Friday, April 29, 2005

Apology to Wistar Institute

I have decided I owe the Wistar Institute an apology.

After checking out the prevenance of the article Norm Weatherby cites, I find it traces back to a symposium hosted by the Wistar Institute. The symposium was recorded and subsequently transcribed, and the transcript published in book form.

This book is then quoted in various creationist, ID-IOT and anti-science web pages. Furthermore, it is selectively quoted. We can easily find citations of how one speaker, Murray Eden, "destroys" evolution, but not of how other speakers "destroy" Eden's paper.

...continued in full post...

Perhaps some day soon I'll have time to run over to a college library and find a copy of the book, so I can see for myself what the various speakers had to say. Right now, it looks like someone decided to hold a symposium and invite people to present their challenges to evolution.

Some people did. Frankly, those challenges weren't terribly good, and the shortcomings are common to a number of similar attempts at challenging evolution.

Nevertheless, the Wistar Institute as a whole is not responsible for the fact that someone chooses to present garbage at a symposium it hosts. (I would not care to be held responsible for all of the comments posted on my blog!)

So, Norm takes me to task for saying the Wistar Institute lied about evolution. He's right. All the Wistar Institute did was host the meeting. It's not their fault that some of their guests were either liars or incompetent. (Or both!) In fact, I'm going to start referring to the crappy science presented as "falsehoods". The statements cited by Norm Weatherby happen to be false, whether the speaker intended to make false statements or not.

Nor is it the fault of the Wistar Institute that any number of people with agendas choose to quote only the falsehoods that were presented in the symposium, and ignore the presentations where the falsehoods were exposed and corrected. The Wistar Institute is a world class medical research institution, and its job is conducting medical research. It is not the responsibility of the Institute to fact-check all the presentations at all the symposia it hosts.

That being said, I have one correction on my original post. I had written:

...The mutation described happens to be in a critical spot, where the amno acid chain has to fit together in a tight space. If you change that amino acid, you make the chain too bulky to fit together the right way, and you get a deformed blood cell.

As it happens, I had conflated two different hemoglobin mutations. That evening, as soon as I got home, I dug out my copy of Streyer and looked up the passage I recalled.

The mutation that causes the sickle cell trait is one that makes a portion of the outer surface "sticky", causing hemoglobin to clump together. The other mutation causes a different disease. And there are a number of mutations that are known to cause diseases. (And more important, there are a number known to exist in the human gene pool that don't.)

In sum: If the Wistar Institute does, in fact, stand behind Eden's statements about evolution, then they are lending their name and reputation to the support of garbage science. I suspect, however, that they don't support his statements. If asked about them, I suspect at best, they'd have no official opinion, and if they express an opinion about them, it'll be a negative one.

I hate to break it to Mr. Weatherby, but holding an advanced degree, or a professorship, or membership in a leading research institute, or any prize up to and including the Nobel Prize, does not confer Papal infallability on any scientist. Indeed, none of those even confer any sort of enhanced credibility on any scientist who chooses to expound on matters outside his field.

A Google search shows that Murray Eden is an expert in mathematical computing and algorithms. It's quite possible that he could have done the work needed to become expert in evolutionary biology, but judging from the portions of his work I've been able to find online, he has not done so. That means his opinions about the likelihood of evolution carry no more weight than those of my plumber, or the kid who delivers pizza in my neighborhood.

The marriage debate

Peter Wood takes on the American Anthropological Association's statement that:

The results of more than a century of anthropological research on households, kinship relationships, and families, across cultures and through time, provide no support whatsoever for the view that either civilization or viable social orders depend upon marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution.

One of the contributions to the notion that heterosexual marriage is only one of many different, equally valuable, forms of marriage, we have:

Last April, John Borneman, an anthropologist at Princeton, and Laurie Kain Hart, an anthropologist at Haverford College, published an essay in the Washington Post purporting to find in the history of anthropology a mandate for gay marriage: "Does marriage have to be heterosexual? The human record tells us otherwise." As proof, they cite a well-known East African case, in which a woman pays the brideprice of another woman and officially claims her as a "wife." The trouble is that this "marriage" is only a legal fiction, not a lesbian coupling. Borneman and Hart clearly knew that, but buried the explanation in an opaque observation that "This role of wife is above all social, and not contingent on her sexual relations."

As I mention here, I happened to hear an interview between Dr. Borneman and Dennis Prager. Near the end of the interview, Dr. Borneman offered what he considered to be a generalized anthropological definition of marriage. In essence, the only common factor in all the institutions he classed as "marriage" was "the transfer of a dependency relationship from one family group to another."

I sent Dr. Borneman an e-mail pointing out that under this definition, "marriage" would also include such institutions as fostering and legal adoption. In his reply, he agreed, and called my e-mail one of the more intelligent ones he'd received on the topic. (Flattery will get you everywhere.)

Of course, such a broad definition has some drawbacks. For one thing, if your definition of a thing is so broad that anything can be covered by it, then it becomes meaningless. If any "dependency relationship" between two or more people is now a "marriage", then the only people who are not married to each other are hermits, and possibly, sworn enemies.

In particular, since the law allows same-sex adoption or fostering, same-sex "marriage" is already legal in every state of the union, and we can move on to other topics.

Abstinence statistics

Mona Charen looks at some stories behind last month's headlines claiming that abstinence pledges don't work to prevent the spread of STD.

What did the study actually look at?

Now, let's look at substance. Despite the hyperventilating by Bill Smith and others in the condoms on cucumbers school of thought, the study on sexually transmitted diseases actually revealed very little about abstinence-only programs in schools. The report, which looked at data contained in the federally funded National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, found only that abstinence pledges were of limited (but not zero) utility. A pledge is not an abstinence program. As for data on risky anal and or oral sex by so-called abstainers, those too were self-described pledgers, not participants in an abstinence program.

In other words, the abstinence pledges seem to have been about as effective as a typical new year's resolution.

...continued in full post...

Another study was conducted which showed different results.

the Journal of Adolescent and Family Health has just published a carefully crafted study of the Best Friends program and found that it does, in fact, deliver on its promise – to promote abstinence from sex, drugs and alcohol among its school-age participants. Best Friends (there is a companion program for boys called Best Men) began in Washington, D.C., in 1987 and has since expanded to serve 24 cities in 15 states. <snip> The results of the program have been dramatic. Compared with District of Columbia girls of comparable age, income, race and family structure examined in the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey (YRBS), Best Friends girls were eight times less likely than others to use drugs. They were six times less likely than YRBS girls to engage in premarital sex. Among eighth-graders, 65.6 percent of Best Friends girls abstained from alcohol, compared to only 37.3 percent of YRBS youngsters.

The study showing that abstinence doesn't work got 60 hits over a three-month period. The study looking at the Best Friends program got two.

Somehow, editors are making pretty uniform decisions as to what is, or is not, newsworthy. You'd almost believe there's a bias in the media against "traditional morality".

Public Service Announcement

From an e-mail going around the Department:

Please be aware that there has been a reported incidence of one or more persons posing as water utility personnel, trying to gain access to homes under a pretext of collecting water samples. Please report any similar instances to your District Engineer and to local law enforcement.

LA DWP policy may not be the same as everyone else's, but I don't think we're too far from the mainstream. For the record, LADWP personnel should not ever need "cold-call" access to anyone's water from inside the home. Ever.

Our water quality section will occasionally sample water from the front hose bib of a house, and we'll knock on the door so that, at least, the owner or resident knows what's going on. We've had a few programs where we sample for lead inside of private residences, but the initial contact is always by mail first. We don't have any program where employees will walk up to a home cold and request access to water inside the home.

All our employees carry photo ID cards, and almost always have a car or truck with the city seal and LA DWP markings on it. (Some rental cars don't have these markings, which has been a bit of a nuisance on occasion.)

If in doubt, you can call the water department for your city and ask them to confirm that any people at the front door are real employees. If you can't get confirmation for an unexpected visit, you don't have to let the person in. Speaking for myself, I won't take offense. I can always call in to let people know there's a problem and get an alternate location if one's available. There's always a next appointment to hit.

Cruelty incarnate

R. Emmett Tyrell Jr. examines the cruel techniques the Radical Right uses on hapless Democrats and Liberals.

Allow me to point out that "the right" not only indulges in jarring invective but also has adopted very disturbing polemical techniques. For several years, its writers have engaged in discrediting their opponents by quoting them. Yes, they simply hurl back into a person's face things the person has said, without any regard as to how this cruel quoting coarsens our society.

Any day now, we may see victims of this tactic filing suit for...

"Definition of character."

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Justified attacks

John Ray offers his thoughts on the "interventionism" meme.

