Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Poisoned soils of New Orleans 8

Extraordinary Problems, Difficult Solutions

It may be that the final blow to New Orleans won't be the floodwaters, but rather what the waters turned up ...
...Louisiana, a center of the oil, gas and chemical industries, "was known for its very weak enforcement regulations," Kaufman said, and there are a number of landfills and storage areas containing "thousands of tons" of hazardous material to be leaked and spread...

...Given New Orleans's desperate straits, recovery teams will not be able to do anything with the toxic mess except pump it into the Gulf of Mexico, ensuring that the contamination will spread to a larger area, he said. "There's just no other place for it."

Once the water is gone, environmental officials will likely undertake a "grid survey," sampling the formerly flooded areas to get soil profiles and determine how safe it is for residents to move back or rebuild.

The survey is likely to take six months. "If it were me, I wouldn't go back until there was a solid assessment of contamination of the land," Kaufman said. And even then, he added, authorities will be monitoring levels of water toxicity along the coastline for years: "There is no magic chemical that you can put in the Gulf to make heavy metals or benzene go away. You're stuck with it."
Toxic soils might end up being what turns much of what was city into undeveloped lands or nature reserves.

Update 9/4/05: Happily, this may not come to pass.

How a foreign policy wonk gets their themes

Obsidian Wings: Formative Experiences: Foreign Policy

This ends up being a remarkably readable and interesting overview of foreign policy errors. It doesn't mention what we got more or less right (Kosovo, it seems) or where we had good intentions (Somalia). It's a set of experiences and principles of interest to anyone who favors a rational approach to governance.

The enlightenment is in full retreat in America

First this: NYT 8/30/05: One adult American in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth...

then this:
NYT - Teaching of Creationism Is Endorsed in New Survey

... 42 percent of respondents held strict creationist views, agreeing that "living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time ... 18 percent said that evolution was "guided by a supreme being" ... 26 percent said that evolution occurred through natural selection ... 38 percent favored replacing evolution with creationism...
It's easy to see why McCain has endorsed teaching creationism in the schools. Whatever his personal beliefs may be (and he's no scientist), no Republican could get nominated without supporting creationism. Noone could be elected without supporting it.

America's retreat from reason is starting to resemble Soviet mysticism. My Soviet era textbook on Atlantology may soon have an increased retail value. At some point all American rationalists may have to seek some Randian retreat -- or move to China. Or just give up.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The politicization of the american military

From two directions, ongoing evidence of the politicization of the American military:
Military Wrestles With Disharmony Among Chaplains

"When we were coneheads -- missile officers -- I would never, ever have engaged in conversations with subordinates aligning my power and position as an officer with my views on faith matters," she said. Today, "I've heard of people being made incredibly uncomfortable by certain wing commanders who engage in sectarian devotions at staff meetings.
and the demotion of an officer that dared to speak up.

David Brin has been blogging on this. I don't think we need assume the deliberate conspiracy of a purge. The modern military has long had a Republican bent, but as the country becomes increasingly polarized, and as evangelical christianity becomes a de facto state and martial religion, it makes sense that those who think Bush is a dolt will leave. In short order the balance tips so only the loyalists remain -- a curious and unanticipated side-effect of a volunteer army.

It is a somewhat worrisome thing to have a military closely aligned with a theocratic right wing government that also controls the House, the Senate, the Supreme Court and much of the media. Fortunately the history of this sort of thing is so reassuring ...

Is Econbrowser being converted to Peak Oil?

Econbrowser: Supply factors in the 2005 oil price surge
World oil production increased 4.2% during 2004, leading many analysts to conclude that demand increases, not supply disruptions, were the story behind last year's rise in oil prices. As data for 2005 become available, I'm forced to conclude that the reason that oil prices have continued to surge above their values from 2004 is not further increases in demand, but rather concerns about the ability of supply to increase significantly above the 2004 levels.
Econbrowser (Hamilton) has been a cogent and insightful critic of simplistic Peak Oil mania. He's not yet ready concede that we may be nearing the Peak Oil zone, but he's getting there.

At the moment he feels the problem is recent past underinvestment in refining and processing, but I've read him for a while. He's clearly shifting his thinking, and lately is tending towards structural production issues as a component.

If we have hit Peak Oil, prices will rise until world consumption falls or stabilizes. Inflation adjusted prices still put us well below the early 1980s, but we're getting up there. I suspect US citizens will make serious changes to their practices when oil passes $7 a gallon, but that China will decrease its consumption earlier (by going into major recession).

If we've really hit Peak Oil that could happen within 1-2 years. Stay tuned to Econbrowser for updates, I'm not willing to bet either way.

Monday, August 29, 2005

The speciation of modern man

The History of Chromosomes May Shape the Future of Diseases - New York Times

Twenty-three chromosomal rearrangements separate man and macaque -- except for some humans it's 24:
... But scientists have also documented some rearrangements that are not hazardous or that are even beneficial. This year, for example, scientists discovered that some Northern Europeans carry a large inverted segment on one of their chromosomes. This inversion boosts the fertility of women who carry it.
How many such flips before you have a new species?

Teaching the controversy: genetics from 1968

The Chromosome Shuffle: Corante - The Loom

Teaching the Controversy: Part XVIII (emphases mine)

The Intelligent Design crew wants to pit the science of 1968 against the science of 2005.
One of the most interesting features of our chromosomes, which I mention briefly in the article, is that we’re one pair short. In other words, we humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, while other apes have 24. Creationists bring this discrepancy up a lot. They claim that it represents a fatal blow to evolution. Here’s one account, from Apologetics Press:
If the blueprint of DNA locked inside the chromosomes codes for only 46 chromosomes, then how can evolution account for the loss of two entire chromosomes? The task of DNA is to continually reproduce itself. If we infer that this change in chromosome number occurred through evolution, then we are asserting that the DNA locked in the original number of chromosomes did not do its job correctly or efficiently. Considering that each chromosome carries a number of genes, losing chromosomes does not make sense physiologically, and probably would prove deadly for new species. No respectable biologist would suggest that by removing one (or more) chromosomes, a new species likely would be produced. To remove even one chromosome would potentially remove the DNA codes for millions of vital body factors. Eldon Gardner summed it up as follows: “Chromosome number is probably more constant, however, than any other single morphological characteristic that is available for species identification” (1968, p. 211). To put it another way, humans always have had 46 chromosomes, whereas chimps always have had 48.
1968. That's the science the creationists favor? If this were a matter of reason they wouldn't be on the playing field, but of course it's not. Any nation capable of reelecting GWB can readily convince themselves that green is red, and that science in 1968 is as robust as science in 2005.

Of course, on further reflection, that makes perfect sense. Faith based writings in 1210 are just as relevant as those written in 2005. Why should biology be any different?

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Love explained

Talk to the Animals - New York Times:

Sure sounds like love to me ...
Functionally, I suspect love is an often temporary chemical imbalance of the brain induced by sensory stimuli that causes us to maintain focus on something that carries an adaptive agenda. Love is an adaptive feeling or emotion - like hate, jealousy, hunger, thirst - necessary where rationality alone would not suffice to carry the day. Could rationality alone induce a penguin to trek 70 miles over the ice in order to mate and then balance an egg on his toes while fasting for four months in total darkness and enduring temperatures of minus-80 degrees Fahrenheit and gusts of up to 100 miles an hour? And bear in mind that this 5-year-old penguin has just returned to the place of its birth from the sea, and thus has never seen an egg in its life and could not possibly have any idea what it is or why it must be kept warm. Any rational penguin would eventually say, 'To hell with this thing, I'm going back for a swim and to eat my fill of fish.'
And to those with particularly challenging children, a not-so-temporary imbalance. If one loves long enough in the face of selfish logic, it would not be surprising were the brain to change fairly permanently.

This is a fascinating essay. Does the necessity of love indeed bound rationality? I don't quite agree. I think the author is confusing 'rationality' with 'self-interest'. Rationality is the capacity to reason, self-interest is one end to which reason is put. One may be exceedingly capable of logic, extrapolation, creativity and problem solving, and yet dedicate those ends to comrades, children, friends, society, or mate.

From the perspective of pure reason, I suspect a worm or even a rock is loved neither more nor less than one's self. Reason alone has no goals nor ends, any more than today's computers have goals or ends.

Excellent discussion of extended warranties or service contracts

To Buy or Not to Buy: The Quandary of Warranties - New York Times

1. The length of a manufacturer's warranty (assuming, unlike Samsung air conditioners, one can find a service center) is a marker of quality. Extended warranties or service contracts are pure insurance plans.

2. The margin on electronics is 25%, the margin on a service contract is 45%. That's why sales people push service contracts.

3. Consumer reports has some specific recommendations:
Consumer Reports generally advises against buying extended service contracts because 'the cost of repair is probably equal to the cost of warranty, so you should probably just keep that money in your pocket,' a spokeswoman, Lauren Hackett, said. One Consumer Reports survey found that three years after purchase just 5 percent to 7 percent of televisions needed repair, and 13 percent of vacuums (not counting belt replacements). But 33 percent of laptops had been sent to the shop or the recycle bin.

