. He taught that spirits were eternal and uncreated and used the terms "spirits" and "intelligences" synonymously. <snip> The Book of Mormon inculcated the belief that humanity existed in God's presence--at least, on a mythic level – prior to the Fall, and identified all humans with Adam in a corporate existence.

It's interesting to compare this with the Kabbalah.

The Sefir Yetzirah mentions the notion of ten directions: left and right, forward and backward, up and down, future and past, and a moral axis – toward good and toward evil. Humans can move in three spatial dimensions for six directions. We move into the future at a fixed rate, and can do precious little to stop it. We have some choice over our moral direction.

God (or, if I were a Jewish Kabbalist, I'd be writing G-D) can move freely along all five axes in all ten dimensions. He can move freely in all ten directions. Presumably, he shapes events in such a way that creation is steered toward the maximum possible good.

Perhaps God sees the entire range of possible structures in the five-dimensional universe, and sees all the possible paths spiritual entities can take as they are enter the physical realm, move through their lives, and leave. And indeed, as in the "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics, every possibility is taken every time a choice is made. The only real choice that is made is which path the spirit decides to accompany.

Perhaps, while the entire structure exists and is fixed in all five dimensions, infinite in height, width, depth, through all time and from ultimate good to ineffible evil, we, from the perspective of the sparks of spirit that travel this network, have the choice of where we'll go and where we'll wind up.

And then again, maybe it is all random.

I couldn't resist leaving a comment...

A top ten (maybe twelve or thirteen by now) list of reasons why there are fewer German blogs than Iraqi blogs.

Mine is the second comment.

Quark soup

No, not a new Marx Brothers movie, but the possible result of the collision of two gold nuclei at 99.995% of the speed of light.

...physicists claim that at this temperature nuclear material melts into an exotic form of matter called a quark-gluon plasma – thought to have been the state of the universe a microsecond after the Big Bang. Recreating this primordial soup is the primary purpose of the Relativistic Heavy-Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Laboratory. After five years of data, it appears as if RHIC may have succeeded. But a big mystery looms over the detection: the putative plasma explodes more violently than predicted.

But then again, science gets fun when the experiment decides not to match the prediction. That's the kind of thing that results in Nobel prizes.

Some of the weirdnesses include:

Cramer and his colleagues have another alternative explanation, too: perhaps the explosion is not as explosive as the data suggests. ... One of the reasons for this conservative approach has to do with how fast the supposed plasma appears to freeze back into ordinary matter. Theory assumed this phase transition would take almost twice as long as was measured.

I wonder if one of the things that's happening is that space is expanding in the volume where this plasma is created. This would cause the plasma to cool off more quickly, and to spread out into surrounding space more explosively, but without as much energy showing up in the fragments as might otherwise be the case.

Just a thought...

Not a welcome breakfast

Plans for a proposed wind farm in the Mojave desert are on hold. According to an article with the headline, "Don't Mince Birds", environmentalists are worried that the windmills will be built in the migratory paths of many species of songbirds.

Generating green power for Los Angeles is fine, but not if it means a breakfast of shredded tweet.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Sciavo and Intelligent Design

It occcurs to me...

A major point of contention in the Terri Sciavo case is whether she is responding to stimuli on any level that demands more than reflex action. That is, is she aware of her surroundings on any level, and are her responses mediated in any way by any sort of intelligent design?

The advocates of Intelligent Design/Intelligent Origin Theory claim to have a hard and fast set of rules that will allow them to detect design in nature. I wonder if William Dembski would be able to examine Ms. Sciavo, and other people in borderline cases similer to hers, and determine, once and for all, whether they are aware of their surroundings or merely operating from reflex stimulus/response. This would be a very useful application of their design detection system, if it actually exists.

Illustrating my point

Reader Walter E. Wallis writes,

Terri is dead. Get over it.

Well, if she's dead, why has her husband not inherited their joint property?

Why is he not free to marry the mother of his two youngest children?

What is the fight over?

Obviously, there are those who differ over whether Terri is dead.

More to the point, as I wrote yesterday, the question is not whether Terri is alive or dead, but whether the part of Terri that matters is alive or dead.

A month ago, I'd have said it was definitely dead.

Now, I'm not so sure.

One side of the fight has been very vocal, and has lined up a number of arguments that sound compelling. The other side either hasn't cared to present its case, hasn't been able to (what, no ""?), or has no case to present.

After witnessing this fight on the news for a solid month, I no longer know what to believe, but my instinct is to pick the choice that can always be corrected later.

Walter's assertion, on the other hand, is that the part that matters is unambiguously and unarguably dead. It has to be this part that matters, since he can't be basing his statement on legal death.

Unfortunately, his assertion is just that. It's a statement of his opinion, with no support. He cites no experts, nor any evidence nor data. Given the statements on the "terri's fight" website, it would be nice if he could show why one set of experts is more authoritative than any other. (Can he rebut the charges that Michael is cherry-picking experts to hurry his wife out the door?)

To any statements that the whole thing is a private matter between Terri, her husband, and their families, I have a response:

When someone brings private matters into the public realm, or pulls them out in front of me in any way, they invite me to express my opinion thereon. As far as I'm concerned, this applies to a couple who have a fight in the middle of a crowded restaurant, to private individuals who are suing each other in open court, to people who appeal to the media for help with some personal tragedy, and to people who lobby government to assist them with one or more of their problems.

If you throw your private life in other peoples' faces, don't be surprised when it's no longer private. It just doesn't work that way.

Press release

Lenny Flank, the founder of the Debunk Creation mail list, issued a press release on the Dover High School Library Book donation kerfuffle.

