Saturday, December 23, 2006

Privileged planet arguments

Link to a discussion of whether Earth was "designed" to be optimally habitable for us.

Irreducible Complexity and the Flagellum

The heading links to a post on The Panda's Thumb, which outlines the hypothetical steps involved in the evolution of the bacterial flagellum. And then there's this link on Panda's Thumb.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Conservative economists

(Hat tip: John Ray.)

I believe the answer is, to some degree, yes. My experience is that many students find that their views become somewhat more conservative after studying economics. There are at least three, related reasons.

First, in some cases, students start off with utopian views of public policy, where a benevolent government can fix all problems. One of the first lessons of economics is that life is full of tradeoffs. That insight, completely absorbed, makes many utopian visions less attractive. Once you recognize, for example, that there is a tradeoff between equality and efficiency, as economist Arthur Okun famously noted, many public policy decisions become harder.

Second, some of the striking insights of economics make one more respectful of the market as a mechanism for coordinating a society. Because market participants are motivated by self-interest, a person might naturally be suspect of market-based societies. But after learning about the gains from trade, the invisible hand, and the efficiency of market equilibrium, one starts to approach the market with a degree of admiration and, indeed, awe.

Third, the study of actual public policy makes students recognize that political reality often deviates from their idealistic hopes. Much income redistribution, for example, is aimed not toward the needy but toward those with political clout. This Dave Barry column, which is reprinted in Chapter 22 of my favorite economics textbook, describes a good example.

Put the freeze on ID thieves

From the December 2-3 Wall Street Journal: "More states let consumers suspend credit files as an antifraud strategy".

If you put a "freeze" on your credit account, any new creditor who wants to open an account in your name has to provide a personal identification number, which the agencies issue the consumer once his account is frozen. The idea is, this number is one that a casual thief won't have. (Don't write it on your credit cards!!!)

(Yes, that should be obvious, but "Obviously, the obvious isn't obvious to everyone.")

Where to find instructions for freezing your credit files:
Click "customer service", and then "How do I place a Security Freeze?"
Go to
Click "Personal" then "Fraud and Identity Theft", then "Preventing".

Freezing requires a certified letter, containing some personal information. Thawing is easier, requiring a phone call or web access, and your personal identification number. Note, however, the thaw hotlines are not currently open 24 hours. TransUnion operates from 8:00 AM to 4:30 PM on weekdays, in every time zone.

Officially, it can take up to 72 hours to thaw, but in practice, it usually takes a few minutes.

Fools writing for imbeciles?

MediaBlog at NRO offers its take on the Wall Street Journal piece yesterday.

Rago defends the MSM on the grounds that its "institutional culture... screens editorially for originality, expertise and seriousness." Which is ironic, because his piece lacks two of the three.

1. Originality. Rago hasn't said anything about the state of the political blogosphere that Matt Welch didn't already cover in his April 2006 article "Farewell to Warblogging." And Welch actually knows whereof he speaks.

2. Expertise. If Rago knows enough about blogs to condemn them as sweepingly as he has here, then it isn't evident from reading his piece.
Rago follows a depressingly well-worn path: He starts from the (false) premise that bloggers are out to replace the MSM, points out their inability to do what the MSM does, throws in some sneering riffs about how bad most of them are, and concludes that the MSM, despite all of its faults, is far superior.

He's wrong. Do we really have to explain why? Again?

UPDATE: Another annoying aspect of Rago's piece: His intentionally insulting tone ensured a reaction that would appear to support his "mob" thesis. Witness the pile-on.

Jimmuh Carter's new book

YOU CAN ALWAYS tell when a public figure has written an indefensible book: when he refuses to debate it in the court of public opinion. And you can always tell when he's a hypocrite to boot: when he says he wrote a book in order to stimulate a debate, and then he refuses to participate in any such debate. I'm talking about former president Jimmy Carter and his new book "Palestine Peace Not Apartheid."

The hazards of nepotism

(Hat tip: Thd Daily WTF.)

One of the advantages of being a contractor -- well, aside from getting paid nearly twice as much -- and aside from not having to work unpaid overtime -- is that being "on call" is generally not part of the job description. The whole 2AM-Oh-Crap-A-Batch-Job-Failed call followed by a six-hour I-Have-No-Idea-How-To-Fix-This-Crap debug session that's chased down with the Oh-Crap-It's-8Am-And-Time-To-Go-To-Work realization -- that pleasure is reserved for full-time employees. That's what Ivan D. believed, right up until he got a 2AM call of his own: we desperately need your help to find a screw in the warehouse; none of the full-timers are responding!
In many warehouses, a delayed order would not be reason enough to wake up a developer, especially a contract developer. However, this particular warehouse stocked millions of airplane parts that were urgently requested by inbound and outbound flights. They called Ivan up because a gate-full of passengers were anxiously waiting for their already-delayed intercontinental flight to depart. A single screw was all that was needed to finish the routine maintenance and send everyone on their way.

