Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Gas pains

Economics is the study of how people respond to incentives.

In this case, the incentive is increased energy prices, especially oil prices.

Here's how the market is responding to these incentives. (Hat tip: Cafe Hayek)

In Libya, which has some of the biggest untapped crude reserves in the world, lifted sanctions and the prospect of getting $60 or more for a barrel is helping induce Chevron, Marathon and numerous others to open millions of acres for drilling. Exploration is also creating jobs and expanding supply in Russia, Angola, China, Algeria, Britain, India, Canada, Azerbaijan, Nigeria, Poland, Malaysia, New Zealand and Trinidad and Tobago, reports Oil & Gas Investor. The profit signal sent by $60 oil is so strong that last month the number of exploratory rigs around the world hit its highest level since 1986, says Baker Hughes, the petro services company.
Chevron is expanding its Pascagoula, Miss., refinery by a fourth. Kinder Morgan and Sempra want to spend $3 billion on a pipeline bringing natural gas from the Rockies to the Midwest and East. Texas-based Valero and ConocoPhillips are spending billions to improve their ability to process sour crude, which is cheaper than sweet and will help bring down prices. Thai Oil is spending $1 billion on new output capacity. Brazil just announced plans to increase processing capacity by 20 percent. China and India have doubled refining capacity in recent years. In short, high prices have spurred the global petroleum industry to make up for decades of miserable investment and operating with rickety equipment. We're finally investing in the future and ensuring our ability to produce energy for our children.

(Kind of a pity the oil companies had all those "obscene profits" to spend on this expansion, isn't it?)

As rising oil prices make alternatives look attractive, we're also getting the strongest incentives in two decades to reduce our petro addiction and take the next step. Public transit use seems to be rising. Ridership on the MARC commuter rail system is up 13 percent since 2003 despite ridiculous breakdowns and delays, The Sun reported last week. Public transit ridership also seems to be up mildly in places from Washington to St. Louis to Los Angeles, according to various newspaper reports. Sales are soaring for "hybrid" vehicles that run on gas and electricity. Toyota doubled production of its Prius hybrid this year. Ford has a hybrid SUV. GM has a hybrid truck and says it could produce a fuel-cell car that runs on hydrogen by 2020. Florida-based FPL Group is building up to 750 megawatts' worth of wind-powered electricity generation this year - nearly half the capacity of Constellation Energy's Calvert Cliffs nuclear facility. Frederick-based BP Solar, a division of BP PLC, is expanding again after downsizing in 2003, the Frederick News-Post reported a few months ago.

The predictable result of this particular incentive?

I hate to say it, but if this keeps up we might avoid a 1970s-style energy crisis, with its shortages, gas lines, severe recession and petroleum prices a third higher than they are now, adjusted for inflation. We might even set the stage for a new era of low oil prices, like we had in the 1980s and 1990s, or at least new stability.

Anyone care to bet what the price of gasoline, adjusted for inflation and averaged over the entire year, will be in 2010? I'll bet it's lower than today.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Driving my SUV to make us energy independent!

The headline for the linked article is, "10 MPG: The Road to Energy Independence".

I'm afraid I'm not doing that well – my van gets close to 20 MPG.

What we have here is the counter-intuitive notion that increasing fuel efficiency actually causes us to use more fuel, not less. (Kind of reminds you of the "paperless office", doesn't it?)

Increases in energy efficiency have been the rule in the United States for a century – and especially in the past 30 years. But, as [Peter] Huber and [Mark] Mills write [in "The Bottomless Well"], "Efficiency doesn't lower demand, it raises it…. Efficiency has come, and demand has risen apace." ...the authors show how the "energy cost" of transportation in the U.S. fell by nearly one-third between 1973 and 2003; that is, we used to use nine gallons of fuel for every vehicle mile, now about six. But over this same period, total fuel use did not drop by one-third (as it would under the silly static analysis employed by Mineta and Zakaria); instead, fuel use rose by more than half, from a little under 120 billion gallons per year to over 180 billion gallons.

How does that happen? It's supply and demand again.

Increasing efficiency means you get more bang for your buck. That equates to spending fewer bucks for the same amount of bang. Therefore, bang is cheaper.

