Wednesday, December 28, 2005

A presidential speech

This would be fun to run past a sample of college students.

I've taken a Presidential speech, and stripped off the salutation and close, which would provide clues to the identity of the speaker. What you see behind the cut is most of a speech.

The question I'd love to see asked of this sample of college students, and indeed, of a random sample of the population, is:

Is the speaker Republican or Democrat?

Other questions that occur to me include:

  • Does he support (or would he have supported) the war in Iraq?
  • Does he qualify (would he...) as a "neo-con"?
  • Does he qualify (would he...) as a member of the "religious right"?
Oh, yes. No fair googling phrases!

...continued in full post...

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God. We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty. This much we pledge—and more. To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do—for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder. To those new States whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom—and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside. To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required—not because [our enemies] may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich. To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge—to convert our good words into good deeds—in a new alliance for progress—to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty. But this peaceful revolution of hope cannot become the prey of hostile powers. Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas. And let every other power know that this Hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house. To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations, our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace, we renew our pledge of support—to prevent it from becoming merely a forum for invective—to strengthen its shield of the new and the weak—and to enlarge the area in which its writ may run. Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction. We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed. But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from our present course—both sides overburdened by the cost of modern weapons, both rightly alarmed by the steady spread of the deadly atom, yet both racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind's final war. So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us. Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms—and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations. Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce. Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah—to "undo the heavy burdens ... and to let the oppressed go free." And if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved. All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin. In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe. Now the trumpet summons us again—not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are—but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, "rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation"—a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself. Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort? In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it—and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Media coverage

The American Expatriate looks at BBC coverage of the ID/IOT debate.

A couple of days ago, in an article about the Dover/Intelligent Design/Evolution court case, the BBC wrote that:
A majority of US states have seen some form of challenge to the pre-eminence of Darwinian evolution theory in the curriculum of publicly-funded schools since 2001.
This struck me as fairly unbelievable, so I wrote to the BBC requesting the data to back up the claim.
So, not only were the challenges in less than a majority of states, they were in fact local, not statewide, challenges. The difference is not insignificant. The original claim clearly instills, (and is almost certainly designed to instill) the impression that challenges to evolution are sprouting up all over the US. But to give you some perspective, there are 47 local school districts that begin just with the letter "B"... in New York State alone.
I am willing to give the (anonymous) author of the BBC piece the benefit of the doubt, and accept that it was an honest mistake. But it is almost certainly a mistake that was born out of the same prejudiced view that so often finds its way into BBC pieces, and adds to the mounds of evidence which suggests the BBC is in dire need of some mindset and ideological diversity. It is instructive, I think, that these "slips" in the "checking process" inevitabely seem to err in the same direction. It is inconceivable that a similar BBC piece might err by claiming that the Dover case was the only of its kind in America, and hence portray it as an aberration. Even if a writer made the claim, it would almost certainly not get by a skeptical editor. Manifestly, the same cannot be said about inflated claims of American religiosity.

Klinghoffer didn't get the memo.

Granted, columnists don't always write the headlines for their articles, but this headline is pretty revealing. Recall, the case on which the Dover Area School District based teaching Intelligent Design / Intelligent Origin Theory was that ID/IOT is not religion and is, in fact, science. So what is Klinghoffer's article headlined?

It’s God or Darwin

Reading further in the article, I see: only follows Charles Darwin, who wrote the Origin of Species as an exercise in seeking to explain how life could have got to be the way it is without recourse to divine creative activity. In a pious mode intended to disarm critics, he concluded his book by writing of "laws impressed on matter by the Creator." However readers immediately saw the barely concealed point of the work: to demonstrate there was no need for "laws impressed on matter" by a Creator.


And this, I think, is why some Darwin advocates dislike religion. It's why they fight it with such passion: Because negating religion is the reason behind their belief system. To their credit, they recognize a truth that others prefer not to see. That is: One may choose Darwin or one may choose God.

The Discovery Institute can chant all day that ID/IOT is not about religion, but here's a senior fellow at that same insitution who firmly tells us otherwise.

John Derbyshire on Darwin

John Derbyshire would rather not respond to David Klinghoffer's article on Darwin. Instead, he reflects on where scientists and ID/IOTs differ.

One thing I notice, talking to working scientists, is how deeply, deeply uninterested most of them are in metaphysics--in the topics that fill up ID websites and talk, and the emails I get when I write about ID. If you try to talk metaphysics to the average working scientist, his eyes glaze over at once. ID-ers want to talk about nothing else. Scientists just want to get on with finding out things.
To alter the old joke slightly: Those who can, do; those who can't, talk metaphysics. Probably science is too important to be left to the scientists. I'm beginning to wish it weren't, though.

And metaphysicians and scientists are out of their depths when they attempt to discuss each others' fields of study.

Note to myself

(Hat tip: The Corner)

A list of conservative blogs, compiled by a liberal blogger.

More on ID/IOT

James Q. Wilson weighs in on the Dover Area School District decision:

When a federal judge in Pennsylvania struck down the efforts of a local school board to teach "intelligent design," he rightly criticized the wholly unscientific nature of that enterprise.

He gets details about evolution wrong. However:

Mr. Wilson has taught at Harvard, UCLA and Pepperdine, and is the author, among other books, of "The Moral Sense"

Apparently he doesn't teach biology. (My bet is philosophy.)

That being said, it's interesting to read the first few responses to his piece:

...continued in full post...

Mr. Wilson defines a scientific theory correctly then, through deft slight of hand, applies it in a non-scientific manner in order to prop up evolutionary theory. In his eye example, for instance, he asks hard-nosed questions regarding the possible evolution of the eye. But the those questions must also be posed to his own evolutionary example.

Where does Mr. Wilson get his information regarding so-called "light-sensitive plates" and what evidence is there regarding the behavior of such pre-historic creatures with these plates that would lead him to conclude (oops, almost said believe) that such plates, "enabled them to move toward and away from illumination"? How does he know any evidence that he has about such creatures is accurate? Or is he merely speculating in a confident tone?

      – Joseph Stublarec - Southington, Conn.

Problem with this objection: all the proposed intermediate steps between a light-sensitive spot and a fully-functional eye have been observed in nature. Not all in the same creature, of course, but with living examples to examine, you can tell that a: all the intermediate forms can exist, and b: each incremental step represents a real improvement in function.

The steps for the theory of evolution seemed logical enough, but the probability that million to one chemical reactions, one on top of another, could happen by random chance was astronomical. The odds became so high that it was more logical to believe in a nudge by the hand of God. It still makes sense to me. Three weeks for evolution and 1 minute for intelligent design.

      – R. Lemont - Barrytown, N.Y.

Two points here: Firstly, any number of studies have shown that random variation and selection – accumulating small change – can build up huge changes in an astonishingly short time. Secondly, unless there's some sort of how to the "nudge by the hand of God", this "alternative" is non-scientific woolgathering. Teach it in a philosophy class if you like, but it's not science.

What It's Really About

This struggle does not primarily center on Darwinism, vs. Intelligence Design. It centers on the right, and duty, of parents to freely teach religion to their children, without fear that secular educators will not overwhelm undeveloped minds with anti-religious arguments.

      – R. L. Hails Sr. - Olney, Md.

It would seem Mr. Hails has not gotten the memo about ID/IOT. It's not about religion. It's science. It says so right in their press releases.

There are others, but this is a good sample of the objections to Wilson's piece.

Cal Thomas on ID/IOT

Cal Thomas also didn't get the memo.

The decision by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III to bar the teaching of "intelligent design" in the Dover, Pennsylvania public school district on grounds it is a thinly veiled effort to introduce a religious view of the world's origins is welcome for at least two reasons.

First, it exposes the sham attempt to take through the back door what proponents have no chance of getting through the front door. Judge Jones rebuked advocates of "intelligent design," saying they repeatedly lied about their true intentions. He noted many of them had said publicly that their intent was to introduce into the schools a biblical account of creation. Judge Jones properly wondered how people who claim to have such strong religious convictions could lie, thus violating prohibitions in the Book they proclaim as their source of truth and standard for living.

And of course, Thomas makes a valuable point: the ID/IOT movement makes Christianity, and all of religion, look bad.

Treason charges over NSA leak?

Dick Morris sounds off on who may be hurt by the NSA wiretap leak:

This leak, far more than the Valerie Plame incident, deserves a full investigation to identify who spilled the beans and to whom and how. The consequences of this leak alone merit an independent investigation and, perhaps, a trial for treason.

Limbaugh on ID

The Discovery Institute keeps insisting that Intelligent Design/Intelligent Origin Theory is not religion. Rush Limbaugh, and at least one of his callers, seem not to have gotten the memo.