Libertarians, Leftists and paleocons are all fond of asserting that the 9/11 events were caused by American "interventionism" abroad. Clifford May has an astringent comment on that: "That's an astonishing conclusion. The atrocities of 9/11 were orchestrated by Mohammed Atta, an Egyptian. How, before 9/11, did Washington intervene in Egypt's affairs -- except to give Egypt billions of dollars, re-supply its military, and turn a blind eye to President Hosni Mubarak's repression of dissidents? Atta followed orders from Osama bin Laden, a Saudi. For more than fifty years, American "interventionism" in Saudi Arabia consisted of paying the kingdom astronomical sums in oil revenue, granting Saudis unprecedented privileges (for example, empowering Wahhabis to vet Muslim chaplains for our military and our prisons) and, in 1990, sending American soldiers, at the request of the Saudis, to protect them from being invaded by Saddam Hussein. Or maybe Buchanan was thinking about our intervention in Somalia - the only goal of which was to feed starving people. Or our intervention in Afghanistan to support guerrillas fighting the Soviet invader. We also intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo - to save Muslims from further devastation at the hands of their Christian neighbors".

I'm sure those aren't the forms of "intervention" people are thinking about. I don't happen to believe what we do is sufficient to explain 9/11 or any other attacks against the U.S., but even if we stipulate to that, I'm reminded of a thought I've been mulling over.

If the 9/11 attacks, and all other attacks against the U.S., are our own fault because of our policies, does that mean all the foreign governments we've intervened in are to blame for their policies that provoked U.S. action?

Sauce for the goose, and all that.

(Or, maybe the U.S. is the only entity in the world capable of originating independent action, and absolutely everyone else in the world, having no independent will, moves only in response to the U.S. pulling their strings.)

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Starting civilization over

A question that came up in conversation had to do with rebuilding civilization from the ground up.

What machine or tool would you want in order to rebuild the other machinery you want and/or need? One thing you need is the ability to measure parts very precisely.

Clayton Cramer's answer to obtaining precise measurements is, quite literally, screw it.

It turns out that most precision machine tools rely on the turn of a screw. The photograph here is of a 1/4-20 machine screw (of which there must be several hundred million sitting around above ground). What is that, exactly? It is a screw that fits in a 1/4" threaded hole, and that has 20 threads per inch (20 tpi). Twenty revolutions will move the screw one inch--and using a micrometer shows that this is really and truly the case--or pretty darn close. That means that moving the screw one revolution (and thus pushing a part against that screw) should move it 1/20th of an inch--and when I measure it, it seems to be .0532", which is about 6% from 1/20th of an inch--and most likely the discrepancy is because the last revolution was a bit more than one turn. Okay, one revolution this gets us to five hundredths of an inch--good, but not good enough to rebuild our machine tool civilization. Notice that nut with the numbers at the base? Hexagonal nuts have six sides--and I have used Liquid Paper and a pen to mark each side with the numbers 0 through 5. If I turn the screw, depending on which number is upright, I can get down one-sixth of five hundredths of an inch--or .0083" of precision. With a little more care--perhaps marking the left and right side of each of those six faces of the nut--we can get down to .00415" precision--or four thousandths of an inch.

And there are other ways you can build in more precision: Mount a large washer on the head of the screw and divide it into sections. Any power of two is easy – the ancient Greeks knew how to bisect any angle. Dividing the circle into six parts is also easy. If you want fifths and tenths, you can, with a little more knowledge, construct a regular pentagon and bisect that. After that, you can use vernier techniques and the mathematics of beats. A washer divided into fifths turning next to a washer divided into sixths will let you measure down to a thirtieth of a turn – down to 1/600 of an inch, probably well below where the slop in how well the screw fits into the nut begins to matter.

Overcome that using a lever. Mount a lever on the end of a screw, and mount your measuring device a tenth of a way out from the fulcrum. Every inch of movement at the end of the lever translates to a tenth of an inch at your measuring point. A twentieth of an inch of movement at the end gives you a two-hundredth of an inch at your measure point.

I saw this a month ago, but it's worth bringing up again.

Dealing with Design

(Hat tip: Joan Steward)

The current issue of Nature looks at the issue of Intelligent Design - Intelligent Origin Theory. What's the best way to deal with it? It's not ignoring it.

...many of the students taught in introductory biology classes hold religious beliefs that conflict, at least on the face of things, with Darwin's framework. Professors rarely address the conflicts between faith and science in lectures, and students are drawn to intelligent design as a way of reconciling their beliefs with their interest in science. In doing so, they are helping it to gain a small, but firm, foothold on campuses around the country.

...continued in full post...

Scientists know that natural selection can explain the awe-inspiring complexities of organisms, and should be prepared to explain how. But attacking or dismissing intelligent design is likely to aggravate the rift between science and faith that causes students to become interested in intelligent design in the first place. Scientists would do better to offer some constructive thoughts of their own. For religious scientists, this may involve taking the time to talk to students about how they personally reconcile their beliefs with their research. Secular researchers should talk to others in order to understand how faiths have come to terms with science. All scientists whose classes are faced with such concerns should familiarize themselves with some basic arguments as to why evolution, cosmology and geology are not competing with religion. When they walk into the lecture hall, they should be prepared to talk about what science can and cannot do, and how it fits in with different religious beliefs.

One of Clayton Cramer's ongoing complaints about the way evolution is addressed in classrooms is the "arrogance" of those who teach it. It is taught as the One And Only Truth. (E.g., here.)

I think if evolution were taught more consistently with this approach--one that recognizes the limitations of any theoretical model--there would be a bit less upset from Creationists of many stripes. Certainly, I would have less reason to sympathize with those who are upset.

I think it was in response to this post that I eventually asked Clayton, in this e-mail exchange:

It might be best to consider ID to be a useful antidote to evolution being taught in too dogmatic a way. That has been my big objection to the way that evolution is actually taught in the lower grades–it makes it into Revealed Truth, which isn't even good science.
Hmmm... In the lower grades, which subjects are NOT taught as if they were Revealed Truth?
This is a common problem.

Indeed it is. Yet somehow, it's only a concern in the teaching of evolutionary biology.

And given other posts, like this, this, this, this, this, and this, somehow it seems there's more to his objection that the way it's taught in lower grades.

It's things like this that tell me there's no "compromise" with ID-IOT or creationism. This is not a matter of science – it's a matter of politics. The opponents of evolution have no problems with the science, except to the extent that it tells them something they don't want to hear. The creation science movement, and now the ID-IOT movement, is aimed at only one thing: extirpating evolution from the public sphere.

Monday, April 25, 2005

The "Ewwww factor"

Genetically engineered rise that incorporates human genes is provoking an "ewww" reaction from some people.

Scientists have begun putting genes from human beings into food crops in a dramatic extension of genetic modification. The move, which is causing disgust and revulsion among critics, is bound to strengthen accusations that GM technology is creating "Frankenstein foods" and drive the controversy surrounding it to new heights. <snip> Environmentalists say that no one will want to eat the partially human-derived food because it will smack of cannibalism.

...continued in full post...

OK, I can understand that, but...

What does it mean to insert "a human gene" into another organism?

It means a gene that happened to be one of the 30,000 (or whatever the number is these days) in the human genome.

There are a lot of genes in our genome that appear, in a slightly modified form, in other species. Some genes appear in a few groups of organisms, and others are found in all living things.

A gene that codes for histone proteins, for example, will be found in one form or another in every animal, and probably in most plants as well. Because these genes are strongly conserved, there'll be very little difference between one of our histone genes and, say, the same gene in a squirrel. If we find (just to make up a number) that 2% of the DNA bases differ between our histone gene and a squirrel's histone gene, what happens if we insert that gene into the wheat genome? We're inserting a squirrel gene into wheat. If 98% of that gene is identical to the human analog, have we inserted 98% of a human gene into wheat? If we eat that wheat, are we being 98% cannibalistic?

If we eat fish, we're eating a creature whose histone gene might have 94% of its DNA bases in common with human histone genes. Does that mean we're being 94% cannibalistic? If we replaced that gene with a human one (for whatever reason), does that 6% change in one gene out of tens of thousands make that much of a difference?

It's hard to see how that little bit of difference is all that significant.

So why put a human gene into rice in the first place?

The gene makes an enzyme, code-named CPY2B6, which is particularly good at breaking down harmful chemicals in the body. Present GM crops are modified with genes from bacteria to make them tolerate herbicides, so that they are not harmed when fields are sprayed to kill weeds. But most of them are only able to deal with a single herbicide, which means that it has to be used over and over again, allowing weeds to build up resistance to it. But the researchers at the National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences in Tsukuba, north of Tokyo, have found that adding the human touch gave the rice immunity to 13 different herbicides. This would mean that weeds could be kept down by constantly changing the chemicals used. Supporting scientists say that the gene could also help to beat pollution. Professor Richard Meilan of Purdue University in Indiana, who has worked with a similar gene from rabbits, says that plants modified with it could "clean up toxins" from contaminated land. They might even destroy them so effectively that crops grown on the polluted soil could be fit to eat.

Interesting. I hear complaints about plants that are modified to resist herbicides. "Are they planning to make people more resistant to the pesticides in our food?" People imagine this resistance will result food crops being loaded with chemicals. Farmers will take advantage of this resistance to load crops with high levels of chemical, because they can.

But it turns out it doesn't work that way.

Since the resistance is conferred using genes that speed the breakdown of the pesticide, we don't need to become more resistant. The food crops break down the chemical into harmless compounds, and the weeds can't do it before they die from its effects. By the time the food crop is harvested, all the chemicals that were applied are long gone, broken down by the plants and disposed of.

