Saturday, February 28, 2009

An Opinionated Play-by-Play of the Plantinga-Dennett Exchange

The debate was between Alvin Plantinga and Daniel Dennett. Plantinga is one of the founders of the Society of Christian Philosophers and one of the fathers of the current desecularization of philosophy. He is widely regarded - even by his critics - as one of the finest epistemologists of the last fifty years and one of the finest philosophers of religion since the Medieval period. Daniel Dennett is one of the New Atheists and is a well-known proponent of atheistic Darwinism and critic of religion. He is widely regarded - even by his critics - as one of the most important early philosophers of mind that opened the field to cognitive science and evolutionary biology. He has contributed enormously to the serious study of the mind and its relationship to the brain. Both philosophers are over sixty and perhaps at the height of their philosophical powers. They have also faced off before but, as far as I know, not in person.

A climate skeptic with credentials

Madam Chairman and members, thank you for the opportunity to appear before the Committee on Environment and Public Works to testify on Climate Change. My name is William Happer, and I am the Cyrus Fogg Bracket Professor of Physics at Princeton University. I am not a climatologist, but I don't think any of the other witnesses are either. I do work in the related field of atomic, molecular and optical physics. I have spent my professional life studying the interactions of visible and infrared radiation withgases - one of the main physical phenomena behind the greenhouse effect. I have published over 200 papers in peer reviewed scientific journals. I am a member of a number of professional organizations, including the American Physical Society and the National Academy of Sciences. I have done extensive consulting work for the US Government and Industry. I also served as the Director of Energy Research at the Department of Energy (DOE) from 1990 to 1993, where I supervised all of DOE's work on climate change. I have come here today as a concerned citizen to express my personal views, and those of many like me, about US climate-change policy. These are not official views of my main employer, Princeton University, nor of any other organization with which I am associated.

That being said: least 90% of greenhouse warming is due to water vapor and clouds. Carbon dioxide is a bit player. There is little argument in the scientific community that a direct effect of doubling the CO2 concentration will be a small increase of the earth's temperature -- on the order of one degree. Additional increments of CO2 will cause relatively less direct warming because we already have so much CO2 in the atmosphere that it has blocked most of the infrared radiation that it can.
Since most of the greenhouse effect for the earth is due to water vapor and clouds, added CO2 must substantially increase water's contribution to lead to the frightening scenarios that are bandied about. The buzz word here is that there is "positive feedback." With each passing year, experimental observations further undermine the claim of a large positive feedback from water. In fact, observations suggest that the feedback is close to zero and may even be negative.
The current warming also seems to be due mostly to natural causes, not to increasing levels of carbon dioxide. Over the past ten years there has been no global warming, and in fact a slight cooling. This is not at all what was predicted by the IPCC models.
I was very surprised when I first saw the celebrated "hockey stick curve," in the Third Assessment Report of the IPCC. I could hardly believe my eyes. Both the little ice age and the Medieval Warm Period were gone, and the newly revised temperature of the world since the year 1000 had suddenly become absolutely flat until the last hundred years when it shot up like the blade on a hockey stick. This was far from an obscure detail, and the hockey stick was trumpeted around the world as evidence that the end was near. We now know that the hockey stick has nothing to do with reality but was the result of incorrect handling of proxy temperature records and incorrect statistical analysis.
The IPCC has made no serious attempt to model the natural variations of the earth's temperature in the past. Whatever caused these large past variations, it was not due to people burning coal and oil. If you can't model the past, where you know the answer pretty well, how can you model the future?
Many of the frightening scenarios about global warming come from large computer calculations, "general circulation models," that try to mimic the behavior of the earth's climate as more CO2 is added to the atmosphere. It is true that climate models use increasingly capable and increasingly expensive computers. But their predictions have not been very good. For example, none of them predicted the lack of warming that we have experienced during the past ten years. All the models assume the water feedback is positive, while satellite observations suggest that the feedback is zero or negative.

What they're teaching at Duke University

Jay Schalin attended a "teach-in" at Duke University (Dookoo?) on the recent war between Gaza and Israel.

I attended a "teach-in" about Israeli-Palestinian relations at Duke University the other night. Part of my job is to attend college lectures and report on them, in order to provide the public with some idea of who is being invited on to the American campus and what ideas they present. As I entered the lecture hall, I saw a stack of blank Amnesty International petitions, asking Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to support a U.N. investigation into the commission of war crimes by the Israel during the recent Gaza conflict.

Essentially, the "teach-in" taught that Israel had no rights, was the cause of all the problems, and the poor Palestianians had no choice but to lob missiles, use suicide bombers, and hide behind women and children.

Jay Schalin is Senior Writer at the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. He wrote this for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Creationist Tactics

How you, the creationist, can wage war against evolution:

  1. Interpret Any Uncertainty Anywhere In Science As Implying Total Uncertainty Everywhere In Science.
    Science is by nature tentative. Anything on the cutting edge is going to have considerable uncertainty attached to it. Anything science is certain about now will be found to have had considerable uncertainty attached to it at some point in history. As soon as any evidence of any uncertainty is found, present it and claim that scientists therefore don't know what they're talking about.
  2. Trumpet Any Mistakes Made By Any Scientist, And Ignore The Fact That These Mistakes Are Corrected.
    Most people in your audience will not be well versed in the history of science. You can flood an audience with accounts of mistakes in science, and accounts of things scientists thought that are now known not to be true. With enough such accounts, you can build a superficially compelling picture of "Science Always Getting It Wrong".
    Even experts in the history of science will not be able to directly address all the examples you bring up. Anything left unaddressed can be waved in front of the audience as "not refuted". You can then use the fact that something has been left unrefuted to claim that everything has been left unrefuted.
  3. Shift The Burden Of Proof To Your Critics Any Way You Can.
    Remember, your position is indefensible. The only way you can present anything like a compelling argument is to make your opponents look ignorant. Force them to prove everything they say. If they refuse to accept the burden of proof, force them to prove they don't have to prove what they say.
  4. Any Facts Or Explanations Not Immediately At Hand May Be Regarded As Nonexistent.
    If a critic makes a statement about science and doesn't present all the evidence to prove it from the fundamental level on up, you can seize upon any missing step and declare the entire statement as "unproven" or "a wild guess". If a critic manages to refute any of your statements, ignore the refutation. As soon as the refutation is no longer being actively presented, re-assert your claim. After all, the refutation's not right out there any more.

  5. Bury Your Opponent In Quotes.
    Nobody is an expert in everything. The more quotes you pull up, the greater the chance that your opponents will not have the knowledge or data to refute at least one of them. You can then emphasize the quotes not dealt with and announce that "science has no response to them". (Note that this will not work unless you have managed to shed the burden of proof, as advised in step 2.

  6. Use "Cafeteria Science".
    If you look around diligently enough, some scientist somewhere will say something that will bolster your case. Even at the rate of one oddball case in a million, you can accumulate literally thousands of quotes if you mine a long enough time period. In true cafeteria style, you can seize upon these quotes and ignore the science that refutes these quotes.
    You can also use weird results. Sometimes a new fact surfaces that can be co-opted to make the case for creationism look stronger. Any oddity in the physics of radioactive decay, for example, can be used to advance the claim that radiometric dating is inherently flawed. Cafeteria science allows you to disregard the manifold physical consequences of such accelerated decay, or to ignore the fact that the oddity you're reporting on doesn't apply to radiometric dating.

  7. Find an Instance of a Scientist Behaving Badly, and Use it to Make the Claim That All Scientists Will Do the Same.
    Ideally, all scientists would base arguments against bad science on the science. Fortunately, scientists are human. Sometimes they will engage in personal attacks, censorship and other unsavory techniques. Use this fact to tar all scientists with the same brush, and also to make the claim that no crank scientists have been "refuted", but rather censored.
    Since scientists are people, some of them will be bad people. Some will commit fraud. Some will harbor racist ideas or other views that are inimical to society. (A lot of people can be tarred, years after their deaths, now that society's notions of what is acceptable has changed.) Some even commit crimes. Use this to make the case that all scientists are criminals.

