Monday, October 31, 2005

Oil prices – again

Cafe Hayek has a thought on the "obscene" oil company profits.

Here is the text of the commentary I did this morning at NPR's Morning Edition.

Those Senate hearings on the cause of high gasoline prices should be really brief. Three words. Supply and demand.

When hurricanes destroy refining capacity, pipelines and drilling platforms there’s less gasoline to go around and prices rise.

Everybody knows what’s bad about high prices. Less money for us. More money for the oil industry.

But high prices are good, too. When prices are high, some people will drive less, car pool, buy more energy efficient cars allowing the people who really want gasoline to have it.

There’s another benefit of high prices. They encourage greedy oil companies to pull oil out of the ground that isn’t worth pulling out of the ground when prices are low.

But isn’t the recent run up of prices just corporate greed run amok? I don’t know. At my local station, prices are down 85 cents per gallon from the peak of a few weeks ago. Did the owner just get nice overnight? Did he forget how to gouge? Did he figure he’d made plenty of money and it was time to give me a break? I actually think he’d still charge $3.50 a gallon if he could. But now that there’s more gasoline on the market, he can’t charge what he did before and still get my business. Too many competitors are charging less.
If the Senate does have hearings on oil industry profits. My fantasy is that an Exxon executive will have the courage to say:

“Yes, we made a lot of money last quarter. We earned it and we’d like to keep it. And in those times when we make a lot less, or even lose money, we won’t expect to be bailed out.”
As I noted last week, the profit made by the largest oil company was a little less than 10% of its gross revenue. I haven't checked to see how that compares with the percentage compares with its percentage profit in previous quarters. I also haven't compared that percentage with what other oil companies are making, though I suspect it's slightly less, based on news I heard in passing.

Even if we're the sort to begrudge the oil companies even a 10% profit, there's another fact we can derive from that number: If oil companies were to shrink their profit margin all the way to zero, that would lower prices at the gas pump by no more, and probably rather less, than 10%. It'll make some difference, but it won't get the pump price back below $1 per gallon.

Evolution, ID/IOT, and GET

Opponents of evolution frequently point out apparent problems with evolution, as if discrediting one means Intelligent Design/Intelligent Origin Theory wins by default. The problem is, there's always a third alternative.

Here's an attempt to offer one of those third alternatives.

The background information and rational for the GET paradigm comes from both the ancient scriptures (Sumerian through Hebrew) as does the Creationist paradigm and from science (archaeology, history, biology, astronomy, paleontology, linguistics) as does the basis of the Darwinian evolutionary paradigm. A detailed presentation of the background material is primarily found in the Nobel prize quality work of the Sumerian scholar, Zecharia Sitchin.

Anyone for Von Danikenism?

What the anti-war movement opposes...

The anti-war crowd is demanding that US troops be brought home, and demanding to know "how many more" will have to die.

Dennis Prager has observed that the "2000 dead" issue is largely bogus. The opponents of war believe the war was fraudulent, undertaken for bad reasons, and has made things worse. In that case, one dead US soldier is too many.

Supporters of the war have to weigh the cost in US deaths against the value of what's been achieved and what's being achieved. Opponents have to account for their acceptance of the first 1999 deaths.

Iraq has gone from despotism to freedom, from strong-man rule to a Constitution and an elected Parliament, both democratically elected.

...[T]he overwhelming majority of Iraq's people – have repeatedly given every indication of valuing their newfound freedom: voting in two elections at the risk of their lives, preparing for a third, writing and ratifying a constitution granting more freedoms than exist in any country in the entire Arab Middle East. "The secret is out," says Fouad Ajami. "There is something decent unfolding in Iraq. It's unfolding in the shadow of a terrible insurgency, but a society is finding its way to constitutional politics."
Ajami is no fool, no naif, no reckless idealist, as Scowcroft likes to caricature the neoconservatives he reviles. A renowned scholar on the Middle East, Ajami is a Shiite, fluent in Arabic, who has unsentimentally educated the world about the Arab predicament and Arab dream palaces. Yet. having returned from two visits to Iraq this year, he sports none of Scowcroft's easy, ostentatious cynicism about human nature, and Iraqi human nature in particular. Instead, Ajami celebrates the coming of decency in a place where decency was outlawed 30 years ago.

It's ironic that those who oppose the Iraq war are very likely to be "pro-choice". The effect of the removal of Saddam and the institution of a democratic regime in Iraq has been to give all Iraqis more freedom of choice.

William Dembski Rebutted

William Dembski was originally scheduled to be called as an expert witness for the defense in the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial. Dembski's name was withdrawn from the roster, so this rebuttal by Jeffrey Shallit was automatically withdrawn.

It seems a shame to waste the 29-page document, though.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Energy costs

Are we running out of energy?

Hubbert was born in 1903. By 1949 he had concluded that the fossil-fuel era was going to end, and quite soon. Global production would peak around 2000, he predicted, and would decline inexorably thereafter.

Peter Huber doesn't agree.

His "peak oil" theory–which many people are citing these days–is a case study in junk economics.

...continued in full post...

The received word is, you can only burn a barrel of oil once. If you spend two barrels of oil to produce one barrel's worth of energy, you're digging yourself into a hole.

In that case, grocery stores should be out of business. Their profit margins are typically one percent or less. That means they spend 100 dollars on products in order to "refine" one dollar of profit. And we think energy is in trouble?

Today this same nonsense is often dressed up with numbers in an analysis that's dubbed "energy return on energy invested" (Eroei). According to this theory it can never make sense to burn two units of energy in order to extract one unit of energy. The Eroei crowd concedes, for example, that the world has centuries' worth of junk oil in shale and tar sands--but they can also prove it's irrelevant. It takes more energy to cook this kind of oil out of the dirt, they argue, than you end up with in the recovered oil. And a negative Eroei can only mean energy bankruptcy. The more such energy investments we make, the faster things will grind to a halt.
In the real world, however, investors don't care a fig whether they earn positive Eroei. What they care about is dollar return on dollar invested. And the two aren't the same--nowhere close--because different forms of energy command wildly different prices. Invest ten units of 10-cent energy to capture one unit of $10 energy and you lose energy but gain dollars, and Wall Street will fund you from here to Alberta.

The reason "Eroei" is irrelevant is thermodynamics. The first law of thermo means Eroei can never be greater than 100%; the second law guarantees it can never be even that high. Pick your favorite form of energy, and the energy output is always less than the energy input.

Obscene profits?

Are the oil companies making obscene profits?

Part of the answer depends on what "obscene" means.

Exxon Mobil Corp.'s profits surged 75 percent to a record $9.92 billion in the third quarter, fueled by high crude oil and natural gas prices, the world's largest publicly traded oil company reported yesterday.

That's a lot of dollars. And a 75% increase is pretty good. But...

Revenue for the Irving, Texas, oil giant neared $101 billion in the quarter – the first time a U.S. company has broken the $100 billion mark in a three-month period.

That works out to 9.8 cents on the dollar. Most places, a profit under 10% is considered reasonable.

It's common for lay people to imagine the oil company having ten billion dollars sitting in a vault somewhere. I have a hunch, though, that they don't. It's kind of in the nature of money to get spent.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Argumentum ad frothing fit

"By their fruits ye shall know them."

If you want to know whether some movement or belief system is fair or foul, look at what it produces. If it yields good fruit, it's a good tree; if it yields bad fruit, it's a bad tree.

Here's an example of a very bad fruit.

"Dr." Joseph mastrpaolo [sic] writes a screed the likes of which must have gotten flecks of foam all over his monitor. It is one long argument by assertion – indeed, argument by rant.

It leads off with a real winner:

The implosion of Greek civilization, the most brilliant civilization in history, was caused by the atheism of evolution.

I had no idea Darwin was that old.