And in case people object to the possibility of eating plants that were used to break down toxic waste? Plants absorb carbon dioxide and turn it into glucose, and ultimately, into more plant. Carbon dioxide is a waste product excreted by animals. If you don't think it's a toxic waste, try breathing air containing even very small amounts of the stuff. We rely on the ability of plants to break down this toxic waste and turn it into food.

On this day...

in 1901:

New York became the first state to require license plates for cars.

The fee was $1.

(Hat tip: Brown and Caldwell California Water News e-mail.)

Friday, April 22, 2005

Evolution and hemoglobin

Quantum Thought doesn't support comments to posts in the blog, but e-mailing my post seems to have had the intended effect. It got his attention, and my blog was open to comments.

Problem is, his comments have been very long. So I'm dedicating a post or three to addressing the issue some more.

In his first comment to me, Norm Weatherby leads off with a classic argumentum ad verecundiam.

Please bother to check out the credentials of the Wistar institute before so readily dismissing their conclusions.

OK, they have very good credentials. So stipulated. Indeed, I stipulated as much in the title of the original post" "Wistar destroys its credibility." You can't destroy what doesn't exist.

...continued in full post...

They have very good credentials. They're still wrong.

An appeal to authority may be inappropriate in a couple of ways:
It is unnecessary. If a question can be answered by observation or calculation, an argument from authority is not needed. Since arguments from authority are weaker than more direct evidence, go look or figure it out for yourself.

I addressed two questions that have been very well examined, and the facts don't jive with the Institute's representation of them. In the contest between the Institute and direct evidence, the Wistar Institute loses. But given its credentials, it loses authoritatively.

The "authority" cited is not an expert on the issue, that is, the person who supplies the opinion is not an expert at all, or is one, but in an unrelated area.

Medicine is not evolutionary biology, any more than engineering is quantum physics. An expert in one is not likely to be an expert in the other, and if he uses his expertise in his specialty to form judgments about other fields, he can be led badly astray.

Interestingly enough, Norm seems to have surrendered on the matter of hemoglobin. Confronted with stubborn facts, he declines to address the subject.

However, I did some more reading on the subject, including a fair amount of material I located through Google.

The Wistar Institute managed to contradict well known facts about hemoglobin (but again, given the Institute's sterling credentials, let it be noted they contradicted them most authoritatively):

George Wald stood up and explained that he had done extensive research on hemoglobin also,—and discovered that if just ONE mutational change of any kind was made in it, the hemoglobin would not function properly. For example, the change of one amino acid out of 287 in hemoglobin causes sickle-cell anemia. A glutamic acid unit has been changed to a valine unit—and, as a result, 25% of those suffering with this anemia die.

[Emphasis added]

This statement is true just plain false. There's a nifty article, at Davidson College, on the subject of Hemoglobin Orthologs.

Orthologs are sequences of genes that evolved from a common ancestor and can be traced evolutionarily through different species.

Now, we may quibble with the assumption that these did in fact evolve from anything, never mind a common ancestor, but there are some very interesting facts presented in the paper. If we compare hemoglobin molecules between species, we find that there are numerous difference.

George Wald points to one example, where a glutamic acid molecule is replaced with a valine molecule, and the result is sickle-cell trait. There are a number of amino acids that are consistent across many species, and in some of those, any change causes serious a malfunction in the protein. However, there are a number of locations where you find different amino acids in the same location in different species.

For example, in humans, the fifth amino acid in the alpha subunit is proline. In a species of frog it is serine. In chickens, it is alanine. In the zebrafish, aspartate. In the rat, glutamate. In the mouse, glycine.

This is one of the more extreme examples, as each of six different species of animal has a different amino acid in the same location in this protein. Nevertheless, since all of these are examples of animals whose hemoglobin seems to work just fine, it would appear that at least six different amino acids will work in that spot.

By actual count in the paper on orthologs, 36.4% of amino acids matched across all six species. That means that the remaining 63.6% differed from the amino acid found in human hemoglobin in at least one of the other five species. Two thirds of the amino acids in this particular subunit can be changed, and the hemoglobin seems to work just fine.

In addition, the biochemistry book I studied out of a couple of decades ago mentons in passing that "many" mutations on the surface of hemoglobin are benign. They have no effect on the shape or function of the resulting protein – or at most, a minor effect.

The Wistar Institute may have very good credentials and scientific minds. However, Norm quotes two of their scientific minds making statements that are just plain wrong. Either they can't be bothered to do the research that a college biology student would have done in the course of his studies, or they're making statements that contradict what they learned in their research.

If, as Norm insists, these people know all the relevant facts, the only conclusion that remains is that they have made the conscious decision to tell us something else.

Yucca Mountain

E-mails hinting at fudged data have triggered more scandal over Yucca Mountain. Joshua Gilder offers his comments:'s worth putting the issue in perspective. The e-mails in question concern computer models of possible water seepage at the site, which might then eventually carry radioactive residue into the nearby, sparsely populated Amargosa Valley... In order to obtain licensing from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, scientists will likely be required to demonstrate that the repository will pose no health risks for the next 10,000 years. Give that one a moment to seep in.

...continued in full post...

Ten thousand years ago was the beginning of the Mesolithic era, when the Ice Age was ending, Great Britain became an island, and human beings started to take up agriculture. If Yucca is still a problem in 10,000 years, it will only be because our civilization has completely collapsed and we've all reverted back to the Stone Age. ...the more important issue is why the waste from nuclear power is being held to such an extraordinary standard to begin with. A typical 1,000-megawatt coal-fired plant produces about 88 pounds of radioactive waste every day because the coal it burns contains trace amounts of radioactive elements. About 1 percent of that or more will be released into the atmosphere, the rest ending up on the slag heap, along with highly toxic metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury.

Um. OK, 88 pounds. What is that in Curies? 88 pounds of U-238 and 88 pounds of I-131 are both 88 pounds of radioactive material, but pound for pound, one is 360 billion times more radioactive than the other. Oh well...

The point, though, is that storing waste at Yucca Mountain is pretty darn safe, especially compared with things we're already doing without thinking about it.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The last pope?

A prophecy has been floating around which says there are only two popes remaining (including this one) until the end of time. Possible explanations include:

1: Time will end sooner than we expect.

2: After the next pope, the Catholic Church will disband.

3: After the next pope, only women will be elected to the office.

4: The prophecy is wrong.

Rand Simberg looks at another possibility: popes will live considerably longer than they have in the past.

We may be on the verge of medical breakthroughs that will extend life – healthy, active life – by decades or even centuries.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Conservative bias in the media?

In response to the accounts of liberal bias in the media, many argue that such bias can't exist – if anything, there's a conservative bias, because the media are all owned by big corporations.

Of course, this doesn't follow – Disney, for example, is not known for its conservative positions on much of anything. However, even if we stipulate that all big corporations are ipso facto conservative, we find that news divisions enjoy considerable independence (indeed, almost total immunity) from corporate control.

...continued in full post...

When Fred Friendly and Ed Murrow created the modern broadcast news division at CBS in the 1940s and 1950s, they explicitly set it up as an independent division within CBS. Not only was CBS News managed an edited independently of CBS proper, it was explicitly offered as a public service. The general understanding within CBS was that the News Division wouldn't have to turn a profit—indeed, it was generally acknowledged that the provision of news by the network would be a net cost for the network. It existed in its own special bubble in CBS, with a clear separation of responsibility between network management and the editorial staff, who were solely responsible for the content the News Division would broadcast. Both Murrow and Friendly, and the executives and editors that followed them, felt this structure was vitally important to the credibility of the News Division, in terms of preventing it from becoming a corporate shill. In general, the other networks , ABC and NBC, followed this formula more or less to the letter. The reason that GE or Disney don't try to screw with news coverage is that they rightly fear the results of upsetting people who "buy ink by the barrel." The second that Viacom or GE tried to mandate news coverage, in any way shape or form, the News Division would erupt in complete anti-corporate hysteria. The corporate bosses would be subjected to endless news stories about how they were trying to muzzle the free press, destroy freedom of speech, and to turn the holy public service that is news coverage into an arm of corporate PR. No corporate executive with an ounce of sanity has any interest at all in provoking a nasty public fight over news coverage that is likely to accomplish nothing more than to make corporate management look like goose-stepping fascists. What possible outcome would be worth the trouble? So, corporate ownership in the cases cited is simply irrelevant. Editors and reporters control the viewpoints and biases that appear in their reportage, and corporate management keeps its mouth shut. In return, the management of the News Divisions have, since the 1980s, tried to ensure that the News Divisions are at least marginally profitable.

Energy: penny wise, pound foolish

One of the things people don't always look at is real costs involved in what look like "green" alternatives.

I've pointed out studies showing that, for example, recycling paper does more damage to the environment than using fresh trees, grown for the purpose.

James Glassman makes a similar point about energy.