On the other hand, I do think this: I think that the people -- and I know why they're doing it, but I still think that it's a little bit disingenuous. Let's make no mistake. The people pushing intelligent design believe in the biblical version of creation. Intelligent design is a way, I think, to sneak it into the curriculum and make it less offensive to the liberals because it ostensibly does not involve religious overtones, that there is just some intelligent being far greater than anything any of us can even imagine that's responsible for all this, and of course I don't have any doubt of that. But I think that they're sort of pussyfooting around when they call it intelligent design.

That's pretty much what everyone except the proponents say. They're in the position of the mainstream media denying its liberal bias. Maybe they think these denials actually work; maybe they don't care, as long as they maintain plausible deniability.

WND has an article setting forth Jonathan Witt's response to Limbaugh's statement:

Jonathan Witt, Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, the nation's leading intelligent design think tank, says Limbaugh's suggestion that design theorists appear disingenious when drawing a sharp distinction between creationism and intelligent design is mistaken.

"Since newspapers routinely mangle our position on this matter, it's little wonder," he said today.

"Traditional creationism begins with the Bible and moves from there to science," says Witt. "Intelligent design begins and ends with science."

The thing is, critics of ID/IOT, and even many supporters including Rush Limbaugh, know what The Designer isn't. It isn't anything that implements its design using any of the natural laws we know about. Over the course of any number of books and articles, the supporters of ID/IOT have declared that The Designer has to be more complex than what it designs, more intelligent than what it designs, and is not bound by the laws of physics.

That doesn't leave any room for anything but a supernatural cause, and honest people know that.

Saturday, December 24, 2005


Some years ago, the website, Witches' Voice, had as its monthly theme each festival in the Wheel of the Year. I managed to write something for each of the festivals, and they can be found at the site. Just do a search on my name.

Now, with Yule upon us, here's what I wrote for that holiday.

The Wheel turns, the year flows, and now, in the darkness of the year, we come to Yule. Yule is one of those names with many layers of meaning. Some sources claim the word means "feast" or "winter". I've even seen one claim that traces it back to Jolin, a nickname for Odin. Yule is, ultimately, a holiday for the Lord, who is reborn on this day. It makes sense that it would be named after a male god, and the head of the Norse pantheon. Bede is cited as an authority tracing the word back to the Norse word "iul", meaning "wheel". It turns out that he's probably right. Michael Medved, in his exposition on the "Secret History of Christmas" traces the word back to the Anglo-Saxon "Hweal". As it drifted northward, linguistic drift turned the "Hwee" into a "Yu" sound. His sources claim the wheel referred to is not only the round shape of the sun, but also the cyclic approach and withdrawal of the sun and his light.

The connection between this holiday and the wheel is very appropriate. Yule is not only the end of the wheel of the solar year, it's actually the day on which all the strands of the solar cycle come together. This day is the beginning and the end of the story of the Lord, and it is graced by the presence of the Lady in a very special way. All the year is reflected in the mirror of the Yule day.

Yule is the day the light is born. The Lord is born of the Lady, and as the Sun Child, returns to life from the realm of the dead. He will grow through youth and into manhood during the waxing year. During the spring months, He will be nurtured by, court, and finally marry the Lady in the seasons of planting. At Midsummer, the Lord is at the peak of his strength never again will He be this strong.

During the waning year, He declines in power until He is sacrificed and takes his place in the underworld in his darkest and yet most heartening aspect, the Lord of Death and Resurrection. He is the Lord of the Shadows, who passes through the gateway between the Realms of Light and Darkness. He is truly a creature of the shadows, since both light and dark are required to create shadow.

Another male cycle tied in to the Wheel of the Year, and to Yule, is the cycle of the Oak King and the Holly King. The Oak King rules over the waxing year, when the seeds that have been planted grow and thrive. At Midsummer, the Holly King takes the life of the Oak King and inaugurates the waning year, during which life recedes from the world and the harvest is gathered in. At Yule, the Oak King takes the life of the Holly King, and the cycle of growth begins anew.

Now "takes the life" is an interesting phrase. Normally, we use it to mean "kill". After all, when we take the life of any living thing, as we must do in order to live, we can't give it back. That which we kill remains dead. But the Oak King and the Holly King take each other's life back and forth throughout the succession of years. It's as if they have but one life between the two of them, and must take turns living it. At the solstices, the two Kings do ritual battle, and the winner takes the life and the power of the other, and the threshold between the halves of the year is inevitably crossed.

The year is evenly divided between the phase of growth and increase, and the phase of decrease and death. Each king rules over his half of the cycle, and each hands the other a world that is primed and ready, on the verge of toppling into the opposite phase. Each half of the cycle feeds the other. We've seen how the new growth of the waxing year feed the harvest. It also feeds the eaters of the dead, the predators, the carrion eaters, the worms and insects that break down corpses into their components, in short, Nature's clean-up crew.

And the waning half of the year feeds the waxing half. Just as the waning half marks the harvest of what has grown during the spring and summer, so the waxing half of the year is a harvest of its own. It harvests, and feeds upon, the elements to which all has been reduced in the time just past. The Wheel turns, the light half rolls into the darkness, and the dark half rolls into the light. Were we to try to eliminate either side of the Wheel, the other would fly out of control and crash, never to move again. And what we see in the world, we see in individuals around us, and in ourselves.

It is a truth that living things enter the world at birth, they grow in strength to their full power, and then they fade and weaken until finally, death takes them. Life can either be growing or fading – there is no middle path. Stasis is not an option. The Wheel is always turning, and the Lady's dance is never still. One may walk the path of the Oak King, the path of growth and increasing power, or one may walk the path of the Holly King, retreating into the quiet darkness of the harvest of one's life. In all lives, and in all aspects of life, we walk both paths again and again. We build some things up, and we tear some things down. We sow, we reap, we sow again.

And the Lady presides over all.

The Lady brings change to all she touches, but is herself unchanged by circumstance. She is eternally Herself. While the Lord dies and is reborn, grows to full strength and withers into old age, the Lady presents different faces to us as the time is right. She is Maiden in the spring, Mother in the summer, and Crone in the darkening days of autumn. And behind all Her masks, She is Goddess.

Yule is the time when all the threads of the Lords tale come together, and it is a time when all three aspects of the Lady are in play. In the last hours of the waning year, She is the Crone at her darkest, harvesting the last of the year that has gone before, and discarding the rest. In the first hours of the waxing year, She is the Maiden of newborn light, not yet tempered by entry into the material realm. This is the Maiden at her purest.

Between the last hours of the Crone and the first hours of the Maiden, between the end of the year gone by and the year yet unborn, a miracle occurs. Between the years, outside of space and time, the Lady becomes the Mother once again, long enough to give birth to the Lord. On the day of Yule, three queens come to preside over the birth of the Lord, each with Her unique gift.

Yule is the gate between years. It honors the principle of separation of time. Each year, and indeed, each moment, is its own unique entity. There has been no time quite like this one any time in the past, and there will never be another moment quite like this one ever again. The time to deal with the injustices and the virtues of the past is in the past. The only things we can deal with, for good or ill, are those things in the present. Let us plant and tend the harvests of this year, and leave the harvests that lie beyond the gates of Yule to those who must tend them.

Although separate, each from the other, each year is still part of a continuous stream of time. That which we harvest now is the fruit of seeds sown in years gone by, and that which we sow now will be our harvest in times to come. This is the law of cause and effect, also known as Karma. We cannot unplant the seeds we have planted, nor harvest the harvests of tomorrow, yet we have the responsibility to keep in mind those moments beyond the present, for we are responsible for our actions.

The Lady has the three holidays of sowing and the three harvests. Yule and Midsummer are the times of the Lord. The Lady presides over these days, and guards the gate through which the Lord must pass, but it is the Lord Himself who passes through the gates, and we pass through with Him.

At Yule, the rebirth of the Sun Child is the most dramatic turning point in the Lord's year. Here, the passage from the realm of death into the realm of life is unmistakable. Here, in the darkest time of the year, with death and cold all around, we see the spark of life and light. The decline into darkness is reversed, and all will be well. At Midsummer, we honor the Lord at the peak of His strength, but here we also recognize the spark of death in the middle of life. This is the time when the Lord is as strong as He'll ever be. From this point forward, he must decline and his powers fade. On this day, the Lord passes through another gate, and on this day He begins to die.

On the day of Yule, the Year of the Lord comes full circle. The Oak King and the Holly King battle for supremacy, and the Lady shows all three of Her faces. It may truly be said, everything comes together at Yule.

Light a log the Horned God rules!

