Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Bayes Bogus?

Mr. Spock, of the original Star Trek, was pretty much the perfect straight man. He never got the joke, and he never got the girl. Which is why, I suppose, that Jim kept him on despite his limitations as a first officer. I am thinking here of his complete incompetence at elementary probability calculations. Whenever some dangerous mission was contemplated, Spock would portentiously announce some six or eight digit probability of failure, with success being somewhere out there in tens or hundred thousanths of a percent. Undeterred, Kirk would set out, usually taking with him the pilot, the ship's doctor, and the only key to the officers' bathroom. Naturally Spock was always wrong, but nobody ever complained or sent him back to remedial statistics.

I'm sure he must have somehow become confused about Bayesian inference. Using Bayes theorem to compute probabilities is of course perfectly legitemate and absolutely necessary for most statistical reasoning, but the Bayesian interpretation of probability drives me nuts. From the Wikipedia:

There are two broad categories of probability interpretations: Frequentists talk about probabilities only when dealing with well defined random experiments. The relative frequency of occurrence of an experiment's outcome, when repeating the experiment, is a measure of the probability of that random event. Bayesians, on the other hand, assign probabilities to any statement whatsoever, even when no random process is involved, as a way to represent its subjective plausibility.
Subjective plausibility makes my skin crawl. I have no idea what the hell it is supposed to mean. I can't think of any case when an expressed probability isn't either based on an explicit or implicit frequentist interpretation or else, like Mr. Spock's invariably misguided predictions, merely an ignorant prejudice.

Consider James Annan's
discussion of Bayesian probabilities referenced earlier. He talks about the "probability" that the number "1,234,567,897" is prime. Of course at this point I know it's zero, since it's divisible by 994817 as well as two two digit primes, but he discussed some general methods for guessing the probability of primality for an arbitrary 10 digit integer based on things like the asymptotic density of primes (number of primes less than x is asymptotic to x/(ln x)), as well as the simple tests for divisibility by 2, 3, and 5. Each of these estimates is based on a frequency interpretation. I don't see any room for any interpretation that isn't essentially frequentist.

The other essential element is theory. Without some theory connecting previously observed events with future events, no prediction is possible.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

"...Ah, alas, earwax."

said Albus Dumbledore as he bit into what he had thought was a nice toffee Barty Bots Every Flavor Bean.

Rowling doesn't mention whether it was the wet or dry type. According to this NYT article by Nicolas Wade:

Earwax may not play a prominent part in human history but at least a small role for it has now been found by a team of Japanese researchers.

Earwax comes in two types, wet and dry. The wet form predominates in Africa and Europe, where 97 percent or more of the people have it, and the dry form among East Asians, while populations of Southern and Central Asia are roughly half and half. By comparing the DNA of Japanese with each type, the researchers were able to identify the gene that controls which type a person has, they report in the Monday issue of Nature Genetics.

It seems that earwax type might be an important genetic marker of human population movements over the ages.

The dry form, the researchers say, presumably arose later somewhere in northern Asia, because they detected it almost universally in their tests of northern Han Chinese and Koreans. The dry form becomes less common in southern Asia, probably because the northerners with the dry earwax gene intermarried with southern Asians carrying the default wet earwax gene. The dry form is quite common in Native Americans, confirming other genetic evidence that their ancestors migrated across the Bering straits from Siberia 15,000 years ago.

It also seems that the earwax gene is involved in sweating. I'm sure the Japanese scientists took considerable satisfaction in writing:

...that earwax type and armpit odor are correlated, since populations with dry earwax, such as those of East Asia, tend to sweat less and have little or no body odor, whereas the wet earwax populations of Africa and Europe sweat more and so may have greater body odor. Several Asian features, such as small nostrils and the fold of fat above the eyelid, are conjectured to be adaptations to the cold. Less sweating, the Japanese authors suggest, may be another adaptation to the cold climate in which the ancestors of East Asian peoples are thought to have lived.

Nervous? Who? Me? What do you mean I look sweaty?

Mamas Don't Raise Your Sons to be Scientists

At least if your goal is for them to get rich. Clifford Johnson over at Cosmic Variance has a post up on scientists salaries with emphasis on physicists. While physicists are the best paid of the lot, they are still pretty far from getting rich - which probably won't surprise anyone here. Of course the work itself can be pretty enjoyable, and opportunities for travel abound.

On the other, if you have daughters, go ahead and encourage them. Sean Carroll has convinced me that they will likely encounter enough prejudice to convince them to go into something more profitable, like neurosurgery or investment banking. Unless they are crazy enough to insist despite the obstacles.

I, however, did encourage my kids to become scientists. They turned out to have other plans, even the one who graduated in physics from one of our most noted physics factories.

So - nevermind.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Bayesian at the Moon

James Annan has a post up about Bayesian inference and Bayesian vs. Frequentists interpretations of probability. He has a very cute example:

An analogy with number theory may be helpful. It has been shown that the number of primes less than x is approximately given by x/ln(x), where ln is the natural logarithm. Using this formula, we find there are about 390,000,000 primes between 10^9 and 10^10 (ie 10-digit numbers, of which there are 9x10^9). In other words, if we pick a 10-digit number uniformly at random, there's a 4.3% probability that it is prime. That's a perfectly good frequentist statement. If we exclude those numbers which are divisible by 2, 3 or 5 (for which there are trivial tests) the probability rises to 16.1%. But what about 1,234,567,897? Does it make sense to talk about this number being prime with probability 16.1%? I suspect that some, perhaps most, number theorists would be uneasy about subscribing to that statement. Any particular number is either prime, or not. This fact may be currently unknown to me and you, but it is not random in a frequentist sense. Testing a number will always give the same result, whether it be "prime" or "not prime" (I'll ignore tests which are themselves probabilistic here).

But the example he has in mind is weather prediction.
But does it make sense for someone to accept the validity of a probabilistic weather forecast, while rejecting the appropriateness of a probabilistic assessment about a particular number being prime?...
And, of course, global warming and anthropogenic climate change:
Almost every time that anyone uses an estimate of anything in the real world, it's a Bayesian one, whether it be the distance to the Sun, sensitivity of globally averaged surface temperature to a doubling of CO2, or the number of eggs in my fridge. The purely frequentist approach to probability dominates in all teaching of elementary theory, but it hardly exists in the real world.
Before I quibble with James, coincidentally, or not, another locally well-known blogger (or antiblogger, as he styles himself) has posted on Bayesian inference.
...the probabilities only have a scientific meaning if they can be determined or at least interpreted in a frequentist fashion, and they can only be trusted if the relevant experiments have actually been tried sufficiently many times to give us the result with the desired accuracy.
Which is why Lubos considers String Theory to be a complete hoax.

Oops! Sorry! I guess I jumped from that train of logic onto the wrong conclusion.

The real conclusion was that the space shuttle management totally misjudged the probability of space shuttle failure before the Challenger disaster because they used Bayesian probability. And here I would have said that it was because they substituted wishful thinking for analysis. Go figure.

David Ruelle deals with the same question of interpretation of probabilities in his book Chance and Chaos. The motivation for the theory of probability in the first place was of course the problem of predicting an uncertain future - or, as may be the case in a poker game, the problem of predicting the likelyhood of various alternative possibilities that may constitute the present.

The question he addresses is that of the connection of the purely mathematical theory of probability with reality. Ruelle insists that it's:
important that we assess correctly the probability in uncertain circumstances, and to do this we need a physical theory of probabilities.

By physical theory he means we have to be able to compare our results operationally with physical reality. He doesn't completely clarify this question either, pretty much falling back on computer simulations. If [the simulations find a probability of] 90 per cent for rain, even the purists will take their umbrellas

I think I'm a follower of Ruelle. I don't think probabilities make sense in the absence of a theory which can be tested operationally, at least in part. I also think that that theory ultimately has to have a frequentist interpretation. Ultimately, probabilities are predictions of theories, and our confidence in theories depends on a lot of things - internal consistency, mathematical beauty, and, most crucially, predictions confirmed by experiment.

Friday, January 27, 2006

More on Hamas

Juan Cole blames Bush for the triumph of Hamas.

... the president's attempt to dismiss the old ruling Fatah Party as corrupt and inefficient, however true, is also a way of taking the spotlight off his own responsibility for the stagnation in Palestine. Bush allowed then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to sideline the ruling Fatah Party of Yasser Arafat, to fire missiles at its police stations, and to reduce its leader to a besieged nonentity. Sharon arrogantly ordered the murder of civilian Hamas leaders in Gaza, making them martyrs. Meanwhile, Israeli settlements continued to grow, the fatally flawed Oslo agreements delivered nothing to the Palestinians, and Bush and Sharon ignored new peace plans -- whether the so-called Geneva accord put forward by Palestinian and Israeli moderates or the Saudi peace plan -- that could have resolved the underlying issues. The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, which should have been a big step forward for peace, was marred by the refusal of the Israelis to cooperate with the Palestinians in ensuring that it did not produce a power vacuum and further insecurity.