The worst idea from the group is to boost the already massive subsidies for ethanol, a fuel made from corn. We have lots of corn in America, goes the thinking, so we can stuff it in our gas tanks and save on oil. In fact, the ethanol project is simply a pork-barrel jamboree for a few Midwest states, plus producers like Archer Daniels Midland, which, despite a serious price-fixing scandal, remains politically well connected. Legislation proposed in the House calls for expanding use of ethanol from 3 billion gallons in 2004 to 8 billion in 2012. One result of this extreme measure, according to the Department of Energy, would be to increase the price of gasoline. Meanwhile, less than 1 percent of imported oil would be displaced, and overall fuel consumption would actually rise. A study by David Pimentel of Cornell in 2003 found that -- due to tractor fuel, irrigation pumps and other inputs -- ethanol uses 29 percent more energy than it creates. [emphasis added] Also, of course, grain prices will rise as cropland is diverted to growing corn for fuel. Ethanol already gets a federal tax exemption, worth 53 cents per gallon (for the pure stuff), but it hasn't caught on. If ethanol made economic sense as a fuel, it wouldn't need help from the government.

Airport security by Clouseau

Walter Williams examines the thought processes behind airport security, and why they're counter-productive.

In managing our personal security, should we guard against possible or probable threats? Consider the measures and the resource expenditures I might take to guard Mrs. Williams and me against all possible threats to our security. Even though I live in Pennsylvania, well outside of tornado alley, I'd construct a tornado shelter because it's possible for a tornado to strike anywhere. I'd no longer get into my car and drive off without doing a thorough check of my car's hydraulic brake system for leakage. I'd build an iron-reinforced roof to guard against the possibility of a meteor. I'd also purchase a metal detector to do sweeps of my property, to guard against the possibility someone might have buried a land mine. I'd hire a detective and forensic accountant. Even though Mrs. Williams and I have been married 45 years, it is possible that she might be stashing some of my money into a Swiss bank account. Were I to take those measures, I'm sure the average person would label me as either paranoid or stupid. Why? It would take resources away from guarding against more probable threats to our security, such as burglary.

...continued in full post...

The TSA's determined opposition to passenger profiling is in itself a threat to airport security. Take their additional screening. They have every incentive to be politically correct. But suppose the TSA had to pay $1,000 to each passenger they selected for additional screening who was found to be no security threat. You can bet they'd develop a screening method that made more sense, and it would include some sort of passenger profiling, including racial profiling. And, by the way, liberals shouldn't fret, because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in several affirmative-action cases that provided there's a compelling state interest, race can be used in decision making.


The National Research Council's report on perchlorate has been used to support stricter controls on perchlorate than we have now. It's also been cited to support looser controls. What does the report actually say?

What the report does propose is a safe daily dose of the chemical, regardless of the source. It says that up to 0.0007 milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg) of body weight can be consumed daily without adversely affecting even the most sensitive populations – fetuses of pregnant women with thyroid problems.

This reference dose is based on human clinical studies, observing the actual effect on actual humans of different perchlorate doses. Below 0.007 mg/kg (ten times the reference dose), no effect on iodine uptake was observed. Also,

...the Research Council committee concluded that it was highly unlikely that disruption of thyroid function from perchlorate exposure would lead to thyroid cancer in humans.

So, bottom line?

Six weeks after the report's release, EPA announced that it was officially adopting the committee's reference dose. The agency determined that the dose corresponds with a drinking-water equivalent concentration of 24.5 parts per billion, but that perchlorate concentrations in food and milk still need to be examined.

And remember, that includes a safety factor of ten. Without that margin, we're looking at an allowable daily dose of 245 parts per billion.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Wistar destroys its credibility

Norm Weatherby points to an article by the Wistar Institute claiming to have destroyed evolution.

Well, perhaps for some value of "destroyed", it has. However, in the real world, where we have to deal with real facts, the only thing that's been destroyed is Wistar's credibility.

It was the development of tremendously powerful digital computers that sparked the controversy. At last mathematicians were able to work out the probability of evolution ever having occurred. They discovered that, mathematically, life would neither have begun nor evolved by random action.

That again? But that trick never works!

...continued in full post...

Murray Eden showed that it would be impossible for even a single ordered pair of genes to be produced by DNA mutations in the bacteria, E. coli,—with 5 billion years in which to produce it! His estimate was based on 5 trillion tons of the bacteria covering the planet to a depth of nearly an inch during that 5 billion years. He then explained that the genes of E. coli contain over a trillion (1012) bits of data. That is the number 10 followed by 12 zeros. Eden then showed the mathematical impossibility of protein forming by chance.

This ignores, of course that:

  • nobody thinks any modern living thing emerged full-blown from the primordial soup. Everyone who's thought seriously about this subject believes bacteria evolved from much simpler ancestors. The question under consideration is, which of several very plausible pathways was the one actually taken?
  • E. coli is far from the only target around. Even if we stipulate to the absurd caricature that has a bacterium flying together from random parts, if you calculate the odds against one particular bacterium, you ignore the fact that every other bacterium is also a viable target, and quite obviously alive. The numerator of your odds ratio is not one, but at least the number of types of bacteria in existence today. (I say "at least" because bacteria mutate, and it's very unlikely that any two would have identical genes.)

So someone, probably the Wistar Institute, lied about what scientists believe. Why are they lying to us?

Hemoglobin has two chains, called alpha and beta. A minimum of 120 mutations would be required to convert alpha to beta. At least 34 of those changes require changeovers in 2 or 3 nucleotides. Yet, *Eden pointed out that, if a single nucleotide change occurs through mutation, the result ruins the blood and kills the organism! *George Wald stood up and explained that he had done extensive research on hemoglobin also,—and discovered that if just ONE mutational change of any kind was made in it, the hemoglobin would not function properly. For example, the change of one amino acid out of 287 in hemoglobin causes sickle-cell anemia. A glutamic acid unit has been changed to a valine unit—and, as a result, 25% of those suffering with this anemia die.

Big problem here. You've just been lied to again.

While the mutation described does produce sickle-cell anemia, or at least a carrier, if he inherits only one mutated gene, most amino acids can be changed around with little or no effect!!! The mutation described happens to be in a critical spot, where the amno acid chain has to fit together in a tight space. If you change that amino acid, you make the chain too bulky to fit together the right way, and you get a deformed blood cell.

Biologists who compare proteins in different species have long known that certain amino acids are "conserved". That is, if the amino acid at location 456 in a protein is conserved, that means that many different living things will have the same amino acid at location 456 in that particular protein, no matter how the other amino acids have changed.

Biologists use this information to find critical locations in proteins, where a particular amino acid serves a critical function – either it's essential for folding into the proper shape, or it has to be where it is in order to make contact with some other molecule (e.g., the substrate in an enzyme, or the heme molecule in hemoglobin). The fact that most amino acids in any protein are not conserved means Eden and Wald are either terribly inept or have lied to you.

If they're so egregiously wrong about something as widely known as conserved and non-conserved amino acids, what else are they wrong about?

And why should you listen to anything they have to say?

I'll stop here, but right now, I'd say the track record of the Wistar Institute is looking pretty dismal.

Blood donor criteria changing

I don't know how I got on this mailing list, but here's an announcement from the Red Cross...

"System 14" refers to new procedures that the American Red Cross is implementing nationally to improve our blood collections. Some of the changes include:
Donors who got tattoos in the past 12 months WILL be accepted IF the tattoo was a) applied in a state that regulates the industry (CA does regulate the industry) AND; b) applied at a parlor that follows the state regulations
European travel:
Donors will not be able to give blood if they spent a cumulative time of 3 months or more in the UK between 1980 and 1996. Donors who were members of the US Military or dependents of members of the US Military will not be able to donate if they spent 6 months or more on a military base in certain countries in Europe between 1980 and 1996. Donors will not be able to give blood if they spent a cumulative time of 5 years or more from 1980 to the present in Europe, including time spent
  • In the UK between 1980 and 1996
  • On a military base, as described above
Donors may be able to donate if they were recently prescribed antibiotics for treatment, just completed their last dose, and are free of symptoms. Donors may be able to donate if they are taking certain antibiotics on an on-going basis. There is also a new medication deferral list.
"Direct Oral Questioning":
In the past, donors were provided the questionnaire upon registration and filled it out on their own. Now, a member of our nursing staff will verbally ask donors each question on the questionnaire.
When will this take effect? April 18th, 2005.

Just so you know.

Pork Chops With Orange And Rosemary

I've managed to capture a number of cookbooks online. One of them is a book titled Get Out of the Box!

Pork Chops With Orange And Rosemary Servings: 4 1 orange, squeezed 2 tablespoons butter 4 medium pork chops 2 teaspoons dried rosemary salt, to taste Heat the butter in a pan and fry the chops until nicely browned on both sides. Sprinkle with rosemary and pour the orange juice over the meat. Reduce the heat and simmer for 2 minutes. Season with salt and serve. Variation Ideas: -Peel and slice another orange, add with the orange juice and rosemary. -Omit the chops and use boneless pork steaks instead. -Omit the chops and use chicken breasts instead.

I used juice from a navel orange and a blood orange, and used slices of blood orange and kumquats as garnish.

A side dish that worked quite well with this was bulghur wheat cooked with paprika and tumeric, served with a dollop of yogurt.

Who elected Bush?

After hearing remarks about how it was the "Evangelical base" that elected Bush, it's interesting to look at some real numbers.