There are two meanings that may be found in the phrase, "light a log the Horned God rules". We may read it as instruction to light a fire in a log which is ruled by the Lord. Traditionally, oak or ash will be burned at Yule. Ash is suggestive of Odin, who hung from the World Ash for nine days to achieve wisdom. Oak is a tree of the Lord, and can be seen as welcoming in the waxing year and the namesake King of that time.

The burning Yule log is the wintertime reflection of the Midsummer bonfire, set to bring fertility and repel evil and misfortune. Here, also, burning the Yule log releases the light which has been stored in that log since the summer, a very fitting symbol for the day when the Light is reborn from the realm where He has dwelled since the time of harvest.

The burning of the Yule log also binds the years together. Traditionally, the Yule log is not allowed to burn completely, but is extinguished, and the remaining brand saved and used to start the following year's fire. In this manner, we save the best from the year before and pass it on into the year to come. The years, though separate, are linked and brought together in a continuous flow of time.

"Light a log! The Horned God rules!"

This is a celebration! We are leaving the dark time of the year, and entering the light time. We have survived to the halfway point, and we see the light at the end of the tunnel. The world is not falling into unending darkness and utter cold. Light a log!

The Lord, the Sun Child is born on this day. With this rebirth comes the promise that all that have died, all that will yet die, will be reborn. Death is not the end of everything, but a stage of life from which we will emerge into new life, and in His rebirth, the Lord has shown the way. Light a log!

The Yule log carries the strength of the Midsummer sun, and of fire and light stored over years gone by. In honor of this strength, and of the strength the Lord will attain by Midsummer, and for Midsummers yet to come, light a log!

Here, we stand at a turning point in time. At any turning point, we face a choice. Three-faced Hecate has often been given rulership over the crossroads, with one face looking at each path that lies ahead in the crossroad. It is significant that all three faces of the Lady are presented at Yule; here, at this turning point in the year, we make choices for the year to come. The tradition of the New Year's resolution did not come about because people lacked for anything better to do!

At Yule, we make our choices, and we consciously renew our vows and rededicate ourselves to our life's path. In honor of this conscious choice, and in order that we may see our path clearly, light a log!

At Yule, families come together. The holiday brings together families of blood, and families by choice. Light is not just outside us. There is an inner glow which makes life meaningful. We share with friends and family, and come together in the light of love. That we may share the light, light a log!

The Wheel turns a Yule. Happy birthday to the Lord, to the Sun, to the Light, and to the year!

Happy Yule!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

A two-fer

A second shot at this article, as it answers a tirade launched from World Net Daily. Craige McMillan asserts the "Galileo Was Ridiculed" defense.

This got me to thinking about the effect such a decision would have upon us today, had it been applied to previous scientific discoveries. Louis Pasteur, for instance, was vilified by the scientific community of his day for suggesting that small, invisible organisms could actually cause human disease. "Bah, humbug!" said the surgeons of the day as they moved from patient to patient, using the same sponge to bath their wounds. Besides, what did Pasteur know about disease? He was a chemist. Too far out of the mainstream! Fortunately for us, in 1865, Joseph Lister read Louis Pasteur's wild microbial theories about how wine soured, and wondered if microbes carried through the air in hospitals might explain why so many patients survived surgery, only to die a short time later of "ward fever." At the time he was ridiculed; his views? "Too far out of the mainstream." Today, our medical schools refer to him as the "Father of antiseptic surgery."

The difference here is that neither Pasteur nor Lister tried to sneak their ideas into schools before they were proved. Instead, they proposed (and carried out) tests – tests that would go one way if their ideas were right, and a different way if their ideas were wrong.

There's a name for this method of defending an idea. It's called "doing science". This method is conspicously absent on the ID/IOT side of the "debate".

There is no court that decides when a scientific hypothesis graduates to become a theory and when a theory is accepted as a law. But if there were such a court the theory of evolution would be called the law of evolution. The assurance biologists (including me) place in Darwinian evolution is demonstrated when we regularly bet our careers on evolution being right. These bets take the form of basing new experiments on, among other things, principles from evolutionary theory. For example, I have spent years on experiments which derived from an idea that a brain memory mechanism found in rodents would be preserved, expanded and adapted in the monkey. I followed this line of work because I am convinced of the general correctness of Darwinian evolution. Such conviction is essentially universal among the professors at major national research universities. Now it is conceivable that all those biologists are wrong. Scientific revolutions have occurred before. The overwhelming bulk of attempts to overthrow established scientific law, however, come up empty, and usually with far less publicity than (say) Cold Fusion received. The key to this kind of revolution is to find some inexplicable experiment or fact which is utterly incompatible with the current scientific understanding. If the proponents of ID would actually demonstrate (instead of simply assert) that the flagella or some other structure is irreducibly complex and could not have evolved then they would have met such a test. In fact, the “irreducible complexity” of the flagella, while asserted by ID proponents, is not holding up well. One (nicely reduced) candidate component of the flagella, which has an important function of its own and could also serve as a ‘way station’ on an evolutionary pathway to the more complex flagella, is a secretory structure with substantial homologies, discussed here.

The ID/IOT side has a stake in making its ideas part of the scientific consensus. There are rules for doing this which every other idea has had to follow. The ID/IOTs should start playing by the rules.

Intelligent Design as an atheist plot

I've mentioned, in letters to the editor, that one effect of Creationism and of Intelligent Design / Intelligent Origin Theory is to make Believers look – well – ID/IOTic.

As one example, I recall an extended discussion with a fellow on the Debunk Creation newsgroup. He came in reciting all the Creationist and ID/IOT lines. One thing he did that set him apart from the run-of-the-mill creationists was listen to the replies. Over time, he discovered the difference between what he'd been fed by his pastor and what the science actually said. He now accepts evolution, but he also rejects religion altogether.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

When you lie about science in order to make it fit your notions of what your religion says, you make your religion look stupid at best, evil at worst. You also violate a commandment.

In this article, James Ringo proposes:

...a simple thought experiment that one is an aggressive atheist planning a propaganda campaign to capture the minds of the young. Such a campaign might look like the following. Begin by tying the question of the existence of God to some poorly supported theory of biology. Next, set up a joint presentation of this weak theory with, and in comparison to, the Darwinian theory of evolution which can and has been demonstrated in the laboratory with short generational microorganisms (both mutation and selection of the “fit” are observed) and has a world of data and modeling support. Finally, have this contest presented, refereed and commented on… by a Darwinist, as the bulk of biology teachers surely are. Diabolical no? Yet such a campaign is not far from what has been happening in Dover, PA, in Kansas and elsewhere.

In this thought experiment, you're betting an awful lot on the assumption that the majority of the world's biologists will turn out to be wrong. If (when) the expected revolution fails to materialize, you'll alienate huge numbers of those students from any and all religion.

Screwtape would be pleased.

Loose Lips Sink Cell Phones?

The Washington Post has this story, headlined "File the Bin Laden Phone Leak Under 'Urban Myths'".

President Bush asserted this week that the news media published a U.S. government leak in 1998 about Osama bin Laden's use of a satellite phone, alerting the al Qaeda leader to government monitoring and prompting him to abandon the device. The story of the vicious leak that destroyed a valuable intelligence operation was first reported by a best-selling book, validated by the Sept. 11 commission and then repeated by the president. But it appears to be an urban myth.


It seems the fact that Bin Laden used a satellite phone to communicate with his aides had been reported before any leaks took place. On one occasion, the cited source was the Taliban government in Afghanistan, on another it was Bin Laden himself.

Causal effects are hard to prove, but other factors could have persuaded bin Laden to turn off his satellite phone in August 1998. [Aug. 22, 1998] A day earlier, the United States had fired dozens of cruise missiles at his training camps, missing him by hours.

It occurs to me that merely stating that Bin Laden used a particular type of phone is one thing – stating that his phone is being tracked and/or listened to might be quite another.

It was not until Sept. 7, 1998 -- after bin Laden apparently stopped using his phone -- that a newspaper reported that the United States had intercepted his phone calls and obtained his voiceprint. U.S. authorities "used their communications intercept capacity to pick up calls placed by bin Laden on his Inmarsat satellite phone, despite his apparent use of electronic 'scramblers,' " the Los Angeles Times reported.

Not quite a smoking gun here. It's possible Bin Laden had decided to abandon the use of his phone after being shot at, and that the LA Times piece merely confirmed that the US was tracking his phone, and not just making Baghdad Bob style announcements about it.

Officials could not explain yesterday why they focused on the Washington Times story when other news organizations at the same time reported on the satellite phone -- and that the information was not particularly newsworthy. "You got me," said Benjamin, who was director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council staff at the time. "That was the understanding in the White House and the intelligence community. The story ran and the lights went out." Lee H. Hamilton, vice chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, gave a speech in October in which he said the leak "was terribly damaging." Yesterday, he said the commission relied on the testimony of three "very responsible, very senior intelligence officers," who he said "linked the Times story to the cessation of the use of the phone." He said they described it as a very serious leak.