  8. Scientific Facts and Theories Need Have No Effects Except Where Convenient.
    Whenever some bit of cafeteria science has implications you don't want to deal with, you are free to ignore them. For example, if you like the possibility that neutron radiation might have changed the ratios of radioactive elements and their decay products, ignore the fact that neutrons have observable effects elsewhere in nature.

  9. When Cornered, Change The Subject.
    Always have material from several different subjects ready to present. When you find yourself out of your depth in one, be ready to duck into another. Chances are, your opponent will not be an expert in that other subject. This is particularly true if you choose subjects that are distantly related, such as cellular biology and astrophysics. Ideally, you will have set this dodge up while you have been burying your opponent in quotes.

  10. When Really Cornered, Call Names.
    With sufficient imagination, any of society's ills may be attributed to the beliefs of "evolutionists". Ignore the fact that most, if not all, of these ills existed long before Darwin ever drew breath. Asserting links between evolution and such movements as Marxism, Communism and Nazism is a popular form of mud slinging. If you have been making use of technique #7, accuse your opponent of being as bad as the people you've been citing.
    This is even more effective if you can manage to goad your opponent into a display of impatience, disdain or temper using any of these techniques.

  11. When an Explanation Shows You to be Absolutely Wrong, Ignore the Explanation and Reassert the Original Claim
    This works on the principle that "Any Lie Repeated Often Enough Will Be Believed". It's also a very good way of goading your opponents into bouts of ill temper.
    Note: One popular way of ignoring an explanation is to willfully fail to understand it, and call it "convoluted", "complicate" or "obscure". This allows the practiced creationist to assert that the fault is not his for willfully misunderstanding, but rather his opponent's for not being clear enough.

  12. Context is your enemy.
    When quoting any scientist, textbook, or journal article, you must exercise great care not to quote too much. A famous example is the use of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. When reading the law out of a physics textbook, it's tantalizingly easy to read too far and blab to an audience the fact that the Law only bars the decrease of entropy in a closed system.
    Once that fact is out, your best hope is that the audience won't have paid attention. If your luck is running against you, you may have to spend valuable time explaining why that clause is spurious, deceptive or just plain false. It's much wiser to write down a safe amount of your quote on a separate piece of paper or a flash card, so you won't be tripped up by any inconvenient context.
    The converse of this tactic is that a well-placed ellipsis is your friend. Use the ellipses liberally, whenever you need to excise part of a sentence, part of a paragraph, or even part of a chapter. Remember, if you make the dots small enough, most of the audience won't even notice your surgery!

A note about "Quote Mining":

Many mainstream scientists will advance the claim that creationists do no research. As you will learn in the course of your battle against evolution, this is absolutely false. Creationists do plenty of research!

Someone has to keep creationists everywhere supplied with quotes from the scientific journals and the public pronouncements of scientists themselves, to show that evolution is discredited and collapsing under the weight of authentic scientific evidence. That's where creationist research comes in.

Dedicated creationists the world over pore over every word that can be attributed to any scientist, looking for juicy quotes that can be subjected to any of the tactics listed above. The most popular tactics to use on any given quote are numbers 1, 2, 6, 7, 8 and 12. If you're going to do research on your own, it's a good idea to have these tactics printed out for easy reference.

Don't forget the power of the fallacious argument.

Logical fallacies are very useful. Most useful of all are the so-called informal fallacies, but all fallacious arguments are useful because they sound good and will convince the unwary of the correctness of your position.

Logic used to be taught in the schools, but it's gone out of favor lately. The only place where any exposure to fallacious arguments was required was in my high school speech class, and that was for two weeks out of a semester. Furthermore, I'd be willing to bet money that nine out of ten who took that class forgot everything they had learned in that class the instant they handed in their final exam papers.

Therefore, you can safely use fallacious arguments in any number of venues, with very little fear of being called on them. And even if you are, most of your audience won't understand the point of the objection. As soon as their eyes glaze over, make a joke at your opponent's expense, declare yourself the winner, and move on to your next topic.

You have now been armed with all the tools a creationist needs to fight to good fight. Now go forth and spread the word!

Okay, I think they're gone now. So what was that all about?

You have just seen a sampling of the techniques used in creationist arguments. You will often see a large number of these techniques used in one presentation. A really gifted creationist can often combine two or three of these techniques in a single sentence.

Sooner or later, if you have any interest in science, or in education, you will encounter a Creationist Argument. Creationists are always trying to sneak Biblical Creationism into the curriculum by any means possible. To this effect, they will try to convince parents, teachers and school boards that they are presenting real science.

When presenting their arguments to any except the converted, these people are too canny to advocate anything that too strongly resembles the Biblical account of Genesis as their theory. Instead, their beliefs masquerade under such aliases "Scientific Creationism", "Creation Science" or "Intelligent Design Theory". Any time someone claims to have a theory that will overturn what the "establishment" is teaching in the schools, you have reasonable cause to be skeptical. The use of any of the terms quoted above should be considered a red flag.

Since "Creation Science" is not science, creationists cannot use scientific arguments to support their cases. By "scientific argument", I mean an argument in favor of creationism based on the evidence.

Scientific theories win acceptance because the bulk of the evidence provides support for them, and because no evidence proves the theories to be false. Creationist ideas are backed up by isolated bits of data which were usually refuted not too long after they were published. By citing an article published in some scientific journal, the creationist hopes to convince the public that there may be something of substance to his claims.

The majority of creationist arguments are intended to discredit evolution in various ways. Since they can't make a case for creationism, they attempt to dismantle the case for evolution. This fallacious argument assumes that there are only two possible explanations creation and evolution.

Being aware of the techniques creationists use may be of some help, should you ever find yourself engaged in a "discussion" with one of them. The entire purpose of these techniques is to keep the audience from noticing that the creationist never actually defends his own position, but merely attacks everyone else's.

Audiences are much more likely to notice what's happening when it's pointed out to them. :-)

Toward strong nanotech

Hat tip: Samizdata:

University of California Berkeley physicist Dr. Alex Zettl and colleagues have built nanoscale radio receivers and transmitters using a single buckeytube each. One tube performs all the actions of an AM radio. Antenna. Tuner. Amplifier. Demodulator. Best of all this is not just theory. It already works well enough to communicate to and from the human scale at this primitive stage of development.

I might add that if you can turn radio waves into mechanical energy at the nanoscale, then you also have another tool in the nanoparts box for feeding energy to nanosystems.


How Obama Got Elected


Bulletproof jelly

From the Daily Mail:

On the face of it a layer of orange jelly may not sound the best way to protect a soldier's head from high velocity bullets and shrapnel.

But the British Army's standard-issue combat helmet is set to be upgraded with a liner made from gooey miracle gel, which responds to a sudden impact by locking instantly into a solid form - absorbing huge amounts of energy harmlessly.

Blog to check out

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Obama Adopts Bush Policies IV

Prairie Pundit spots this one:
The Obama White House is not challenging whether a valid claim of "executive privilege" can keep former presidential advisor Karl Rove from testifying in the matter of the U.S. Attorney firings during the Bush Administration.

In a statement provided to CBS News, White House Counsel Gregory Craig says Pres. Obama is "very sympathetic to those who want to find out what happened."

But at the same time, Craig makes it clear that Mr. Obama is not disputing the claim of privilege.

"He is also mindful as president of the United States not to do anything that would undermine or weaken the institution of the presidency," Craig says in the statement.


Guarding against molesters

I am often asked how we can protect our children. There is no magic formula for identifying a molester. There may be clues, but they are not foolproof. We cannot prove a negative. We can prove a person is a child molester. We cannot prove he is not. But Ann, let me expand on what you have said. I know you have been attacked for your chapter on single mothers and of course, there are exceptions to most rules, but single moms (and married moms and dads) let me give one piece of advice that Ann didn't render. Based upon my three year affiliation with these child molesters, I observed one thing: Not one boy who came from a home with a strong, loving father figure was successfully targeted by a persuasion predator.

Protection may be that simple...a boy needs a loving father.Read the column at Big Hollywood and the full story of his three years as a NAMBLA member in The Last Undercover.