It also looks like Bush is maneuvering for some room to negotiate with Hamas:
In his press conference on Thursday, Bush portrayed the Palestinian elections in the same way he depicts Republican Party victories over Democrats in the United States: "The people are demanding honest government. The people want services. They want to be able to raise their children in an environment in which they can get a decent education and they can find healthcare." He sounds like a spokesman for Hamas, underlining the irony that Bush and his party have given Americans the least honest government in a generation, have drastically cut services, and have actively opposed extension of healthcare to the uninsured in the United States.

I've said before that there isn't much cause for optimism, but I also think there is a tiny chance for progress. It's all well and good to bewail the fact that Hamas engages in terrorism of the most despicable sort, but, hey, lest we forget, Fatah didn't exactly get its start as a peace movement. There are two huge questions: will Hamas deal? Will Israel make a reasonable offer? Naturally, there are plenty of people who will think of all kinds of reasons why neither of these will happen, and there are those who will work hard to prevent a peace. These latter undoubtedly include the Iranian government officials to whom Hamas is tied as well as the fanatical settlers and fundamentalists, both of whom seem committed to a genocidal strategy.


Just caught astrophysicist (and author) Mario Livio talking about Mozart on NPR's All Things Considered. His major theme was Mozart's fascination with and extensive use of symmetry in his music. He also mentioned the WAM was crazy for numbers as a kid.

So what kind of music do we like, asked the NPR correspondent? Turns out, says Livio, that we like symmetry but not too much - symmetry, but some kind of symmetry breaking.

In the epilog to Chandrasekar's Mathematical Theory of Black Holes he has quotes from Heisenberg and Francis Bacon on beauty. What they said (approximately - my copy is at the office) was:

Heisenberg: Beauty consists in the proper proportion of the parts to the whole, and to each other.

Bacon: There is no thing of excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.

Happy Birthday Wolfgang A. Mozart!

OK, so maybe you are a bit too dead to enjoy it, but a lot of the rest of us will. 250 would be really impressive if you were still around, but at least your music is, and remains one of the greatest achievements of Western Civilization.

Kevin Drum has some Friday Cat Blogging Mozart links including a quiz, an essay, and a movie link, not to mention cat and music pictures.

Thursday, January 26, 2006


Electoral victory for Hamas seems to have a lot of people in shock, but I don't know why. Fatah was tired, corrupt, and incompetent. Moreover, it unable to deliver stability or safety.

The fundamental choices for Israel haven't changed: put up with a continuing low intensity war, make a deal, or commit genocide. The first is painful, the second difficult, and the third unspeakable. Unfortunately, many forces will continue to make the second choice nearly impossible and the third more likely.

I sometimes think that there is some principle of human nature which inevitably produces escalation from bad to worse. It seems likely that the Hamas victory will lead to a Netanyahu victory, more repression, a violent reaction by Hamas. Chances for a sensible solution become ever less as the most extreme on each side come to power.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Now There Are Two

It appears the United States' brief reign as the World's lone superpower is over. After a multi-century hiatus, China is once again a true superpower. Keith Bradsher reports in this New York Times story that:

The Chinese economy grew 9.9 percent last year, the third year in a row of roughly 10 percent growth, government statisticians announced in Beijing on Wednesday.

The Chinese statistics, showing a national economic output of $2.26 trillion, sent China soaring past France, Britain and Italy to become the world's fourth-largest economy, after the United States, Japan and Germany.

Because the Yuan is clearly undervalued, this number almost certainly understates the true size of China's economy. The CIA World Fact Book's purchasing power parity rankings look like this:

1 World $ 59,380,000,000,000 2005 est.
2 United States $ 12,370,000,000,000 2005 est.
3 European Union $ 12,180,000,000,000 2005 est.
4 China $ 8,158,000,000,000 2005 est.
5 Japan $ 3,867,000,000,000 2005 est.
6 India $ 3,678,000,000,000 2005 est.
Europe, which once looked like a potential superpower, now looks like a bunch of quarelling mini-states, unlikely to be a big factor in the next twenty years. China is looking like it could soon have military power compared to the old Soviet Union with a much larger economy.

It's a shame that this big threat emerged when we are ruled by a bunch of wacko ideologues and religious idiots.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Not So Hot?

Our favourite string theorist whiffs another climate analysis. Earlier this month, he drew profound conclusions from the preliminary estimate that 1998 could still be the warmest year recorded despite a hypothesized warming trend.

Do you remember 1998? Was it a special year? Even though Al Gore was a vice-president, 1998 is still the "globally" warmest year on record.

An absurd argument in any case, but now made doubly silly by the latest computations showing 2005 to have been the warmest year on record.
Last year was the warmest recorded on Earth's surface, and it was unusually hot in the Arctic, U.S. space agency NASA said on Tuesday.

All five of the hottest years since modern record-keeping began in the 1890s occurred within the last decade, according to analysis by NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

In descending order, the years with the highest global average annual temperatures were 2005, 1998, 2002, 2003 and 2004, NASA said in a statement
This despite the fact that at least two natural trends would seem to be dictating a cooler Earth. We are now in a la Nina phase (El Nino's are hotter) and the Earth's albedo has increased (meaning more sunlight is being reflected into space.

Impeaching the Pres

The conservative magazine Insight has a story about the White House preparing for impeachment hearings:

The Bush administration is bracing for impeachment hearings in Congress.

"A coalition in Congress is being formed to support impeachment," an administration source said.

Sources said a prelude to the impeachment process could begin with hearings by the Senate Judiciary Committee in February. They said the hearings would focus on the secret electronic surveillance program and whether Mr. Bush violated the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
There is also some problem about lying to Congress.

Much as I would like to see Bush impeached, I can't see it happening. Even if Congress was dominated by Democrats rather than Republicans, it would be unlikely unless there are some big smoking guns hidden somewhere. So why would the conservative press be floating such a rumor? I have a two part theory named Karl Rove.

First, I think he wants to rally the troops with the old burn our boats behind us tactic. Nothing like that feeling of being beseiged to get those paranoid right wing juices flowing.

Second, he may hope to lure Democrats into an early overreach before the elections this fall. If Democrats start running on an "Impeach Bush" platform, Rove will love running those attack ads about giving "aid and comfort to the enemy" by attacking the Commander in Chief.

So far, I think Barack Obama is doing it right. No hysterical rhetoric, don't get sucked into Tim Russert's false dichotomies, and keep the focus on what Bush and the Republicans are doing wrong - and keep suggesting ways to fix things.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Nuclear Iran

The hard part of building a nuclear weapon is obtaining the requisite quantity of suitable fissile material - highly enriched uranium or plutonium. Plutonium can be produced from uranium in nuclear reactors, but Iran doesn't yet have any reactors big enough to produce worthwhile amounts of plutonium - and the reactors themselves require somewhat enriched uranium. Consequently, the key choke point for Iranian nuclear capability is the capability to produce enriched uranium, especially highly enriched uranium. There are a few possible ways to enrich uranium (separate fissile U235 from the more common U 238 isotope). The method of choice today is a cascade of high speed gas centrifuges, but it takes a lot of them to produce a bomb's worth.

So how close is Iran to getting nukes? Via Josh Marshall, we have some informed or otherwise guesses opinions. Let's start with a well known idiot:

Instead of being years away from the point of no return for an Iranian bomb, as we were before we allowed Europe to divert anti-proliferation efforts into transparently useless talks, Iran is probably just months away.

Jeffrey Lewis and others over at armscontrolwonk.com have some more reality based estimates in a series of several posts. Some highlights:
What would a Strike on Iran’s Nuclear Facilities Look Like?

Conventional wisdom states that Iran’s facilities are too dispersed to permit a strike like the one Israel conducted against Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear reactor in 1981. (The Osiraq story is quite a bit more complicated than you might think.)

Iran’s facilities are more dispersed, but some key assets are probably quite vulnerable to an airstrike.

The Atlantic Monthly conducted a wargame that including plans for a strike. The Atlantic Monthly game envisioned a strike against “125 targets associated with nuclear and chemical and biological storage/production facilities” in Iran including “10 nuclear R&D site targets.” The total was about 300 aim points requiring about 20 penetrating weapons.
They have labelled satellite pictures and powerpoint slides. Much of Iran's nuclear capability is known from the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) inspections. The most dangerous capability being developed is the uranium enrichment facility. They show a picture of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, designed to hold 50,000 centrifuges.
Destroying this facility should not be difficult. Although the bunkers are buried, the exact locations are well know from images captured during construction.

According to reporters who visited the facility, the bunkers are about 18 m underground. That’s deep, but not so deep that the facility would withstand a GBU 28.[deep penetrating "bunker-buster" warhead]
Incidentally, Israel is in the process of buying 100 GBU 28s from the United States. A coincidence, I am sure.