I suspect the good "Doctor"'s mind is filled to overflowing with his own unique definition of the word "evolution". I'm not sure what this definition may be, but whatever it is, he's certainly full of it.

And it gets worse.

...continued in full post...

Darwin based evolution on the inheritability of somatic changes that had been discredited scientifically half a century before, and by casual observation more than 4,000 years before.

He seems to be asserting that somatic changes are not inherited. It would seem that offspring don't resemble their parents, or at least, if they do, it's not the result of any form of inheritance. It must be a coincidence.

The next paragraph in the "Doctor"'s piece is worth reproducing in its entirety:

The forged Protamoeba primitiva, the alleged missing-link cell, and the plagiarized then forged embryo drawings that alleged evolutionary recapitulation, and the forged industrial melanism, and the forged molecular clock, and the fraudulent Stanley Miller experiment, and the plagiarized then forged skeletal evidence of ape to man, and the forged Piltdown man, and the forged Nebraska man, and the forged Pekin man, and the travesty of exhibiting an African pygmy in the Monkey House of the Bronx Zoo as the missing link, and the fact that Oxnard in 1975 and Mastropaolo in 2002 proved that all ape-men must be frauds or forgeries, and the fact that Francesco Redi in 1665 and Louis Pasteur in 1864 and John Tyndall in 1877 disproved evolution with experiments that have never been overturned.

Quick: What's the main verb in this sentence?

What we seem to have here is an attempt at the Gish Gallop. In "debates", Duane Gish uses a technique of listing "problems" one after the other. A skilled debater, Gish can list a dozen "problems" with evolution in under a minute, and each one requires at least twenty minutes to explain why it's not really a problem after all.

Of course, the Gish Gallop works best in an oral format where time constraints are severe. In a written forum with ample room for replies and rebuttals, it fails miserably.

"Dr." mastropaolo [sic] lists sixteen items in the sentence fragment above. For ease of reference, I'll separate them out"

Amoeba primitiva
No trace of this turned up on a Google search. "Dr." mastropaolo [sic] has no references in his rant, so I have no idea what he's referring to.
Embryo drawings
Presumably Haeckel's drawings, and presumably from Wells, Icons of Evolution. A couple of points about the "forgeries": Evolutionary theory is not founded on Haeckel's observations or theories. Haeckel's work was discredited in the 19th century, and has not been relevant to biology since the rediscovery of Mendel's laws of genetics.
The similarities between vertebrate embryos are real. We must distinguish between observations of those similarities and hypotheses about their causes.
A neat article can be found here
Industrial melanism
More from Wells. The thing is, when pollution was killing off lichen and turning trees dark, the proportion of melanistic moths in the peppered moth population increased. When pollution controls were implemented, and the trees returned to their lighter color, the proportion decreased again. This is historical fact. Natural selection is one explanation, and critics have offered no other one.
For reference, I'm just going to link to this article on industrial melanism in peppered moths.
The molecular clock
Again, from Wells' book. You might want to compare Wells' treatment with what real scientists do. Here's a link to that article.
The Stanley Miller experiment
Presumably the Miller-Urey experiment. Another topic in Wells' book.
First and foremost: it's grossly deceptive to call the experiment "forged". The experiment was run, and the results were as reported. Period. What's more, anyone reading is free to look it up, build a similar apparatus, run the experiment, and analyze the results. You'll find similar chemicals in the flask.
Wells misleads by leaving out a huge body of scientific data, and also by misrepresenting the significance of the experiment. The main point of the experiment was that amino acids and other "building blocks" of life would form from relatively simple precursors, with the application of pretty basic forms of energy such as electric sparks (lightning) or UV radiation. In particular, their production did not depend on the application of any intelligence, or any sort of vital force unique to living things.
Further reading.
Peking man
Um... What about it? (Here's where citing reference would have been helpful.) (A real doctor would know about citing references.)
Piltdown man
This was a hoax. It was uncovered by scientists, not by creationists, and is not used as evidence for evolution in any textbook.
Nebraska man
More of an argument than a hoax. Teeth from the pig family can be confusingly similar to primate teeth. Eventually, the argument was settled in favor of the tooth belonging to a peccary.
"The travesty of exhibiting an African pygmy in the Monkey House"
I'd like to see more context here. I have no idea what he's referring to.
Oxnard, Mastropaolo, Redi, Pasteur, and Tyndall
I'd like to see much more specific citations on all of these. I have a feeling they are either misprepresented or (in a couple of cases) misrepresenting.

One final quote from the rant:

Falsus in uno falsus in omnibus.

OK, but that doesn't bode well for his thesis.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Iraqi Constitution

The new constitution passed by a 4-1 margin among those voting. I suspect the anti-Bush crowd, determined to find a cloud in every silver lining, will point to its overwhelming rejection in two provinces as a Serious Problem.

Indeed, since 78.59 percent of a 63 percent turnout works out to 49.5% of the eligible voters, I'm wondering how long it will be before the nay-sayers start pointing out that the majority of Iraq did not approve the new Constitution.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Be afriad....

SCIENTISTS have invented a robotic bagpiper which they claim can play faster than any human.

Well, OK... but why???

Monday, October 24, 2005

Duseberg and Aids

Source: Science magazine, Vol 266 No. 9, P. 1642-1644

On 28 October, Robert Willner held a press conference at a North Carolina hotel, during which he jabbed his finger with a bloody needle he had just stuck into a man who said he was infected with HIV. Willner is a physician who recently had his medical license revoked in Florida for, among other infractions, claiming to have cured an AIDS patient with ozone infusions. He is also the author of a new book, Deadly Deception: The Proof that SEX and HIV Absolutely DO NOT CAUSE AIDS. He insists that jabbing himself with the bloody needle, which he describes as “an act of intelligence,” was not meant to sell books. “I’m interested in proving to people that there isn’t one shred of scientific evidence that HIV causes any disease,” Willner says.

Relying largely on the work of Peter Duesberg who claims that HIV is harmless and that AIDS is the result of the use of illegal drugs and drugs like AZT, a number of "HIV dissenters" have been clamoring for attention and trying to effect policy changes.

If they're right, people are getting sick and dying while medical science is offering treatments that either fail to address the disease, or actually make it worse. If they're wrong, people who take their advice are putting their lives, and the lives of their loved ones, at risk.

Tons of research have been done on HIV, including studies that seem to show it entering, hijacking, and killing critical immune cells. We should be able to reach a pretty definitive answer as to who's right. Both sides can't be right here, and whichever side is wrong is a wonderful example of how bad science kills people.

...continued in full post...

...although the scientific community seems concerned about the effects of Duesberg’s message, with few exceptions—such as Nature editor John Maddox, who took on the London Sunday Times for its AIDS coverage—the scientific community has largely ignored Peter Duesberg. But because the Duesberg phenomenon has not gone away and may be growing, Science decided this was a good time to examine Duesberg’s main claims. In a 3-month investigation, Science interviewed more than 50 supporters and detractors, examined the AIDS literature, including Duesberg’s publications, and carried out correspondence and discussion with Duesberg. This investigation reveals that although the Berkeley virologist raises provocative questions, few researchers find his basic contention that HIV is not the cause of AIDS persuasive. Mainstream AIDS researchers argue that Duesberg’s arguments are constructed by selective reading of the scientific literature, dismissing evidence that contradicts his theses, requiring impossibly definitive proof, and dismissing outright studies marked by inconsequential weaknesses. The main conclusions of Science’s investigation are that:
  • In hemophiliacs (the group Duesberg acknowledges provides the best test case for the HIV hypothesis) there is abundant evidence that HIV causes disease and death (see p. 1645).
  • According to some AIDS researchers, HIV now fulfills the classic postulates of disease causation established by Robert Koch (see p. 1647).
  • The AIDS epidemic in Thailand, which Duesberg has cited as confirmation of his theories, seems instead to confirm the role of HIV (see p. 1647).
  • AZT and illicit drugs, which Duesberg argues can cause AIDS, don’t cause the immune deficiency characteristic of that disease (see p. 1648).