The standards under which a science book donation made by the DebunkCreation Internet group to the Dover High School Library are being evaluated by the school board, seem to be changing from week to week, group founder Lenny Flank announced today. "The school board appears to me to be making up the rules as they go along, in order to reach a pre-determined conclusion", Flank says. On March 7, the international Internet email group donated 23 science books to the Dover High School Library. The Dover school is currently involved with legal action after passing a requirement that "intelligent design theory" be taught in its biology classrooms and accepting a donation of 60 copies of the Intelligent Design textbook "Of Pandas and People". Flank notes that, despite repeated requests, no consistent standard has been put forth by the Dover School Board for "evaluating" the group's donation of 23 science books. Initially, the board president publicly stated that the donation needed to be reviewed to make sure that the books were not "advanced academically beyond anyone's comprehension". However, after Flank pointed out that the board seemed to be suggesting that its students were too dumb to read and understand a popular science book written for a general audience, Board President Harkins apparently changed her mind and told the newspapers that the planned review "has nothing to do with student comprehension". "Huh? We're confused", says Flank. "The standards seem to be changing from week to week." Most recently, school officials declared that the books will be evaluated on the basis of whether they are "academically appropriate". This newest criterion leads Flank to remark, "I'm somewhat puzzled how anyone could question whether or not a SCIENCE book is 'academically appropriate'. As far as I am aware, science is still being taught in high schools, isn't it?" Flank also noted that there seems to be no apparent legal or procedural reason for the board's curriculum committee to be involved with the donation in the first place. "The donation was made to the LIBRARY," Flank points out, "not as any classroom text or curriculum material." Despite repeated requests, Flank says, no board member has been willing or able to cite any written board policy or procedure which requires the curriculum committee to review or approve any donations that are made to the library without using any district funds. "It certainly sounds to me," Flank concludes, "as if the curriculum committee has its own private agenda, and wants to involve itself with our donation simply to protect that agenda." The curriculum committee, Flank notes, recently accepted a donation of the Intelligent Design textbooks "Of Pandas and People", and earlier, according to published reports, had complained that the district's biology textbooks were "laced with darwinism" and needed to be "balanced" with "creationism". In a March 20 email to Board President Sheila Harkins asking about the changing standards of review, Flank states; "Quite frankly, the impression I have gotten from you so far is that you simply don't like the books we have donated because they directly challenge your pet ID "theory", that you want your pet ID "theory" to be protected from criticism, that you are not at all interested in teaching ALL SIDES of the "controversy", and that you are simply fishing around for a half-convincing reason to reject the donated books. I hope that impression is wrong."

Saturday, March 19, 2005

And then again...

John Ray reports on something one of his correspondents said.

"The court record for Terrri Schiavo says she has "no cortical function" -this means that her brain waves show a flat electroencephalogram (EEG). A neurologist - a very trustworthy man - told me that this means that she has no cognitive function or awareness; The "following the balloon" test is meaningless - it can't be reliably reproduced; and even patients with only lower brain (brainstem) function do it sometimes. And such patients also show some reaction to sounds and touch. If this is true, there just isn't much to save. And Terri is NOT awake. And she is NOT going to "get better", as her parents have said. Terri's condition is NOT the same as the lady who "woke up" and "talked" after being in a coma for 20 years. The neurologist described this as a "locked in" syndrome. This is often the result of damage to the brainstem without "cortical" damage - this is caused by mechanical injury or stroke or bleeding. Terri, in contrsast, suffered "ischemic" damage - lack of flow of blood and oxygen to the brain - the cortex (thinking, consciousness, pain) is the first to be damaged - the most sensitive part of the brain to oxygen lack. The "locked in" patients may have normal brain function and be alert, as noted by EEG studies - which may demonstrate changes with stimulation and sleep patterns etc.. To the untrained eye, these two may look similar. Terri's condition is NOT the same as those who report "waking up" after years in a "coma". I believe a lot of well meaning people are sorely misinformed about Terri's condition".

Different River has a collection of articles that beg to differ.

It would be nice to hear from an independent neurologist. At this point, though, is there any authority both Michael and Terri's parents would agree on?

Terri Sciavo

(The link above is decidedly one-sided. But it's very hard to find a site that even attempts to present Michael Sciavo's side of the story.)

In 1990, Terri Schiavo had a heart attack, and suffered brain damage that has left her in an impaired state.

After that, the story begins to get muddy.

...continued in full post...

We may presume that malpractice occurred, since a malpractice award was paid. (Actually, two, it appears, in two different trials.)

The issue that has propeled this case to the front page is the decision to remove her feeding tube and allow her to die from lack of food and water. Her husband takes the position that she is in a persistent vegetative state, and it's best to let her go. Her parents and the rest of her family insist that she is functioning at a level higher than that of a vegetable, and is aware of and interacts with family members who come to visit her.

Her husband states that Terri once stated she wouldn't want to live the way she's living now. Her parents insist that she has never taken that position, and cite the fact that she's a devout Catholic.

Unfortunately, she never left anything in writing, so all we have is hearsay.

Question 1: When all we have is hearsay, and it's a literal life-or-death matter, what should our default position be?

Question 1.1: If our default position is to favor one option, what weight of evidence should it take to move us over to the other side?

One reason this is such a hot topic is that it provides a perfect excuse for people to insult each others religious beliefs. Two large and vocal groups of people are looking at the same situation, and arriving at the same conclusion: the other side is a bunch of extremist religious nutcases.

Back in September, 2001, I wrote an Essay called Schroedinger's Fetus. In it, I explored the notion that abortion is one of those topics that is controversial because it brings into public view religious beliefs and ideas that people, for the most part, keep private.

Terri Sciavo's case is another such topic.

In exploring whether Terri's life is worth preserving, we have to examine our own beliefs about how valuable human life is, whether this value is intrinsic or contingent on something, and at what point this value attaches. We have to confront these ideas in ourselves and in others.

A utilitarian position could hold that if a person is no longer productive, or has no chance of becoming productive in the foreseeable future, his or her life becomes valueless. Another position could be the absolutist position that bodily function must be maintained at all costs from the time the baby emerges from the womb (or the egg is fertilized) until the body fails irreversibly, and the life of a a brain-dead vegetable is just as valuable as yours or mine.

Unfortunately, as long as we have limited resources, we'll have to make choices. We don't have to abandon our grandparents on ice floes so the rest of the tribe can live, but there are still hard cases where preserving life takes enough resources to cost several lives.

But this is not one of those cases.

The resources to keep Terri Sciavo alive until she dies naturally of some other cause are available. There are people willing to pay for her care, and there are people willing to assume the role of caretaker. Arguing against this, her husband wants to hold her to his recollection of a directive he, and apparently no one else, heard her give.

The Wiccan Rede says, "if it harms none, do what you will". At first glance, starvation and dehydration are both harmful, and allowing Terri to die by these courses will cause her harm.

We could wander off into metaphysical Neverland by supposing that maybe it's more harmful to be suspended between life and death as Terri is, and that in the long run it's better to release her to whatever comes after life. The problem there is, at what point do we draw the line? More to the point, given that we're always going to have to draw a line, and it's always going to be a fuzzy line that slips back and forth as circumstances change, when a line shows any sign of sliding, in what direction do we push it?

Do we try to keep people alive as long as possible, or do we try to send them into the afterlife, whatever it may be, as long as possible? (By the way, I support capital punishment. For this discussion, I'm excluding murderers from consideration. I judge them to have forfeited their right to this sort of protection. We can argue over that topic some other day.)

There are some fallacies that have floated around in religious circles. These are often known as heresies, though that term has become unpopular as it's been used as an excuse to kill people.

