Sunday, December 30, 2007

Kristol Meth

Many have asked what The New York Times could be thinking in hiring Bill Kristol. The Times has a somewhat exaggerated reputation as a liberal paper and Kristol is pure right-wing meth, a hardcore neocon famous for his Iraq war cheerleading and absurdly wrong war predictions. Kristol despises the NYT and most of its readers return the contempt with interest.

So why did they make a move so clearly likely to offend a majority of their readers? I have a two part theory. First, the Times sees itself as locked in a death match with Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal, and its infamously wing-nut editorial page. Second, even though New York is one of the more liberal American cities, it is also the most Jewish city in the world, and many otherwise liberal American Jews don't believe that you can be radical enough in your support of right-wing Israeli politics.

The two pillars of Neocon politics are a devotion to the interests of the Israeli right and the American rich, and both wield great power in New York City. Kristol, Mr. Neocon himself, may look like a perfect ambassador to the NYT. More like a snake at your bosom, I think.


Luboš Motl, a Czech blogger and potato bug expert, has written about the concentration of funding in science. He didn't say much interesting about it, but did use the occasion to rant about some of his favorite villains. I posted a comment which got deleted, no doubt because he didn't like my observation that if it were up to him, there would only be one idea in fundamental physics.

Just sayin'.


Cycles are pretty common in the Universe. Galaxies go through cycles of star formation and decay. Atoms are cycled through stars and back into the interstellar medium. Here on Earth, we have the hydrological cycle, with water evaporating from the oceans or elsewhere, condensing and falling as precipitation, and flowing back to the ocean. Oceanic crust and other materials from the interior of the planet is extruded at mid-ocean rifts and volcanos, cycled across oceans and subducted back into the interior. Oxygen and carbon atoms have their own cycles through rock, ocean, and atmosphere.

Closest to our interest here are the cycles of life. Birth, growth, death and decay take place in a cosmic instant, but these cycles have something crucial in common with all the others - they are all heat engines, powered by taking in energy at low entropy and putting it out at higher entropy. The same of course is true of the cycle that powers your automobile.

All the cycles mentioned are in some regards self-sustaining, as long as we don't run out of low entropy energy. Galaxies are powered mainly by gravitation energy, stars by a combination of gravitation and thermonuclear energy, continental motion by the heat energy released by radioactive decay - itself stored up in mainly gravity powered supernovae.

Most of the power for life comes from the Sun, but some life depends on chemical energy from the Earth's internal heat engine.

Life, we say, is special because it can reproduce and evolve. So can any of those other cycles evolve? They do, of course, but it's a pretty crude sort of evolution, without obvious internal memory, driven just by the changes occuring in their environments.

The metabolism first version or life's origin imagines that, on a primitive planet, chemical cycles could sustain themselves and give rise to descent with modification - the substrate for natural selection. It is an appealing notion, but one that has yet to be demonstrated. The key trick, it seems, is to get that modification in descent parameter tuned correctly. If the cycle is too sensitive to modification, any change will kill it, and natural selection won't lead to any evolution. If the cycle is too insensitive to modification, or too easily modified, selection will be overwhelmed by randomness. An even more critical problem is to actually find any cycle that could fit the most basic qualifications of self-sustainment and reproduction.

Huckabee on MTP

At least one pundit predicted that Mike Huckabee's campaign would run aground on Tim Russert's patented gotcha questions on MTP. I caught part of Huckabee's appearance and I don't think so. He looked solid, confident, and well briefed.

I think that our nameless pundit (because I can't remember who it was ;)) missed the mark because he failed to note that:

  • Huckabee is a veteran pol and cool under fire.
  • Huckabee apparently knows how to prepare, unlike, say, Richardson, who completely booted his MTP appearance.
  • Little Russ saves the tough questions for Democrats.

I now think Huckabee is very likely to be the Republican nominee, and somewhat likely to beat Hillary. He might even beat Obama.

Intellect, Pickled

Paul Steinberg, writing in today's New York Times, has an interesting parable on the subject of George Bush's intellect.

Even after longstanding sobriety this inflammatory response translates into a tendency to stay the course, a diminished capacity for relearning and maladaptive decision-making.

I thought the part about inflexibility of learning was particularly apropos - it explains a lot. Apparently the efficacy of exercise is less in humans, however.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Metabolism First

Arun, writing in the comments to an earlier post, brought my attention to Robert Shapiro's Scientific American cover story on a metabolism first approach to the origin of life. (Subscription only, but a longer, earlier, free version, minus nifty graphics and some other features is here. )

The magic without magic of small molecule cycles is heredity without heredity - actually, a distributed type of heredity. Such a system takes energy from the environment, uses it to drive a chemical cycle which includes producing more of the molecules that participate in the cycle. In effect, such systems create a local negative entropy gradient by exploiting some naturally occuring negative entropy gradient (energy from the Sun, volcanos, lightning, whatever).

Hurricanes perform an analogous feat. Once organized, their ferocious winds very efficiently extract heat from the ocean and use it to drive those same winds. The entropy gradient they exploit is that between the warm ocean below and the cold of the upper atmosphere and cosmos above. One of the biggest enemies of a hurricane is disruption of its organization, for example due to wind shear.

Chemical cycles need to be able to preserve their organization as well, and Shapiro suggests that that requires some sort of compartmentalization. I recommend his article, in the magazine form if you have access, but read the freebee on line if you don't.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Triumph of the Nazghul

I never would have believed it myself. I seem to recall that Ann Coulter once wished for the destruction of the New York Times building, presumably with the staff inside. Now, it seems, I can no longer in good conscience disagree. It's time to retire the Gray Lady, time to realize that print is, or by all that's holy, ought to be, dead.

Word is that ... I can't bear to say it...

Sob. And SOB. And other imprecations too vile for a family flog.

Reducible Complexity?

Comments upon reading Iris Fry's The Emergence of Life on Earth Chapters 7 & 8

The discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 by Watson and Crick (with large contributions from Maurice Wilkins, Rosalyn Franklin, and Linus Pauling, to mention a few) is perhaps the most momentous discovery of the twentieth century. Watson, Crick, and Wilkins got the Nobel, and most of the glory (Franklin was already dead, and Pauling, who came close but missed, already had two of his own) but it is clear that if Watson and Crick had failed, somebody else would have discovered it soon, regardless.

The most important fact that discovery revealed was noted in the very coy finale of the Watson and Crick publication:

“. . . it has not escaped our attention that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material”.

The DNA structure consists of two complementary helices, which upon separation, can produce (with the help of enzymes) two copies of the original. Thus DNA is the long sought autocatalytic molecule that can (help to) reproduce itself. Moreover, it turns out that a specific sequence of the four "bases" in the DNA can code for a unique protein. The mechanism by which this happens, in the words of Richard Dawkins,

... is known, and it is unspeakably wonderful.

The sequence of a segment of DNA is transcribed (by enzymes) into so called messenger RNA (mRNA), exported to ribosomes consisting of another kind of(ribosomal, or rRNA) and proteins, to which come still a third type of RNA (transfer, or tRNA), each one bearing a characteristic amino acid. When the triple of bases in the combining site of the ribosome matches one of the tRNA molecules complementary sequence, it snaps it's amino acid unto the growing protein and goes to find another amino acid of its specific persuasion.

This is a system with a whole lot of moving parts, and every cell has them all. This very complex machinery is a seeming irreducible component of every living system.

Complexity is very attractive to scientists. What they like to do is to find a simple explanation for apparent complexity. So far, this complexity has proven irreducible. If seeming irreducible complexity excites scientists, creationists are even more entranced. How are complex machines produced, they say - by intelligent design (ID). So is this magic really necessary. I have said elsewhere that the origin of life is the last (barely) defensible bastion for ID.

Chapter 7 of Fry is mostly about the experiments of Stanley Miller and Sidney W. Fox, which established that a simulated early reducing atmosphere, with suitable addition of energy, could produce key organic molecules of metabolism. Fry, who is in a department of History and Philosophy of science, likes to emphasize the difference between "metabolism firster" like Oparin, Miller and Fox on the one side, and heredity firsters, like Haldane, on the other.

DNA's structure was discovered more or less simultaneously with the Stanley Miller experiments, and so presumeably did not influence them, but they would be central from that time on.

Chapter 8 starts with a brief (too brief if you have never seen this stuff before) discussion of DNA, its replication and translation into proteins. (But not, of course, as brief, or incomprehensible, as the paragraph that I wrote above - she has molecular diagrams). The main subject is the experiments of Sol Spiegelman, Manfred Eigen, and Leslie Orgel.

Spiegelman's experimental subject was a strand of RNA, the genome of a bacteriophage that infects E. coli, and its replicase, the enzyme that directs its replication. He found that he could get the bacteriophage to reproduce in a test tube when supplied with appropriate nutrients, whereas it normally reproduces only in the cell. Eigen found that the replicase could produce RNA strands without even a template, and Orgel found limited replication with template but no replicase.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Metabolism, Heredity and Catalysis

Reading Iris Fry's The Emergence of Life on Earth Chapter 6

Not much progress on understanding the origin of life was possible until some understanding of the mechanisms of life was achieved. Some physics and a lot of chemistry were required before it could be discovered how living things went about the business of growing, developing, and reproducing.

