Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Failure is Not an Option

Recyled action movie themes war plan.

No, in-f*&%$#g-deed. Failure is not an option - it's an outcome, and unfortunately, a very likely one for those who thoughts are all stupid cliches.

You Know You Are Annoyed

...when you find yourself asking "What would Tony do?"

And it was Soprano you had in mind.

A General to be Proud of

Joint Chiefs Chairman General Peter Pace showed some commendable backbone in a joint interview with Donald Rumsfeld. Dana Millbank tells the story in this Washington Post article.

When UPI's Pam Hess asked about torture by Iraqi authorities, Rumsfeld replied that "obviously, the United States does not have a responsibility" other than to voice disapproval.

But Pace had a different view. "It is the absolute responsibility of every U.S. service member, if they see inhumane treatment being conducted, to intervene, to stop it," the general said.

Rumsfeld interjected: "I don't think you mean they have an obligation to physically stop it; it's to report it."

But Pace meant what he said. "If they are physically present when inhumane treatment is taking place, sir, they have an obligation to try to stop it," he said, firmly.

Rumsfeld was defense secretary in 2003 when the United States invaded Iraq, and he has remained in that job for the occupation of the past 32 months. But in his briefing yesterday, he at times sounded as if he were merely observing the Iraq war on television.

Pace also wasn't buying Rumsfeld's silly attempt to define the insurgents out of existence. This kind of guts has cost some other Generals their jobs, but if Pace gets fired, he will still have his honor - I'm not sure that can be said of some other senior generals. (linked from Kevin Drum's Political Animal.)

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Teaching Darwin

I don't think I care whether kids are taught that evolution is "true" or that God or little green men intervened repeatedly in evolution. I do care that Darwin's reasoning be taught. If textbooks and teachers do that, I'm happy to leave people to form their own opinions. My view of the highlights of that reasoning:

1) Animals and plants are not just a random assortment of biological designs. There are clear patterns of relationships, with some much more closely related than others. They can be organized rather neatly into hierarchies. This much was known to the ancients, and rather developed by CD's time.

2) Humans have applied breeding selection to breed diverse types in a single species, dogs and pigeons being a couple of types of interest to Darwin. We now know that Chihuahua, Saint Bernard, and all the others have been bred from wolves in the past several thousand years.

3) Geological time is immense beyond the human scale of imagination. Darwin knew the world was ten or hundreds of millions of years old, but probably didn't guess the true age.

4) Competition for survival in the natural world selects for traits much like human breeders do, albeit more gradually and randomly.

5) The relatively short geological history of Islands like the Galapagos shows how a single colonizing species (like Darwin's finches) can diversify to occupy the available ecological niches in a fairly short time.

6) Geological history shows a clear progression of species. The creatures present in one geological age are often not present in either preceeding or succeeding ages. Dozens of such successions were already known in Darwin's time. Now it is hundreds or thousands.

Since Darwin's time a few major and millions of small confirmations have been found.

7) We now know that for most of Earth's history only tiny single-celled creatures lived, and for hundreds of millions more, only very small and simple animals and plants. The times these creatures lived can now be dated rather precisely, often to one part in a thousand.

8) Most importantly of all, we now know the molecular basis of genetics and evolution. DNA provides not only the mechanism by which changes can take place and be preserved, but also preserves traces of much of the history of those changes. In many cases we know not only the gene that performs a particular function in humans, but what it's analogue did in yeast, and much about the changes that led to its current function in humans (and other mammals).

This is what I think needs to be taught, not some silly dogma about Darwin being "right." We should report - let the kids decide.

UPDATE: In the comments, Rae Ann mentions one important line of evidence I left out - the evidence of comparative embryology. I've heard a fundamentalist minister ask: "has anyone ever seen a half-fish, half-human?" A silly question, but if you look at early embryo's, fish, reptile, bird, and human, they look a lot alike. They all have gill-slits, which, in fish become actual gills. Humans recruit them to become bones, ear-holes, and other things. The early studies in this area were roughly contemporaneous with Darwin.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Wilkerson on Cheney

From an AP interview:

In an Associated Press interview, former Powell chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson also said President Bush was "too aloof, too distant from the details" of postwar planning. Underlings exploited Bush's detachment and made poor decisions, Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson blamed Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and like-minded aides. He said Cheney must have sincerely believed that Iraq could be a spawning ground for new terror assaults, because "otherwise I have to declare him a moron, an idiot or a nefarious bastard."
Ummm, Larry, sometimes the obvious interpretation is the correct one. And should that coordinating conjunction be an "and?"

Hang Down Your Head, Tom Delay

Eight-term Republican Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham pleaded guilty to conspiring to accept bribes in return for influencing defense contracts today. Bob Ney, Tom Delay, and a few others might be looking down that lonesome road someday soon. As far as I can tell, Cunningham is not particularly central to the vast network of Republican scumbaggery - that role goes to Abramoff and friends - Delay, Reed, Ney, maybe Rove and Nordquist.

As for former "top-gun" Duke - he probably wont be flying much for a while now.

UPDATE: This San Diego Union-Tribune time-line catalogs the spectacular rise and calamitous decline of the now former congressman. Hints of Shakespearean trajedy here, but just a bit to venal to make it.


Reading the news is very depressing. It seems quite possible that our President is not only stupid but also rather unhinged. Seymour Hersh has yet another disturbing story on Iraq in The New Yorker.

Patrick Clawson, believed to be close to Cheney and Rumsfeld's thinking says:

He continued, “We want to draw down our forces, but the President is prepared to tough this one out. There is a very deep feeling on his part that the issue of Iraq was settled by the American people at the polling places in 2004.” The war against the insurgency “may end up being a nasty and murderous civil war in Iraq, but we and our allies would still win,” he said. “As long as the Kurds and the Shiites stay on our side, we’re set to go. There’s no sense that the world is caving in. We’re in the middle of a seven-year slog in Iraq, and eighty per cent of the Iraqis are receptive to our message.”
What a fool. Right now they might want our help to crush the Sunnis, but they will turn on us as soon as they feel strong enough.

Junior officers and generals tell that the war is going badly:
the number of attacks in Iraq has increased from a hundred and fifty a week to more than seven hundred a week in the past year
But they are afraid to speak publically.

About the President:
“The President is more determined than ever to stay the course,” the former defense official said. “He doesn’t feel any pain. Bush is a believer in the adage ‘People may suffer and die, but the Church advances.’ ” He said that the President had become more detached, leaving more issues to Karl Rove and Vice-President Cheney. “They keep him in the gray world of religious idealism, where he wants to be anyway,” the former defense official said. Bush’s public appearances, for example, are generally scheduled in front of friendly audiences, most often at military bases. Four decades ago, President Lyndon Johnson, who was also confronted with an increasingly unpopular war, was limited to similar public forums. “Johnson knew he was a prisoner in the White House,” the former official said, “but Bush has no idea.”

Americans committed a terrible blunder - I'm tempted to say crime - in electing this man, but so far most of the bill has been paid by a few thousands of American soldiers and the hapless Iraqis. I'm not sure that we will be able to say that five years from now.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Rent: The Movie

I just saw Rent, the movie and, predictably enough, it had me from the first chord (or was it drumbeat). I've never seen the show, but have listened to and loved the music for a long time. Most of the original cast is here, and if they don't quite look 23 anymore, well, I don't either. The new Mimi, Rosario Dawson, is adorable and does a great job on the songs, even if her voice doesn't project quite the raw sexual energy of the original Mimi. The other major newbie is Joanne, and she's great too.

I seem to be irresistably drawn to this sort of big, brash, loud, and sentimental musical, even though I'm pretty much the "yuppie scum*" the characters despise (*except for not being either young or upwardly mobil, that is). I only wish there were more of them.

The near extinction of the movie musical is, to me, one of the sadder aspects of the modern movie doldrums. If you like this sort of thing, be sure to see it. If you're not sure, check it out. (PG-13 for language, drug use, homosexual themes, etc.)

PS - My wife was slightly less enthusiastic. She thought the acting was a bit weak - but hey, the music is the thing.

Angel's drum, dance, and acrobatic number "Today for You" was pretty much worth the price of admission.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Remembering Iapetus

Iapetus was a Titan, the son of Uranus by Gaea, the Greek Earth goddess. More importantly, for my purposes, it is the name geologists have given a vast ocean that existed from 500 million years ago to 400 million years ago. As to my purposes - I want to talk about elementary education.