The problem with hitting the Natanz facility is that, at this point, it is basically a pair of empty bunkers—Iran’s centrifuge components are stored elsewhere and would probably be moved in the event of an impending airstrike.
Jeffrey Lewis has his own ideas on the timeline:
When some moron like Charles Krauthammer claims Iran is now just “months” away from a bomb, you can pretty much ignore him: He has no idea what he is talking about.

Overall, Iran is probably a little less than a decade away from developing a nuclear weapon. The key question here is how long it will take Iran to enrich a few tens of kilograms of uranium to more than 90 percent U-235.
In a worst case scenario, Iran might make enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb fairly quickly:
So, the real question, however, is how quickly Iran could assemble and operate 1,500 centrifuges in a crash program to make enough HEU for one bomb (say 15-20 kg).

Albright and Hinderstein have created a notional timeline for such a program:

Assemble 1,300-1,600 centrifuges. Assuming Iran starts assembling centrifuges at a rate of 70-100/month, Iran will have enough centrifuges in 6-9 months.
Combine centrifuges into cascades, install control equipment, building feed and withdrawal systems, and test the Fuel Enrichment Plant. 1 year
Enrich enough HEU for a nuclear weapon. 1 year
Weaponize the HEU. A “few” months.
Total time to the bomb—about three years.
Lewis thinks that there are a lot of technical obstacles that will make the process quite a bit slower.

Another post looks at how difficult it might be for Iran to build a bomb that could be delivered by one of their missiles. There a plent of problems there too. The missiles have limited carrying capacity and it takes considerable sophistication to design a small bomb.

UPDATE: According to this Federation of American Scientists article, the GBU-28 (and presumably it's GPS guided cousin, the GBU-37) can destroy hardened targets up to 50 feet deep. By my arithmetic, that puts an 18 meter (60 feet) deep target close to the limit of the GBU-28 capabilities. But Lewis knows this stuff pretty well, so I doubt that he would be wrong on this.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Smolin - Motl Cage Match

In a previous post I mentioned the Nicolai and Peeters critique of Loop Quantum Gravity, and mentioned discussion of it by Peter Woit and Lubos Motl. Lee Smolin has a response on Peter's Blog at here, here and here. Lubos has posted a pont by point (sentence by sentence) rejoinder on his blog here.

Lubos argues that GR is just special relativity with gravitons - a bit hard for me to accept, but I don't want to comment too much on the discussion, most of which I don't understand. Lubos would have more credibility with me if he didn't throw in stuff like this:

The only way how you can get a different result is that you actually accidentally hit a completely consistent theory of quantum gravity - but it seems impossible because you can't really get string theory out of LQG.
and if his judgement was a bit better on less esoteric matters.

Doing it Right

I just caught West Virginia Governor Manchin's press conference after the discovery of the latest two miner's bodies, and was impressed. He spoke with real anger and feeling and announced a series of steps to help prevent such tragedies and to enable better rescue efforts. To anyone following this kind of thing it is pretty obvious, once again, that the political hacks Bush put on the Mine Health and Safety Board have been doing nothing useful.

He was followed by Senator Rockefeller whom I switched off a few seconds into some trite crap about healing.

Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood

Do you hate stuff that starts out with a largely inappropriate literary reference, you know, like the lame translator who called Proust's book Remembrance of Things Past? If so, please ignore everything in this post up to here.

A couple of string theorists take on Loop Quantum Gravity in


Lubos Motl's blog (where I read about this)has a couple of discussion threads related to it. He also points to this post by Peter Woit on the same subject. Our homework assignment (with apologies to Sean Carroll), study respective posts and expecially the ensuing comments: compare and contrast.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Testing 1, 2, 3...?

I recently saw Joan Holden's play, Nickel and Dimed, based on the book of the same name by Barbara Ehrenreich. Erenreich is a lefty social critic (and a biology Ph.D.) who spent three months trying to make it as a low wage worker in a chain restaurant, Walmart employee, and Merry Maid's house cleaner, not to mention a few second jobs she took to try to make the rent. I recommend book and play, but I want to focus on one ubiquitous aspect of all those jobs: testing.

For these jobs at the bottom of the economic ladder, the tests are more for drugs and personality than IQ - but also something of an unsubtle form of mind control.

"There is room for a nonconformist in the corporation." Do you A. strongly agree, B Moderately disagree, C. Not sure. D. Moderately disagree, E. Strongly disagree. If you can't figure out that "E." is the correct answer, you might not be Walmart material.

We talked earlier about the Armed Forces Qualifying Test, but of course almost everybody else uses some form of IQ test, even the NFL. You don't have to be a genius to play in the NFL but you do need to be smart enough to learn the plays. Microsoft, Google, and other corporations are famous for giving prospective employees a sort of super IQ test, and some of the questions have now become popular. An example: Why are manhole covers round?

We are already living in a society highly stratified by IQ (and related) tests. College bound students nearly all take the SAT or ACT, and you can kiss off all those top twenty schools unless you score a couple of standard deviations above the mean - (or are related to a President, super rich, or have that wicked jump shot). Entrance into those elite college prep high schools is also conditioned on similar tests, but it doesn't start there. Want to get your kid into an elite pre-school? First there will be an IQ test.

At present, there are some fudge factors in the system. Results for admissions, hiring, and everything else are adjusted for race, gender, and possibly other things via Affirmative action. California has already done away with most forms of affirmative action in admissions. With the most conservative Supreme Court in decades, it is not unlikely that virtually all forms of affirmative action might be ruled illegal.

The DNA test at birth might be something of a relief.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Dark Days for Dark Energy

Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll says we shouldn't study dark energy:

Here’s a little homework assignment. Go back through the many posts I have made on this topic. Count up the number of times I have said that we should not actually study the question. While you’re at it, count up the number of times I have pointed to the many studies that have already been done about the question, including the post on which you are commenting. Compare and contrast.
Damnit, he's made up his mind! Don't confuse him with facts.

OOPS! Sorry - it seems he was actually talking about some other scientific question. My bad.

Now that I've made this big blunder, maybe I should try to clarify. It seems Clifford, rather innocently, I thought, started a post on Women in Physics. Naturally, this attracted the usual crowd, including our good buddy, Lumo. After a bit, Brad Delong joined the comments and got a valuable but painful lesson in Lumology - even though they were both more or less defending Larry Summers, Brad wound up a target. Despite the presence of both Lubos and Sean on the thread, lots of interesting stuff was said. Lee Smolin chipped in with some comments and examples.

Perhaps Sean felt he had to burnish his rabid doggie-style feminist credentials, so he started his own thread on the subject, from which I extracted the quote above.

Another fun comment, which, interestingly enough, I extracted from one of Lubos's comments, is:
“I just remembered some sage advice read on another blog:

# John Baez Says:
November 8th, 2005 at 11:42 pm

Sometimes it takes work to ignore Motl, but it always pays off.

Good advice, I think, for John and Brad and other smart guys with important work to do. But I usually can't resist.

UPDATE: Arun points out in the first comment that there is another plausible interpretation of Sean's remarks that makes my lame joke - ummm lamer. Without checking the experimental evidence - i.e. all Sean's posts on the topic, I prefer my original theory, which seems more consistent with Sean's round condemnation of anyone who suggests that there just might possibly be meaningful differences as Summers did.

I'm a Believer

Hardly had I finished lamenting the decline of American political rhetoric than a very fine piece of work appeared from an unlikely source: Al Gore. His speech on the undermining of our freedoms under the Bush administration is closely reasoned and even eloquent. Full text here.

His speech at Constitution Hall calls the current situation a contitutional crisis, and I think he makes a solid case:

Congressman Barr and I have disagreed many times over the years, but we have joined together today with thousands of our fellow citizens—Democrats and Republicans alike—to express our shared concern that America’s Constitution is in grave danger.

In spite of our differences over ideology and politics, we are in strong agreement that the American values we hold most dear have been placed at serious risk by the unprecedented claims of the Administration to a truly breathtaking expansion of executive power.

As we begin this new year, the Executive Branch of our government has been caught eavesdropping on huge numbers of American citizens and has brazenly declared that it has the unilateral right to continue without regard to the established law enacted by Congress to prevent such abuses.
Gore reviews a number of past assaults on the Constitution, and how we were in each case able to reassert and even strengthen our rights. Most of these past assaults came in wartime, and all were rolled back after the war, or, in the case of the Nixon CONINTELPRO program, after the President's impeachment and resignation.

He talks about the illegal NSA wiretaps:
During the period when this eavesdropping was still secret, the President went out of his way to reassure the American people on more than one occasion that, of course, judicial permission is required for any government spying on American citizens and that, of course, these constitutional safeguards were still in place.