Underlying all living activity is metabolism - the systematic production of chemical changes that consumed energy, changed its form, and used it to produce motion or new components of living things. It gradually became understood that highly specific catalysts (enzymes) were the master chemists at work in living cells. Meanwhile, Mendel's laws of genetics had made possible an "atomic theory" of inheritance. Heredity was apparently embodied in discrete form, rather than as some mysterious and continuously variable fluid.

Leonard Trolland, writing in 1914, realized that a gene too could be considered a sort of catalyst - a catalyst that catalyzed not only its own production but also production of other things. He was thus able to suggest a plausible candidate for original life - a molecule that could catalyze its own production and also the production of some other substance or substances of use to it. At that point, of course, little was understood of the structure of biological catalysts (enzymes) and nothing was understood of the structure of genes.

These two aspects of life, metabolism and heredity, became the respective foci of the the origin of life pioneers Alexander Oparin and J. B. S. Haldane. Oparin, working in the Soviet Union in the twenties and thirties was in an ideology broadly sympathetic to his kind of ideas about the origin of life - they fitted well with some ideas of dialectical materialism and Friedrich Engels. Fry notes that:

...many historians of science and scientists

are of the opinion that it is not mere coincidence that Haldane, Oparin, and several other pioneers in the science of origins were Marxists. Whatever.

Perhaps the biggest contribution of this age was the Oparin-Haldane Hypothesis: the notion that conditions on the primeval Earth were much different from the present, and especially that it then had reducing atmosphere which would favor the formation of organic molecules which would be destroyed by the modern oxygen atmosphere. As earlier noted by Darwin, organic molecules which today would be quickly scarfed up by life would not suffer such a fate on a prebiotic Earth.

Beastly Fates

The Beast produces his fifty most loathsome list, and consigns them to condign punishments.


8. Michael Chertoff
Charges: Looks and acts like a man who sleeps in a coffin. . .

Exhibit A: Habitually references his "gut feeling" that the next terror attack is imminent.

Sentence: Gut feeling is actually stomach cancer.

. . .

2. Dick Cheney

Charges: Worst president ever. So openly horrible, he now makes jokes about being Darth Vader. Unashamedly advocating for executive abuse of power and corporate theft. In and out of public office since his congressional internship during the Nixon Administration. Didn't care about the quagmire he foresaw in '94, because since then he'd deftly maneuvered to profit from it. Polling lower than HPV.

Exhibit A: His Halliburton stock rose 3000% in 2007. No joke.

. . .

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Magic Without Magic

That evocative phrase of the physicist John Archibald Wheeler is probably even more apropos for biology than for physics. The problem in biology was the seeming unbridgeable gap between living and non-living. From Aristotle to Descartes to Huxley, biologists were forced to invoke some magic - some vital principle mysteriously present in organic matter - in order to explain life. Of course Descartes and Huxley tried to reduce it to mechanism, but always their ideas collided with the complexity and purposefulness of life.

Leonardo da Vinci conceived of biological systems as machines at least 500 years ago, and Descartes made it a cornerstone of his philosophy a bit more than a century later, but three plus centuries more were needed before biology (and physics, chemistry and biochemistry) could penetrate to the essence of that magic. That magic without magic is modern molecular biology, especially the revelation of the workings of DNA and its translation into proteins.

Only with that science in place could a proper attack on the origin of life actually begin. It is a vast and sprawling scaffolding that's required: a little quantum mechanics, a lot of chemistry, all of biochemistry and molecular biology, astronomy and geology. With all that, the stage can be set. The actors are not yet known, though a host of aspirants are auditioning. The play, however, remains to be written.

The Man Who Would be King

Glenn Greenwald points out that Mitt Romney has fairly explicitly promised that if he is elected, you can kiss your Constitution goodbye. His claims of executive powers exceed even Bush's.

We can only keep you safe if you give up your freedom, promise these Republicans. Of course they have been utter failures at the safety bit as well.

Generation and Reduction

The reductionist paradigm bequeathed to us from the ancient Greek philosophers always had trouble with life. Aristotle found it necessary to invoke a dualistic explanation, dividing the world into body and soul, matter and an organising priciple. Iris Fry, in her book The Emergence of Life on Earth, devotes the first five chapters to the historical background of thought on the origin of life, and Aristotle's idea, suitably kneaded and pummeled, formed the foundation until nearly the beginning of the twentieth century. Actually, even today it's hard to take much exception to Aristotle, except that we now know that the organizing principle, or soul, is embodied in the information stored in material, the DNA.

Although early Greek atomists resisted making a distinction between living and nonliving, the difference is simply too marked to be ignored. The problem that now bedevils us, abiogenesis, or the development of life from non-living material, wasn't a problem for much of the intervening history, says Fry, because most believed in spontaneous generation. In those pre-microscopic days, insects, worms, and even amphibians and reptiles were thought to develop spontaneously in mud or decaying organic matter.

Once anatomists began to dissect insects and follow their lives in detail, spontaneous generation began to crumble, but it clung to the world of microscopic life for a lot longer. One interesting aspect was the attitude of organized religion: the church had adjusted its views from time to time, but was fundamentally cool with spontaneous generation. Atheists were also down with it, but as more detail was learned about the actual complexity of even microscopic life, it became harder to defend the notion of spontaneous generation of such complex designs.

The crucial showdown came with the experiments of Pasteur, showing that properly sterilized solutions would not give rise to life, but as soon as contact with unpurified air or dust took place, life exploded. Pasteur claimed that his experiments proved the necessity of divine intervention to produce life originally - putting the lie to what he called a "useless god", but he also had some contrary ideas as well.

His earlier work had been concerned with crystals and compounds that showed optical rotation, and he had shown that biologically produced tartaric acid produced optical rotation, while racemic acid with the identical chemical composition, produced through laboratory chemistry, did not. Ultimately he was able to crystallize racemic acid, separate the two kinds of crystals found, and show that they produced optical rotation in different senses. This led him to suspect that a chiral force or principle was a key to life - a brilliant piece of analysis, but a mainly blind alley as far as the origin of life.

Darwin and his theory of natural selection came next, but he realized that the problem of origin of life was beyond the knowledge of the day. The effect of Darwin's theory, though, was to confine the role of the otherwise "useless god" to the origination. In fact, significant further progress had to wait until the early part of the twentieth century.

I found these philosophical and historical bits an interesting introduction to the modern work - I hope Fry will do as good a job with it.

Krudlow on Bush

Why satire is wasted on wing-nuts: Part XXXIV

Larry Kudlow thinks that 2007 was a very good year for George Bush.

Against all odds, and despite the usual drumbeat of criticism, President Bush had a very good year.

The punch line is that he isn't joking.

On the other hand, he hasn't been impeached, tried as a war criminal, or jailed. Yet.

So maybe the Krudster has a point.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Blame Game

Cultural anthropology is an unfortunate science. Hardly had it managed to do more than invent itself than its most interesting subjects began to vanish before its eyes. The same forces that brought investigators into contact with technologically primitive societies tended to rapidly destroy them. The homogenization of world culture that had its origins in Western colonial expansion has now grossly affected every culture in the world.

Combine this circumstance with the generally difficult prospects for anthropological professionals and some internal tics developed under the influence of French post-structuralism and literary theory, and you get a cranky, querelous kind of science, distrustful of itself and especially of the society from which it sprang. A science, in short, likely to be suspicious and dismissive of grand theories like those Jared Diamond espoused in Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse.

George Johnson, writing in the New York Times, has been listening to some of these anthropological soreheads dissing Jared Diamond. He was listening to the seminar “Choices and Fates of Human Societies” held this fall at the Amerind Foundation in Dragoon, Arizona.

So what had the pros to say of the brilliant amateur and his theories, and did they lay a finger on him?

What the scientists held in common was a suspicion that in writing his two best-selling sagas of civilization — the other is “Guns, Germs and Steel” — Dr. Diamond washed over the details that make cultures unique to assemble a grand unified theory of history.

“A big-picture man,” one participant called him. For anthropologists, who spend their lives reveling in minutiae — the specifics and contradictions of human culture — the words are not necessarily a compliment

Just the sort of telling critique that could be made of say, Darwin, Newton, or Einstein, in fact. Like all of them, Diamond spends a lot of time in the nitty gritty, though.

“Everybody knows that the beauty of Diamond is that it’s simple,” said Patricia A. McAnany, an archaeologist at Boston University who organized the meeting with her colleague Norman Yoffee of the University of Michigan. “It’s accessible intellectually without having to really turn the wattage up too much.”

Now that's a dim bulb critique if I ever heard one. Insulting, content free, and utterly vapid. "Everything," said Einstein, "should be mad as simple as possible, but not simpler." If Diamond crossed that line in a material way, the critic had better bring some examples.

But why resort to ugly facts and logic when you can brandish some leftish ideological fetish:

“Diamond in effect argues that no one is to blame,” said Deborah B. Gewertz, an anthropologist at Amherst College. “The haves are not to be blamed for the condition of the have-nots.”

Damn! Now why didn't Darwin think of that?

It's a long article and generally a good one, I think. Unlike your author, Johnson doesn't directly confront Diamond's critics, but he does allow Gewertz enough rope to hang herself, and indeed she surely does. For the details, you will need to read Johnson's article.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Ideology: Convenient Untruths

Triumph of the Kleptocracy

Adam Smith famously noted that every nation that had relied upon deficit financing had paid with its strength or existence.