I think the credibility of the Sept. 11 commission report may suffer from this.

(Update, 13:54 – Also see Ranting Profs on the same article.)

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Freedom is spreading

A link here to the Freedom House on the spread of democracy in the Middle East.

Also, this points to a suggestion that many in the Middle East will have to live under an Islamic Paradise™ for a while "to get it out of their systems".

More on "domestic spying"

Jeff Goldstein has a nice, long summary of the news about the NSA affair.

Economic myths

Cafe Hayek has a list of the twelve most pernicious economic myths.

  1. All law is created by, and enforced by, the state.
  2. The collective is just like an individual; it has feelings, desires, likes, and dislikes; it chooses and it acts.
  3. Democratically chosen government officials generally act with the intention of promoting the public interest, and they are uniquely positioned and qualified to determine what the details of the public interest are and to know best how to promote that interest.
  4. The chief cause of modern prosperity is technology.
  5. More people necessarily means a level of per-capita well-being that is lower than it would otherwise be.
  6. To insist that government do nothing more than stick to protecting citizens against the initiation of violence is to insist either that each person is an asocial, atomistic loner motivated only by narrow selfishness, or that each person should be an asocial, atomistic loner motivated only by narrow selfishness.
  7. To oppose regulation by government is to oppose regulation; it is to desire that businesses are unconstrained in their industrial and commercial actions.
  8. Prices and wages are arbitrarily set by businesses.
  9. Corporate managers are driven by stock-market pressures to run their firms so that profits are maximized in the short-run, at the expense of the long-term productive capacities of the companies.
  10. Imports are the cost we suffer in order to enjoy the benefit of exporting.
  11. A trade deficit is bad.
  12. A trade deficit is debt.

We see it, therefore we are afraid of it.

In yesterday's news was a report by the Environmental Working Group on the nation's water supply. Their conclusion: pretty dismal.

Tap water in 42 states is contaminated with more than 140 unregulated chemicals that lack safety standards, according to the Environmental Working Group's (EWG's) two-and-a-half year investigation of water suppliers' tests of the treated tap water served to communities across the country.

I wonder. Did they test for DHMO?

In any event, a little perspective is in order:

...continued in full post...

EWG's analysis also found almost 100 percent compliance with enforceable health standards on the part of the nation's water utilities, showing a clear commitment to comply with safety standards once they are developed. The problem, however, is EPA's failure to establish enforceable health standards and monitoring requirements for scores of widespread tap water contaminants. Of the 260 contaminants detected in tap water from 42 states, for only 114 has EPA set enforceable health limits (called Maximum Contaminant Levels, or MCLs), and for 5 others the Agency has set non-enforceable goals called secondary standards. (EPA 2005a). The 141 remaining chemicals without health-based limits contaminate water served to 195,257,000 people in 22,614 communities in 42 states.

This sounds gruesome, but its bark is a lot worse than its bite. Piece by piece:

EWG's analysis also found almost 100 percent compliance with enforceable health standards on the part of the nation's water utilities...

Firstly: "Compliance" with enforceable health standards does not mean none of the chemical was present in the water – that the water was "uncontaminated" by that chemical. It means the level was below a level set by law or regulations, such as these. Under EPA standards, the maximum allowable level of arsenic in water is 10 µg/liter, or 10 parts per billion. Water that tests out as being contaminated with nine parts per billion of arsenic is "in compliance with enforceable health standards".

Even if the EPA implemented a standard for the remaining 141 chemicals the EWG found in the water, there's no reason to believe the levels would violate those standards.

Secondly, because a chemical is detected we can't assume it's a health hazard. To be sure, the press release describes some contaminants as "linked" to various health problems. These links usually involve small studies that are looking at things that will show up at the level of one in tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of people. That's an awfully small signal to find in a noisy system. There may not be any significant health effect. In many cases, there just hasn't been enough research to ascertain how much of a health impact there is. The Junk Science page has links to articles showing that exposure to even large amounts of MTBE (one of the listed contaminants) has a relatively minimal and short-term effect on health.

Finally, in comparing the EWG list of detected chemicals with the EPA list, I find something that may be a bit misleading. One example that leaps to my attention is the third chemical listed – tritium.

Contaminant with no Enforceable Health Standard in Tap Water Population Exposed (of 231,439,195) Number of Water Systems (of 39,751)
At any level Above health limits At any level Above health limits
Tritium 32,230,006 0 80 0
Pollutant from commercial nuclear reactors and research reactors, and government weapons production plants

Looks bad, doesn't it? Here's where the EWG palms a card.

Although "tritium" has no specific maximum standard for tap water under the EPA, the EPA does limit the levels of beta radiation in tap water. Your tap water is allowed to dose you with more than 4 millirem of beta particles and photons (gamma rays and x-rays) per year. If the only source of beta particles and photons in tap water is tritium, the maximum allowed is the quantity that will give you an annual dose of 4 mrem, or about 4% of the average natural background level.

How many of these chemicals are included under other standards? Maybe a very small fraction. Or maybe a lot of them. I haven't gone over this with a fine-toothed comb. But if I can spot one at a glance, I suspect it's not the only one.

Bottom line: there are things far more worthy of worrying about than the chemicals the EWG finds in the water.

Um...OK, if you say so.

With a heavy dose of irony, Noemie Emery observes the effect of Karl Rove's machinations behind the scenes. Buried in the middle of this piece is a single money graf.

Bush now has three gifts: (l) he has an out, in case there's another attack on the homeland (he tried, but his hands were tied by the Times and the Democrats); (2) he has still more sound bites--"We killed the Patriot Act!"--to add the pile that he had already, and (3), he has the chance to draw still more distinctions between the party of force and of public security; and the party that nitpicks, that is too legalistic, and that somehow always gives the benefit of the doubt to the criminal and/or the accused. In a showdown like this, put your cash on the party of force and security. Willie Horton was not a play on the race card, but a metaphor for the larger use-of-force issue. Does anyone doubt that if Dukakis were president when Saddam Hussein crossed the border, Kuwait and perhaps Saudi Arabia would be permanent parts of Iraq? Remember the Homeland Security Act in the 2002 midterms?

Say what you will about the piece as a whole (I think it's not really up to the usual – or even the Weekly – standard), actions have consequences, and these three items are reasonably foreseeable consequences of the whole to-do over "domestic spying".

I think the Democrats are in gote.

Sit on it!!!

The Weekly Standard has an article on the "spying scandal", making two points.

First: there's precious little evidence that such spying was actually in violation of any laws.

Second: the timing of the NY Times' article calls the paper's motives and practices into question.

Technology keeps getting better

Siemens, a firm which builds really nifty diagnostic imaging equipment, has a new CT scanner out.

A scanner that can peer inside a living body to reveal muscles, organs and arteries in unprecedented detail has been unveiled.

It uses the fact that different tissues absorb (and deflect and scatter) x-rays differently to separate them out in a computer. However, the fact that some parts of the body move, no matter what, is a problem.

But there are limits to how fast a single X-ray beam can be rotated - three revolutions per second is the fastest on offer but that is still too long for a detailed heart scan. So Siemens instead built two scanners in one, allowing the device to image twice as much of the body in the same amount of time. The dual CT system takes just a twelfth of a second to image the body, faster than a single heartbeat, and yet still allows clear pictures down to 0.4mm.

Note to self: check up on the status of the Imatron system. This system uses a scanning electron beam and a tungsten ring to create a fast-moving x-ray source. It's able to zip around the body, because there's no physical x-ray tube to move. Back in the late 80s, resolution in this system was limited by how much the electron beam moved during an exposure. The size of the focal spot was swamped in this other source of error.

Failed experiments

More failed experiments from the old Soviet Union.

THE Soviet dictator Josef Stalin ordered the creation of Planet of the Apes-style warriors by crossing humans with apes, according to recently uncovered secret documents.
Mr Ivanov's experiments, unsurprisingly from what we now know, were a total failure. He returned to the Soviet Union, only to see experiments in Georgia to use monkey sperm in human volunteers similarly fail.

Of course, failure is not a very good option in the Stalinist USSR.

For his expensive failure, he was sentenced to five years' jail, which was later commuted to five years' exile in the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan in 1931. A year later he died, reportedly after falling sick while standing on a freezing railway platform.

An old rule

An old rule from the days of APAs: Never put anything in your fanzine that you wouldn't want on the front page of the Times.

Someone just learned that one the hard way.