One popular heresy has been that once a Christian is saved by grace, he is beyond the reach of the law, and need not obey it any more. He can freely sin.

Another practice, which I'm sure would have been found heretical at the time, and which, indeed, was probably a historical myth, was that of friars baptizing indiginous newborns in the New World and then immediately killing them. The theory here was that the baby's sould would immediately go to heaven before the parents and the rest of the tribe had a chance to corrupt it.

Now, why would these be heretical?

Indeed, why bother with life at all? After all, in five or ten billion years, we're all dead anyway. Whatever there is in the way of an afterlife will be as populated as it's going to get, at least from this chunk of space. Wouldn't it be better to send everyone to the loving arms of the Goddess right now and have done with it?

The reason antinoimianism is a heresy, and the reason you don't kill baptized babies and send them straight to heaven, and the reason you life your own life as well as you can, and indeed, the reason there's a universe with life in it at all comes down to two words.

"It Matters."

I can't prove it; it's an article of faith. Yet as a foundation it supports a great deal.

The universe exists, and we are in it, and we are capable of thinking these thoughs about it, because It Matters.

Human life is precious, and human thoughts and feelings are precious because It Matters.

In the case of Terri Sciavo, particularly since there seems to be plenty of doubt and good people on both sides can disagree, we should err on the side of caution, and preserving life. We can always take it later.

It matters.

Friday, March 18, 2005

The Volokh Hornet's Nest

Eugene Volokh has upended a hornets' nest with his recent comments on capital punishment. His thoughts on a recent execution in Iran seem to echo those of Larry Niven. In a short story, an extraterrestrial, told that we have laws against cruel and unusual punishment, asks, "what do you do about cruel and unusual crimes?"

And we do have to look at the deterrence effect. At one point, discussing Hitler's hanging of those who were involved in his attempted assassination with piano wire,

Had things been reversed, my regret would have been that hanging with piano wire didn't inflict enough pain on Hitler (though I would have been glad that he hadn't been turned over to a too-"civilized" government that would have dispatched him with less pain).

And the deterrent effect works in many ways, and on many levels. I recently saw (again) an episode of Columbo in which the detective was able to determine who committed a pair of murders. Unfortunately, the murderer had diplomatic immunity. Fortunately, Columbo was able to arrange things so the king of this foreign country was present to overhear the murderer's confession.

The murderer decided that waiving diplomatic immunity and submitting to American justice was far preferable to what he was likely to receive back home.

A fictitious case where deterrence worked has countless parallels in real life. Who knows how many plea bargains are made because a defendant doesn't want to risk drawing the ultimate penalty?

To those who insist that criminals are not sufficiently focused in the future to be deterred by threats of capital punishment, I can only say, tell that to the criminal organizations. They use that same threat to enforce order within their own ranks.

The "F-word"

A few years ago, a friend of mine wrote a "The F-Word", a song decrying how the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy had managed to turn "feminism" into a dirty word.

John Ray links to a post on the website of Ladies Against Feminism where they respond to a complaint that they've tarred feminism with a broad brush. In response to an accusation that, can you say that feminists basically look down on women who are housewives? I have never in my research, schooling, etc. heard such a ridiculous comment and criticism of feminism.

they cite examples from feminist writings:

This view of the woman at home as some poor slave "reduced to servitude" and "a mere instrument for the production of children" is echoed over and over again in the writings of feminists who are now enshrined as patron saints of the women's movement. Let's allow them to speak for themselves:
  • [The] housewife is a nobody, and [housework] is a dead-end job.
  • Housewives [are] an endless array of 'horse-leech's' daughters, crying Give! Give!
  • A parasite sucking out the living strength of another organism
  • [Housewives] are mindless and thing-hungry...not people.
  • [Housewives] are dependent creatures who are still children...parasites.
  • ...his wife, [whose] horizons are inevitably limited by her relegation to domestic duties. [This] programs her for mediocrity and dulls her brain...
  • Domesticity was not a satisfactory story of an intelligent woman's life.
  • Being a housewife is an illegitimate profession
  • [As long as the woman] is the primary caretaker of childhood, she is prevented from being a free human being.
  • No woman should be authorized to stay at home and raise her children.

No, obviously Ladies Against Feminism didn't do their research.

Ten reasons not to fix Social Security

Summary here, read the whole thing.

  1. I Hate Poor People. Any savings plan – any, every, all, each – provide more return on investment.
  2. I Hate My Family.
  3. I Fear Change.
  4. FDR Is God.
  5. It’s hate speech to say the truth, that SS isn’t about your retirement, but a general tax to redistribute money to others – and then tax it again as Seniors’ income.
  6. Government Is My Plantation.
  7. I Fear Math.
  8. Generations X and Y Suck.
  9. I Hate Bush and the Republicans.
  10. I Hate America.

Ponzi's Scheme

The other day (Tuesday, actually, while I was out in the field), Dennis Prager was interviewing the author of Ponzi's Scheme.

The book focuses on the story of Charles Ponzi, the person after whom the notoriuous scheme is named.

It turns out, he's a very complex character. Those who know him only from the scheme that bears his name will find a fascinating story in and around the man's life.

Dennis explored several aspects of Ponzi's life from the perspective of a "moral bank account", an idea that's had a fair amount of influence on my thinking. If the scheme had been the only thing Ponzi had effected in his life, his name would deserve the stains it carries. However, he did other things as well, and even in the context of this scheme, there are mitigating factors.

...continued in full post...

Ponzi had come up with an idea for making money. It was basically a form of currency trading.

He realized that it was possible to buy international reply coupons (IRCs) in one country at one price, and sell them in another country at another price. Postage prices in different coutries hadn't caught up with actual costs in all cases. The problem was, he needed seed money.

Because of his past history, he had no credit, and no bank would loan him money. Especially since he wouldn't tell them what he intended to do with it, for fear they'd steal his idea.

He eventually went public, setting up an office and hanging out a shingle. His office, named, interestingly enough, the "Securities and Exchange Company", offered a 50% return on investment in three months' time.

People invested.

He was able to pay them back. However, since he kept running into trouble with the logistics trading IRCs, he paid his investors back with money from later investors. As long as he had more investors coming in, or letting their money ride, than collecting, he could keep his investors happy. All the time, as near as can be determined, he kept trying to get the logistics to work out.

Was this an intentional fraud? Probably not.

For one thing, about the time his company started raking in the dough, at the rate of $1 million per day, he started being treated for ulcers. For another, there was at least one occasion when he was walking around with an ocean cruise ticket in one pocket, and a draft in the other for enough money to buy that ocean liner outright.