This raises the question: what motivates someone like Duesberg to pursue this theory in the face of such opposition? It seems obvious that he and many of his supporters are True Believers. He has lots to lose by bucking the consensus, and if he's right, he'll win fame, and maybe a bit of a fortune. And why does this alternate theory have any following at all?

The linked article quotes Steven Epstein, "a sociologist of science" at UCSD:

What seems to gives this controversy a lot of its motive force and its peculiar twists and turns is the way in which it’s enacted in very public arenas.

The press gave enthustiastic support to Duesberg's "attack on the AIDS establishment", and people who are at a high risk for AIDS have an emotional investment in any message that tells them they're really safe.

Part of the reason why Duesberg's views are hanging on is that AIDS hasn't been cured yet. In a culture where world-shaking problems are wrapped up in a maximum of eighty minutes (allowing time for commercial breaks), the notion that it might take decades to solve a hard problem doesn't compute. If we haven't come up with answers after a whole decade of work, it must mean the theory we're using is wrong.

Another [reason Duesberg’s message found receptive audiences outside the scientific community] is that his attacks on AIDS researchers as greedy self-interested mythmakers clicked into a growing disenchantment with the medical establishment.

In fact, you see this belief popping up throughout the "alternative medicine" community. One ad I heard recently essentially accused the pharmaceutical companies of making drugs that don't cure diseases. If they actually cured anything, people wouldn't need to buy drugs, and the companies wouldn't make any money. Similarly, one can argue that AIDS researchers would lose all that grant money if they actually cured the disease.

Harold Jaffe, head of the CDC’s Division of HIV/ AIDS, also senses disenchantment with the established order. "In the beginning, it may have represented honest scientific argument," says Jaffe. "Now it has assumed some kind of cult status. It’s attractive to people who believe the establishment is always wrong. This would be the biggest example of all."

It would be interesting to draw the parallels between this "controversy" and the "controversy" over evolution and ID/IOT. For the time being, I'm going to leave that as an exercise for the reader with no life.

Of Behe and Ti – er – Mammary Glands

Mike Argento has been commenting up a storm on the KvD trial.

His articles are archived here and his blog is here.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Cool, clear water

Private industry is making progress in the desalination of ocean water.

In fact, as the technology improved, the Israelis doubled the Ashkelon plant’s planned capacity. In 1999, when planning for the project began, the estimated cost of producing water had fallen from $1 per cubic meter to 70 cents. Kronenberg said the Ashkelon plant will produce water at 53 cents per cubic meter, which he called "the lowest price ever seen for desalinated water."

For reference, $1 per cubic meter is $1234 per acre-foot. 70 cents per cubic meter is $865/AF. 53 cents per cubic meter is $654/AF. Cheap water costs $100/AF, and fairly expensive water is two or three times that.

Even if desalination never becomes as cheap as diverting rivers into reservoirs, it's comforting to know that's the most water will cost.

Hurricane fever

Hurricane Wilma is "the strongest hurricane on record". Quick! Blame global warming!

Hurricane Wilma is the "strongest" in terms of the pressure drop in the eye of the storm. Airplane monitoring showed the pressure in the eye of the storm to be the lowest ever recorded, making the storm the strongest ever recorded.

See the problem with that reasoning? How long have we been measuring pressures while the eye was still over mid ocean? It's only since the 60s or so that we've had the ability to go and look.

Attempts to link hurricanse to global warming have been inconclusive. Historical records have shown that numbers of storms haven't changed that much. If anything, hurricanes become fewer in number as temperatures rise. The response, that storms are more intense, also seems reasonable, but:

Since it’s generally agreed by climate researchers that manmade greenhouse gas emissions haven’t caused an increase in the frequency of hurricanes, global warming advocates now claim that manmade greenhouse gas emissions will lead to stronger, or more "intense" hurricanes. Such claims have been made most recently in studies by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Kerry Emanuel (Nature, Aug. 4) and the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Peter Webster (Science, Sep. 16).

Emanuel claimed in his paper that hurricane strength doubled over the last few decades. But as Virginia state climatologist Pat Michaels recently pointed out, if Emanuel’s claim were true, then "the change would be obvious; you wouldn't need a weatherman to know which way this wind was blowing. All of these feuding scientists would have agreed on the facts long ago."

Some years ago, I was reading an article about climate modeling. I think it was in Scientific American. It showed an attempt to predict the largest observed climate change on the planet – the annual variation in seasonal temperatures. It was not a very good fit.

The difference between winter and summer is pretty significant. To compare it with night and day may understate the case. Shouldn't we ask a climate model to give the right answers for changes we know about before we rely on its predictions of changes we don't know about?

In fact, no mathematical climate model has ever been validated against the historical temperature record. So why would anyone believe that climate models can predict future climate with any reasonable certainty?

Show a good fit between "retro-dictions" – predictions of past climate, given only the data existing up to that point, and maybe we'll have a climate model that makes predictions we can trust.

Intelligent Design: The Harriet Miers of biological science?

(Also published, without formatting, at the site linked above.)

It's occurred to me that Intelligent Design/Intelligent Origin Theory may be the scientific equivalent of Harriet Miers.

At the heart of the uproar over Harriet Miers' nomination to the Supreme Court is the lack of a paper trail. Without this trail, we have only the word of her supporters that she's qualified. Phyllis Schlaffly's article seems to cover the doubts quite well. A few items:

...continued in full post...

  • You said, "Trust me." But why should we trust you when experience proves we could not trust the judgment of President Reagan (who gave us Justices ...O'Connor and ...Kennedy) or President George H.W. Bush (...Souter)? Are you more trustworthy than Reagan or your father?
  • You said, "She's not going to change. ... Twenty years from now she'll be the same person, with the same philosophy that she is today." Isn't that claim ridiculous after Miers already made a major change in her philosophy from Democrat Republican in the 1990s?
  • In presenting Miers as the most qualified person for this Supreme Court appointment, is there any evidence to convince us that she is more qualified than Judges Edith Jones, Janice Rogers Brown or Priscilla Owen?
  • Because Miers hasn't written anything memorable or important by age 60, how can we assume she has the capability to write Supreme Court opinions? Is there any constitutional or conservative principle on which Miers ever took a stand?

The issue is that Miers' nomination is essentially based on faith.

If Miers were a sitting judge, or even a former judge, we'd have access to written opinions as evidence of her thinking and her understanding of the law. If she'd written some op-ed pieces, especially on Constitutional matters, we'd have that. Instead, we have bits that have surfaced here and there which are, at best, unpromising.

Miers' curriculum vitae is not terribly impressive. Those who would prefer a nominee who hails from a big-name law school, and who has done more than work as legal counsel for individuals and businesses. In effect, they would be more comfortable with someone who had "paid her dues."

This is not to say it's impossible that Miers could be a fine associate justice, or even a legendary one, it's just that evidence is lacking. Maybe I could be a fine associate justice, but I'm not waiting by the phone to hear I've been nominated.

What does this have to do with ID/IOT?

Intelligent design has not paid its dues.

There are procedures any new idea has to go through in order to win acceptance by the scientific community. Those procedures exist for a reason, and any idea that wants the respect of the mainstream scientific community has to go through them. Any idea. Einstein could not have gotten away with, "Here's this great idea, and I have the math to support it in my files somewhere." And he didn't . He submitted his idea for publication, and supported it, tensor after bloody tensor. After the scientific establishment tried to knock it down, they finally admitted it really did work better than Newton's ideas and accepted it. Now Einstein's ideas are part of the foundation for further exploration, and cited in paper after paper. No one feels any need to prove Einstein right all over again.