An 18-year-old passenger who caused a fatal crash by pulling on the steering wheel pleaded guilty to DUI manslaughter after prosecutors discovered a confession on his online blog.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Spy, the beloved country

William Kristol and Gary Schmidt offer their take on the "domestic spying" issue.

The difficulty with FISA is the standard it imposes for obtaining a warrant aimed at a "U.S. person" -- a U.S. citizen or a legal alien: The standard suggests that, for all practical purposes, the Justice Department must already have in hand evidence that someone is a problem before they seek a warrant. Consider the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, the French Moroccan who came to the FBI's attention before Sept. 11 because he had asked a Minnesota flight school for lessons on how to steer an airliner, but not on how to take off or land. Even with this report, and with information from French intelligence that Moussaoui had been associating with Chechen rebels, the Justice Department decided there was not sufficient evidence to get a FISA warrant to allow the inspection of his computer files. Had they opened his laptop, investigators might have begun to unwrap the Sept. 11 plot. But strange behavior and merely associating with dubious characters don't rise to the level of probable cause under FISA.

There is a balance of issues here. On one side is our civil liberties – the very thing terrorists want to destroy. These will be no less destroyed if we tear them down from the inside. On the other side is preventing another World Trade Center bombing, or worse.

Did the Administration violate the law? It is, at best, unclear.

...the Supreme Court has never ruled that the president does not ultimately have the authority to collect foreign intelligence -- here and abroad -- as he sees fit. Even as federal courts have sought to balance Fourth Amendment rights with security imperatives, they have upheld a president's "inherent authority" under the Constitution to acquire necessary intelligence for national security purposes. (Using such information for criminal investigations is different, since a citizen's life and liberty are potentially at stake.)

A careful reading of the Fourth Amendment reveals that a search warrant may not be necessary in order to conduct a search.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The requirement is that an Oath or affirmation be offered before a warrent is issued. The Amendment does not say that no search or seizure will take place without a warrant. And in fact, has a section on valid searches and seizures without warrants.

It would appear this issue is more red herring than red flag.

However, it does highlight the power of the executive branch, and underscores the need for a good person to run it. It would be nice if this whole flap caused people to re-think their criteria for nominating and electing a President.

A Presidential election should not be a popularity contest, or worse, a beauty contest. Nominees should be selected, and candidates elected, based on criteria other than how they come across on camera. As it stands now, if the best candidate for the job had a bad speech impediment or a serious facial disfigurement, he wouldn't stand a chance of being elected, and that's a shame.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Spying on Americans

We have a new scandal. The Administration is spying on Americans!

Scott Johnson and Paul Mirengoff at Powerline have their takes on the story.

Questions for politicians

Paul Mirengoff at Powerline has some questions any candidates for Congress should be pressed to answer.

[The news media's] stated justification for publishing classified information on these matters is the need for debate over the administration's policy. If that, not animus towards the president, is the MSM's real reason, then it should promote such debate through a concerted effort to flush out the position of all those running for Congress in 2006 on the subject of intelligence gathering.

These are:

  • Is the level of peril to the homeland is now significantly less than what it was shortly after 2001?
  • Should the government adopt a less intrusive approach to intelligence gathering than the one it now employs?
  • What is your position on each controversial provision of the Patriot Act. (Take them point by point.)
  • Is there any investigative procedure or device that the federal government should be permitted to use to fight organized crime, but should not be permitted to use against suspected terrorists?
  • What is your position on each interrogation technique used on terror suspects?
  • Should sleep deprivation be allowed? Under what circumstances?
  • Should slapping be allowed? Under what circumstances?
  • Should waterboarding be allowed? Under what circumstances?
  • (Repeat for all forms of putative "torture".)
  • What length of delay is acceptable between the time the government learns about the telephone number of someone in the U.S. with whom a terrorists has been in communication and the time the government taps that phone?
  • If it takes longer than that amount of time to obtain a court order, should the government wait for the court order or go ahead and tap the phone?

Paul's suspicion: the mainstream media don't want that debate to happen. And furthermore:

I suspect that, in fact, if Republicans promote such a debate, the MSM will accuse them of playing politics with national security.


People will occasionally point out how much I seem to "believe in" capitalism. Or the law of supply and demand, or comparative advantage, or some other part of economic theory. And I'll admit it's true.

I also "believe in" gravity, thermodynamics, and Newton's laws of motion.

Now what?

I'll tell you one thing I don't believe: that capitalists are angels or saints. My "belief in" capitalism does not mean I believe people are going to be generous to the poor and do good to their neighbors for the hell of it. It means that there are certain inevitable consequences of anything that has any kind of impact on the marketplace.

Just as every engineering project has to take the law of gravity into account, every social engineering project has to take the laws of economics into account.

Take "price gouging", for example.

...continued in full post...

Now, greed does happen to enter into the equation, but if you blame the oil price increase entirely on greed, you need to find some way to account for the timing. Why did the oil companies wait so long to jack up prices? The answer is, they couldn't.

Many people think the recent spike in oil and gasoline prices was due to the oil companies' greed, and the recent fall was due to the threat of congressional action.

What businesses do is they try to charge as much money as they possibly can for all of their products. And the question for the economist is, well how can they do this? And under what circumstances can they do this? So each business is facing a dilemma. If they raise their prices, they get higher margins but they lose customers. And if they lower their prices they get lower margins but they gain customers. So you know you have the old joke, we’re losing money on every sale, but we make up for it on volume.

There are some industries that have figured out ways to keep customers from leaving for a cheaper competitor. Take, for example, "premium" products."

...if they could split their customers up somehow and identify the customers who are not willing to pay and the customers who are willing to pay, charge a high price to the customers who will pay it and a low price for the customers who won’t, you get the best of both worlds. You get all the high margins on those sales you are going to make. Plus you get the volume. ...<snip>... the cleverest way of price targeting is to get the customers to identify themselves as price sensitive or not. So if you offer them some choices you may be able persuade some of your customers to reveal themselves as not looking at the price.

Some examples:

...sometimes you just offer the same product packaged two different ways at different prices. And if a customer is looking at the price they will buy the cheap one. And if they are not looking at the price, well 50/50 chance they will buy the expensive one.
There are some coffee chains in the U.K. who are charging markups of about 20 cents on a fair trade cappuccino. And the natural assumption of the customer is that that 20 cents is going to go to some poor farmer in Guatemala. But actually hardly any of it does. It’s not because the company is stealing the money. It’s because there is just not that much coffee in a cappuccino. And while the farmer is getting much more money for his coffee, most of that 20 cents is markup. Just pure extra profit that goes to the cappuccino seller.
A lot of people like to buy organic food for various reasons. Some people say it is better for the environment. And some people say it is better for their health. Some people say it tastes better. I don’t have a strong opinion on any of this. I have not studied the evidence. What I do know is that the markup is higher on organic food. Substantially higher. Organic food is more expensive to produce. But most of the costs of getting something on the supermarket shelves – staff time, electricity, rent, distribution costs – they are not actually the raw cost of the produce.

If you dislike "corporate greed", you might consider a boycott of these premium-priced goods.

Friday, December 16, 2005

What's happening with Iraq?

It's interesting to see how pessimistic people are capable of being about Iraq, especially given this week's developments. Lee Harris has a pessimistic take on humankind, and it spills over into Iraq:

It matters little who gets elected to the upcoming parliament; nothing can work in Iraq unless a single man is given dictatorial powers until the current crisis is over. Iraq is in the midst of an emergency, and in any natural political system, a dictatorship would almost certainly have been achieved by someone or other in the time since the removal of Saddam Hussein. Iraq today, however, is not a natural political system, but a completely artificial one. This is not meant as a disparagement of what is called, out of courtesy, the Iraqi government, but only a recognition of the fact that it is a fabrication that could not last two days without the continuous support of American and allied arms.

I have to wonder, though, what Mr. Harris would take as evidence that democracy in Iraq was not a fabrication.

That the current political system is not natural, and is "completely artificial" seems to me to miss the point. Just about any political system other than rule by force of arms is un-natural. A political system that offers any sort of guarantee of individual rights and liberties is artificial in both senses of the word. It is a profound deviation from the natural state of affiars, and it can be achieved only by significant amounts of artistry.

Lee Harris shares his pessimism with Thomas Hobbes, famous for describing the natural life of human beings as "nasty, brutish, and short". According to Hobbes (or according to Hobbes according to Harris):

...continued in full post...

once a legitimate authority had been liquidated, for whatever reason, it was impossible to resurrect it, and thus he confronted the same problem in England as the Iraqis are confronting in their land. Saddam Hussein’s regime had possessed the most brutal kind of legitimacy, but it was legitimacy nonetheless: people obeyed and did what they were told to do by those in authority. But with the complete removal of both Saddam and his entire governmental apparatus, American policy in Iraq pushed the country into a crisis of legitimacy. If Saddam Hussein did not rule them, who did? Our answer was that the Iraqi people could rule themselves. That’s what we think happens in a democracy, though of course a moment’s thought shows that no democracy is so absurd as to really allow the people more power than is absolutely necessary. But the Iraqi people could not rule themselves, and are not ruling themselves. This, however, is no reflection on the Iraqi people, since we have it on the authority of Thomas Hobbes himself that it is impossible for a people to rule themselves.