America's fastest growing religion

Wicca is growing faster than the "Big Three" religions.
One expert claims that the number of Wiccan experts is doubling every 30 months. A recent book entitled "Generation Hex" by author Marla Alupoaicei declares that it will be the third largest religion of faith by the year 2012. This explosion of membership in Wicca has come about because of social estrangement, loneliness and the need to belong according to Dillon Burroughs co-author of the book. Although the West Coast and Salem, Massachussets is experiencing the most rapid growth, groups can be found all over the country, including the South and Mountain states.

About this piece, Gateway Pundit says,

...They sound like another solid Democratic voting block.

Well, for the most part, they are.  Most converts to the neo-pagan movement are alienated from the dominant religion in this country, and reject it without thought.  To the extent that the Republican Party is seen as the party of the Religious Right, it will drive away this bloc.

Creationism and Politics

Randy Barnett at the Volokh Conspiracy notes:
Now let me be VERY clear about this:
  1. If this is all that is meant by "creationism" there would be no electoral issue; but
  2. There is absolutely no reason why THIS position would be taught in schools at all, much less in science classs; so
  3. To the extent these 3 Republican governors ARE ON THE PUBLIC RECORD favoring teaching creationism or "intelligent design" in public schools as a "perspective," they are endorsing a position that goes way beyond what these writers are describing; nevertheless
  4. I believe in giving these politicians the benefit of the doubt on these issues--I am certainly not gunning for them, I am sincerely disappointed to hear that this may be their views, and I hope this is a mischaracterization of their views; however
  5. Obfuscation will not get this done--they will not receive the benefit of the doubt as presidential candidates; and
  6. Wishing will not make make the coalition that is the Republican Party hold together, much less get the party past 50% of the electorate; but
  7. I am not expressing my own preferences--if such a candidate happens to be nominated who is good on enough of the issues I care about and has executive experience and skills *I* may well be hoping he or she wins; but I am nevertheless confident that
  8. A Republican candidate who is an avowed adherent to creationism will not be elected President of the United States; of course
  9. I could be wrong about this; but
  10. PLEASE do NOT put this to the test by running this electoral experiment; so
  11. If your favorite candidate is on record favoring creationism as science to be taught in government schools, he or she has sunk already himself on the national political scene whether you like it or not. Better find another candidate.

 And this is going to be one of those topics where ignorance is no excuse.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Anti-creationist conservative blogs

At Little Green Footballs.

And I've added a link to mine in the comments.

.....And thanks for the link!

Neanderthal rights?

Ronald Bailey looks at the ethical questions that will pop up when Neanderthal Man is cloned.
Once the Neanderthal genome is complete, could it then be used to clone an actual Neanderthal? Harvard University biologist George Church thinks so. He told The New York Times that a Neanderthal could be brought to life using present technology for about $30 million.
A good rule of thumb:  If something can be done, sooner or later, it will be done. Then what?
Will Neanderthals be considered human?
What rights would they have? One way to approach the question is to ask if Neanderthals would be able to make and keep moral commitments. One significant clue that they might have this ability is the fact their genomes have the same version of the FOXP2 gene that we do. Our variant of that gene is necessary for articulate speech. The human (both modern and Neanderthal) FOXP2 gene differs from that found in chimps and most other primates by two changes in its genetic sequence. The fact that Neanderthals carried the same version means that it is possible that they could talk and might have been able to make and keep promises. If Neanderthals had this ability it strongly suggests that they would merit the same moral consideration that we give to our fellow human beings. If they can speak, there's a good chance that they can also demand rights.
Archaeological evidence also indicates that Neanderthals behaved in ways similar to modern humans. They controlled fire, wore clothing, made and used tools, and buried their dead. In addition, they physically developed in much the same way as we do. Like modern humans, Neanderthal infants were born with relatively large brains and took a long time to mature into adults. Some researchers believe that modern humans and Neanderthals could interbreed. Does the future hold inter-species nuptials?

So what if we bring back Neanderthals and it turns out that their intellectual capacities are so dissimilar from ours that they cannot cope successfully with modern life? Should we control their fertility so that they go extinct again? This comes uncomfortably close to the eugenic arguments used to justify sterilizing people who were deemed mentally defective in the 20th century. Or perhaps Neanderthals could be placed in reservations where they would be allowed to develop without further interference from modern humans. Would this be akin to confining them to a zoo?

And indeed, if their intellectual capacities are that much lower than ours, would they become a slave class?  One of the justifications for slavery in the American South was that blacks were inferior and needed to be managed for their own good.  How much more tempting to make that case when it's actually true?
We may stand on principle and refuse to create an underclass, but I can imagine a rich dictator thinking the creation of a permanent slave class would be just the thing for his empire.
Anything that can be done will be done.
By someone.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Creationism: Undoing the GOP?

From Little Green Footballs:

For reference, I'm not the only blogger who believes that the GOP's association with creationism is one of the factors that caused massive losses in the last two elections; Randy Barnett at the Volokh Conspiracy: This is Not Good.

I heard a dictum once: Everyone's allowed to be wrong about one thing.  But so many conservatives have picked a real doozy.

Darwin the Lightning Rod

Dafydd at Big Lizards ponders the reaction conservatives in general (and Michael Medved in particular) have to Charles Darwin.

I didn't realize Medved's real purpose, however, until the third time in the same hour that Medved brought out that "startling" fact (in case anyone had missed all but he final ten minutes of the segment) – this time in response to a black caller who said the New York Post cartoon of the bullet-riddled corpse of Travis the Chimp, with the caption "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill," clearly played to the latent racism of American society: Medved believes the nineteenth-century racism of Darwin completely discredits evolutionary theory.

How could he think that? What would Darwin's racism have to do with the validity of modern evolutionary theory? We all agree that William Shockley supported eugenics (he doesn't appear to have been a racist, but eugenics is bad enough); does that mean transistors don't really work?

I believe the problem is that Medved either doesn't understand the scientific method, or more dastardly, understands it but hopes to confuse his listeners for purely tendentious reasons. He never discusses "evolutionary theory," "biological evolution," or even just evolution; he invariably refers to that entire subject as "Darwinism," and he conflates biological evolution with "social Darwinism," generally, though somewhat inaccurately, identified with eugenics. Medved doesn't see "Darwinism" as a scientific theory but rather a cult of personality, like Scientology, the Branch Davidians, or Jim Jones' People's Temple in Guyana. Thus to Medved, the best way to "discredit" evolutionary theory is to smear Charles Darwin. There, that'll put paid to all this nonsense!


This particular rhetorical trick is quintessentially liberal, though sadly, it's used by all sides: It's "Fruit of the Forbidden Tree" Reductionism (FFTR). The Left uses it almost to the exclusion of all other arguments. It consists in first reducing an entire argument, school of thought, philosophy, or movement to a single "founding" individual... then personally smearing that individual, thus "discrediting" the entire movement.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Felonious Monkey

It's all over the blogosphere.  Here's the take at Reason's "Hit and Run" blog:

News disappears

The Anchoress reports on a case of the Incredible Disappearing News Story.

Race cowards

John Hawkins examines why there's so little honest dialog about race.

All the news that's fit to print.....

One week too late, the New York Times has finally published a story on the brutal beheading of Aasiya Hassan by her husband, owner of a TV network dedicated to proving that Islam is, indeed moderate, a faith that's ready for prime time in a civilized world.
As has been mentioned, if it had been a Christian stealing from the collection plate, never mind banging an altar boy, it would have been all over the papers.
Of course, Christians don't rise up and threaten to behead their critics.  So maybe Eric Holder's right, and we are a nation of cowards.

Voters' Remorse

Laer, at Cheat-Seeking Missiles, has another example of Obama Voters' Remorse (OVR):

My inside-the-beltway mom and former ambassador step-dad are visiting, and much as I love them (unquatifiably), I was fearing the visit.  Politics of course.  It seemed I just couldn't prepare myself for them being all bouncy and bright about how great Obama is; how could I bite my tongue and not show my fear, disgust and anger over the course Rahmbama is steering, the actions they've taken?

But a curious thing happened.  My mom is terribly disappointed in her rock star candidate, and worried about the future. Paraphrasing:

"We had such hope for him.  Of course we thought anything would be better after Bush, and he had such promise.  He was what America needed, half black, half white, with a message of hope that was so well delivered."