When becomes cheaper, so-called marginal uses become profitable. These are car trips that weren't worth making before, or car trips by people who couldn't afford to make them before. These car trips consume a non-zero amount of fuel, and this use is added to the fuel use already ongoing. Thus, as efficiency improves, demand goes up.

It thus follows that if you want us to conserve fuel, you make cars less efficient. This causes some uses to become too expensive, and those trips quit happening. As the trips quit happening, fuel use decreases.

Harry Potter and the half-assed security

In the latest Harry Potter book, we see Hogwarts implementing security precautions in order to safeguard its students and faculty.

One step that was taken was that all the students were searched – wanded, in fact – to detect any harmful magic. In addition, all mail coming in or out was checked for harmful magic.

In spite of these precautions, two students are nearly killed by cursed items.

One of the items was a poisoned bottle of mead, which made it onto school grounds and into a professor's office.

It turned out that packages sent from various addresses in the nearby town were not checked. The addresses were trusted, and anything received from them was considered safe. When a key person was compromised (in this case, by a mind-control spell), the trusted address was no longer trustworthy, and a gaping hole in security was created.

Of course, since everyone knew everything was checked on its way into the school, no one felt the need to take any special precautions.

The moral of the story is, inadequate security can be worse than no security at all.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Chutzpah in New London

Tim Shaughnessy, in Division of Labour, reports on the latest newspaper story from New London.

The Fairfield County Weekly reports that the city of New London: a) claims that, thanks to the ruling vindicating the city's condemnation of their land, the homeowners have been living on city property and thus owe the city back rent, b) claims that said homeowners have been living on city property ever since the city condemned their property back in 2000, and c) therefore the city owes the homeowners "just compensation" according to the fair market value of the homes. But the fair market value in 2000, not today.

I'm almost inclined to suspect a conspiracy on the part of the New London bureaucracy to do away with eminent domain altogether. If they can make it sufficiently unpopular, it will be legislated out of existence.

1 = 1 + N

What constitutes one individual, for purposes of studying evolution?

Sean Rice, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary and biology at Yale University, [said], "Levels at which selection acts is not a philosophical question, but is a property of the biological system. You can't correctly represent evolution if you don't recognize the right level of selection."

What? You can't just count heads?

Only for things that have them.
For unicellular life, clearly cells are individuals. But is a eukaryotic cell a part of a larger system, an individual entity, or a community amassed from endosymbionts acquired long ago?

The first approach reminds me of the tagline: "Life is anything that dies when you stomp on it."

The Latin root of individual is indivisible. You can't chop an individual organism into parts and still maintain the function of the individual.

Part of the problem is, there's a range of conditions between separate, independent individuals through various degrees of symbiosis, to effective fusion into a single organism. Mitochondria are believed to have started out as independent bacteria that were absorbed by early cells. (The first stages, going from independent existence to symbiosis where each is essential to the other's function, has been duplicated in the lab.) Now they're part of the cell.

Where, along this continuum, do you quit counting two (or more) individuals, and start calling it one more complex individual?

The existence of such continuua go a long way toward showing how to bridge the gulfs pointed out by creationists in their arguments against evolution.

Bush on ID

From The Scientist blog

So did President Bush really advocate teaching "intelligent design" in his interview with Texas reporters the other day? Or were his musings about exposing students to different ideas simply a better-than-average example of political weasel-speak?
Carl Zimmer, an author, science reporter, and fine blogger on evolution, says he would have asked the President how he reconciles teaching intelligent design alongside evolution with the fact that no administration, his own included, has ever funded studies based on ID.

I read that and cringed. Can't you hear Bush replying, "Really? How 'bout that? Dang, they should be getting tax money too!" You can bet creationists are thinking up ways to make that happen even as we speak. Just what the funding agencies need: more White House and Congressional pressure to underwrite their pet projects and (literally) sacred cows. As if the federal grant-making process isn't politicized enough.

Change your language, change your personality?

It appears language may send roots deeper into the brain than we'd thought.

