Monday, February 28, 2005

Want to create jobs? Outsource!

(Hat tip: Dissecting Leftism.)

John Stossel went looking for the lost jobs that have resulted from oursourcing.

ABC News asked the AFL-CIO for its best examples of workers who lost jobs because of outsourcing. The first people they told us to talk to were Shirley and Ronnie Bernard.

This couple lost their jobs because a Levi's plant closed down and shipped its work to Mexico. Many who were laid off had worked for the company for 20 years.

The effect of this is, clothing is cheaper – at the expense of people who no longer get money for making it here in the US. Because of this, they oppose outsourcing.

Since 1992, the US has lost 361 million jobs. However...

...continued in full post...

In the same time period, the US has gained 380 jobs from elsewhere, a gain of 19 million jobs. But what kind of job are we talking about?

"Oh, I love my job now!" That's Shirley Bernard talking — the outsourcing "victim" the AFL-CIO wanted me to interview. At her old job at Levi's, the work was hot, noisy and physically difficult. Now, she's a secretary. She's paid more, too. She worries about the long term, and she's still an opponent of outsourcing, but she admits that many of her co-workers have moved on to better jobs. "Some of them have got, really got excellent jobs that they would never have even left Levi's for if the plant hadn't closed," she says. "This kind of forced them to ... to make a decision what they wanted to do and ... and they're really happy at what they do." When a worker is laid off, it's easy to see her pain. Here it comes down the news wire: Thousands of jobs vanish in a single day as a plant closes. The benefits of free trade are harder to spot; when one individual finds new and better work because free trade helped a company expand, it doesn't make the headlines. Shirley's Levi's plant was featured in news reports as an example of the horrible damage done to an American community by outsourcing, but when we visited the site, construction workers were building a college there. Their jobs and all the other jobs created by the college won't make the evening news, but they're a product of outsourcing, too.

Feeling insecure yet?

(Hat tip: Jerry Pournelle.)

A new, improved, phishing scam has surfaced.

Normally, phishing involves sending the intended mark (you and me, guys) an e-mail warning of some problem with his account. The e-mail helpfully includes a link to a page where you can log in and resubmit your information, and presumably, change your password to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future.

Since most people know the target of a link displays on the status bar, at the bottom of a browser, phishers have started using the "on mouseover" command to change the text on the status bar to look like a valid link.

If you follow a link to a scam website, you can still discover whether it's bona-fide by entering a bogus name and password combination in the login form. If the form lets you in, it's a phishing site.

Now, e-bay has a script, available to anyone, that can be used to verify whether a user-name/password combination is valid.

The phishing site accepts a user-name and password, then runs it through the script. If the script rejects it, the phishing page rejects it. This may lead a person to believe the page really does belong to E-bay.

Now, before we get all hot and bothered at E-bay, it occurs to me upon reading this report that you may not need a specialized script provided by a company to pull this off. If you set up a scam to obtain someone's user-name and password at his bank, you could probably write a script that would pull up that bank's page, and try to log in with any name and password that's been handed to your form, and then report "success" or "failure" back to the phishing site.

This might introduce a second or two of delay, but that's indistinguishable from normal net congestion, and it would "clear up" once the user has "logged in".
Be careful out there.


Half-breed demons in history

It appears the publisher of World Net Daily is worried that people might quit referring to the site as "Wing Nut Daily". In addition to the regular practice of uncritically running anti-evolution screeds masquerading as news articles, we now have an article on "The Nephilim".

The what?
Published by Xulon Press, "The Nephilim and the Pyramid of the Apocalypse" presents an explanation for an unusual verse in the first book of the Bible, Genesis 6:4, which reads: "There were giants (Nephilim) in the Earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men and they bare children to them."


...continued in full post...

It seems the giants were the result of angels who came to earth, mated with humans women, and fathered offspring of unusual strength, size, and intellect. These folks were responsible for building pyramids in Egypt and in South America. (And you thought it was Ancient Astronauts.)

But wait, there's more! The nephilim were not fathered by just any angels...

The result of the unions, Heron says, were the Nephilim, Hebrew for giants, that are mentioned in verse 4. The fathers, also are referred to as Nephilim, which also means "the fallen ones." The author says the fathers were malevolent spirits, or demons.

Go ahead and read the rest of the article if you're interested. But let me call your attention to a couple of passages:

Perhaps the most famous biblical Nephilim [sic] was Goliath, the man who stood over 13 feet tall and was slain by shepherd boy David.


Heron says the earthly pyramids were Satan's attempt, via the Nephilim, to try to exalt himself and imitated [sic] God.

Whoever wrote this apparently didn't pay too much attention to the fact that "nephilim" is a plural in Hebrew, nore did he care to make sure the tenses of compound verbs agreed with each other. The latter is something a good grammar check should have caught.

Sometimes I wonder if I'm seeing a Satanist conspiracy to make Christianity look as stupid as possible.

Slovak Prime Minister on media bias

I am often struck by the similarity between two groups. Creationists and Intelligent Design/Intelligent Origin Theorists are firmly entrenched in their opinions, and will demand proof of any contrary position well beyond a reasonable doubt, and indeed, beyond an unreasonable doubt.

The left firmly believes there either is no leftward bias in the media, or that the media are actually biased to the right. They will steadfastly ignore any evidence of leftward bias, demanding proof beyond all possible doubt, no matter how unreasonable.

Bill Sammon of the Washington Times sat down for lunch with the Prime Minister of Slovakia, and the conversation turned to the treatment of Bush and the Iraq war by the press.

Mr. Dzurinda [told] the journalists, including one from CNN, that he was "shocked" to see media outlets like CNN and the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) showing "only American soldiers killing people. But nobody was able to show Saddam Hussein, who killed many, many thousands of Iraqi people."

...continued in full post...

"It was impossible to see a real picture of this regime," he lamented. "And the result is the public is one day strongly against Bush. 'Bush loves war,' he's 'new terrorist,' and so on and so on."

One advantage the Eastern bloc countries have in this field is that they remember what it was like to live under tyranny. It seems to be something the French have forgotten.

The evolutionist conspiracy

The Scientist magazine has an editorial on the intelligent design/intelligent origin theorists. Richard Gallagher calls for more debate over ID/IOT, rather than flying into panic.

Of course, if the subject is to be debated, Gallagher has one caveat:

There is one caveat, and it's a big one: The topics must be taught on a level playing field. Full information on evolution and on intelligent design must be supplied, and there must be no further pressure on curricula or teachers. Given this, I'm in little doubt that the open-minded students of the heart of America will see the strength of evolution as a theory.

The problem is, since creationists don't have any science, their performance in a debate depends on their skill as public debaters. This is a skill very few scientists pick up in their careers – they're too busy doing real science. That leaves the battle to those with the time and the talent to acquire the skills of showmanship needed to win a public debate.

Interestingly enough, here we have an editor calling for scientists to get together and market evolution – just what creationists and ID/IOTs have been claiming has happened all along.


The Washington Post has an article on (legal) music downloads. Others have commented on "the long tail", made up of the huge number of items that are not hits. These items don't pull a large enough audience to justify shelf space in any store, but a mass aggregator can move enough to turn a profit. When music is stored online, the marginal cost of storage is close to zero. Every time someone, somewhere, downloads a track, it's profit.

The article includes links to places you can download music for a nominal charge. These are:

Good sites have referrals to music that appeals to similar tastes. ("People who liked this also liked ...")

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Tips for evolutionists

Steve Rose, Chairman of The Sun Newspapers, offers his 10 tips for evolutionists. (Well, it's 10 in octal...)

These are, briefly:

...continued in full post...

  1. Pick one evolution expert in each state, a highly credentialed scientist, who can speak in understandable English to the average person and make sense.
  2. ...[S]top appearing at stacked-deck public "hearings" put on by creationists to trap evolutionists. Don't grant them the dignity of taking them seriously.
  3. Rename the theory of evolution the "law of evolution." It's as well established as anything else that's called a "law".
  4. Rename intelligence design "intelligent design faith." After all, there's no supporting science. All ID/IOT can do is try to poke holes in the real science. It is, literally, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
  5. Admit that God may have designed evolution. This is, by the way, why the older theories are called "laws". Natural philosophers believed they were working out the laws by which God worked when He created the world. Indeed, Dennis Prager claims this would be enough to end the matter as far as he's concerned. We may not even need to begin every research paper in all of biological science with the phrase "By the grace of God, the following observations were made."
  6. Take physical evidence out on road shows.
  7. Fight this in the courts...
  8. Or evolutionists can just accept the fact that they will not survive and evolve to a new occupation. Of course, if science abandons evolution, people will die.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Obsolescence, outsourcing, and job loss

Outsourcing is far more common than we think. We all do it, especially if the less rigorous definitions of "out" are used. It basically means finding labor and/or talent cheaper somewhere else. One worker is let go because the employer no longer wants to pay his price for work, and the worker can't, or won't, lower his price enough.

Another reason an employee's skills might not be needed any longer is that the employer no longer needs them in order to do what he needs or wants to do. The position itself may have become obsolete.