The consumer group does recommend extended service policies on three items, Ms. Hackett said: laptops, treadmills (they are too cumbersome to take to the shop, she said, and service calls are expensive) and plasma TV's, because the technology is new and 'if you are spending $5,000 for a TV set, you might want to get a warranty.
A very nice summary, except they forgot that many high end credit cards offer one year extensions to the manufacturer's contract. Once you factor in that option any service contract becomes much less interesting -- even on a laptop.

Another twist: sometimes the manufacturer's service is not the best. Apple's service contract (AppleCare) requires devices be serviced by Apple, and they apparently use psychopathic inmates as their labor force. There are advantages to finding non-Apple service if it's available.

Strategic errors: creating CD DRM schemes that shut out the iPod

Apple, Digital Music's Angel, Earns Record Industry's Scorn - New York Times

This is a great business article. Apple and the record labels are fighting about Apple's online music store pricing and Apple's iPod only DRM scheme (FairPlay).

Why does Apple have any leverage at all in this fight? Because the alternative to Apple is illegal file sharing -- and there's no revenue there at all.

That's why BMG's DRM protected CD scheme is suicidal:
... BMG in particular has taken steps that may apply pressure to Mr. Jobs to make Apple's software compatible with that of other companies. The company has issued dozens of new titles - including high-profile CD's from the Dave Matthews Band and the Foo Fighters - with software to limit the number of copies that can be made from the disc. The software is compatible with Microsoft's music software, but not Apple's, and as a result music from those Sony BMG albums cannot be transferred to iPods that are hooked up to Windows-based PC's. EMI has been test-marketing similar software with a handful of titles.
So what will a BMG customer do now? Will they give up iTunes, their iPod, and the music they've purchased online? Or will they get the MP3s from friends or strangers? Just guess.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Phone company posted rates are completely meaningless

A Monthly Mystery - New York Times

Well, not completely meaningless. You know the monthly fee will be higher than whatever is published. I've blogged on this before and sent letters of complaint to our state attorney general. At last the New York Times has noticed:
Although surcharges have been around for a while, they have been growing and more consumers are complaining that such fees have become a backdoor way for phone companies to raise prices while keeping advertised rates low.

The carriers might promote flat-rate phone plans for, say, $49.99 a month, but once the many indecipherable fees are larded into a bill, a customer may actually pay $10, $20 or more a month.

"The proliferation of these charges is happening because the carriers are playing a shell game, plain and simple," said Thomas Allibone, an independent auditor and a former member of the consumer advisory committee at the Federal Communications Commission. "They'd rather weather a customer's complaint because they are making $20 or more in surcharges."

...The phone companies say that the surcharges are legal and that they have the right to keep them out of the advertised price of calling plans as long as they are explained on Web sites and in service contracts.
I wrote my letter to our attorney general about Sprint when I tried to get a copy of contract that explained their pricing. Oddly enough, they couldn't find one. I tried quite a bit.

In our increasingly libertarian world, caveat emptor is a slogan to live by.

Alas, the fundamental problem is that, in a sufficiently complex environment, we are all stupid. There is some point at which we can't keep up and we simply surrender all hope. Cheap computing power is enabling scams of great complexity, such as intricate ways to disguise true prices. We could negotiate one such scam, but not a hundred. How many people have thought through the full implications of various Digital Rights Management schemes, and how those schemes decrease the value of DRM protected media?

Bottom line, barring regulatory action, this will only get worse.

First United Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

Open Letter to Kansas School Board: Teachng the Controversy

If one is going to teach intelligent design as science, then one ought to be able to litigate to include other approaches, such as 'incompetent design' or 'accidental creation' or 'silly design' ...
...I’m sure you now realize how important it is that your students are taught this alternate theory. It is absolutely imperative that they realize that observable evidence is at the discretion of a Flying Spaghetti Monster. Furthermore, it is disrespectful to teach our beliefs without wearing His chosen outfit, which of course is full pirate regalia. I cannot stress the importance of this enough, and unfortunately cannot describe in detail why this must be done as I fear this letter is already becoming too long. The concise explanation is that He becomes angry if we don’t.

You may be interested to know that global warming, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters are a direct effect of the shrinking numbers of Pirates since the 1800s. For your interest, I have included a graph of the approximate number of pirates versus the average global temperature over the last 200 years. As you can see, there is a statistically significant inverse relationship between pirates and global temperature...

...In conclusion, thank you for taking the time to hear our views and beliefs. I hope I was able to convey the importance of teaching this theory to your students. We will of course be able to train the teachers in this alternate theory. I am eagerly awaiting your response, and hope dearly that no legal action will need to be taken. I think we can all look forward to the time when these three theories are given equal time in our science classrooms across the country, and eventually the world; One third time for Intelligent Design, one third time for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism, and one third time for logical conjecture based on overwhelming observable evidence.
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Has the social security crisis been averted? Klotho protein for aging

Life-Lengthening Hormone Found in Mouse Research

We can extend the lifespan of mice 20% by injecting a peptide produced by the Klotho gene:
The discovery was triggered by a study Kuro-o and his colleagues published in 1997. That study identified a gene in mice that, when damaged, caused the animals to experience all the hallmarks of aging in humans -- hardening of the arteries, thinning bones, withered skin, weak lungs -- and to die prematurely. They dubbed the gene Klotho, for the Greek goddess who spins the thread of life.

Suspecting the gene may play a role in regulating life span, Kuro-o and his colleagues genetically engineered mice with overactive Klotho genes. In the latest experiments, they found that these animals lived an average of 20 to 30 percent longer than normal -- 2.4 to 2.6 years vs. a normal life span of about two years -- without any signs of ill effects, according to the new report.

'The extension of life span is widely accepted as a reliable marker for the suppression of aging,' Kuro-o said. 'This shows the Klotho gene regulates aging.'

The researchers then identified a small protein component, called a peptide, that the gene produces and found it circulating in the animals' blood at double the normal level.

After isolating and purifying the substance and reproducing it through genetic engineering techniques, the researchers injected the substance into normal mice. Tests on those animals, combined with experiments involving cells in the laboratory, indicate that the substance modulates a crucial biological pathway involved in an array of basic metabolic functions that has become the focus of aging research in recent years.

'It's a pathway that has been conserved by evolution that has been found to play a key role in regulating life span for flies, worms, mice and probably humans,' Kuro-o said.

Studies, for example, suggest that damping down this pathway -- known as the insulin/insulin-like growth factor-1 signaling pathway -- may be the mechanism that extends longevity in animals that are fed an ultra-low-calorie diet.
This may be very important for persons with the very rare disease of Progeria. (Yes, this has occurred to others.)

Would a purified protein of this sort slow aging in humans and thus avert the social security crisis? Ahh, there's the catch. Given the advantages to human communities of long-lived women, and the the extent to which males have mostly female genomes, I'd guess we find three things:

- It doesn't work on females -- we'll find their Klotho peptide levels are already pretty high.
- It does add 5 years of life to newborn males if given for the entire lifespan, but has no significant benefit for middle-aged males.
- It has a big impact on a subset of the the population that turns out to have a faster basal aging rate (maybe as high as 30% of our population).

The third of these might indeed avert the "social security crisis". (We already know how to avert it really -- more selective immigration policies (wealthier immigrants -- follow Canada's model) and making payouts more progressive.)

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Now that's how to do marketing on the net: NWA promotions via RSS feed

Northwest Airlines Promotions

Leave aside that NWA just cancelled my flight out of Denver tomorrow (so much for being unaffected by labor issues -- but they did rebook me on United an hour later). The RSS feed on this page tells me they have some smart people (or, more likely, smart business partners -- expedia used to do their web pages).

I'd never sign up for NWA promotions via email. That would have the same effect on my email as spam. On the other hand, a bookmark in my bloglines web-based RSS reader is another story. I can click on it when I like, clear it when I like, it's in my new 'marketing' folder, it's just useful.

Amazing it's taken this long to happen.

The Paleolithic Renaissance: 35,000 years BCE

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Bones reveal first shoe-wearers

The first renaissance happened about 35,000 years BCE. Wouldn't you love to know why?
The advent of footwear occurred during a period Professor Trinkaus describes as 'a well-documented archaeological explosion' which also produced a number of other notable human advances.

Paul Mellars, professor of prehistory and human evolution at the University of Cambridge, UK, agrees there were 'dramatic changes' in human behaviour at this time. 'From 35,000 years ago onward, you see the first art, the first stone tools, and the first personal decorations and jewellery.'

More advanced shoe-making skills could have been a product of this overall increase in technological ingenuity.

'There is a strong hint that people were doing more complicated things with ...skins, with special stone tools for cleaning and awls for piercing.
Brilliant detective work. Smaller little toe bones in fossils is a marker for shoe wear.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Darwin - the great suffer too

The Discovery Institute (Creationist/fundamentalist front) blames Darwin for Stalin, Hitler, Mao, acne, and Willie Horton. If that entire enterprise had two neurons to rub together they'd be flagelllating themselves after reading this essay: A Dog and the Mind of Newton: Corante > The Loom >A Dog and the Mind of Newton
a few weeks before his death, he looked over the letter she had written to him just after they married. At the time she was beginning to become worried about his faith and urged him to remember what Jesus had done for him. On the bottom he wrote, 'When I am dead, know that many times, I have kissed & cryed over this.'
Darwin was not spared the suffering which comes to many who live and love deeply. I cannot do justice to the story with excerpts, so one must follow the link.