He could have cut and run, and no one would have stopped him. He was recently married, and an overseas honeymoon would have not been suspicious.

All evidence shows he wanted to make this investment work.

Eventually, a determined newspaper editor started digging, and uncovered a past forged check, investors lost confidence, and the Securities and Exchange Company collapsed. Charles Ponzi served nearly a decade in prison, was deported to Italy, and eventually died in poverty.

Although his wife divorced him, she didn't re-marry until after he died, and kept up an amorous correspondence with him until he died.

Perhaps also due to Dennis Prager's influence, I put a lot of weight in those things people do that they don't have to. Before the Securites and Exchange Company, Ponzi worked a number of odd jobs, including a male nurse at a mining company. While he was at the mining company, a female nurse, with whom he was not involved in any way, was burned in a kerosene explosion. She needed skin grafts in order to live.

The camp's doctor was talking with him one evening, lamenting the fact that this poor woman was going to die, because no one was willing to donate skin, and Ponzi said, "take as much as you need."

"As much as you need" turned out to involve large patches from his back and thighs. He spent weeks in the hospital recovering, and would be scarred, and have to treat his scars to prevent infection, for the rest of his life.

The nurse was, needless to say, quite grateful, and the whole town voted Ponzi a heroism award, which he certainly deserved. Under the "moral bank account" model, one could argue that this one act is enough to offset the harm he caused with the Securities and Exchange Company. It certainly offset a good portion of it.

It was also completely optional. Everyone else in the camp had refused to donate skin. Ponzi could have declined, and it would have been – quite literally – no skin off his nose.

(Oh, come on. Don't tell me you expected me to resist that pun...

Education today

After an anonymous donor gave 60 copies of "Of Pandas and People" to Dover High School in York County, Northern Virginia, the members of the Debunk Creation mail list decided to band together and donate some books to the school library.

Donated books: The proposed donation includes titles such as "What Evolution Is," by biologist Ernst Mayr, "Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics," by Robert Pennock and "Finding Darwin's God," by biologist Kenneth R. Miller.

As it happens, the school board is reviewing the donation.

Board president Sheila Harkins said the board's curriculum committee will review this donation the same as it did the "Pandas" donation. She said the committee doesn't have set criteria that it looks for acceptable books, but it will make sure they are not "advanced academically beyond anyone's comprehension."

Well, "Pandas" was intended as a supplementary text, and was written by someone who may or may not have had an axe to grind. (I'll offer no judgment here.) The books that were donated by Debunk Creation are all books intended for the general public. They're written for interested laymen who are not expected to have a background in science.

I'm wondering. Is the school board admitting that the average high school student – or even the majority of their high school students – are unable to comprehend books written for the general public?

If so, the creation/evolution/ID/IOT "controversy" is the least of their concerns.

Thursday, March 17, 2005


Kimberly Swygert offers a series on sadistics statistics and experimental methodology on her blog, Number 2 Pencil

It's a good introduction to the subject.

Missing the point on security

Bruce Schneier looks at a system that looks for radiation at our ports.

...since the first such devices were installed in May 2000, they had picked up over 10,000 radiation hits in vehicles or cargo shipments entering the country. All proved harmless.
It amazes me that 10,000 false alarms – instances where the security system failed – are being touted as proof that the system is working.


Someone get the US Customs Commissioner a copy of "The Boy who Cried Wolf".

Top o' the day to you!

I didn't think of it in time to bring any to work, but...

Some time ago, I spotted some neat candy. It's basically large jelly beans, colored to look very convincingly like smooth pebbles. It occurs to me they're the perfect candy for today.

They're sham rocks.

No sense zone

Brian Nichols, the man arrested in a deadly Atlanta courthouse rampage, was on his way to the courtroom at the time without handcuffs or leg irons because of a long string of legal rulings against letting a jury see a defendant in shackles.

I wonder which of the judges making such rulings would have been willing to escort him, unshackled, from his cell to the court room.

The plan to save social security

They've come up with a plan to save Social Security.

Within 50 years, if the trend is not reversed, obesity will cut the average life span by at least two to five years, which would exceed the effects of all cancers, the researchers estimated. That could overtake all gains from healthier lifestyles and medical advances and cause longevity to plateau or perhaps decline, they projected.

Shorter life spans means fewer benefits paid out. Problem solved.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Happy St. Patty's Day!

Here's to the Irish!

They may not know what they want, but by God, they're willing to fight for it!

— Traditional toast

For the record, the traditional toasts for three other peoples of the British Isles are:

Here's to the British, a nation of self-made men, thereby relieving the Almighty of a dreadful responsibility.

Here's to the Scots. They kept the faith, and everything else they laid hands upon!

Here's to the Welsh. We don't mean to call them names, we just can't pronounce the ones they've got.

A sick idea...

Springtime for Cthulhu and Azathoth, R'lyeh is happy and gay We're slith'ring to a faster pace Look out, here comes the Master Race...

Thirteen weird things

A list of thirteen weird things science has yet to account for.

Any one of them has the potential to rewrite the science books.

When everyone's a felon...

First zero sense tolerance policies, now Glenn Reynolds on the proliferation of felonies on the books. When everyone's a felon, what does being a felon mean, anyway?

Felonies were once a fairly rare class of crime, a class that generally carried capital punishment as a more-than-theoretical possibility. A felon was, by virtue of his heinous acts, an outcast from society. Even if permitted to live, he was expected to bear the mark of his iniquity for life, in the form of lost civil rights like the right to vote and the right to bear arms. <snip> But felonies aren't so few anymore. New felonies are being created all the time, often for activity that seems, morally, not terribly awful. The currency of felony has been inflated, and has thus, inevitably, lost value.

In today's schools, if your child hasn't violated a zero tolerance policy, it's because no one has been paying attention. If you haven't committed a felony, it's because no one took official notice.

Prof. Reynolds proposes some fixes, the last of which is:

I also think that empowering juries to reject prosecutions that seem unfair would help.

Hmmm... Maybe if we insist on keeping judicial review around, let's give it to the juries.

Reviewing judicial review

This has come up before, and Ben Shapiro brings it up again.

There is no provision in the Constitution for judicial review. The Constitution does not grant the courts the authority to declare laws unconstitutional and remove them from the books. The Constitution gives the Courts authority over cases and over controversies, but not over laws. That authority was assumed in the case of Marbury v. Madison, and has remained in effect as a precedent ever since.

However, there is nothing that prevents Congress from passing a bill that would do away with judicial review.

Right now, Democrats are yammering about the "nuclear option" – if Republicans vote to remove the Democrats' ability to block an up-or-down vote on judicial confirmations, the Democrats will go nuclear and bring Congress to a screeching halt. However, compared to that, ending judicial review must be an ehnanced antimatter sun-killer bomb.