I've mentioned before that I don't approve of the horror modern elementary education has for memorization. There is probably some basis to it. I was of the generation that learned how to compute square roots by hand, and pretty nasty work it was too, the more so because we really had no idea what we were doing, merely cycling through some memorized steps - understanding that algorithm takes a bit of calculus, and we hadn't studied algebra yet. Of course calculators made such skills obsolete, like the algorithms for long division, and even multiplication and addition of multi-digit numbers. The reaction to this overemphasis on rote memorization has, as usual, been an over-reaction to the extent that even learning the multiplication tables has been deprecated. I think this is based on an underappreciation of the role that memory plays in thought.

Which brings me back to Iapetus. One of the great geological detective stories is that of the unravelling of the history of this ocean that perished before the first vertebrates walked on land. This story is a major focus of Richard Fortey's book Earth: An Intimate History. The mountain ranges resulting from the extinction of this ocean stretch across much of Eastern North America and Westernmost Europe (The Appalachians, The Caledonides of Scotland, Wales, and Norway). The strata of these mountains present an almost incomprehensible jumble, compressed, folded, older rocks pushed on top of younger not once but many times, scrambled, cooked in the depths of the Earth and brought forth again by 400 million years of erosion. The elucidation of the mystery is the story of a great idea, tectonic plates, but even more the story of generations of patient mapping and detective work.

Fortey describes John Dewey, one of the elucidators:

To hold the whole of the Appalachians and half the Caldonides in his brain came naturally to him
Without that great resource of memory, solving the mystery would have been impossible. It is the same in every science - your knowledge, your memory, is your greatest analytical tool. This is true in every profession: the doctor, the lawyer, the mathematician all build their analytical skills on a great mountain of knowledge. Primitive hunter-gatherers are no different - each one has a depth of knowledge of the local biogeography that is the envy of biologists working among them. Reasoning about history is almost impossible without those convenient signposts of remembered dates.

Our memories are never better than they were in our childhood. Kids need to be acquiring knowledge: facts, figures, and algorithms. For most kids, it's even fun.

Let There Be Light

Josh Marshall has a link to this Martin Walker UPI story which indicates that the UK might be about to get the kind of investigation into the decision to go to war in Iraq that our gutless Congress has refused to supply us.

This will not be a happy Thanksgiving for President George Bush, but he need just look across the Atlantic to know it could be worse. His only reliable ally, Britain's Tony Blair, now seems to be facing the full-scale parliamentary inquiry into the Iraq war -- its justification, conduct and aftermath -- that Bush has been able to avoid.

Leading opposition figures from the Conservative, Liberal-Democratic, Scottish National and Plaid Cymru (Welsh) parties have banded together to back the cross-party motion titled "Conduct of Government policy in relation to the war against Iraq" to demand that the case for an inquiry be debated in the House of Commons. They seem assured of the 200 signatures required to get such a debate -- and then the loyalty of Blair's dismayed and disillusioned Labor members of Parliament will be sorely tested.

About time. If this happens and casts some revealing light on GW's war, maybe our congress will follow - especially if a few of the more extreme Republican criminals are on the way to the slammer by then.

Righteous Spears

Mike T. weighed in with an attack on our buddy Chucky D. in the comments below. I don't know Mike, and don't recall seeing him here before, so I suppose we probably won't see him again. I'm a little bit sorry because there are lots of questions I would like to ask him, mainly about motive, but partly about belief.

What motivates a guy to go out to a small-time blog and attack the mighty fortress of Darwin, armed only with the twin spears of ignorance and folly? And why throw in that rather improbable bit about having studied advanced physics and chemistry? I suppose it is possible that Mike is being truthful in that regard, but it's pretty hard, as Lee noted, to believe that he actually absorbed the content of those courses if he thinks Darwinian natural selection violates the second law of thermodynamics.

Anyway, Mike, come on by. We love you even if you are a sinner - against logic, reason, and even maybe that old Ninth Commandment.

Blown Away

NPR had an interview this AM with an author who has written on life's little annoyances. One annoyance was those irritating blown in cards that fall out of every magazine you get. His revenge - don't fill them out, just send them in. The advertiser has to pay the postage, so it does send them a hint.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Michael Behe Hee

CNN had a multi-part show on "intelligent design" tonight, featuring Michael Behe, the Lehigh University biologist who is prominent among the IDers. I think it might have been part of the Paula Zero show. It was even-handed in the usual "some say the moon is a big old rock" but "others say it's made out of green cheese" sort of way. While they made it pretty clear that Behe is an isolated, even somewhat persecuted, figure I didn't see much presentation of the more mainstream view that Behe is a mediocrity who made a name for himself by embracing popular nonsense.

I didn't see the whole thing - it had already started when I turned it on, and it eventually became too annoying, but what I saw illustrated why TV usually does such a crappy job on this type of reporting. Behe got to show his lovely picture of a bacterial flagellum and talk about how it couldn't have arisen by chance, but Niles Eldridge was just a suit walking through a museum. This wasn't Eldrige's fault - if you give one guy a chance to set up models and pictures in his office and have a walking interview with another, it's not a fair exchange.

I thought this was a show with a pro-ID slant. In addition to the bacterial flagellum, the eye was mentioned as an example of something "too complex to have evolved by chance." It's not easy to explain how such structures did arise by chance, both because the history was no doubt complex and because it happened a very long time ago. In the case of the eye, we have a rough picture of the steps that evolution took, but the explanation is complex and can't be managed in one or even a few pictures. Of course there are many steps that are incompletely understood. No one knows the whole history of life on this planet or the whole pattern of evolution for any major biological system.

We have faith in evolution because it predicted, among many other things, that such intermediate steps must have occurred and we have found millions of examples since then fitting those patterns. The case for evolution was ironclad before the discovery of DNA, but DNA is the clincher. DNA not only provides the mechanism that Darwin could not quite apprehend but the molecular evidence of evolution in the distant past.

The bacterial flagellum is indeed a miracle of rare device - or evolution, I should say. This helical propeller is an intricate nanoscale machine powered by a tiny rotary engine whirling 1500 times a second. Some of what is known about its evolution is here at talk design. The link provides a lovely story and lots of pictures - minus Behe's colors and flashing lights.

What is known of the explanation fits perfectly the outline Darwin provided almost 150 years ago. Evolution proceeds by adapting old parts to new uses. He didn't know about the molecular scale - molecules weren't really invented yet, but the same principles operate. Evolution leaves its traces in the DNA. In many cases it is clear from the DNA how a few ancestral proteins gave rise to other proteins with apparently completely unrelated function.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Darwinian natural selection is how many chances God has had to prove it wrong - and declined. If it had turned out that different animals had different and unrelated hereditary mechanisms, evolution would have been dead, dead, dead. Instead, we see that all life, from the humblest bacterium to the most advanced mammals use the very same genetic mechanism. If, even today, we were to discover some animal or plant that did not fit into the existing pattern of life, we would, at the very least, have to expect some extraterrestial origin.

It is often said that "intelligent design" is untestable, but I don't believe it. If we could find clear evidence of evolutionary changes clearly "put in by hand" that would be evidence for ID - but we never see that, the only things IDers can point to are examples of changes not yet fully understood on the basis of natural selection. More tellingly, evolution provides us with many examples of "stupid design" - adaptations that are seemingly clumsy juryrigged things that are just what you would expect from catch-as-catch can chance, but not from a good engineer.

A classic example is the wiring of the human (vertebrate) eye - sort like a TV set with the wires and cables coming out of the screen instead of the back.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Passing Gas

A new study reported here by Andrew C Revkin in the New York Times, provides yet more evidence that our current experiment with the planets climate had entered new and perilous territory.

Shafts of ancient ice pulled from Antarctica's frozen depths show that for at least 650,000 years three important heat-trapping greenhouse gases never reached recent atmospheric levels caused by human activities, scientists are reporting today.

The measured gases were carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Concentrations have risen over the last several centuries at a pace far beyond that seen before humans began intensively clearing forests and burning coal, oil and other fossil fuels.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas (about 21 times more potent than CO2) and is scary partly because large amounts of it are generated when permafrost melts and because very large amounts exist in methane clathyrates in the deep ocean. The current Acrctic warming is melting a lot of permafrost and it's possible that increasing ocean temperatures could trigger very large methane releases. the good news is that it's lifetime in the atmosphere is short (half-life about 12 years).

It might be time for Exxon's cheerleaders to start clapping louder.


Even the crankiest of us should take a bit of time off to celebrate our blessings. So here goes: I'm thankful for my wife, my two great sons, my parents, and my siblings. I'm thankful to live in a country that is still pretty free and a good place to live. I'm thankful to have a job I like.