We think of job obsolescence in terms of changing technology which wipes out whole classes of jobs, and there certainly is a lot of that. Any number of people have had their jobs become obsolete when technological advances have made them unnecessary.

This is really another form of "outsourcing". Instead of shipping a job off to another person someplace else, the employer ships a job off to improved technology. The appearance is different, but the reason is the same. Instead of finding himself underbid by an Elbonian worker, the employee is underbid by a robot or computer. (Or even a steam shovel, taking the place of dozens of ditch diggers.)

We ourselves have "fired" people when their jobs became obsolete. For example, we might quit hiring a baby-sitter when our kids grow up enough to be able to look after themselves (or finally graduate from school and get thrown out of the house.) If we're cutting expenses, we may "fire" the more expensive markets and restaurants, and "outsource" to less expensive ones. As our finances improve, we "fire" the low-end suppliers and "outsource" to higher-end sources.

This isn't the hardship for markets and restaurants that it is for an employee, because we're not the sole source of income for the markets and restaurants. (And if by some chance, we are, we'll effectively fire them because they'll no longer be in business!)

So the bottom line is, in both types of job loss, we're looking at changes in employment that occur because an employer can get the same service elsewhere, for less. The erstwhile employee's defenses are either to find some way to force the employer to pay more and keep him on the payroll, or to find someone else who does want his services, or to pick up a new skill set.

More, in a later post.

Outsourcing, obsolescence, and job loss

Sunday evening, one of my readers commented to me about the difference between outsourcing and job loss due to obsolescence (the classic "buggy whip" scenario). I think it was in reference to the article linked to the title. Although there are some differences, there are some important similarities.

In general, people who lose their jobs lose them because their services are no longer worth paying for, in the opinion of the person paying for them.

"Outsourcing", or shipping a job out of the country, happens because an employer believes he can get a bargain by buying the services of someone in another country. Sometimes he's right, and sometimes not. This interpretation of "outsourcing" depends on the fact that we have decided the lines around our country are more significant than lines around other possible groups.

...continued in full post...

For example, in California, one of the worries we have is that high tax rates and strict regulations are driving jobs out of the state. In a way, this is also "outsourcing", only to another state. Since zoning laws and other codes vary from city to city, it's reasonable to think of jobs being "outsourced" to other cities. Indeed, when Los Angeles County implements a higher sales tax rate than neighboring counties, it's quite possible some folks will shop for major purchases outside the county.

And when you get right down to it, any time you pay someone to do something for you rather than doing it yourself, you are "outsourcing" that job. You see it as hiring someone, but you could also think of it as outsourcing that job, and paying to someone else money that would have otherwise stayed in your pocket. Instead of (virtually) paying yourself for doing that job, you are now paying someone else. This is an extreme extension of "outsourcing", but it may help show the question isn't as crisp as we might think.

I've seen articles which make the case for keeping money (and jobs) inside of particular communities. Various demographic groups have been urged to keep money inside the community, rather than letting it leak out. Some articles feature statistics on how many hands a dollar will pass through before leaving one community vs. leaving another. The assumption is, the more hands a dollar is traded through before it leaves a particular identifiable group, the richer the group will be.

By this reasoning, a family that charges for everything on an "internal customer" model will be richer than one that doesn't. And a person who moves money from one pocket to another any time he does any little job for himself around the house, yard, or anywhere else, will be richer than one who doesn't.

The fallacy here is that of correlation vs. cause. Money circulating in a community before leaving it does not make a community richer – rich and productive communities attract money to them to pay for goods and services, including money that's already there. A person who lives in a rich and productive community will spend money there because he can find what he wants there. A person who doesn't will have to shop elsewhere.

All "outsourcing" means is someone found a bargain. It seems hard to justify looking for bargains outside your neighborhood, while denying anyone else the right to do so, simply because his neighborhood is bigger.

Laws that require a business to refrain from "outsourcing" are equivalent to laws that require you to shop only in your own neighborhood, even though you can get a better price in the next town, or across a state line. Requiring companies to hire labor in one country, even though it's more expensive, is like requiring you to patronize the barber or auto mechanic in your neighborhood, even though you can get a better deal in another town. (And I "outsource" my veterinary services to Glendale, from Tujunga. I've been using that vet for years, and I'm not inclined to stop now without a compelling reason.)

It's the end of the work day, so I'll talk about obsolescence in another post.

Dams pollute

For what it's worth...

In effect man-made reservoirs convert carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into methane. This is significant because methane's effect on global warming is 21 times stronger than carbon dioxide's.


Thursday, February 24, 2005

How about a fan letter?

Over the e-mail transom...

Hi, I was mentioning to Laura Brodian-Freas at Gallifrey how much I enjoyed her show on KMZT K-Mozart. She said thank you and if you wouldn't mind telling her bosses, it would be helpful. She gave me the following contact info: KMZT 1500 Cotner Ave L.A. Ca 90025 (310) 478-5540 So, if you are like me in enjoying her program, please take the time to write a fan letter to let her bosses know. Hugs, Joan

I'll have to send something. I make a point of tuning to KMZT during the hours when I know she's on.


Atomic power may be making a come-back.

Sandra Lindberg and her husband, Samuel Galewsky, intended to start a ruckus. She, a theater professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, and he, a biology prof at Millikin University, entered the Vespasian Warner Public Library one night in April 2003 to discuss a proposal by Exelon Corp. to add a brand-new nuclear reactor to its existing plant in Clinton, Ill.
By the time of the second meeting, in December, the town--once split 50-50 on the new reactor--now overwhelmingly supported the project. Economics, not environmentalism, seemed to be swaying this rural community. With unemployment at 8%, Exelon, Dewitt County's largest employer, said that if the plant were built there would be 3,200 construction jobs, 600 new full-time positions to operate the plant and a big jump in the county's tax take. By the time Galewsky finally rose to speak out against the plant, it was late and the room was almost empty--an outcome that could have been foretold.

Take a look.

Medical costs

(Scroll down to "Soviet-Style Pricing")

California has a new law on its books requiring hospitals to disclose prices for goods and services. One immediate, eye-opening result is being able to see the Grand Canyon-esque gaps in what hospitals charge for similar treatments and medications. A head/brain CT scan, for instance, can range in price from a little less than $900 to as much as $6,600. In short, the hospitals' pricing seems to have little to do with supply and demand and no real rationale. At some of these institutions consumers must make special appointments in order to see the hospital's price list. Can you imagine, say, a hotel not letting you know how much a room costs?

Forbes likes medical savings accounts as a way of holding the line on medical costs.

Injecting consumerism into health care would give us the best of all worlds: more health care for less money. The most vivid example is laser eye surgery. Today the procedure that enables people to do away with glasses costs about a third of what it did a decade ago. Why? Because it's not covered by insurance; therefore, those performing the laser surgery have every incentive to make the procedure better and more affordable. HSAs will have the same effect: You, the consumer (i.e., the patient), will get full value for your health care dollars precisely because they are your dollars.

It works everywhere else it's tried.


A letter to the editor in Forbes magazine:

(first one)

Despite Senator Harry Ried's opposition to using Yucca Mountain as a repository for nuclear waste ... we in Nevada welcome such an energy-producing initiative. Spent fuel can be processed to supply this country with energy for centuries and is collectively approaching $1 trillion in value. The hazard of transporting spent fuel is nil. Witness the tens of thousands of nuclear weaponse transported almost a hundred million truck-miles since 1945 without release of nuclear material. Advocates of Yucca Mountain view it as a Fort Knox of energy. Mike Dix, Las Vegas, NV

Indeed, even without reprocessing, spent fuel produces a fair amount of heat over the years, just from the ongoing breakdown of fission products. This could, at least in principle, be tapped for energy.

But Mr. Dix might as well have read Julian Simon's book, The Ultimate Resource. Simon points out that garbage dumps of all kinds, even "landfills" are valuable concentrations of resources. As but one example, Robinson Crusoe would have been thrilled to find, on his island, a 20th Century landfill to raid for stuff. Nuclear waste is a similarly rich resource, requiring only the work to separate out the components, and of course, to keep it from leaking into the environment while you're working on it.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

When Father Carves the Duck

A classic...

When Father Carves the Duck

We all look on with anxious eyes
When father carves the duck,
And mother almost always sighs
When father carves the duck;
And all of us prepare to rise
And hold our bibs before our eyes,
And be prepared for some surprise,
When father carves the duck.

He braces up and grabs a fork
Whene'er he carves a duck,
And won't allow a soul to talk
Until he's carved the duck,
The fork is jabbed into the sides,
While every careful person hides
From flying chips of duck.

The platter's always sure to slip
When father carves a duck,
And how it makes the dishes skip!
Potatoes fly amuck!
The squash and cabbage leap in space,
We get some gravy in our face,
And father mutters Hindu grace
Whene'er he carves a duck.