Bad pedagogy

Walter Williams offers his take on Dr. Larry Summers' plight.

Summers, President of Harvard University, is under attack for his suggestions on why there might be fewer women in the sciences.

Dr. Summers' second hypothesis is that there are sex differences in IQ and aptitude at the high end...

MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins' response to this hypothesis was to leave the lecture...

explaining to a Boston Globe (Jan. 17, 2005) reporter that, "I would've either blacked out or thrown up."

...continued in full post...

This, by the way, serves to validate Dr Summers' first hypothesis – that women simply aren't willing to put up with the stressful environments and demanding jobs that men are.

But is the IQ hypothesis the "junk science" Hopkins calls it?

Virtually all academic literature on sex, IQ and aptitude reach the conclusion that there are differences between men and women. While the mean intelligence between men and women is similar, the variance differs significantly. Women cluster more about the mean while men are more spread out. That means fewer women, relative to men, are at both the low end and the high end of the intelligence and aptitude spectrum. That might partially explain why so many men are in jail compared to women, and why more geniuses like Mozart and Einstein are men.

While scholars debate nature vs. nurture, the fact remains, the difference exists, and it's one we ignore at our peril. When we ignored physical differences between men and women, four people in Atlanta died at the hands of a rapist.

As Balint Vaszoni points out, the term "politically correct" was coined in distinction to "factually correct". Things that are the first are generally not the second.

And Williams' parting shot?

Dr. Summers has responded to the criticism created by his NBER remarks with serial mea culpas, groveling and apologies. He's in deep trouble. Faculty members don't differ that much from chickens in a barnyard. The sight of the boss chicken bleeding is all that's needed for the vicious pecking to commence. If there's a legitimate criticism that can be made about Dr. Summers' NBER comments, it's that he didn't exercise discretion. There are certain things best left unsaid in front of children. Children have little understanding and can be easily offended by unvarnished truths.

SAT happens

The new, improved SAT exam has arrived. The test takes longer, includes an essay-writing section, and "enhanced" math. It also makes even more money for people who offer to prepare students to take the exam – up to $310 million per year.

And those who have objected to the test continue to do so.

Its designers have claimed it meet the objections to the old test: that it was basically flawed, unfair to poorer students and overly relied upon by universities that have found it a convenient way to thin out applicants. But is that claim of improvement accurate for the new version? The same objections persist and those making them – including major test-preparation companies like the Princeton Review – contend the exam remains unhealthy in many respects.

...continued in full post...

And of course, there's the objection that the SAT may not measure what it purports to measure.

The Princeton Review people have contended forever that the SAT can be manipulated by those who know how to take it. In other words, it isn't knowledge that is being measured but student test-taking ability.

Although its designers claim the SAT is immune to the use of tricks designed to boost scores, people continue to use them.

More threatening to the College Board, which owns the SAT, is that those taking it are beginning to regard it as more a game played on the way to a college education than a serious predictor of the ability to do college work.

"More a game"... When I was preparing for the GRE, back in 1981, I found a book, titled How to Beat the SAT and Other Standardized Tests. It looked at the whole testing process from the viewpoint of game theory. Game theory is the branch of mathematics in which you have two parties with conflicting goals, and a set of strategies that can affect the pay-offs for both sides.

In the SAT (and GRE) "game", the pay-off is the numerical score from the test. The test-taker wants to obtain the highest possible score, and the test designer wants to keep the test-taker from obtaining a high score without knowing the answers to the test questions.

My high-school physics teacher used a random number generator to generate the answer keys for his tests. He then arranged the choices on his multiple-choice questions to match the numbers that came up. The designers of the SAT and GRE don't do this.

They design tests based on assumptions about how test-takers will behave when they don't know the answers to questions. Among other things, this leads to deviations from randomly assigned answers, and these can be detected using statistical analysis.

For one thing, people who don't know the answer to a question, and are just marking a guess, tend to mark one of the end choices, or dead center. In a five-item choice, they will pick "A", "C", or "E". Sure enough, those letters turn out to be the right answer significantly less often than chance would allow.

People who don't know the answers in a block of questions will tend to mark the same answer in successive questions. Since test designers know this, they will tend to break up runs of the same letter being the right answer. And again, a statistical analysis shows that the same letter is less likely to be the right answer twice in a row than chance would allow – far less likely to be right three times in a row.

There were a number of other techniques, some formal, others informal. (In the same sense of formal and informal logic, described here.)

Did they work? I can't say with absolute certainty, but I took the SAT in 1977, and got a combined score of 1350. After going through college and getting a B.S. in physics, I took the GRE in 1981 and got a combined score of 1450. The GRE is supposed to be tougher than the SAT, but a physics curriculum can't help but build up your math skills.

My verbal score on the SAT put me in the 99th percentile, and my math score put me in the 98th percentile; on the GRE, my scores were in (if I recall correctly) 96th percentile and 99th percentile, respectively.

So the answer is, how the hell should I know? At least it doesn't seem to have hurt.

(And it could have. A test preparation method that was a total waste of time could have taken time away from stuff that worked, even if it were only resting up beforehand.)

Security by Clouseau – ChoicePoint

Bruce Schneier throws in his two thousand quatloos worth on the ChoicePoint fiasco. Among other things:

The upshot of this is that ChoicePoint doesn't bear the costs of identity theft, so ChoicePoint doesn't take those costs into account when figuring out how much money to spend on data security. In economic terms, it's an "externality." The point of regulation is to make externalities internal. SB 1386 did that to some extent, since ChoicePoint now must figure the cost of public humiliation when they decide how much money to spend on security. But the actual cost of ChoicePoint's security failure is much, much greater. Until ChoicePoint feels those costs – whether through regulation or liability – it has no economic incentive to reduce them. Capitalism works, not through corporate charity, but through the free market. I see no other way of solving the problem.

One of the reasons I don't agree with the agorist wing of the Libertarian party (the wing that would turn absolutely everything over to the Greek marketplace) is that mechanisms that internalize externalities need to be enforced. In most cases, the marketplace will work, once a consensus has been established, but if it breaks down, the government can at least serve as a court of last resort.

Private courts, private arbitration services, private negotiation services, "justice management organizations", and other free market devices are fine, but they work better when the law requires parties in a dispute to use one of these, and if none of them can agree on one, fall back on the government default.

And the beauty of that sort of system is that the government institution need not be perfect, or even very good. If it is, great. If not, then it can be used as a threat, in the event the parties in a dispute refuse to agree on a third party to settle their differences.


I've been looking around the website for the Polaris Institute.