The practice of funding has gradually enfeebled every state which has adopted it. The Italian republics seem to have begun it. Genoa and Venice, the only two remaining which can pretend to an independent existence, have both been enfeebled by it. Spain seems to have learned the practice from the Italian republics, and (its taxes being probably less judicious than theirs) it has, in proportion to its natural strength, been-still more enfeebled.

It works for individuals and corporations as well.

It's probably not coincidental that a cardinal objective of the American, or rather, global, kleptocracy has been the enslavement of the country and the people to debt. We begin with the reign of Saint Reagan, rightly celebrated by the GK, above all for cutting taxes on the rich and raising them on middle class. Those were merely the outward manifestations of his glory, however. Probably more fundamental was his major expansion of debt. That debt consisted of two parts: the acknowledged public debt and the more hidden owed to entitlement programs - more hidden because President and Congress agreed not to count borrowings from the pension funds as part of the deficit.

Alan Greenspan was the chairman of the commission that agreed to use increased social security taxes to fund some of the deficit produced by Reagan's tax cuts for the wealthy. Oddly enough, that same Greenspan was pretty much on his good behavior during the Clinton years, doing his part to further Clinton's elimination of the budget deficit. With a new Bush in the White House, Greenspan's Randian demon was truly unloosed. Cut taxes, explode the deficit, he said. He had a message for the little people too: take out an adjustable rate mortgage! Never mind that interest rates are going up, up, up. Meanwhile, he and his like minded Bush appointees were busy gutting regulation of the banking and securities industries. Together with some timely modifications to the bankruptcy law pretty much reinstituting debt peonage, the stage was set for the really big show. Americans were now bombarded floods of offers of credit cards and home equity finance opportunities, with all the dirty details confined to really fine print.

The sub prime debt bomb detonated a bit prematurely, taking with it both the swindled and the less cautious of the would be swindlers. The credit card debacle is now also entering the big time. From the AP story by Rachel Konrad and Bob Porterfield:

Americans are falling behind on their credit card payments at an alarming rate, sending delinquencies and defaults surging by double-digit percentages in the last year and prompting warnings of worse to come.

An Associated Press analysis of financial data from the country's largest card issuers also found that the greatest rise was among accounts more than 90 days in arrears.

Experts say these signs of the deterioration of finances of many households are partly a byproduct of the subprime mortgage crisis and could spell more trouble ahead for an already sputtering economy.

So what led all these supposedly smart people (I don't mean Reagan, I mean his advisers) down this path to destruction? Was it simply greed, personal viciousness, and reckless disregard for the state of the nation? Probably not, for most, though that would fit a lot of Bushies. Greenspan has apparently taken exception to being called an ideologue, but the alternatives are mainly worse.

Ideology is mainly a belief in convenient untruths. Want to rape and pillage the economy? Maybe you can hide behind the invisible hand. Want to do some hard core defence profiteering? Probably only you can save the nation from some real or imaginary threat, while conveniently earning huge profits. If nothing else, there is always good old social darwinism. This one is especially relevant to crooks, swindlers, Alaska politicians, Enron executives, megachurch millionaires and other Republicans. There is a sucker born every minute, and only the genius of the truly free and unregulated market can free you take him.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Italy, France, and Other Tropical Countries

The NYT has a story on the advance of tropical disease into new environments, with an assist from global warming and globalization: As Earth Warms Up, Tropical Virus Moves to Italy .

CASTIGLIONE DI CERVIA, Italy — Panic was spreading this August through this tidy village of 2,000 as one person after another fell ill with weeks of high fever, exhaustion and excruciating bone pain, just as most of Italy was enjoying Ferragosto, its most important summer holiday.

Officials set out insect traps and were surprised by what they caught: tiger mosquitoes.
“At one point, I simply couldn’t stand up to get out of the car,” said Antonio Ciano, 62, an elegant retiree in a pashmina scarf and trendy blue glasses. “I fell. I thought, O.K., my time is up. I’m going to die. It was really that dramatic.”

. . .

After a month of investigation, Italian public health officials discovered that the people of Castiglione di Cervia were, in fact, suffering from a tropical disease, chikungunya, a relative of dengue fever normally found in the Indian Ocean region. But the immigrants spreading the disease were not humans but insects: tiger mosquitoes, who can thrive in a warming Europe.

Aided by global warming and globalization, Castiglione di Cervia has the dubious distinction of playing host to the first outbreak in modern Europe of a disease that had previously been seen only in the tropics.

This and similar events are a predictable and long predicted consequence of climate change. Mosquitos can't fly all the way from India to Italy, of course, so global commerce plays its role as well.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Math is Hard - Barbie

Actually I'm having trouble with several other subjects as well. Molecular Biology is nicer than physics because you have all these nice pictures. Unfortunately, each picture is worth a thousand words, so a text with a thousand pictures also seems to have a million more words. If I could remember the names (and properties) of all these silly molecules I would have been a botanist - with apologies to Enrico Fermi.

In physics, you pretty much know that you need to understand all the fundamentals - but experimental details are more optional. In biology, it's not so obvious, at least to me. Do I really need to remember which is the 3' and which the 5' Carbon of the whachamacallit sugar - (do I need to know how to tell a ribose from a deoxyribose, or for that matter, a purine from a pyramidine)? And all those blankety blank amino acids? Wait, wait - I think I remember glycine.

I have decided on a compromise strategy - I will stare at each page of elaborate diagrams until my eyes start to glaze over, and then move on. But hey, I did learn one thing - why unsaturated fatty acids are liquid at lower temps than their saturated cousins - the doubly bonded Carbons put a kink in the otherwise straight chains, making them less able to line up neatly.

The ideal molecular biology student, so I imagine, would have solid organic and bio-chem credentials. That's one place I went wrong. I forget most of the rest.

Recycling to Save the Environment

What to Do with all those Nuclear Submarines

The world is cluttered with junk left over from the cold war - ICBMs, nuclear subs, etc. Most of it is trash, of course, but some of those subs could still be useful. One major threat to the world's sustainability is deep sea trawling. (Time: Laying Waste to the Deep Sea)

Far out on the high seas, on any given day, hundreds of fishing vessels drag huge nets, big enough to snag a 747 jumbo jet, across the ocean bottom, vacuuming up 150-year-old fish, flattening ancient reefs and destroying everything else in their paths.

Only the biodiversity of tropical rainforests rivals that of the deep sea — our planet's largest wilderness — an aquatic wonderland that is now being systematically razed by what is likely the world's most environmentally destructive business. The fishing occurs mostly around the ocean's most unique topographical formations — submarine canyons, mid-oceanic ridges and tens of thousands of seamounts (most are extinct volcanoes) — which support a stunning profusion of endemic species, many of which are yet to be discovered. Trawlers reduce these habitats to rubble in minutes, undermining the viability of the very fish that brought the vessels there in the first place. A "rapidly growing number of scientific studies documenting [deep-sea] trawling impacts led to the unmistakable conclusion that bottom trawling is the world's most harmful method of fishing," says the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, which comprises leading environmental NGOs around the world and advocates an immediate moratorium on the practice.

All but a few nations have signed on to a moratorium:

After three years of negotiations among roughly 40 countries, the United Nations General Assembly agreed in December 2006 to a new regulatory regime for high-seas fisheries — but Japan, Russia, Iceland and Canada objected to a complete moratorium on unregulated bottom trawling.

Collectively, they pose a much bigger threat to the US and the planet than all the Islamic Jihadists in Iraq (or the World), and they are a much easier target. One nuclear sub could probably sink all the deep sea trawlers in the world in a few months. If business got slow, they could take out a few of those Japanese "scientific" whalers, too.

If nothing else, it would be an object lesson to others.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Stupid Libertarian Tricks

I thought of a few alternative titles for this post, like, for example: How Alan Greenspan, George Bush, and the Right-Wing Kleptocracy Conspired to Bring About the Sub-prime Crisis. Or how about: How the Invisible Hand got its Fingers Stuck in the Cookie Jar. Or we might have just gone with the headline of Paul Krugman's NYT column: Blindly Into the Bubble.

It's a now familiar tale: ideology and greed combine to produce stupid policies. A few get very rich, less than honestly, and many get a good deal poorer. Krugman lays out how Alan Greenspan, Ayn Randian zealot of unfettered capitalism, ignored clear and persistent warnings to enable a vast swindle. Naturally, George Bush and his appointees played key supporting roles.

When announcing Japan’s surrender in 1945, Emperor Hirohito famously explained his decision as follows: “The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”

There was a definite Hirohito feel to the explanation Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, gave this week for the Fed’s locking-the-barn-door-after-the-horse-is-gone decision to modestly strengthen regulation of the mortgage industry: “Market discipline has in some cases broken down, and the incentives to follow prudent lending procedures have, at times, eroded.”

That’s quite an understatement. In fact, the explosion of “innovative” home lending that took place in the middle years of this decade was an unmitigated disaster.

But maybe Mr. Bernanke was afraid to be blunt about just how badly things went wrong. After all, straight talk would have amounted to a direct rebuke of his predecessor, Alan Greenspan, who ignored pleas to lock the barn door while the horse was still inside — that is, to regulate lending while it was booming, rather than after it had already collapsed.

Krugman unearths a harbinger of disaster foretold:

In a 1963 essay for Ms. Rand’s newsletter, Mr. Greenspan dismissed as a “collectivist” myth the idea that businessmen, left to their own devices, “would attempt to sell unsafe food and drugs, fraudulent securities, and shoddy buildings.” On the contrary, he declared, “it is in the self-interest of every businessman to have a reputation for honest dealings and a quality product.”