Psychologists have discovered that people take on the characteristics of foreign nationals when they switch into their language... <snip> The personality changes, however, run deeper than a desire to gesticulate wildly when talking in Italian or to plunge into gloom when speaking Russian. According to research, using different languages alters basic characteristics traits such as extroversion and neuroticism.

Of course, the question is, "how much". The research was based on a study of a collection of170,000 personality tests, so I bet the total effect was a tiny fraction of the normal variability.

Eenie, meenie, chili-beanie, the spirit is about to sign...

When Sheila Lane was told by her late father's bank that it could not close his account without his signature, she took his ashes to the local branch, slammed them on the counter and told staff:

"If you think you can get a signature out of him then you are a better person than me."

Well, as a policy, it would make it harder to steal the identities of the dead...

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Dembski's lecture at the Niels Bohr Institute

(Hat tip: P.Z. Myers.)

William Dembski, author of The Design Inference, spoke on his notions of specified complexity at the Niels Bohr Institute. His audience was seriously Bohred.

In the hour at his disposal in front of a friendly-minded but mathematically knowledgeable audience, Dembski wove like a freshman about to fail. He repeated his heuristic, hand-waving arguments endlessly, drew stains on the blackboard, but didn't produce a single result of any mathematical value. Unfortunately, this is also what a mathematician gets from reading his "mathematical" book, The Design Inference, which, incidentally, is widely used to scare people who are intimidated by mathematical equations. It looks impressive, but in actuality contains no coherent mathematics. But now Dembski can boast that he, as a researcher of Intelligent Design, was invited to the Niels Bohr Institute as well as the Danish Technical University. What he doesn't mention is that he will never be invited again.

Apparently, those who know what he's talking about know he's got nothing to say.

Intelligent science education

My essay on science education is up.

Discussions of the merits of evolution and Intelligent Design can quickly get lost in a maze of claims and counter-claims, as both sides wheel out reams of evidence and counter-evidence. Every single claim leads into yet another maze of technical jargon and scientific subtleties that take hours, if not days, to explain. It's no wonder spectators throw up their hands and declare, "A pox on both your houses!" Buried under all this activity, there is another question -- and this one is far more basic. What should we be teaching in our science courses, and how should we teach it?

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Learning modalities

Kim Swygert cites an article from the AFT Newsletter on the subject of different modes of learning.

Question: What does cognitive science tell us about the existence of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners and the best way to teach them? Answer: The idea that people may differ in their ability to learn new material depending on its modality—that is, whether the child hears it, sees it, or touches it—has been tested for over 100 years. And the idea that these differences might prove useful in the classroom has been around for at least 40 years. What cognitive science has taught us is that children do differ in their abilities with different modalities, but teaching the child in his best modality doesn’t affect his educational achievement. What does matter is whether the child is taught in the content’s best modality. All students learn more when content drives the choice of modality.

Conclusion: Wrenching various subjects into different modes will not make them easier for children to learn. In fact, it will make them harder to learn.

Conclusion: Some children will be slower than others at learning certain subjects. (Some kids will be "good at math", others won't.) Period. If you fiddle with how the subject is presented, you'll just slow them down more.


If people with extreme views are "extremists", does that make people with views closer to the average "mean-ists"?


The first example of medical research conducted entirely over the internet has been carried out.

the researchers' use of the Internet for everything – from recruitment to patient consent to data collection – makes the study unique. Previous Internet-based trials used the Web for most, but not all, steps of the research process.

Internet-based studies tend to be cheaper and faster, but it was important to show you could still do "gold standard" quality research without meeting your subjects face-to-face.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Cindy Sheehan

(Hat tip: Betsy Newmark.)

Cindy Sheehan has been demanding "answers". Of course, as the mother of a dead soldier, who opposes the war in Iraq, she's being interviewed on an almost constant basis.

Opinions differ as to her motives and her emotional state. I suspect it's far more complicated than it's being painted, on all sides. I also suspect the constant interviewing will allow her to wallow in the anger/denial stage of her grief long enough to wear a hole too big for her to escape from easily. This can't be good for her at all.