More blog relevantly, I'm thankful that the American people are waking up to the fact that we've put our fate so largely in the hands of scoundrels and incompetents.

I'm greatful that some people actually seem to read some of my rantings, and expecially for those who comment. I have learned something from each of you, and from some a lot. When I look around the blogosphere, I'm always amazed and humbled by how many people are writing such good stuff. The letters written by Civil War soldiers impress me with how literary and eloquent these ordinary soldiers once were. I think we may hope that the blogosphere is our chance for ordinary people (and others) to develop out literary and other abilities.

I should also thank Lubos, who for better and worse, first provoked me into blogging, and has also been, perhaps inadvertently, generous in providing both material for my fulminations and commentary on them. The bloggers on my blogroll have been especially educational to me, as has Lee.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Bibliomania: The Dark Side

Textbook publishers, too, have their role to play in Satan's legion. I don't want to make this a blanket condemnation, because there are a few prominent exceptions: Cambridge University Press and Springer, for example, who continue to publish nicely bound volumes of good stuff at usually quite reasonable prices. Overall, though, textbook prices have increased much more rapidly than inflation, and this has happened despite technological changes which have made it far cheaper to publish a textbook. Anyone who has recently paid for a college education knows that the savings have not been passed on to the students.

What has happened instead is that textbook publishers have become more skillful in exploiting the fact that students are a captive audience. They aren't really selling books to students, but to their teachers (who don't have to pay!). Many teachers are quite happy to assign their students several required textbooks, each costing about $150.

One striking effect of textbook inflation is the divergence in cost between textbooks sold for use by undergraduates and research level monographs (sold to researchers and graduate students) in the same field. The higher level, more advanced texts were formerly more expensive, probably because their much smaller audiences made the economics of scale much more unfavorable. Now the situation is almost reversed, with typical undergraduate textbooks two or three times as expensive as their more advanced counterparts.

But I really want to concentrate on two especially Satanic enterprises: McGraw-Hill and Wiley. Once upon a time these companies published lots of excellent texts on subjects in fields of interest to me (mostly physics and math). That ended a long time ago. Thanks to copyright laws which now essentially never expire, these companies continue to own the rights to a large number of classic texts, which they publish in shoddily bound editions at outrageous prices. Consider for example, the Wiley Classics library: The approximately forty year old three volume classic on Linear Operators by Dunford and Schwartz can now be purchase in a crummy paperback for about $340.

As usual, the largest share of blame goes to the corrupt and stupid jerks who constitute our Congress. Formerly, copyright expired 28 years (plus one extension) after issuance, a circumstance responsible for the many excellent books available from Dover at very reasonable prices. At the behest of greedy publishers, copyrights have now been extended to last 70 years beyond the death of the last surviving author.

It might be interesting to compare the history of optical astronomy in England. Key telescopic inventions were made in England which one might have expected to promote English astronomy. Thanks to English patent laws, they had the opposite effect. Because the key patents were held in England, it became to expensive to do astronomy in England, and leadership in the field passed to the continent.

Congress, in its zeal to protect the wealth of those already rich, threatens the engine of innovation that creates wealth. More on this topic some other time, perhaps.

I think a more appropriate copyright period for textbooks might be about 25 years, with no option for renewal - though significantly revised versions should be allowed their own, separate copyright, which would not affect the original work. This would have two beneficial effects: published work would fall into the public domain before it became of purely historical interest, and authors would be encouraged to revise existing editions if, and only if, progress in knowledge justified their separate existence. Copyright for other types of work (fiction, movies, music) should be quite separate and different, and, in most cases, longer.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Crazy for the Red, White and Blue

Amid the familiar evidence that Bush is lazy, disinterested in governing, impulsive, ignorant, and surrounded by yes women, from time to time we get a hint of the real, dynamic, bat-shit crazy leader of the free world. Did Bush target Wilson - nah, that had to be Cheney - Bush wouldn't be that kind of loose cannon, would he? Would he?

London's Daily Mirror has this story on a recently escaped secret British Memo talking about how Bush wanted to bomb Al-Jazeera right in the allied country where we had our headquarters.

The Daily Mirror reported that Bush spoke of targeting Al-Jazeera's headquarters in Doha, Qatar, when he met Blair at the White House on April 16, 2004. The Bush administration has regularly accused Al-Jazeera of being nothing more than a mouthpiece for anti-American sentiments.

Al-Jazeera offices in Iraq and Afghanistan have been hit by U.S. bombs or missiles, but each time the U.S. military said they were not intentionally targeting the broadcaster.
Just mentioning them in casual bomb conversation, I guess.

UPDATE: Juan Cole has this story and adds:
Plotting to assassinate civilian journalists in a friendly country is certainly against the law, and if Bush is ever impeached, this charge will certainly figure in the trial. Who knows, maybe the murder of Tarek Ayoub will be added to the charges. His daughter must be 4, now.
Tarek Ayoub was a journalist killed in one of the "accidental" bombings of Al-Jazeera.

Shoes of the Phisherman

Careful students of Lumology will not be surprised that guys with an IQ of 185 also do stupid things. Lumo, it seems, bit on a phishing email:

One month ago or so, I did a very stupid thing. A few hours after I wrote one of my reviews at, I received an e-mail inviting me to

(looks good, does not it?) and asking me to update my debit card number and so on to improve the community and so forth. ...

After opening a page that looked just like at, I entered my credit card number to the fraudulent website, and to show how really stupid I was, I also filled out another page with the social security number. (Please don't annoy me much with the messages about the credit history. I don't intend to borrow anything and I don't care.)

Not being the type to worry, Lumo just monitored his debit card until somebody charged $2415 worth of shoes to it. He was pleased but not surprised at how easy it was to get corporations to appreciate the error.
Actually I feel much better when simpletons like these ones are trying to steal my money because it is rather likely that they will lose, especially because all the corporations that I like and trust stand on my side.
OKay-e-e Lumo - just remember: you may love the corporation, but it will never love you.

Keep the Faith Baby

Penn Jillette, magician, director, large loud half of Penn and Teller, and, it seems, some kind of Cato Institute fellow of right-wing bullshit, was on NPR's This I believe this morning. Being skeptical myself by nature, I am not too enthusiastic about the program's premise, but, as a skeptic, it's tough for me to be sure.

It turns out that what Penn believes is that "There is no God." As a Cato Institute fellow, and ipso facto high in Satan's legions, that is exactly what you would expect him to say, whether he believed it or not.

I'm pretty sure the Good Bishop of Digne would also agree that Penn's statement was right on for one of his station.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Toast Watch

I've been reading the transcript of the Woodward - King interview and I just find it hard to believe that Woodward is telling the truth:

I did know that, back over two years ago, at the end of a very long
interview, substantive interview, for my book, "Plan of Attack," a source had, when I asked about Joe Wilson, told me that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA as a WMD analyst.

At that point, and on your show, I didn't know what that meant at all, because it was such a casual, off-hand remark.
Yeah, the source said to me, "I'll just casually slip you some information that destroys the career of the wife of this guy we're trying to smear right now. And, oh yeah, it might roll up her secret network too. So how did you like the bon bons?"

Bob may not be the brightest light on the Christmas tree, but he's not that #***** dumb. I find it hard to believe him. He was also kissing up to Fitz in this interview now - I wonder if he has some exposure.

HPGOF: A Review

I went to see Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire last night and was disappointed on a couple of levels. I should mention that I know the books well, and that to me the movie suffers badly by the comparison, so I'm probably a poor reviewer for those who only see the movies. I should also mention that I seem to wind up opposite to most of the professional reviewers, who liked Prisoner of Azkaban but not Sorcerer's Stone and Chanber of Secrets.

In GOF, Mike Newell confronts a more severe version of the problem Alfonso Cuaron faced in POA: how to fit a long and eventfull tale into movie format. Cuaron did pretty well by picking a few plot elements and concentrating on atmospherics - at considerable cost in logical coherence. This technique works less well for the much longer and more complicated GOF. Plot has become a few schematic posters and I found much of the atmospherics tedious - also Newell seems to lack Cuaron's artistic sensibility.

There were some bright spots: the scene with Moaning Myrtle in the prefect's bathroom was a bit heavy-handed but still very funny. The graveyard scene was pretty well done.

The first and third challenges became rather lame cartoons, with the first reduced to a tedious chase and the many interesting challenges of the maze reduced to portentious wandering in a dark and gloomy place.

Finally, I was surprized by the audience. There were few little kids, but lots of college age types. The movie started at 7:30, late for little ones on a school night, but the hour didn't keep them away from the midnight sale of the Half Blood Prince at my local bookstore.