Its main thrust seems to be opposition to large corporations, especially those that operate in more than one country.

I bet if they offered a rating for congress-critters, it would correlate nicely with the ADA ranking.

It's the water

(Hat tip: news e-mail)

The Polaris Institute (who?) weighs in with a book on bottled water.

Inside the Bottle provides a vivid and disturbing portrayal of how four big companies Nestlé, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Danone --- dominate the bottled water industry today. It examines key issues of public concern about their operations, including how they:
  • pay little or next to nothing for the water they take from rural springs or public water systems;
  • turn ‘water’ into ‘water’ through elaborate treatment processes; produce a product that is not necessarily safer than, nor as regulated as, tap water;
  • package it in plastic bottles made of toxic chemicals that are environmentally destructive;
  • market it to an unsuspecting public as ‘pure, healthy, safe drinking water.’
  • sell it at prices that are hundreds and even thousands of times more costly than ordinary tap water.

I confess to a mild irritation at the number of people who will announce, "I never drink the tap water," or "Ewww! City water!" and suck down gallons of water from a bottle. The fact is, with very few exceptions, municipal water is regulated more tightly than bottled water is. Although the big companies clean their water to a fare-thee-well with reverse-osmosis and put in their own blend of minerals for flavor, a company can take tap water, heat treat it to sterilize it, bottle it. If you're buying bottled water for any reason other than taste and convenience, you're wasting your money.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Wall Street Journal has a review of the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft's shadow looms over modern horror fiction the way the shadows of decrepit churches and mutant trees – and the occasional eidolon loomed over the characters in his novels.

As with so much genre fiction, Lovecraft's oeuvre isn't for everyone. Some people just can't see past the wooden characters, overwrought prose, and fantastic speculations about the nature of the universe. The dialogue occasionally descends into Howard Dean-like howls of "Eh-ya-ya-ya-yahaah!" Edmund Wilson once quipped that the only horror in Lovecraft's corpus was the author's "bad taste and bad art." Yet it is difficult to deny his enormous importance in a field of literature whose roots stretch back to the Gothic novels of Anne Radcliffe, the prescient nightmares of Mary Shelley, and the macabre mind of Edgar Allan Poe. Even the most respectable authors have taken advantage of the conventions these writers created and refined. "The Turn of the Screw" by Henry James, after all, is a pretty good ghost story.

And indeed, Lovecraft's work has spawned (if I may use the word) any number of books, movies, TV shows, and even the odd (!) role-playing game.

There's something about being scared, and when Lovecraft was good, he was pretty darn good.

Yet Lovecraft's circle seems ready for ever more widening. On the Internet, it's possible to take a virtual tour of Lovecraft sites in his hometown of Providence, R.I., or to shop for a Cthulhu plush toy. You can also buy a bumper sticker: "Cthulhu for President--Don't settle for the lesser evil." Lovecraft almost never wrote a happy ending and he certainly isn't known for his sense of humor, but perhaps by now even he would appreciate that it's nice to have the last laugh.

And it seems when he's bad, he's even better.

Compressed arguments

In a couple of Heinlein's stories, he posits a technology based on "semantic loading". In effect, by choosing words with care, you can slant the story you present at a level below the reader's conscious threshold. In Methuselah's Children, it's been quantified, and news articles are not allowed to use words with a semantic loading greater than 2.0.

I'm not sure if anyone will ever be able to quantify examples like this, though:

I should probably take more time to point out how important the names and labels we choose are. Names are compressed arguments, they're ways of saying that the emotional associations we tie to item X should also be tied to person or object Y. And that's why I find this headline so entertaining: "Judge Delays Trial of Student Accused of Plot to Kill Bush" Get it? He's not the "suspect." He's not an "accused member of al Queda." No, no. He's a "student who's been accused." And if you can't tell what the Times thinks of the government's case from that headline, well, you're just not keeping score.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Unintended consequences

Orin Kerr asks whether new technology will lead to more crimes being solved.

(Maybe a better question is, will it lead to more crimes being solved correctly?)

Penn lawprof Paul Robinson, one of the best crimlaw professors in the country, has a very short essay up on SSRN entitled Criminal Justice in the Information Age: A Punishment Theory Paradox. The essay is a thought experiment about a possible future of criminal law, in which "most crimes are solved and most perpetrators caught and punished." Robinson doesn't claim that the future will look this way, only that it might... I don't think that's right, though. Technology almost never works in a straight line like that. For every technology that makes it easier for the police to catch criminals, there are countertechnologies that make it harder for police to catch them. As DNA testing becomes more common, defendants will learn to control the DNA they leave at crime scenes – intentionally leaving the DNA of others behind, for example...

Hmmmm... GATTACA, anyone?

I was leafing through an old Science magazine and saw an article showing that bite mark evidence is nowhere near as conclusive as it had been presented. At least one person, convicted on the basis of bite-mark comparisons, has been freed because someone else's DNA was in the bite mark.

And if the person who uses your password or your fingerprint to gain access to a computer is presumed to be you, how do you deal with password thieves or tricks that allow people to fake fingerprints?

Maybe people who object to pervasive changes in law enforcement techniques aren't all people trying to hide their criminal activities after all. Maybe there are legitimate concerns.

Some scientific vocabulary

A comment left to a previous post runs,

People who bewail the assault on teaching evolution yet enthuse the teaching of Gaia amuse me.

As stated, it's certainly an inconsistent approach. However, another reader mentioned another possible interpretation. This might be the result of ongoing confusion between the gaia hypothesis and the Greek goddess Gaia.

Science has a habit of co-opting word and phrases for its own technical meanings. Take, for example, "mitochondrial Eve".

The mitochondria in our cells have their own DNA, which is independent of the DNA in our cell nuclei. Furthermore, mitochondria are inherited only from the female parent. There's just no room for any in the sperm cells.

Using statistical methods, we can work out how far in the past the common ancestor of all the human mitochondria on this planet must have lived. I won't go in to these methods, but they exist, and are pretty well accepted.

Calling this hypothetical ancestor "Eve" proved an irresistable temptation. This does not mean she was actually named "Eve" (Or "Havah"), or that she had children from someone named Adam, or that one of her sons killed the other and was banished to wander in lands to the east, or...

It doesn't even mean she was the first human, or the only human female living at the time. The world's human population could have been as large then as it is now, and there would still have been only one woman whose line survived to this day. And if you did this test again a thousand years from now, one of her descendents would be the mitochonrial Eve, as the lines descended from the other descendents would have died out in the mean time.