If she really does want answers, though, Mohammed from Iraq the Model has a powerful one.
I have heard your story and I understand that you have the full right to ask people to stand by your side and support your cause. At the beginning I told myself, this is yet another woman who lost a piece of her heart and the questions of war, peace and why are killing her everyday.
I know how you feel Cindy, I lived among the same pains for 35 years but worse than that was the fear from losing our loved ones at any moment. Even while I'm writing these words to you there are feelings of fear, stress, and sadness that interrupt our lives all the time but in spite of all that I'm sticking hard to hope which if I didn't have I would have died years ago. Ma'am, we asked for your nation's help and we asked you to stand with us in our war and your nation's act was (and still is) an act of ultimate courage and unmatched sense of humanity. Our request is justified, death was our daily bread and a million Iraqi mothers were expecting death to knock on their doors at any second to claim someone from their families.
We cried out of joy the day your son and his comrades freed us from the hands of the devil and we went to the streets not believing that the nightmare is over. We practiced our freedom first by kicking and burning the statues and portraits of the hateful idol who stole 35 years from the life of a nation. For the first time air smelled that beautiful, that was the smell of freedom. The mothers went to break the bars of cells looking for the ones they lost 5, 12 or 20 years ago and other women went to dig the land with their bare hand searching for a few bones they can hold in their arms after they couldn't hold them when they belonged to a living person. I recall seeing a woman on TV two years ago, she was digging through the dirt with her hands. There was no definite grave in there as the whole place was one large grave but she seemed willing to dig the whole place looking for her two brothers who disappeared from earth 24 years ago when they were dragged from their colleges to a chamber of hell. Her tears mixed with the dirt of the grave and there were journalists asking her about what her brothers did wrong and she was screaming "I don't know, I don't know. They were only college students. They didn't murder anyone, they didn't steal, and they didn't hurt anyone in their lives. All I want to know is the place of their grave".

In his turn, Mohammed wants an answer from Cindy Sheehan:

You are free to go and leave us alone but what am I going to tell your million sisters in Iraq? Should I ask them to leave Iraq too? Should I leave too? And what about the eight millions who walked through bombs to practice their freedom and vote? Should they leave this land too?

There's lots more. Go read it.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Why my home network uses cables

Last year, on the advice of Jerry Pournelle, I installed a hardware router and started using that as a firewall. I chose to forego the convenience of wireless networking and run patch cable. (Home Depot sells vampire style connectors for making, among other things, wall sockets. They are very easy to use. Even I can wire a house for a network using them.)

Sure, smart people set their password protection on wireless networks. If they use a secure password, it'll take a long time to crack, and you won't have someone parked in front of your house for that long, cracking it.

Now it turns out a cracker may not need to be right outside the house.

At DefCon earlier this month, a group was able to set up an unamplified 802.11 network at a distance of 124.9 miles. <snip> Bad news for those of us who rely on physical distance to secure our wireless networks.

The upshot?

Whenever you hear a manufacturer talk about a distance limitation for any wireless technology -- wireless LANs, RFID, Bluetooth, anything -- assume he's wrong. If he's not wrong today, he will be in a couple of years. Assume that someone who spends some money and effort building more sensitive technology can do much better, and that it will take less money and effort over the years. Technology always gets better; it never gets worse. If something is difficult and expensive now, it will get easier and cheaper in the future.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


Talin, a regular guest and panelist at Loscon, has a favorite saying about errors. "The point is not preventing mistakes, the point is having a good error correction mechanism." This is because you're never going to prevent all mistakes.

Walter Williams makes the same point:

We're not omniscient. That means making errors is unavoidable. Understanding the nature of errors is vital to our well-being. Let's look at it.

In this article, Williams looks at errors in knowledge – guessing wrong when absolute certainty is not available. Since absolute certainty is never available in the real world, we do a lot of guessing, and some of our guesses will be wrong.

...continued in full post...

You'll also find these called an alpha error and beta error, respectively. You can also call them "false negative" and "false positive". For example, a test for some disease can be accurate, or it can yield a false positive result – you test positive for the disease when you don't have it after all, or it can yield a false negative result – the test tells you you don't have the disease when in fact you do.
There are two types of errors, nicely named the type I error and the type II error. The type I error is when we reject a true hypothesis when we should accept it. The type II error is when we accept a false hypothesis when we should reject it. In decision-making, there's always a non-zero probability of making one error or the other. That means we're confronted with asking the question: Which error is least costly?