We then have learned to walk around
The dining room and pluck
From off the window-sills and walls
Our share of father's duck,
While father growls and blows and jaws
And swears the knife was full of flaws,
And mother laughs at him because
He couldn't carve a duck.
    — E.V. Wright

Like chocolate with curry...

Just an observation. I was talking with a friend of mine who also likes to cook, and I had mentioned trying cocoa powder in curry – not much, no more than about a quarter of the amount of curry powder. It adds a nice depth and richness to the curry. Try it some time.


Traditionally, US regulatory agencies have used a linear no-threshold (LNT) model for assessing risks from carcinogens and other toxins. This article offers the argument that other models may actually be more pertinent.

The LNT model assumes dose response follows a straight line passing through zero. Thus, any dose above zero will, theoretically, produce some response in the population.

The threshold model posits that the response to a dose is zero until a certain minimum level is reached, and then rises above zero. That means any dose below the threshold is safe – that is, produces no ill effects at all.

The hormesis model posits that the response curve is less than zero below a certain threshold. That is, the dose actually benefits the organism until a threshold is reached. Thus, a small dose of some compound improves health, and only a larger dose will actually cause harm.

Hormesis is suspected, not only in the case of various chemicals, but also in the case of radiation. And just to make matters worse, it's possible that dose response curves could be non-linear, with the first few micrograms causing more of an effect than the last few.

We may even learn, as in Woody Allen's movie, "Sleeper", that all the stuff we think is killing us is the best stuff for us.

Identity Theft

What to do after your identity has been stolen (as has happened to a friend of mine.)


A couple of news items about arsenic in the water...

Residents of Cow Island, Louisiana, have complained about their water, and sure enough, it turns out to have elevated levels of arsenic. Arsenic is a carcinogen. However, a study was done...

The study used data from the Louisiana Tumor Registry for a statewide study that compared the cancer rate in other parts of the state with the residents of Cow Island.

No significant increase was found. But according to Dr. Ratard, that doesn't mean there isn't a problem.

"No significant increase". Arsenic will be removed to reduce a risk that's too small to measure. It seems that no price is too high, no burden to great, for that last morsel of theoretical safety.

Well, almost no burden...

Now, neighbors of a planned arsenic treatment facility are ready to re-fight the project, contending that the large water tanks are higher than they were led to believe and could block their views and lower their property values.


Fine. Let them sign waivers acknowledging that arsenic levels will remain elevated, in exchange for their views and their property values. But don't let any of them tell you "if it saves even one life, it's worth the cost." Apparently, it's only worth the cost if someone else pays it.

Pictures on the web

From the HTML Goodies newsletter:

How do you protect your pictures and graphics [on your website]? The answer is not popular. The answer is, "you don't."

It's the same problem Bruce Schneier points out with any sort of copy protection scheme. At some point, any information – text, graphics, audio, or any combination of the above – has to be made available in some form the user can perceive. Once it's in that form, it can be captured and saved. In the case of a web page, everything on the page exists in cache somewhere. Or, if the cache gets emptied somehow, you can view the source and access the direct URL of the image.

I'm sorry if this is bad news for you, but it is a basic fact of life. If this is a concern for you, you might want to refocus your efforts into the content on the site, and reduce the effort that goes into the graphics. If you want to have the pictures out there, but want to make it as hard as possible for somebody else to use your work, consider building a complex Flash or LiveMotion file, or something similar, that contains your identification information along with the pictures. This will help to stop all but the most hardened, and for them, it might just be too much work to be worth it.

Or tag it with enough identifying marks so there's no question as to who owns it.

Close to record rainfall

As you've no doubt heard (and experienced, if you're local), it's been raining in Southern California.

Traffic is a mess. Yesterday, on my way in to work, not only was traffic at a crawl, one of the major streets was half flooded. Signs were up warning people to stay out of the water. It seems the sewers had backed up.

Although you'd think sewage backing up would be obvious, it's often far from obvious. I recall a news story a few years ago, in which water started welling up from a street in an Italian city. (I think it was Venice, but I won't swear to it.)

It was in close proximity to a church or a saint's statue or something. (But then, in a city like Venice, what isn't? People assumed it was a miraculous spring, and started using the water for its blessing powers.

I'm sure you know where this is going, and yes, you're right. It was a sewer leak.

I could make all kinds of comments about European sophistication, and those who bitterly opposed the "toilet to tap" water recycling project, but I'll leave those to the alert reader.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

About that academic fraud

Clayton Cramer links to an article about an archaeologist who has been forced to retire from his university position because he falsified data.

Clayton's comment:

Obviously, one scientist's fraud isn't going to significantly damage the claims of evolution, which is dependent on a lot more evidence than this, but this is an extraordinarily gross form of dishonesty. Like Piltdown Man, this wasn't an honest mistake. If it takes this long for blatant dishonesty to get caught, it makes you wonder how long it takes for honest mistakes to get sorted out.


One thing that's not terribly clear in the article is, just how long did it take?

The Guardian mentions Professor Protsch had a 30-year career, but Deutsche Welle asserts that he has falsified data during the entire thirty years. DW, in fact, paints a picture of university neglect equivalent to the NY Times' disregard of Blair's misconduct.

Well, suppose the average mistake is 15 years old. Darwinian evolution is over 150 years old, so that's not a bad record. I suspect if people had been doing their job, someone would have checked Prof. Protsch's work a bit sooner.

However, it should serve as a bit of a come-uppance for the Creationists and Science Conspiracy Theorists that, as Duane Smith at Abnormal Interests writes:

The real lesson is that scientists discovered it. Real science is self correcting. Sometimes it takes a long time, sometimes it is immediate, but science is self correcting.

...continued in full post...

And what's more...

One should remember that it was scientists that debunked the Piltdown Man hoax. Why don't sciences opponents find these frauds and errors? Because, they very seldom study the evidence. They simply rail against it. Without a theory it is had to know what is supported by evidence and what isn't. It is even harder to know what evidence to and not test if one denies or ignores the salience of most evidence that does not support one's own position.

"...they very seldom study the evidence." It would help them make a better case if they actually did study the evidence. At the very least, they'd be arguing against what scientists actually believe, and not some caricature of it. Of course, if they studied it too carefully, they might be convinced by it, and we can't have that, can we?

Now another interesting question is, how much damage did this fraud do? Piltdown Man did very little harm, because relatively few anthropologists accepted it. It just didn't fit the pattern that was forming, outlined by other pieces of the puzzle that had been unearthed. When it was debunked, the only people who had to rewrite their theories were die-hard Anglophiles who wanted modern man to have evolved in Britain, regardless of what the evidence said.

In this case:

No great body of scientific literature or research developed around any of these Protsch "Men" and "Women."

Bottom line, while any fraudulent evidence can cause harm and set back or divert research, Protsch's fraud did a minimum of scientific harm but could provide another bonanza for the creationist.

It looks like no one believed this find fit the pattern either.

Sunday night

A friend of mine, and a reader of this blog, commented Sunday about the difference between "outsourcing" and job obsolescence. Unfortunately, at the time, I was sufficiently tired, I just didn't have the processor cycles left over to make any kind of cogent response.

There are differences, of course. After all, there are differences between any two things that aren't absolutely identical. However, there are definite similarities, too, and discussions about one will have a great deal of overlap with discussions about the other.

I'm headed out to sample for chromium in the water, so I'm leaving this as a reminder to comment at greater length, later.

Conversation in the customer's lounge

I took my car in for servicing yesterday. I was overdue for an oil change, and while I was at it, I figured I'd let them shake the water out of the fuel system. (No, air filters really don't make good water filters.)

Because of the storm, the internet connection from the lounge was down, so I couldn't update my blog as I'd planned to. Instead, I poked away at an article on information theory.

I also had a nice little conversation with a fellow from Ecuador. He came to this country twenty years ago, and he and his wife have both become citizens of this country. His English isn't the best, but he's working on picking up the language (at age 54), and plans to enroll in a community college class later this year. In the mean time, he listens to English-language radio and TV shows. (I suggested he turn on the closed-captioning on his TV as an aid in following the English. It's easier to follow if you have two different channels of communication in parallel.)

I've complained about illegal immigrants, and supported Prop 187. However, if I could guarantee everyone sneaking across the borders were like this fellow, I'd definitly quit seeing it as any kind of problem at all.

Lessons from Friday...

Things I learned on a rainy Friday:

When a tire decides to shred itself and wrap itself around the wheel, the ride gets very bumpy.

Automotive air filters make lousy water filters.

When a dog's back legs go paralyzed, expect to spend more time cleaning the kitchen floor.

Sanity is highly over-rated.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Success in Iraq? Don't want to know...

This article was mentioned on Dennis Prager's show yesterday.

But now our heroic and tragic liberal-intellectual capaciousness is facing its sharpest test since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Back then, most of us were forced, against our wills, to give Ronald Reagan a large share of credit for winning the Cold War. Now the people of this Bush-hating city are being forced to grant the merest possibility that Bush, despite his annoying manner and his administration’s awful hubris and dissembling and incompetence concerning Iraq, just might—might, possibly—have been correct to invade, to occupy, and to try to enable a democratically elected government in Iraq.