Darwin's theory has paid its dues. As soon as it was published, attackers swarmed over it, trying to knock it down. Eventually, the attackers gave up. Darwin's theory consistently explained things, by use of definable and understandable mechanisms, that were otherwise unexplained and unexplainable. Now, a century and a half later, it's routinely used as the basis for biological research, and no one who cites it in a paper feels the need to prove it all over again, any more than they would need to prove that 2+2=4.

Intelligent Design has not paid its dues, and shows no inclination to make the attempt. For the most part, ID/IOT supporters don't submit papers to peer-review journals. Nowhere do we see anyone taking the ideas of Intelligent Design and showing how they explain anything in nature. The only expositions of ID/IOT are found in books and articles aimed at the general lay population, and these are so vague as to be useless for any sort of scientific inquiry.

Wesley Elsberry has suggested the Discovery Institute, one of the supporters of ID/IOT, should publish a workbook with examples showing how the theory is used for biological systems. It would cover each example, from start to finish, and most important, it would show its work. When complex specified information is found in some molecule or molecules, it would show the equations and calculations used to determine that the information was, in fact, complex. It would be able to give some sort of estimate of *how* complex it is. Rather than merely asserting that the information is specified, it would show where the specification can be found, and what it looks like. Ideally, it would show why specification A is the correct one instead of specification B, C, D, or E.

And the workbook would be very useful if all it did was give the definition of "information" that's being used, and show how it's measured or calculated using real-world systems.

The proponents of ID/IOT, when challenged with examples where their theories don't work, counter with, "It's too sophisticated for you to understand." That won't wash. The whole purpose of science is to explain things. If you can't explain your explanation, you're not going to succeed at science.

Harriet Miers' supporters need a better argument than "Trust us." Intelligent Design supporters need a better argument than "Trust us."

Harriet Miers' critics are demanding evidence that Ms. Miers is a better legal scholar than Judges Edith Jones, Janice Rogers Brown or Priscilla Owen. The critics of Intelligent Design want evidence that ID/IOT is a better explanation than the current evolutionary synthesis.

Miers' critics want to see a paper trail. They want to see some of her writings, so they can judge whether she'll be able to write Supreme Court opinions. Critics of Intelligent Design want to see a paper trail. They want to see papers where ID/IOT is actually used to explain some aspect of nature. Any aspect will do. Where does it provoke investigation in some direction not suggested by evolution, and turn out to be right?

In particular, critics of ID/IOT want evidence of a theory that is capable of reaching any conclusion other than, "It's designed – we give up! It's too hard! We'll never understand how it was made!"

In the case of Harriet Miers, Beldar has been making his case for judging Miers by different standards, and making the argument that those standards are just as valid as the ones Schlaffly uses. Maybe he's right. Maybe not. I don't expect anyone in the Senate to ask me. In the case of ID/IOT, and indeed, in any field of "alternative" science or medicine, supporters argue that the rules of science should somehow not apply. Unfortunately, if you want to call your pet cause "science", you have to get it past the gatekeepers and play by the rules of science, whether you're promoting homeopathy, chakra balancing, astrology, or Intelligent Design. If you have some alternative set of standards you want to use, it's up to you to show those standards are valid.

Intelligent Design is not valid science just because William Dembski likes it any more than Harriet Miers is Supreme Court material just because George W. Bush likes her.


The person in charge of our fluoridation program found an article from the fluoiride battles back in the 1950s. One of the charges leveled by the anti-fluoride folks was that fluoride was responsible for a whole list of complaints, including "satyriasis and nymphomania".

He plans to use this passage in his talks, and conclude by wishing the last two items were actually true.


Thursday, October 20, 2005

You can prove anything with statistics

I hear lots of hand-wringing over how ill-qualified Miers is for the Supreme court. (But then again, I recall people making the same claims about Clarence Thomas when he was first nominated. Bill Handel, on his talk show, made much of Thomas receiving only a "qualified" rating from the ABA.)

Let's assume she's as ill-qualified as her detractors claim. Why would Bush pick someone so under-qualified for the Supreme Court? Maybe he's in a hurry.

According to a study of judicial nominations I recently completed, the less distinguished the nominee--the less intellectually accomplished, the less prolific, the less impressive the record--the more likely it is that he or she will be confirmed. It also helps to be old, white and female.

Changes made

OK, I've gone back to the (new, improved) Blogger comment system. One feature I've enabled is the "prove you're a human" character recognition test. I have comments thrown open to anyone – you need not have a Blogger account, so this is one way of discouraging spam comments.

Building blocks of life abundant in space

Apparently, under the undirected operation of the laws of chemistry and physics, the building blocks of life spontaneously assemble in space.

Scientists scanning a galaxy 12 million light-years away with NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope detected copious amounts of nitrogen containing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PANHs), molecules critical to all known forms of life. PANHs carry information for DNA and RNA and are an important component of hemoglobin, the molecule that transports oxygen through the body. They also make chlorophyll, the main molecule responsible for photosynthesis in plants, and – perhaps most importantly – they're the main ingredient in caffeine and chocolate.
PAHs are flat, chicken-wire shaped molecules made up of carbon and hydrogen, interesting to scientists because life on Earth is carbon-based. However, PAHs are not used in human biochemistry. In fact, they're better known as cancer-causing carcinogens and environmental pollutants. But swap a carbon atom with a nitrogen and a PAH becomes a PANH, a class of molecules critical to humans. Without nitrogen, it would be impossible to build amino acids, proteins, DNA, RNA, hemoglobin, and many other important molecules.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Comment procedure changes coming...

I've been getting complaints about the Haloscan comments "acting up". Now, it seems Blogger's added functionality that (mostly) duplicates what Haloscan was providing, so I'm going to switch back to pure Bloggery in the next day or so.

Alas, that means comments made through Haloscan are likely to vanish.

If you want to ensure your deathless prose remains visible to visitors to my blog, you might want to either re-enter your comments, or make a post in your blog and link back to mine.

(And I think I'd prefer the latter. I could use the hits.)

New Age Reading Education

Durham, N. C. – Employers are finding it harder and harder to find staffers who can write clearly and coherently, and colleges and universities are largely to blame, Professor Nan Miller told the audience at a conference here.

Students aren't learning composition any more. Instead, classes are likely to resemble brainstorming sessions, with a "facilitator" who teaches the latest notions in "composition theory". Some of the reasons for the change in approach include:

  • "Research shows that students cannot pay attention for more than 20 minutes.
  • "The goal is to show students how to write like members of different communities.
  • "You need to consider that holistic schooling is more effective than traditional grading.
  • "Textbooks inhibit writing."

It used to be that English composition was taught in high school. Now it's possible to graduate from college unable to write clearly.

Such memories give us pause and force us to ask yet again: How progressive is progressive education?

Monday, October 17, 2005

Church and Society

Gregory S. Paul has an article in the Journal of Religion and Society which draws a positive correlation between religious belief and societal ills. In the paper, he does state that we can't take a correlation and infer a cause-effect relationship, but it seems all too easy for anyone reading the paper to make that leap for him.

This paper has raised as storm of controversy, as one side takes it as gospel and the other side finds in it holes that would dwarf St. Peter's Basilica.

It is interesting that Mr. Paul's paper makes no mention of Russia, whose 70-year experiment with enforced atheism did not create a society altogether lacking in social pathology, to put it mildly, and where the life expectancy of men is now appreciably lower than that of credulous countries such as Guatemala. Which brings up the question of what should be compared with what. After all, comparisons within countries, both static and across time, control for far more cultural factors than comparisons between them.

(By the way, I commend Mr. Dalrymple for saying "brings up the question" and not "begs the question". "Begging the question" is the fallacy of assuming what you intend to prove.)

Thursday, October 13, 2005

What are evolutionists afraid of?