Now she's terribly worried about the long-term effect the stimulus spending bill will have on America's economy and strength, she's disgusted with how it was rushed through without meaningful public or Congressional debate and she is appalled by his desire to move the Census to the White House.

How many folks across America are having the same rude awakening, do you suppose?  How many are shaking their heads and asking themselves, "How could I have been so foolish?"  And no, I did not say, "I told you so."  This is my mom, folks!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Wal Mart

Some people, usually community activists, loath Wal-Mart. Others, like the family of four struggling to make ends meet, are in love with the chain. I, meanwhile, am in awe of it.


Getting hired turned out to be a challenge. The personnel manager told me she had received more than 100 applications during that month alone, chasing just a handful of jobs. Thus the mystery deepened. If Wal-Mart was such an exploiter of the working poor, why were the working poor so eager to be exploited? And after they were hired, why did they seem so happy to be there? Anytime I shopped at the store, blue-clad Walmartians encouraged me to "Have a nice day" with the sincerity of the pope issuing a benediction.


A week later, I found myself in an elite group of 10 successful applicants convening for two (paid) days of training in the same claustrophobic, windowless room. As we introduced ourselves, I discovered that more than half had already worked at other Wal-Marts. Having relocated to this area, they were eager for more of the same.

Why? Gradually the answer became clear. Imagine that you are young and relatively unskilled, lacking academic qualifications. Which would you prefer: standing behind the register at a local gas station, or doing the same thing in the most aggressively successful retailer in the world, where ruthless expansion is a way of life, creating a constant demand for people to fill low-level managerial positions? A future at Wal-Mart may sound a less-than-stellar prospect, but it's a whole lot better than no future at all.


And so we came to the Wal-Mart Pledge. Solemnly, each of us raised one hand and intoned: "If a customer comes within 10 feet of me, I'm going to look him in the eye, smile and greet him." Having pledged ourselves, we encountered the aspect of Wal-Mart employment that impressed me most: The Telxon, pronounced "Telzon," a hand-held bar-code scanner with a wireless connection to the store's computer. When pointed at any product, the Telxon would reveal astonishing amounts of information: the quantity that should be on the shelf, the availability from the nearest warehouse, the retail price, and (most amazing of all) the markup.

All of us were given access to this information, because - in theory, at least - anyone in the store could order a couple extra pallets of anything, and could discount it heavily as a Volume Producing Item (known as a VPI), competing with other departments to rack up the most profitable sales each month. Floor clerks even had portable equipment to print their own price stickers. This was how Wal-Mart detected demand and responded to it: by distributing decision-making power to grass-roots level. It was as simple yet as radical as that.


My starting wage was so low (around $7 per hour), a modest increment still didn't leave me with enough to live on comfortably, but when I looked at the alternatives, many of them were worse. Coworkers assured me that the nearest Target paid its hourly full-timers less than Wal-Mart, while fast-food franchises were at the bottom of everyone's list.

I found myself reaching an inescapable conclusion. Low wages are not a Wal-Mart problem. They are an industry-wide problem, afflicting all unskilled entry-level jobs, and the reason should be obvious.

In our free-enterprise system, employees are valued largely in terms of what they can do. This is why teenagers fresh out of high school often go to vocational training institutes to become auto mechanics or electricians. They understand a basic principle that seems to elude social commentators, politicians and union organizers. If you want better pay, you need to learn skills that are in demand.


To my mind, the real scandal is not that a large corporation doesn't pay people more. The scandal is that so many people have so little economic value. Despite (or because of) a free public school system, millions of teenagers enter the work force without marketable skills. So why would anyone expect them to be well paid?

In fact, the deal at Wal-Mart is better than at many other employers. The company states that its regular full-time hourly associates in the US average $10.86 per hour, while the mean hourly wage for retail sales associates in department stores generally is $8.67. The federal minimum wage is $6.55 per hour. Also every Wal-Mart employee gets a 10% store discount, while an additional 4% of wages go into profit-sharing and 401(k) plans.


The argument, of course, is that smaller enterprises cannot compete. My outlook on this is hardcore: I think that many of the "mom-and-pop" stores so beloved by activists don't deserve to remain in business.

When I first ventured from New York City to the American heartland, I did my best to patronize quaint little places on Main Street and quickly discovered the penalties for doing so. At a small appliance store, I wasn't allowed to buy a microwave oven on display. I had to place an order and wait a couple of weeks for delivery. At a stationery store where I tried to buy a file cabinet, I found the same problem. Think back, if you are old enough to do so, and you may recall that this is how small-town retailing used to function in the 1960s.

As a customer, I don't see why I should protect a business from the harsh realities of commerce if it can't maintain a good inventory at a competitive price. And as an employee, I see no advantage in working at a small place where I am subject to the quixotic moods of a sole proprietor, and can never appeal to his superior, because there isn't one.

By the same logic, I see no reason for legislators to protect Safeway supermarkets with ploys such as zoning restrictions, which just happen to allow a supermarket-sized building while outlawing a Wal-Mart SuperCenter that's a few thousand square feet bigger.

Based on my experience (admittedly, only at one location) I reached a conclusion which is utterly opposed to almost everything ever written about Wal-Mart. I came to regard it as one of the all-time enlightened American employers, right up there with IBM in the 1960s. Wal-Mart is not the enemy. It's the best friend we could ask for.

Now I feel even less guilty about shopping at Wal-Mart (if that's even possible).  I live about fifteen minutes away from three different stores, and I'm a regular customer. 

neat links


Inside Gitmo

Monday, February 09, 2009

Will and Darwin

George Will at

WASHINGTON -- "Descended from the apes!" exclaimed the wife of the bishop of Worcester. "Let us hope that it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known."

An American majority resists such an annoying notion, endorsing the proposition that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years." Still, evolution is a fact and its mechanism is natural selection: Creatures with variations especially suited to their environmental situation have more descendants than do less well-adapted creatures.

And the point he makes is, Congress is passing bills trying to outlaw natural selection. The Endangered Species Act attempts to protect threatened species against both artificial and natural threats to their existence.

(And it's interesting to see the storm of comments railing against evolution.  Guys, that's not his point.)

Friday, February 06, 2009

What's the harm?

Linked from Hit and Run, a website which lays out bad consequences stemming from belief in various things, ranging from acupuncture to numerology to UFOs (most of the site documents deaths related to stupid or anti-scientific systems of thought.

Friend o ' Reason Penn Jillette talks up the very interesting website What's the Harm?, which lays out bad consequences stemming from belief in various things, ranging from acupuncture to numerology to UFOs (most of the site documents deaths related to stupid or anti-scientific systems of thought.

When protesters chase the police

Peter Hitchens has a post on the reluctance of the police to exert control over Islamist demonstrators.  Read the whole thing.

Israel and Christian morality

Alan Dershowitz writes at Front Page Magazine:

An essential aspect of Christian teaching, and especially of Catholic teaching, is the important principle that distingusihes between intentionally killing an innocent person, and unintentionally killing an innocent person in the process of legitimately trying to prevent harm to one's self or others. This concept, known as the principle of double effect, is central to Catholic theology. It traces its roots to Thomas Aquinas and has had enormous influence on moral thinking not only within the Catholic Church, but throughout Christianity and indeed in the secular world as well. Understanding and complying with this principle may literally mean the difference between eternal damnation and eternal salvation. That's how important it is.

Except, apparently, when it comes to the Jewish state of Israel. Then suddenly moral blindness makes it impossible for church authorities to see, understand or apply this principle. Cardinal Martino is not the first church leader to try to create moral equivalence between the actions of Hamas in willfully and proudly trying to kill as many Jewish children, women and other civilians as possible, and the actions of the Israeli Defense Forces in trying to stop them from killing Jewish children, while inadvertently killing some Palestinian civilians who are used as human shields by Hamas. The Pope himself has been guilty of invoking such moral equivalence between these very different actions. Indeed it is fair to say that the Vatican's entire approach to the Israel-Hamas conflict has been to suggest a false moral equivalence.