YMMV of course, but for me, the books are so vastly superior a product that I almost wonder why I will bother buying the DVD when it comes out. Of course I will.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Lies and Torture

Torture does work. Not that it necessarily extracts useful or true information. But it does reliably get the victim to say what you want him or her to say. This was important to the Spanish Inquisition, it was important to Stalin, and evidently, to George Bush and Dick Cheney. The SI wasn't that fussy about whether or not Jews really ate babies and worshipped the devil. The important thing was to extract a confession so that the Crown and Church could sieze their property and execute the wretches. Stalin had somewhat similar motivations.

George and Dick, it seems, had a slightly more complicated plan: they wanted a justification for their Iraq adventure. Atrios has tracked down the story.

A recent Times article pointed out that the methods for torture we used were taken adapted from tolitarian communist techniques valued not for their success in obtaining the truth but in their ability to obtain false confessions.

Apparently that wasn't really a bug, but a feature. The Times also recently pointed that even though the Bush administration was warned that one of the information sources, al Libi, was full of shit they kept on using his information to justify the war.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Greatest

Inspired by Clifford Johnson's Newton vs. Einstein post over at Cosmic Variance, I want my own little "greatest" contest.

A young friend of mine who is a grad student at U of New Mexico was telling me about going to the regular seminars that Murray Gell-Mann comes down from Santa Fe to give. He added that he had stopped going because G-M was too bitchy or something of the sort. I said: "Don't stop going - he's the greatest living physicist!" Are there even any other contenders? Suggestions welcomed, but will likely be met with an argument!


Many democrats and other Bush haters have started referring to the ongoing revelations of the Fitzgerald investigation as "Fitzmas," because seeing these crooks unmasked is such a joyful occasion. Others find it a bit frivolous. And what about those among us not of the Xtian faith? Well, there is always Fitznnukah (as in "Fitz, nukkah dem til dey glow!"). Or what about Kwaanzgerald? Yulitz is terse. And for the pagans, Fitznalia!

Personally, I like the more obscure Fitztrola - because the investigation is truly "the gift that keeps on giving."

Friday, November 18, 2005

Toast Watch (Day 3)

The Washington Post editorial page is still pretending to ignore the real issues in Bob Woodward's involvement in the Wilson/Plame investigation. Woodward was not just a reporter hiding his sources - he was a witness to a crime. Moreover, it is either undoubted (first two points) or highly plausible (next two) that he:

  • Hid his knowledge of the crime.
  • Used his editorial position to attempt to deride and obstruct investigation of the crime.
  • Tipped his source off that the prosecutor might know that he had previously lied.
  • In his testimony and public statements distorted or minimized the crime.

Something is seriously awry when newspapers and reporters become partners with crooked government officials in their criminal activities. It looks like Woodwards steps across the ethical line were even more serious than Judy Miller's. At the very least, he owes the public a detailed no bullshit explanation of his actions - something he has so far refuse to provide.


The notorious male climate crank aka Lumo has published an attack on someone he claims is a female climate crank, the Journal which published her, and females as likely cranks in general:

No one will convince me that there is nothing inherently "female" that these three women share in their approach to reality. It's about a complete inability to figure out how things actually work in Nature combined with a highly exaggerated emphasis on patient reading of all kinds of texts, regardless of their quality, and on making rationally unjustifiable conclusions based on purely verbal patterns of the texts, without any understanding of the content, combined with some irrational prejudices.

I don't argue that this approach cannot be found among male researchers; what I argue, however, is that the probability that a female researcher approaches scientific questions in this way is much higher than in the case of males.
For what it's worth, I have no opinion on the article (haven't read it), agree on the Journal/Publisher (absurdly overpriced - should be consigned to dustbin of history), and think he is stark raving mad on his last point. Has he ever looked at the male-female ratio in, say, literary theory?

Sheesh Lumo, if you are nuts anyway, have an academic death wish, and love Bush so much, why don't you just enlist in the Marines? They always need men and often achieve remarkable results with seemingly unpromising material.

Gamma! Gamma! Gamma!

What a year for the tropical Atlantic! Records aren't just broken but smashed, crushed, and splintered! Tropical Storm Gamma has just formed in the Caribbean. It might hit Florida, but it is extremely unlikely to become a powerful hurricane, and rather unlikely to become a hurricane at all.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Woodward Toast Watch

Woodward looks like toast. People at the WaPo are starting to say stuff like "remember all the good things he did for us." The conflict of interest in being out there attacking Fitzgerald seems a lot more egregious than most of what Judy did, journalistically speaking. Of course Judy's faulty memory before the grand jury put her at some legal peril.

I give him three months, tops.

He will probably get a fairly sweet deal, as I imagine Judy did, not to get on Faux trashing the WaPo.


I used to dislike GW because his incoherent and inarticulate stupidity embarrassed us before the world. Now I've got much better reasons, which I share with a former Admiral and CIA chief .

A former CIA director has exclusively told ITV News that torture is condoned and even approved by the Bush government.

The devastating accusations have been made by Admiral Stansfield Turner who labelled Dick Cheney "a vice president for torture".


The former spymaster claims President Bush is not telling the truth when he says that torture is not a method used by the US.
None of this is a surprise of course.

Mo-Momentum: Why the Wind Doth Blow

rough winds do shake the darling buds of May
Inspired by Belette’s attempt to explain why the wind blows, and emboldened by my own far more tenuous grasp of geophysical fluid dynamics, I decided to try for a simplification:

1) Sunlight heats the ground more near the equator than near the poles, so warm air rises in the tropics and descends more polewards.

2) The rising air is replaced by air flowing near the ground towards the equator.

3) Air stationary with respect to the ground at the poles is also stationary with respect to center of the Earth, but air stationary with respect to the ground at the equator is moving about 1000 mi/hr with respect to the center of the Earth (because the Earth rotates).

4) Poleward moving air is slowed down by friction while equatorward moving air is accelerated by friction.

5) Wind is what results before the air matches velocity with its current location.

Naturally this leaves out a lot of important dynamical details, but your challenge, should you decide to accept, is to do better in five reasonable sized sentences. For more details, check out The Ceaseless Wind by John A. Dutton (republished by Dover as Dynamics of Atmospheric Motion).

The Trouble with Harry

Senator Harry Reid (D, Nevada) has been a reasonably effective leader for Senate Democrats, so I hate to say this, but he's got to go. What he, and at least 32 two other members of Congress did was to accept money from Indian gambling interests to lobby Interior Secretary Norton to disapprove of a competive tribes gambling plan. This is a gross abuse of the public trust indistinguishable from bribery. It is worse than that, because it was all part of the Jack Abramoff/Ralph Reed Indian gambling shakedown racket. John Solomon and Sharon Theimer of AP have the story here.

Most of those involved are Republicans, including the big three of the House: Hastert, Delay, and Blunt, as well as Senator Trent Lott, but several Democrats, including Reid, are also implicated. Some of those claim to oppose gambling "on principle" but that can hardly be squared with accepting large contributions from competitive gambling interests.

Reid should resign as Democratic Senate leader, or, if he refuses, be removed. If Democrats are going to run against Republican corruption (and we must), then we must first cleanse our own ranks.

Goodbye Harry. We liked you. Sorry you turned out to be a crook.

Now go.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

General Ed

Slate takes on the issue of reforming the college "Core" or "General Education" curriculum. Their recipe is to ask a bunch of professors what they wanted, and the results were predictably diverse, ranging from the ultra-traditional, to the lame, to the trite, to the semi-interesting. For example, in the ultra-traditional category, my favorite was (S. Georgia Nugent who wrote:

What is the knowledge most worth having? In the Western tradition, sages have asked this question since the era of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, about 2000 B.C. One Egyptian magistrate declares, "It is to writings that you must set your mind. … There is nothing that surpasses writings! They are a boat upon the water. … I shall make you love books more than your mother." A thousand years later, a second Egyptian scribe provides a succinct curriculum: "Write with your hand, recite with your mouth, and converse with those more knowledgeable than you."

Check out the others at the Slate link above, but the only one that I really admired was Steven Pinker's. An excerpt:
General science education, often an afterthought, needs to be reconsidered, because scientific literacy is more important than ever. It's not just essential to being a competent citizen who can understand, for example, why hydrogen fuel cannot solve energy shortages, or that a child who swallows a pencil lead will not get lead poisoning. Science is also critical because it is blending with the other realms of human knowledge.