It might be something like this:

Seven biology teachers in Dover refused to comply and risked their jobs by writing a powerful letter to the superintendent of schools, Richard Nilsen. The letter read, in part: "'INTELLIGENT DESIGN' IS NOT SCIENCE. 'INTELLIGENT DESIGN' IS NOT BIOLOGY. 'INTELLIGENT DESIGN' IS NOT AN ACCEPTED SCIENTIFIC THEORY." (Emphasis in original.)


...continued in full post...

The threat posed by ID became more real to me when colleagues at Ohio State University—professors Brian McEnnis (mathematics), Jeffrey McKee (anthropology) and Steve Rissing (evolution, ecology and organismal biology)—became involved in an extraordinary situation. A Ph.D. candidate in science education, high school teacher Bryan Leonard, wrote a dissertation on the following research questions: "When students are taught the scientific data both supporting and challenging macroevolution, do they maintain or change their beliefs over time? What empirical, cognitive and/or social factors influence students' beliefs?"

...The trio wrote a letter to the dean of the school on June 3 requesting that Leonard's dissertation defense be postponed until several problems were investigated. First, they argued that Leonard's research questions contained a fundamental flaw:
There are no valid scientific data challenging macroevolution. Mr. Leonard has been misinforming his students if he teaches them otherwise. His dissertation presents evidence that he has succeeded in persuading high school students to reject this fundamental principle of biology. As such, it involves deliberate miseducation of these students, a practice that we regard as unethical.
Second, they asked if Leonard had received approval to experiment on human subjects and if he had followed the prescribed protocol; universities that fail to follow exacting procedures for human experimentation may lose federal funding. Finally, they questioned the composition of Leonard's dissertation committee, which lacked expertise in both science education and evolutionary biology, the subjects of his dissertation. Two members of the committee—professors Glen R. Needham from the Department of Entomology and Robert DiSilvestro from the Department of Human Nutrition—had publicly supported the teaching of ID and denied the validity of evolution.
These events prompted me to take ID seriously, and this movement scares me. Now I feel like a jogger in the park at night who realizes that she is far too isolated and that the shadows are far too deep. At first I ignored that faint rustling behind me, convincing myself it was just wind in the leaves. Louder noises made me jump and turn around, but I saw nothing. Now I know that I and my colleagues in science are being stalked with careful and deadly deliberation. I fear my days are numbered unless I act soon and effectively. If you are reading this, the chances are that you are in the same position.
ID is an insidious attempt by a religious caucus to impose its views on the whole country. The avowed aim of ID advocates—to undermine science and replace it with their personal religious convictions—amounts to a form of prejudice that is both poisonous and horribly frightening. Inevitably, young people will suffer most. As Francisco Ayala wrote in "From the President" (July-August 2004), science training will be a fundamental necessity in the technological world of the future.

As scientists, we must stop ignoring the ID movement. It won't go away. Each of us must learn to avoid jargon in order to communicate better with the public. Every scientist should become a mentor; share your experience of the wonder and beauty of science! Finally, critically, we must expose Intelligent Design for what it really is: religious prejudice masked as intellectual freedom.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Bill throws in the towel

Bill Keezer offers what he asserts are his final thoughts on the Creation/Evolution debate.

I have decided to ignore the topic of ID vs. evolution from here out. Based on what I am reading and have read and on the responses to various posts of mine and others, a reasoned debate is not possible, whether desirable or not.

I fear this is precisely the response the creationist crowd is hoping for. If you can't win converts, at least you can make the topic so contentious that people throw up their hands and walk away. This leaves the field clear for creationists to indoctrinate students with ideas that don't threaten their fragile view of God.

All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. Walking away and doing nothing plays into the hands of the Creationists.

Is it going overboard to call them evil? I don't think so. And indeed, let's consider the fruits of Creationist thought, in Bill's words:

With the exception of the post by the Maverick Philosopher, every ID argument I have seen takes data from science and distorts and manipulates it in various ways to reach conclusions that cannot be supported. ID starts from a belief in God and then looks for something to support it. Some of the illogic is so strange that trying to counter it is almost impossible without massive reviews of current science. No ID argument I have seen explains anything comprehensively, and all reveal an ignorance of biology, biochemistry, and geology.

At best, ID/IOT is inept. It can't comprehend real science, and presumes to be able to teach something worthwhile about science. Since the distortions and manipulations persist no matter how many times they're corrected, it's hard to attribute them to anything but ... intelligent design.

If the opponents of evolution are so willing to lie for their cause, what other fruits do you suppose they have to offer?

I also have to take issue with one of Bill's statements:

Evolutionists, on the other hand, do not bother to answer any ID argument. They try to make it go away by saying it is not science. What are they afraid of? I think I stumbled across the answer in a comment to a post in another blog. Many evolutionists take it at face value not understanding the science behind it, which is very complex and deep. Faced with having to defend their position, they panic because they can't. For them it is as much a religious issue as ID is for Christian theists.

I think this statement, at best, overgeneralizes. To be sure, there are a great many people who accept evolution, but don't understand how it works. But then again, there are a great many people who accept TV, and have no idea how it works. If an activist group managed to get a school board to teach the "alternative" "theory" that the picture and sound got from the studio to the TV screen by sympathetic magic and voodoo, I'd be willing to bet a large number of people would object, and would be completely unable to defend electricity and electronics.

People who deal with evolution for a living have answered quite a number of ID claims. The blood clotting cascade may be Irreducibly Complex now, but a very plausible history of incremental development can be constructed. Those who argue a plausible history cannot be constructed have never been able to show why the proposed history is not plausible. (And the fact that evidence tending to support it has turned up in the places an evolutionary explanation would lead people to look only serves to make the explanation more plausible.)

Other ID arguments about particular systems have been similarly answered.

Of course, there are many ID arguments that have not been answered. These are the arguments where...

Some of the illogic is so strange that trying to counter it is almost impossible without massive reviews of current science.

"Purple is green and sheep smell loud. Let's hear your science explain that!"

Arguments have to make a minimum amount of sense before they can be addressed.

More argument over ID/IOT

A bunch of items, all from Tech Central Station. Commentary to the effect that "of course" a TCS writer would support ID/IOT show, more than anything else, a lack of ability to do research. Debate over evolution and ID/IOT is vigorous and healthy on this site.

Descent of Man in Dover
...the Dover district shortchanges students on two scientific matters in those guidelines: first, by characterizing intelligent design as a theory of biological evolution to be taught in science classrooms, and secondly, by foregoing what science says about the origin of life.
Creationism Is Evolving... It Has No Choice
I must respectfully disagree with my TCS colleague Douglas Kern as he argues for " Why Intelligent Design is Going to Win." Kern lays out a five-point thesis in which he predicts ID's imminent victory. But his points fail to make the case.
The Invention of Design
After several readings I honestly could not decide whether the tone of Mr. Kern's article is the triumphalism of a partisan who believes that his side is justly winning or the enthusiasm of the late convert in the service of a new master. Perhaps it was neither of these. I do know that he confuses the product, a theory, with the method, science; that he confuses pattern with design; that he doesn't understand randomness; that he idly invokes a "metaphysics of information"; that he believes, on no evidence, in "memes"; and that he thinks that allowing appeals to the supernatural will have no ill effects on the practice of science and that adulterating their science classes will not cripple the education of our youth.

In response to Mr. Kern's second point:

2)       ID will win because the pro-Darwin crowd is acting like a bunch of losers.

"Ewww…intelligent design people! They're just buck-toothed Bible-pushing nincompoops with community-college degrees who're trying to sell a gussied-up creationism to a cretinous public! No need to address their concerns or respond to their arguments. They are Not Science. They are poopy-heads."
But let me clear about one thing. I am aware of no evidence that he is a poopy-head.

But then again, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Stem cell funding

It seems the Federal Government's restrictions on stem cell funding may have helped research.