The warehouse system is, to put it gently, a mess. It was written by the CTO's two nephews. True, they didn't know the languages they were going to be programming in, but there are lots of books on the languages, and both nephews can read. So eventually, it would work out.

Ivan arrived at the warehouse a little after 2:30AM and was greeted by a frantic foreman who immediately showed him the error message. It was fairly straight-forward: the database query from the RF scanner was timing out. Ivan took a peek at the change logs and saw that one of the nephews deployed a new version of communication module shortly before he left for the day. Whoops.

Ivan opened up the VB project and found the code that was causing the problem. It looked something like this: Set rsStock = objConn.Execute("SELECT * FROM [Inventory]") While Not rsStock.EOF If rsStock("ItemId") = intItemId Then Call SendItemToTransmitter(rsStock) End If rsStock.MoveNext Wend It turns out that bringing millions of rows down from the database into a VB application just to look for a single row is a bit slow. Fortunately, it was an easy fix, so Ivan simply added a WHERE clause to the query, compiled the code, and deployed it. Within minutes, the warehouse worker was able to use his RF scanner to locate the screw and send it to the plane. Everyone -- from the foreman to the network administrator -- was astonished that Ivan was able to fix the bug so quickly.

So, the nephews don't always write the best possible code. And since they're in charge, any tendency toward pointy-hairedness can be a problem.

Later that morning, Ivan arrived back at work feeling happy and refreshed. A few people thanked him again and his manager (the other nephew) asked to speak with him immediately. Ivan figured it'd be an official thank-you-for-saving-the-day thing. Not quite: the boss went off on him, criticizing him for coming in at an unauthorized time, making an unauthorized software change, and for compromising the integrity of the warehouse system.

Here in the States, this is a matter of the individual policy quirks of an owner. It will impact the productivity of one company. In countries where things like this are mandated by law or strict custom, the effect is to lower the productivity of an entire country's workforce. This is one of the reasons why overseas labor may cost less per hour. Thing is, you may be getting exactly what you pay for.

Radical Islam

So how, aside from killing jihadist terrorists, can we defend ourselves against the insidious spread of radical Islam? Here are a few starting suggestions:

Bluntly identify radical Islam as fascistic — without worrying whether some Muslims take offense when we will talk honestly about the extremists in their midst.

At the same time, keep encouraging consensual governments in the Middle East and beyond that could offer people security and prosperity, while distancing ourselves from illegitimate dictators, especially in Syria and Iran, that promote terrorists.

Establish that no more autocracies in the Middle East and Asia will be allowed to get the bomb.

Seek energy independence that would collapse the world price of oil, curbing petrodollar subsidies for terrorists and our own appeasement of their benefactors.

Appreciate the history and traditions of a unique Western civilization to remind the world that we have nothing to apologize for but rather much good to offer to others.

Finally, keep confident in a war in which our will and morale are every bit as important as our overwhelming military strength. The jihadists claim that we are weak spiritually, but our past global ideological enemies — Nazism, fascism, militarism and communism — all failed. And so will they.

Stateless groups

Stateless warfighting organizations are all the rage these days. From Al Qaeda to Blackwater, they come in all shapes and sizes and pursue all varieties of ends. Consider: Al Qaeda is an organization funded by a Saudi tycoon's heir, and exists to pursue strategies that are wholly outside the realm of policies of any given state. Indeed, it seeks to topple the governments of many states in the Middle East, from which it draws many of its recruits and funding.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Instapundit on Nifong

And here's more on student and alumni reaction, from Joe Malchow. Malchow observes: "College administrators often speak of community. Isn’t it an essential part of community to defend one’s community against unfounded or overbroad attacks?" I don't think they're big on that.

And as it happens...

UPDATE: Hmm. Duke applications are down.

Sowell on Nifong

In his book "The Great Crash 1929," John Kenneth Galbraith said: "The worst continued to worsen." The same can be said of the Duke University "rape" case and District Attorney Michael Nifong. After all this time, it finally came out in court last week that the DNA samples collected from the underwear and private parts of the alleged victim contained DNA from other men -- but none from the Duke lacrosse players who were accused of raping her.

Monday, December 18, 2006

False charges in rape cases

Jim Khouri is currently the fifth vice-president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police. He has a piece up on just how often rape charges turn out to be false.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Abuse at Guantanamo

(Hat tip: Bill Keezer.)

There's a lot of abusive conduct taking place at Gitmo. However, it's not being carried out by the guards.

Guards have been routinely pelted with feces by inmates and face physical attacks from al Qaeda detainees. In May, al Qaeda detainees organized an ambush to stop a search of cells for contraband medication following two suicide attempts. Prison authorities have responded by providing inmates with a huge Arabic library, a modern hospital, sporting facilities and satellite television.
Officials said al Qaeda inmates have attacked American guards on a daily basis. During the 12-month period that ended in August 2006, authorities reported 3,232 incidents of detainee misconduct. They included 432 assaults with bodily fluids, 227 physical assaults and 99 efforts to incite a disturbance or riot.