But surprisingly, the President’s soothing statements turned out to be false. Moreover, as soon as this massive domestic spying program was uncovered by the press, the President not only confirmed that the story was true, but also declared that he has no intention of bringing these wholesale invasions of privacy to an end.

At present, we still have much to learn about the NSA’s domestic surveillance. What we do know about this pervasive wiretapping virtually compels the conclusion that the President of the United States has been breaking the law repeatedly and persistently.

A president who breaks the law is a threat to the very structure of our government.
My empahasis above. This threat was clearly recognized by the founders:
As John Adams said: “The executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them, to the end that it may be a government of laws and not of men.”

An executive who arrogates to himself the power to ignore the legitimate legislative directives of the Congress or to act free of the check of the judiciary becomes the central threat that the Founders sought to nullify in the Constitution – an all-powerful executive too reminiscent of the King from whom they had broken free. In the words of James Madison, “the accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”
Usurpation of power is usually based on some real or perceived threat to the nation.
The President and I agree on one thing. The threat from terrorism is all too real. There is simply no question that we continue to face new challenges in the wake of the attack on September 11th and that we must be ever-vigilant in protecting our citizens from harm.

Where we disagree is that we have to break the law or sacrifice our system of government to protect Americans from terrorism. In fact, doing so makes us weaker and more vulnerable.

Once violated, the rule of law is in danger. Unless stopped, lawlessness grows. The greater the power of the executive grows, the more difficult it becomes for the other branches to perform their constitutional roles. As the executive acts outside its constitutionally prescribed role and is able to control access to information that would expose its actions, it becomes increasingly difficult for the other branches to police it. Once that ability is lost, democracy itself is threatened and we become a government of men and not laws.
He discusses at some length the many legal weaknesses in the arguments the President and his men have advanced.

The tyranical claims and and deeds of Bush are not at all trivial.
For example, the President has also declared that he has a heretofore unrecognized inherent power to seize and imprison any American citizen that he alone determines to be a threat to our nation, and that, notwithstanding his American citizenship, the person imprisoned has no right to talk with a lawyer—even to argue that the President or his appointees have made a mistake and imprisoned the wrong person.

The President claims that he can imprison American citizens indefinitely for the rest of their lives without an arrest warrant, without notifying them about what charges have been filed against them, and without informing their families that they have been imprisoned.

At the same time, the Executive Branch has claimed a previously unrecognized authority to mistreat prisoners in its custody in ways that plainly constitute torture in a pattern that has now been documented in U.S. facilities located in several countries around the world.

Over 100 of these captives have reportedly died while being tortured by Executive Branch interrogators and many more have been broken and humiliated. In the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, investigators who documented the pattern of torture estimated that more than 90 percent of the victims were innocent of any charges.
Those who dismiss these actions seem because they consider Bush an ally may be forgetting that someday these powers could be turned on them and theirs - if not by Bush by some later President whose politics they like less.

Most sinister is the circumstances in which the President has invoked extraordinary powers:
As Justice Frankfurter wrote in the Steel Seizure Case, “The accretion of dangerous power does not come in a day. It does come, however slowly, from the generative force of unchecked disregard of the restrictions that fence in even the most disinterested assertion of authority.”

... we are told by the Administration that the war footing upon which he has tried to place the country is going to “last for the rest of our lives.” So we are told that the conditions of national threat that have been used by other Presidents to justify arrogations of power will persist in near perpetuity.

... we need to be aware of the advances in eavesdropping and surveillance technologies with their capacity to sweep up and analyze enormous quantities of information and to mine it for intelligence. This adds significant vulnerability to the privacy and freedom of enormous numbers of innocent people at the same time as the potential power of those technologies. These techologies have the potential for shifting the balance of power between the apparatus of the state and the freedom of the individual in ways both subtle and profound.

Monday, January 16, 2006

So, what is he *really* like?

Janet Maslin's book review in the NYT makes a pretty good case that Dave Barry is still the funniest living American, on paper. Dave Barry's Money Secrets is on my list, but what's Dave like, up close and personal? I, of course, have no Earthly idea, but I'm going to guess that he's a lot like a guy who spends hours staring at a wall, ocassionally typing and chortling to himself madly.

Swimming Naked

The Economist's cover story for January 12, is entitled Danger Time for America and is a retrospective on Alan Greenspan and a prospective on the economy he leaves his successor. By all means check out the cover cartoon, even if you don't like economics.

Mr. Greenspan rose into the economic pantheon when the economy prospered in the 90's, but:

Mr Greenspan's departure could well mark a high point for America's economy, with a period of sluggish growth ahead. This is not so much because he is leaving, but because of what he is leaving behind: the biggest economic imbalances in American history.
So far as the American economy is concerned, however, the Fed's policies of the past decade look like having painful long-term costs.
Being the rotten right-wing rag it is, The Economist is too polite to mention exactly where Greenspan went wildly wrong, or the actions of his co-conspirators. Greenspan's testimony to Congress, putting his seal of approval on tax cuts with no provisions for dealing with war, disaster, or the utterly reckless and profligate spending of the GOP Congress set the disaster train in motion. He knew better, and he knew it wasn't his role as Fed chief to say such things, but he did it anyway - maybe Ayn Rand's shade made him do it.

This doesn't stop them from citing von Mises on burning the furniture for fuel, or from this quote:
In the words of Warren Buffett, “It's only when the tide goes out that you can see who's swimming naked.”

Something tells me it's not going to reveal a bunch of supermodels out there in the buff.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

RIP Rhetoric

Economist and polymath Brad Delong has some excerpts of Lincoln on the campaign trail and Fredrick Douglass commenting on Lincoln. Note that the Douglas Lincoln refers to is Stephen A. Douglas, his political opponent, and not Fredrick Douglass, the former slave, abolitionist, writer and orator. The Lincoln we see is not Lincoln at his finest, but Lincoln the politician, not above a cheap oratorical trick or two, but I challenge anyone to read these and not think about how far we have fallen to the present. Lincoln:

I have never said anything to the contrary, but I hold that, notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. [Loud cheers.] I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects--certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.

Fredrick Douglass:
Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was... the white man's President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.... ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people....

[Y]ou, my white fellow-citizens... were the objects of his deepest affection and his most earnest solicitude. You are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step-children ...

Can any colored man, or any white man friendly to the freedom of all men, ever forget the night which followed the first day of January, 1863, when the world was to see if Abraham Lincoln would prove to be as good as his word? I shall never forget that memorable night, when in a distant city I waited and watched at a public meeting, with three thousand others not less anxious than myself, for the word of deliverance... the emancipation proclamation....

I have said that President Lincoln was a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race.... His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow-countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined...

The more extensive quotation by Brad shows even more of this great man's penetrating insignt, generosity and nobility of spirit, as well as his rhetorical power and eloquence.

What a frightful contrast to our current President, who displays none of these admirable qualities and seems incapable of expressing anything but the most superficial and obtuse of ideas - and those not well. Equally scary is the fact that few among the current generation of politicians are much better.

Part of the genius of Lincoln and Fredrick Douglass was that they saw through complexity and could appeal to the "better angels of our nature," unlike Bush and his Nazghul, Vulcans, or whatever the hell they call themselves, who know only how to appeal to the smallest and meanest elements of the human spirit.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

To Hell with Yale

was a football cheer of yore.

I have been thinking about Yale and what it's given to America, and the picture isn't happy:

(a) Innumerable annoying people named Buckley.

(b) Jared Taylor, prominently featured in comments to a previous post.

(c) Prescott Bush - Alleged robber of Geronimo's grave, Hitler's Banker, and early member of a despicable dynasty.

(c) G H W Bush - Highly trained but inept President. Started an unnecessary war and ran up a huge budget deficit.

(d) W J Clinton - Brilliant and moderately successful President. Booted most of it away through personal misbehavior, sloppiness, and dishonesty. Handed country over to Republicans, especially to his successor.

(e) G W Bush - Our most inept and doltish President. Would be dictator.

(f) J Kerry - Inept and doltish Democratic Candidate who kept GW in Office.

(g) H R Clinton - Wannabee heir to a potential Clinton Dynasty. Probably one of the few Democrats likely to keep the Presidency/Kingdom in the hands of the Bush dynasty.

All of which brings to mind Joseph Heller's We Bombed in New Haven. Maybe we *should* raze the joint. Besides, I don't think I've got any readers there anyway - at least not anymore;)!


Lumo notes that today is the Anniversary of Harvard President Larry Summer's fateful speech on Womynsmath.

I believe that the traditional gift on a first anniversary is paper, though modernists (i.e., Department Stores) prefer clocks.

In honor of the the occasion, the campus Chapter of NOW TP-ed his house.

Of course he's been getting clocked all year long.

PS - Lumo thinks he may have been drugged by the PC NKVD.

PPS - Do you think Lubos and TM are acquainted? Should they be?