Here, Philip Klinkner looks at Bush's performance among several demographic groups. (Performance is defined as the group's percentage representation in the electorate multiplied by the percentage of the group voting for Bush.)

Among evangelical Christians, performance went from 17% to 19% between 2000 and 2004. (31% representation to 34%, 51% voting for Bush to 56%. Multiplying out, we get 16.8 in 2000 and 19.0 in 2004.)

Among those who rejected isolationism, Bush's support went from 34.5 in 2000 to 45.9 in 2004. This increase, 11.4 voters per 100, swamps the gains from evangelicals.

Weapons of mass instruction

(Hat tip: Bruce Schneier.)

Ross Mayfield learns that according to TSA guidelines, the number of books allowed in carry-on baggage is four, soon to drop to two. Suddenly the phrase is no longer a punch line.


Arik Hesseldahl believes Moore's Law is about due for retirement. Moore's law states that the number of components that can be built on a chip can be expected to double roughly every year. This rule has held up for four decades, but now...

The complexities and expense involved with keeping it on track are enormous. At the same time, the most advanced chips may not be needed to handle computing tasks for which there is the most demand.

Well and good. However, I read an article some time ago describing the extrapolated limits on computer size as calculated back in the days of vacuum tubes. Given the mean time before failure (MTBF) for vacuum tubes, you could calculate the maximum size of a computer that would be up and running for long enough to do any useful calculations.

Using completely made-up numbers, if your vacuum tubes have a MTBF of 1000 hours, then a computer using 1000 vacuum tubes will run for about an hour before one of its tubes burns out. If your computer uses 60,000 tubes, then one will burn out after a minute of run time. If you need 360,000 tubes to handle your calculation, it had better take less than a second, 'cause that's all you're getting.

Today's computers have considerably more than 360,000 vacuum tubes worth of elements. They run more than a second or two (despite the flakiness of certain operating systems) because transistors don't burn out nearly as fast as vacuum tubes do.

The moral of the story: extrapolations based on the limits imposed by any given form of technology are going to go badly astray sooner or later. More likely, sooner than you expect.

Security by Clouseau – the IRS

(From this week's newsletter.)

Auditors for the U.S. Treasury Department tested computer security at the Internal Revenue Service. They called 100 random IRS employees claiming they were from the tax agency's computer help desk to see if the employees would change their passwords to one suggested by the caller. That sort of ruse would allow an identity thief to hack IRS systems and get private taxpayer information.

Fact of the day

(From the daily e-mail for The, April 16, 2005)

An interesting side-effect of a chemical called lysergic acid diethylamide is discovered today in 1943 as Dr Albert Hoffman accidentally takes the first 'acid trip' after ingesting some synthesized 'LSD-25' through his fingertips. Initially used as an aid for treating mental disorders, LSD soon became a popular drug with hippies in the 60s and is still widely used - or abused - today.

Now that's a flashback.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Patterico on Sciavo

Includes, Why the courts should have ordered the feeding tube re-inserted, and a link to resources on the case.

Cover provided by Clouseau

Bruce Schneier's blog has an account of a case where a woman's identity was "borrowed" by law enforcement officials.

In an Ohio sting operation at a strip bar, a 22-year-old student intern with the United States Marshals Service was given a fake identity so she could work undercover at the club. But instead of giving her a fabricated identity, the police gave her the identity of another woman living in another Ohio city. And they didn't tell the other woman. Oddly enough, this is legal. According to Ohio's identity theft law, the police are allowed to do it.

Commenters wondered if the person whose identity was used would someday find she owed taxes on the income from her "career as a stripper". Or, would this career show up on her background check when she applied for employment as, say, a grade school teacheer or church organist?

What if the cover identity had been needed for a case involving trading illegal materials? Drugs, perhaps, or kiddie porn?

I have to admit that I'm stunned. I naively assumed that the police would have a list of Social Security numbers that would never be given to real people, numbers that could be used for purposes such as this. Or at least that they would use identities of people from other parts of the country after asking for permission. (I'm sure people would volunteer to help out the police.) It never occurred to me that they would steal the identity of random citizens. What could they be thinking?

"We don't care. We don't have to."

About professional journalists

Ah, yes. Professional journalists have all these tools and safeguards to make sure their stories are accurate. You'll never see things like this:

The Boston Globe got caught making up a story about a seal hunt in Canada that didn't actually happen, and had issue a retraction and fire the freelancer who wrote it--although the story about the phony story comes from Reuters, so for all we know, the paper in question might actually have been the Birmingham News or Podunk Post. But assuming that Reuters is accurate for a change, a question: what happened to the editors who approved it? Fact-checkers? You know, all those valuable tools (and I mean that in every sense of the word) who allegedly make Big Media "journalists" superior to us pajama types? Are they still on the payroll? And why weren't their names publicized along with that of the fired freelance reporter?

I'm sure glad they learned all these high-powered techniques in journalism school.

Harmony with Nature

Don Boudreaux posts his thoughts on how primitive men "lived in harmony with nature" which...

...implies that we moderns don’t live in harmony in nature, and one consequence of our inharmonious existence is the manatees’ near-extinction.

...continued in full post...

Pre-Columbian peoples lived simply, to be sure, but let’s stop mistaking ignorance and poverty with harmony. It’s an utter myth – we might say an urban myth – that primitive peoples lived with nature harmoniously. Nature devastated them. Nature battered them into early graves.

Boudreaux defines "living in harmony with nature" as:

To live harmoniously with nature is to understand and accept natural forces. The greater this understanding and acceptance, the greater the harmony. Because we know so much more today than we did before about physics, chemistry, meteorology, biology, physiology, metallurgy, and on and on with our ologies and urgies, we live so much more harmoniously with nature.

Interestingly enough, this take on "harmony with nature" puts Mr. Boudreaux at odds with a fair chunk of the Neopagan and Wiccan community.

Oh well. I suspect he doesn't care if the community calls him "not a real Pagan". As one who has taken this position in discussions and essays before, I've watched the people who advocate their take on living in harmony with the Earth descend to ad hominem attacks when faced with a contrary view. But that's beside the point.

The point is, Wicca and many forms of Neopaganism are magickal religions. "Magick" is not a typo – it's a spelling coined by Aleister Crowley, to distinguish between what he practiced and what stage illusionists do.

Crowley defined magick as "the art and science of causing change to occur in conformity with the Will". This means that any intentional act – even brushing your teeth in the morning – is a magickal act. We are unique on this planet in our ability to deliberately create change, and to choose which changes we want to create. That is the spark that separates us from the animals.

Having delved into making change take place, we can define two more classes of magickal act: effective and ineffective. (Well, maybe three: effective, ineffective, and dis-effective. "Dis-effective" acts are those which cause changes opposed to what is desired.)

In order to create change in an effective manner, it helps to know as much as you can about the system you want to change.

It is science – rational thought, skepticism, critical inquiry – that furthers greater harmony with nature.

Science tells us how to effect changes we want, and how to avoid changes we don't want. The art lies in using science wisely.

Nat Hentoff on Terri Sciavo

Nat Hentoff, a columnist with the Village Voice, is not known for his knee-jerk support of the Christian Right. He has a few problems with the news coverage, and especially the polling, surrounding the case of Terri Sciavo.

During the intense national debate about the worth of Terri Schiavo's life, a majority of Americans agreed with her husband that they would not want to continue living. But when the pollsters called, did they describe the actual facts of her condition to get the responses that created and confused the national response?

He thinks it may well have been the latter.

Hate radio: radio the left hates?

The left has created Air America as a counter to conservative talk radio in general, and Rush Limbaugh in particular. Its debut was marked with loads of publicity and hype, in a marked contrast to conservative radio programs. Compare, for example, the apparent newsworthiness of William Bennet's morning show, which launched on the same day.

Yet, despite bankrolling and the free publicity it received...

Air America's left-wing answer to conservative talk radio is failing, just as previous efforts to find liberal Rush Limbaughs have failed.

People aren't tuning in. Air America stations in major markets have had to close up because they were unable to pay their bills.

And look at Air America's ratings: They're pitifully weak, even in places where you would think they'd be strong. WLIB, its flagship in New York City, has sunk to 24th in the metro area Arbitron ratings — worse than the all-Caribbean format it replaced, notes the Radio Blogger. In the liberal meccas of San Francisco and Los Angeles, Air America is doing lousier still.

...continued in full post...

Reasons given for this failure are condescending, and self-serving, including:

Some on the left say it's because liberals are, well, smarter and can't convey their sophisticated ideas to the rubes who listen to talk radio. <snip> Yet even if we were to grant the premise that conservative talk radio can sometimes be crudely simplistic — a tough charge to make stick against, say, one-time philosophy professor Bennett or Clarence Thomas' former law clerk Laura Ingraham — how can anyone plausibly believe the right has a monopoly on misleading argument? Moreover, talk-show fans aren't dummies. Industry surveys show that talk-radio fans vote in greater percentages than the general public, tend to be college-educated and read more magazines and newspapers than the average American.

"How can anyone plausibly believe the right has a monopoly on misleading argument?" Well, the left is doing its very best to make that very case. Are they part of "anybody"? Or is it possible they're lying?