In the case of this test, a false positive means more tests to confirm or rule out the disease, some worry, and maybe a few unnecessary medical treatments. A false negative means your disease goes untreated, which can be fatal.

He applies the concept of Type I and Type II errors to some real-world issues:

The invasion of Iraq, based on evidence Iraq had weapons of mass destruction
False negative: there aren't any WMD after all, but Saddam Hussein has been toppled and is no longer filling up mass graves, promoting terrorism in Israel, or threatening the stability of the region. False positive: There is no invasion, but Saddam Hussein uses WMD on a neighbor, a western country, or provides them to Al Qaeda or some other terrorist group. (Maybe the Palestinians would have wanted some?)
Waging war against Germany based on its atomic bomb program
During World War II, our intelligence agencies thought that Germany was close to having an atomic bomb. That intelligence was later found to be flawed, but it played an important role in the conduct of the war.
Approval of drugs by the FDA
FDA officials can approve a drug that turns out to have nasty side-effects, or they can hold up or ban a drug that's actually safe.
Which error do FDA officials have the greater incentive to make? If a FDA official errs by approving a drug that has unanticipated, dangerous side effects, he risks congressional hearings, disgrace and termination. Erring on the side of under-caution produces visible, sick victims who are represented by counsel and whose plight is hyped by the media. Erring on the side of over-caution is another matter.

Between 1967 and 1976, beta blockers were being used in Europe, but were held up by the FDA. In 1979, a pharmacologist estimated that one single beta blocker could have prevented 10,000 lives each year due to irregular heartbeat.

Assuming this is a typical number for each beta blocker, and assuming there were two beta blockers being held up by the FDA, that's 180,000 people who died as a result of FDA inaction.

The type I error, erring on the side of over-caution, has little or no cost to FDA officials. Grieving survivors of those 10,000 people who unnecessarily died each year don't know why their loved one died, and surely they don't connect the death to FDA over-caution. For FDA officials, these are the best kind of victims – invisible ones. When an FDA official holds a press conference to announce its approval of a new life-saving drug, I'd like to see just one reporter ask: How many lives would have been saved had the FDA not delayed the drug's approval?

To be sure, these are "theoretical lives". These people might have died when they did anyway. But then again, when we're prepared to worry ourselves to death over whether the water has five parts per billion of arsenic or ten parts per billion, we're down in the realm of theoretical lives. There's no way to point to any one death and say it was a result of the extra five parts per billion of arsenic. Why is that worthy of concern, but people who stand in the way of a life-saving drug aren't?

The bottom line is, we humans are not perfect. We will make errors. Rationality requires that we recognize and weigh the cost of one error against the other.

And the first step is to recognize that there are costs on both sides. Always.

Teaching the controversy

(Let's see if this link works...)

The call has gone out for schools to "teach the controversy" about Evolution versus Intelligent Design / Intelligent Origin Theories. It's occurred to me that, if done properly, this could be a good thing.

Here's an example of a high school science teacher who does teach the controversy:

In a research project entitled "What is Science?", I allow my grade 11 science students to investigate any of the above. The project has two parts. In part "A", they clarify the meaning of science by researching and distilling a definition for it. They explain the scientific method and how it is applied. They also explain the process of peer-review and how it works. They also address the limitations of science and the types of questions that it can't answer (eg: how many fairies can dance on the head of a pin?) In part "B" they can select any other endeaver that they feel is a pseudo-science and proceed to demonstrate why it is not a science by comparing it to the criteria of part "A". This is a lot of fun for them and at times is even hilarious. What typically amazes the students is the way in which people seem to be driven to believe weird things. Of course, creationism, along with astrology, spiritualism, telekinesis and so on, are often chosen by students for investigation.

And the result of teachng the controversy?

I find it fascinating that when one actually "teaches the controversy" by allowing students to freely investigate the issue it always turns out the same: creationism, scientific creationism, and ID are NOT science. Do you think that's what the Discovery Institute was hoping for?