This is a sort of "poker hand" result. If I deal you a poker hand, you will get only one of 2,598,960 possible hands. But that's the case which ever hand you actually got. Of whatever number of women that were living at the time of our mitochonrdrial Eve, one of them was going to be the winner of the lottery, and be our mitochondrial Eve. There's no reason to believe that one is in any special.

And there's no reason to believe there's any relation between the mitochondrial Eve and the biblical one.

The casual use of the term "design" has been decried in discussions of biology and evolution. The problem is, it's far less awkward than more precise descriptions of what biologists mean when they use the term. The fact that the fallacy of amphiboly can be applied to it is not necessarily a reason to stop using the word.

And when Lovelock came up with the Gaia hypothesis, I don't think he was seriously advocating there was an intelligence looking over the planet and keeping it in balance. He was proposing that living systems react to changes in such a way as to mitigate their effects.

It's not too far-fetched to suppose this is one more trait that would be selected for in evolution. Just as symbiotes will co-evolve, developing traits that make themselves better suited for life with each other, so whole systems might evolve traits that allow them to resist the impact of change in the environment.

Gaia need not be a Greek Goddess, mitochondrial Eve did not necessarily give birth to a mitochondrial Cain and Abel, calling something a design doesn't mean there had to be a designer, and calling something a scientific law doesn't mean there had to be a scientific legislature.

Explaining the universe

Charles H. Townes is a 1964 Nobel laureate and inventor of the laser. He won the 2005 Templeton prize for his study of the relation between science and religion.

Here, he makes the point that both religion and science are attempts to learn how the universe works, and what meaning it may have.

As a scientist, I have been primarily trying to understand our world--the universe, including humans--what it is and how it works. As a religiously oriented person, I also try to understand the purpose of our universe and human life, a primary concern of religion. Of course, if the universe has a purpose, then its structure, and how it works, must reflect this purpose. This obvious relation brings science and religion together, and I believe the two are much closer and more similar in nature than is usually recognized.

We assume there is a meaning to life, the univese, and everything. Furthermore, we assume there is a meaning over and above the fact that life, the universe, and everything exist. Yet can we be sure? Science really doesn't seem to touch that ultimate question.

We all recognize that science has produced remarkable results. It allows us to do so many things and to think we already understand so much. Science is indeed wonderful, and yet there are still mysteries, puzzles and inconsistencies. We are now convinced that the matter we can identify in our universe is only about 5% of all that is there. What is the rest of it? Scientists are trying hard to detect this strange unknown matter. Will they, and when? Relativity and quantum mechanics have been remarkably successful, and we believe they explain and teach us many things. And yet, in certain ways they seem logically inconsistent. At present, we simply accept such inconsistencies and use these two fields of science with pride and pleasure.

We know the universe behaves as if there is some sort of unknown matter scattered about. We know it behaves as if both relativity and quantum mechanics are true, even though in certain extreme cases, they can't possibly both be true.

Quantum mechanics and classical mechanics are philosophically very different, and the behavior of atoms and molecules can only be understood by this radically different quantum mechanics. But quantum mechanics must and does also apply to larger objects such as planets, balls, or our own motions. Classical mechanics was in principle quite wrong. But, it was a good approximation, explaining very accurately the motions of everything much larger than atoms, such as planets, balls, or ourselves. We still teach and use classical mechanics. It's a very good approximation to reality and much simpler to understand than quantum mechanics, even though philosophically incorrect.

In the intersection between new physics and classical physics, we've been able to fall back on the "correspondence principle". Quantum mechanics or relativity have to yield the same results classical physics does in the systems where classical physics has been successful in the past. And in fact, if you calculate the acceleration on your car classically and relativistically, you get the same answer, well within any ability you have to measure it.

Some day, though, we may well be able to look at real examples where quantum mechanics and relativity interact. At that point, we'll have to see what is forced to correspond with what. When this happens, we may wind up having to modify our view of one or both theories.

As we understand more, will our views in science and also in religion be revolutionized as science already has been by quantum mechanics? My guess is yes. We must be open-minded and without completely frozen ideas in either science or religion. But even with future changes, I also guess that, like classical mechanics, our present understanding may be a good and useful approximation even though new and deeper views may be revolutionary.

Part of the conflict between religion and science results from the fact that religion has been unwilling to modify its views. If the facts point to, for example, evolution, and religion says otherwise, well then, too bad for the facts.

Both science and religion have involved a search for invariant principles. Over time, science has had to change its mind about which principles really are invariant. Religion may be dragged, kicking and screaming, into doing the same.

Another victim of a bad theory

Here's a scenario for you:

A woman with lung cancer visits a faith healer.

Invited up on stage, she receives a "healing".

Believing herself healed, she stops taking her medication.

Soon thereafter, she dies.

In the mean time, she gave hundreds of dollars in donations to the faith healer's organization.

She acted on the theory that faith healing would be effective, and discontinued other forms of treatment. Now, lung cancer is the sort of disease that would probably have killed her sooner or later, but with the right kind of treatment, the difference between "sooner" and "later" can be significant.

This woman spent hundreds of dollars for a shortened life span, because she believed a bad theory.

In the linked article, Kyle Williams writes about the damage this person does to Christianity, as well.

Benny Hinn holds his "crusades" all over the world, collecting huge sums of money from people for his blessings and healings. His earnings, according to an interview with CNN, are between $500,000 and $1 million per year. He has a private jet, expensive cars, and a multi-million dollar home in Southern California.

Does he believe his "healings" are effective? When they fail, he chalks it up to a lack of faith. This could be a sincere belief, or it could be a con-man's way of deflecting blame back onto the victim. Who knows for sure?

Williams describes as "heresy" the notion that "all our problems are founded in lack of faith."

Belief may be subjective, but heresy is objective. A belief is either heretical or not. If it's not heretical, it can't reflect well on Christianity. It encourages the theory that Christianity encourages its followers to reject science and medicine, and rely solely on faith.

On the other hand, if it is heretical, continued silence on the part of Christian spokesmen doesn't reflect well either. That encourages the theory that Christian spokesmen don't care what people say in its name, or how much money they rake in by saying it.

Those who believe Christianity is a force for good should object to the impact this has on its reputation.

Of course, that's only my theory about other people's belief.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

The problem with "teaching the controversy"

So what's wrong with bringing up the "controversy?" Why not introduce other points of view, or present the other side(s) of the story?

Indeed, Kaplinsky notes that creationism is on the decline, and is in retreat everywhere. Its apparent popularity is due to aggressive promotion efforts by a small group of backers.

Well, for one thing, those backers are aggressive. The decline of creationism and ID/IOT pseudoscience is the result of equally aggressive work by advocates of real science. But even more broadly...

t is useful to understand that the most active promoters of creationism are Christian fundamentalists. But that should not blind us to the wider social conditions that are susceptible to sympathising with them. If the threat of fundamentalism is overestimated, the threat of labelling science as 'a theory, not a fact' may be underestimated. <snip>

...continued in full post...