Oh. That's too bad. I guess the USA doesn't exist, then. (I have a problem, by the way, with his use of the phrase "than is absolutely necessary". This phrase is meaningless unless someone defines "absolutely necessary for what?")

The basis for this pessimism? Well...

The reason he gives to justify this assertion is pure common sense. In any collective task, each person will invariably think that he has labored harder or played a more important role than everyone else. He will naturally think he deserves a larger piece of the pie – or the oil wealth – than his associates. Of course, he doesn’t – he is simply the victim of an illusion to which all human beings are prone. We all think we deserve far more than we do, and from this elementary observation, Hobbes concluded that no people could ever really govern themselves, since there will be a constant and continual dispute about how to divide up the honors or the pay check or the spoils....all human associations will be infected with the virus of self will, and this will doom them to centrifugal disintegration.

At this point, I'm reminded of the phrase: "Common sense is what tells you the Earth is flat." Just as the Flat Earth Theory is tenable to anyone who doesn't see enough of the big picture, this "pure common sense" objection to a people being able to rule themselves is tenable only because Hobbes misses the big picture.

I happen to belong to a number of groups that manage to govern themselves quite well. At the very least, an insignificant fraction of these groups have undergone "centrifugal disintegration". Is my experience atypical?

I don't believe that for a moment. I think groups are perfectly capable of governing themselves without Harris' solution of a dictator wielding the power of life and death over them.

I think the key lies in the marketplace. More precisely, I think the key lies in the spontaneous order that arises when many individuals, seeking their own self interest, spontaneously breathe life into Adam Smith's "invisible hand".

People stop short of insisting on a larger share of the pie than they deserve, not because they become angels or saints, nor because an all-powerful dictator pushes them away from the pie, but because the invisible hand is ready to slap their hands when they over-reach.

Remember, any group will be made up of people who are out to get as much of the pie for themselves as possible, but these same people will be paying attention to how much of the pie everyone else is getting. A person who consistently takes more than the consensus opinion of how much he deserves will be slapped down.

When an incentive structure is crafted – by art – that makes this form of accounting easy, the tendency to over-reach is reined in almost automatically. The "invisible hand" does its job.

Harris advocates a Roman-style "dictator" – a single individual given absolute power for a strictly limited period of time, to deal with emergency situations. I'm not sure where I read it, but I seem to recall reading that for every month a dictator was in charge, the Roman Senate had to spend two or three months cleaning up the mess. A single individual in a position of command-and-control authority simply cannot run things as efficiently as a larger number of people closer to the situation. And the most efficient system of all is the marketplace, peopled by masses individually pursuing their own self-interest.

Common sense tells you the earth is flat, if you're too close to see the curvature.

It's the Cheese!

Eating cheese may cause you to test positive on a drug test.

AN INTERNATIONALLY recognised test for cocaine is flawed - and can throw up positive results from powdered milk and parmesan cheese, say scientists. Laboratory research shows that the "Scott test" can fail to detect the drug in some samples and can wrongly identify it in some substances where no cocaine is present.

Police agencies have been using this test as a preliminary test, and anyone who tests positive may be a guest of the county jail until the results of a mass-spectrography test come back.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Jump-Starting a Cellular World: Investigating the Origin of Life, from Soup to Networks

The Public Library of Science has a large number of papers online, freely available. Here's an interesting one...

Beginning with a single cell, Darwinian evolution provides a simple, robust, and powerful algorithm for deriving all the astonishing richness of life, from bacteria to brains. Natural selection and other evolutionary forces, acting on surplus populations of replicating cells and multicellular organisms, lead inevitably to evolution and adaptation. Give biologists a cell, and they’ll give you the world. But beyond assuming the fi rst cell must have somehow come into existence, how do biologists explain its emergence from the prebiotic world four billion years ago?

...Continued in full post...

In the early 1980s, just as Miller-type chemistry was falling out of favor, RNA emerged as the rising star of origin-of life research, based on a startling discovery. Up to this point, evolution appeared to have a severe chicken-and-egg problem: information-bearing DNA codes for protein, but catalytic proteins are essential to make DNA. That the two could have arisen independently but still work in concert seemed highly unlikely. But RNA, which was well-known in its role as temporary information carrier, also turned out to be catalytic. Indeed, a host of functions in modern cells that were once thought to be the province of proteins are instead supervised by catalytic RNA.
Despite years of experiments with dozens of different strategies, no one has figured out how to make this most essential of starting ingredients for an RNA world. “There is a growing realization that we may need to look beyond RNA,” Szostak says, to molecules whose chemistry is a bit more tractable, such as a peptide nucleic acid (PNA), a synthetic amino acid–nucleotide hybrid. These original replicators might then have given way to RNA, says Leslie Orgel, senior fellow and research professor at the Salk Institute of Biological Studies. The case for PNA is weak, though.
The possibility that metabolism first began at hydrothermal vents has been advanced most recently by Michael Russell, Research Professor of Geology at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre in Glasgow, and William Martin, Professor at the University of Düsseldorf. Russell and Martin propose that life’s metabolism developed not on a two-dimensional pyrite surface but within tiny cavities lined with iron monosulfi de, through which percolated an energy-rich mix of hydrogen and carbon dioxide dissolved in seawater.
The slow trickle of hydrogen and carbon dioxide through such chambers and across the iron sulfide catalyst promotes formation of acetate, according to Russell and Martin. Acetate is a key intermediate in virtually all biosynthetic pathways, and in modern cells, enters these reactions tethered to sulfur. In modern bacteria, the two enzymes that make acetate depend on a catalytic core of iron, nickel, and sulfur, arranged almost exactly as they are in the free mineral itself. “In other words,” Russell and Martin have written, these enzymatic metal clusters “are not inventions of the biological world, rather they are mimics of minerals that are indisputably older, and which themselves have catalytic activity in the absence of protein”
Russell and Martin’s model also provides a solution to another thorny issue in jump-starting life, that of concentration. An essential feature of all cells is their ability to maintain high concentrations of materials that are in short supply in the world around them. In the absence of a cell membrane, how did proto-life forms collect raw materials, and prevent products from dissipating into the vastness of the environment around them? Russell’s chambers solve this problem in essentially the same way modern cells do, with an external boundary that is permeable to small reactant molecules, but much less so to larger product ones.
...the most exciting development in the metabolism-first camp, “the really new idea,” is that small organic molecules, such as amino acids, can catalyze the formation of other small organic molecules, such as nucleic acids. “This has emerged only in the last two years,” he says. This view has found strong support from a new finding published in the journal Chemistry in August 2005, which indicates that single amino acids can catalyze the creation of sugars from simple starting materials with enzyme-like specificity. “What has emerged is a very strong self-organizing principle,” says Morowitz. In this view, while iron sulfide may have been the original catalyst, it did not remain the only one for long. As products of the original reactions catalyzed new reactions, metabolic networks quickly arose. Feedback loops developed when two molecules regulated one another’s
It is still unclear how, or whether, these competing models will fit together, and whether they will lead to a robust scenario for life’s origin. Indeed, all may eventually prove wrong, and the real solution may lie hidden in some discovery yet to be made. Whatever the difficulties, says Morowitz, the allure of the field lies in its potential to answer the biggest question of them all. “You’re not going to make drugs or better agriculture. You’re going to make a philosophical impact.” Szostak agrees: “These are the big questions. Anybody who thinks has to be grabbed by these.”

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Death Penalty as a deterrent?

Some time ago, a paper came to my attention. The paper, written by two researchers, one from Emory University and one from Clemson University, is called, "The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: Evidence from a 'Judicial Experiment'”. It purports to show that executions for murder save lives by deterring future murders.

Our results indicate that capital punishment has a deterrent effect, and the moratorium and executions deter murders in distinct ways. This evidence is corroborated by both the before-and-after comparisons and regression analysis. We also confirm that the moratorium and executions do not cause similar changes in non-capital crimes. The results are highly robust.

I can't find the "eighteen for one" quote mentioned below in this linked paper – I remember seeing a different one which I'll have to hunt for later. economists have entered the debate. And they have brought to the task a dazzling range of highly sophisticated techniques originally developed to answer more prosaic questions, such as whether tax breaks encourage saving. More often than not the economists find that executions do save lives. The most dramatic finding comes from Joanna Shepherd and a team at Emory University in Atlanta. They have taken advantage of the fact that some parts of the US don't execute murderers, and only a handful of states execute them consistently.