One example is deep history— the study of the peopling of the earth, the diversification of languages and cultures, and the transition from foraging to farming and civilization. Deep history, popularized by Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, is unifying the timeline of biological evolution with the timeline of human history and culture. Another example is the sciences of human nature, such as cognitive neuroscience, behavioral genetics, and evolutionary psychology. They are illuminating the mental processes that go into creating and appreciating art and that drive the social contracts underlying economic and political systems.
What the Greeks thought can be pretty interesting, but as Richard Dawkins wrote somewhere, everything written about the deep questions human nature before 1859 is mainly just of historical interest.

Call Bullshit!

Cheney is at it again, saying up is down, truth is a lie, and evil is good. One of the man's strongest qualities is his ability to tell a bald faced lie with a straight face. It is about time for people to start calling "Bullshit!" For example, when he was speaking at the Frontiers of Freedom Institute the other night, wasn't there any freedom lover in the audience with balls enough to call him out when he said this kind of stuff:

Vice President Cheney last night accused Democratic senators who allege that the Bush administration distorted intelligence to justify the war in Iraq of engaging in "one of the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in this city."

Speaking before a Washington dinner of the Frontiers of Freedom Institute, a conservative research organization, Cheney said that Democrats who say they were misled by the administration are "making a play for political advantage in the middle of a war."
What are you conservatives, anyway, spineless curs every one? Or just "have better things to do." (Cheney's explanation for his draft dodging during Vietnam.)

Come to think of it, maybe John Edwards would have been better off calling "Bullshit" when Cheney told that rediculous lie about not seeing Edwards in the Senate during the VP debates.

All Fall Down

Bob Woodward, the one time investigative reporter and Watergate star, and more lately propagandist and apologist for the powerful, has been an agressive critic of the Fitzgerald investigation into the Plame/Wilson affair. Now it turns out that he was apparently the very first reporter told of Wilson's identity.

To me there is something particularly loathsome about the reporter who sells out. The fact that Woodward was a particularly accomplished and famous reporter is an aggravating rather than mitigating circumstance.

It seems to me that the stories of Bob and Judy, and perhaps others, are part of a commentary on the sorry state of American journalism today.

UPDATE: Let me make clear what I object to in Woodward's current behavior. He has been on the radio and on television criticizing the special prosecutor and the prosecution. A reporter who is a secret participant in a criminal activity (even though his own part was not criminal) is ethically way out of bounds in commenting or judging the investigation of that activity.

I don't know the answer to Wolfgang's question (see comments) but my guess is that Novak sang like a bird to the special prosecutor - but that's only a guess.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


Any political blogger who wasn't already envious of Arianna Huffington just got their official comeuppance. Ahmad Chalabi was in town for chats with Cheney and Rumsfeld, as well as a little slumming at the American Enterprise Institute. Before the meet with C&R though, he invited Arianna out for a late dinner . Let me offer up one tidbit in case you were so foolish as to consider not checking out the link:

As I said, it was a surreal night -- made even more so when my cell phone rang at 12:30 a.m. It was John Cusack, who had come with me to the Council on Foreign Relations to hear Chalabi speak earlier in the day.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

"I'm having dinner with Ahmad Chalabi," I replied (not a line I get to use very often).

I turned to Chalabi and asked if it would be okay to ask Cusack to join us. "He's an American actor," I volunteered.

"I know, I know..." he interrupted, and went on to reel off a list of Cusack's movies, including Being John Malkovich and The Thin Red Line. I was going to offer up Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil but bit my tongue.

Horror Story

Juan Cole has an eloquent and contemplative essay on the interesting life and bizarre death of the Syrian born American film director Moustafa Akkad: The Strange Death of Moustapha Akkad; Zarqawi and "Halloween."

Akkad's passion was the religious tension between East and West, but his most famous movies were the "Halloween" series. Although these were purely commercial ventures, intended to finance his "serious" work, their situations and dramatic context were very Arab and Muslim in inspiration, according to Cole.

Akkad and his daughter were murdered in one of the Amman, Jordan hotel bombings last week, while attending a wedding.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Dubious Nostrum

A guy named Bob Krumm has managed to generate a little notice in the blogosphere (Kevin Drum and Mickey Maus, Laus, whatever) with this bit of helpful political advice:

I offer Democrats a sure-fire, absolutely guaranteed way to win the Presidency in 2008: Let Bush win the war in Iraq.
Of course this fatuous advice is not intended seriously - the point is promote the notion that the Democrats either are or might prevent Bush from winning in Iraq. Never mind that Bush controls all three branchs of government and that the actual Democrats in Congress have given him everything he asked for in the war - money, troops, trashing the constitution, and cover for the lies that he used to get us into the war. And never mind that in almost four years he has waged perhaps the most incompetent military campaign since Custer.

Let Bush win. I only wish he would - or could. How long do we have to wait for him to come up with a plausible plan for victory. How many more of our sons, daughters, husbands, wives and parents are we willing to spend to keep up the pretense?

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Wretched Excess

The Crown Prince of Dubai has a new boat. It's 525 feet long and cost a couple of hundred million dollars - an amount dwarfing the annual educational budgets of most sub-Saharan countries. According to The Telegraph

...the sleek 525ft vessel, also known as Golden Star, will boast the latest must-have accessory for owners of "super-yachts" - its own submarine.

The Platinum's owners will also be able to use a helipad a hangar for small aircraft, and garages for jet-skis and four-wheel-drive vehicles, which can be taken ashore on special landing craft.
A fully equipped gym, squash court and swimming pool will help guests to stay healthy and work off the calories that they might otherwise pile on from the haute cuisine meals that will be prepared by world-class chefs.

A health spa offering every conceivable health and beauty treatment will complete the pampering. Doctors and nurses will be on duty, and electronic security and sophisticated weapons will be installed to deter any unwanted guests.

Of course this is just the latest in toys for the ultra-rich.
At 525ft - 40ft longer than a Royal Navy destroyer - it will be comfortably bigger than the current giant of the yachting world, the lavishly appointed 452ft Rising Sun, owned by Larry Ellison, the chief executive of Oracle, the software company. The ultra-competitive Mr Ellison may not be amused since Rising Sun, which was completed in the autumn, has been the world's biggest yacht for only a few months.

Mr Ellison increased the yacht's size from 387ft during construction to outdo Octopus, a 414ft vessel being built at the same time by Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, who had wanted his yacht, which cost an estimated £113 million, to be the world's biggest.

Allen also has a couple of 757 Aircraft - maybe the spare hauls his luggage.

Given that the five toys just mentioned have a combined cost greater than the GDP's of several small countries, is it fair to call these guys pigs?

Personally, if I had a few tens of billions, I think I could make do with an 80 foot yacht or two - and, oh yeah, maybe a Gulfstream 550 - because airports are such a hassle.

Great Moments in Fantasy Television

On ABC's This Week with George What's his Name:
Elizabeth Dole, head of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Comittee, starts talking about the "Democrat Party." Chuck Schumer, her Democratic counterpart, reaches over, slaps that stupid wig off her ugly head and says:

It's Democratic Party, you Publican Bitch!
George, for once, is speechless.

Saturday, November 12, 2005


I finally got around to linking to a bunch of the blogs that I regularly consult. Belette's example inspired me. See sidebar at right.

Eve of Destruction

The swirling cesspool that is the party of Delay, Hastert, Ney, Cornyn, Reed, Abramoff, Frist, Rove, Cheney and Bush looks poised to take the big plunge. It's hard to find major Republican leaders not somehow attached to Abramoff's web of corruption, extortion, theft, and, very possibly, murder. Josh Marshall has the latest on the roles in the Indian Casino protection racket of Reed and Cornyn (link to Austin American Statesman story.)

It's safe to say that electing the village idiot was intrinsic to the deal but less clear what his direct cupability is. A bunch of lobbyists and well-connected business men got richer. A bunch of Congressmen got golf trips to Scotland and other benefits. A bunch of each will likely be seeing a federal penitentiary from the wrong side. So far so good.

The story of the collateral damage is of more moment. Two thousand American soldiers dead, fifty times that many Iraqis. The American volunteer Army creaking under the strain, on the point of breaking. A conflagration is looming in the Middle East , with catastrophic economic consequences possible. A world financial crisis lurks just over the horizon. The countries reputation irretrievably stained by lies, torture, and corruption, and nobody in the government who seems to have a clue as to how to make policies to deal with these threats.

Interesting times ahead.