The criticism that evolution is 'just a theory' is an old creationist canard. But today it has acquired a new resonance. The criticism that evolution is just a theory is meant to key into the everyday association of 'theory' with speculation. But when science is dismissed today it is likely to be replaced by an eccentric personal prejudice. Whether that happens to be an old-style religion or a new-style diet fad is less important than today's unprecedented elevation of conspiracy theory and rumour-mongering over expert knowledge. Liberals who bemoan influence of Christian fundamentalism often point to the popularity of the Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. But at least as indicative of today's climate is the runaway success of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, whose plot is premised on a 2000-year cover up by the Catholic Church of Christ's true message, designed to repress women and the free expression of sexuality. <snip> It is suspicion of all groups who claim authority rather than excessive respect for religion that drives hostility to science. As Thomas Frank perceptively points out in his book What's the Matter with America?, 'The real subject of the conservative anti-evolution literature is the "experts" on the other side of the battlefield and, more important, their expertise. "Should we 'leave it to the experts?'' asks the Kansas Tornado. Obviously we should not.' <snip> Frank draws attention to the way that the Republicans have associated themselves with the politics of anti-elitism. But he misses the way that the theme of anti-intellectualism on the American right has drawn vigour from the critique of expertise developed since the 1960s by their opponents in the culture wars. It was radicals who pioneered the idea that children should educate the teachers, that doctors were no more expert than their patients, and that claims to expertise generally were little more than an excuse to assert power by marginalising the voice of the victim. In this picture scientists are not disinterested investigators of the truth so much as spin doctors for their paymasters in business or government. It is the coming together of these two strands from left and right that represents the real danger for science.

And indeed, one of the major themes in Starhawk's book, Dreaming the Dark is that of "power with" instead of "power over".

Another reason for the popularity of creationism is bad teaching.

One creationist, writing to the Columbus Dispatch during the 2004 controversy in Ohio, showed that he had mastered the jargon of contemporary dumbing down: 'if Ohio's economy is going to be the thinking economy of the future, it is imperative that critical thinking skills are a fundamental part of the overall skills that must be taught to our children.' Opponents of creationism are likely to reply that to accept intelligent design means to be very uncritical indeed. But that is to miss the point. 'Critical thinking skills' are part of the emptying-out of education that makes room for creationism. 'Critical thinking skills' are now an accepted part of the curriculum, yet in practice the term is used to dignify rather ordinary exercises. Critical thinking may be the outcome of a good education. But because critical thinking requires the thinker to be become independent, it is not something that can be taught as part of a curriculum. It certainly cannot be reduced to a 'skill'.

Indeed, it seems the effect of teaching "critical teaching skills" is to make students critical of thinking. To be sure, the last thing many teachers, and any administrators want is students who actually think critically. They might turn their skills back on the school itself.

Creationism and intelligent design are symptoms of bad education and bad thinking, but are dangerous because they encourage more bad education and bad thinking. Attacking both at the root are useful.

What's with "teaching the controversy"?

(Hat tip: Abnormal Interests.)

Joe Kapinsky writes in Spiked Online about the compromising of science.

The attacks on evolution have come from the Christian community, but it's a leftist ideal that has allowed the attacks to take place at all. The ideal is that of multiculturalism...

...continued in full post...

Intelligent design was shaped not by the social polarisation of the 1920s, but by multiculturalism. It no longer explicitly argued for the truth of the Christian world view but rather for intelligent design to be taught alongside evolution and for State neutrality between Christianity and evolution. Whatever their private beliefs, the public arguments of intelligent design advocates are based firmly on pluralism, not Christian revelation. This is illustrated by looking at the broader framework in which creationism now struggles to make its case. In her book The Language Police, Diane Ravitch details the censorship of school materials, in particular textbooks by 'bias and sensitivity' panels (8). Her detailed study was inspired by her experience on the national assessment governing board, which was responsible for national school tests introduced by President Clinton in 1997. It reveals an interesting picture. It is true that Christian fundamentalism has had a big impact on the use of language and, for example, acceptable depictions of family life. But more important is the framework that has been developed to justify the censorship system. This system is a product, if not exactly of the left, of the multicultural-feminist mainstream that is not often associated with the Christian right. References to dinosaurs are eliminated from school texts not because they offend against the truth of the Bible, but rather in the same way that owls are eliminated on the basis that they may upset Navajo children in whose culture owls are taboo. According to bias guidelines collected by Ravitch, all religions are to be treated equally: 'no religious practice or belief is characterised as strange or peculiar, or sophisticated or primitive.' Other guidelines ban the use of words 'heathen' and 'pagan', while reserving the use of the term 'myth' to refer to ancient Greek or Roman stories. The Educational Testing Service, meanwhile, treats as 'ethnocentric' any test that focuses exclusively on 'Judeo-Christian' contributions to literature of art.

The impulse that allows for the teaching of creationism, as well as for re-structuring the curriculum to accommodate various fads, is one that, instead of asking "what is true", asks "what is equitable?"

This, for example, is why we had "equal time" laws passed which mandated the teaching of "creation science" any time evolution was taught. It was an appeal to equitiblity as an approximation for fairness.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Let's hear it for Dr. Laura!

On Dr. Laura Schlessinger's radio show this hour, a woman called in with a little problem. Her daughter is a Wiccan, and doesn't want her discussing religion or telling Bible stories to her grand daughter. Indeed, the caller had recently been chewed out for telling the story of Moses to her grand daughter.

Dr. Laura told the woman that she didn't have the right to push her religious teachings into her daughter's family, and that if she didn't respect her daughter's wishes, she could wind up not seeing her grand daughter at all.

Her advice: shut up about it. Refer any questions the grand daughter asks back to her mom. Be a good example.

Yup. I agree. And not just because I share the daughter's religion.

As long as a person, even a relative isn't bringing her child up in something evil (and granted, you may need another person's perspective to know what is or what is not evil), people have the right to raise their kids as they see fit. We may not like their choices, but we have to think carefully about whether any given choice is really awful enough to justify taking away someone else's freedom of choice.

Letting people follow a course you don't think is the best course, or one you don't really like, isn't easy. But it is the grown-up thing to do. I've written about this before – it's called tolerance. Many people don't really understand what tolerance is really about.

Anyway, there are many in the Pagan community who are vigilent and ready to pounce any time Dr. Laura says anything bad about Pagans or Paganism. She deserves credit for taking the right stand, especially when she doesn't like it.