Because everybody knows that that reputation for honest dealing is worth more than a couple of shady billions in your pocket today, right?

Bush appointees did their part:

Representatives of four of the five government agencies responsible for financial supervision used tree shears to attack a stack of paper representing bank regulations. The fifth representative, James Gilleran of the Office of Thrift Supervision, wielded a chainsaw.

Now that things have gone a bit South, even for some of the crooks, stout libertarian stalwart Greenspan knows the cure: a taxpayer funded bailout.

The trouble is not just bad decisions and human corruption. The real trouble is the worship of a false ideology:

Given the role of conservative ideology in the mortgage disaster, it’s puzzling that Democrats haven’t been more aggressive about making the disaster an issue for the 2008 election. They should be: It’s hard to imagine a more graphic demonstration of what’s wrong with their opponents’ economic beliefs.

I also sort of liked the footer of the column:

David Brooks is off today.

David Brooks, of course, is off every day, especially those days on which he writes a column. I guess he didn't today - and that can only be to the good.

Orphan IQ

A new study rather dramatically illustrates the effect of early environment on IQ. Benedict Carey reports the study in the NYT story: Orphanages Stunt Mental Growth, a Study Finds

Psychologists have long believed that growing up in an institution like an orphanage stunts children’s mental development but have never had direct evidence to back it up.

Now they do, from an extraordinary years-long experiment in Romania that compared the effects of foster care with those of institutional child-rearing.

. . .

On I.Q. tests taken at 54 months, the foster children scored an average of 81, compared to 73 among the children who continued in an institution. The children who moved into foster care at the youngest ages tended to show the most improvement, the researchers found.

The comparison group of youngsters who grew up in their biological families had an average I.Q. of 109 at the same age, found the researchers, who announced their preliminary findings as soon in Romania as they were known.

This has some relevance for the IQ debate, but more importantly, it will put pressure on governments, like that of Romania, that forbid foreign adoptions of orphans.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Essential Cell Biology

What little I know of molecular biology was learned from reading the first edition of James Watson's Molecular Biology of the Gene (Just out in a new $$$ixth edition). It was a very good book, but that was a few decades ago, so much has been learned and forgotten (by biologists and by me, respectively) in the interim. Since I have again become interested in molecular evolution, I thought I could use a review and update.

The gold standard these days, so far as I can tell, is The Molecular Biology of the Cell, by Bruce Alberts and a team of seven, supposedly now available in a brand new (I can't find a copyright date yet) fifth edition. This, however, is a $142.00, three kilogram, 1728 page fine print monster, so I think I will pass, or at least wait until a cheap used copy is available. It has a baby brother, Essential Cell Biology by Alberts and most of the same cast, and I found it on my son's bookshelf, so I will try a read of that.

Any other advice from those in the know?

Q & A

Questions our fearless punditry have asked the candidates, together with the correct answers.

Q (Russert): Do you believe that life begins at conception?

A: Duh! No! It began billions of years ago. Get a grip Timmy!

Q (Couric): How do you feel about marital infidelity?

A: Katie, are you trying to come on with me? Cause like I'm married. And besides, this isn't the time. Call me though.

Q (NLS): What did the Founders mean by the "pursuit of happiness?

A: Sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

Q (SL): Is it a mistake, therefore, to call the United States a democracy?

A: Under current leadership, it has strong resemblances to a fascist kleptocracy.

Q (SL): How does the U.S. debt compare with the debts of other nations?

A: The United States now owes more than all of the rest of the nations of the world combined.

Q (AP): What is the last work of fiction you've read?

A: Rudy Giuliani's campaign biography.

Q: (AP) What were your best and worst subjects in school?

A: Math and Religion. (No actual candidate gave these answers. Most claimed to be good at law and history, and many admitted to being poor at science, math, and music). [WS, in Merchant of Venice:

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov'd with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Hard Times

Joanne of Cosmic Variance has the bad news for fundamental physics in the 2008 budget. Science overall does poorly, but high energy physics and fusion research get shafted big time.

For High Energy Physics, well, the situation is dire, and I am not exaggerating. The numbers are:

  • FY07 current operating budget is $751.8M

  • The Bush Administration’s request for FY08 was $782.3 M.

  • The final bill (with the mandatory rescission) provides $688.3 M

  • This is a reduction of $63.5 M from FY07 and $94 M from the President’s FY08 request. The language specifically targets NovA (a neutrino facility under construction at Fermilab) and the International Linear Collider:

    Within funding for Proton Accelerator-Based Physics, no funds are provided for the NOvA activity in Tevatron Complex Improvements. Within Advanced Technology R&D, in the current constrained environment and without a Critical Decision 0 by the

    Department, only $15,000,000 is provided for International Linear Collider R&D and $5,455,000 for Superconducting RF R&D.

    Since we are already 3 months into FY08, we’ve already spent this much on the ILC and have put money into NOvA.

    So, WTF do we do? Even though the $63.5/94 M shortfall is targeted at projects, it’s important to recall that most of this money is spent on salaries. Not equipment or fancy gizmos, but people. Basically, there are two extreme choices on how to handle the shortfall: shut down all of our operating facilities now, today (yesterday would have been better) and halt science output from the US, or fire $63.5 M worth of people. Don’t ask me how you accomplish the latter. The final solution will clearly be a mix of the two. The young physicists, grad students and post-docs, will be hurt the most as funding for those positions will dry up first. Next come the folks who work at National Labs. We’re going to have to start a discussion about closing and consolidating labs.

    It will take a little bit for the DOE, lab directors, project managers, advisory panels, etc to formulate a plan, but no matter what they decide, the consequences of this budget shortfall will be drastic and will be felt for years to come. Our science output will be reduced and we will lose good people with valuable talents.

    Oh, and just so folks can calibrate, the countries in the European Union spend about $2 B/year on High Energy Physics, roughly $1 B for CERN, and another billion in individual grants. Germany alone has just infused its total science funding with an additional $2 B Euros. The US continues to fall further and further behind.

    Hey, somebody has to pay for tax cuts for the rich and multitrillion dollar wars. The American slide into scientific irrelevance is gathering speed. Republicans, conservatives, and the religious right are bent on making this a third world theocracy. So far, the plan is working famously.


    Not too new, but Andrew Sullivan gives us a good example of why the Republican right is immune to satire:

    Jonah Goldberg's party might be dragging citizens off the street, incarcerating them without charges for four years and torturing them (if you haven't heard of Jose Padilla, you've been reading too much NRO), they might have suspended habeas corpus indefinitely, they might be wire-tapping your phone without warrants, they may be claiming presidential authority to ignore laws and treaties ... but the real fascism can be found in:

    a female grade school teacher with an education degree from Brown or Swarthmore.

    Be afraid.

    No matter how outrageous the satire you think up, you can't match the absurdity of what these people actually think and say.

    The Ancestor's Tale: Not Quite a Review

    Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale is the story of life on Earth, recounted in 39 rendezvous with other forms of life, each rendezvous set at the point of divergence of our ancestor and the other. I always intended to write a review, but now, at the end, I really can't. I am more of a viewer than a reviewer. I like a book where I can get into an argument with the author, and one where I can stop and wonder at the marvels shown, and Dawkins' book marvellously fits that description.

    Instead of a review, I have presented eleven (now twelve) views of The Ancestor's Tale here.

    It is a quite wonderful book, and I intend absolutely no disrepect to the author when I say that its merit lies more in the tale than the teller - though he tells it very well. He quite explicitly says the same. The author's love and indeed reverence for his subject is very much in evidence. He says a few words at the end about his disdain for the conventional reverence for the supernatural, and his chosen alternative:

    It's not because I wish to limit or circumscribe reverence; not because I want to reduce or downgrade the true reverence with which we are moved to celebrate the universe, once we understand it properly. . . My objection to supernatural beliefs is precisely that they miserably fail to do justice to the sublime grandeur of the real world. . .

    Tuesday, December 18, 2007

    Retiring Too Late

    Alan Greenspan's reputation would have been intact if he had had the sense to retire in 1999 or 2000. It was all down hill from there, though. Signing off on the Bush tax cuts to usher in vast deficits, followed by the blunder of ignoring and even promoting the sub-prime debacle ensured that he will go down as a major bumbler. His mistakes grew directly out of his partisanship and his ideology. Convinced of magic self-regulation in free markets, and reluctant to offend the conservative ideologues, he abandoned judgement. His reputation will justly suffer.

    He goes about these days emitting smoke in an effort to obscure his culpability, but it won't work.

    I think he has another equally bad deed on his record that rarely draws much commentary - his role raising social security taxes to make up for the Reagan tax cuts for the rich.

    Sinners in the Crosshairs of an Angry God?

    If you were a bit unclear on that benevolent deity bit, you might want/not want to check out this story. It seems that a jet from a supermassive black hole in the center of one galaxy is blasting into another nearby galaxy.

    A jet of highly charged radiation from a supermassive black hole at the center of a distant galaxy is blasting another galaxy nearby -- an act of galactic violence that astronomers said yesterday they have never seen before.

    Using images from the orbiting Chandra X-Ray Observatory and other sources, scientists said the extremely intense jet from the larger galaxy can be seen shooting across 20,000 light-years of space and plowing into the outer gas and dust of the smaller one.

    Intense jets of particles and photons can be hazardous.