That said, the current policy has created a state-by-state movement unprecedented in medical research. Most prominently, the passage of California's proposition 71 provides $3 billion to that state's stem cell research institutes. Although lawsuits from opponents to the initiative have delayed dispersal except for a recent set of $40 million grants, other states such as Connecticut, Illinois, and Wisconsin have followed the lead and begun to provide funding for researchers. The trend continues to develop at a rapid pace.
Stem cell research in companies may also have increased because of US policy. Many established companies have stem cell programs, which may be partially fueled by the concept that, with less federally funded academic research, more opportunity exists to develop intellectual property with in-house inventors or university researchers willing to take industrial funds and help translate research.
With the same philosophy as some commercial enterprises, many countries have taken advantage of the perceived reduction of US funding by focusing their efforts. Indeed, these countries may become competitive with the United States or even take the lead.

The author doesn't condone the policy, but the trends he notes indicate that other deep pockets, including private industry and philanthropy, are willing to fund research the Federal Government decides not to.

Monday, October 10, 2005

It matters

(Hat tip: Panda's Thumb.)

This post at Questionable Authority was prompted by an article at Tech Central Station.

The TCS article gives five reasons why (the author believes) ID/IOT will win:

  1. ID will win because it's a religion-friendly, conservative-friendly, red-state kind of theory, and no one will lose money betting on the success of red-state theories in the next fifty to one hundred years.
  2. ID will win because the pro-Darwin crowd is acting like a bunch of losers.
  3. ID will win because it can be reconciled with any advance that takes place in biology, whereas Darwinism cannot yield even an inch of ground to ID.
  4. ID will win because it can piggyback on the growth of information theory, which will attract the best minds in the world over the next fifty years.
  5. ID will win because ID assumes that man will find design in life -- and, as the mind of man is hard-wired to detect design, man will likely find what he seeks.

And not one word about "it's right". Nor, even, in science-speak, "it explains reality better than the competitors do." His arguments boil down to one argument: "ID/IOT will win because so many people want it to be true." Nothing more, nothing less. Kern approaches the "debate" as a battle between faiths, religions, or even prevailing ideological fads. His arguments are valid if, and only if, it doesn't matter which idea is true (or more nearly true).

None of his five arguments address the reason ID/IOT will lose: It doesn't do nearly as good a job of explaining the world around us as evolutionary theory does.

Oh, and Questionable Authority has other things to say about the issue. Read his post, too.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

ID/IOT's interesting mistakes

Intelligent Design / Intelligent Origin Theory may be, for the most part, old creationist arguments drssed up in a lab coat, but it does have some new twists worth addressing separately.

However, though the bulk of ID literature is devoted to recycling old errors, there are some aspects of ID that are more interesting mistakes –– where figuring out exactly how ID goes wrong can help us advance our knowledge and understand evolution better. One area where ID gets interesting is in its claims about intelligence.

...continued in full post...

Come again?

If ID was only a collection of neocreationist claims concerning biology, it would be relatively straightforward to address. For example, the most prominent biology-related argument for ID has been due to biochemist Michael Behe [1], who claimed that certain molecular machines were "irreducibly complex." Structures such as the bacterial flagellum, he argued, could not be assembled gradually through a series of functional intermediate forms – all of their many components had to come together at once. Critics immediately pointed out that systems and their components need not have had the same functions throughout their history. Indeed, Behe has lately shifted his emphasis away from his original argument.

...Though incomplete, evidence that, for example, eubacterial flagella are related to and have evolved as secretory mechanisms [3] is compelling. Biologists need to update their responses to creationism, addressing old arguments that have now been cast in a biochemical idiom, but otherwise ID presents no challenge to biology.

So what does ID/IOT say about intelligence?

...ID claims much more than an ability to identify the work of agents about which plenty is known independently [6]. Human and animal intelligence can plausibly seen to be part of the natural world. ID is fundamentally revolutionary point of view only if intelligent agency is somehow beyond natural mechanisms.
...ID claims that this is incorrect –– that intelligent design is a third, independent mode of explanation that is not reducible to chance and necessity. Intelligence, in the ID view, is beyond physics.

In other words, the intelligent designer must be supernatural.

Dembski, in his "Design Inference" work, takes the approach of trying to rule out, in certain cases, "chance" and "necessity". "Chance" is anything that happens randomly within a given sample space, and "necessity" is anything that happens in accord with a deterministic natural law. Of course, many people run into trouble because they underestimate what can happen when both are involved in a system.

The flaw in such an argument is that it does not adequately consider combinations of chance and necessity – in the computer context, procedures combining algorithms and randomness. As it happens, we know a good deal about just what a machine with access to a truly random function can accomplish and what it cannot. It turns out that the only tasks not performable by combinations of chance and necessity are certain "oracles," and we know of nothing (humans included) that realizes such oracle-functions.
ID proponents are right to highlight the question of the origin of information. This is an interesting question. However, they treat information as a mysterious quantity and fail to make connections to established research concerning information. On top of this, they do not realize or do not acknowledge that mainstream science already possesses the critical elements of a satisfying answer to their question.

How to be racist – part CLIV

PRISON officers have been warned not to wear tie-pins with the English flag over fears it may be "misinterpreted" as racist.
A section on race relations in Ms Owers' report said: "We were concerned to see a number of staff wearing a flag of St George tie-pin.

"While we were told that these had been bought in support of a cancer charity there was clear scope for misinterpretation, and Prison Service Orders made clear that unauthorised badges and pins should not be worn."

The prison's response:

Brian Caton, of the Prison Officers' Association, said: "If the only problem the chief inspector found was tie-pins carrying the Cross of St George, which is after all the English national flag, then there can't be a lot wrong with Wakefield Prison."


Evolving information

One of the questions people ask is where the information coded in the genes comes from.

My position is that asking the question is similar to asking where your lap comes from when you sit down.

Here's an article on the evolution of information:


...continued in full post...

How do genetic systems gain information by evolutionary processes? Answering this question precisely requires a robust, quantitative measure of information. Fortunately, fifty years ago Claude Shannon defined information as a decrease in the uncertainty of a receiver. For molecular systems, uncertainty is closely related to entropy and hence has clear connections to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. These aspects of information theory have allowed the development of a straightforward and practical method of measuring information in genetic control systems. Here this method is used to observe information gain in the binding sites for an artificial `protein' in a computer simulation of evolution. The simulation begins with zero information and, as in naturally occurring genetic systems, the information measured in the fully evolved binding sites is close to that needed to locate the sites in the genome. The transition is rapid, demonstrating that information gain can occur by punctuated equilibrium.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Why fear a national ID card?

(Hat tip: Norm Weatherby.)

A quick run through the reasons why even the innocent might not want to surrender their privacy.

They boil down to...

...continued in full post...

Loss of control – you depend on the government's good will to access services;

Mistakes – 25% of data in databases is wrong. Want to depend on error-free data entry to access your ATM when you want to buy groceries?

Laws change. Many drugs that used to be illegal now aren't. Many kinds of gun used to be legal. Many legal guns might become illegal in the future. A future government might not use information in its database to charge you with something that was legal at the time you did it. But if the Database shows you once used a drug that's now illegal, is that probable cause?

Also, as I've mentioned elsewhere, governments like to exercise power. They like to show who's in charge, and they like to point out that It's Not You. Possession of a database linked to a national ID grants power, and power gets used.

Can you say "non-sequitur"?

Norm Weatherby at Quantum Thought has been fixated on disproving evolution for some time. His latest attempt is a wonderful example of "not even wrong".

The thrust of his argument appears to be that life is formed mostly from four basic elements. Atoms of these elements combine to form specific molecules and systems that make up life.

...continued in full post...

At the atomic level every living cell depends on a physical combination of the elements C,N,O, H in building molecules and assemblies of molecules to carry out the tasks that define life from non-life. Another given biological fact.