Things to tell someone who wants to invest money

The Big Picture: 10 rules to Win the "Loser's Game"

Follow the link for the book reference:
1. Never, never speculate.
2. Your home is not a stock.
3. Save lots more.
4. Brokers aren't your friends.
5. Never trade commodities.
6. Avoid new and exciting deals.
7. Bonds also ride up and down.
8. Never invest for tax benefits.
9. Write goals and stick to them.
10. Never trust your emotions.

The neurospychology of irritable bowel syndrome

The Other Brain Also Deals With Many Woes - New York Times

In the 1970s and 1980s there was a real enthusiasm for "psychosomatic" causes of irritable bowel syndrome. I recall by the early 1980s, however, neuroendocrine studies of the bowel suggested that natural was highly conservative -- the same neurotransmitters and receptors were used in the gut and the brain. I think it was pretty common even then to figure one day we'd find out that some gut motility disorders reflected a neurotransmitter defect that was probably also present in the brain; later an association between bowel dysfunction and autism underscored that hypothesis (though that's been usually misinterpreted as having something to do with gluten).

Now, 20 yeas later, we have some data.
...''You can run any test you want on people with I.B.S., and their GI tracts look essentially normal,' Dr. Mawe said. The default assumption has been that the syndrome is a psychosomatic disease. [jf: that was the assumption in 1980, the journalist is being dramatic here]

But it turns out that irritable bowel syndrome, like depression, is at least in part a function of changes in the serotonin system. In this case, it is too much serotonin rather than too little.

In a healthy person, after serotonin is released into the gut and initiates an intestinal reflex, it is whisked out of the bowel by a molecule known as the serotonin transporter, or SERT, found in the cells that line the gut wall.

People with irritable bowel syndrome do not have enough SERT, so they wind up with too much serotonin floating around, causing diarrhea.

The excess serotonin then overwhelms the receptors in the gut, shutting them down and causing constipation.

When Dr. Gershon, whose work has been supported by Novartis, studied mice without SERT, he found that they developed a condition very much like I.B.S. in humans.

Several new serotonin-based drugs - intestinal antidepressants, in a way - have brought hope for those with chronic gut disorders.
But do they, as expected, have the same problem with SERT function in the brain?

Muddled thinking among the Darwinists

Grasping the Depth of Time as a First Step in Understanding Evolution - New York Times

It's fair to label me a secular humanist, ergo a "Darwinist". As fair as any label anyway. Among my tribe pointing out muddled thinking is a duty, even when the muddler is one of us:
... Accepting the fact of evolution does not necessarily mean discarding a personal faith in God. But accepting intelligent design means discarding science...

...The essential, but often well-disguised, purpose of intelligent design, is to preserve the myth of a separate, divine creation for humans in the belief that only that can explain who we are. But there is a destructive hubris, a fearful arrogance, in that myth. It sets us apart from nature, except to dominate it. It misses both the grace and the moral depth of knowing that humans have only the same stake, the same right, in the Earth as every other creature that has ever lived here. There is a righteousness - a responsibility - in the deep, ancestral origins we share with all of life.
The writer claims one can both accept the fact of evolution and maintain a 'personal faith in god', but then his next sentences rather severely circumscribe the nature of that deity. In particular it can't be a deity that has a particular 'plan for man' or who 'creates man in his own image'. So the author is suggesting that science and faith can be reconciled, but then he says the reconciliation only works with a particular sort of faith, incompatible with Christ the Divine. That seems like either muddled thinking or (worse) intellectual dishonesty.

This is too absolute for my tastes. Humans are flawed masses of compromise (favors evolution if you ask me -- surely a deity would produce a better product?). There have been great scientists who were staunch catholics, though it is true most seem to tend towards a more abstract and Spinozan view of a deity. Even so, I think I could come up with ways to reconcile a divine Christ with natural selection. Heck, it's not that hard (it helps that I'm agnostic, though the teachings of Christ are so radical as to suggest the miraculous).

On the other hand, it's dishonest to say that science doesn't suggest something about the Designer -- namely that if there is one (or many), She/they/it doesn't much resemble the Yahweh of fundamentalist judeo-islamic-christian teachings.

Monday, August 22, 2005

CT for lung cancer - remember neonatal retinoblastoma?

Warned, but Worse Off - New York Times

A very intelligent NYT OpEd about CT screening for lung CA (by Steven Woloshin, Lisa Schwartz and H. Gilbert Welch -- physician researchers at the Department of Veterans Affairs and faculty members at Dartmouth Medical School.):
The less familiar, but more worrisome, harm comes from overdiagnosis and overtreatment. In the largest study to date, Japanese researchers using CT scans found almost 10 times the amount of lung cancer they had detected in a similar group of patients using X-rays. Amazingly, with CT screening, almost as many nonsmokers were found to have lung cancer as smokers.

Given that smokers are 15 times as likely to die from lung cancer, the CT scans had to be finding abnormalities that were technically cancer (based on their microscopic appearance), but that did not behave in the way most people think of cancer behaving - as a progressive disease that ultimately kills. So here's the problem. Because we can't distinguish a progressive cancer from a nonprogressive cancer on the CT scan, we tend to treat everybody who tests positive. Obviously, the patients with indolent cancers cannot benefit from treatment; they can only experience its side effects. Treatment - usually surgery, but sometimes chemotherapy or radiation therapy - is painful and risky. Some 5 percent of patients older than 65 die following partial lung removal, and nearly 14 percent die with complete removal.
Ahh, those young whippersnappers don't seem to remember one of the most disastrous errors in imaging screening -- neonatal retinoblastoma.

I'm not sure, however, that I remember the story correctly -- a quick PubMed search did not immediately validate my recollection. Either I'm mis-remembering or we're sweeping another of our mistakes under the carpet.

What I remember is that sometime when CT was new we started diagnosing a LOT of retinoblastoma. Many infant eyes were removed, with congratulations all around at disaster averted. The only question was -- why the sudden upsurge in this terrible malignancy? Ahh. That was the catch. It turned out the newfangled scans were detecting a lesion that looked like retinoblastoma, but actually spontaneously regressed (maybe we call this retinocytoma now?). In retrospect almost all of those eyes could have been retained. (I don't recall if any infants lost both eyes.)

Maybe my memory is completely faulty. I'd love to see comments if anyone else remembers this. If so, it's a story that bears repeating.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Total Information Awareness is not really dead ...

Remember Microsoft Passport and Intel/Microsoft's Palladium? When the public complained the names went away, but the work went forward.

Remember 'Total Information Awareness'? TIA was Poindexter's project to use massive databases to spot terrorists. It was a wee bit controversial (The 'Left Behind' people freak out about this 'number of the beast' stuff. The NRA doesn't like it either. Bush doesn't like them angry, so their opinions matter). It went away.


As Schneier points out, it didn't go away at all. It's come back in other names and forms:
Crypto-Gram: August 15, 2005: Secure Flight

Last month the GAO issued a new report on Secure Flight. It's couched in friendly language, but it's not good...

... The TSA violated federal law when it secretly expanded Secure Flight's use of commercial data about passengers. It also lied to Congress and the public about it.

Much of this isn't new. Last month we learned that the TSA bought and is storing commercial data about passengers [jf: here he means traffic violations, credit ratings, etc. We know the quality of data in these commercial programs is utterly atrocious, and there's no regulation or feedback mechanism.], even though officials said they wouldn't do it and Congress told them not to...

... Commercial data had another use under CAPPS-II In that now-dead program, every passenger would be subjected to a computerized background check to determine their "risk" to airline safety. The system would assign a risk score based on commercial data: their credit rating, how recently they moved, what kind of job they had, etc. This capability was removed from Secure Flight, but now it's back. An AP story quotes Justin Oberman, the TSA official in charge of Secure Flight, as saying: "We are trying to use commercial data to verify the identities of people who fly because we are not going to rely on the watch list.... If we just rise and fall on the watch list, it's not adequate."

... My fear is that TSA has already decided that they're going to use commercial data, regardless of any test results. And once you have commercial data, why not build a dossier on every passenger and give him or her a risk score? So we're back to CAPPS-II, the very system Congress killed last summer. Actually, we're very close to TIA (Total/Terrorism Information Awareness), that vast spy-on-everyone data-mining program that Congress killed in 2003 because it was just too invasive.

Secure Flight is a mess in lots of other ways, too. A March GAO report said that Secure Flight had not met nine out of the ten conditions mandated by Congress before TSA could spend money on implementing the program. (If you haven't read this report, it's pretty scathing.) The redress problem -- helping people who cannot fly because they share a name with a terrorist -- is not getting any better. And Secure Flight is behind schedule and over budget.

It's also a rogue program that is operating in flagrant disregard for the law. It can't be killed completely; the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 mandates that TSA implement a program of passenger prescreening. And until we have Secure Flight, airlines will still be matching passenger names with terrorist watch lists under the CAPPS-I program. But it needs some serious public scrutiny.