One of the reasons for the success of conservative talk radio is media bias.

Liberal bias in the old media. That's what birthed talk radio in the first place. People turn to it to help right the imbalance. Political scientist William Mayer, writing in the Public Interest, recently observed that liberals don't need talk radio because they've got the big three networks, most national and local daily newspapers and NPR.

And this bias is another thing that's hard to plausibly deny. In the words of one major newspaper's ombudsman, anyone who hasn't seen the left-leaning bias in the papers "has been reading them with their eyes closed." Alternatively, they see it just fine, and report otherwise for their own purposes.

And, unable to succeed against talk radio on merit, the left is perfectly willing to regulate it out of existence.

If some liberals had their way, Congress would regulate political talk radio out of existence. Their logic is that scrapping Air America would be no loss if it also meant getting Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and Bennett off the air. <snip> Pre-Reagan, talk radio in today's sense simply didn't exist. What station could risk it? But people listen to conservative talk because they want to, not because the post-Fairness Doctrine regulatory regime forces them to. To claim that "diversity of view" is lacking in the era of blogs and cable news, moreover, is downright silly. Complaints about fairness are really about driving out conservative viewpoints.

The people who listen to talk radio, and watch Fox News, know what they're getting through the mainstream media. And they know what they're getting through the alternative channels – the other half of the debate. And those who claim to want diversity? They're the ones who want to stamp it out.

Sure, talk radio is partisan, sometimes overheated. But it's also a source of argument and information. Together with Fox News and the blogosphere, it has given the right a chance to break through the liberal monoculture and be heard. For that, anyone who supports spirited public debate should be grateful.

But they're not.

Friday, April 15, 2005


Clusters of atoms can behave like single atoms of some other element. It seems they can get together and share their outer electrons in a kind of gel, and behave like a single unit.

This simple picture was thrown into disarray in the early 1980s, when evidence started appearing that clusters of atoms of one element could behave like another. Thomas Upton at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena discovered that clusters of six aluminium atoms could catalyse the splitting of hydrogen molecules in much the same way as ruthenium, a metal used as a catalyst in the chemical industry. This quickly led to thoughts of extending the periodic table.

Now, a theory has been developed, and it's being tested. So far, it works pretty well. But how useful is it?

Being able to substitute aluminum, a cheap element, for ruthenium, an expensive one, could be pretty darn useful. If aluminum can pinch hit for other rare earth elements in catalysts, that could also be quite useful. In addition:

One answer is that superatoms could provide entirely new types of material, including "expanded" crystals. <snip> Expanded crystals could have useful properties....Shiv Khanna, a physicist at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond who works with Castleman, hopes that replacing iodine in conducting polymers with aluminium superatoms could improve their conductivity. <snip> Another of the hopes for superatoms is that they could be used to disguise an element's normal chemistry.

And chances are, someone will come up with uses that no one is even dreaming of right now.

Perchlorate in the water?

Perchlorate in the water is big news right now. Various interests are arguing over what the standard should be, and each side is accusing the other of being extremist.

Chron Watch has a piece on perchlorate in milk and water.

It looks like the panic over the stuff may be a wee bit overblown.

Evolution and security

Bruce Schneier also takes note of the film showing an octopus camoflaging itself and "walking" away on two of its tentacles.

I have a fondness for security countermeasures in the natural world. As people, we try to figure out the most effective countermeasure for a given attack. Evolution works differently. A species tries different countermeasures at random, and stops at the first one that just barely works.

Nitpick: Evolution stops at the first one that at least just barely works. If a randomly attempted countermeasure is spectacularly successful, evolution will stop with it; it won't discard it and continue looking for one that only "just barely works".

Security of the Papal Election

Bruce Schneier, again, this time on the security of the Papal election process.

There are a number of elaborate rules and procedures for casting and tallying the votes in this election. How well does the system stand up from the standpoint of security? The answer is, pretty well.

And a third and final lesson: when an election process is left to develop over the course of a couple thousand years, you end up with something surprisingly good.


After the bypassword

Making passwords more secure won't prevent identity theft. The important question is, how do you deal with identity theft?

The second issue is the ease with which a criminal can use personal data to commit fraud. It doesn't take much personal information to apply for a credit card in someone else's name. It doesn't take much to submit fraudulent bank transactions in someone else's name. It's surprisingly easy to get an identification card in someone else's name. Our current culture, where identity is verified simply and sloppily, makes it easier for a criminal to impersonate his victim. <snip>

...continued in full post...

Fraudulent transactions have nothing to do with the legitimate account holders. Criminals impersonate legitimate users to financial intuitions. That means that any solution can't involve the account holders. That leaves only one reasonable answer: financial intuitions need to be liable for fraudulent transactions. They need to be liable for sending erroneous information to credit bureaus based on fraudulent transactions.

Basically, since it's so easy for a criminal to get enough information to spoof someone's identity, you can't reasonably expect to put the responsibility on the victim. The victim need not be in the loop at all, and therefore might not have had any opportunity to prevent the crime.

If you think this won't work, look at credit cards. Credit card companies are liable for all but the first $50 of fraudulent transactions. They're not hurting for business; and they're not drowning in fraud, either. They've developed and fielded an array of security technologies designed to detect and prevent fraudulent transactions. They've pushed most of the actual costs onto the merchants. And almost no security centers around trying to authenticate the cardholder. That's an important lesson. Identity theft solutions focus much too much on authenticating the person. Whether it's two-factor authentication, ID cards, biometrics, or whatever, there's a widespread myth that authenticating the person is the way to prevent these crimes. But once you understand that the problem is fraudulent transactions, you quickly realize that authenticating the person isn't the way to proceed. Again, think about credit cards. Store clerks barely verify signatures when people use cards. People can use credit cards to buy things by mail, phone, or Internet, where no one verifies the signature or even that you have possession of the card. Even worse, no credit card company mandates secure storage requirements for credit cards. They don't demand that cardholders secure their wallets in any particular way. Credit card companies simply don't worry about verifying the cardholder or putting requirements on what he does. They concentrate on verifying the transaction.

Passwords and bypasswords

Bruce Schneier recently wrote an essay on two-factor authentication. It's generated a bit of a storm, but it seems to be because people didn't read for content.

Two-factor authentication is a way of making passwords more secure. You have your usual password, which should be hard to guess, but it's getting to the point where it doesn't matter anymore. Computers have enough power to guess any reasonable password, and quite a few unreasonable ones. (Though I'm still a bit peeved that ATM PIN codes are limited to four digits for so many systems. It's bad enough that they're all numeric.)

Two-factor authentication means that you have two keys that you need before logging in to a system. You log in with your password, and then you have to feed in a key that changes every time it's used. One approach was a SecureID card, which displayed a number which changed every minute. A random number generator with a unique seed for each customer will generate a nice, hard to predict, string of numbers. The mainframe had a copy of the card (well, more likely, of the equation) and only let the user in if the numbers matched. (Sometimes I got bounced back out because the number changed between the time I typed it in and the time I hit the "enter" key. Oh well. Take II.)

This meant the user had to have physical possession of the card in order to log on to the mainframe.

This solves the problem of losing control of a password. It does not solve more sophisticated attacks, including phishing schemes where the website echoes the password (any and all pieces) to the website being imitated, in effect bypassing the password altogether. (Hence, bypassword.)

It can't.

You can spend as much time, effort, and money as you like on a security approach, but if you're not addressing where the security hole really is, you've wasted all your resources. And indeed, you may well have made things worse, having convinced people that Something Has Been Done, and therefore they need not be as careful as before.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Just so people know...

I'm not sure how Kim Swygert builds tables in her blog, but...

You don't need any kind of line-break tag between rows of a table. If you include them (Kim had a <br/> tag between rows), you wind up with a large gap above the table.

I suspect she must be hand-coding her tables, since I can't imagine any reasonable HTML editor doing something like that.

Kristof on media

Here's a link to the Kristof piece. He complains about a number of trends he doesn't particularly like.

...the climate for freedom of the press in the U.S. feels more ominous than it has for decades.'s also crucial for us to reflect on why this is happening now - and a major reason, I think, is that we in the news media are widely perceived as arrogant, out of touch and untrustworthy. ...public support for the news media has all but evaporated.

Journalists who have been painstakingly "neutral" toward American culture are starting to realize what it means when American culture is "neutral" toward them.

In this kind of environment, it's not surprising that journalists are headed for jail. The safety net for American journalism throughout history has been not so much the First Amendment - rather, it's been public approval of the role of the free press. Public approval is our life-support system, and it is now at risk.

Anyone who's read various critiques of the press has heard about the lack of diversity. Milbloggers have pointed out that news articles frequently contain basic errors that would never have made it past anyone with even an ounce of military experience. But significantly, they make it past everyone in the newsroom.

We also need more diverse newsrooms. When America was struck by race riots in the late 1960's, major news organizations realized too late that their failure to hire black reporters had impaired their ability to cover America. In the same way, our failure to hire more red state evangelicals limits our understanding of and ability to cover America today. I think we're nuts not to regulate handguns more strictly, but I also think that gun owners have a point when they complain that gun issues often seem to be covered by people who don't know a 12-gauge from an AR-15.