As they starkly report their central finding: each execution results in an average of 18 fewer murders.


He's been nominated for what?

An interesting comment from overseas:

But let’s imagine, for a moment, that getting nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize is indeed a significant and important achievement. When, do you suppose, was the last time the BBC reminded its audience that US President George W. Bush has been the recipient of such a nomination not just once, but twice?

Of course, there's no way he'll actually win it. Jimmy Carter, whose inaction led to the rise of the likes of Khomeini, and Osama, wins it. People who take out these threats don't.

Reaction to execution in Europe

Stanley "Tookie" Williams is dead, executed for his murder of four people a quarter of a century ago. Reaction in Europe reinforces my belief that the E.U. should be pronounced "Eeewwww".

Leaders of Austria's opposition Green Party even called for Mr. Schwarzenegger to be stripped of his Austrian citizenship...
In Graz, Mr. Schwarzenegger's hometown, local Greens said they would file a petition to remove the California governor's name from the city's Arnold Schwarzenegger Stadium. A Christian political group suggested it be renamed for Williams.

But it's not a slippery slope

I've heard any number of debates between supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage. Invariably the question arises: If love is the only criterion, and same-sex marriage should be allowed because the two individuals love each other, why not allow polygamy if three people love each other?

...two 2003 court rulings changed the legal landscape on sex and marriage: The Lawrence v. Texas decision by the U.S. Supreme Court disallows states to criminalize private sexual behavior among consenting adults, such as sodomy between homosexual men. The Goodridge decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which legalized same-sex "marriage" in that state, says "the right to marry means little if it does not include the right to marry the person of one's choice." Taken together, these rulings appear to support a right to polygamy by consenting adults, according to pundits such as conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer. "[I]f marriage is redefined to include two men in love, on what possible principled grounds can it be denied to three men in love?" Mr. Krauthammer has asked.

Apparently, at least some have decided no such grounds exist.

"Polygamy rights is the next civil rights battle." So goes the motto of a Christian pro-polygamy organization that has been watching the battle over homosexual "marriage" rights with keen interest. "We're coming. We are next. There's no doubt about it, we are next," says Mark Henkel, founder of

But it's all "scare tactics" by homophobes. Right.

Divine-Origin Pummeling Explanation (DOPE)

It is interesting to watch ID activists act skeptically towards the reported beating of a recently controversial KU religion professor. If, as many critics now believe, the police will eventually conclude that the report is a hoax, they will do so based on the naturalistic and materialistic constraints of their worldly occupation. However, ID supporters don't suffer from such constraints and are freer to follow the evidence wherever it leads.

Clearly, it is in the realm of possibility that the professor was attacked not by "rednecks," but by angels sent by The Almighty to punish the professor for upsetting His chosen people, Kansas’s Religious-Right Republicans. In fact, this explanation is actually better than all others currently under consideration because it can explain any and all evidence uncovered during the investigation. Even the lack of evidence can be explained by the angels' magical powers.

As with all other Intelligent Design explanations, this explanation's correctness is plainly obvious to its supporters, who thus have no interest in proving it. Critics bear the onus to prove it wrong. Unless any critic can produce an infinitely detailed naturalistic explanation (down to the position of every sub-atomic particle in the universe) for the time of the assault, then Assaulting Angels are clearly the best explanation for what happened to the professor. Critics who ignore this explanation are dogmatic materialists wanting to remove God from police investigations.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Lancet and 100 kilodead

This issue crossed my desk again today, so I thought I'd do a little looking around. (I really need to remark on these items as soon as they come up, so I can find them again.)

(The Lancet article is behind a pay-wall.)

The validity of a number, like 100,000, depends on a couple of things. First, the statistical underpinnings. A sample size that's too small yields an unacceptably large margin of error. In this case, the 95% confidence interval, assuming everything else was done right, is 8,000 to 194,000.

The other factor is methodology. If your sample is not representative of the universe you're trying to draw conclusions about, your numbers are trash. And this may be the case.

There were other problems. The survey team simply could not visit some of the randomly chosen clusters; the roads were blocked off, in some cases by coalition checkpoints. So the team picked other, more accessible areas that had received similar amounts of damage. But it's unclear how they made this calculation. In any case, the detour destroyed the survey's randomness; the results are inherently tainted. In other cases, the team didn't find enough people in a cluster to interview, so they expanded the survey to an adjoining cluster. Again, at that point, the survey was no longer random, and so the results are suspect.

How well do the results in this paper stack up against other data? Well, one problem is mentioned in the Slate article:

Based on their survey of how many people in the sampled households died before the war, they calculated that the mortality rate in prewar Iraq was 5 deaths per 1,000 people per year. The mortality rate after the war started—not including Fallujah—was 7.9 deaths per 1,000 people per year. In short, the risk of death in Iraq since the war is 58 percent higher (7.9 divided by 5 = 1.58) than it was before the war.

Now, the thing is, the headlines scream about 100,000 Iraqis dead since the beginning of the war, implying that all 100,000 deaths are due to the war. In fact, taking these numbers at face value, the increase in deaths is much closer to 37,000.

But there are two problems with this calculation. First, Daponte (who has studied Iraqi population figures for many years) questions the finding that prewar mortality was 5 deaths per 1,000. According to quite comprehensive data collected by the United Nations, Iraq's mortality rate from 1980-85 was 8.1 per 1,000. From 1985-90, the years leading up to the 1991 Gulf War, the rate declined to 6.8 per 1,000. After '91, the numbers are murkier, but clearly they went up. Whatever they were in 2002, they were almost certainly higher than 5 per 1,000. In other words, the wartime mortality rate—if it is 7.9 per 1,000—probably does not exceed the peacetime rate by as much as the Johns Hopkins team assumes.

OK, let's try some other numbers.

Pre-war death rate"Extra" deaths

Between the uncertainty over the pre-war and post-war death rates, and the large margin of error in the final number, the figure of 100,000 dead seems to be close to meaningless.

Further comments here, here, here(arguments about who debunks whom), and here.


(Um. I see the 98,000 figure was the "excess dead". I've fixed the numbers in my table.)

Continental drift in action...

It started out as a crackpot idea, and now continental drift is as well-accepted as any scientific theory can be. Now, we're getting to watch the creation of a new ocean.

Ethiopian, American and European researchers have observed a fissure in a desert in the remote northeast that could be the "birth of a new ocean basin," scientists said Friday. Researchers from Britain, France, Italy and the U.S. have been observing the 37-mile long fissure since it split open in September in the Afar desert and estimate it will take a million years to fully form into an ocean...
...the split is the beginning of a long process, which will eventually lead to Ethiopia's eastern part tearing off from the rest of Africa, a sea forming in the gap. The Afar desert is being torn off the continent by about 0.8 inches each year. "The crust under Afar is becoming like the crust found in the Red Sea," said Dereje, head of earth science at Addis Ababa University. "Once the crust is formed you will have water because it is a low area and the water will migrate from the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. It becomes a basin."

Monday, December 12, 2005

Tookie Williams

If I lived near San Quentin, I might be inclined to organize a counter for the inevitable candle-light vigils at the prison. This would be a candle-snuffer vigil, with photos of the victims.

About that Al Qaeda connection

Newsbusters has a summary of the evidence that led to making war against Iraq. Was there really a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda?

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Five answers from a Muslim

A while back, Dennis Prager asked five questions for muslims. In the linked article, Maher Hathout, senior advisor to the Muslim Public Affairs Council and a spokesman for the Islamic Center of Southern California, offers his answers.

Some of his answers are extremely interesting.

...continued in full post...

"Why are you so quiet?"
Like an urban myth, the idea that Muslims have been mute since 9/11 plagues us. Prager knows that mainstream Muslims have issued condemnations of terrorism ad nauseam, and American Muslim scholars even issued a fatwa against terrorism this summer. ... The problem isn't how loud we are but how deaf some people can be.

Prager, commenting on this piece, noted he should have made this question less amgiguous. For example, "Why are there no demonstrations among the billion Muslims of the world against terrorism?"

This would have been nice, but I think the original quesition is adequate. "Why are you so quiet?" When children in an Israeli pizza parlor are blown up, someone issues a lukewarm denunciation. When the news reports that some non-Muslim may have actually had physical contact with a Koran (so-called "desecration"), riots ensue. Why does a Dhimmi fingerprint on a Koran provoke a riot, and Muslim suicide bombings of children only rate a stern memo?