    "What we've identified is an act of violence by a black hole, with an unfortunate nearby galaxy in the line of fire," said Dan Evans, the study leader at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge. He said any planets orbiting the stars of the smaller galaxy would be dramatically affected, and any life forms would likely die as the jet's radiation transformed the planets' atmosphere.

    . . .

    If a jet were to hit Earth, Evans said, it would destroy the ozone layer and collapse the magnetosphere that blankets the planet and protects it from harmful solar particles. Without the ozone layer and magnetosphere, he said, much of life on Earth would end.

    "This jet could be causing all sorts of problems for the smaller galaxy it is pummeling," Evans said.

    I find the idea of a whole galaxy, with perhaps thousands or millions of inhabited planets, being turned into crispy critters more than a little disquieting.

    Bully Boy

    There is a certain type of schoolyard bully whose stock in trade is standing around pointing out other people's actual or possible defects: "Mary Jane is Fat," "Bart is stupid," "Your Dad's a religious nut." I always picture him as Nelson Muntz from The Simpsons, complete with "Ha, Ha" laugh.

    Perhaps it's just my bad memory, but I think I remember a time when PZ Myers wrote an interesting blog about evolution and development. Now, though, it seems to be all religion bashing, all the time.

    Now I understand a bit about obsession - I personally have been driven into shrill unholy madness by Republican mendacity and criminality - but enough is enough. I will try to resist speculating on what childhood trauma or oedipal conflict pushed PZ into whackjobhood, but he got there somehow, and it's a nasty, mean-spirited whackjobhood at that.

    It does seem successful as a blogging tactic though. Every bully seems to attract a crowd of likeminded thuggery, there for the schadenfreude. A classic example sticks in my mind. PZ bashes some witless television personality for being clueless as to religious history, and his sychophants jump in to pile on. One particularly nasty piece of work suggested mail bombing the target with the crudest and most vulgar possible sexual epithets.

    Monday, December 17, 2007

    Rewind and Repeat

    The final chapter of The Ancestor's Tale consider's a question that had occurred to me earlier in my comments: what would happen if we could rewind to some earlier era and let the whole process occur again? Would evolution retrace its steps? Closely? At all?

    It turns out that Stuart Kauffman had posed just such questions some time ago. Physicists are addicted to this kind of gedanken experiment, but biologists, not so much. There is a pretty sharp divergence of opinion, it seems. Steven Jay Gould, and in a slightly different context, Ernst Mayr could be considered advocates of "radical contingency." In that view, the replay would be utterly different. Simon Conway Morris takes an almost opposite view, with Dawkins taking an intermediate position a bit closer to Morris. Put me down with Morris.

    The core of the Gould-Mayr argument is that the detailed path of evolution depends on such an intricate set of contingencies that any replay would rapidly diverge from the original. The Morris argument depends on constraint and convergence - the idea that there are only so many ways to run a railroad, so that evolutionary detours tend to get herded back to the tracks. The space of possible evolutionary trajectories is very large, and nearby paths diverge rapidly, but the overall orbits are controlled by low dimensional attractors - if I can rephrase this in terms of dynamical systems theory.

    There is some evidence. The separation of the continents can be considered natural experiments in this vein, and indeed convergent evolution seems to rule. The same sorts of evolutionary niches appeared on multiple continents, and were filled by outwardly similar creatures. A marsupial wolf differs in important respects from his canine counterparts, but the ecological space occupied was very similar, and a lot of convergent features evolved.

    Certain adaptations appear again and again: echolocation, true flight, coasting flight, air breathing. Other clearly useful adaptations have failed to appear. No animal (except man) uses radar, and it was the result of intelligent design, not evolution. Ditto the transistor.

    Some puzzles occur: nobody could ever explain to him, says Dawkins, why there were no dinosaur moles. It looks like a no brainer to me - that niche was already occupado, courtesy of our great^n - grandparents, our shrew-like mammal ancestors. Similarly disposed of is the question of why chimpanzees aren't evolving to our level of intelligence. Once again, the "occupied" sign is already up.

    Sunday, December 16, 2007

    Note to Self

    If you plan on hanging a dog, slitting his throat, and stoning him to death, make sure that you are a preacher-governor's kid instead of an NFL quarterback. Also good advice if you plan to smuggle a loaded handgun aboard a plane in your carry-on luggage.

    via Pharyngula.

    Happy Birthday, Little Guy!

    Today is the sixtieth birthday of perhaps the most important character of the twentieth century. Number twenty was a pretty momentous century, what with two world wars, space travel, relativity, quantum mechanics, and the atomic bomb, but I think that the little guy was probably the star nonetheless. I'm talking, of course, about this guy.

    The transistor was invented by scientists William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain to amplify voices in telephones for a Bell Labs project, an effort for which they later shared the Nobel Prize in physics.

    On Dec. 16, 1947, Bardeen and Brattain created the first transistor. The next month, on Jan. 23, 1948, Shockley, a member of the same research group, invented another type, which went on to become the preferred transistor because it was easier to manufacture

    The subsequent invention of the integrated circuit allowed an ever increasing number of transitors to be crowded onto a chip of silicon, with the current record about a billion. I said ever increasing, but everyone knows that exponential growth can't continue forever. The finite size of the atom, and the nature of solids made of atoms, set a minimum size on transitors, and current technology is approaching that limit.

    Moore's 'law' famously predicted that the number of transitors on a chip would double every 18 to 24 months, and that law has held now through almost thirty such doublings. Most industry people think that there are a few more left, perhaps as many as four or six, but almost certainly not as many as ten.

    This still leaves the transistor count of this ultimate chip an order of magnitude or so short of the neuron count in a human brain. However, transistor switching speed is roughly a million times faster than a neuron's, so why aren't computers a lot smarter - like a hundred thousand times smarter - than us? There are a few possible answers:

    • They are, at some things, like arithmetic, sorting, and searching
    • Their programs are less efficient
    • Information is stored not in neurons, but in their connections, and we have trillions of those

    Transistors are now virtually everywhere in our technologies, including the modern versions of those technologies that predate it, like the car, plane, and television, as well as more modern things like the PC, cell phone, and IPOD.

    So: Happy Birthday, Little Guy! Keep on shrinking.

    Saturday, December 15, 2007

    Cheaters Never Win

    . . . in the ideal world, but in the real world they do tend to. One problem with proposals to regulate emissions is the question of how to deal with cheating - countries that don't observe emissions limits. Our ingenious climate scholar, Prof. Eli Rabett has an answer:

    Nations wishing to make major progress on decreasing greenhouse gas emissions should introduce emission taxes on all products. These taxes should be levied on imports as well as domestic goods at the point of sale, and should displace other taxes, such as VAT, sales taxes, and payroll (e.g. social security, health care) in such a way that tax revenues are constant, and distributed equitably.

    Pretty clearly, this can only work if most of the major consumer nations sign on. I doubt that it could really work without the US, but it might. I would be interested if economists (or anybody) could find any flaws in this idea?

    Lifelike: Last Call for Intelligent Design

    The only redoubt of biology that has not yet yielded utterly to Darwin is the problem of the origin of life. I have now reached Canterbury in The Ancestor's Tale and it's pretty clear that even that last fortress is crumbling fast.

    The line between living and non-living is still a bright one - there is still a yawning gap between chemistry and life. So how do you get from non-living to life? I'm a firm believer in the idea that there are no "valley crossers" in evolution, to use Lee Smolin's phrase, only hill climbers, so the answer (I think) has got to be some variation on "in small steps."

    Living things distinguish themselves in a number of ways, but the most obvious are metabolism and reproduction, or more precisely, more or less faithful reproduction. Little pine trees grow up to be big pine trees, not cherry trees, and little kittens grow up to be cats instead of dogs. The hereditary quality is the important one, says Dawkins. Without it you can't have evolution or life.

    The world is not quite bereft of nonliving things that reproduce themselves. Dawkins mentions computer viruses and chain letters. Needless to say, each is dependent on both a (more or less) intelligent designer and a highly artificial environment. Chain letters, says Dawkins, depend on a supply of literate idiots.

    What about nature? Well, certain reactions can propagate themselves, fire, for example, but it doesn't really display heredity, or more precisely, it only displays heredity with respect to the quality of being fire. Some speculative cosmologies are supposed to carry inheritable information, but they are purely speculative.

    Life depends on catalysis, so it is speculated that a catalyst which catalyzed its own production could be that magic intermediate step between nonliving and alive. Dawkins mentions some fascinating experiments which capture many aspects of this ur-life. We may or may not ever be able to figure out how life on Earth actually began, but I suspect that rather soon ways that it could have arisen will be clearly demonstrated.

    Consequently, if you are cheering for ID, I suspect that the window of opportunity is closing fast. Get your licks in while you still can.

    Friday, December 14, 2007

    Southside Story

    Scott Aaronson has a tale to tell. It's a tale of an intrepid blogger pitted against corporate power. There is international intrigue, some notably hot models, unscrupulous corporate power, and even a bloody oriental religious sacrifice. To get the details you need to go here, where Scott lays out how it came to pass that:

    . . . this sordid southern-hemisphere tale of sex, plagiarism, quantum mechanics, and printers could be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction

    Don't forget to read the comments.