PPPS - Not everything in this post is strictly factual.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Physics Haters Rejoice

says Lumo. It seems that CSL-1 turned out not to be a Cosmic String.

The mighty eye of Hubble looked, and found a pair of faint elliptical galaxies.

My guess is that actual physics haters will probably never hear, or care about this news, but I'm a bit puzzled. I thought it was supposed to be a candidate superstring, grown to enormous size, rather than a plain old Cosmic String, which is much less exotic, if equally unobserved (so far).

Meanwhile, us non-haters of physics can take some comfort in the fact that we haven't yet landed at that bleak Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

Hate Speech?

One of my commenters recently accused another of "hate speech" and me of "providing a forum for hate speech." This got me thinking about what exactly deserves to be considered hate speech. I came up with some potential candidates, arranged in order of decreasing offensiveness (to me) that I call HS1 - HS4.

HS1 - Inciting or encouraging violence against racial, ethnic, or other groups. Threatening violence against them. Example kill the [insert target group]! If that's not hate speech, then nothing is. Probably even your neighborhood Nazi would concede this.

HS2 - Using insulting racial epithets. Blatantly discriminatory instructions, directions, or forms of address. Advocating such behavior. Example: Get out of my way [insert racial epithet].

Once again, this is pretty clear cut. Either HS1 or HS2 will likely get your comment deleted on my blog.

HS3 - Spreading defamatory and false stories about a group. Example: Red Staters are a bunch of ignorant hicks. The infamous "blood libel" fits somewhere between this category and the second. It has also been repeatedly used to incite mass murder.

I'm pretty offended by this stuff too, but its case is special because it gradates into:

HS4[NOT] - This category includes discussion of group traits, behaviors, or history that is objectionable to some group members but is true, plausible, or at least arguable.

This is the category that interests me, so let me give a longer example: I have a forty minute commute to and from work each day, most of which time is spent listening to NPR. I don't remember the context, but in a conversation at a party, a rabbi said to me that NPR's Middle East correspondent was an anti-semite. Well I've listened to this correspondent literally dozens of times, and I've never heard her say anything remotely anti-semitic. Moreover, she is Jewish and has a Jewish name. I said this to him and asked for an example. He backed off and admitted that he had just "heard" about her anti-semitism. I am pretty sure I have a good idea where he "heard" it. There are some in his congregation (and elsewhere) who consider any criticism (or fact) not in accordance with the extrem Likud - NeoCon line to be evidence of antisemitism - to which I say bullshit!

Any system where you can't openly discuss the important facts is a facist totalitarianism. I can't accept that this kind of discussion is "hate speech" in any useful sense.

I'm no fan of No Child Left Behind but it does have some useful features. One is that it forces school districts to report test scores assorted (among other things) by race or ethnicity. In my small, majority Hispanic, city the results are pretty clear cut - there are large gaps in test scores between different groups. If you don't start by recognizing that we are doing a crappy job of educating a large fraction of our population, there is no hope of remedy. Those who say we should just close our eyes and pretend it's not so are no friends to the disadvantaged students.

So if you want to come to my blog and accuse me (or a fellow commenter) of hate speech, I expect you to answer the question I asked the rabbi: "what was the offending speech and why was it offensive?" And if you don't like my definitions, be prepared to offer better ones.

UPDATE: The comments on this thread have taken us far from the original topic, and I want to discuss some things that have come up. TM has said:

Liberals tend to reframe the argument into a sneering, condescending tone
Whether or no, I think that misses the main point. Most liberals, I think, have a deep seated and well-motivated hatred of racism. We remember the evils that have been done and continue to be done in its name, and we remember the victims and how they suffered. We also remember how "scientific research" was repeatedly perverted in its service. If you remember that, you will understand why anybody who picks up its banners attracts a visceral hostility. Studying racial differences is not racist per se, but it inherits an awful lot of stinking baggage.

More attention has been focussed on a couple of other issues: consanguinity and it's associated social implications. The incidence of consanguinity in TM's data surprised me, but as far as I have been able to tell, the data is genuine. Arun has confirmed some aspects in part as well. It's pretty easy for me to believe that (a) it is associated with depressed function - such effects have been well documented in other species from roses to cattle, as well as in humans. (b) I find the association with tribal and clan structure credible. Wikipedia documents similar behaviors in European Royal families and the Rothchild banking dynasty - and the resulting genetic carnage. (c) I can imagine that it is associated with weaker National sentiments, though which is cause and which is effect is not easily parsed.

Nonetheless, attempting to blame our failure in Iraq on it seems absurd. It was just one more circumstance among a host that the Bushies foolishly and criminally failed to anticipate or plan for. The success of our occupations in Germany and Japan had many sources, but one of the greatest was the detailed and intensive planning that went into it. Roosevelt started planning for it months after Pearl Harbor. Moreover, the occupations were put in the hands of brilliant and learned men, who knew their tasks and the peoples well. By contrast, the hastily organized Iraqi occupation was turned over to corrupt cronies, ideologically correct children, and fools - I mean Paul Bremer and his Heritage Foundation kiddie corps.

I apologize to Lee for not attempting to deal more directly with Sailer, but I don't have moral energy to try to fathom him or what he represents.

TM - you have been reasonably polite and quite informative, but some of the associations you are perceived to bring are judged, rightly or not, very sinister.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Kerry Emanuel

Kerry Emanuel is no global warming bomb thrower, so this NYT interview is the sort of thing that open-minded people ought to take seriously.

For decades, Kerry Emanuel, the meteorologist and hurricane specialist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was known as a cautious centrist on questions of global warming and hurricane ferocity.

Consequently, when he announced some statistical results, serious people took notice.
"His paper has had a fantastic impact on the policy debate," said Stephen Schneider, a climatologist at Stanford. "Emanuel's this conservative, apolitical guy, and he's saying, 'Global warming is real.' "

From the interview:
Q. Because last year's hurricane season was so intense, many people declared: "Ah, ha! Global warming!" Were they right?

A. My answer is, Not so fast. That may have been a contributor. But the fact we had such a bad season was mostly a matter of chance. On the other hand, though the number of storms globally remained nearly constant, the frequency of Atlantic storms has been rising in concert with tropical ocean temperature, probably because of global warming.

There is no doubt that in the last 20 years, the earth has been warming up. And it's warming up much too fast to ascribe to any natural process we know about.

We still don't have a good grasp of how clouds and water vapor, the two big feedbacks in the climate system, will respond to global warming. What we are seeing is a modest increase in the intensity of hurricanes.

I predicted years ago that if you warmed the tropical oceans by a degree Centigrade, you should see something on the order of a 5 percent increase in the wind speed during hurricanes. We've seen a larger increase, more like 10 percent, for an ocean temperature increase of only one-half degree Centigrade.

Q. There are scientists who say of fossil fuel consumption and global warming, We may not have all the evidence yet, but we ought to be acting as if the worst could happen. Do you agree?

A. It's always struck me as odd that this country hasn't put far more resources into research on alternative energy. Europeans are. France has managed to go 85 percent nuclear in its electrical generation. And the Europeans have gotten together to fund a major nuclear fusion project. It almost offends my pride as a U.S. scientist that we've fallen down so badly in this competition.

Q. Would you ever buy a house on the beach?

A. I'd love to! But if I could do that, I'd insist on paying for my risk. And I'd do what is now being called "the Fire Island option," which involves putting up flimsy houses that you don't mind losing to a storm. You don't insure them.

Into the Trackless Swamp

Kevin drum ventures into the IQ Swamps. His post was inspired by Fred Kaplan's Slate piece GI Schmo on the dumbing down of the Army:

The bad news is twofold. First, the number of Category IV recruits is starting to skyrocket. Second, a new study compellingly demonstrates that, in all realms of military activity, intelligence does matter. Smarter soldiers and units perform their tasks better; dumber ones do theirs worse.

Category IV is the 10-30 percentile on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test - mainly an IQ test. (Kevin incorrectly calls it the bottom third.)

Kevin knows the risks, but decides to step into the swamp anyway:
Of course, we all know what the real problem is here: in contemporary discourse intelligence is inextricably bound up with race, which is why it's almost impossible to talk honestly about it. For that we mainly have conservative race demagogues like Charles Murray and Steve Sailer to blame — although liberals themselves haven't been entirely blameless either when it comes to demagoging IQ.
Fortunately, our intrepid hero (my second favorite blogger, btw) thinks he knows what to do about it:

In any case, I've long had a suspicion that one of the reasons IQ is so overvalued in our society — it's important, but it's not that important — is because it's one of the few cognitive traits that's routinely measured. Simply because it's something that most of us can put a number to, it becomes a de facto stand-in for all cognitive abilities, even though it very clearly isn't.