Monday, August 08, 2005

God vs. Science

I'm echoing the headline given to the article I'm linking. Most of the time, I'm inclined not to echo the headline, because the writer of a piece seldom writes the headline. However, in this case, the headline is also the first sentence of Bill (no one else's spin zone) O'Reilly.

(Oops! Did I tip my hand there? Naughty me...)

Last Wednseday, O'Reilly opined about the flap over Bush's statements about intelligent design / intellgent origin theory. In particular:

Whatever your belief, it should be respected. But the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science both reject intelligent design and don't want it mentioned in science classes. That, in my opinion, is fascism. There is no reason the students cannot be told that more than a few people, including some scientists, believe the creation of the world, no matter how it occurred, involved a higher power. What on earth is wrong with that?

The answer to that is in the opening sentence.

God versus science: that is the subject of this evening's "Talking Points Memo".

This is not a matter of "science versus God". Despite O'Reilly's attempt at sounding fair, balanced, and even-handed, he has laid out his agenda at the very start. If you believe in God, you can't believe what science tells you. If you accept the science, you may not be against God, but God is against you. If your experience is that no experiment, no observation, no explanation of how things came to be had any need to refer to God, then you're now on God's "b list".

Is that what we want taught in schools? And about how many different subjects do we want that taught?

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Sins of evolutionists and creationists

(Additional reading...)

Frederick Turner considers evolution to be proved. Nevertheless, he seems to wish "a pox on both your houses". He considers both sides of the debate to have sinned.

On the sins of the creationist contingent, he notes:

...the sin is intellectual dishonesty. It begins innocently as a wise recognition that faith must precede reason, even if the faith is only in reason itself. But under pressure from a contemptuous academic elite the appeal to faith rapidly becomes anti-intellectualism and what Socrates identified as a great sin, "misologic" or treason against the Logos, against reason itself – in religious terms, a sin against the Holy Spirit. Under further pressure it resorts to rhetorical dishonesty and hypocrisy, to an attempt to appropriate the garments of science and reason, and so we get "creation science", the misuse of the term "intelligent design", the whole grotesque solemn sham of pseudoscientific periodicals and conferences on creation science, and a lame parade of scientific titles and degrees. A lie repeated often enough convinces the liar, and many creationists may now have forgotten that they are lying at all.

...continued in full post...

Indeed, it seems as if creationists believe that science behaves like a religious order. The way to do battle with it is to adopt the trappings of the order, use the vocabulary, cite "proof texts" that support your point of view, and if you convince enough of the masses, the church will slowly move to align with the view you've been pushing. At the very least, you can provoke a schism, and your side of the schism can wage war against the infidels.

In a way, this argument seems to be that creationism has taken to lying about science, but it's an understandable reaction to the way academia has treated religion. I hope he's not making that argument – as I see it, this may explain, but it does not excuse, the falsehoods spread by creationists.

And indeed, he comes down more heavily against the evolutionists.

The polemical evolutionists are right about the truth of evolution. But the rightness of their cause has been deeply compromised by their own version of the creationists' sin. The evolutionists' sin, as I see it, is even greater, because it is three sins rolled into one.

Wow! A trinity!

The first is a profound failure of the imagination, which comes from a certain laziness and complacency. Somehow people, who should, because of their studies in biology, have been brought to a state of profound wonder and awe at the astonishing beauty and intricacy and generosity of nature, can think of nothing better to say than to gloomily pronounce it all meaningless and valueless.

It seems odd to claim that scientists have a "profound failure of the imagination". As I look at science, I see any number of ideas that are perfectly capable of turning a person's head inside out. The very notion of evolution, for example. I personally attribute the trouble so many have accepting it to a profound failure of imagination.

In any event, I'd love to see some examples of biologists pronouncing nature to be without value or meaning, gloomily or otherwise. I'm not at all sure what Mr. Tuner is talking about.

I suspect what Mr. Turner is complaining about is biologists who don't believe nature has the exact meaning he attributes it. It's possible he's been led astray by the statement that the processes that gave rise to everything in nature operated without any particular purpose. The only problem here is that nothing in science assumes any sort of purpose behind the workings of natural law. Science can observe that the gravitational constant is 6.67 X 10-11 N-m2/Kg2. Science can work out the effects of this fact on the rest of the universe. But it can't say, without a lot more evidence, that the gravitational constant has the value it does in order to bring about any particular result – that 6.67 X 10-11 is any better or worse a value than 6.66 X 10-11 or 6.68 X 10-11.