Church leaders know better. They understand precisely what they are doing. They are making utilitarian, pragmatic and very anti-Catholic cynical judgments calculated to bolster the influence of The Church in the Middle East. It might be understandable for secular nations to act in so amoral, if not immoral, a manner, but it is entirely unacceptable for the Catholic church, which eschews utilitarianism and preaches moral consistency and absolutism to act in so cynical a way.


This abuse of great Christian teaching is not limited to the Catholic church. Bill Moyers and Jimmy Carter both hold themselves out as exemplary Protestants, whose morality drives from the teachings of Jesus. Yet they too create false moral equivalence between willful murder, and self-defense that sometimes results in accidental killings because Hamas deliberately uses human shields in order to make it impossible for Israel to defend its own civilians without occasionally killing Palestinian civilians. How else could one read Moyers statement that what Israel did "was exactly what terrorists do." Exactly? Well not exactly! Not even close. As different as anything could be based on principles that Moyers' espouses in other contexts. Listen to a leading military expert—retired British Colonel Richard Kemp—who concluded, based on his extensive experience, that there has been "no time in the history of warfare when an Army has made more efforts to reduce civilian casualties…than [the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza]." Is that "exactly what terrorists do," Mr. Moyers?

Jimmy Carter is even worse. He doesn't even see moral equivalence. He blames everything on Israel. Jimmy Carter should look in the mirror more often and he will see that he himself bears much of the blame for the death and destruction that he deplores. In his book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, he says it would have been "suicidal" for Yasser Arafat to accept the generous offer made by Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak at Camp David in Taba. Remember that that offer included independent statehood for the Palestinian people on all of the Gaza and 97% of the West Bank, an end to all Jewish settlements, no checkpoints, a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and a $35 billion refugee reparation package.

Think for a moment of what Carter is saying when he warns that any Palestinian leader who might accept such an offer would be assassinated. What is he saying about the Palestinian people? That they will never accept peace without violence? That they will always kill their leaders who make peace with Israel, as the Muslim brotherhood murdered Anwar Sadat of Egypt, and as Muslim extremists killed the first King Abdullah of Jordan. Whether he advised Yassir Arafat before the fact to reject the Camp David offer, which the evidence strongly suggests, or whether he is merely making that suggestions to future Palestinian leaders, he has clearly become a barrier to peace. If he in fact told Arafat to reject the offer, then he is an important contributing cause to the current crisis.

The sad reality is that religious doctrines are as easily manipulated by cynical churchmen as anything Thomas Bentham ever proposed in the name of utilitarianism.

Bill Moyers ended a letter to the New York Times in which he defended his moral equivalency statement by saying that to be indifferent to suffering is "to be as blind as Sampson in Gaza." No, Mr. Moyers, to be indifferent to the crucial difference between what terrorists do, namely try to kill as many civilians as possible from behind human shields, and what democracies such as Israel and the United States do, namely try to stop terrorists from killing with the minimum possible injury to civilians, is truly to be "eyeless in Gaza."


But Abu Ghraib was TRUE evil

(Hat tip: Clayton Cramer)

Islamic terrorists are raping young men in order to drive them into suicide bombings.

The Sun quotes Algerian militant Abu Ba├žir El Assimi:

"The sexual act on young recruits aged between 16 to 19 was a means to urge them to commit suicide operations."

The paper claims that "intense social stigma and fear of more gay sex attacks leaves Muslims prepared to die."

Rape and homosexual acts are punishable by death under Sharia law.

A suspected terrorist bomber killed in an attempted attack on a security installation in the Tizi Ouzou province of Algeria last month may have been raped, an autopsy revealed.

On the other hand, if they'd been made to wear underwear on their heads, who knows what they might have been driven to do.

Quote Mining

Charles Johnson has an example of the Creationist tactic known as "quote mining".

When the Texas State Board of Education met to consider a draft of their new science standards (tainted with the influence of the Discovery Institute, who managed to plant two DI shills on the panel), board chairman Don McLeroy—a young earth creationist—read into the record a long list of quotes to support his anti-evolution proposals.

Would you be shocked to learn that every single one of these quotes was distorted, made up, altered, or radically out of context? This dishonest creationist tactic is so common that it has a name: "quote mining."

And here's a great website that exposes the deceptiveness of McLeroy's quotes, by showing exactly where they came from (if they weren't altogether invented), and the context in which they were made: Collapse of a Texas Quote Mine.

Here's one example, out of many:

Quote as presented by McLeroy

"...natural selection operates essentially to enable the organisms to maintain their state of adaptation rather than to improve it." Lewontin, Richard C., Adaptation, Scientific American (and Scientific American book Evolution), September 1978

(The point being made here is, "Evolution doesn't create new species -- all it does is produce minor changes in existing species.")

Additional Context

"Van Valen's theory [the Red Queen hypothesis] is that the environment is constantly decaying with respect to existing organism, so that natural selection operates essentially to enable the organisms to maintain their state of adaptation rather than to improve it. Evidence from the Red Queen hypothesis comes from an examination of extinction rates in a large number of evolutionary lines. If natural selection were actually improving the fit of organisms to their environments, then we might expect the probability that a species will become extinct in the next time period to be less for species that have already been in existence for a long time, since the long-lived species are presumably the ones that have been improved by natural selection. The data show, however, that the probability of extinction of a species appears to be a constant, characteristic of the group to which it belongs but independent of whether that species has been in existence for a long time or a short one. In other words, natural selection over the long run does not seem to improve a species chance of survival but simply enables it to 'track,' or keep up with, the constantly changing environment...There is no way to explain and predict such evolutionary adaptations unless a priori niches can be described on the basis of some physical principles before organisms come to occupy them."

Richard C. Lewontin

Scientific American
Vol. 239, No. 3
Sept. 1978
Page 215

Miller, in his book, Finding Darwin's God writes of how astonished he was when he first discovered the absolute dishonesty of Creationists in making their case.  This is one of the things the general public just doesn't understand about the movement, and a point he doesn't make nearly as often as he should.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Climate and Antarctica

Links to a couple of Ron Bailey's pieces at Reason's Hit and Run blog.
This one is the first hit and run at the Antarctic Warming study.  It presents a chart, based on satellite data, showing the trend in global temperatures has been flat over the past decade.
UAH monthly temperature anomalies
There was a link to the data, suitable for plotting, and I threw together a basic default Excel plot.
Aside from looking like bad abstract art, the main thing I notice is temperatures have risen and fallen over the past three decades.  There's no obvious upward or downward trend.
I did pick three data series -- more or less at random, and have Excel draw trend lines, and you can see they show anything from global warming to global cooling.
In a later post, Bailey looks at the claims and counter-claims, including who first came up with the results.

Justice Ginsberg - bad and good news

Bad news:  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer -- a nasty cancer.
Good news: It was caught early, and with luck, they'll have got it all in the surgery.  Keep fingers crossed.
Although there are no good ways to go, pancreatic cancer is one of the bad ones.  The only point in its favor is it's usually pretty quick.  But I really hope, for her sake and for her family's sake, they got it all.
Besides, I'd like her to hang on until after Obama's term so her replacement can be nominated by a Republican.  :-)

Is it possible not to torture?

This piece over at SCOTUS blog concerns a war crimes trial where charges may be dismissed because of torture.  Not torture committed by U.S. interrogators, or indeed, by anyone associated with the U.S. government at all.

The case, U.S. v. Jawad (CMCR docket 08-4), involves an Afghan national, Mohammed Jawad, who faces war crimes charges before a military commission for allegedly throwing a hand grenade into a military vehicle driving near a crowded marketplace in Kabul, Afghanistan, in December 2002.

At the time, Jawad was somewhere between 15 and 17 years old (his birth date is uncertain).  After being interrogated by Afghan police, he was turned over to U.S. military personnel, who continued the interrogation.  Both periods of questioning produced confessions about the grenade-throwing incident, which seriously injured two U.S. soldiers and their Afghan interpreter.

Jawad's lawyers contend that both confessions were the result of torture — direct threats of death for him and his family by the Afghan police if he did not confess, with those threats causing both rounds of confessions.


Although the judge did not find that U.S. interrogators had themselves used torture on Jawad, Henley concluded that "the effect of the death threats which produced the…first confession to the Afghan police had not dissipated by the second confession to the U.S. government interrogator."  It was up to prosecutors to show that the taint had been removed, and they did not do so, the judge said.