The answer? How about more testing, not less? Cognitive traits like sociability, empathy, self-discipline, and extroversion, just to name a few, are as important in contemporary society as IQ, but most of us have only a vague idea of how we compare to other people in these areas. If we routinely measured these things in addition to IQ, perhaps the lay public would start treating IQ as just one of many important cognitive traits and we'd all start to assign it an importance more in keeping with its true worth. This in turn might help to reduce IQ as the cultural flashpoint
More testing! That surely is the way to go! After, everybody's got to be good at something, right? Right?

Let's pass over the miscelleaneous unproven slam at Murray and Sailer - I know little of Murray and less of Sailer. Let them defend themselves.

Unfortunately, Kevin still gets a lot wrong: I've long had a suspicion that one of the reasons IQ is so overvalued in our society — it's important, but it's not that important — is because it's one of the few cognitive traits that's routinely measured. he says. This idea that IQ testing is just a bad habit is dead wrong. As one of Kevin's commenters mentions, IQ gets tested a lot because (1) it's easy and repeatable and (2) it's strongly correlated with performance in almost every activity. The NFL doesn't test prospective recruits IQ because it's customary, it tests them because they know that certain minimums are needed to perform - and they have a very good idea what those minimums are for every position. Kaplan's story just told him that smarter recruits even shoot straighter than their lower IQ fellows.

The same commenter, BRussell, also points out that the other traits Kevin mentions don't have those two useful characteristics: They aren't predictive, and different tests don't correlate well.

Another commenter, TangoMan, has some intriguing data purportedly correlating low IQ populations with inbreeding in the form of first cousin marriages. It's not a crazy idea. All of us are packing a dozen or two deleterious recessive genes. It's well known that sibling matings produce a very high proportion of severely handicapped offspring. The odds are about four times better for first cousins (we share 1/8 of our DNA instead of 1/2), but still might be bad enough to make for some marginally damaging recessive pairs.

Kevin writes a liberal blog, so most of the grief he has taken so far comes from the outraged liberals. The Nazi racists are out there too though - that's why the swamp is so dismal. I doubt that the conditions are ripe yet for discussing IQ rationally.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Somebody's Lying, I Wonder Who

Kevin Drum is listening to Paul Bremer on Dateline:

On Dateline last night, Paul Bremer confirmed something that he briefly alluded to last year: we never had enough troops on the ground to keep order in Iraq, and both George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld knew it.

Bremer said he sent a memo to Rumsfeld suggesting that half a million soldiers would be needed, three times the number deployed by the Bush administration.

"I never had any reaction from him," the former diplomat told NBC's Brian Williams on "Dateline."

Although he never heard back from his direct boss, Bremer said he discussed his concerns with Bush, who told him he would seek troops from other countries, but did not mention increasing U.S. forces.
Recall that Bush and Rumsfeld have consistently claimed they gave that leaders on the ground in Iraq all the troops they asked for.

Mountain High and Valley So Low

Or how I mastered statistical reasoning and disproved global warming.

Some have claimed that mountain heights can be modelled by a statistical distribution, somewhat similar to Brownian motion.

Consider for example a random mountain. Other mountains in the neighborhood should, by this hypothesis, randomly vary in steps up or down relative to it. In particular, there should be a very small probability that the closest eleven mountains are all shorter than it! Details of the statistical reasoning involved are developed in more detail by LM and commenters here and here. However, actual analysis of the mountains near our randomly chosen mountain (Mount Everest) show that all of the eleven nearest mountains are in fact shorter!

This proves that global warming, plate tectonics, and pure quantum gravity are all bullshit.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Climate Predictability

Henk Tennekes has a skeptical take on climate predictions over at Roger Pielke Sr's blog. It's a digressive critique, but I think his main point is that we have little evidence for the reliability of climate models predictions. As far as I can tell, the only real evidence he presents is the fact that, as Lorentz has shown, long term predictions are highly uncertain in chaotic systems. In the comments, Roger Pielke gives a couple of examples of events that he claims climate models can't even postdict. Tennekes' conclusion is that we don't know enough about climate to attempt to manage it, and hence should concentrate on adapting to whatever changes occur.

“The constraints imposed by the planetary ecosystem require continuous adjustment and permanent adaptation. Predictive skills are of secondary importance.”

Today I still feel that way. I cannot bring myself to accept any type of prediction paradigm, and choose a adaptation paradigm instead. This brings me in the vicinity of Roger Pielke Sr.’s emphasis on land-use changes and Ronald Brunner’s modest bottom-up alternatives. It goes without saying that I abhor such dogmas as various claims to Manage The Planet or Greenpeace’s belief in Saving the Earth. These ideologies presuppose that the intelligence of Homo sapiens is capable of such feats. However, I know of no evidence to support such claims.
Plausible as this argument is, I can't accept it fully. Yes, we should prepare to adapt, but when we see an uncontrolled forcing being steadily increased, with additional evidence that it is already having significant effects, worrying about exctly how predictive our models are may be beside the point. When you smell smoke, it's not necessarily a good idea to wait until you see flame before evacuating the building.

If his point is merely that we need to try to assess how good (or bad) the models are, I'm with him 100%. That's a problem for mathematics, physics, climatology, and history.

Old Times Now Forgotten

I have been reading about geology lately. Sometimes it's useful to remember how differently they did things back in the PreCambrian.

There wasn't any oxygen in the atmosphere back in the Archaean, at least not until 2.6 billion years or so ago. Hydrogen sulfide and methane were abundant in that strongly reducing atmosphere. Somewhere around that time, blue green algae evolved that began producing oxygen as a byproduct of their metabolism - most likely a byproduct that they, like the anaerobic bacteria with which they shared the planet at that time, found poisonous. Not to worry, though - there were abundant ions around to scarf up any stray oxygen. The banded iron formations that featured so prominently in the next 900 million or so years of Earth history were probably produced in just that way - dissolved iron ions scarfing up oxygen molecules and raining down on the sea floor as tiny specks of magnetite.

Global warming doubters like to argue that the human impact on the Earth is too small to really make a big difference, but geology is not entirely their friend in this debate. Life has been playing a major role in shaping the planetary atmosphere for billions of years, and there is little reason to believe that that has changed. Humans are now the final consumer for about 40-50% of all biological production on Earth and they have drastically altered the biosphere of every continent but Antarctica. It took the blue green algae as much as a couple of billion years to produce something like our current oxygen rich atmosphere. It looks like it will take us only about 50 more years (starting in 1850) to have doubled the CO2 in the atmosphere.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Grisly Thoughts

Last night I tried to beat a small grizzly bear to death with a rock. It was very difficult, because it was so darn furry and fluffy. I had been watching a small child being followed by a big dog when suddenly it turned out to be a small bear and gobbled down the kid in one bite. I thought maybe I could get the kid out if I acted fast enough, but I woke up first.

Maybe watching Grizzly Man doesn't go that well with scampi and white wine.

Lost, Stolen, or Strayed

I'm going to guess that a major remodelling is somewhat stressful even for the well-organized. For the hopelessly disorganized, it can be a catastrophe. Naturally, being chronically disorganized, we made the classic mistakes. First and worst was probably failing to ensure that the contract had a time of performance penalty. So the 3-5 weeks somehow stretched into three to five months. Meanwhile, items that had been more or less sorted and boxed were needed, had to be extracted, and in the process destroyed every semblance of order in the already chaotic jumble of stuff stored in every nook and cranny of the house that wasn't being remade. Kids graduated from college and more boxes came home. Yet more boxes of stuff from my late mother-in-law that we couldn't stand to part with.

Maybe a better title for this post would have been "Way too much junk," but at this point an unbelievable amount of stuff is still missing. My drill bits - are they at the bottom of some box with the Christmas Tree ornaments we couldn't find or did the builders walk off with them by mistake? At least we finally found one of the safe-deposit-box keys today. And I'm sure the white minivan has got to be around here somewhere.


It's been a while since the last major college sports cheating scandal, which means we are overdue. Cheating is inevitable when governments or similar bodies set up rules that deeply offend the principles of market economics.

A Vince Young or Reggie Bush is worth tens of millions to a college and a conference - maybe hundreds of millions when all the feeders at the trough are considered. The college, conference and TV network get these valuable services for room and board - slave wages in anybody's book. The reason they can manage this remarkable economic feat is that they are supported by a huge conspiracy in restraint of free trade - the National College Athletic Association (NCAA). Such a conspiracy, even when supported by law, tradition, and the public nonetheless creates huge incentives to cheat in recruiting these hypervaluable sevices. The tissue thin rationale for this system is that athletic grants-in-aid are an educational grant, not payment for services.

The free market capitalist in me sees a simple solution - sanction the conspirators, fine them, slap a few college presidents in the slammer and allow student athletes to negotiate their own best terms. The (slightly) practical idealist realizes that this is probably unlikely to happen, since it would likely destroy professional college athletics as we know them. So here is a more modest step: Make all athletic grants-in-aid for four or more years and contingent only on academics. In other words, if USC recruits Joe Schmoe and gives him an athletic "scholarship" he gets to keep the scholarship as long as he remains in good academic standing, even if he gets bored with football and stops showing up for practice (or games) on day one. This would make the "scholarship" fiction real, and partially deprofessionalize college sports.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Support our Troops: Fire Rumsfeld

and Cheney and Bush.