Short With Big Ears

Malcolm Gladwell is a guy who writes bestselling books with titles that I find too annoyingly trite to consider: Blink : The Power of Thinking Without Thinking and The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. This may have been an error on my part, since he has written a very elegant and informative New Yorker article called GETTING IN The social logic of Ivy League admissions.

The focus is on the "Big Ivies" (Harvard, Yale, and Princeton) and especially on Harvard, the biggest and richest of them all. It's also apparent that the article owes quite a bit to Jerome Karabel's The Chosen : The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

Harvard is the glamour address in American education: I remember feeling a little parental thrill when those big glossy unsolicited brochures from Harvard, Yale, etc. started arriving for my son (he never applied to any of them - too pretentiously snobbish, he claimed). Gladwell's essay tells a bit of the story of how the prestige schools stay that way.

[Ivy League admissions directors] are in the luxury-brand-management business, and “The Chosen,” in the end, is a testament to just how well the brand managers in Cambridge, New Haven, and Princeton have done their job in the past seventy-five years.

The entire essay is worth a read, but a couple more bits I found interesting:
In 1905, Harvard College adopted the College Entrance Examination Board tests as the principal basis for admission, which meant that virtually any academically gifted high-school senior who could afford a private college had a straightforward shot at attending.
This led to the "Jewish crisis." The proportion of Jews in the student body kept climbing, and Harvard officials started worrying about how to save the brand and pacify the rich, protestant alumni. After some fumbling, they arrived at more or less the present system, which supplements academic credentials with "personal qualities." The interview and the essay become key factors.
If Harvard had too many Asians, it wouldn’t be Harvard, just as Harvard wouldn’t be Harvard with too many Jews or pansies or parlor pinks or shy types or short people with big ears.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Shrinking W

My wife brought home a book called Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President by Justin A. Frank, MD. Perhaps some reader will be shocked to learn that I have a weakness for Bush bashing, even that that strains plausibility just a little. Alas, I'm afraid Dr. Frank lost me a bit early, on page xv of the introduction:

The theoretical approach I have adopted and developed here is particularly well suited to a study of President Bush. In its simplest terms, it takes as a starting point the assumption that the original anxieties that accompany and follow the trauma of birth not only shape our early emotional development, but can also remain influential for the rest of our lives. At the core of these first anxieties is the infant's early awareness that the idyllic world he knew before birth has been suddenly shattered, and that he somehow played a role in its destruction - perhaps from his kicking and his efforts to get out of the womb.
Hey, I was glad to get the heck out of that crowded, hot dark place. Idyllic? Only if your idea of an Idyll is living all scrunched up over a combination of Greek restaurant and toilet. I yelled with glee at my first breath of freedom (and air).

More seriously, I doubt that an intelligent designer (or Darwinian selection) would allow the inevitable first incident of your life to be a major problem for the rest of it. And nobody remembers it.

Actually, I think Freudian psychology is mainly a crock - but I will probably read some more of the book just to see if it has any good bits.

Oil Spots Keep Falling On My Head

John McCain has generally been my favorite Republican politician. Unlike most other politicians of both parties he seems to be more outspoken and honest. On the other hand, on John Stewart the other night he was defending Cheney - sort of.

I think McCain is quite wrong on the war though. His latest strategic idea is the so-called "oil spot" strategy - the idea that we concentrate our forces in a few areas, establish order and drive out the bad guys, and expand from there. There are a lot of things wrong with this idea, starting with the fact that our soldiers don't know the language, don't know the culture, and can't tell the "good guys" from the bad. Also, we don't have nearly enough soldiers.

Juan Cole has one of his usual perceptive analyses here. He also has this pertinent quote:

Where have I heard this theory of fighting wars before? Here is what an Afghan general and his coauthor said about Soviet tactics in Afghanistan:

"The Soviet concept for military occupation of Afghanistan was based on the following:

# stabilizing the country by garrisoning the main routes, major cities, airbases and logistics sites;
# relieving the Afghan government forces of garrison duties and pushing them into the countryside to battle the resistance;
# providing logistic, air, artillery and intelligence support to the Afghan forces;
# providing minimum interface between the Soviet occupation forces and the local populace;
# accepting minimal Soviet casualties; and,
# strengthening the Afghan forces, so once the resistance was defeated, the Soviet Army could be withdrawn.

Sound familiar?

I think we tried that in Vietnam too.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Say it Ain't So, Joe

Joe Lieberman and four other Democrats voted with the Republicans to strip Bush's detainees of habeas corpus. Three of the others are red staters whom I suppose we need to tolerate, but Lieberman doesn't have that excuse. Can't we get somebody to run against him?

Minor Milestone

According to Blogpatrol I just passed the 5000 unique visitors point. Not exactly big (or even medium) time, but I would just like to thank all of you for stopping by. I'm especially grateful to those who leave a comment, even if it is just to tell me I'm wrong, crazy and or stupid! Especially if you explain your reasoning.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Real Wars

Kris Lofgren was there for Chalabi's speech at the American Enterprise Institute . Odd but interesting.

Math Wars

The math wars are heating up again. On one side we have the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) and on the other, distressed parents, social conservatives, and people who actually know some math - a motley crew indeed. At issue is the latest fashion in math education, promoted by the NCTM and variously known as "constructive math," "math investigations," and "whole math." A look at the NCTM's web page on statement of beliefs reveals a certain amount of motherhood and apple pie plus the following:

Students use diverse strategies and different algorithms to solve problems, and teachers must recognize and take advantage of these alternative approaches to help students develop a better understanding of mathematics.
This seems pretty inoffensive too, but in practice it means that students are encouraged/forced to invent their own algorithms and strategies rather than being taught those refined over the centuries. There is a strong hostility in the program to any kind of memorization or rote learning. The idea is that instead, the students will learn problem solving skills and critical thinking.

Who could object to this? Put me down for one. I don't think that one can learn problem solving skills or critical thinking without a command of the facts - the essential substrate upon which thought acts.

Today's New York Times has this story by Samuel G. Freedman. The opening paragraphs set the theme:
LAST spring, when he was only a sophomore, Jim Munch received a plaque honoring him as top scorer on the high school math team here. He went on to earn the highest mark possible, a 5, on an Advanced Placement exam in calculus. His ambition is to become a theoretical mathematician.

So Jim might have seemed the veritable symbol for the new math curriculum installed over the last seven years in this ambitious, educated suburb of Rochester. Since seventh grade, he had been taking the "constructivist" or "inquiry" program, so named because it emphasizes pupils' constructing their own knowledge through a process of reasoning.

Jim, however, placed the credit elsewhere. His parents, an engineer and an educator, covertly tutored him in traditional math. Several teachers, in the privacy of their own classrooms, contravened the official curriculum to teach the problem-solving formulas that constructivist math denigrates as mindless memorization.
As Freedman's story makes clear, this is not an isolated case. Superintendants and teachers mouth the official NCTM propaganda. Parents complain because they don't understand the new math pedagogy. Learning the multiplication tables is unacceptable "drill and kill."

This is all very familiar to those who were involved the reading wars of past years. The same denigration of conventional ideas, the same claims to something new and better, and the same catastrophic results when students fail to learn. I don't know where the NCTM gets its ideas or theories, but I have a dark suspicion. There are two powerful and interlocked interest groups who have a huge stake in education remaining a fashion industry: textbook publishers and education professors. The publishers need new ideas to justify new textbooks, and the ed profs write the new books and teach the new methods to baffled classroom teachers. No matter if the new methods don't work, in fact so much the better - that just proves that we need a whole new set of remedial textbooks and trained teachers.

I don't think that math should be taught exactly the way it was 40 years ago. Calculators and computers can provide insights that just weren't available back then. The aversion to facts and memorization, though, seems wholly misguided to me. Kids are very good at memorization and most of them like it. Once they have a command of the basic facts, it becomes possible to do some reasoning and problem solving. Anyone who learns any advanced math knows what a complex hierarchy of knowledge is needed for that learning.

I occasionally volunteer in elementary school classrooms, mostly recently to teach some math ideas and techniques. Some students invariably are excited by the mathematical ideas presented and others find them very difficult. Most commonly those who have trouble haven't mastered multiplication and addition facts. If they are still trying to add and multiply on their fingers, they don't have enough mental processing space left to look at more advanced ideas.