...continued in full post...

And now the terrible business of judging the correct price requires as much empirical rigor and moral clarity as we can muster, the sort of careful, “reality-based” judgments that liberals pride themselves on being able to make better than loony Evangelicals and cunning neocon dreamers. It won’t do simply to default to our easy predispositions—against Bush, even against war. If partisanship makes us abandon intellectual honesty, if we oppose what our opponents say or do simply because they are the ones saying or doing it, we become mere political short-sellers, hoping for bad news because it’s good for our ideological investment.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Eason Jordan News

A reporter at The Scotsman weighs in on the Eason Jordan story, under the headline, "Internet storm claims another top media scalp".

Boring stuff hidden in link to full post:

Alex Massie reports on Jordan's resignation, saying:

EASON Jordan knows how Dan Rather must feel. Jordan was CNN’s chief news executive until he resigned last Friday after apparently suggesting journalists killed in Iraq had been deliberately targeted by American troops. When Jordan stood down, he became the second major media scalp claimed by an online army of bloggers in recent months, following Dan Rather’s premature retirement from CBS after 60 Minutes based a report on President George W Bush’s service in the National Guard upon documents that internet pundits and experts quickly revealed as forgeries.

So what did Jordan say? He and his defenders say he was taken out of context, and that what he said was much more innocuous than it's being portrayed.

According to Congressman Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, who was present at Davos, "it sounded like he [Jordan] was saying it was official military policy to take out journalists." Jordan denied that had been his intent. "I was trying to make a distinction between ‘collateral damage’ and people who got killed in other ways." He was supported by the BBC’s Richard Sambrook, who said: "The distinction he was seeking to make is that being shot by a sniper, or fired at directly is very different from being, for example, accidentally killed by an explosion".

OK, maybe he was taken out of context. Maybe not. Jordan draws a distinction between 'collateral damage' and 'people who got killed in other ways'. The Army Technology dictionary defines "collateral damage" as "Damage and destruction of targets or personnel not considered as lawful military targets. For instance, accidental bombing of civilian population or medical facilities.

The Compact OED defines it as "inadvertent casualties and destruction in civilian areas caused by military operations."

The key element in both of these definitons is "accidental" or "inadvertent".

End of boring stuff hidden in link to full post.

The alternative to "collateral damage" is non-accidental damage. The "other ways" people might be killed, as an alternative to being killed by accident, is being killed on purpose.

So Eason Jordan's defense is, in effect, "I didn't say the military deliberately targeted journalists, I said they targeted journalists in a way that was not accidental."

OK, that clears it right up.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Sitting on the blog of the day... least you are if it's still Feb 16, 2005.

(Aren't you glad I don't include sound files here? You're just lucky "entertainment" sites are filtered at work.)

Rite Wing TechnoPagan has the distinction of being the blog of the day over at Gill's blog, where...

Sometimes it's peaceful.

The blog's been running since September 2004 and it looks like I could lose many an hour reading the archives.

Sitting on the blog of the day, wasting time...

Thanks for reading!

Why teach evolution?

Reader David left a comment to this post:

I wasn't arguing in my post that we need to include God; rather, I was responding to the Washington Post's editorial, which predicted dire consequences for science if Intelligent Design is taught. The fact is, as you seem to understand, I can do the same science as anyone else , so their dire predictions are a stretch. "Why do we need the intelligent entity?" Well, if evolution is a satisfactory explanation for how we got here, then perhaps we don't "need" the intelligent entity. But that's a rather different from saying that the ingelligent entity does not exist.

This post links to an essay by a professional high school biology teacher, on why substituting Intelligent Design / Intelligent Origin Theory for real science will hurt science.

At this point I can still hear the Creationist asking: "But does the science change? Does teaching science change? Does science not work if you leave evolution out?"

...continued in full post...

The science changes in that the moment the supernatural is used to explain natural phenomena you are exercising your religious freedoms. Science is not a smorgasbord in which you can pick over the parts you like and discard the ones you don't. Treating science in this manner means you're co-opting it to serve another purpose. This is disingenuous, unethical and not science. Does the science change? Science in the greater sense will be quite able to survive the transparent manipulations of Creationists. Will their (creationist) "science" be any different from mainstream science? Yes, obviously it will be limited in the conclusions that it will allow students to reach. Students will be cautioned as to how they synthesize ideas. Student might not be provided with the opportunity to think at the higher levels of Bloom's Taxonomy. Thus, they will lack independence, will tow the line expected of them, and see Biology as a boring pile of "stuff" to memorize. If the course attempts to make sense of it all by exhaulting Biology to the greater glory of God, then it isn't a Biology course but a sermon. Does the teaching of science change? Quite obviously and emphatically, yes. The creationist science course, due to the necessity of avoiding evolution, would leave concepts isolated. Biology would be no more than a course in natural history. Basic knowledge. Facts to learn. Boring as hell. And meaningless. When the Creationist then tries to unify the concepts by using the supernatural to explain everything - they've left science behind and the religious indoctrination has begun. By leaving out the concept of evolution in their teaching of Biology, the Creationist is guilty of an unconscionable disservice to the learner or, in their own terms, the sin of omission. Does the science not work if you leave evolution out? That's rather like saying does a car not work it you leave the engine out? Sure the stereo is fine and it certainly looks good just sitting in the garage, but it's not going anywhere is it? That's Creationism: sounds good, maybe even looks good to some, but it's not going anywhere. It doesn't do any research. It doesn't publish in any scientific journals. It's not undertaken by any science faculty in any university. There isn't even a Theory of Scientific Creationism or even a Theory of Intelligent Design. Creationism is simply not science. It's only function seems to be to dupe local school boards into leaving gaps in the science curriculum so that they can get a word in edgewise.

In essence, if you teach ID/IOT, you are requiring your students to give significant portions of their ability to investigate and figure things out. You are leaving them in a position where certain questions are off limits. As long as those questions are not important ones, we'll survive just fine without asking them (and thus, without getting them answered.) But if the questions are of any importance at all, the fact that people are forbidden to ask them can only lead to trouble.

Good for you!

More news reports are coming out about stuff that's good for you after all.

Good for You: First alcohol, now coffee (though unfortunately maybe decaf is best).

So better still would be.... Kahlua?

When you strike at a king... must kill him.

Wizbang shares his thoughts on the wisdom in this sentence, and how so many people have gotten in trouble because they ignored it.

George H.W. Bush didn't take down Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, and that caused 12 years of grief.

Osama didn't succeed in taking down the US, and paid for it.

Dan Rather failed to take down George W. Bush, and is no longer an anchor at CBS. (Though in this case, the effect might well have been a case of Mutually Assurred Destruction, had the truth not surfaced way too soon.)

Indeed, you can find cases like this throughout history. At the start of the Vietnam war, only two of the three North Vietnam airfields were bombed. Had the third been bombed, the south and its allies would have had air supremacy, and the war would have taken a very different course. Instead, we saw most of a decade of slowly bidding up the cost of the war, auction style, until one side or the other finally dropped out.

And in Larry Niven's "Known Space" series, the Kzinti lost their first war with humankind, and never had a chance thereafter. They had this bad habit of always attacking before they were quite ready.

Climate of fear, or fear of climate?

New Scientist has an article on climate change and the Kyoto Accords.

ON 16 FEBRUARY, the Kyoto protocol comes into force. Whether you see this as a triumph of international cooperation or a case of too little, too late, there is no doubt that it was only made possible by decades of dedicated work by climate scientists. Yet as these same researchers celebrate their most notable achievement, their work is being denigrated as never before.

The earth is definitely warmer now than it was a century ago. How much of that warming is due to human factors is up in the air, as is how much warmer it will get in the future.

Various feedback effects, both positive and negative, have been postulated. The uncertainties in all of these mechanisms appear to be larger than the projected amount of warming.

I'd be curious to know how well any of the computer models have done at retrodicting – taking the data from a time period in the past and extrapolating it to a time period outside the range of that data. If a computer model can take existing data and use it to "predict" the climate as we know it was in the past, then we can have a lot more faith in its ability to predict future climate.

Let's run that test, why don't we?

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Implementing a hack

With a little bit of fiddling, Blogger allows one to use "expandable post summaries". These are what you have when a paragraph or three of text is followed by a "read more" link. This link leads to an individual post page, which contains "the rest of the story". I'd like to have the rest expanded inline, but that seems not to be easily doable with Blogger. (Though they've removed the ability to stick the required tags in the post template. Maybe they've made a few other changes, and the preceding sentence is now wrong.)

In any event, since I tend to run on at the keyboard at times, I'm going to start burying chapters in the expandable summaries, and those who are interested in a particular post can click and read the rest on their own. Others won't have so many screens of text to wade through to reach the next post.

...continued in full post...

You're welcome.