Dumbest lead of the week: critique of hospital performance

It's the Simple Things, but Some Hospitals Don't Do Them - New York Times

This could have as readily been titled - astonishing quality of most healthy care systems in america. The data looked pretty good in most financially sound institutions; much better than 10 years ago. The complaints about difficulty delivering data seem very legitimate to me, the regulators are playing games here.

What the data does show is that financially troubled care systems fail to delivery quality care. That should come as no surprise, but I'm glad we're documenting it.

Why do we die in our sleep?

BBC NEWS | Health | Clue to why some die during sleep

At one time in Minnesota we had an unusual number of middle-aged Hmong adults dying in their sleep. I wonder if it could have been related to an odd depletion of preBotC cells:
Rats possess 600 of the specialised cells. The researchers believe humans have a few thousand, which are slowly lost over a lifetime.

Lead researcher Professor Jack Feldman said: 'We speculate that our brains can compensate for up to a 60% loss of preBötC cells, but the cumulative deficit of these brain cells eventually disrupts our breathing during sleep.

'There's no biological reason for the body to maintain these cells beyond the average lifespan, and so they do not replenish as we age.

'As we lose them, we grow more prone to central sleep apnoea.'

The UCLA team believes that central sleep apnoea may pose a particular risk to elderly people, whose heart and lungs are already weaker due to age.

They also suspect the condition strikes people suffering the late stages of neurodegenerative disorders, such as Parkinson's disease.
In most populations this is not necessarily a significant health problem. Most of us would not resent dying in our sleep in the late stages of disabling and untreatable disease. As a sign of how the brain ages it is scientifically very interesting.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Gates funds the Discovery Institute

Politicized Scholars Put Evolution on the Defensive - New York Times

Gates is no scientist:
... financed by missionary and mainstream groups - the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provides $1 million a year, including $50,000 of Mr. Chapman's $141,000 annual salary ...
This adds another dimension to the controversy about Gates closeness to an evangelical minister who claimed credit for ending same-sex partner benefits at Microsoft. These benefits were later reinstated.

It also adds another dimension to Gates support for Bush's reelection. I'd thought that was payback for Bush ending the anti-trust action against Microsoft, but this sugests another explanation. Gates may share Bush's evangelical and messianic mission.

Annotations of the Discovery Institute's "Wedge Document"

The Discovery Institute's "Wedge Document"

This is the document that outlines the true mission of the Wedge Document. Note that they aren't confused for a moment about the identify of the "intelligeng designer".

First a preface by Lenny Frank:
NOTE FROM LENNY FLANK: The Wedge Document is an internal memorandum from the Discovery Institute (the leading proponent of Intelligent Designer "Theory") that was leaked to the Internet in 1999. The Discovery Institute later admitted to its authenticity. Since then, Discovery Institute hasn't talked very much about the document, or the strategy it outlines. The reason is crushingly obvious, since the Wedge Document makes it readily apparent that the Discovery Institute is flat-out lying to us when it claims that its Intelligent Designer campaign is concerned only with science and does not have any religious aims, purpose or effect.
Next, excerpts with my annotations:

The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God [jf: this is the critical issue for creationists. How would random evolution produce something "resembling" a sort-of-human-looking deity?] is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built. Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West's greatest achievements, including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise, and progress in the arts and sciences. [jf: so Darwin is a threat to democracy and free enterprise. Also progress?]

Yet a little over a century ago, this cardinal idea came under wholesale attack by intellectuals drawing on the discoveries of modern science. Debunking the traditional conceptions of both God and man, thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud [jf: so note Marx is next to Darwin. As compared to, say, Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein. These people dislike psychiatry almost as much as scientologists] portrayed humans not as moral and spiritual beings, but as animals or machines who inhabited a universe ruled by purely impersonal forces and whose behavior and very thoughts were dictated by the unbending forces of biology, chemistry, and environment. This materialistic conception of reality eventually infected virtually every area of our culture, from politics and economics to literature and art

The cultural consequences of this triumph of materialism were devastating. Materialists denied the existence of objective moral standards, claiming that environment dictates our behavior and beliefs. Such moral relativism was uncritically adopted by much of the social sciences, and it still undergirds much of modern economics, political science, psychology and sociology. [jf: the dreaded relativism, that says that Americans are not necessarily the sole owners of virtue]

Materialists also undermined personal responsibility by asserting that human thoughts and behaviors are dictated by our biology and environment. The results can be seen in modern approaches to criminal justice [jf: Willie Horton], product liability, and welfare [jf: "welfare queens]. In the materialist scheme of things, everyone is a victim and no one can be held accountable for his or her actions. [jf: So we don't get to torture or kill those who do bad things, and we don't get to watch the poor starve. These people like killing their enemies. I can see why a deeper understanding of human nature terrifies them.]

Finally, materialism spawned a virulent strain of utopianism. Thinking they could engineer the perfect society through the application of scientific knowledge, materialist reformers advocated coercive government programs that falsely promised to create heaven on earth. [jf: Darwin is responsible for Stalin. Clear, isn't it?]

Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies. Bringing together leading scholars from the natural sciences and those from the humanities and social sciences, the Center explores how new developments in biology, physics and cognitive science raise serious doubts about scientific materialism and have re-opened the case for a broadly theistic understanding of nature. The Center awards fellowships for original research, holds conferences, and briefs policymakers about the opportunities for life after materialism.

The Center is directed by Discovery Senior Fellow Dr. Stephen Meyer. An Associate Professor of Philosophy at Whitworth College, Dr. Meyer holds a Ph.D. in the History and Philosophy of Science from Cambridge University. He formerly worked as a geophysicist for the Atlantic Richfield Company.


Phase I.
* Scientific Research, Writing & Publicity
Phase II.
* Publicity & Opinion-making
Phase III.
* Cultural Confrontation & Renewal


Phase I. Scientific Research, Writing & Publication
* Individual Research Fellowship Program
* Paleontology Research program (Dr. Paul Chien et al.)
* Molecular Biology Research Program (Dr. Douglas Axe et al.)

Phase II. Publicity & Opinion-making
* Book Publicity
* Opinion-Maker Conferences
* Apologetics Seminars [jf: see this article for the religious connection]
* Teacher Training Program
* Op-ed Fellow
* PBS (or other TV) Co-production
* Publicity Materials / Publications

Phase III. Cultural Confrontation & Renewal

* Academic and Scientific Challenge Conferences
* Potential Legal Action for Teacher Training [jf: this is very interesting. I presume they mean to litigate that teachers be trained to teach Intelligent Design'
* Research Fellowship Program: shift to social sciences and humanities


The social consequences of materialism have been devastating. As symptoms, those consequences are certainly worth treating. However, we are convinced that in order to defeat materialism, we must cut it off at its source. That source is scientific materialism. [jf: So it's Darwin first, then the rest of science. Bin Laden would understand these people.] This is precisely our strategy. If we view the predominant materialistic science as a giant tree, our strategy is intended to function as a "wedge" that, while relatively small, can split the trunk when applied at its weakest points [Darwin is the weak point, but physicists should not rest easy]. The very beginning of this strategy, the "thin edge of the wedge," was Phillip ]ohnson's critique of Darwinism begun in 1991 in Darwinism on Trial, and continued in Reason in the Balance and Defeatng Darwinism by Opening Minds. Michael Behe's highly successful Darwin's Black Box followed Johnson's work. We are building on this momentum, broadening the wedge with a positive scientific alternative to materialistic scientific theories, which has come to be called the theory of intelligent design (ID). Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions [Galileo came to understand what Christian science meant.]

The Wedge strategy can be divided into three distinct but interdependent phases, which are roughly but not strictly chronological. We believe that, with adequate support, we can accomplish many of the objectives of Phases I and II in the next five years (1999-2003) [jf: they've accomplised all of them], and begin Phase III (See "Goals/ Five Year Objectives/Activities").

Phase I: Research, Writing and Publication
Phase II: Publicity and Opinion-making
Phase III: Cultural Confrontation and Renewal

Phase I is the essential component of everything that comes afterward. Without solid scholarship, research and argument, the project would be just another attempt to indoctrinate instead of persuade. A lesson we have learned from the history of science is that it is unnecessary to outnumber the opposing establishment. Scientific revolutions are usually staged by an initially small and relatively young group of scientists who are not blinded by the prevailing prejudices and who are able to do creative work at the pressure points, that is, on those critical issues upon which whole systems of thought hinge. So, in Phase I we are supporting vital witting and research at the sites most likely to crack the materialist edifice.

Phase II. The pnmary purpose of Phase II is to prepare the popular reception of our ideas. The best and truest research can languish unread and unused unless it is properly publicized. For this reason we seek to cultivate and convince influential individuals in pnnt and broadcast media, as well as think tank leaders, scientists and academics, congressional staff, talk show hosts, college and seminary presidents and faculty, future talent and potential academic allies. Because of his long tenure in politics, journalism and public policy, Discovery President Bruce Chapman brings to the project rare knowledge and acquaintance of key op-ed writers, journalists, and political leaders. This combination of scientific and scholarly expertise and media and political connections makes the Wedge unique, and also prevents it from being "merely academic." Other activities include production of a PBS documentary on intelligent design and its implications [jf: Now we understand why Bush seized control of PBS and put his troglodyte in charge, these people consider PBS to be a fortress of reason], and popular op-ed publishing. Alongside a focus on influential opinion-makers, we also seek to build up a popular base of support among our natural constituency, namely, Chnstians. We will do this primarily through apologetics seminars. We intend these to encourage and equip believers with new scientific evidence's that support the faith, as well as to "popularize" our ideas in the broader culture.