Finally, I think the emphasis on problem solving skills and so-called critical thinking at the expense of facts is exactly backwards. Our brains are naturally equipped with problem solving and critical thinking algorithms - they were as essential to our survival when we were hunter-gatherers as they are now. Math facts were not, and we have no innate grasp of them.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Long Term Weather Prediction: The Real Story

Jeff Masters tropical weather blog is not only a vital resource for hurricane junkies, but occasionally has some other tidbits, like the above cited discussion of woolly bear long term weather prediction. An excerpt:

According to legend, the severity of the upcoming winter can be judged by examining the pattern of brown and black stripes on woolly bear caterpillars--the larvae of Isabella tiger moths. If the brown stripe between the two black stripes is thick, the winter will be a mild one. A narrow brown stripe portends a long, cold winter.
The good news: The woolly bears have more successful predictions than string theory. The bad:
...The Hagerstown critters have had mixed success the past three years with their forecasts--they've been correct about half the time. This is only slightly worse than the official NOAA long range forecasts.

Climate Models

Belette has this nice introduction to how coupled Ocean-Atmosphere climate models work. He shows some of the major gears and wheels.

...its pretty clear to me that (a) almost no-one outside the immeadiate community knows how coupled ocean-atmosphere GCMs work and are used in climate modelling and prediction (or "projection" as the IPCC calls it); and (b) this may be because there are no webpages on it.
He would also like feedback on how to improve the explanation.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Paging Tony Soprano/Your Party Needs You

Right-wing nutbag Kate O'Beirne was probably talking out of turn when she compared Senate Republicans to the Mafia vs. the Democrat's Boy Scouts, but the evidence that she was right-on accumulates. A top Senate Aide was viciously assaulted outside her home in what looked very much like a gangland beating/murder attempt. Via Josh Marshall, from The Hill:

The FBI and Capitol Police are investigating the vicious attack of a top Senate staffer at her home last week amid concerns that the assault might be related to her work on the Finance Committee.

Emilia DiSanto, chief investigator for committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), arrived at her suburban Virginia home after work Wednesday about 6:30 p.m. As she was unloading belongings from her car, a 6-foot-1-inch white man dressed in black struck her repeatedly with an unidentified object believed to be a baseball bat.

Prez says no Torture

Even while he and Cheney continue to fight fiercely to prevent the Congress from passing a law against it. Andrew Sullivan asks:

why threaten to veto a law that would simply codify what Bush alleges is already the current policy? If "we do not torture," how to account for the hundreds and hundreds of cases of abuse and torture by U.S. troops, documented by the government itself? If "we do not torture," why the memos that expanded exponentially the lee-way given to the military to abuse detainees in order to get intelligence? The president's only defense against being a liar is that he is defining "torture" in such a way that no other reasonable person on the planet, apart from Bush's own torture apologists (and they are now down to one who will say so publicly), would agree. The press must now ask the president: does he regard the repeated, forcible near-drowning of detainees to be torture? Does he believe that tying naked detainees up and leaving them outside all night to die of hypothermia is "torture"? Does he believe that beating the legs of a detainee until they are pulp and he dies is torture? Does he believe that beating detainees till they die is torture? Does he believe that using someone's religious faith against them in interrogations is "cruel, inhumane and degrading" treatment and thereby illegal? What is his definition of torture?
There is more of course. One problem for Andrew is that he still hasn't quite faced the fact that his former hero is a lying sack of shit.

MisAnthropic Me

If you are not a string theorist but nonetheless occasionally cruise string or anti-string blogs, you have probably heard a lot of talk about “the landscape.” Steven Weinberg has the text of a talk called “Living in the Multiverse" (hep-th/0511037) out, and he talks about the landscape, the multiverse, anthropic reasoning, and what it all means. Right up front he has a nice description of how the landscape arises:

Now we may be at a new turning point, a radical change in what we accept as a legitimate foundation for a physical theory. The current excitement is is of course a consequence of the discovery of a vast number of solutions of string theory, beginning in 2000 with the work of Bousso and Polchinski.1 The compactified six dimensions in Type II string theories typically have a large number (tens or hundreds) of topological fixtures (3-cycles), each of which can be threaded by a variety of fluxes. The logarithm of the number of allowed sets of values of these fluxes is proportional to the number of topological fixtures. Further, for each set of fluxes one obtains a different effective field theory for the modular parameters that describe the compactified 6-manifold, and for each effective field theory the number of local minima of the potential for these parameters is again proportional to the number of topological fixtures. Each local minimum corresponds to the vacuum of a possible stable or metastable universe.

The problem this presents is that it means that there are about a kazillion (somewhere between 10^100 and 10^500, say) possible solutions, each, presumably, corresponding to a potentially very different universe. The path that Weinberg hopes might lead us out of this is the so-called Anthropic Principle. The idea is that we can hope to deduce something from the fact that our universe turned out to be habitable, so far. It also means giving up any hope of, say, deriving the masses of the elementary particles and the strengths of their interactions from fundamental principles. It’s not clear to me why it doesn’t include giving up any hope of predictivity at all.

A lot of physicists hate this idea, as do I, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t right. It might have been Max Born who liked to remind Einstein that God might not have designed the universe the way Einstein would have liked him to have.

Lubos Motl has a post on the talk here.

Sunday, November 06, 2005


Since Lumo has been slandering me again a (see comments on previous post), I thought I might throw out a few ideas on political economy.

There is a pretty broad concensus that socialism is a failed economic system. A whole variety of variations from the most extreme totalitarianism to free republics have experimented with socialism, and the results have been overwhelmingly bad. So is capitalism everywhere triumphant, undisputed champion as idea and practice? Well, my answer is not exactly.

For one thing, no country practices pure capitalism, nor, very likely, can anyone even define it. All capitalist countries are in fact mixed economies - some functions are left to the free market and others are socialized. Virtually every country socializes it's core governmental functions: legislation, judiciary, defense, law enforcement, regulation of commerce and immigration. Almost all advanced countries socialize much or all of education, and most socialize medicine.

Every country, so far as I can tell, socializes the protection of property. As I have remarked elsewhere, this function is probably the original function of government. Bill Gates sells little plastic disks for hundreds or thousands of dollars, disks that can easily be manufactured for a few cents. How can he do this? Because the government works hard to protect his "intellectual property" on those disks.

Note that I'm not complaining - this function of government is what makes civilization possible. My point is that the very rich, those who have the most property, benefit disproportionately from the government, and it's not unreasonable to expect them to pay more for it.

The slightly ironic point here is that capitalism is impossible without government, and only works well when the government enforces property rights, regulates markets, and provides a whole host of other socialized functions.

In the US, we have a long history of socialization of some other economic functions, and in many cases this socialization was very successful. The building of the railroads, the settlement of the American West, the Interstate highway program, the land grant colleges, and social security are all examples of government sponsored "socialized" economic programs that played a key role in building this country.

Republicans and libertarians spread the propaganda that no government programs work well, but that's total nonsense, and all the programs mentioned above have been very successful. This doesn't mean I'm taking back the second paragraph - most innovation and initiative comes from a profit motivated private sector, and I don't know of any successful economy that doesn't give such an economy considerable scope.

Life would be simpler if economic and other questions were black and white, but the evidence indicates that mixed economies do the best in the long run. If you believe that, you also have to believe that "capitalism" and "socialism" aren't magic words that answer all economic questions - they are just the tactics of political economy, and need to be negotiated and decided for every issue, every time.

Yellow Sale!

We don't have much of an Autumn here in Southern New Mexico, though the weather does tend to be very nice. Leaf colors here can't compete with New England, or even with the Aspens so much beloved of the subterraneanly connected Scooter and Judy.

One bit of Fall color for me though, is the Springer Fall Yellow sale on math books. My home town of Nowhere, NM is too small to have a participating bookstore, but I usually manage to get up to Albuquerque a time or two and hit the UNM bookstore - conveniently located just across the street from the Frontier restaurant, itself sort of a local landmark. I picked up Lang's Algebra and Eisenbud's Commutative Algebra with a View Toward Algebraic Geometry last week. The prices were quite reasonable, in total contrast to those of the satanic powers at McGraw-Hill and Wiley.

Now if I can just find time and energy to read them - and do the problems.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Fun with Torture

We now know that Bush, Cheney, and Rice were all involved in setting up the CIA and military torture programs MSNBC/Newsweek.

So what did we get from that torture? From the NYT:

A top member of Al Qaeda in American custody was identified as a likely fabricator months before the Bush administration began to use his statements as the foundation for its claims that Iraq trained Al Qaeda members to use biological and chemical weapons, according to newly declassified portions of a Defense Intelligence Agency document.

The document, an intelligence report from February 2002, said it was probable that the prisoner, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, “was intentionally misleading the debriefers’’ in making claims about Iraqi support for Al Qaeda’s work with illicit weapons
His information was one of the products of the torture program - not true of course, but from the Cheney/Bush/Likud/AEP point of view, something even better - another phony justification to invade Iraq.