Value and meaning has to come from the minds that uncover the laws by which the universe works. A fact never speaks for itself, but has to be interpreted through the mind of a person and his or her values. A tool such as a knife can be used to save a life, or to take it. Both uses are made possible by the nature of the knife, but which prevails will depend on the values of the person using it.

Whatever we discover about the universe, none of it comes labeled with its meaning and value, like the price sticker on a can of beans in the store. Rather like the free market, the value we place on any fact about the universe is up to us to decide, not something imposed by a centralized authority. And just as cans of beans don't lose their value just because a Ministry of Pricing isn't around to set a price on them, the intricacies of the world around us don't become devoid of value just because there isn't a Ministry of Value around to specify a value for us.

Even if one is an atheist, nature surely has a meaning, that is, an abstract and volitional and mental implication: the human world and its ideas and arts and loves, including our appreciation for the beauty of nature itself.

And here, Mr. Turner makes my point for me. It is our appreciation for beauty. The meaning of nature is "an abstract and volitional and mental implication." All three bolded terms are attributes that are bestowed by human minds. They are not inherent in the object to which they refer. A sunset is beautiful because we find it so, and we find it beautiful because of the associations we draw between the phenomena and other elements in our lives. It is not beautiful because some designer stamped it with a "31.7 units of beauty" sticker.

As I see it, the first "sin" is the sin of failing to agree on a price list. Mr. Turner believes Nature has one, and only one, value. In fact, it's not as limited as his imagination appears to be.

Okay, sin number two:

The second sin is a profound moral failure – the failure of gratitude. If one found out that one had a billion dollars free and clear in one's bank account, whose source was unknown, one should want to find out who put it there, or if the donor were not a person but a thing or a system, what it was that has so benefited us. And one would want to thank whoever or whatever put it in our account. Our lives and experiences are surely worth more than a billion dollars to us, and yet we did not earn them and we owe it to someone or something to give thanks. And to despise and ridicule those who rightly or wrongly do want to give thanks and identify their benefactor as "God" is to compound the sin.

There is a point here, but let's look at it through another perspective.

Evolution is an example of spontaneous organization and emergent complexity. These are terms that refer to systems governed by simple rules, but where the rules can lead to very complicated results. In the free market, for example, an object as simple as a pencil requires at least four different parts, each of which must be constructed from component materials, using fairly sophisticated machinery. Goods flow through the web of the marketplace in such a way that pencils are readily available when you need them. Just walk into a store, and hand over a quarter, and you can have one of these devices for your very own.

The marketplace is a very complicated, very intricate, and very tightly coordinated system. Yet no one entity governs it. It is governed by the interaction of simple rules, and by millions of individuals looking out for their own best interest.

Most people who live in a free market are doing well (especially when compared with people who live in an unfree market), and some have achieved spectacular success. Everyone who has a place to live and food to eat should be grateful for this fact, and those who have more than the bare necessities should be even more so. But grateful to whom?

Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey earned their billions by giving millions of people something they wanted enough to hand over money for it. Making their product available was a way to get that money. The people who handed over the money did so for selfish reasons – they wanted the product. How does that rate any sort of gratitude?

If there were any one person in charge of this whole market system, it might be worth while to express gratitude to him or her. But as I've mentioned, there is no one such person.

How about the creator of this system? Adam Smith gets a lot of credit, but credit is also due the likes of Ricardo, Hayek, Say, and many others. And what they laid out was general principles. Applying them was up to someone else – a whole lot of someones else.

Gratitude to the government? Mostly for staying out of the way, I suppose, though they may have had some contribution to building the sets of incentives that make this system work. On the other hand, how much of that set arose because of the actions of the millions of people working in the system, and trying to make their own tasks a little bit easier? The person who made a fortune in the marketplace might be obliged to thank every individual who has ever participated in the market.