Dennis Prager vs. Talk Origins

Dennis Prager has been writing a series of articles making "The Case for Judeo-Christian Values" (currently up to part V). He became a target on the newsgroup when he criticized evolution:

The second reason that the breakdown of Judeo-Christian values leads to a diminution of human worth is that if man was not created by God, the human being is mere stellar dust – and will come to be regarded as such. Moreover, people are merely the products of random chance, no more designed than a sand grain formed by water erosion. That is what the creationism-evolution battle is ultimately about – human worth. One does not have to agree with creationists or deny all evolutionary evidence to understand that the way evolution is taught, man is rendered a pointless product of random forces – unworthy of being saved before one's hamster.

Well, everyone has the right to be fuggheaded about one thing, and on his chosen topic, Dennis is exercising this right to the hilt. He claims to have no quarrel with evolution as the mechanism by which God made us, yet he writes passages like the above, and any crackpot with a book claiming evolution is all wrong can get a one-hour interview on his show, with no hint of "equal time" given to anyone from, say, the National Center for Science Education. He has said that few things upset him as much as when people lie, especially to themselves, I hope his blood-pressure medication is up to date.

In any event, the folks at piled on with various criticisms. Unfortunately, most, if not all, have been invalid.

It's important, even when criticizing someone who is being deliberately wrong (which I don't believe to be the case with Mr. Prager), to keep the criticism on the constructive side, valid, and well out of the realm of personal attack. There are three reasons for this:

...continued in full post...

1: the target of the criticism may see flawed critiques for what they are, and decide the lack of substantive critiques means he's right.

2: he may not spot the flaw in a critique, and make changes to address the literal words of that critique, thereby doing something that doesn't address the problem.

3: in either case, any spectators (known in online fora as "lurkers" will also be evaluating any arguments offered in a discussion, and they will judge the merits of the case accordingly. Indeed, my usual practice is to avoid arguing evolution with a True Believer anywhere except a reasonably public forum. I know the True Believer is beyond convincing, but the spectators are frequently open-minded and truly open to whoever makes a good case.

So how did the crowed do?

Dennis Prager asked:

Would you first save the dog you love or a stranger if both were drowning? The answer depends on your value system.

The first answer with any relevance, from "torch":

The absurd Judeo‑Christian world view has the exact opposite consequence. Someone holding Judeo‑Christian values should save the dog. Judeo‑Christian philosophy views the human life on earth as an infinitely short (by comparison) precursor to an infinitely long existence in heaven. In this absurd world view, the dogs single finite existence is worth infinitely more than humans continued existence in what this irrational philosophy believes is merely a vanishingly short temporary stage before true life begins in heaven. The Judeo‑Christian (or any eternal life religious) world view actually devalues human life ‑ but then its record over the past two thousand years states this case far more eloquently than I could

There are a number of objections to this position. For one thing, nonhuman life is widely regarded as not being able to appreciate its own mortality, and is thus not able to appreciate the gift of a long lifespan. The drowning dog is suffering because of immediate discomfort and/or pain, but is not able to think, "I'll never get to see the pups graduate from obedience school." Indeed, this is one interpretation of the curse of mortality being the result of eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. On the day we ate of it, we became aware of our mortality. In short, the human is considered capable of appreciating that his life has been spared, the animal isn't. (And we may be in for some surprises some day.)

Secondly, if we are here as the result of a divine plan, then we are here for a reason, and it might not be a good idea to short-circuit that plan by checking out early, or causing others to do so.

I'm sure many Christian and Jewish scholars will be able to tell why this "objection" is ill-considered.

The "record over the past two thousand years" is worth considering, but it might be a good idea to look at the real record, especially in comparison with contemporaneous records. Although Christianity might not measure up as well as Christians would believe, I suspect it will fare much better than "torch" seems to think.

Next, "Augray" wrote:

Apparently, the only reason the writer can imagine for saving a stranger is because God tells you to.

Well, when he's not constrained by a word-count, he has mentioned that it's not the only reason, but it's certainly one of the most compelling, particularly in cases when a decision has to be made at once.

In a debate with a very well-educated atheist, Dennis asked what compelling reason the atheist had to violate any law, including laws against murder, if he was sure he wouldn't be caught. The atheist stated there was no compelling reason at all.

From the standpoint of cultural evolution, I believe those cultures that developed taboos against rape, murder, and many other crimes, proved to be fitter than cultures that didn't. As a result, those cultures are still around, and the ones that didn't have those taboos died out. However, part of what made these taboos effective was the notion, true or false, that "God would get you" if you violated them.

I may yet ask Augray if, were he drowning, would he rather a passer-by believe a lie about God watching and judging, or believe the truth that God didn't care, and spend the next half-hour weighing the pros and cons? (No, I don't believe those are the only choices that exist in the world. Those are merely the choices I'm offering Augray in this scenario.)

From rich hammett and others, we have responses like:

He's right, you know. I'm one of those eevil secular humanists, and I would save the dog I love (or the hamster, even) instead of Adolf Hitler, for instance.

Aside from being an instance of Godwin's Law, this is also an example of the fallacy of accident. As stated, the question refers to a typical human vs. a typical dog. If I saw Hitler drowning, the only thing I'd throw to him would be Saddam Hussein, in the hope each would drag the other down. But the question is not asking about Hitler, or about Lassie.

David Vestal adds:

That's one I haven't seen before--the Argument from You Are Special. Formulated: 1) You are very special, much more so than animals. 2) Who could deny that? 3) Therefore, God exists.

Actually, that's known as Wishful Thinking. It's a combination of an appeal to emotion and an appeal to consequences.

The argument runs: We believe we are special, we want to be special, and the existence of God makes us special, therefore God exists.

It should go without saying that whether or not God exists, and whether or not God had us in mind when he created the universe has no bearing on whether belief in God causes people to create a fitter society.

Another variation on the fallacy of accident is contributed by Tracy Hamilton:

Apparently, the only reason the writer can imagine for saving a stranger is because God tells you to.
Unless of course He tells you NOT to. Sorry, no room on the Ark for you, fella!

And of course here Noah was under specific orders. A particular time, not intended to be extended across all times and places, in contrast to "do not murder" and "do not stand by the blood of your neighbor".

I think I will eventually place more of this thread, with comments, on my web site.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Chilling effect, or just chill?

On Tech Central Station, James Miller wonders if blogs might produce a chilling effect on speech.

I fear that blogs may soon make many Americans afraid to speak their minds. Imagine you're a manager of a company. Your new blog nightmare is that you will say something stupid in a meeting and this will be reported in a blog. Other blogs will report the initial comment and soon whatever group you have offended will pressure your company to fire you. Or perhaps your distasteful remark will go unreported until you're promoted to CEO. Then your employees, while blogging about what kind of boss you are, will literally tell the world about your past unfortunate utterance.

Maybe so, but this really isn't a new phenomenon – not at all.

...continued in full post...

Conventional wisdom in science fiction circles is, "never write anything in a fanzine you wouldn't want to see on the front page of the New York Times". In later years, "fanzines" was replaced by "mailing list", "online forum", and "chat room". The point is, people have always said things that were later seen as – unfortunate. Other people have always been willing to report these statements for any number of reasons.

Clarence Thomas faced a major fight over the confirmation of his Supreme Court nomination because of remarkes he allegedly made years before. Likewise, OJ Simpson got away with murder (just my opinion) because one of the detectives on the case made racist noises to someone he was trying to interest in a book.

The examples Miller cites include Trent Lott, Eason Jordan, and professor Larry Summers. These are people who were forced to apologize or leave their positions because of things they had said. Lott praised Strom Thurmond, a former segregationist. Eason Jordan stated that the military had targeted journalists in Iraq. Summers stated that sex differences might account for the shortage of female math and science professors.

I plead for a new social order under which a few offensive spoken remarks, even if highly odious and taken in context, are forgiven. Most everyone has some fairly nasty thoughts and occasionally these thoughts turn into speech. If we allow a few obnoxious comments to destroy someone's career, many will avoid engaging in freewheeling discussions.

You know, there are cases where a "chilling effect" is a good thing. Our laws against murder have a "chilling effect" on peoples' tendencies to kill each other, and no one seems terribly troubled by this. Even in terms of speech, I don't see very many people agitating for the "right" to yell "fire!" in a crowded theater.

In some cases, I think people have apologized too easily and too often for remarks. After a certain point, if someone takes offense at a remark, it's that person's remark. If, for example, I wished a co-worker "happy birthday", and he took grave offense because he was a Jehovah's Witness and therefore doesn't celebrate birthdays, I'd apologize.


After that, I'd know he had a religious objection to birthday celebrations, and I'd not offer him birthday wishes.

If, for whatever reason, that didn't end it – if he kept on complaining about how he had been offended, he would lose all sympathy and respect I might have had for him. And indeed, it wouldn't take a whole lot of that behavior to register on my screen as harassment.

Interestingly enough, both Lott and Summers apologized for their statements. Jordan not only has not apologized, he has declared that it's everyone else's fault for misinterpreting them or taking them out of context, and he has done nothing to try and show anyone what the proper context is.

I see a difference here. Whether this difference is worth imposing a "chilling effect" upon is a matter of some debate. But I can see a case for chilling effects, both on a speaker's "right" to say offensive things, and on a hearer's "right" to take offense at things.