Good Night and Good Luck

Caught David Strathairn's performance in George Clooney's Good Night and Good Luck tonight and was very impressed. I am old enough to remember Edward R. Murrow, but not quite old enough to remember the events of the movie, and I found it very gripping. There is a powerful resonance in events where bullies and liars attacked the institutions at the heart of our constitutional liberties, but a huge difference from today in that courageous TV reporters then dared to take on the powerful rather than just cheer on the lynch mobs.

One regret for me was that most of the audience seemed to be people even older than myself. For me, the movie, shot in black and white to match the black and white of the grainy kinescopes of McCarthy playing himself, did an excellent job of capturing the look and feel of the era at the start of my life - I would hope that it could do that for younger people too. There is no background though, so the audience is just plunged into the midst of events. Most of the characters are real people, but many will be unfamiliar to those not students of mid-twentieth century American history.

The main characters are Murrow and Fred Friendly (Clooney) but a lot of the footage seems to be from the actual hearings.

Wars of Religion

The rioting in France is the latest symptom that bin Laden might actually get his war of religions. The religious fanatic doesn't count his battalions, because he's convinced he has God on his side. Thus the Jewish settler teens in Gaza who resisted removal to the last, convinced that God would intervene on their side. Perhaps some similar pathology might explain why George Bush refused to prepare in a meaningful way for the Iraqi occupation - or maybe it was just stupidity.

Cheney and Rumsfeld are harder for me to comprehend. Cheney is certainly no genius, but Rumsfeld formerly had a reputation as someone somewhat levelheaded.

There are many bizarre threads to the whole Iraq war puzzle, but I can't quite put them together. One of the oddest is Chalabi - mathematician, bank fraud artist, embezzler, peddler of fake intelligence, Iranian spy, and still A-list guest in Bush's Washington and at the so-called "American" Enterprise Institute. It's not Chalabi's motives that are suspect - we've always known whose side he was on - A Chalabi's. But what the hell does Condi Rice owe him?

It's now clear that the "Yellowcake" forgeries are a serious enough problem for Berlusconi and the Italian intelligence agency SISMI that they are feeling compelled to tell some pretty transparent lies about it.

All of which makes the mysterious meeting between Italian intelligence, National Security Council Chief Steven Hadley, Iranian Arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar, confessed Israeli spy Larry Franklyn, and other Iran Contra players all the more urgent a priority for investigation. The main thing we know so far is that Bush, Cheney, Senate Intelligence committee chairman Pat Roberts, and the FBI all really don't want it investigated. Oh yeah, and AEP guy Micheal Ledeen was involved too.

Iran, Israel, Italy, and Iraq. Where the hell was India?

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Thinly Sourced Rumor Mongering

as A Tiny Revolution calls it in a passage (ultimately from Capitol Blue) quoted by Brad Delong .

Bush, whose obscenity-laced temper tantrums increase with each new setback and scandal, abruptly ended one Camp David meeting by telling everyone in the room to "go f--- yourselves" before he stalked out of the room.

Senior aides describe Bush as increasingly "edgy" or "nervous" or "unfocused." They say the President goes from apparent coherent thought one moment to aimless rambles about political enemies and those who are "out to get me."

"It's worse than the days when Ronald Reagan's Alzheimer's began setting in," one longtime GOP operative told me privately this week. "You don't know if he's going to be coherent from one moment to the next. What scares me is if he lapses into one of those fogs during a public appearance."
And I thought he always did.

De-Plumeing the Depths

One of the more romantic ideas associated with plate tectonics has been the deep mantle plume - streams of hot rock arising thousands of miles down on the Earth's core/mantle boundary and bobbing to the surface like colored oil in a lava lamp, producing great floods of lava or chains of islands dotted across the sea. Alas, this idea now seems as dated as those lava lamps of my childhood.

Shoot. First the tooth fairy, then momentum conservation, and now this. If anybody tells me there isn't really a Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I will probably just lose it.

Gillian Foulger outlines the original idea here:

An important contribution to this debate came
hot on the heels of the newly accepted plate tectonic
theory. Morgan (1971) suggested that
“hotspots”, i.e. areas of exceptionally intense
volcanism such as Hawaii, Yellowstone and
Iceland, are fuelled by plumes of buoyant, hot
material that arise in the deep mantle and punch
through the mobile, convecting, shallow mantle
to reach the surface (figure 1). This theory was
developed in order to explain the timeprogressive
volcanic trails associated with some
hotspots, and their apparent fixity relative to
one another. If the sources of the volcanism are
rooted in a relatively immobile deep mantle,
they will not move relative to one another and
the plates at the surface will drift passively above
them, bearing away trails of volcanism. Hot
plumes are unlikely to form spontaneously in a
gradational layer, but would rise from a thermal
boundary layer. This implies that their source
would have to be the core–mantle boundary,
which is the largest thermal boundary layer in
the Earth apart from the surface itself.

Unfortunately, it seems that none of the conditions implied are really quite so - there aren't always trails, they aren't really quite fixed wrt each other, and, worst of all, there doesn't seem to be a hot deep mantle plume below any of the hotspots.

Iceland is a famous example: supposedly a hot spot sitting right on a mid ocean ridge. Coincidentally (according to plume theory) or not at all coincidentally (according to the new ideas) Iceland also sits right on the Caledonian suture - the ghost of the Iapetus Ocean that vanished 400 million years ago when the continents collided to form a supercontinent. The Foulger paper cited above is very good.

A more general introduction is here, with a number of good links. Tomographic seismography experiments planned for Hawai'i should settle the issue.

Damn, I wish I had written this:

"Men aren't necessary, but, you, Blunderford, are so much more than a man!"

I used to be afraid of Maureen Dowd. I thought she was a woman I couldn't handle, with that lethal combination of biting sarcasm and prim white pearls around her neck. I knew that MoDo had no need for me or my gender, and wanted a world made up only of herself, Alfre Woodard, Helena Bonham Carter and maybe Joan Cusack for comic relief.

But I've changed my mind. Now I know different: Maureen Dowd wants me.
From Blunderford as quoted in myamusementpark.

Criminalization of Politics

Larry Wilkerson was on NPR's Morning Edition today, explaining that while at the State Department he had assembled a clear paper trail leading from Cheney to the prisoner abuses and other war crimes at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. That should send Condi scrambling to the paper shredders.

The AG torturers are not attractive figures, but somebody should help them appeal their cases to a real court where the genesis of their crimes will come out and the real criminals brought to justice. Can that be done?

A fantasy: that weak hearted SOB living long enough to be dragged before a war crimes tribunal.


Libertarians are offended by governments taking money from the rich.

Liberals are offended by children starving in wretched poverty while the rich lead lives of wretched excess.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Kafka at JFK

Via Cosmic Variance, Abbas at Three Quarks Daily has a genuinely scary and Kafkaesque true Halloween story of his adventures at JFK. I don't want to put too many spoilers here so let me just include the title:

Monday Musing: Posthumously Arrested for Assaulting Myself
Arrested, cuffed, stuck in an INS jail, denied access to a lawyer, accused of being someone else, finally transferred to NYC jail, provided with a total idiot for a public defender - an idiot who wanted him to confess even after seeing a picture of the actual accused - finally saved by a judge who explained to the PD that it was unlikey he could have changed race, even if he had changed his haricut, and a detective who believed him.

Another adventure in Bushworld.

Juan Cole's TOE

Juan Cole presents what he calls a "Unified Field Theory" of the Niger "yellowcake" papers and related frauds to promote the war.

A proper Senate investigation offers the tantalizing possibility of a Unified Field Theory of the Iraq War fraud. That is, Feith's Office of Special Plans, Franklin's Pentagon espionage cell on behalf of the Likud Party in Israel, and Libby's campaign against Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife Valerie Plame Wilson could all be shown to be inter-related. At the center of the conspiracy were a group of hawks determined to set the United States in motion to fight wars against Iraq, Syria and Iran; for the Neoconservatives among them, these wars would leave the Likud Party free to pursue its expansionist ambitions.
I don't quite buy it. For one thing, I don't see how Chalabi and the Iranians fit into that scheme. Also, If the Mossad was doing the forgery, I think they would have made a more professional job of it. But we won't find out unless we investigate.

Pimping the War

Josh Marshall has more must read info on the forged Niger "yellowcake" documents. It's pretty clear that the Italian Government is deeply implicated. There are hints that Michael Ledeen, Iranian intelligence, and Larry Franklyn are somewhere in the mix.