Now, take a system that's been running for fifteen billion years. Adam Smith published in 1776. God published in 14,000,008,000 BC, or thereabouts. The universe has been around 65 million times longer than Adam Smith's ideas have. It's had sixty-five million times as much time for complex systems to arise.

If, as science believes, the complexity we see is the result of the interactions of natural laws, do we thank those laws? Do we send Newton's Laws of Motion a birthday card? Maybe we should bake the laws of thermodynamics a cake? Do we give Schroedinger's wave equation a surf board?

We can postulate that a single entity made the laws of nature single-handed. We can even postulate that these laws were made with a particular purpose in mind. In that case, it makes sense to feel grateful, but it is quite a chain of "ifs". We may believe in that chain of "ifs". We may believe very strongly. However, we have not come up with a single experiment that would have a different outcome depending on whether or not these "ifs" are true.

This leads us to "sin" number three:

The third sin is again dishonesty. In many cases it is clear that the beautiful and hard-won theory of evolution, now proved beyond reasonable doubt, is being cynically used by some -- who do not much care about it as such -- to support an ulterior purpose: a program of atheist indoctrination, and an assault on the moral and spiritual goals of religion. A truth used for unworthy purposes is quite as bad as a lie used for ends believed to be worthy. If religion can be undermined in the hearts and minds of the people, then the only authority left will be the state, and, not coincidentally, the state's well-paid academic, legal, therapeutic and caring professions. If creationists cannot be trusted to give a fair hearing to evidence and logic because of their prior commitment to religious doctrine, some evolutionary partisans cannot be trusted because they would use a general social acceptance of the truth of evolution as a way to set in place a system of helpless moral license in the population and an intellectual elite to take care of them.

First of all, let me note that, buried in this paragraph, is a very important admission:

...If creationists cannot be trusted to give a fair hearing to evidence and logic because of their prior commitment to religious doctrine, some evolutionary partisans cannot be trusted because they would use a general social acceptance of the truth of evolution as a way to set in place a system of helpless moral license in the population and an intellectual elite to take care of them.

(Emphasis added.)

We have here a tacit admission that some "evolutionary partisans" can't be trusted to give a fair hearing to truth. On the other hand, all creationists are untrustworthy. This is a big deal.

The problem of ulterior motives is one I addressed under the first "sin". The value of a fact does not lie in the fact itself, but in the use to which people put it. If people take some truth and use it to support an evil end, the cure is to shine the light on this use, not to insist that a lie be taught instead. We could as easily argue that since religious truths have been used to support evil ends, we should therefore suppress the teaching of religion and teach something else instead.

Indeed, many people make this very case, and will greatly appreciate Mr. Turner adding his voice to their cause.

The future of aging

Peter Huber writes on technical and scientific issues, and his archive is a worthy bookmark. In this article, he investigates trends in medicine, and concludes that we may be around to watch them for a long, long, time.

Within a decade a mother in the early stages pregnancy will routinely direct her obstetrician to extract and stash away some embryonic cells for the future benefit of her unborn child. When the child gets to be 40 and has early Parkinson's or some other degenerative disease, another doctor will pluck those cells out of the freezer and cultivate a perfect cure.

It doesn't stop there. After all, what is a "disease" and what is "health"?

It depends on what your baseline is.

And if instead the child is fated to suffer nothing but the degenerative disease of old age, why then, he or she will have the option of curing that affliction, too. Restarting the biochemical clock for the body as a whole when you're 80 will be as straightforward as restarting it for any one specific tissue or organ when you're 40.

Most people I've talked with say they wouldn't want to live forever. Fine.

Let's postulate a medical treatment that grants another ten years of healthy life. Who'd turn that down? And when that ten years is running out, how many would decline the offer of another ten years?

Do that a handful of times, and you're well into your second century. Keep scheduling a treatment every tenth annual physical, and habit might carry you well into four digits.

Technology becomes cheaper as it gets older. A treatment affordable only by the super rich today will be routine, albeit a significan investment, in a decade or so. In fifty years, it'll be sold over the counter for pocket change in the drug stores.

Lifetime tenures, life sentences, and even "lifetime warranty" will take on a whole new meaning.

The future will be a very interesting place.