Bill's thoughts:

I have a couple of suggestions: misbehave and be bound--total restraint. They lie anyway, so let's just cut out the look-good crap and teach them some manners. The other one is to dress, Aryeh Neier, president of the New York-based Open Society Institute and former executive director of Human Rights Watch, in a guard uniform and make him walk the prison block with the other guards.

Um, Bill? Why not both? And have someone standing by to film whatever Mr. Neier does in response to being assaulted.

Certainly, since the US will never get credit for being nice to the prisoners, I see no point in continuing. Define what sort of treatment is reasonable and legal, and what falls beyond the pale, and administer reasonable punishment as needed.

Intelligent Design, or not?

Can "Intelligent Design / Intelligent Origin Theory" be true if a species is so incredibly vulnerable to extinction? (Reproducing a large chunk of this, since I'm not sure how long it'll be before it retreats behind a firewall.)

...what can we make of the further complications that led the Large Blue butterfly (Maculinea arion) to extinction in Britain? It entrusts a critical stage in its life cycle to the tender care of a single species of red ant that is particularly finicky about where it nests.

The story goes like this: The Large Blue lays its eggs in the buds of thyme - the culinary herb that grows wild in Europe - in the tight-bud stage. If the butterfly is ready to lay its eggs before the buds appear, or not until after they have started to open, the brood is lost. The eggs hatch after one or two weeks, depending on the weather; warm weather speeds hatching. The young caterpillars feed on thyme flowers for about two weeks during late July and early August, then fall to the ground where they are "adopted" by red ants (Myrmica sabuleti) attracted by a sugary substance secreted from a dorsal gland. The ants carry the caterpillar back to their nest, where it then gorges on ant larvae. While hidden from its own predators, the caterpillar spends 10 months as a predator in the ant nest, and then pupates there. After three weeks pupation the butterfly emerges during the four weeks mid-June to mid-July.

M. sabuleti is a warmth-loving ant that thrives only in short, dry grassland on hot south-facing slopes that are heavily grazed. If the grass grows higher than 3-4 cm and shades the ground, cooling it, this ant dies out and other species of ant take over - ants that are not interested in providing free food and lodging for Large Blue caterpillars. Taller grass also crowds out thyme.

What happened in Britain was a constellation of events that conspired to spell disaster for the Large Blue. One was the increased use of chemical fertilizers that promote vigorous grass growth, which kills off small wild flowers such as thyme. Then, sheep were pulled off the land by a change in livestock farming. For a few years, rabbits spread and kept the grass short in habitats favored by the butterfly, but in the 1950s myxomatosis (a viral disease of rabbits) was introduced and eliminated them. Pastures also were previously burned over, which kept the grass short, but this is no longer done.

So here you have an insect that depends for its very existence on a fragile chain of circumstances that is easily broken by bad weather, changes in exposure to grazing due to human intervention and disease, loss of its unique food plant, and loss of its protector ant species. If I were to design such a silly system I'd at least choose the most abundant, hardy species of ant to host my caterpillars, and ensure that they could feed on other plants beside thyme, and at other stages than the bud. To me, the case of the Large Blue is conclusive disproof of the theory of intelligent design.

Interesting piece, but also interesting are the comments to the piece. For example:

ID is not about 'optimal design'
by Enezio E. de Almeida Filho
Intelligent Design Theory has nothing to do with 'optimal design', and this is something that Woodall seems to be unaware of. Has he read any books by William Dembski?

In that case, I wonder what an undesigned butterfly would look like?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

More on Kitzmiller v. Dover

Barbara Forrest, co-author of Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, discusses her participation in the Intelligent Design Movement's opportunity to crush those evil Darwinists.

Not only did I show up for my deposition, but I also testified at the trial despite being delayed by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Moreover, I had the distinction of being the only witness whom the defense tried to exclude from the case. When they failed, the Discovery Institute tried to discredit me with ridicule.

(Also, this piece looks at the charge that Judge Jones copied the ACLU's proposed findings of fact into his own decision, thereby implying he's a plagarist.)

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Measures of media bias

Two University of Colorado researchers have conducted a study of media bias.

. Reporters have to make political judgments when choosing their words. In order to study bias, the researchers made lists of common phrases used by Republicans and Democrats in Congress. (Think "death tax" vs. "tax cuts for the wealthy" — Shafer made a handy list.) The researchers then charted which newspapers used which phrases. The exercise illustrates just how difficult it is to be truly objective. Reporters can claim to have represented both sides of a story, but that isn't worth much if the language of the story clearly puts one side in a better light.

2. A newspaper's bias appears to be partly a function of its readers' politics.