Phase III. Once our research and writing have had time to mature, and the public prepared for the reception of design theory, we will move toward direct confrontation with the advocates of materialist science through challenge conferences in significant academic settings. We will also pursue possible legal assistance in response to resistance to the integration of design theory into public school science curricula. The attention, publicity, and influence of design theory should draw scientific materialists into open debate with design theorists, and we will be ready. With an added emphasis to the social sciences and humanities, we will begin to address the specific social consequences of materialism and the Darwinist theory that supports it in the sciences.


Governing Goals

* To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies.
* To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and hurnan beings are created by God.

Five Year Goals

* To see intelligent design theory as an accepted alternative in the sciences and scientific research being done from the perspective of design theory.
* To see the beginning of the influence of design theory in spheres other than natural science.
* To see major new debates in education, life issues, legal and personal responsibility pushed to the front of the national agenda.

Twenty Year Goals

* To see intelligent design theory as the dominant perspective in science.
* To see design theory application in specific fields, including molecular biology, biochemistry, paleontology, physics and cosmology in the natural sciences, psychology, ethics, politics, theology and philosophy in the humanities; to see its influence in the fine arts. [First Darwin, then the rest.]
* To see design theory permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life. [jf: Theocracy.]

FIVE YEAR OBJECTIVES [jf: They didn't get all of these objectives accomplished.]

1. A major public debate between design theorists and Darwinists (by 2003)
2. Thirty published books on design and its cultural implications (sex, gender issues, medicine, law, and religion)
3. One hundred scientific, academic and technical articles by our fellows
4. Significant coverage in national media:
* Cover story on major news magazine such as Time or Newsweek
* PBS show such as Nova treating design theory fairly
* Regular press coverage on developments in design theory
* Favorable op-ed pieces and columns on the design movement by 3rd party media

5. Spiritual & cultural renewal:

* Mainline renewal movements begin to appropriate insights from design theory, and to repudiate theologies influenced by materialism
* Major Christian denomination(s) defend(s) traditional doctrine of creation & repudiate(s) [jf: that would be the NYT article by the catholic church]
* Darwinism Seminaries increasingly recognize & repudiate naturalistic presuppositions
* Positive uptake in public opinion polls on issues such as sexuality, abortion and belief in God

6. Ten states begin to rectify ideological imbalance in their science curricula & include design theory [jf: I'm not sure they've gotten all 10 yet]

7. Scientific achievements:
* An active design movement in Israel, the UK and other influential countries outside the US
* Ten CRSC Fellows teaching at major universities [jf: not sure about this]
* Two universities where design theory has become the dominant view [jf: depend how you define "unversity".
* Design becomes a key concept in the social sciences
* Legal reform movements base legislative proposals on design theory


(1) Research Fellowship Program (for writing and publishing)
(2) Front line research funding at the "pressure points" (e.g., Daul Chien's Chengjiang Cambrian Fossil Find in paleontology, and Doug Axe's research laboratory in molecular biology)
(3) Teacher training
(4) Academic Conferences
(5) Opinion maker Events & Conferences
(6) Alliance-building, recruitment of future scientists and leaders, and strategic partnerships with think tanks, social advocacy groups, educational organizations and institutions, churches, religious groups, foundations and media outlets
(7) Apologetics seminars and public speaking
(8) Op-ed and popular writing
(9) Documentaries and other media productions
(10) Academic debates
(11) Fund Raising and Development
(12) General Administrative support
I thought I might have been too harsh in my criticism of the Discovery Institute. Not so, I was too restrained.

The Discovery Institute's "Wedge Document" -- a wolf in sheep's clothing

Politicized Scholars Put Evolution on the Defensive - New York Times

The Discovery Institute likes to present itself as a voice of skeptical reason. A New York Times article exposes the snout of the wolf:
These successes follow a path laid in a 1999 Discovery manifesto known as the Wedge Document, which sought 'nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies' in favor of a 'broadly theistic understanding of nature.'
Materialism is code-word for "secular humanism" or "the enlightenment".

The Discovery Institute's mission is to undo science.

As of today there are only over 700 hits in Google on the "wedge document". Good. Let's get that document up front and center.

BTW, the NYT article is a bit of a muddle. I wonder if the editor hacked it up, it seems to switch directions rather abruptly.

The invisible war -- when the peasants die, who notices?

Blood Runs Red, Not Blue - New York Times

Bob Herbert just won't let the go of the invisible war.
... College kids in the U.S. are playing video games and looking forward to frat parties while their less fortunate peers are rattling around like moving targets in Baghdad and Mosul, trying to dodge improvised explosive devices and rocket-propelled grenades.

There is something very, very wrong with this picture.

If the war in Iraq is worth fighting - if it's a noble venture, as the hawks insist it is - then it's worth fighting with the children of the privileged classes. They should be added to the combat mix. If it's not worth their blood, then we should bring the other troops home.

If Mr. Bush's war in Iraq is worth dying for, then the children of the privileged should be doing some of the dying.
Would George be vacationing if Jenna were drafted to drive a truck in Iraq?

This is a war of old Europe, where the "peasants" fight and the nobles hunt. If we'd had a national service, we would have invaded Afghanistan, but we would have thought very hard and long before invading Iraq. If we had a national service, Bush would not have been re-elected. If we had a national service, Rumsfeld would have been happy to avoid prison.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Mac serial number analyzer: see if your Mac is in a recall or exchange program

Apple has finally announced a repair program for iMac's with the notorious capacitor, power supply, heat problems. It includes machines sold as recently as May 2005.

Klantenservice: Serienummers will check your serial number for qualification to a number of these programs:
[Harald van Arkel] We updated our serial number analyzer. It is now aware of the iMac G5 Exchange Program. If you enter the serial number of an iMac, it will warn you that it is part of an Exchange Program. The analyser takes the serial number of any Mac (or other piece of Apple hardware) and tells you what exact model it is and when it was produced.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Tales of the Piraha -- how flexible is man?

Just when one is inclined to think biology is everything, come stories of the Piraha:
George Monbiot � A Life With No Purpose

...Two days ago, I would have claimed that the demand for more was universal – that every society has or had its creation story and, as Joseph Campbell put it, “it will always be the one, shape-shifting yet marvellously constant story that we find”.(11) But yesterday I read a study by the anthropologist Daniel Everett of the language of the Piraha people of the Brazilian Amazon, published in the latest edition of Current Anthropology.(12) Its findings could scarcely be more disturbing, or more profound.

The Piraha, Everett reveals, possess “the most complex verbal morphology I am aware of [and] are some of the brightest, pleasantest, most fun-loving people that I know.” Yet they have no numbers of any kind, no terms for quantification (such as all, each, every, most and some), no colour terms and no perfect tense. They appear to have borrowed their pronouns from another language, having previously possessed none. They have no “individual or collective memory of more than two generations past”, no drawing or other art, no fiction and “no creation stories or myths.”

All this, Everett believes, can be explained by a single characteristic: “Piraha culture constrains communication to non-abstract subjects which fall within the immediate experience of [the speaker]”. What can be discussed, in other words, is what has been seen. When it can no longer be perceived, it ceases, in this realm at least, to exist. After struggling with one grammatical curiosity, he realised that the Piraha were “talking about liminality – situations in which an item goes in and out of the boundaries of their experience. [Their] excitement at seeing a canoe go around a river bend is hard to describe; they see this almost as travelling into another dimension.” The Piraha, still living, watch the sparrow flit in and out of the banqueting hall.(13)
Similar anthropologic stories have evaporated on closer inspection (the Inuit have only a handful of names for snow, Margaret Mead's cultures were very violent ...). It will be interesting to see if this one survives. Will our memes infect the Piraha? The course of that infection should be watched closely, even as it destroys all that they once were.

Death squads in Baghdad -- over 1100 dead in July?

Recirculated from 'The Independent'. The article is quite badly written. It sounds like these are largely revenge killings, possibly by Shia and Baathist hit squads, but the author confuses this mayhem with blast victims and occopation force victims.
Secrets of the morgue: Baghdad's body count

... July was the bloodiest month in Baghdad’s modern history - in all, 1,100 bodies were brought to the city’s mortuary; executed for the most part, eviscerated, stabbed, bludgeoned, tortured to death. The figure is secret.

We are not supposed to know that the Iraqi capital’s death toll last month was only 700 short of the total American fatalities in Iraq since April of 2003. Of the dead, 963 were men - many with their hands bound, their eyes taped and bullets in their heads - and 137 women.

... in just 36 hours - from dawn on Sunday to midday on Monday, 62 Baghdad civilians had been killed. No Western official, no Iraqi government minister, no civil servant, no press release from the authorities, no newspaper, mentioned this terrible statistic...