    Thursday, December 13, 2007

    Testing, One,Two, Three

    The vast majority of of the human race could not run a 4.7 sec 40 yards downhill, with a twenty-five mile an hour tailwind, but if you are a prospective NFL cornerback or safety a time that fast is way too slow. (Check out, e.g., Mark Zeigler's fascinating San Diego Union-Tribune article). The difference between a 4.4 forty and a 4.7 forty is a bit less than three yards over the distance, which is a lot more than a cornerback can concede to a receiver. The NFL screens several hundred prospective recruits every year, and they are weighed, measured, tested, tested, and tested. That forty yard sprint is likely the most important test, but the NFL also tests how high you can jump, how far you can jump, and how many times you can bench press 225 lbs. And it gives you an IQ test.

    That test, the twelve minute, fifty question Wonderlic, is also given to something like 2.5 million other prospective employees every year. The NFL, Walmart, and all the others giving such tests aren't interested in racial theories, whether IQ is hereditary, or whether it truly measures intelligence - or even what intelligence really "is." What they are interested in is whether the prospective employees can read and follow relatively simple written and graphical instructions and complete certain tasks.

    Moreover, they aren't deluded into thinking that Wonderlic score is the only determinant of success. The forty yard dash time is crucial for NFL prospects, but it's not the be-all or end-all. If a superhuman player could run the forty in 3.95 seconds he still couldn't play cornerback unless he could also tackle and defend the pass. The Wonderlic, like fancier IQ tests, predicts job performance - not perfectly, only with about a 50% correlation. Consequently, it only predicts about 25% of the variance, often less.

    Not especially impressive one might think. However, it is better than any other known test.

    Back to football: so how does the NFL do on the test? About the same as job applicants as a whole, 21/50 vs 20/50 for general job applicants throughout the economy. If you check the link, you can see that while the NFL is not exactly brainiac central, the players are no dummies - at least on average.

    While quarterbacks are generally considered to have the highest intellectual load in the game - they need to know what all the players are doing on every play - they don't have the highest scores, being narrowly surpassed by offensive tackles and centers. So why are offensive tackles the highest scorers/smartest? (full disclosure - I played offensive tackle in high school - but not well - and am slightly partial to the otherwise unsupported theory that bigger is smarter).

    Many of my commenters have beaten me up for thinking that IQ tests are legitimate tools. The legitimate uses (my opinion) don't require that we think IQ is hereditary, or that it unchangeable through life, or that we believe that IQ tests measure "intelligence." It only requires that we believe that the results of such a test can predict performance in some occupation or endeavor. There is plenty of evidence that it does, not perfectly, not actually even very well - just better than any other quick and straightforward diagnostic.

    The correlation is not the same for all types of jobs. IQ is most predictive in the lower ranges of the scale for jobs with significant complexity. Persons with IQ scores about 105 perform, on average, rather better on tasks of moderate complexity than those who score about 95. On the same tasks, IQs of 140 are likely little better than IQs of 120 however. Some jobs placements discriminate against those with very high scores, on the grounds that if you are too smart you are too likely to be a smartass, or ask too many questions, or maybe just to get bored and quit.

    IQ tests and proxy IQ tests are everywhere in the economy. In addition to all the people who take Wonderlics, there are all sorts of other tests: the SAT, the GRE, the MCAT, the LSAT. If you apply for a professional job you may not get asked to take an IQ test, but that's partly because if you gone to college, they know you have already been through a battery. If you went to a prestigious college, you almost certainly got a very high score on that battery - either that or had a lot of influential alumni connections - so a good deal for the employer either way.

    Wednesday, December 12, 2007

    Numberman Strikes Back

    Richard Dawkins gives a nice account of radioisotope dating in "The Redwoods Tale." Until he comes to actual numbers. After explaining that potassium 40 decays to argon 40 with a half-life of 1.3 billion years, he explains how you can do dating by comparing the amounts of the respective isotopes left in the rock.

    If there are equal amounts of potassium 40 and argon 40, you know that [half has decayed and the crystal formed 1.3 Gya]...
    If there's twice as much argon 40 as potassium 40, it is 2.6 billion years . . .

    Oops! If it were 2.6 gya, then only 1/4 of the potassium would have survived, and the ratio would be three to one, not two to one. He doesn't give the equation, but it can be written as:
    N(t)=N0*2^(-t/h), where N(t) is the number of atoms at time t, N0 is the starting number and h is the half life. For his example N(t)/N0 = 1/3, so 2^(-t/h)=1/3 and (-t/h)*ln(2)= ln(1/3), or t= h*ln(3)/ln(2) = 2.06 billion years.

    Similarly, he claims that if there is twice as much potassium as argon, the the crystal would be 650 million years old. Oops again. In that case N(t)/N =2/3 and t = h*ln(3/2)/ln(2) = .585 h = 760 million years.

    Don't let Dawkins near the radioisotopes! Don't let him near any number larger than 2! You would think that he would let somebody who passed freshman physics read his manuscripts, but he never learns.

    The Gloves Are Off

    Andrew Sullivan links to My kind of GOP campaign ad.

    UPDATE: And another one for Huckabee, from David Kurtz at TPM


    I haven't posted on physics for a while. Mainly that's because it's just too depressing. Even an arrow of time food fight between Sean Carroll and Lubos Motl can't rouse me from somnolence, though Sean has an interesting point or two and Lubosh is even further off the mass shell than usual.

    Is the end of physics really here?

    Probably not, but it sure would be nice to have some interesting experimental data.

    Tuesday, December 11, 2007

    Creative Destruction: Kill The Poor

    Gregory Clark has written A FAREWELL TO ALMS: A Brief Economic History of the World, a new book attracting considerable attention among economists and historians. I'm not going to talk about the book here, I'm saving that until I've read a bit more, but I do want to review one of its themes, as developed by the author in a New York Sun opinion piece: How to Save Africa:

    Africa is poor. Very poor.

    Saving Africa has rightly become a popular concern, uniting Bono and Bill Gates, Angelina Jolie and Pope Benedict XVI. Despairing of academic skepticism, the intellectual force of this movement, Jeffrey Sachs, appeals directly to the people promising $110 per head to end destitution and disease in Africa. Who could resist such a humanitarian bargain?

    However, in economics the best of intentions does not necessarily lead to the best of outcomes.

    The long history of living standards suggests that the Sachs plan is more likely to further impoverish Africa than enrich it. The promised health improvements and one-time gains in crop yields cannot create sustained improvement of living conditions.

    The problem is that temporary boosts in food production or eliminating disease just produces a population increase that gobbles up all the gains and leaves everyone worse off. This is the Malthusian logic of the dismal science, and it's also at the heart of his book. I think it is a largerly unassailable argument, and in fact, all the millenia of progress between 100,000 BC and the 16th century likely left the average person worse off than his or her stone age counterpart.

    He continues:

    Industrializing Africa is the only way to solve its poverty. The industrialization of coastal China — accompanied by declining public health provision, a neglect of agriculture, and environmental degradation — ultimately transformed the lives of the Chinese.

    Before the Industrial Revolution all societies were caught in the same Malthusian Trap that imprisons Africa today. Living standards stagnated because any improvement caused births to exceed deaths. The resulting population growth, pressing on fixed land resources, inevitably pushed incomes back down to subsistence.

    To me, this is the economist's classic error - he assumes that the future is going to be more like the last two hundred years than it will be like the last 2 million years (or 4 billion years). Nobody has repealed or refuted Malthus or Darwin. The spurt in human productivity that accompanied the industrial revolution is not some new birthright of the human race, it is a fluctuation - similar to fluctuations that occurred with other discoveries that permitted more efficient consumption of the environment. It is already hitting its Malthusian limits in much of the world.

    Next he puts forth perhaps his most provocative idea: Rich societies could only be rich through high death rates. The high disease burden of Africa, paradoxically, made it relatively rich. He has other examples, but not many here.

    Now back to his fantasy:

    Most of the world, thankfully, has escaped the topsy-turvy logic of the Malthusian era through the Industrial Revolution. Living standards are now independent of population levels, so any reduction in mortality is an unalloyed blessing. This is how Mr. Sachs thinks of the world.

    This notion, that living standards are independent of population levels, is so obviously absurd that it hardly seems worthy of refutation. Finite resources cannot cope for long with exponential growth - this is the simple logic of Malthus, and no hocus pocus can make it go away.

    It is worth examining once more how today's richer societies got that way. They got there by controlling population growth. Fertility rates are low in almost every rich country, and almost every country with very low fertility is getting richer fast. It's very hard to look at this gapminder chart without that point jumping out and hitting you on the head.

    There are only two ways to beat the Malthusian trap: high death rate or low fertility rate. Africa is desperately poor for probably more than one reason, but its super high fertility rates are a key one. The only country with both a slightly high fertility rate and a fairly high per capita GDP is Saudi Arabia, and the former has fallen rapidly while the latter has fallen slowly. The only poor countries with low fertility are the former Soviet states, and they are all now growing rapidly.

    The title of Professor Clark's essay is essentially phony - it should really be called "How Not to Save Africa," by which he means the ideas of Jeffrey Sachs:

    If Mr. Sachs' Millennium Project succeeds where most of its effort is concentrated, in reducing mortality, then it will further erode living standards. . . . Given the heavy dependence of Uganda on agriculture and natural resources, population pressure has ensured that even with improved crop yields, incomes have stagnated over the past 40 years.

    Fourteen percent of children born in Uganda die before the age of five. If the Millennium Project reduces such deaths to American levels, that alone will increase the population growth to 4.2% a year. Without sustained economic growth, this is just a recipe for more miserable living conditions.