Now, in this case, Jawad could easily feel there was a credible threat against his family, and I don't see any way, short of rounding up all family members and shipping them to a safe house in the U.S., of abating that threat.  One implication of this is that the U.S. military can treat prisoners perfectly properly, and they'll still be tortured, and anything they confess to, again, no matter how "proper" the interrogation techniques used, is tainted.

Executive salary caps

John at Power Line takes a whack at the proposed $500,000 salary cap for executives.

The Obama administration has capped executive compensation at financial companies that get bailout money from the feds at $500,000. Most people probably think this is a good idea. I don't disagree with the concept that taxpayer money shouldn't be sucked up by bonuses for executives in failing companies. Of course, I don't think the government should be investing money in failing companies in the first place.

Beyond that, I have a couple of specific objections. First, a number of banks were forced by the federal government to accept TARP funds that they didn't want. I don't think the government, having bullied those banks into taking unwanted money, should now be in a position to dictate compensation decisions. Second, while $500,000 may sound like a lot of money, the idea that you can find an executive who will competently run a multi-billion dollar enterprise for that salary is a joke. A car dealership in a mid-sized city, yes; Citigroup, no. So Obama's decree is basically grandstanding: it will work only if attractive stock option packages supplement the cash salary.

Another point that should be made is that the federal government lavishly compensates a great many people, far beyond a mere $500,000 salary. But those people are generally smart enough to be contractors of one sort or another, not employees. A reader writes:

A $500,000 cap on salaries? By all means...and let's extend PBS for employee of any contractor to PBS or NPR...which are "substantially" subsidized by the allowed compensation of more than $500,000....
And let's audit them all...they have a cozy arrangement where Bill Moyers, say, as big a left-wing hypocrite as you'll ever find, charges his production company scads of money, literally millions, and the production company simply has a contract with, sure, no salaries....just "production costs" for PBS....Jim Lehrer does the same....the practice is widespread...
In fact, let's have some hearings to determine WHERE there are such unconscionable contracts underwritten by government subsidies.
So by all means....ANY government subsidized enterprise should have the SAME restrictions as the banks....and let's include vendors who are so dependent on government contracts ("substantial") that it amounts to a de facto subsidy....THAT will get some attention...
Or else let the banks do EXACTLY what PBS/NPR does....all the employees will go into several separate "operating companies"...think of them like Bill Moyers...and the banks, which will now be "portfolio companies" will contract with them for management and operations...what the operating and management companies pay their employees is their business....the banks, like PBS/NPR would just have contract expenses for management and operations.

The truth is that there are a great many people who make salaries far exceeding $500,000 through contracts or contacts with the federal government. As the Tom Daschle case shows, $500,000 is chump change for a well-connected Democrat--the party of the rich--in DC. So if we're going to start an inquiry into whom our tax dollars are ultimately enriching, by all means--let the investigation begin!

A phrase about geese and ganders comes to mind.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Science, Religion, and Us

In this post, I'm going to offer a lengthier comment on Jim Manzi's post.

I sent the letter below to Jim, and he graciously responded, for which I thank him. I think the main problem I had with his treatment of "randomness" was where he seemed to imply that processes such as mutation and crossing over were pseudo-random, and thus ultimately deterministic. In fact, in all of these, there is at least one component that is random. This is true randomness, and not in any way deterministic.

In our exchange, we were willing to stipulate that these processes incorporated steps that were truly random by any reasonable definition. I won't belabor this point, at least not with him. If you, gentle reader, have any questions, I'll be happy to take them up in another post.

The point Coyne was making, and that Jim Manzi differed over, had to do with the "inevitability" of the development of humanoid intelligence. First of all, I had some problems with the term "humanoid" until I found this definition:

Giberson and Miller assert that the evolution of humans, or something very like them, was inevitable. Given the way that evolution works, they claim, it was certain that the animal kingdom would eventually work its way up to a species that was conscious, highly intelligent, and above all, capable of apprehending and worshipping its creator. This species did not have to look perfectly human, but it did have to have our refined mentality (call it "humanoid"). One of Miller's chapters is even titled "The World That Knew We Were Coming." Giberson notes that "capabilities like vision and intelligence are so valuable to organisms that many, if not most biologists believe they would probably arise under any normal evolutionary process.... So how can evolution be entirely random, if certain sophisticated end points are predictable?"

A "humanoid" intelligence is an intelligence capable of the kinds of reasoning, analysis, and insight we humans are capable of, whether it happens to live in the body of a Vulcan, a Pierson's Puppeteer, or a Mesklinite. In other words, a "humanoid" intelligence is an intelligence a human could, in principle, converse with. (Coyne seems not to consider this aspect of the definition. Later in the article, he appears to get hung up on "humanoid" as meaning "human-shaped" -- like the aliens in most of the Star Trek and Babylon 5 episodes.)

So, are humanoid intelligences inevitable? Giberson thinks a humanoid form of intelligence increases fitness enough that on a life-bearing planet, some creature would develop it sooner or later. It might well be. And to be sure, there are a number of creatures on this planet that have at least some of the rudiments of intelligence. Apes, for example, can recognize themselves in a mirror, which is more than dogs and cats can do.

However, there are lots of different creatures on this planet, and intelligence is pretty rare. For that matter, 99% of all creatures that have ever existed on this planet are extinct. That means at least 100 times the number of different creatures that exist on Earth right now have existed in the past. Of those countless different species, how many have developed a "humanoid" intelligence? As near as we can tell, the answer is one.

And it took some 3 1/2 billion years for that one to arise. Maybe that's the average amount of time it takes. Maybe we were late, and intelligence crops up fairly early. (Maybe intelligence was delayed 65 million years by an asteroid strike.) Or, maybe we were early. If we were too early, planets won't last long enough on average for a humanoid intelligence to arise.

Maybe humanoid intelligence is inevitable, in the same way anything is inevitable, if you try forever.

Coyne is not the only one who points out that we're not inevitable. Stephen Jay Gould raises the same case over and over, pointing out that if we rewound the history of life to the beginning and let it run forward again, there's no reason why any of the creatures we see today would evolve again. I, with my genetic makeup, am improbable almost beyond belief. If you ran history forward from my parents getting together, there's one chance in 70 trillion that I'd have the genetic makeup I wound up with. Similarly, there's no reason why the human species should have evolved from its ape-like ancestors. And there's no reason why mammals should have evolved from reptiles, and so on. The entire history of life could have been completely different.

Is intelligence inevitable? All we know is it developed once.

Coyne also looks at the "fine tuning" argument. "Fine tuning" is basically the argument that if certain aspects of the universe had been just so slightly different, life could not have arisen. Imagining, somehow, that some intelligent entity had access to a set of dials where the physical constants of the universe could be adjusted, this entity adjusted the physical laws of the universe so that life could exist.

Alternative notions are of two basic kinds. First, we have the multiple universes theory, saying that untold numbers of universes have come into being, each with a different set of physical laws. If you allow for the existence of infinite numbers of alternate universes, then there are an infinite number of universes with laws just like the laws in this one.

The other proposition is that the physical laws of the universe don't have as much "elbow room" as the fine-tuning advocates think. The "fine-tuning" argument assumes getting some aspect of the universe just right is a long shot. The fine-tuning argument assumes a wide range around the "right" value, so a randomly-set physical law has lots of room to miss that target. Maybe it's actually missing that's a long shot. Maybe the allowable range is much smaller, and hitting the target is a lot easier.

Ultimately, though, we always have the problem of infinite regress. If it turns out that there's actually no "elbow room", and no other set of physical laws is possible, we can always ask about whatever rules constrained physical laws in that way. Where did those rules come from? Did someone design them, or are they somehow the result of other rules? It seems, no matter how far back you imagine the process going, it seems each step has two choices -- the rules are the result of some earlier rules, or they were designed by some intelligent being. Either there's a designer, or "it's rules all the way down".

Actually, there is a third alternative.