New blog

Just noticed: The Guardian has a news blog.

Religous law in Iraq

Interpreters of religious law in Iraq seem to have a steady business.

A MIRRORED ceiling in your bedroom is fine, as is driving an American car or having a facelift. Eating caviare [sic], however, is forbidden, as is a quiet chess game.


...chess is forbidden because the act of checkmate is one that only Allah can bring about.

Some are afraid these opinions may wind up being enforced by law.

Yet with Iraq’s newly-elected government likely to be dominated by Shi’ite religious parties, the website highlights fears that such edicts may no longer just apply to a section of the population.

I find it reassuring, though, that large sections of the population harbor, and express, such concerns.

Something to ponder..

In the vast majority of "popular science" articles and programs, little effort is made to present the evidence that supports the article or program. As a result, a lot of people have the mistaken idea that science doesn't require hard evidence in support of its hypotheses. It's a short step from there to assuming that science is just one more religious belief or opinion, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. – Jim Taylor Debunk Creation mailing list October 07, 2002

Friday, February 11, 2005

Bad theories kill people

I was listening to Dennis Prager's first hour yesterday, and he spent some time discussing the various false beliefs certain groups hold. Among things he cited, a speaker who called the LAPD "the biggest gang in LA City", others who say blacks "fear the police as much as they fear gangs", and an article in The Guardian on Feb. 5 with some disturbing statistics regarding beliefs about AIDS.

According to a study carried out in the United States, 15% of black Americans believe that Aids is being used by the government as a form of genocide against black people. Almost half of them are convinced that the HIV virus is man-made, more than one quarter that it has been produced in a government laboratory, and 12% that it has been created and spread by the CIA.

Other theories about AIDS include the belief that the HIV virus is not the cause (Robert Mugabe famously believes this one); that the government is withholding a cure from the poor, and that the drugs used to treat HIV are actually part of a plot to use Blacks as guinea pigs.

The African-Americans who like to think that Aids is a government conspiracy against them have reason to hope this is the case. They must long for a comforting explanation, other than poverty, as to why it is that the disease affects them so disproportionately. They represent 13% of the American population, yet account for 50% of new HIV infections.

That's all well and good, but what is the result of believing a bad theory?

Remember, a theory is not a guess, or an unproven fact. A theory is a structure which purports to organize and account for observed facts. A good theory will account for lots of facts in one neat structure, and will accurately predict other facts. A bad theory will predict things that are not factual. The alternative to a good theory which predicts true things is not a blank slate, it's a bad theory, which predicts falsehoods.

What's more, what theories you believe affect how you will behave and what choices you will make.

If you believe that the police are as dangerous to you as the local gangs are, you will not call the police in to deal with gangs or other criminals. You will either sit there and let yourself be victimized by gangs, in the belief that at least that way, you're only being set upon by one group of thugs, or you will take matters into your own hands and try to deal with the situation yourself. This puts your own safety at risk, and you may endanger some innocent third party.

If you believe that AIDS is spread by the CIA, or that the government has a secret cure, or that it's not caused by HIV at all, you will not change those behaviors that put you at risk for contracting the virus.

If you believe poverty is due to a racist society and not due to how much you work, you will be poor all your life.

Lots of people believe, or disbelieve, particular theories because it makes them feel better. This leads them to act as if certain things are true, which are, in fact, false. At best, this will do them no good; at worst, it can kill them.

Autolitigate "on"

Glenn Reynolds has an article up at Tech Central Station on the use of web crawlers and other automated systems to generate law suits.

Gertrude Walton was recently targeted by the recording industry in a lawsuit that accused her of illegally trading music over the Internet. But Walton died in December after a long illness, and according to her daughter, the 83-year-old hated computers.
Though news stories don't report what the RIAA based its decision to file suit on, the likelihood, based on past practice, is that it was a 'bot-based lawsuit. That is, computer programs led to the generation of a complaint, which was then filed without any real human investigation. I wrote on this phenomenon a while back:
The software, which crawls the Web the way search-engine software does, looks for files that appear to match copyrighted material: songs, movies, etc. When the 'bot finds the material, a human being is supposed to check the results, then notify the Internet service provider that a customer is infringing upon protected material and that the material must be removed. This usually leads to the ISP terminating the Internet account of the individual posting the material.

But depriving a victim of access to the Internet is only a little bit of fun – the same kind of result reaped by writers of viruses and worms. There's no profit in it for the RIAA, merely loss for the victim.

The way to turn a profit is to sue the victims for copyright infringement and collect settlements.

But regardless of what happened in Ms. Walton's case – a question to which we can be fairly sure Ms. Walton herself is indifferent – it seems that this sort of automated litigation is a growing trend. And that's unfair. As I wrote in my earlier column:
Much like the operators of rigged traffic cameras, they're relying on their own institutional power – and the hassle of opposing them – to let them get away with near-criminal sloppiness.

Glenn discusses a possible cure, which I find very interesting:

We need remedies for this. One, of course, is for courts to start enforcing the law. Lawyers who file complaints without taking care to verify them are subject to sanctions. Courts don't impose those very often, but based on the press accounts this seems like it might be a prime candidate for that sort of supervision. Organizations who file bogus or frivolous lawsuits based on the results of obviously flawed computer programs ought to be sanctioned. They should have to compensate the people they falsely charge for their costs, lost time, aggravation, and damage to reputation. And the lawyers involved should be subject to professional discipline

Maybe my idea of suing these lawyers for malpractice isn't that far-fetched at all.

Rebate, or bait?

Arnold Kling is having trouble getting rebates for stuff he bought.

Last month, I bought a laptop at a CompUSA in Rockville, Maryland. I did not know nor care about any mail-in rebates. However, as I was standing at the cash register waiting for the stockboy to bring the box, I was accosted by two salesmen as well as the register clerk, who told me that I was entitled to a lot of free merchandise, because of a special sale that week. The catch was that I would have to pay for the merchandise and then wait for the rebate. <snip> So far, I have received denial letters for every single rebate.

But is this just ineptitude on his part, or something darker and more sinister?

"Now, here's the interesting part," the reader wrote. "The rebate fulfillment house will GUARANTEE IN WRITING to the manufacturer that the percentage of rebates claimed as presented in this table will not be exceeded. They will eat the cost if it is." Small wonder then that the rebate house sometimes just can't see that receipt you're certain you included in the envelope. If they wind up paying the rebates out of their own pocket, it makes sense to just pay off those who scream the loudest. And small wonder the vendors are tempted to offer these magical discounts on their products. If one rebate fulfillment house won't guarantee to keep your costs low enough, just use a slightly sleazier one that will.

Indeed, the longer any company can keep your money, the more interest they can earn from it. Even in cases where you eventually receive the rebate, the company makes out very nicely. Add enough special requirements, and only the very anal-retentive meticulous actually manage to get paid.

How to cure it?

Kling has a solution worthy of – well – Klingons...

Indeed, sometimes the easiest policy for government to implement in order to deal with market failure would be to punish the scammed consumers rather than the scamming firms. Thinking along those lines, Congress could pass a law imposing a fine or prison term on any consumer who buys merchandise with a mail-in rebate form and cannot prove that he or she received the rebate within 60 days. This threat would have stopped me from taking any product with a mail-in rebate, and I suspect it would have made most consumers think twice.

jIQub vaj jIwuQ. (I think, therefore I have a headache.)

Pandora's diamond?

High tech computer imaging has solved one great historical question.

In 1668, a blue diamond weighing 115 carats was found in India and sold to Louis XIV of France. Cleaned up, cut down, and renamed the French Blue, it became part of the crown jewels.

During the French Revolution, it was stolen. After the statute of limitations had expired, a large blue diamond was sold to one Henry Philip Hope.

Now, computer imaging has demonstrated that this diamond would have fit very neatly inside the French Blue, and that indeed, some of the facets on this stone would likely have been external surfaces on the French Blue.

This new diamond has a history of bringing misfortune to the people who own it, so it's a bit ironic that when the French Blue was opened up, what remained would be called Hope.

Smoking and fuming

In the ongoing saga about an employer who has demanded that his employees not smoke, even on their own time, Bill Keezer links to comments about the unenforceability of such an edict.

A friend of mine underwent an entrance physical for one job, and the exam included a urinalysis. (Probably tested for recreational drugs, too.) The results came back showing he was a heavy smoker – based on a high level of nicotine metabolites in his urine.

Well, as it happens, he doesn't smoke. He had a heart attack some years ago, and gave up all the vices that correlate with heart disease. He's actually reversed quite a bit of the damage, which left his cardiologist deliriously happy. "I knew it would work if any patient ever actually tried it!" was his cry. One of the positive steps he was taking at the time was dosing himself with large amounts of niacin to keep his cholesterol down.