Well, at this point I would be inclined to mention a few things. Simple molecules, like amino acides and nucleotide bases, will form spontaneously under the right conditions, and these conditions were readily available in nature four billion years ago. Complex molecules, which don't just fall out of the beaker after a few seconds, occur in nature in a multitude of forms. We don't know how many different ways there are to carry out any given task, even if we can pin down what we mean by "system".

But that's not where Norm is going...

Life at the cell level is irreducibly complex because one cannot remove any of the subsystems/elements C,N,O,H where a subsystem is the entire collection of atoms of a particular type and still have a functioning cell capable of meeting the life process of self replication. Biological fact.


Are you saying what I think you're saying?

In any extant life form from abiogenesis plus one genetic change to life at present there is no substitute atom which can be used instead of any of the four listed and have replication proceed, stay alive whether the C, the N, the O or the H cell component sets comprising a sub-sysytem.

The cell is then irreducibly complex because none of the four may be removed and the cell remain alive and capable of replication.

This has got to be a parody.

The same argument can be used to "prove", much more effectively, that water is intelligently designed.

Water incorporates only two elements, hydrogen and oxygen. They combine in a precise 2:1 ratio. If you removed either element from the system, water would lose all of its unique properties (high heat capacity, wide gap between melting point and boiling point at one atmosphere, high dielectric constant, high surface tension, hydrogen bonding, etc.) Therefore, water must be intelligently designed.

Michael Medved once argued Darwinian evolution was falsified because you couldn't have one molecule change to another in tiny, incremental steps. In other words, he seemed to be saying Darwin was wrong because a point mutation that changes a thymine base to a guanine base doesn't proceed through a series of intermediates that are one atom different from each other.

Here, Norm seems to be claiming that because all four elements seem to be needed to form the building blocks of life, that Darwin has been proved wrong.

Well, first of all, Darwin never addressed the origin of life from non-living components. His theory addressed only what happens once a living system exists.

Second, for purposes of abiogenesis research, we can take the existence of the elements, and the laws of chemistry, as given.

Yes, carbon chemistry won't take place without carbon, but we don't dismiss the field of organic chemistry because it refuses to explore "what if" carbon didn't exist. We don't dismiss all of chemistry because it never bothers with "what if" oxygen were a noble gas. We don't fire engineers because they don't allow for the possibility that the gravitational constant might abruptly change during the life of a building.

The other major point, having to do with information, is also misguided.

A living cell is a conjunction of these four elements at the atomic level in many special physical arrangements which make life possible with the addition of properly directed energy and information based codes and sequences. From whence comes these billions of codes and instructions all in sequence at the atomic level?

The information is present at the quantum level. It's found in the aggregate quantum state of all the atoms in any given system. It's the same information that causes oxygen to combine with hydrogen to make water, and it's the same information that causes water to have its singular properties.

No one has shown any need for any other information source.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Let Wal-Mart handle it

The Mises Institute has spoken about why government may not be the best entity to handle emergency relief. Now, here's a link to a column by NY Times reporter and columnist John Tierney. In it, he compares the government's response to hurricane Katrina with Wal-Mart's response.

Scott is the chief executive of Wal-Mart, one of the few institutions to improve its image here after Katrina sent a 15-foot wave across the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. If you mention the Red Cross or FEMA to people in Slidell, you hear rants about help that didn't arrive and phone lines that are always busy. If you mention state or national politicians, you hear obscenities.

...continued in full post...

But if you visit the Wal-Mart and the Sam's Club stores here, you hear shoppers who have been without power for weeks marveling that there are still generators in stock (and priced at $304.04). You hear about the trucks that rolled in right after the hurricane and the stuff the stores gave away: chain saws and boots for rescue workers, sheets and clothes for shelters, water and ice for the public.
...there's even been talk of letting Wal-Mart take over FEMA's job. The company already has its own emergency operations center, where dozens of people began preparing for the hurricane the week before it hit by moving supplies and trucks into position.
Clinton looks back on the 1990's as FEMA's Age of Pericles. ''I think we did a good job of disaster management,'' he said on ABC's ''This Week.'' While criticizing the Bush administration for leaving poor people stranded in New Orleans, he said that he and his FEMA director, James Lee Witt, had been especially sensitive to the needs of poor people because of their own backgrounds.

But if they cared so much, why didn't New Orleans ever work out a feasible way to evacuate poor people? FEMA had a golden opportunity to plan it during the 1990's. The threat of nuclear war had receded and terrorism wasn't yet a priority, so the agency's biggest concerns should have been an earthquake in California and a flood in New Orleans.
In 1997, Congress gave FEMA $500,000 and ordered it to develop a comprehensive plan to evacuate New Orleans. The agency passed on the money to Louisiana, which used it instead to study building a new bridge. As Rita Beamish of The Associated Press reported on Sunday, FEMA didn't bother making sure a plan was drawn up – an aide to Witt said its job had just been to pass on the money.

How often do you suppose someone at Wal-Mart headquarters dispenses $500,000 and doesn't bother keeping track of it? The company can tell you the precise location of every thumbtack in its inventory. It's legendary for tracking every transaction and pinching every penny.

Thing is, a business can't force people to use it, nor can it threaten deadly force to get its way.

One comment on the notion of private entities being better than government at distributing aid brought up Enron and Tyco. In my reply, I pointed out that executives at both companies were convicted of breaking laws, and were in prison. Who's going to prison from FEMA?

Where was the legislation?

Tammy Bruce notes The Hartford is lowering the price of health insurance for some breast cancer survivors.

The Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. is cutting life insurance rates for some women with breast cancer, citing improved treatment and research that is helping more women survive the disease. The policies, which will cost the same as for healthy women, will be available to women 40 and older who have been treated for early stages of breast cancer. Previously, those women would have paid more for coverage or would have been denied coverage.

Every now and then, I see an article declaring that if the evil insurance companies would cover this or that benefit, it would save money. That they refuse to cover it is chalked up to greed or short-sightedness. (Or maybe short-sighted greed.)

I've lately come to wonder how it is outsiders writing vitriolic op-ed pieces would know more about the insurance industry than people who make their living in it. Doesn't it make sense that if some policy change would save an insurance company money, its CFO would leap to implement it? Maybe the reason they don't is that they know more of the variables involved, and have a better handle on the plusses and minues of various changes in policy. Maybe they realize it won't save them money.

Now, The Hartford has decided certain classes of women who have been treated for breast cancer are not more expensive to cover than average. Accordingly, they have adjusted their policy to reflect that – without a Congressional investigation or any new legislation to force the issue.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Three questions, three answers (2)

Question 2)
How many more lives are you willing to sacrifice?
Answer: Nobody wants to see American troops die in their quest to unseat tyranny and introduce freedom to an oppressed people. However, given the stakes, the re-enlistment numbers of the troops serving in Iraq would indicate that they feel the sacrifice they are making is worth it.

...continued in full post...

The Military will stop fighting the enemy when they are defeated. If some of our troops are killed in action, at least they could go to the afterlife knowing that they did all they could to protect those back home. To put a number on the limit of what we can endure in losses of our troops is akin to handing the enemy a recipie for exactly how long it will take to defeat us.

And "recipe" is a great term.

Many recipes give time and temperature instructions for cooking, but those are guidelines. Conditions are just too variable for precise answers. Ultimately, the answer to how long you cook something is, "until it's done".

How many lives are we prepared to sacrifice to make Iraq a free, stable country?

Hopefully, "enough".

Question 3:

What are you going to do to end the war?
Answer: Quite simply, we are going to win it.

"When it's done."

Three questions, three answers (1)

The "Bring-The-Troops-Home-Now" group has arrived in Washington with a letter for the President containing the following:
We still have questions for you:

What is the “noble cause” for which you sent our country to war?

How many more lives are you willing to sacrifice?