Interestingly, especially given the title of Bernard Goldberg's second book on the press, Kristof writes:

If one word can capture the public attitude toward American journalists, I'm afraid it's "arrogant." Not surprisingly, I think that charge is grossly unfair. But it's imperative that we respond to that charge - not by dismissing it, but by working far more diligently to reconnect with the public.

Now this is extremely penetrating. It's imperative to respond to the charge of arrogance in some way other than by being arrogant.

The expertise of journalists

One of the arguments I've had is over the special powers journalists have.

In particular, I've traded words with one person who had journalism training, and disputes the notion that there is any particular bias in the media. As a journalism student, he tells me, he learned techniques to eliminate bias from his reporting.

One article I read in a combat magazine pointed out that police officers routinely believe they are better at shooting and driving than they actually are. I suspect journalists routinely believe they are more objective and more knowledgeable than they actually are.

Vox Day cites the New York Times' Nicholas Kristol:

it's a rare news organization that is trusted by more than one-third of the people in either party: the one thing Democrats and Republicans agree on is that the news media are not trustworthy.
The main reason is that they're not. The news media is largely a bunch of undereducated pseudointellectuals who regularly confuse having heard of something with expertise in it. Being educated in journalism instead of an actual discipline, they tend to have a very small smattering of general knowledge and no depth of knowledge in anything.

So much for knowledge. As for objectivity, it's very hard to obtain a balanced set of viewpoints for an interview if you don't know enough about a subject to know what constitutes its mainstream of thought. One example: any number of pieces about Republican tax cuts that fail to quote even one economist who supports them.

The walls have eyes

Cameras are recording increasingly large amounts of what goes on in public life. For better or for worse, anything you do is likely to be recorded on film somewhere – perhaps several times.

Last summer, New York City police arrested nearly two thousand people during the Republican National Convention. ... arrestees began emerging from the the city's detention center at Pier 57, on the far west side of Manhattan, often denying that they'd done anything confrontational--some saying they were not protesting at all, and only guilty only of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. <snip> Thanks to citizen video efforts, often organized by free speech activists such as I Witness Video [PDF of an organizing flyer], visual records are proving that people were swept up without cause and didn't resist, that police officers have misrepresented the events at trial, and that prosecutors have selectively edited the video record to prove their cases.

Camcorders (and cell phones) run by people specifically documenting events will record a lot. Street cameras, ATM and other security cameras, and an increasing number of "incidental video recording devices" (IVRDs) will doubtless cover more and more of the public space. Chances are, before too long, anything you do outside of private property (and inside a fair amount of it) will be recorded.

The anonymous face in the crowd may be a thing of the past.

Technology's potential to enhance and protect our rights rises and falls on the intent of the person--or government department--using it. At this moment, in these cases, at least, the rights of individuals seem to be winning.

And this is mainly because the technology is cheap enough to be widely owned by the private citizen.

Economic fallacies

Economics is a hard topic.

Economics is a highly theoretical discipline with particular characteristics of its own, the main one being that economic problems tend to require long chains of complex reasoning. It is this inherent difficulty that gives rise to an abundance of fallacies and explains why people, seeing only the immediate effects of a particular policy or investment decision, tend to fall into the fallacy of composition and assume the same must hold for the economy as a whole.

So what fallacies are we looking at here?

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Two dangerous myths — one a crude derivation of the other — appeared as an explanation for Clinton’s boom. One was that a new economy based on information emerged in which “gain sharing” would replace rent, wages and profits. With information as a new and vital factor of production productivity and living standards would surge even as manufacturing disappeared. This is like saying that we don’t need farming and fishing because we have supermarkets. <snip> The other and more advanced fallacy stated that technology had resulted in less capital and labour per unit of output. In other words, not only is capital a substitute for labour but capital saving machinery has reduced the need for additional investment, which has even created more advanced products. And this is why America was able to grow with very little savings.

The Clinton boom was attributed to high-tech, which was supposed to bypass the need for more resource-intensive processes. However, those who look at high-tech solutions tend to forget about the large amount of processing that goes into making the pieces of each high-tech innovation. For example, they look at the magic of the Internet, and forget the labor and materials that go into, for example, manufacturing and laying the cables.

The fundamental point is that rising productivity comes from investment. That US investment is more productive than Japanese and European investment is due entirely it having freer markets. This is the basic reason it produces more for less. This dynamism (denied by some) has, I believe, caused more productive techniques to be developed.

In other words, sitting on one's laurels doesn't work.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Evolution, science, and God

Ah, yes. Intelligent Design - Intelligent Origin Theory continues to boil over in the blogosphere. I found a trackback to the post linked above from John Schroeder at Blogotional, and decided to read it.

Unfortunately, I think all of this is "much ado about nothing," or at least a huge discussion over a minor matter. I think those of us on the Christian side of things are making this into a far bigger deal than we need to, and I think those on the evolution side of things are overstepping their boundaries.

Oh, the hidden premises buried in this one paragraph!

...continued in full post...

First: Neither side thinks this is "much ado about nothing". This is obviously true, since neither side is willing to quit the field.

Second: What, exactly, is "the evolution side of things"?

Third: What are "their boundaries"?

Reading further, I can see a few thoughts that have some bearing on these questions.

I shall now turn my attention to the matter of what science does and does not do. I have seen lots of stuff about theories being "falsifiable" or not. I am afraid, I don't get it. I'll explain science as I understand it.

Here's Schroeder runs into trouble. In failing to understand falsifiability, he fails to understand science, Master's degree notwithstanding.

Now to be fair, this is one of the big ways in which science is hard for people to understand. It demands an approach to knowledge that is completely backwards from the way we normally look at the world.

Normally, we think in terms of cause and effect – A causes B, which causes C, D, and E. D causes F and G, and so on. If we carry out some action, it will have some predictable result. We don't have to know all the innermost details of what's going on, as long as the result comes out right in the end.

Scientists attempt to build models to explain what happens in the world around us. Then they try to pick those models apart, looking for any cases where the models don't give the right answers.

Building the model is known as forming a theory, and trying to pick it apart is known as attempting to falsify it. If we find a case where the model does not describe what we actually see happening, then we have proven the model false, and we need to build a new one. (Or at least modify the old one.)

We can use unlimited imagination and creativity building models, but then they have to survive comparison with reality. If it predicts some observation that is not consistent with what we actually see, it is proven false, and out it goes. As long as it agrees with what we actually see, we keep it.

Why this emphasis on proving theories false? Why not just prove them true in the first place and have done with it?

We can't.

It's impossible.

A theory is an attempt to build a model that will cover all possible cases, throughout the entire universe, and for all time. There is no way to test all possible cases, nor any way to run a test on a theory everywhere in the universe, or at all times in the lifespan of the universe.

All we can do is test our theories in those parts of the universe we can reach, and look for observable consequences of these theories in the parts of the universe we can see. If the laws of nature change as soon as we reach a part of the universe outside our observable range, we'll never be able to tell.

We assume there is no such discontinuity. In a way, that's an act of faith, but in my opinion, no more so than assuming we're not all plugged into The Matrix and observing only what the master computer wants us to see. (Can you prove we're not?)

So we can generate theories like crazy, but testing them against the facts will winnow the vast majority of them out from the get-go. Some will last longer. Some, like Newton's Laws of Motion and Law of Universal Gravitation, will last for hundreds of years before we find some fact that doesn't match the theory.

Einstein's theories account for some things Newton's theories don't. Therefore, Newton's theories are now shown to be false (they've been falsified), and Einstein is right – subject to new data that proves him wrong.

So what are the boundaries of science?

God is, by definition, supernatural – that is to say, outside the system. Thus no scientific system or model can ever include God. That statement; does not mean that God does not exist, it simply means that because God is outside the largest system we can define, the physical universe, he cannot be a part of the scientific process. In fact, this affirms that God is supernatural and not subject to our understanding – a fact that I personally take great comfort in.

OK, so far, so good. However, there is one other thing we have to look at.

Stipulating, for the moment, that God exists, what is his effect on the world? Is there any observable consequence of his existence? Is there any observation we can make that would yield different results based on whether there is, or is not, a God?

Astronomers believe there are clouds of cold, dark matter around galaxies. They believe this because galaxies are spinning faster than they should, given the amount of visible matter they contain. The stars and clouds of gas we can see are not large enough – do not have enough of a gravitational pull – to keep the stars in the galaxy from flying away from each other from the spin. It's like piling a whole bunch of pebbles on a lazy susan and spinning it as fast as you can –' the pebbles go flying off the sides. Those rapidly spinning galaxies should have dispersed long ago. Something we can't see is there, and it exerts enough gravitational pull to make up the difference.

One thing science is capable of saying about God is whether there is any need to invoke him as part of any theory. And so far, no theory has been proposed that would yield different results in the case where there is a God, as opposed to the case where there isn't.

The equations for gravitational force have no God term in them. Neither do the equations for motion. Chemistry ultimately obeys Schroedinger's wave equation, which also lacks a God term.