... Mortuary officials have been appalled at the sadism visited on the victims. "We have many who have obviously been tortured - mostly men," one said. "They have terrible burn marks on hands and feet and other parts of their bodies. Many have their hands fastened behind their backs with handcuffs and their eyes have been bound with Sellotape. Then they have been shot in the head - in the back of the head, the face, the eyes. These are executions."...

... It is clear that death squads are roaming the streets of a city which is supposed to be under the control of the US military and the American-supported, elected government of Ibrahim al-Jaafari...
I would like to see some other validation of these numbers. Baghdad is a very populous city however, and there is a lot of revenge to be sated. It's not immediately clear what to do about this; I don't think more military force would help.

Fermi Questions: quantitative games of meaning

I need to update my Fermi Paradox page with this link:
Fermi Questions / Fermi Problems: '... the estimation of rough but quantitative answers to unexpected questions about many aspects of the natural world. The method was the common and frequently amusing practice of Enrico Fermi, perhaps the most widely creative physicist of our times. Fermi delighted to think up and at once to discuss and to answer questions which drew upon deep understanding of the world, upon everyday experience, and upon the ability to make rough approximations, inspired guesses, and statistical estimates from very little data.' [Philip Morrison [1]]
Incidentally, I've corresponded with Stanlislaw (Stanlislav) Lem, a brilliant author, about the Fermi Pardox. Turns out he doesn't think much of it:
I am afraid Mr. Lem does not consider the Fermi Paradox an important (and particularly serious) issue.

Sincerely yours,

Wojciech Zemek, Mr. Lem's secretary
Hmm. That does give me pause ... I wish he'd say more, but I think that may be his last words on this particular topic ...

Junk science: $100 billion wasted on a pointless "missile defense" system

I'm sure something good came of the $100 billion we've spent on our worthless missile defense program -- there must be at least $1 billion of goodness there. Sigh. Creationism is not necessarily the worst form of junk science...
Kung Fu Monkey: I Miss Republicans.

An attempt to launch an interceptor missile as part of the U.S. missile defence shield failed early Wednesday in the first test of the system in nearly two years ...
...This test, by the way, was cancelled a few days ago [previously] because of rain. Because. Of. Rain. And please note that the previous few successes were because the target missle had homing beacons in them, tuned to the exact frequency of the intercepting rockets. Now, you may mock this, but even now, we are negotiating with Iran and North Korea to have all their missiles emit this radio frequency. So joke's on you.

This is what we get for about $100 billion up to now, with about another $100 billion more spent in the next 5 years ... for these test results.

You understand, I'm not against defense spending. I'm not going to rant about how many school lunches this could buy. I'm ranting about junk science.

$100 billion dollars against an attack mode which is literally the most inconvenient, least likely way for bad guys to kill Yanks. Terrorists don't have missiles. Terrorists have VANS. A white-panel-truck defense shield, THAT would be worth our money. Tie the INS database into the Ryder rental computer. Now we're talking science.
Lots of smart people campaigned for that missile defense program. I'm sure they had their reasons, but I suspect the smart ones believed it would cost trillions and take fifty years to develop. Or maybe they were smart but deluded.

By the time these systems actually work:
  1. the AI systems required to run them will have their own interests, and they hopefully won't involve us.
  2. terrorists will be able to drop hydrogen bombs out of the back of freighters and detonate them offshore.

Teaching the controversy - gravitation and the law of unintended consequences

The Onion | Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity With New 'Intelligent Falling' Theory

We need to teach the all the controversies.
.... The ECFR [Evangelical Center For Faith-Based Reasoning], in conjunction with the Christian Coalition and other Christian conservative action groups, is calling for public-school curriculums to give equal time to the Intelligent Falling theory. They insist they are not asking that the theory of gravity be banned from schools, but only that students be offered both sides of the issue 'so they can make an informed decision.'

'We just want the best possible education for Kansas' kids,' Burdett said.

Proponents of Intelligent Falling assert that the different theories used by secular physicists to explain gravity are not internally consistent. Even critics of Intelligent Falling admit that Einstein's ideas about gravity are mathematically irreconcilable with quantum mechanics. This fact, Intelligent Falling proponents say, proves that gravity is a theory in crisis.
When I was a child, I was taught a bizarre alternate world history where the 'Children's Crusade' was a good thing. That's what the state schools (almost all Catholic) taught in Quebec in the 1960s until the mid 1970s.

As a strategy this was not overly successful. Within 10 years the Catholic church had been swept from power (Quebec had been a quasi-theocratic state) and church attendance plummeted.

Evangelicals should worry a bit about their successes in teaching religion in science classes. They may discover the law of unintended consequences.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

DeLong on the business of oil

How oil companies make money, and some other aspects of a most important enterprise: Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: John McGowan Seeks a Guide for the Perplexed.

But that's not the best part of the essay. DeLong continues on to discuss how American business shifted from a paternatlistic management style in the 1910-1980 period to an ownership coopetition mode in 1980 and beyond.

Comparative immunology: crocodiles make your immune system look wimpy

Eons ago, when I was a young medical student, I was really interested in comparative immunology and in the evolutionary history of the immune system. I figured there had to be gold in comparing how different organisms evolved different solutions to the pathogen problem. Of course I had a zillion interests, so that one came and went.

It's nice to know that research in comparative immunology has since borne fruit. It turns out crocodiles have one heck of an immune system...
Science News Article |

... The crocodile's immune system is much more powerful than that of humans, preventing life-threatening infections after savage territorial fights which often leave the animals with gaping wounds and missing limbs.

"They tear limbs off each other and despite the fact that they live in this environment with all these microbes, they heal up very rapidly and normally almost always without infection," said U.S. scientist Mark Merchant, who has been taking crocodile blood samples in the Northern Territory.

... "If you take a test tube of HIV and add crocodile serum it will have a greater effect than human serum. It can kill a much greater number of HIV viral organisms," Britton said from Darwin's Crocodylus Park, a tourism park and research center.

Britton said the crocodile immune system worked differently from the human system by directly attacking bacteria immediately an infection occurred in the body.

"The crocodile has an immune system which attaches to bacteria and tears it apart and it explodes. It's like putting a gun to the head of the bacteria and pulling the trigger," he said...
So what's the downside of that sort of immune system? Do crocs get nasty auto-immune disorders? It's odd that this is a press release now; the HIV work was done in 1998. I doubt there will be many practical implications; but this is great basic scienc work.

Monday, August 15, 2005

The day of the American engineer has passed

Race for engineering edge to be won, lost in colleges - BUSINESS

The US is graduating fewer engineers every year, and fewer native Americans are attending US engineering schools:
Pacific Rim nations are graduating great numbers of engineers and are threatening to seize the mantle of industrial innovation that was pivotal to making the U.S. economy globally dominant. Last year, foreign nationals also won almost 60 percent of U.S. engineering doctorates.

Experts warn that the U.S. lead is slipping away.

'We are being outproduced in engineering graduates - both undergraduate and graduate level - by Pacific Rim countries, and the comparison will be more extreme as the years go by,' said Richard Heckel, founder of Engineering Trends, a research consultancy. 'From an engineering standpoint, the future leaders of the world are going to come from the Pacific Rim.
I'd read this in a local Knight-Ridder paper and decided I'd comment on it, but I had to use Google News to find a citeable source. That search also turned up a similar complaint from Australia. Bottom line, this isn't something unique to the US. It's likely also true in Canada, Germany, France, the UK, etc. I bet it's even true in Japan.

Engineering is a hard discipline and it's not very financially rewarding in wealthy nations. Engineers work in cubicles, MBAs get offices. Getting an MBA takes some focus and a bit of work, getting an engineering degree takes substantially more work and some serious math ability. Why be an underpaid mechanical engineer when with less effort one can be an overpaid finance officer?

The day of engineering has passed in the wealthy nations. There's nothing anyone can do to bring it back. Don't let your daughters be engineers.

Qwest: good employees, awful company

It must be awful to work for Qwest Communications, my DSL service provider. The Qwest employees I've spoken with have been patient and personable, but they're embedded in an awfully dysfunctional company. That can't be much fun.

In our prior home Qwest provided my DSL connection, and VISI (excellent company) was my ISP [1]. The prior residents of our new home used Qwest as well. We moved across the alley and kept our phone number. How hard can that be?

Hard, evidently.

Qwest has so far slipped installation dates twice (most recently after my wife stayed home waiting), messed up the ISP access (switching me to MSN) and misassigned the service level (to their overpriced video-delivery wannabe option).

When you call Qwest you're also enrolled in a diabolical experiment without any evidence of informed consent. They've invested millions in creating the most insanely infuriating voicebot. The voice misrecognition system responds to even the most polite and careful speech with a carefully calibrated sarcastic urbanity designed to crush any spirit. I can only guess Qwest is testing out some new instrument of torture. Fortunately hitting 0 repeatedly bypasses it.

Sigh. If only I could force George Bush to be an anonymous Qwest customer...