    To achieve sustained growth economies, Uganda would have to switch employment to manufactures and services. Despite the astonishing low wage of these economies — apparel workers in East Africa still cost about $0.40 an hour compared to $10-$20 in America and Europe — industrialization has escaped Africa.

    Fostering industrialization is not easy. British Colonial administrators in India between 1857 and 1947 engaged in many of the cheap but effective health and agricultural improvement and infrastructure measures that Mr. Sachs advocates. India remained impoverished, however, because no enlightened government edict could make Indian textile mills profitable. Indeed India deindustrialized in that era.

    There is no simple formula for industrialization that is appealing to many. But that is where the focus must be of the attempts to help Africa. The Sachs plan is a proposal to ameliorate the symptoms of poverty, not treat its cause.

    The last two paragraphs strike me as disingenuous, since Clark in his book argues that the British were able to industrialize because Darwinian selection pruned the society of those unsuited for the industrial society. Interpreted in the only plausible way, his prescription is end aid until the evolve to a more suitably industrial type.

    The Malthusian trap is real, but industrialization is another palliative, not a cure. There has got to be a better way than "Kill the Poor", and there is. It's called fertility control. It seems to be a natural byproduct of successful industrial societies, but it doesn't require them.

    Monday, December 10, 2007

    Nature/Nurture: Black Like Jim

    I'm agnostic about many aspects of God's nature, but I'm pretty sure that She has a weakness for irony. According to this New York Times story, Jim Watson - remember him, the brilliant but sometimes obnoxious Nobel Prize winner who got in trouble for dissing African IQs - Jim, it seems, is 16% African. Watson became only the second person to disclose his complete DNA, and analysis apparently showed about 16% African and 9% Asian ancestral DNA. These numbers would be compatible with great-grandparents who were Black and Asian. (via Andrew Sullivan)

    More substantively, Malcolm Gladwell has an excellent New Yorker article on IQ and heredity, based in part on a debate between Flynn and Jensen. Here is perhaps Flynn's biggest point:

    Flynn then talked about what we’ve learned from studies of adoption and mixed-race children—and that evidence didn’t fit a genetic model, either. If I.Q. is innate, it shouldn’t make a difference whether it’s a mixed-race child’s mother or father who is black. But it does: children with a white mother and a black father have an eight-point I.Q. advantage over those with a black mother and a white father. And it shouldn’t make much of a difference where a mixed-race child is born. But, again, it does: the children fathered by black American G.I.s in postwar Germany and brought up by their German mothers have the same I.Q.s as the children of white American G.I.s and German mothers. The difference, in that case, was not the fact of the children’s blackness, as a fundamentalist would say. It was the fact of their Germanness—of their being brought up in a different culture, under different circumstances. “The mind is much more like a muscle than we’ve ever realized,” Flynn said. “It needs to get cognitive exercise. It’s not some piece of clay on which you put an indelible mark.”

    It is nearly impossible for a pure hereditarian to explain that away, although I'm sure they will try. The whole article is worth a read.

    Gladwell is the author of Blink and The Tipping Point.

    Sunday, December 09, 2007

    Science Fair Project

    If one had the resources and time, a nice experiment would be to try removing all animal life above the unicellular level. Then wait for a billion years or so to see what evolved to fill the niche.

    How about slime molds? These very curious characters spend the early part of their lives as unicellular amoeboid hunters. After a bit of feasting, some will start sounding the chemical trumpet, and they spontaneously assemble into a slug like organism which will crawl around for a while until it finds a suitable spot to stand on its head and turn itself into a miniature mushroom, with the former rear end becoming a mass of spores to be dispersed and start over.

    How tough would it be for some of them to learn to prosper and diversify in the slug form?

    Maybe some parasitic plants might develop some motility?

    Richard Dawkins, in The Ancestor's Tale, has our last common ancestor with the slime molds (and the rest of the amoebazoans) back at co-ancestor 35, between the fungi and the plants. For the experiment I mention, it might be useful to make the division point (where animals are separated) between co-ancestors 31 and 32, the sponges and the choanoflagellates.

    Movie Mini-Review: The Golden Compass

    The Golden Compass (Northern Lights in the UK) didn't translate particularly well to the big screen, but I rather liked it anyway. So why the Box Office crash in the US? I suspect that it just wasn't well enough known here, and it wasn't that heavily promoted.

    The need to pack a lot of narrative into two hours meant that essentially all of the subleties were lost. My favorite parts of the book were set in Oxford, but very little of that remains in the movie.

    The movie ends rather earlier in the narrative than the book. Consequently, we don't see the truly dark side of Lord Asriel. This tends to warp the overall mood of the story. I suspect that this was a studio choice not to end the movie on a real downer.

    Saturday, December 08, 2007

    Why Are the Political Debates Always So Stupid?

    Because they aren't debates. Real debates are interesting. In a debate, two sides face off on an issue, present their cases, and get to cross examine each other.

    For some moronic reason, candidates now are content to assemble as a panel and stand there trying to answer stupid questions with sound bites.

    There is only room for one topic in a debate, and more than two debaters is also probably a problem. It might be possible to accomodate up to four in a format where each debater had, say, a ten minute presentation, eight minutes to question the others, and two minutes for a rebuttal and summary. The moderator's only job would be to keep the time.

    Here are a few topics:

    • Health care
    • Energy & Environment
    • Iraq
    • Presidential Accountability
    • Education
    • National Infrastructure

    Religious Intolerance

    The point that sticks in my craw about Romney's "Faith speech" is the cynical hypocrisy of it. Republicans today have mastered the newspeak of 1984 and Stalinist Communism. Romney represented his speech on the one hand as an appeal to traditional American tolerance while still trying to appeal to the most intolerant segment of Americans. Don't eat me he said to the fundamentalists - let's join hands to gang up on unbelievers and non-Christians.

    The NYT's Dec 7 editorial hits the key points:

    Still, there was no escaping the reality of the moment. Mr. Romney was not there to defend freedom of religion, or to champion the indisputable notion that belief in God and religious observance are longstanding parts of American life. He was trying to persuade Christian fundamentalists in the Republican Party, who do want to impose their faith on the Oval Office, that he is sufficiently Christian for them to support his bid for the Republican nomination. No matter how dignified he looked, and how many times he quoted the founding fathers, he could not disguise that sad fact . . .

    . . . in his speech, he courted the most religiously intolerant sector of American political life by buying into the myths at the heart of the “cultural war,” so eagerly embraced by the extreme right . . .

    . . . Mr. Romney dragged out the old chestnuts about “In God We Trust” on the nation’s currency, and the inclusion of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance — conveniently omitting that those weren’t the founders’ handiwork, but were adopted in the 1950s at the height of McCarthyism . . .

    We believe democracy cannot exist without separation of church and state, not that public displays of faith are anathema. We believe, as did the founding fathers, that no specific religion should be elevated above all others by the government.

    The authors of the Constitution knew that requiring specific declarations of religious belief (like Mr. Romney saying he believes Jesus was the son of God) is a step toward imposing that belief on all Americans. That is why they wrote in Article VI that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

    And yet, religious testing has gained strength in the last few elections. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, has made it the cornerstone of his campaign. John McCain, another Republican who struggles to win over the religious right, calls America “a Christian nation.”

    CNN, shockingly, required the candidates at the recent Republican debate to answer a videotaped question from a voter holding a Christian edition of the Bible, who said: “How you answer this question will tell us everything we need to know about you. Do you believe every word of this book? Specifically, this book that I am holding in my hand, do you believe this book?”

    Of course there's hardly any stupidity of CNN that would shock me at this point, but it was a contemptible moment.

    Like the Islamic world, the US in under heavy pressure from religious fanatics. The Islamic fanatics are no doubt more extreme, but the greater threat to American freedoms comes from within.

    Torture, Lies, and Videotape

    What did those videotapes the CIA illegally destroyed show? It seems that some, at least, showed the torture of Abu Zubaydah. Zubaydah was a low ranking Al Quaeda gofer who turned out to be crazy and not know anything, but Bush was convinced he was important, so he wanted him tortured. Kevin Drum (via a complicated path that you will need to visit his site to unravel) has some details. Under torture, Zubaydah:

    . . . began to speak of plots of every variety — against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, "thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to" And so, Suskind writes, "the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered."

    Drum summarizes:

    So here's what the tapes would have shown: not just that we had brutally tortured an al-Qaeda operative, but that we had brutally tortured an al-Qaeda operative who was (a) unimportant and low-ranking, (b) mentally unstable, (c) had no useful information, and (d) eventually spewed out an endless series of worthless, fantastical "confessions" under duress. This was all prompted by the president of the United States, implemented by the director of the CIA, and the end result was thousands of wasted man hours by intelligence and and law enforcement personnel.

    Nice trifecta there. And just think: there's an entire political party in this country that still thinks this is OK.

    Drum also has a nice picture of Bush pinning the Medal of Freedom on Tenet. Too bad that irony is utterly wasted on those who need it.

    Friday, December 07, 2007


    When I toured Westminister Abbey some decades ago, I recall seeing the tomb, or at any rate the name, of William Wilberforce. The name was familiar, so I asked the guide (docent?) if he was related to that Bishop Samuel Wilberforce who had famously debated Thomas Huxley on evolution. William was indeed the father of that Bishop, but if I learned what he had done to earn his place amongst England's great heroes I don't recall it.