When a designer is invoked, smart alecs will ask who designed the designer. The answer is that the designer is eternal, and needed no beginning. Well, you can say the same thing about the rules. The underlying rules of the universe need not have arisen in the big bang. They could have predated it, and the big bang could have unfolded in perfect accord with those rules.

Now granted, the rules we know about need not be the underlying rules. Cosmology assumes any number of things may have changed as the universe cooled down after the big bang. Maybe the physical constants of the universe arose as the result of laws that exist in the pre-big bang universe, and those laws are eternal.

In this case, the choice is between an eternal, pre-existing creator, and eternal, pre-existing laws. As a scientist, I don't know how to tell which choice is true. As a religionist, I believe, without scientific proof, that there is a creator.

I have no way to prove it, but I'm OK with that.


From the Daily Mail, an article about children suffering from lack of parents.

Organic frankenfoods?

Ronald Bailey at Reason Magazine argues that genetically modified foods actually promote the goals of the organic food movement.

Top blogs

This might be worth some meme-age.  Which of the top 100 blogs do you read?

Meme: Which of the top 100 do you follow?

1 The Huffington Post
2 The Corner
3 Political Ticker
4 Think Progress
5 Political Punch
6 The Daily Dish
7 Michelle Malkin
8 The Caucus
9 Talking Points Memo
10 NewsBusters
11 fivethirtyeight
12 Political Radar
13 Firedoglake
14 Daily Kos
15 Political Animal
16 Power Line
17 Crooks and Liars
18 Washington Wire
19 AMERICAblog
20 Red State
21 Swampland
22 The Plank
23 Marginal Revolution
24 The Volokh Conspiracy
25 Lynn Sweet
26 Balloon Juice
27 Eschaton
28 Instapundit
29 Michael Goldfarb - The Blog
30 The Blog
31 The Jawa Report
32 Reason Magazine - Hit & Run
33 Stop the ACLU
34 Atlas Shrugs
35 The Next Right
36 iowahawk
37 Wonkette
38 Political Wire
39 Patterico's Pontifications
40 Ross Douthat
41 MyDD
42 Obama HQ
43 TalkLeft
44 The Hotline on Call
45 Political Intelligence
46 forward movement
47 The Obama-Biden Transition Team
48 Confederate Yankee
49 JammieWearingFool
50 Jihad Watch
51 Outside the Beltway
52 Sweetness & Light
53 Oliver Willis
54 The Brad Blog
55 Riehl World View
56 FP Passport
57 David Frum's Diary
58 The Washington Note
59 JustOneMinute
60 The Sleuth
61 QandO
62 The Real Clear Politics Blog
63 Don Surber
64 DownWithTyranny!
65 Say Anything
66 Debbie Schlussel
68 Flopping Aces
69 The Club for Growth
72 YID With LID
73 Moonbattery
74 The Strata-Sphere
75 Redstate
76 The Belmont Club
77 Gay Patriot
78 Mother, May I Sleep with Treacher?
79 Michael J. Totten
80 The Radio Equalizer: Brian Maloney
81 The Buzz Florida Politics
82 Rightwing Nuthouse
83 Soccer Dad
84 Sister Toldjah
85 Jack and Jill Politics
86 The LRC Blog
87 The Sideshow
88 Burnt Orange Report
89 HorsesAss.Org
90 Wake Up America
91 Raising Kaine
92 Donklephant
93 The Nation Blogs
94 Right Truth
95 Naked Politics
96 neo-neocon
97 American Power
98 Roger L. Simon
99 Classical Values
100 Rising Hegemon

Science and Randomness

Jim Manzi has a post at NRO which I mostly agree with, but I think he makes a fundamental error regarding randomness.  So I sent him this:

Greetings, Jim!

I'm going to take issue with a point in this post at The Corner, Science and Religion in The New Republic. For the most part, I agree with you, but I think you have a few points wrong.

Coyne's demonstration that we know that humanoid consciousness could not have been inevitable because evolution is "contingent," and depends on "unpredictable changes" and "random physical events" is an attempt to sweep a lot under the rug. In fact, even the "random" elements of evolution—for example, mutation and crossover—are really pseudo-random. For example, if a specific mutation is caused by radiation hitting a nucleotide, both the radiation and its effect on the nucleotide are governed by normal physical laws. Human uncertainty in describing the evolutionary path that results, which as a practical matter we refer to as randomness, is reducible entirely to the impracticality of building a model that comprehensively considers things such as the idiosyncratic path of every photon in the universe compounded by the quantum-mechanistic uncertainty present in fundamental physical laws that govern the motion of such particles. As a practical matter, we lack the capability to compute either a goal or the path of evolution, but that is a comment about our limitations as observers, not about the evolutionary algorithm itself.

I think it's an error to describe the events in evolution as "pseudo-random". The term "pseudo-random" shows up in computer science, especially with respect to programs designed to generate "random" numbers. An example of this is the RAND() function available in Microsoft Excel. This function generates a random-looking number every time it is called. The number is not really random, because the underlying computer program is deterministic. As a result, among other things, the sequence of numbers the function generates will eventually repeat. A good pseudo-random generator is one where the numbers generated pass various statistical tests for randomness. That is, until they do start repeating, they "look random enough".

Other phenomena in nature actually are random. In particular, quantum events -- any which involve quantum mechanical effects -- cannot be predicted, even in principle. If you build a quantum mechanical random number generator (very simple), the numbers generated will be random, and the sequence will never repeat. Ever.

Taking up the example of a mutation caused by radiation hitting a nucleotide, yes, it's true that radiation obeys physical laws. And yes, it's true that a nucleotide altered by radiation obeys certain physical laws. However, the interaction of radiation with a nucleotide is a quantum-mechanical event and whether it happens at any given time to any given nucleotide depends on the probability that a quantum-mechanical wave function will collapse when radiation meets molecule. In effect, when radiation passes by a nucleotide, dice are rolled. If the dice come up one number, the radiation passes on without having any effect. If another number comes up, the radiation interacts with the nucleotide. And because of the laws of quantum mechanics, there is no way, even in principle of predicting which number will come up.

And believe me, lots of very determined and very resourceful people have looked.

Single mothers -- by choice

In this week's NY Times magazine, Emily Bazelon wrote about older, college-educated women who have children and remain single by choice.  Bazelon seem to be arguing, in part, that the mothers' determination not even to try to marry results in a reduced chance that children will experience the damaging "instability" elicited by divorces or break-ups.
But what Bazelon's piece underplays completely the inherent value of having a father in one's life -- one who is committed to a child's mother through, yes, the traditional institution of marriage. 

Market failure, government failure, and meltdowns

At Distributed Republic. Worth reading.

This suggests to me a considerable degree of confusion regarding how markets work, when they don't, and when we can expect government to do better. Hopefully I can shed a bit of light on these issues.

Market failure is a real phenomenon. But it's a phenomenon that's fairly well understood. Markets tend to fail in predictable, well-defined ways. Specifically, they tend to fail in situations where people have an incentive to act in ways that produce large negative externalities, or lack incentive to act in ways that produce large positive externalities.


This time, a bunch of really smart people acted in ways that were—in retrospect, at least—very clearly contrary to their own self-interest. And in the process they ended up screwing themselves over. If you're not confused by this, you're either better informed than I am (and I humbly request that you enlighten me with a comment), or you're not paying attention.

When a bunch of a really smart people fail to look out for their own self-interest, this isn't something that can obviously be fixed by more regulation. Politicians and bureaucrats aren't any smarter than the people on Wall Street. And they clearly don't have nearly as strong an incentive to prevent financial institutions from going broke as do the people whose money is actually on the line. [Emphasis added]

Note: "This isn't something that can obviously be fixed by more regulation". 
When people blame the melt-down on "deregulation" or lack of oversight, I'd like them to specify which regulations would have prevented it.  What precise actions should have been required, and from whom, that would have stopped the melt-down?  Or alternatively, what precise actions should have been prevented?
If a critic of "deregulation" can't specify a specific action, he can't make the case that lack of regulation is to blame.

Human Rights and the U.N.

Ilya Somin looks at the effect the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights has had on human rights. He doesn't think very much of it.