Niacin is sold in two forms: nicotinic acid, and nicotinic acid amide. Those who take large doses of the first will develop an uncomfortable flush as the capillaries on the skin dilate. After a while, though, the user builds up a tolerance and the flush quits happening. By the way, if you haven't already triggered on the word "nicotinic" in the chemical name of niacin, you should now. They are related, and yield breakdown products in the body that cross-react on drug tests.

My friend was able to convince the doctors they were picking up the niacin without following up on his offer to take half a gram of the stuff in front of them and not flush.

Most smokers, though, are probably not megadosing themselves with niacin, though, and this drug test would reveal their private sins.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Quantum thought puzzle

Norm Weatherby has posted a puzzle – an "unlocked door" murder mystery.

It would be ironic if the solution had to with the kind of event that occasionally kills people on New Year's Eve.

Leave no child behind

SETI Thursday's feature article is a piece urging that evolution be included in the science standards of all 50 states.

Human evolution is included in the National Science Education Standards and the Benchmarks for Science Literacy, our national statements of the fundamental science concepts for grades K-12. The Standards and Benchmarks describe the basics for scientifically literate citizens. At the state level, politics overtake science education. Human evolution is included in only 8% of the state science standards, and is therefore not required in almost all American elementary, middle or high school science courses. ("The Emphasis Given to Evolution in State Science Standards: A lever for Change in Evolution Education?" Gerald Skoog, Kimberly Bilica, 2002) The evolution of the universe, our solar system, and our planet fare somewhat better, but still do not appear in almost half of the states’ science standards. These standards drive the content of textbooks and state achievement tests, and learning about evolution is getting left out.
Evolution is fundamental to modern biology, geology and astronomy. Ignoring or discarding fundamental scientific understandings of the natural world does not prepare our children well for the future. As America strives to "leave no child behind," it’s time that evolution is not left behind in our science classrooms.

I have a problem with the lack of precision in some of these articles. In this one, I object to the way the word "evolution" winds up lumping the history of the planet, of the solar system, and of living things together in one package. This makes it easier for anti-science types to set up a straw-man argument of first equating the three systems and then showing that they are not the same. But that's a problem with pedagogic technique, not with science.

In the end, whether the students and the teachers decide they "believe in" evolution or not, the subject needs to be taught, and taught well. As entrenched as it is in biological science, if it's going to be overturned at this point in the game, it will be overturned only by people who know what scientists think evolution means.

It will not be overturned by ignorant people standing around the sidelines, asking questions equivalent to, "Can evolution make a rock so heavy it can't lift it?"

And of course, if it's right, it needs to be included is part of science classes.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Don't be so sure.

John Ray wanders out on a limb...

There is a huge new study of DNA just come out of the Stanford School of Medicine which showed that genetics is almost a perfect predictor of self-described race. See here. In other words whether you are black, white, Asian or Hispanic can clearly be seen in your genes. It certainly knocks on the head the Leftist idea that race is a "social construct".

Well, that's only true if Leftists are willing to admit that gene data is anything but a "social construct". Indeed, given "deconstructionism", I'm not sure if Leftists are obliged to admit that anything is anything but a "social construct."

Since, as near as I can tell, deconstructionism denies the existence of any objective truth (except, for some reason, that conservatives are racist-sexist-homophobic-fascistic-stupid-ugly-fundies – that's Gospel), mere genetic data won't change any opinions on the Left.

A half-empty glass tagline...

I took the road less traveled, and had to wait hours for help when my car broke down.

That would, indeed, make quite a difference...

Blog congress?

Ed Feulner, president of Heritage Foundation, proposes that Congress put the full text of bills on the Internet before voting on them. This is a way to help citizens better understand what Congress is doing.

The average citizen doesn't have time to scour all these bills, but the blogosphere does. People interested in specific areas would then find out about pending bills because the bloggers they follow will find out about them and analyze them.

My only question is, you mean to say the text isn't already available online?

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Oh, holy jeez!!!!!

It only took 4000 years of keeping records, but someone has developed symptomatic rabies, and lived through it, without being vaccinated.

Giese's harrowing journey began in a church. She scooped up a fallen bat and then released it outside. As she did, the bat bit her finger. Thinking it was a scratch, she simply washed out the tiny wound with hydrogen peroxide. A month later, her symptoms appeared. [Pediatrician Rodney E.] Willoughby and his colleagues suspected that the brains of rabies patients send out signals that sabotage vital organs. So, the team elected to slow the girl's brain activity using an anesthetic and drugs that inhibit the effect of glutamate, a chemical carrier of brain signals that causes problems when it's overabundant, as in patients with head injuries and a variety of brain disorders. The doctors also administered antiviral medication and put Giese on a breathing machine. <snip> Giese made abundant antibodies against rabies virus, and after just a week in a coma, she no longer showed any sign of infection. It was time to wake her up. <snip> In more recent news, Jeanna is now up and around.

Well, she's sure been vaccinated now, hasn't she?

Good job!

The broken window theory strikes again

Different River throws his stones at a re-appearance of the "broken window theory". This theory is named after the gedanken in which a vandal has lobbed a rock through a store window. Just as the owner is about to have the miscreant dragged off to jail, someone points out that because the window is broken, the store owner will now hire a glazer. He, in turn, will hire someone else, and that person will hire someone else. By the time this moron is done blathering, he's got the whole village convinced they should erect a statue in the vandal's honor.

And so on, and so on, and so on.

DR cites a news piece that calls the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka a "blessing in disguise" because the economy will get a significant boost from the work done to rebuild what the tsunami wiped away.

...part of how well you live is sometimes determined not by how much income you have this year, but by what durable assets you have – which you may have received many years ago, but from which you still derive benefit today...Your actual standard of living is what you produce this year, plus what you produced in the past that is still useful.

In the case of the broken window situation, money gets spread around, work gets done, and people produce stuff. But the village is poorer than it would have been had the window remained intact.

In the "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics, every time a choice is made, the universe splits into two copies, one in which the choice went one way, and one in which the choice went the other way. Let's follow the split from the decision to break the window.

In one universe, the window is broken. The glazer does his thing and repairs it, charging $100 for the job. He spends the money from that job on something else, and everyone produces goods and services to keep that money moving around. At the end of a year, the village is richer (in terms of goods and services provided) by $100 times the number of hands the money has passed through in that year.

In the other universe, the window remains intact. The glazer doesn't do his thing on that window, but he finds other work, or indulges in a hobby – an activity he values more than he values the $100 he would have gotten doing that job.

The $100 doesn't vanish. It gets spent on something else. Maybe the store owner installs a wireless hot spot for his sidewalk coffee shop. (This is a pretty geeky village, filled with graduate students, which is why they were willing to buy into this "broken window" theory in the first place.)

After a year, this $100 has been traded around the village, in exchange for goods and services. This increase in goods and services is equal to $100 times the number of hands it passed through during that year. The only change is that the store owner didn't have to replace the broken window. He was able to buy additional goods and services to add to his stock of value. The glazer either spent his time doing $100 of work for someone else, or he traded that amount of time for the opportunity to do something he valued more than the $100 he could have made.

In this universe, the village is richer by at least the $100 it costs to replace a broken window.

Lock the bum up. Or maybe he can work it off doing community service.

...this immoral principle

Wretchard (Belmont Club) in discussing how deterrence works, and doesn't work, says,

What the GWOT did was deter the states which may have considered supplying al Qaeda-like organizations with the material for building nuclear weapons with the threat of collective responsibility. Deterrence has always, from its inception, been based on this immoral principle and it isn't necessary to approve to recognize it was the case.

Although the principle of collective responsibility can rankle, I'm now wondering just how moral or immoral it is. It certainly seems to be popular.

We've all been subject to collective responsibility. In the widest scale, whole ethnic groups have been the target of this kind of judgment. The notion that the white man is responsible for all the ills of the world is merely the latest incarnation. On the smallest scale, teachers and playground monitors who punish both participants in a fight, saying "I don't care who started it" are assigning collective responsibility.

On one hand, collective responsibility may be considered a "cop-out". It's used by people who can't be bothered to assess responsibility and properly assign blame. Instead, they take the lazy way out. In such a case, arguably it is an immoral policy.

On the other hand, what if the time and effort required to correctly assess responsibility and properly assign blame is so great that justice would not be perceived as being done. Making an entire school run laps during gym class to punish one or two unknown miscreants is heavy-handed, but perhaps less so than grilling kids until you finally isolate the culprits. You punish the whole class, and count on peers to "pay it forward" until the punishment reaches those who were responsible.

In a perfect world, it would be possible to isolate those who are responsible for any evil act and administer prompt and targeted punishment. This would be the perfectly moral approach.

In an imperfect world, we will be imperfectly moral. The trade-off here is, are we imperfectly moral in assigning collective responsibility, or are we imperfectly immoral in administering no punishment at all, and letting those wo do evil get away with it altogether?

It's a hard question to answer, and no one answer will serve for all cases.

For most of the Cold War, opposing nations held each other's civilian populations hostage.

And nuclear war never broke out, even when one of the opposing nations was in full collapse. The morality of holding all those people hostage has to be balanced, in a real world, against the morality of all those people not being turned to radioactive dust. It's a trade-off.