"Why are none of the Palestinian Christians terrorists?"
Beyond the seemingly deliberate tone of cynicism here, Prager seems to forget that the current spate of suicide attacks was initiated by the Munich Olympics tragedy, which was concocted by a non-Islamic group led by a Christian named George Habash. There is nothing about being Muslim that leads to terrorism. The premise is wrong; so is the conclusion.

One Christian suicide attack, compared with how many Muslim suicide attacks? Declaring the premise wrong does not make it so. Now answer the question.

Why is only one of the 47 Muslim majority countries a free country?
But let's not forget that the colonial powers that dominated these countries found it easier to deal with the dictators they installed than with masses intent on creating their own destiny. Our country is not completely innocent on this score.

Fails to address the question. Many non-Muslim countries are free, or are in the process of becoming free. In many cases, former colonies are freer and richer than their neighbors, because they inherited the English language (useful for international trade) and notions of democracy from their colonizers. But this point forms an interesting contrast to the next answer:

Why are so many atrocities committed and threatened by Muslims in the name of Islam?
Yes, criminals are exploiting the grievances of depressed, oppressed and desperate masses in order to try to justify the unjustifiable. But finger-pointing won't get us anywhere.

Does this include pointing fingers at former colonial powers? Or countries that have invaded other countries to depose dictators and stop the filling of mass graves?

His final point, though, starts to hit the target, and suggests some other questions:

What we need now is to enable robust, mainstream Muslim organizations to expose this minority, isolate it and rid us of this scourge. Casting doubt about Muslims only adds to the haze and confusion that allow extremists international prominence. Innuendo only makes it less likely that any religion will be respected or its followers accepted.

Question: What would enable these robust, mainstream Muslim organizations to "expose this minority, isolate it and rid us of this scourge"?


Why do countries governed by religious Muslims persecute other religions?
What makes you so sure they're "religious Muslims"?

Um... how about the fact that no "robust, mainstream Muslim organizations" have taken any visible steps to "expose this minority, isolate it and rid us of this scourge"? When a contestant in a beauty pageant says Muhammed might have married one of the contestants, there are riots. When this woman is threatened with death for daring to use Muhammed's name in that context, someone writes another stern memo.

I'm not absolutely sure myself, but based on the available evidence, I know what conclusion I'm inclined to draw.

Socially Approved Price Gouging

The favored game at the moment has to be price-gouging the natural way, riding the bandwagon of organic food...For example, in the UK, organic milk commands a premium of around 50 cents per quart, but the farmer sees less than twenty cents of this.
– Tim Harford, The Undercover Economist, p. 42-43. What does buying organic food say about you? It might say that you believe that it is healthier to ingest food grown in a certain way. But to Tim Harford, it also says that when it comes to price, you are a sap, willing to hand a store high profit margins. He ends his discussion of the organic food rip-off by issuing a plea to organic-preferring consumers to shop more price-consciously and "not let food retailers exploit your enthusiasm."

Many people pay premium prices for things, and only get what they pay for if they place a high value on social standing.

"Hybrid technology is not 'green' technology. Like heated seats or flashy exterior trim, it's merely an expensive option that generates large markups for the Toyota Corporation and its dealers."
I am not against hybrid technology, and it warms my heart to see other people sacrificing to help hold down the price of gas for me. But until the price premium comes down to the point where I can count the number of years of gasoline savings I need to break even without using my toes, I myself will stick with regular cars.

Likewise, recycling on a municipal level is very successful at reducing the amount of trash that makes it to landfill, but at what cost? When recycling pays, people automatically do it. Forcing people to recycle is a form of mandated price gouging – people are forced to donate their labor sorting recyclables out of their trash, labor they'd rather expend elsewhere.

How to soak the rich

Lower taxes.

in 1980, when the top statutory income tax rate went up to 70 percent, the share of income taxes paid by the top 1 percent of taxpayers was just 19.3 percent.
By 1986, the top 1 percent's share of all federal income taxes rose to 25.7 percent. That year, the top statutory tax rate was further cut to 28 percent -- another huge-give-away, we were told. Yet the share of income taxes paid by the top 1 percent continued to rise. By 1992, it was up to 27.5 percent.
A few weeks ago, the Internal Revenue Service released data on tax year 2003. They show that the top 1 percent of taxpayers, ranked by adjusted gross income, paid 34.3 percent of all federal income taxes that year. The top 5 percent paid 54.4 percent, the top 10 percent paid 65.8 percent, and the top quarter of taxpayers paid 83.9 percent.

And it seems it's not a uniquely American phenomenon, either.

In the UK, the top tax rates were cut from 83% to 40%, and the percentage of taxes paid by the top 1% rose from 11% to 21%.

At some point, those on the left must decide what really matters to them -- the appearance of soaking the rich by imposing high statutory tax rates that may cause actual tax payments by the wealthy to fall, or lower rates that may bring in more revenue that can pay for government programs to aid the poor?

Tortured logic

The media have been portraying the issue of torture in simple terms—President Bush and Vice President Cheney support it, and all right-thinking people are opposed. But it's much more complicated than that. The media are either too lazy or too ideological to present the facts.

Part of the problem is, just what does "torture" mean?

Remember that the media had published many stories about alleged "desecration" of the Koran, without making it plain that "desecration" could involve merely touching the Muslim book. Most people would reject the touching of the Koran as a form of desecration. That's how the media distort a controversy by failing to define their terms.

Awwww... you mean our troops aren't using hot irons and boiling oil?

...continued in full post...

But how is torture defined? Is it torture to humiliate someone, whether through sexual innuendo or touching a copy of the Koran? Is it torture to deprive someone of sleep, or force them to sit in an uncomfortable position? However one defines it, there have been more than a dozen major inquiries, and none says there has been a torture policy put in place by top civilian and military leaders.

So what about Abu Ghraib and similar incidents?

As noted by the Wall Street Journal, cases of abuse amount to a few hundred out of more than 70,000 detainees. The Journal said this compares favorably with the U.S. prison system, and past wars, including Vietnam and World War II. In the case of Abu Ghraib, it was the Pentagon that released the information about alleged abuse to the news media, and it had already begun prosecuting the violators when the story and the photos were picked up and publicized by CBS and Seymour Hersh.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Institutional Stupidity

Rich Karlgaard is running a new blog for Forbes Magazine. He's been taking on "Institutional Stupidity". In this installment, he looks at the case of an engine manufacturer that:

As promised, here is the story of a company that fights its own loyal customers, insults their intelligence, and voids their warranties. This, even though its customers have figured out a cheaper and safer way to use the company’s product.

The company makes airplane engines, and the cheaper and safer way to run the engine is a bit lean of the settings specified by the company. This is called "lean of peak (LOP)".

The problem with LOP used to be that it needed more precise handling. Get it too far off and the engine might explode. Nowadays, though, with computer monitoring and adjustments, that's not a problem. The problem is, the company doesn't trust the customer to use hi-tech monitoring, and fears being sued if they allow customers the option of running LOP.

Rich's advice to the company:

What is the lesson here? Listen to your customers, not your lawyers. Or you’ll sink to the level of institutional stupidity faster than you think.

The problem with this advice is, ignoring customers may be cheaper than ignoring lawyers. In this case, if you ignore your customers, you force them to spend more on fuel and replace their engines more often. If you ignore your lawyers, you may have to settle expensive lawsuits when an engine explodes and a plane crashes.

Global warming?

Steve Milloy takes another swing at the Kyoto protocol and global climate change in general. Part of the problem is that global warming enthusiasts seem able to attribute anything to human activity.

The British newspaper The Independent, for example, reported in its Nov. 30 article about the Nature study that “the real evidence does point to a possible one degree Centigrade cooling over the next two decades.” But the newspaper reported in another same-day article that, “the [record hot] summer of 2003 was triggered by global warming caused by man-made emissions of greenhouse gases.” Such contradictory reporting casually ignores the reality that greenhouse gas emissions can’t simultaneously cool and warm Europe.

As I've been saying about ID/IOT, an "explanation" that can explain anything explains nothing.

Also, just how much of a difference can humans make on climate?

A more sober reality, though, is that whatever slight impact humans might have on the climate, it is too small to measure – a point made in a study just published by Swiss researchers in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews (November 2005). The study reviewed prior efforts to reconstruct global temperatures of the last 1,000 years. It concluded that natural temperature variations over the last millenium may have been so significant that they would "result in a redistribution of weight towards the role of natural factors in [causing] temperature changes, thereby relatively devaluing the impact of [manmade] emissions and affecting future predicted [global climate] scenarios."

Let's stipulate that the world is, in fact, warming. At some point, the relevant question is, do we want to spend our money on something that makes devout environmentalists feel good and noble, or do we want to spend it on something that actually works?