My overall verdict on the Universal Declaration is far more negative than Sen's. Some of the rights enumerated in the Declaration are eminently defensible, such as the right of freedom of association. These, however, are offset by the Declaration's more dubious articles, such as Articles 7 and 29 (which undercuts the impact of the Declaration's beneficial provisions by giving states easy justifications for their violation). I would not say that the Universal Declaration has had a significant negative impact on human rights. But Sen's claims of a massive positive impact are at best greatly overstated.


Where's Obama?

Kentucky is paralyzed by an ice storm, people are cold and hungry, and where's Obama?

And think of the optics: What was our president doing while Kentuckians were shivering in the dark? Why, basking in the "warm enough to grow orchids" White House and enjoying hundred-dollar steaks while watching the Superbowl in the White House theater. He hasn't even traveled to the disaster scene to observe the damage and offer his full support to the suffering Americans.

If George W. Bush's handling of Katrina was really such an executive catastrophe, then President Obama's indifference to the suffering of Kentuckians is unforgivable. But since no one is objecting this time around, what does that say about the motives behind the outrage over Katrina?


Rush Derangement Syndrome

(No, not Limbaugh Derangement Syndrome -- there's more than one Limbaugh offering conservative punditry, and besides, LDS is in use for something else.)
An interesting point has to do with the contempt the Party Elites have for Rush. 

One aspect of Rush Derangement Syndrome I didn't have more room to cover in the piece was the contempt for Rush and talk radio among Beltway establishment Republicans and elitists on the center/Right. I've blogged extensively about talk radio-bashing hypocrites such as P.J. O'Rourke, Phil Gramm, Lindsay "Go away, Loud Folks" Graham, and Trent Lott. I asked Rush to diagnose their pathology. "I think they all crave acceptance and inclusion in the dominant political and social cultures of Washington, which is run by the Left. They fastest way to do that is to be critical of their own party. This gets them loving treatment in 'important' New York/Washington media circles," he said.

On-target diagnosis. I would add two more etiological factors.

1) Rush is not an Ivy Leaguer with an East Coast, Mayflower pedigree. He's a self-made entrepreneur who pulled no strings and owes no Beltway benefactors for his success. The same, self-styled intellectual protectors of conservatism in the Manhattan-Bethesda corridor who derided outsider Sarah Palin have always derided Rush Limbaugh for the same reasons: They're not one of "us."

I've noted the ugly, anti-capitalist rhetoric used by Rush-bashers like Obama's demagogic smear ad during the presidential campaign. He's using it in responding to the Soros/MoveOn smear ad. And he'll be using it to spread the message of fiscal conservatism to fight the wealth-distributionism agenda of both the White House and the Bend Over Republicans.

A confession

Michelle Malkin spotted this on a website called "Post Secret", where people can post their postcard-sized confessions...
As she points out, there's always Rush Limbaugh.

Monday, February 02, 2009

About that "stimulus"

This piece at the Weekly Standard blog cites AP as saying:

They call it "stimulus" legislation, but the economic measures racing through Congress would devote tens of billions of dollars to causes that have little to do with jolting the country out of recession.

Go ahead. Beat up on Rush

Rush is the one who gains in this exchange.

These attacks achieve three things:

#1) They elevate Rush Limbaugh's status and draw more people to his show to see what all the fuss is about -- which is bad for liberals because Rush is very good at what he does. Just to name one example, I am a conservative today in large part because I started listening to Rush Limbaugh in my college years.

#2) They actually make it less likely that the Fairness Doctrine or some other law targeting talk radio will work. After all, if you publicly target Rush Limbaugh, then try to "hush Rush," it would look particularly sleazy.

#3) It wastes an enormous amount of money and energy on a guy who's merely the governor of Florida -- wait, no, he's not. Is he a senator? Ehr...a Congressman? Hmmmm...So, he doesn't hold any elected office? Maybe it's just me, but I would think that actually targeting Republicans whose seats you can take would make more sense than going after a talk show host who will love the attention.

So what does the Democratic party stand to gain?

PS: Since the Democrats are treating Rush like the head man in the Republican Party, maybe he should challenge Barack Obama to a debate. Of course, Limbaugh could destroy a hack like Obama in a debate with his eyes closed, so it will never happen, but it might make for some more great publicity for Rush.
Now that Hawkins has suggested this, maybe he will.  You can't buy that kind of publicity.

Compare and contrast

The Anchoress seems to see a difference between coverage of the ice storms in Kentucky and
hurricane Katrina.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Darwin and Godwin's Law

Little Green Footballs features a discussion of the notion that Darwin led to Hitler.

Up pops another long-debunked creationist talking point that refuses to die: that Darwin’s theory of evolution led directly to Hitler and the Third Reich. Creationists have been violating Godwin’s Law with this canard for decades, and the Discovery Institute reveals their creationist heritage by continuing in this tradition.

The problem with this idea is simple—it’s not true. Klinghoffer claims that Mein Kampf uses “the language of Darwinian biology,” but in fact, Charles Darwin and the theory of natural selection are not mentioned even once in Mein Kampf. Klinghoffer’s claim is just short of an outright lie.
...Klinghoffer’s false equivalence is even more thoroughly destroyed by the fact that the Nazis banned Darwin’s books: When Books Burn: Lists of Banned Books, 1933-1939.

Obama continues Bush Policies IV

(Hat tip: Little Green Footballs)

WASHINGTON - The CIA’s secret prisons are being closed. Harsh interrogation techniques are off-limits. And Guantanamo Bay will eventually go back to being just a naval base on the southeastern corner of Cuba.

But even while dismantling these discredited programs, President Barack Obama left an equally controversial counterterrorism tool intact.

Under executive orders issued by Obama on Jan. 22, the CIA still has authority to carry out what are known as “renditions,” or the secret abductions and transfers of prisoners to countries that cooperate with the United States.

Temperatures are falling

From the Andrew Bolt Blog at the Courier Mail (Australia)

Now, while we're at it, there are any number of curves that could be drawn through this data, including a straight-line upward-trend fit, with a sine wave modulating it.

SERE and our troops

Just serving in the army is no guarantee of knowing how any facet of the army works.

Anyone who wonders about the ideological diversity of our military should read some of the work of David J. Morris, former Marine officer who now is a journalist and author. He is a classic born-again liberal whose service and subsequent stints as an embedded reporter convinced him that the military and especially W's use of it is evidence of man's inhumanity to man. He parrots all the agit-prop about how Abu Ghraib was an example of US policy, that Haditha and other incidents are systemic and how all in all our efforts to replace dictators and liberate people from oppression are having the opposite effect.
He has a piece now in Slate bemoaning the SERE course (Survival, Evasion, Resistance & Escape). He attended and describes accurately the training there. But then he hops on the evil intentions train and decides that the course actually teaches our troops how to torture, not how to survive captivity. He even goes so far as to posit that the course ought to teach sweetness and light and how to make friends with your captors.
In fact, our soldiers need training from SERE based on an entirely different premise, as illustrated by the experience of Michael Durant, the helicopter pilot who spent several weeks in captivity when he was captured by Somali fighters during the 1993 "Black Hawk Down" raid. Durant survived by befriending his captors and forcing them to see him as a fellow human being. SERE conditions servicemen to expect nothing but the worst from their captors; Durant's life depended on his ability to understand his captors and find ways to manipulate them psychologically.

It's sure a pity Nick Berg didn't try that with his captors.

Oh, wait. He did.

Didn't work very well, did it?

Morris is a born-again liberal as I mentioned and as such sees only "the horror". He finds a welcoming audience on the left and they applaud his exposes of the dark side of our military. It fits their narrative so much better than the "respect" and "support" for the troops they are forced to mouth. Our military is the most humane and just ever to bestride this crappy planet. Do awful things happen? Of course, but look what happens in the aftermath. The Abu Ghraib scum were punished after an investigation started by the military, the Haditha Marines had their days in court and were found to be acting in good faith in a bad situation. Every instance people like Morris want to cite ends up proving my point not his. We do not tolerate torture, murder or violations of the Law of Land Warfare. Morris and the crowd he now runs with refuse to allow their delicate sensibilities to digest that.

A fine legal mess

Dafydd at Big Lizards looks at the legal mess that has arisen in the cases at Gitmo.