And Darwin proposed a mechanism for evolution which did away with any volitional act on the part of the life forms that were evolving. Giraffes developed longer necks over time, not because individual giraffes wanted to reach higher; they developed longer necks because the individuals with shorter necks were less likely to succeed in the task of passing on their genes.

The entire process is reduced to a mechanical model, with no need for any volitional act on the part of any agent. Just as Newton did away with Aristotle's notions of rocks racing faster in joyous anticipation as they neared their home realm in the earthly sphere, Darwin did away with life forms desiring a particular change and working to achieve it – and with external intelligences guiding life forms toward any sort of teleological goal.

We should fight the political battle here, but let's change the battleground. Rather than try and get God's role in creation somehow inserted into the curriculum, why don't we work to limit the curriculum, so that it is God neutral – which is what evolution really is. Science has nothing to say about God – he is outside the realm of science, definitionally.

Fine with me. Will you help me get the Discovery Institute and others of their ilk to follow along?

But one small problem:

If religion has no place in the classroom, then neither does "noreligion." Both are statements of belief, not science.

Between religion and nonreligion, all bases are covered. Mr. Schroeder has just stated that nothing should be taught in the schools. I know I've seen any number of anti-evolutionists who seem determined that if their views aren't taught, none will be taught. Seldom, though, is the goal stated that openly.

Maybe he didn't mean that. Maybe he simply lost his hold of logic for a moment.

Let's hope so.

Now physics is wrong too

When the first reports came out saying Einstein's relativity may be wrong in at least some details, some commented on how the ID/IOT community would treat it. An article dealing the same way with biology, and evolution in particular, would be trumpted as "proof" that "evolution is disproven".

Now it seems some of the ID/IOT crowd has taken an interest in the topic.

What interests me is why the ID crowd cares about this issue. After all, they have enough to do trying to re-brand science as religion and creationism as science. As is usual with this group, the answer is marketing. To improve the likelihood of people believing that biological science is a dogma it is helpful to try to show that the same is true of all science, even physics.

In my list of creationist tactics, I have:

1) Interpret Any Uncertainty Anywhere In Science As Implying Total Uncertainty Everywhere In Science. Science is by nature tentative. Anything on the cutting edge is going to have considerable uncertainty attached to it. Anything science is certain about now will be found to have had considerable uncertainty attached to it at some point in history. As soon as any evidence of any uncertainty is found, present it and claim that scientists therefore don't know what they're talking about.

Closely related, we have:

2) Trumpet Any Mistakes Made By Any Scientist, And Ignore The Fact That These Mistakes Are Corrected. Most people in your audience will not be well versed in the history of science. You can flood an audience with accounts of mistakes in science, and accounts of things scientists thought that are now known not to be true. With enough such accounts, you can build a superficially compelling picture of "Science Always Getting It Wrong". Even experts in the history of science will not be able to directly address all the examples you bring up. Anything left unaddressed can be waved in front of the audience as "not refuted". You can then use the fact that something has been left unrefuted to claim that everything has been left unrefuted.

A review of the arguments offered by professional evolution debunkers will invariably feature at least one of these twelve tactics. Any number of amateurs fall for the pros' scam every year.

How Sweden dealt with prostitution

(Hat tip: John Ray.)

Sweden has embarked on a program that has greatly reduced prostitution in the country.

By what complex formula has Sweden managed this feat? Amazingly, Sweden's strategy isn't complex at all. It's tenets, in fact, seem so simple and so firmly anchored in common sense as to immediately spark the question, "Why hasn't anyone tried this before?" In 1999, after years of research and study, Sweden passed legislation that a) criminalizes the buying of sex, and b) decriminalizes the selling of sex. The novel rationale behind this legislation is clearly stated in the government's literature on the law: "In Sweden prostitution is regarded as an aspect of male violence against women and children. It is officially acknowledged as a form of exploitation of women and children and constitutes a significant social problem... gender equality will remain unattainable so long as men buy, sell and exploit women and children by prostituting them."

Interesting. Many have declared prostitution "exploitation of women", but this seems to be the first time anyone's taken that phrase seriously.

Why blogs?

Eugene Volokh has a post on why people read (and write) blogs. For those who just don't get it, this is a decent summary.

Power source for the future, or all wet?

Here's another energy source that is starting to attract attention.

We've posted a number of items about ocean power (aka tidal power or wave power).

In essence, the flow of water back and forth in the daily tides could be tapped for energy.

Oh, and one last cool thing about ocean power. Tides are generated from the pull of the Earth's moon. Ocean power can, in all seriousness, also be called Lunar Power.

Of course, this means pushing the Moon into an orbit farther from the Earth, and at the same time, slowing the Earth's rotation. The Moon used to be a lot closer, and will eventually settle into an orbit farther away, at about the same time the Earth's rotation has slowed to match the Moon's revolutions. At this point, this resource will be "used up".

I wonder how far along the process we are right now.


Live Science interviews Aubrey de Grey, a Cambridge University researcher who believes that within a quarter of a century, human life spans will be well into the low four digits.

Daunted at the prospect of living forever? Questioning the wisdom of such a course? Maybe you believe that, in the words of Ambassador Kosh, "You are not ready for immortality."

LS: Why do you personally want to live forever? AdG: It’s not really a matter of living forever, it’s just a matter of not wanting to die. One doesn’t live forever all in one go, one lives forever one year at a time. It’s just a case of "Well, life seems to be fun, and I don’t see any prospect of it ceasing to be fun unless I get frail and miserable and start declining." So if I can avoid declining, I’ll stay with it really.

I doubt any of my readers would have any qualms about people wanting to fix health problems. How about "reconditioning" the circulatory system, even though it winds up extending life and greatly reducing aging-related heart attacks and circulatory problems?

What if cancers were routinely cured or prevented? Cancer is largely a disease of the aged, and certainly shortens the lives of those who have it.

What if you could restore muscle tone so old people weren't feeble?

What if you could restore nerve function and cure blindness, deafness, and the loss of other senses? (Oh, yes. Cure Alzheimer's while you're at it.)

How many people, at any age, would take a pill or a shot that did away with the health problems they've accumulated over the last, say, ten years, despite having a "side effect" of extending their projected life span by that amount?

How many people who say they oppose immortality would vote against adding one healthy year to everyone's lifespan?

[Update: More here

Friday, April 08, 2005

Why science makes no sense

One of the reasons people have a hard time learning science is that it demands that one upside-down.

One item in particular is one I got to thinking about during all the medical news of the past month. It has to do with statistical probabilities and "rejection regions".

Suppose you're running a hospital, and you have a number of patients. Some of them will be very obviously alive and functioning. You can hold a conversation with them, for example. Or they'll hit the call button for the nurse and ask for something every now and then. Even if you happened to wander in while they were asleep, you wouldn't classify them as brain dead or in any other way "out of it".

There are patients whose hearts have just quit working. All other metabolic processes have stopped. They're well beyond the "pining for the fjords" stage. They're very obviously dead.

Then there are those somewhere in the middle. Maybe you have a patient – call her Sheri Tiavo, to use a thoroughly fictitious name – who is somewhere in the middle. She's never responsive enough that you can hold a conversation with her on any level, but she's just responsive enough that you can't declare her brain-dead.

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There's a line between "effectively alive" – there's someone home, and if we let the body die, we're killing a person – and "effectively dead". Sheri may be on one side of the line, or she may be on the other. We don't have a single test that will tell us, with 100% certainty, which side of the line she's on. The best we can get is assessments of the probability that she's on one side or the other.

Medical tests usually don't return a result of "normal" and "diseased" or even "normal" and "abnormal". Usually, you get some number, corresponding to a level of something measurable, and you compare it with textbook values tha define a normal range. Anything within the range is considered normal, and anything outside the range is abnormal.

Take temperature, for example. "Normal" is 98.6 degrees F. You can show up with a temperature lower or higher than that number, and still be OK. If it's too high, you officially have a fever. If it's too low, you officially have other problems. But in both cases, someone has to decide just how far away from the textbook figure you can get before you have a problem.

The same thing happens with drug testing. Generally, if you're tested for drugs, there will be some small background measurement, even if you're completely clean. If you've used drugs, there will be a large measurement. Somewhere in between, there has to be a cut-off below which any reading has to be considered part of the noise. Make it too high, and you miss some people who actually used drugs; make it too low, and you will classify innocent people as druggies based on a reading that is actually noise in the test procedure.

Science uses a statistical model to address this problem. Most of the time, for example, if you measure the temperature of a healthy person, you'll get a number close to the textbook average. Once in a great while, you'll get a number far away from that average. If you plot all these readings, you'll find they fall in a bell-curve around the average value.

The bell curve, or the Gaussian curve, is well-characterized. Once we know the standard deviation, we know how likely we are to see any number any distance away from the average value. A value here may occur by chance one time in twenty. A value over there may occur one time in a hundred. We'll see a value way out here one time in a million.

If we're lucky, the distance between "normal" and "sick" is several standard deviations. If a normal person breathes, say, ten times per minute, a person who breathes fewer than once per hour is well below the normal and can safely be called "dead".

But what if that person's on a respirator? What if without the respirator, he normally breathes only once per minute? Once every ten minutes? At some point, we have to decide on a number that means the brain's just not running the lungs any more.