Litigation blues

Beldar notes Glenn Reynold's comment that antiwar professors may be creating a hostile environment for veterans, and thereby subject to the kind of litigation that's become all too popular in the past couple of decades. Beldar agrees such litigation would be idiotic, but also agrees that it's the logical outcome of the "hostile environment theory".

One of his points:

In short, Prof. Reynolds may be right that more of these complaints, and possibly lawsuits, may be inevitable. Too many of my colleagues at the bar are long on zeal and short on judgment, and anyone who can pay the filing fee can get through the courthouse door.

Now, I've had this thought, and I may be all wet on this. (And I have friends who are more than happy to assure me I'm all wet on any number of topics.)

I've heard it said that the counsel for both sides in a lawsuit are also officers of the court. As such, they have certain obligations to the court over and above their obligations to their clients. One obligation, as I recall, is to act as gatekeepers to the system. They're supposed to screen out idiotic cases.

It may be this is not the case. It may be that it was a tradition, and is not to be found in any legal or ethical code by which lawyers are bound. It may even be like the Postman's Motto, "Neither rain nor sleet nor snow nor gloom of night..." – something everyone thought was the case, but which never was. If that be the case, then never mind.

On the other hand, if there's anything at all to this, I'm wondering if some day someone will manage to sue the lawyer who brought a frivolous law suit for malpractice. The theory would be that the lawyer, by failing to exercise his responsibility as a gate keeper, allowed an idiotic case to be brought, and cost the defendant the time and money required to defend it. Not to mention wasting the time and other resources of the legal system.

I have no idea if this kind of case has even the slightest chance. But if it worked, it might cause some lawyers to think about the merits of any case they're about to bring.

But it's for the sake of the children...

It seems there are some glitches in at least one of the Megan's Law databases.

Martha Cory is a church leader, the mother of two young boys, and has never been in trouble with the law. But if you believe the state Department of Justice, a convicted pedophile is living in her home.

Sometimes, there's such a thing as being too compassionate. However, that's probably not what's happening in this case.

Cory learned through the neighborhood grapevine that her home was listed as the address for Robert Jennison — a convicted child molester who was committed to a mental hospital. She believes he gave authorities a bogus address that authorities never checked out.

A lot of problems have shown up in this database because it was rushed into existence. Why the rush? Well, the legislation calling for it was written by an assembly member facing a tough re-election campaign. But that's note the official reason.

Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for Attorney General Bill Lockyer, said the DOJ spent four years trying to put the information online. There was no sense in waiting any longer, he said, especially with public safety at issue. "We thought the sooner we could get it on the Internet, the better."

Another example of trade-offs. People focus on the benefits of having the Megan's Law database online – better protection against sexual offenders, and neglect the downside – more ways to ruin peoples' days, weeks, months, or years when someone puts them in the database by accident.

It appears that mistakes are corrected promptly, but there is still that window of time when a name is on the list when copies can be backed up anywhere on the web. And many people on the list have applied to be exempted from listing, but their names are still up until the paperwork has been reviewed. If an exemption is granted, the name comes down. In the mean time, data can be saved, backed-up, and mirrored.

Some fraction of the people whose names disappear from the list deserve to lose the stigma of being listed. Reasonable people can differ as to which ones deserve it, but I think we can all agree that some people on that list don't deserve to be. If their name is listed anyway, they lose a great deal of privacy, and may suffer an unfair loss of reputation.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Evolution and my goal

One comment Bill makes is,

So what? Find other arguments to accomplish your goals.

One of my goals is to ensure that the best theories make it into scientific discourse. That is, those theories which do the best job of explaing how the world works.

David Friedman has stated that the alternative to a correct theory is not nothing, it is an incorrect theory. (I know I've said this before. Well, here it is again.) A correct theory is one which yields correct predictions from a given set of facts. An incorrect theory is one which yields incorrect predictions.

Evolution happens to be the most successful theory to explain the many facts observed about living things. It is so pervasive, it has become an organizing principle of biology, and a guide to further research. With evolution as a guide, researchers can narrow their explorations down to specific areas and not waste time in other areas that are unlikely to bear fruit. Without this organizing principle, there is no reason to expect anything in particular in the biological world.

One very small example: Primates do not make their own vitamin C. Neither do guinea pigs.

There are four enzymes that take precursors and convert them, step by step, into vitamin C, in most animals. In primates, all primates, the genetic code one of these enzymes is broken. There is a "stop" codon in the DNA right after the start of the code for the enzyme. It's like someone accidentally putting "END PROGRAM" in line two of a mass of code. All primates have this broken gene, and it's broken the same way in all primates.

Using evolutionary theory, a biologist would predict that guinea pigs, not sharing common ancestors with primates, have this system broken in a different fashion. And as it happens, it is.

Without the notion of common descent, there's no reason to form any hypothesis one way or the other about the state of the guinea pig's DNA.

In any science that says things about the world around us theories have consequences. If you're an engineer and you use a bad theory to design a bridge, the bridge is likely to collapse and people are likely to die. If you're a medical researcher and you wander off into left field because you're following a bad theory, people can die waiting for whatever you're trying to come up with.

I've had some pretty nasty infections in my life. Researchers use evolution to predict methods that will work better at controlling infections, impeding the development of antibiotic resistant strains, and deciding where to look for new antibiotics and treatments.

I can make the case that I'm alive today because of evolution. At least, I believe that very strongly. Hand in hand with this belief is a belief that those who wish evolution driven from our science curricula are trying to kill the tree of life. If they succeed, I and people I know and love will be more likely to die when treatments for diseases they develop have never been discovered.

I'm sure most of the creationists mean well, and I'll stipulate that very few are using this emotion-laden issue to fleece the well-meaning. However, the effect of what they would accomplish will kill people. I'd prefer this not happen, if it's all the same to you.

Evolution, science, and theology

I'm going to respond here to a post on Bill's Comments.

There is a reason why I have this bee in my bonnet over evolution, and it's the same reason I have a bee in my bonnet over media bias. In both cases, denial of the issue requires that people examine the evidence with their eyes closed.

Bill correctly notes that the issue in evolution is not Darwinism but Materialism. He's correct in that ultimately, the materialism and non-materialism are incompatible. If an effect can be traced to entirely material causes, there's no room left for a supernatural intelligence to fiddle with the results, or at least not in any way that could ever be detected. For example, if the roll of a die is due entirely to materialistic effects – force, inertia, angular momentum and moment of inertia, and so on, there's no way God can influence the roll of the dice except in a way that looks like the action of blind forces on inanimate matter.

But Bill overlooks a very important distinction: science demands methodological materialism, but not philosophical materialism. That is, science doesn't care whether you believe in a god, several gods, a Chinese-style celestial bureaucracy, or a sentient universe, so long as you never base your explanations for observed data on these entities.

The famous "miracle" Sid Harris cartoon is not how scientists work. No scientist could get away with anything remotely resembling step two. Ultimately, there has to be a mechanism to get you from step one to step three. You're perfectly free to believe the mechanism was divinely created. Indeed, the "natural philosophers" of the 17th century, Newton included, were quite content to believe they were uncovering the rules God used to make the world.

But the rules have to be consistent.

Now here comes the paragraph where Bill completely misses the point:

I have become quite disgusted with the arguments over ID. The secularists seem to think that demonstrating that ID is not a science is supposed to be enough to render it impotent and unworthy of consideration.

Perhaps for the "secularists", that's true. Dawkins is a devout atheist, and very likely a member of the Secular Humanist Institute of Technology. He makes no secret of his scorn for theism.

However, there are any number of theists, myself included, who argue just as vigorously against allowing creationism or ID/IOT into science classrooms. The reason is very simple – these ideas are not science.

It is well that Bill recognizes that Intelligent Design is a religiously-based belief and not science:

At the same time the ID proponents misuse and abuse the findings of science to indicate the existence of God, something totally outside the realm of science.

ID/IOT is, in fact, not science. If it wants to be science, then it has to play by the rules of science. That means, it has to adopt methodological materialism and exclude all entities outside the realm of nature. Since it either can't or won't, it's not science, and does not belong in a science class.

To the secularists, So what?

So the ID/IOT-ists have claimed their beleifs are science. They have made this claim over and over, including under oath in courts of law. Yet their ideas do not follow the rules of science, nor do they produce any of the fruits we see in real science. The ID/IOT-ists are either ignorant or lying. Since they continue to make the same errors after repeated correction, many have decided their persistence in these errors is the result of intelligent design.

In any event, if someone is going to teach science to our next generation, I want someone who is not ignorant, and who is not deceitful. Both.

Find other arguments to accomplish your goals. Proving the same point over and over does not constitute progress.

My goal is to ensure that science classes teach science. That means, no diluting of science with pseudo-science, no matter how popular it may be. That also means no intimidating teachers into silence because a vocal minority disagrees with one or another theory. Short of rebutting the ID/IOT and Creationist claims whenever they are presented, how do I accomplish this goal?

Seriously. I am open to suggestions.