Michael Moss has this story in tomorrow's NYT. Once again Bush and Rumsfeld's disinterest, incompetence, and corruption costs American lives.

A secret Pentagon study has found that at least 80 percent of the marines who have been killed in Iraq from wounds to their upper body could have survived if they had extra body armor. That armor has been available since 2003 but until recently the Pentagon has largely declined to supply it to troops despite calls from the field for additional protection, according to military officials.

As usual Rumsfeld and company were slow to fund the medical studies, slow to procure the armor, and too busy funnelling graft to "the Duke" and others to pay attention to the ways our troops were getting killed.
The vulnerability of the military's body armor has been known since the start of the war, and is part of a series of problems that have surrounded the protection of American troops. Still, the Marine Corps did not begin buying additional plates to cover the sides of their troops until this September, when it ordered 28,800 sets, Marine Corps officials acknowledge.

The Army, which has the largest force in Iraq, is still deciding what to purchase, according to Army procurement officials. They said the Army is deciding between various sizes of plates to give its 130,000 soldiers; the officials said they hope to issue contracts this month.
President Screwup strikes again.
The Marine Corps said it asked for the data in August 2004; but it needed to pay the medical examiner $107,000 to have the data analyzed. Marine officials said funding and other delays resulted in the work not starting until December 2004. It finally began receiving the information by June 2005. The shortfalls in bulletproof vests are just one of the armor problems the Pentagon continues to struggle with as the war in Iraq approaches the three-year mark, The Times has found in an ongoing examination of the military procurement system.

The production of a new armored truck called the Cougar, which military officials said has thus far withstood every insurgent attack, has fallen three months behind schedule. The small company making the truck has been beset by a host of production and legal problems.

Resolutions for 2005

1. Stop Procrastinating

2. Walk 10,000 steps per day

3. Keep a blog.

4. Try not to let the Bushies drive me nuts.

5. Hope both kids graduate.

6. Minimize interactions with crazy people.

Ummm. So how am doing so far. did I do? Three and five worked out.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Jeremiah was a Bullfrog

as well as a prophet.

By contrast, Pat Robertson's specialty is what I would call post-phecy - after the fact explanations of untoward events. His latest (via Josh Marshall)

in this news story:

Robertson: Sharon punished for dividing Israel

The Rev. Pat Robertson said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was punished by God for dividing the Land of Israel.
It still seems to me that Pat's God seems to have lost a step of late. Surely it would have been more salutary to turn Sharon into a pillar of salt, or somesuch. Giving a 77 year old fat guy a stroke is just so - so trite.

ON THE OTHER HAND: God, or somebody, evidently thinks Howard Stern is doing something right:
Howard Stern to Get $220M in Sirius Stock
Sirius Satellite Radio Inc. will give Howard Stern 34 million shares of stock _ worth about $220 million at today's prices _ because the company has met agreed-upon targets for gaining new subscribers under its 2004 deal with the shock jock.

From this Breitbart story.

Yet Another Bushco Screwup

It's only one small scale trajedy in the long litany, but the miscommunication that misled the families into thinking their loved ones had survived the Sago mine disaster has the usual fingerprints of the screwup President all over it. When Bush became President, he followed his usual procedure of appointing industry hacks and flacks to the Mine Safety and Health Agency instead of experienced professionals. Kevin Drum has this story from Ellen Smith, editor of Mine Safety and Health News:

In this case, MSHA sent down Dirk Fillpot from Labor Dept. headquarters. Although Fillpot is not to blame for the horrific miscommunication that led families to believe for three hours that their loved-ones were alive, he has absolutely no experience in dealing with mine disasters, unlike two highly qualified and seasoned press people — Rodney Brown and Amy Louviere — who sat back at MSHA headquarters in Arlington twiddling their thumbs. And who was in charge at headquarters? Suzy Bohnert — another person with absolutely no experience in dealing with mine disasters and the confusion that the situation brings, and who in fact, has given out incorrect information in the past due to her lack of knowledge of MSHA policies and past practices.

I cannot imagine that Amy or Rodney would have let this incorrect information go unanswered for so long. In the past, MSHA has stepped up to the plate when the company failed in communications during past disasters. It's time for the agency to recognize its role in this media and family nightmare.

Are the American people ever going to figure out that this guy is a career screwup who probably never would have made a dime if political connections hadn't allowed him to steal it?

Wednesday, January 04, 2006


The massive stroke Ariel Sharon underwent severely threatens his life and almost certainly ends his political career. It goes without saying that this is a massive event in Israeli political history, and in the Middle East. Israelis are used to turmoil and uncertainty and it looks like more is on the way.

A Dip in the Cesspool

Provoked, as usual, by Lumo, I have been hunting the wild La Griffe du Lion. What I was looking for was some analytic commentary on his work, something about his sources and methods, or any clues to his identity. So far my search has been unrewarding. On the other hand, it has taken me into some of the cesspools of the racist right.

A question about the identity took me to a site called American Renaissance and an article by, yes, John Derbyshire. The article was interesting enough, just Derbyshire talking to some anonymous blogger about how dangerous it was to discuss the information coming out of genetic studies, but my trail led into the comments (where it proved false), but that was a cesspool indeed. A small sample:

Pre-1965 Euro-America annihilated the “super smart” Japanese race 60 years ago. Euro-America can do the same to Hindu India today. However, if the treason lobby-Bush family-has it’s way, Hindu thieves from India-legal immigrants- will be allowed to 1)continue stealing jobs from Euro-Christian American men and women who have families to support and 2)use their new found wealth to buy treasonous politicians such as Jorge Boosh and the filthy Clintons(has the testosterone-flushed Hillary sprouted a false penis like the hyena bitch in Africa?)
AR also provided a helpful table of its other race related articles, to give us a clue:

    • Race and Psychopathic Personality (Jul. 2002)
    • Race and Teenage Pregnancy (Feb. 2002)
    • The Biological Reality of Race (Oct. 1999)
    • Why Race Matters (Oct. 1997)
    • Race and Health (May 1996)
    • A New Theory of Racial Differences (Dec. 1994)
    • More news stories on Racial Differences

True Believers: Abramoff & Delay

Juan Cole has an article up on the Delay - Abramoff connection to an Israeli charity which apparently exists mainly to fund illegal settler activity. Cole's title might raise a few hackles:

Abramoff and al-Arian: Lobbyist's "Charity" a Front for Terrorism
The article seems well worth a read to me, partially because it says something about how Abramoff came acropper:
Indeed, it was this terror funding of Israeli far right militiamen that tripped Abramoff up, since the FBI discovered that he had misled Indian tribes into giving money to the Jabotinskyites, and then began wondering if he had defrauded the tribes in other ways. (You betcha!) The Indian leaders were furious when they discovered they had been used to oppress another dispossessed indigenous people, the Palestinians, calling it "Outer Limits bizarre" and saying that they would never have willingly given money to such a cause.
Did I mention that Juan is not an obvious fan of Zionism?

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Sean Carroll gets Edgy

Now here's a shock - Sean Carroll doesn't like Steven Pinker's Edge Idea:

Each year publishing agent John Brockman asks a deep question of some of the world’s leading thinkers, who just happen to be Brockman’s clients (via Peter Woit). It’s what you’d expect: a mixture of interesting ideas and rampant nonsense. This year Nobel Laureate Philip Anderson says some silly things about cosmology, which maybe I’ll talk about later; but the prize for the worst response comes from Steven Pinker.

To make a long story short, here’s Pinker being saucily provocative:
In January, Harvard president Larry Summers caused a firestorm when he cited research showing that women and men have non-identical statistical distributions of cognitive abilities and life priorities.
That’s what’s known in studies of rhetoric as a “blatant lie.” It’s true that Summers caused a firestorm; it’s also true that he cited such research. It’s just not true that it was the citation that caused the firestorm. The firestorm was caused when Summers suggested that differences in innate aptitude were more important than systematic biases in explaining the gender gap among professional scientists.
Well, what Summers really suggested was that his audience consider that hypothesis, and cited the evidence mentioned.

Sean considers that a "blatant lie." I think it's more like a possible misrepresentation of emphasis, but a less egregious one than Sean's "blatant lie" claim. Sean also claims there is "overwhelming evidence" against that hypothesis, and cites his own previous posts here and here on the subject. I'm afraid I found his evidence slightly underwhelming, but form your own opinion.