Update 8/16/05: Just to accentuate the theme of good employees, bad company our installer went way beyond the call of duty today. If Qwest's management were the equal of their front line employees their voice recognition system would die an ugly death. Indeed, were I to learn that a Qwest exec had publicly executed their voice recognition system (and corresponding vendor) I'd be tempted to buy stock in them.

[1] Sadly VISI's residential ISP services are probably doomed since our scum-infested government has sold us out again.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The intelligent design fight introduces some interesting thoughts

Evolution vs. Religion - Quit pretending they're compatible. By Jacob Weisberg

At least Bush's attack on biology is producing some interesting discussions. Weisberg tosses aside the commonplace convention that one can be both a traditional christian and a 'believer' in natural selection:
That evolution erodes religious belief seems almost too obvious to require argument. It destroyed the faith of Darwin himself, who moved from Christianity to agnosticism as a result of his discoveries and was immediately recognized as a huge threat by his reverent contemporaries. In reviewing The Origin of Species in 1860, Samuel Wilberforce, the bishop of Oxford, wrote that the religious view of man as a creature with free will was 'utterly irreconcilable with the degrading notion of the brute origin of him who was created in the image of God.'
For Weisberg the truce between science and religion is a built on a 'white lie' and it's time for the old battle to rage anew.

Weisberg clearly has a point, and the catholic church agrees with him. The basic tenets of most of the world's religion are in conflict with the idea of humans as a random and possibly transient and superficial event in the history of the world.

It's not impossible to reconcile deity with natural selection. Personally, I find it easier to imagine a deity that fires up universe and waits to see what develops; creating entities in one's 'own image' seems to me rather dull and vain. I like to hope a deity is a bit beyond that.

Or one could always invoke the 'incomprensibility of God' clause, or assume that God creates Man by choosing to inhabit the one of a trillion, trillion universes in which Man by chance evolves. Still, these ideas are a bit of a stretch for most religions.

Religion places Man at the center of things. Natural selection makes him just another miraculous species. That's a genuine conflict.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

New to Google: very focal searches (single slot value)

Google Blog: Fill in the blanks
Sometimes one wants to use a search engine to find a very specific piece of information rather than to learn about a topic. If search engines were truly intelligent, you could just pose a question the same way you would ask a person. An alternative is to get the search engine to 'fill in the blank.' So instead of asking [who invented the parachute?], you can enter the query [the parachute was invented by *]. (The blank, or wildcard, search is marked by * - an asterisk.)

There is so much text on the web that this method often works well, but to make it more effective, we've improved the way results are found in response to queries containing such blanks. This includes allowing softer pattern matching, if necessary, and promoting results in which the blank filler is relatively more frequent in the context of the query.
The tibia is a part of the *.

This is exceptionally interesting.

Humor at the NSA: your van is ready now

Wired News: Router Flaw Is a Ticking Bomb
Lynn: Air Force (Office of Special Investigations). NSA, is what I'm told, but he wouldn't show me his credentials. There were a lot of flashy badges around from lots of three-letter agencies. So they take me to a maintenance area and I'm surrounded by people ... and one of them says (to another guy), 'You've got the van ready?' I'm going, 'Oh my god.' And they go, 'Just kidding!... Oh, man, you rock! We can't thank you enough.' And I'm just sitting there, like still pale white. They all shook my hand.

I get the feeling that they were in the audience because they were told that there was a good chance that I was about to do something that would cause a serious problem. And when they realized that I was actually there to pretty much clue them in on ... the storm that's coming ... they just couldn't say enough nice things about me...

Pharming - there's no dodging this net risk

Pharming - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Click on a bookmark. Go to your bank site. Enter your user name and password. Continue to work. And now you're penniless.

This is a 'man in the middle attack' in computer security parlance. Such attacks are well understood from a theoretical perspective. What's happened here is that they're now being impelemented remotely. The latest revelation that Cisco routers can be hacked and reprogrammed is hardly reassuring.

This seems a much more severe problem than "phishing" attacks.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

We too are manipulated by our parasites

Manipulative Malaria Parasite Makes You More Attractive (to Mosquitoes) - New York Times

It is becoming clear that many, if not all, parasites alter the behaviors of their hosts. Research shows malaria-infected mosquitoes vary their biting behavior depending on the parasite's life cycle. Now we learn that infected human children smell more attractive to mosquitoes:
After studying 12 sets of children, the scientists discovered a striking pattern. 'Gametocyte-infected children attracted about twice as many mosquitoes as either uninfected ones or ones infected with nontransmissible stages,' Dr. Koella said. 'The results really jump out.'

The infected children did not show symptoms like fever, a common situation in Africa. Nevertheless, the researchers treated them with anti-malaria drugs on the day of their study. Two weeks later, after the medicine had cleared the parasites, the scientists repeated the experiments with the same three children. They found that the cured children were no more attractive to the mosquitoes than the others.
I'm starting to worry that the 'toxoplasma alters personality' claim may be valid.

Throughout most of human history we carried a very large number of parasites in our bodies -- particularly worms. How has losing those worms changed our behavior?

Update 8/10: Still thinking about our friends the worms. Some think the absence of worms is the cause of some inflammatory bowel diseases (ulcerative colitics especially). So if worms would make their hosts careless about hygeine, and probably careless about many things, would removing our parasitic worms give rise to obsessive-compulsive disorder? Does being wormless make some people unusually rigid and puritanical? Does having worms promote careless behavior?

Monday, August 08, 2005

Snowball earth

Bacteria froze the Earth, researchers say | CNET

I need to buy (or borrow, our bookcases are full) a modern book on geo-history. When I was a kid snowball earth was still a mystery ...
... Several [Caltech] graduate students, along with supervising professor Joe Kirschvink, have released a paper presenting their explanation of what caused "Snowball Earth," a periodic deep freeze of Earth's atmosphere that has been theorized for years. The Caltech team argues that 2.3 billion years ago, cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, gained the ability to break down water, which in turn released a flood of oxygen into the atmosphere.

That oxygen reacted with the atmospheric methane, which insulated the Earth at the time, and broke it down. While the oxygen-methane reaction created the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, the protective nature of the barrier cracked.

Temperatures plunged to minus 50 degrees Celsius, and ice at the equator grew to 1 mile thick. Although this process took several million years, substantial damage to the methane layer could have occurred in the first 100,000 years.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Obsidian Wings doesn't care for Donald Rumsfeld

Obsidian Wings: Thanks, Don.

Every administration is supposed to have a bad guy. The Bush administration seems to feel Rove is not enough.
Some of you may have noticed that I loathe Donald Rumsfeld. I don't particularly loathe Bush -- I think he's a disaster as a President, but I can't seem to raise any real emotion towards him personally. But I do loathe Rumsfeld. And this is a lot of the reason why. I think that when we order kids to go off to fight and die in our name, we owe them as much support as we can muster. It should go without saying that we move heaven and earth to armor their vehicles, that we not nickel-and-dime their health care when they return, and so on. And it should go without saying that when we're unsure how many troops we will need, we err on the side of caution. I can easily understand how it might cross someone's mind to wonder whether generals overstate the number of troops they will need. (As I understand it, it's a standard response when the military doesn't want to do something: announce that it can't be done with less than half a million troops.) I can understand questioning them about this. I have a much harder time understanding how someone could just assume that he's right and all the people who have spent their lives thinking about military operations are wrong: for every one person who thinks like this and is a genius, there are (I'm estimating, of course) thousands who are just pig-headed idiots; and how someone could fail to consider the possibility that he was in the second group, not the first, is a mystery to me. But I absolutely cannot fathom how someone could be so confident in this assumption that he was willing to act on it in wartime, when the price of your being wrong will be a lot of dead soldiers, not to mention failing to achieve your objectives. That's a level of blind arrogance that I find breathtaking, and the idea that families across the country have buried their children because of it fills me with an enduring icy fury.
Extraordinary and irrationally persistent self-confidence is the mark of many powerful men -- but not of the great. Bush and Rumsfeld seem to have this virus. They are not the first such to lead the way to disaster.

I am not as kind to Bush as the author is. I believe Bush is very smart, and he has chosent to retain and reward Rumsfeld.

The Strib on Bush's attack on science - a good, short, editorial

Minneapolis Star Tribune Editorial: Origins/Don't mix science, religion

Straightforward, short, clear, well written. Our home town paper is improving lately!
President Bush says both evolution and "intelligent design" should be taught in schools "so people can understand what the debate is about." Trouble is, there is no real debate; you can't have a debate between a religious belief and science. They're apples and oranges. They don't equate. Sure, you can discuss the intelligent design concept in schools, but that should happen in a humanities or social science course. Evolution should be taught in biology class. Mixing is not wise, especially in the biology class.

In the study of knowledge, researchers refer to the "cognitive domain" and the "affective domain." Cognition involves processes like comprehension, analysis and synthesis. Affective learning involves awareness and valuing. Science is cognitive. Intelligent design is from the affective side. The problem is that intelligent design seeks to disguise itself as cognitive. It is not.

Intelligent design argues that science can't explain all of creation's complexity and that, therefore, there must be an intelligent designer behind it all. Actually, all it means is that science's job is unfinished. It will always be unfinished. Maybe there was an intelligent designer and maybe there wasn't, but the question is irrelevant to science.