What are you going to do to end the war?
No, I’m not the President. I didn’t even stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. However, I will answer these questions.

...continued in full post...

Read the post for the full answers, but in summation:

the first picture shows Cindy Sheehan openly dissenting her Government’s policies. Notice the smiling faces? Notice the embraces of fellow Americans, arm-in-arm, joined in solodarity against a policy they feel is wrong. Most importantly, notice the lack of Government stormtroopers snatching her up, throwing her in prison, chopping off her hand and branding her forehead with a black cross? That’s what happened to the guys in the second picture, courtesy of Saddam Hussein. You see, the very existence of Sheehan’s protest is perhaps one of the best examples of why this cause is noble. Only in a free country can a person carry on as she has and receive absolutely no reprisal whatsoever from her Government. Is this not a principle worth defending? I think so.

Why Iraq: Iraq is one of the places that's provided infrastructure and support for terrorism.

The fact that Saddam Hussein offered refuge to one of the leaders of the group that perpetrated the 9-11 attacks demanded that we ( the West) apply a certain amount of scrutiny to the country of Iraq as a possible threat. And scrutinize we did.

Everyone thought Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Everyone knew Iraq was in violation of multiple UN resolutions demanding full disclosure and compliance with inspections.

Once in Iraq, the truth of what sort of ruler Saddam Hussein had been became available. Unfortunately, the attitude held by the anti-war movement, and by radical extremists on the right such as Pat Buchannan, seems to be one of, "I've got mine. Screw you."

I know it’s bad to answer a question with a question, but I’ll ask Sheehan and anyone else who disagrees with this war anyway.

How can we feel free here in the US, (and we are, as exhibited by the protestors) while a gathering storm looms a few thousand miles away with the sole intent of destroying us? Is the concept of defending freedom ( for ourselves and others) not a noble cause?

I have heard Sheehan say that “This country is not worth dying for”. How sad.

Those who support affirmative action don't like minorities who oppose affirmative action. These minorities are accused of "having achieved success, and now wanting to pull the ladder up after themselves". That seems a good description of the isolationist who wants us to leave Iraq (and other basket-case countries) to their own sorrows.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

More Katrina Analysis

(Hat tip: John Ray.)

Why was the response to Katrina as poor as it was? Rather than any special lack of competence on the part of government, it may have just been that, as Harry Browne noted, government doesn't work. (Why Government Doesn't Work)

Yet, for all of the public angst over the federal government's — and especially FEMA's — post-disaster response, most observers have missed what is painfully obvious: the government's response was perfectly in character to how people in government act in such situations. To say this in an alternative way, government was being government the same way that a dog is a dog.

...continued in full post...

As anyone knows, dogs are territorial animals, and governments are territorial entities. The first rule that a government agent follows when confronted with an "emergency" is to "secure the area." For example, when two young men were merrily going on a murder and mayhem spree at Columbine High School in 1999, the vaunted police "SWAT" team stayed outside and encircled the complex because someone said that the area had to be "secured" before police actually could try to save anyone. (Of course, we found out later that not only did police fail to save people, but at least one person bled to death because police refused to get help until the man had died. This was not incompetence; it was the normal workings of the "I am in charge and don't you forget it" mentality that permeates government at all levels.)

Immediately after the hurricane had stopped in New Orleans, for example, a Wal-Mart had brought a truckload of bottled water; FEMA officials turned the truck away, declaring that it was "not needed." Before we dismiss this incident as yet another example of incompetent government, we should realize that the official's actions were completely within the character of government.

Government responds to a different incentive structure than private charity and private enterprise do. Government is under pressure to be seen caring for its people, far more than to actually do good. (And as I've noted, one of the complaints about the performance of George W. Bush is that he didn't act like he cared. He could have had a FEMA official personally spoon feeding emergency rations to every person in Louisiana five minutes after the hurricane had passed, and he'd still get no credit because he wasn't on camera weeping over the tragedy.)

When private relief efforts were turned away by FEMA (and local National Guard inits, too), it was in response to this incentive.

The FEMA official who waved off the Wal-Mart truck was correct; FEMA did not "need" Wal-Mart to help. In fact, people from FEMA did not want Wal-Mart to help, as the company would have been able to steal some of the thunder that "rightfully" should belong to FEMA and other government agencies.

(And I read a story about the fires in the Bay area a few years back. Some citizens had carried a child out of the fire area, across broken country. They were met by a fireman who "took charge" of the child, and carried her the rest of the way – ten yards to where the TV cameras were waiting.)

It's far more important to be seen as helping than to actually help.

Government agencies also have tools not (legally) available to private entities. These include the power to arrest, and the power to use deadly force to back up their wishes.

The guardsmen who waved off the Wal-Mart truck had the power to enforce their instructions at gun point.

Two emergency medical workers attending a New Orleans conference when the disaster struck give an account of living under such dictatorial rule:
...we pooled our money and came up with $25,000 to have ten buses come and take us out of the City...The buses never arrived. We later learned that the minute they arrived to the City limits, they were commandeered by the military.

Again, commandeered at gun point.

We organized ourselves and the 200 of us set off for the (Greater New Orleans) bridge (that crosses the Mississippi River) with great excitement and hope...As we approached the bridge, armed Gretna sheriffs formed a line across the foot of the bridge. Before we were close enough to speak, they began firing their weapons over our heads. This sent the crowd fleeing in various directions....We questioned why we couldn't cross the bridge anyway, especially as there was little traffic on the 6-lane highway. They responded that the West Bank was not going to become New Orleans and there would be no Superdomes in their City.
They later attempted to build a small camp on the abandoned freeway, only to be attacked by police and forced to move, so they were forced to survive in other ways:
In the pandemonium of having our camp raided and destroyed, we scattered once again...We were hiding from possible criminal elements but equally and definitely, we were hiding from the police and sheriffs with their martial law, curfew and shoot-to-kill policies.
And when they finally made it to the airport, there were the final acts of official degradation:
We arrived at the airport on the day a massive airlift had begun. The airport had become another Superdome.
Most of us had not eaten all day because our C-rations had been confiscated at the airport because the rations set off the metal detectors. Yet, no food had been provided to the men, women, children, elderly, disabled as they sat for hours waiting to be "medically screened" to make sure we were not carrying any communicable diseases.

This official treatment was in sharp contrast to the warm, heart-felt reception given to us by the ordinary Texans. We saw one airline worker give her shoes to someone who was barefoot. Strangers on the street offered us money and toiletries with words of welcome. Throughout, the official relief effort was callous, inept, and racist.

(N.B., for those who insist on focusing on the federal response, note that sheriffs are local government.)

If not the government, then who?

Writes Laurie Holloway in the Tennessean after her visit to crisis areas in Mississippi:
I'm telling you, without the churches, this disaster would be even worse, as hard as it is to believe that's possible. Donate if you will to the Red Cross or the Salvation Army, but know that the bureaucracy behind the big organizations is simply staggering. Without the people setting up the "renegade" food, clothing and supplies distribution centers, usually at churches, there would be many, many more deaths. Supplies are pouring into this area from all across the nation, huge truckloads of canned goods, water, medical stuff. They're being collected at these churches, and they're very organized about getting the supplies out to folks. I'm very impressed.
That is not the message the government wants you to hear. Remember, the "official" word on such private, mini-relief activities has been that they are "not helpful." But, remember that many of the most "helpful" people are those who have not carried weapons, but rather a strong commitment in their hearts to do whatever is necessary.

Remember the comment I made above, about the firemen who "took charge" of a rescued child just in time to carry her in front of the TV cameras?

We also suspect the media will have been inundated with "hero" images of the National Guard, the troops and the police struggling to help the "victims" of the Hurricane.

Grant me Serenity...

Last night, for my birthday, I went out with friends to see Serenity.

Great movie.

More later.