In the second of the cited posts, Sean spends a lot of time attacking the idea that the larger percentage of boys than girls choosing science could be related to the fact that boys are over-represented on the high end of standardized tests of math ability. The centerpiece of his argument is that:
By the time students are in twelfth grade, there is a substantial gap in the fraction of boys vs. girls who plan to study science in college. So it’s easy enough to ask: how much of that gap is explained by differing scores on standardized tests? Answer: none of it. Girls are much less likely than boys to plan on going into science, and Xie and Shauman find that the difference is independent of their scores on the standardized tests.
He regards that as a decisive refutation of the idea that women are underrepresented because they are less likely to have the same level of math talent, but I think this is just flawed statistical reasoning on Sean's part. In particular, it assumes that twelfth grade girls' career choices are independent of the choices of other twelfth grade girls. Imagine, if you like, that you are the only 12th grade girl with a 740 Math SAT in a high school class that has, say, six boys in the same Math SAT category. Is it just possible that your career choice might resemble most other 12th grade girls career choice more than it resembles other 740 Math SAT scorers?

Sean wonders how loud you have to shout to get his point across. The irony, of course, is that his point of view is virtually compulsory in the academic elite. Less shouting and more objective analysis might be useful - but that always risks the possibility that the facts might not fit your theory.

It is an undoubted fact that women are highly under-represented among elite math and science faculties. It is also a fact that there are undoubtely obstacles, including obstacles that are not sex neutral, to joining that elite. I strongly support any efforts to remove or mitigate such obstacles and eliminate unfair discrimination. Nonetheless, starting by assuming that all differences of outcome are due to discrimination is mindless folly - and almost everybody knows this except for ivory tower academics.

UPDATE: Who, me, vindictive? OK, so maybe I am a bit burned about Sean deleting my comment, but let me just reiterate what initially annoyed me. Note that in the quote, Sean characterises as a "blatant lie" a statement whose literal truth he explicitly concedes. What apparently bothers Sean is the (unstated, but obvious to Sean) implication of causal relationship. So is Sean shouting because he doesn't think Pinker emphasized the part of the part of Summer's speech that personally offended him? I think so.

I should know better than to get involved in arguments over religion.

Monday, January 02, 2006

More from the Crackhouse of Dangerous Minds

Danny Hillis takes a Trent Lott approach toward dangerous ideas. If you all would just keep your mouths shut about these dangerous ideas, we wouldn't have had all these troubles.

To me, the idea that we should all share our most dangerous ideas is, itself, a very dangerous idea. I just hope that it never catches on.
The monks who burnt the Great Library of Alexandria (and murdered the Librarian) no doubt had similar views.

Steven Pinker, who also came up with the "dangerous ideas" topic, has a very dangerous idea indeed, one that drives many of his academic colleagues into the Hillis camp. It's not a new or original idea though, nor even one that would seem surprising to 90% of the population:
Groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments

The year 2005 saw several public appearances of what will I predict will become the dangerous idea of the next decade: that groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments.
That idea has been the dangerous idea of an awful lot of decades. The problem isn't that it's false, because it may well not be. The problem is what can be done about it to prevent it from becoming the rationale of war, genocide, and mass discrimination. Pinker doesn't offer much in the way of a solution:
Political equality is a commitment to universal human rights, and to policies that treat people as individuals rather than representatives of groups; it is not an empirical claim that all groups are indistinguishable. Yet many commentators seem unwilling to grasp these points, to say nothing of the wider world community.
Many a parent who has had an elementary school teacher tell them their child "is not bright enough for college" has had the experience of seeing that child graduate in a demanding curriculum and take a starting salary twice that of the offending teacher, but genetic testing offers the rather gloomy prospect that someday those predictions may always be correct.

On the other hand, maybe it would ease some adolescent stress if a kid could get his or her response letter from Harvard Admissions before the first birthday.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

More Crack for Your Brain

OK, I dissed poor Arnold Trehub for saying the science was limited. It turns out to be a popular theme this year:

Lawrence Krauss:

The world may fundamentally be inexplicable

Steven Strogatz has an example:
The End of Insight

I worry that insight is becoming impossible, at least at the frontiers of mathematics. Even when we're able to figure out what's true or false, we're less and less able to understand why.

An argument along these lines was recently given by Brian Davies in the "Notices of the American Mathematical Society". He mentions, for example, that the four-color map theorem in topology was proven in 1976 with the help of computers, which exhaustively checked a huge but finite number of possibilities. No human mathematician could ever verify all the intermediate steps in this brutal proof, and even if someone claimed to, should we trust them? To this day, no one has come up with a more elegant, insightful proof. So we're left in the unsettling position of knowing that the four-color theorem is true but still not knowing why.

Karl Saggagh says it right out loud:
The human brain and its products are incapable of understanding the truths about the universe

Our brains may never be well-enough equipped to understand the universe and we are fooling ourselves if we think they will.

Why should we expect to be able eventually to understand how the universe originated, evolved, and operates? While human brains are complex and capable of many amazing things, there is not necessarily any match between the complexity of the universe and the complexity of our brains, any more than a dog's brain is capable of understanding every detail of the world of cats and bones, or the dynamics of stick trajectories when thrown.

OK guys, I believe you. I've pretty much given up hope that I will ever understand String Theory at any deep level anyway.

I'll just put on some Pink Floyd and say the hell with it. Damn, I can't even remember where I put my Pink Floyd!

"the crack cocaine of the thinking world"

The title comes from a BBC 4 Radio commentary on the discussions prompted by The World Question Center's annual question. This year, they asked a bunch of prominent thinkers, not all named Dyson, what their dangerous idea was.


The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?
(Suggested by Steve Pinker ). Quite a few scientists are among the designated thinkers again this year, including physicists Leonard Susskind, Freeman Dyson, Paul Steinhardt, Lee Smolin, Carlo Rovelli, Phillip W. Anderson, and Brian Greene.

Brian is thinking about the multiverse, but so far it seems more dangerous to physics than anything else.

David Gelertner says:
Let's date the Information Age to 1982, when the Internet went into operation & the PC had just been born. What if people have been growing less well-informed ever since? What if people have been growing steadily more ignorant ever since the so-called Information Age began?
Unfortunately he doesn't have anything interesting to say about it. I on the other hand have two things 1) Faux News and 2) Flush Limbaugh.

David Lykken still has faith in an activist court:
I believe that, during my grandchildren's lifetimes, the U.S. Supreme Court will find a way to approve laws requiring parental licensure.
A good idea, but not bloody likely, especially via. the Supremes.

Arnold Trehub has this rather inane non-sequitur:
The entire conceptual edifice of modern science is a product of biology. Even the most basic and profound ideas of science — think relativity, quantum theory, the theory of evolution — are generated and necessarily limited by the particular capacities of our human biology. This implies that the content and scope of scientific knowledge is not open-ended.
Could you clarify that logic please? Sure don't look like modus ponens to me.

Roger Shank doesn't like schools:
My dangerous idea is one that most people immediately reject without giving it serious thought: school is bad for kids — it makes them unhappy and as tests show — they don't learn much.

Pink Floyd said it better, but they weren't invited:
We don't need no education
We dont need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!
All in all it's just another brick in the wall.
All in all you're just another brick in the wall.

Clay Shirky actually says something interesting and dangerous:
In the coming decades, our concept of free will, based as it is on ignorance of its actual mechanisms, will be destroyed by what we learn about the actual workings of the brain. We can wait for that collision, and decide what to do then, or we can begin thinking through what sort of legal, political, and economic systems we need in a world where our old conception of free will is rendered inoperable.
It's our choice. Or maybe not.

More on the question later, when I've read some more.

Texas 31, USC 28

I don't normally do sports predictions, partly because I don't know anything (hush you readers who are asking when that ever stopped me), but mainly because I don't care. USC and Texas are both talented, tradition rich teams with great coaching - exactly the sort of teams - in fact the very teams - that I always hate. I have a deep instinctive hatred of UT, stemming from everything from politics to the fact that I once became seriously ill on their campus. USC is almost equally deserving - and they did narrowly beat my team (AZ State) this year.

The hype, however, is ridiculous. USC will be very good indeed if they can look past their press clippings and really play this game. I'm going to guess that USC will figure that out too late.

Physics Bitch Fight 2006!

Lubos Motl has a very long post up today devoted to dissing Chad Orzel. Naturally, Lubos keeps the discussion on his usual high moral (~ fourth grade) plane, expending vast numbers of pixels making largely irrelevant points, calling Chad stupid, and referring to him as Ms. or Mr. Orzel.

Chad made some reasonable points, but did call Lubos's kid ugly:

... he combines the worst sort of string-theorist attitude with political views that I find obnoxious, and a website design that I find appalling ...
I, on the other hand, find Chad's anti-IE site a bit of a pain.

Personally, I'm looking forward to the cage match. Chad is approximately the dimensions of a pre-global-warming polar bear, whereas Lubos seems to me a bit more like an undernourished seal.