This is a tired but dangerous topic. Science is so incredibly valuable to human society -- indeed, you could say that the ability to do science defines humanity -- that we should no longer tolerate the nonsense that seeks to place intelligent design and evolution on the same plane, in competition. Scientists don't try to explain how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and the theologically inclined shouldn't try to connect the natural selection of evolution to an intelligent designer -- at least not in a science class.

Lest we totally offend those with religious sensibilities, we have great respect for the earnest worship of a deity. That, too, enhances humanity greatly. But religion and science are a bit like cornstarch and water: You can add water to cornstarch, but the reverse doesn't work well. It's OK to add science to religion, but adding religion to science yields an unusable product that dishonors both the religion and the science.
In a sign of the times this article is accompanied by online ads, including some for some esoteric books.

One by one biologists have presented plausible hypotheses and experimental data to resolve the "exceptions" favored by the ID people. This work has advanced our understanding of natural selection; often adversity is strengthening. Biologists are showing their spine, and strengthening their reasoning.

There is one argument biologists cannot refute -- because it's about religion, not science. If you begin with the assumption that humanity is the 'end point' of evolution, then natural selection utterly fails. Natural selection is random and highly contingent, there is nothing inevitable about us. That's the real clash. Almost every religion has the underlying assumption that we are "the point", the reason for things. That attitude is indeed utterly inconsistent with our theories of natural selection and evolution.

That's ok. If you believe that, then you believe the absolutely logical and reasonable position of the catholic church -- that evolution occurs guided by the Hand of God the Designer. That's utterly plausible -- but thus far it's not science. If we start to be able to do experiments with godhood then it may become science; but thus far all the experiments we've tried (prayer studies mostly) have failed.

Gordon's Notes: "Tired of hearing about the war?" Satire it was.

I received a note about this posting of mine objecting (politely) to my statement that Trudeau's description of BD's war injuries was "boring".

To clarify, Gordon's Notes: Tired of hearing about the war? Change the channel, is satire. Of course when I wrote it I could hear my own voice 'dripping' with sarcasm, but that doesn't come across that well in a semi-anonymous blog.

Apologies to anyone who thought I was advocating "changing the channel" to get away from news of veteran suffering. I meant precisely the opposite. We should raise our taxes to pay for the care disabled veterans are going to need. We should also impeach George Bush, but those two objectives are independent. Even Bush's supporters may be willing to raise taxes to care for our disabled and the families of the dead and disabled, I doubt I'll be able to convince many of them to boot him out of office.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Tired of hearing about the war? Change the channel.

Forget the War? Many Can't - New York Times

Torture. Suffering. Death. War is thrilling at first, but it does drag after a while. Doesn't everyone find Doonesbury boring these days, as Trudeau persists in exploring the very unfunny experiences of BD? [Update: I'm being sarcastic. See the comments.]

Bob Herbert is particularly stuck on this topic. Just can't seem to shake it. You'd think he'd know his ratings must be falling. Here he tells yet another story no-one will read:
...I interviewed Specialist Gonzalez on Tuesday in the quiet, air-conditioned offices of Disabled American Veterans, which is helping to prepare him for the transition to civilian life. He sat rigidly on the edge of a sofa, his left hand clinging to the knee of his wife, Any, who is 27. They were married last February.

'She has to be my eyes now,' he said.

I asked Specialist Gonzalez if he had ever become depressed during his ordeal. 'Yes, I did, sir,' he said. 'Actually, I've been getting more depressed lately than in the beginning.'

After a pause, he said, 'Frustration makes me sad sometimes. And I have mood changes. From very happy to kind of sad from one moment to another. And I've become judgmental. Criticizing others. I do that most of the time. Even Any. People have pointed it out to me.'

His ability to concentrate has deteriorated, he said. 'I have to accept it. My room is like a whole map where I keep big chart boards to remind myself which day I went to the gym, which bills I have to pay, so I don't pay them again.'

These are the kinds of sacrifices some Americans are making because of the war. If we're already sick of hearing about the troops getting killed, there's not much hope left for increased attention to those who are wounded.

Specialist Gonzalez said his chief worry, the concern that keeps him awake at night, is what lies in wait when he finally leaves the hospital and returns - newly married and without many of the tools he previously took for granted - to the 'real world.'
The New York Times magazine covered this topic in an excellent article last year. It's been noted elsewhere [1] that the combination of modern body armor, the use of high potency explosive devices in Iraq, and sophisticated trauma care has shifted the spectrum of morbidity for US soldiers from death to head injury.

These veterans with post-traumatic brain disorders will never fully recover (barring radical stem cell therapies that will be developed, thanks to Bush, not in the US but in China). They may work again, but they will never follow the road they started on. I recall one calculation that estimated that for every fatality noted in Iraq there were 5-10 significant head injuries with some measure of lifelong effect. That would put the number of cognitively impacted veterans now at 9,000 to 17,000.

Let's say the cumulative total for the 10 year Iraq war ends up being on the order of 50,000 disabled veterans. If each one is compensated for their lifelong disability at about $2 million each, that's $100 billion in addition to their medical care.

We should increase our taxes to pay for their disability. Or we could send the bill to George Bush -- not because he chose to invade Iraq, but rather because he chose to retain the incompetent architects of the occupation.

[1] I can't find my 2003/2004 post on this topic -- which is how I discovered Blogger's search function is really weird. Hard to believe Blogger is owned by Google! Well, at least the performance and reliability has recovered from last year.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Mars is for the elderly

New Scientist Breaking News - Cosmic rays may prevent long-haul space travel

Maybe I'll get to be an astronaut after all. Barring major genetic modification or technical breakthroughs, space travel may be too hazardous for the young. Those past reproductive ages, perhaps only 30 years from death, might be risking only 5-10 years at the end of their life. Unfortunately dementia seems to be fairly likely, based on mouse experiments.

Space diets may yet go high fiber.

The latest GOP Orwellian ploy: Creationism as "social context"

Gordon's Notes: No surprise: Bush wants creationism taught in the schools

The GOP is stunningly Orwellian, and it's even infected Bush's "science" advisor:
On Tuesday, the president's conservative Christian supporters and the leading institute advancing intelligent design embraced Mr. Bush's comments [advocating the teaching of creationism in science classes] while scientists and advocates of the separation of church and state disparaged them. At the White House, where intelligent design has been discussed in a weekly Bible study group, Mr. Bush's science adviser, John H. Marburger 3rd, sought to play down the president's remarks as common sense and old news.

Mr. Marburger said in a telephone interview that "evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology" and "intelligent design is not a scientific concept." Mr. Marburger also said that Mr. Bush's remarks should be interpreted to mean that the president believes that intelligent design should be discussed as part of the "social context" in science classes.
The phrase "social context" is critical here. It's the latest creationist ploy in their attack on science. We can expect to hear a great deal about it, including when we teach meteorology, geography, economics, sociology, biology, cosmology and anything else that offends the christian right.

I love social context. Let's teach it -- in a class on the history of science. Heck, let's teach Bush's favorite creation narrative in every school in America. Just don't call it science.

PS. Impeach Marburger.

Is it really legal to transfer music from your CDs to an iPod?

The iTunes Music Store (Part 3)

Most of us think this is covered by 'fair use' personal copy exemptions. An extensive Macintouch posting suggests things are much fuzzier:
...There is also the concept of 'fair use' which allows you to republish for the purpose of review, commentary, parody, etc. The standard is fuzzy with regard to how much you can copy and where the boundaries of fair use actually apply.

Duplication for personal use (when not using a device with SCMS) is not permitted under the copyright law, except using a loose interpretation of fair use. Same for the right to copy music to your hard drive and load into an iPod. The recording industry says that these activities are not valid applications of fair use, but it has not sued anybody for them, so the matter remains a gray area.
There's quite a bit in the post. If a user purchases a lot of FairPlay protected music, and Apple has to prevent burning/playing of non-FairPlay protected music ...

Update: Looks like it is legal!

No surprise: Bush wants creationism taught in the schools

Bush: Intelligent Design Should Be Taught

I wish the reporters had asked the obvious question - should we teach various versions of intelligent design, such as cyber-deities, Hindu deities, turtles, etc? Of course if they did that, they'd be journalists. At least they asked the key question.
WASHINGTON -- President Bush said Monday he believes schools should discuss 'intelligent design' alongside evolution when teaching students about the creation of life.

During a round-table interview with reporters from five Texas newspapers, Bush declined to go into detail on his personal views of the origin of life. But he said students should learn about both theories, Knight Ridder Newspapers reported.

'I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought,' Bush said. 'You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, the answer is yes.'

The theory of intelligent design says life on earth is too complex to have developed through evolution, implying that a higher power must have had a hand in creation.

Christian conservatives _ a substantial part of Bush's voting base _ have been pushing for the teaching of intelligent design in public schools. Scientists have rejected the theory as an attempt to force religion into science education.
I think there's a consensus emerging in the rationalist world that Bush's strongest characteristic is not his faith in free markets or in a Christian God, but rather his deep suspicion of reason, logic, rationality and science (he's ok with technology, but not science). Not for the first time, he declares himself as 'arational'.