    What he did was lead the long crusade in England to ban the slave trade. The movie Amazing Grace is a lightly fictionalized account of that crusade, and to me a great movie. Gorgeous English scenery, a dramatic true story, and, best of all, a whole potfull of great British actors - Ioan Gruffudd, Benedict Cumberbatch, Albert Finney, and Michael Gambon to mention a few.

    He and his cohorts changed the world for the better, a great deed indeed. Moreover he did it by doing good - not by starting a war but by making the world see evil through his eyes.

    When looking up the story of his third son, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, I was quite charmed to read that after the debate with Huxley, both sides went out for a convivial evening of food and fellowship.

    Eternal Inflation with JS

    Andrew Sullivan links to some cartoons on the Mormon religion. This youtube short is a rather unfriendly depiction of Mormon cosmology and theology, but it matches up pretty well with Eternal Inflationary cosmology.

    A Bird in the Hand . . .

    The notion of saving for the future, or investing, is a key to economic development. On the other hand, it also conflicts our natural tendency to value the immediate over the future.

    Would you rather get ten dollars today or a million a year from now? That's probably not a hard question for most people. What about a thousand dollars today versus a million thirty years from now? A billion fifty years from now?

    I won't be alive fifty years from now, so why would I want a billion then? Well, it the money were inheritable, my children have a good chance of being alive then, and, should I be so lucky, my grandchildren and other progeny. If it's tradeable, I should be able to sell it tommorow for several tens of millions to someone who will in turn eventually sell it for even more and so on until some owner perhabs not yet born collects fifty years from now.

    How did I get the "tens of millions." It's a crude estimate based on current long term interest rates. Current interest on 30-year treasuries is 4.59%, so if you figure, say, 5% on a 50-year, then 87 million today buys a billion fifty years from now.

    The point I want to emphasize is that the worth of that billion fifty years from now depends on, among other things, its transferability, since it's not intrinsically worth anything to me. Even if fully tradable, though, the present value of the billion-in-fifty needs to be deeply discounted. That discount pretty obviously also depends on the degree of certainty there is about somebody being able to collect in 2057, and upon the value of the dollar at that point.

    So why is this relevant to climate - did I mention that this is a post about anthropogenic global warming? It's relevant because economists like to argue that the cost of any expense we incur today to ameliorate climate change should be judged against a discounted future benefit. Extreme free market fundametalists, like Czech President Vaclav Klaus, think that the appropriate discount rate is the free market interest rate. By that argument we wouldn't be justified in spending more than about 7 million dollars today to prevent one billion dollars worth of damage in 2107. This argument, if valid, would impose an incredibly heavy burden on any climate remediation. It would also mean that there is no point in spending anything to prevent any catastrophe whatsoever at some more distant point in the future.

    This argument is not only profoundly counterintuitive to people like myself, it's also deeply suspect on several other grounds. A good discussion of some aspects can be found in this post by Eli Rabbett, and especially, via the comments to previous link, in Discounting and Uncertainty: A Non-Economist’s View, An Editorial Comment by Steven Sherwood.

    Thursday, December 06, 2007

    That Old Time Religion

    I seem to recall that Benjamin Franklin, having rejected Puritanism and become a Deist, noted that his morals seemed to have declined in consequence. After reflection, he concluded that religion was a good thing if it taught moral lessons that would benefit the practitioner and the larger society, and that any religions which did that should be welcomed. If I apply that test to the Mormons I have known, I would have to say the Church passes the test rather nicely, Senator Hatch notwithstanding.

    Mitt Romney gave a very mealy-mouthed talk today, purportedly on the subject of his religion. He noted that the constitution and American tradition dictate that his religion should be tolerated, as should those of all others who vote Republican - while pointedly failing to extend that tolerance to the irreligious and Muslims. He emphasized commonalities of belief with his target audience while somehow failing to discuss any matter on which he and evangelicals might have different opinions.

    These tactics, so we suppose, were an attempt to defuse evangelical suspicion about "strange or cultlike" aspects of the Mormon church while still trying to make the same enemies as those evangelicals. Ideally this should create the impression that he has dealt with the "Mormon question" without giving the press any excuse to poke into doctrines that might offend viligant evangelicals. Bloggers are not so easily suppressed.

    So what funky stuff do Mormons believe? Your humble correspondent is a pretty unsound guide, I fear. I have dipped into the Book of Mormon, but I didn't get wet. My dominant impression was that the Lord had lost a bit as a prose stylist since he dashed off the King James.

    So, where to go when the reliable sources are just too much trouble? To the blogs, of course. I started with Andrew Sullivan, often wrong but always in the hunt, who has a letter from someone who claims to be a Mormon. After lamenting the choice of the Mormon church in making common cause with the evangelicals, the correspondent writes:

    Of course the Religious Right (the New Calvinists or New Puritans - as I call them) are not "mainstream" at all, but religious radicals who are working to establish a sort of Theo-democracy. As such they belong to the very sector of religious Americans who brutally persecuted Mormons in 1830's Missouri, and then led the successful campaign to completely disenfranchise Utah Mormons between the 1886 and the 1890's.

    Romney knows that he can't come public with Mormon theology without completely losing the support of the New Calvinists but also many average Americans who, unfortunately, look to the New Calvinists for sound-bites on Christian belief and practice. Unlike orthodox Christianity, Mormon thelogy is polytheistic, teaching that the Gods organized the universe from pre-existing, eternal, uncreated chaotic elements. It rejects Original Sin. It rejects Salvation by Grace, teaching that individuals must "work out their own salvation" and "learn to become Gods [themselves] the same as all Gods before have done." At its inception, with the publication of "The Book of Mormon" in 1830, Mormonism rejected the doctrines of Biblical infallibility and Biblical literalism.

    As a Mormon, I was put-off by Romney's disingenuousness when he was asked on a TV interview to explain how Mormonism differs from other Christian denominations. Romney tried to give the impression that he was unqualified to speak for the LDS Church, referring poeple to the Church's website. When confronted with the fact that he has been an LDS Bishop, he tried to give the impression that, in a "lay church," the calling of a Bishop isn't important.

    This is untrue.
    Bishops interview, and must approve every person in their Ward boundaries (aka Parish) who wishes to convert to Mormonism and be baptized. The process by which they do this (the Bishop's Interview) is the means by which the Bishop finds out if the would-be-convert understands the LDS Church's theology. If the would-be-convert is ignorant of certain doctrines, it is the Bishop's job to instruct them in the theology before approving that person's baptism. The Bishop also interviews every single member of his congregation yearly, to pastor them through any spirital crisis or tragedy, and to determine if each person is "keeping the commandments" (i.e., following Church dictates on lifestyle choices), is "active" (attending Church meetings regularly), and "has a testimony" (understands and accepts the Church's theology.) A Bishop is a[s]ked almost daily by some individual or some organization with the LDS Church to explain some aspect of Mormon theology. Whenever a Mormon has a question or concern about any aspect of Mormon theology, they are instructed to ask their Bishop about it.

    In short, one can not be a Bishop without understanding Mormon theology and how it differs from that of traditonal Christianity

    Hmmm. The polytheism would be a major departure from mainstream Judeo-Christian thought, alright. Is that genuine? I am digging into the Mormon Wiki, a supposedly official source, and haven't found that part - yet at least. In Mormon doctrine, though, Satan is the son of God, a Morgoth like figure who rebelled against God. Jesus was the good son.

    OK, here is a whiff of polytheism from the Wiki:

    Mormons believe, as other Christians, in one Supreme Being who governs the universe. However, Mormons don't believe that he works alone but as the presiding member of what they call a godhead. The Mormon Bible Dictionary (p. 681) says that God is “The Supreme Governor of the universe and the Father of mankind. We learn from the revelations that have been given that there are three separate persons in the Godhead: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. From latter-day revelation we learn that the Father and the Son have tangible bodies of flesh and bone, and that the Holy Ghost is a personage of spirit without flesh and bone (D&C 130:22-23).” Mormons believe that these three gods--”separate in personality {but}. . . united as one in purpose, in plan, and in all the attributes of perfection” (Mormon Doctrine, p. 317)--are the partnership which rules the universe, with God the Eternal Father the controlling and governing power. LDS Apostle James E. Talmage states it this way: “These constitute the Holy Trinity, comprizing three physically separate and distinct individuals, who together constitute the presiding council of the heavens” (Jesus the Christ, p. 32). This belief is distinct from the traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which generally maintains that they are three persons but one in essence. All three members of the Godhead are eternal and equally divine, but play somewhat different roles.

    Not quite as fishy as that "three persons in one God" triangle stuff they taught me in Catholic school.

    OK, this is more like it! It seems that we all can achieve a sort of divinity:

    Repentance through faith in Jesus Christ is thus the only way mankind may progress to a perfected state of becoming like God, receiving omniscience, omnipotence, and omni-benevolence and always acting under the governing power of God the Father. One who loves on this level desires to share these qualities because of the joy they bring to an individual soul.
    Retrieved from ""

    Omnipotence and Omniscence might be a bit heavy. If I repent just a little could I understand string theory?

    If you like your revelation on the sensational side, check out ex-mormon. A hint of the flavor can be seen from:

    1 - God was once a man who lived on another planet
    This is the most important teaching of Mormonism. Nothing else comes close to it. We believe that God was once a mortal man on another planet who progressed by living in obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel he had on his world, then he died. He became a resurrected man and evolved to become a god. He is still married now (some early leaders say he is a polygamist) and created this world. We worship only the one true god, which is really one god among millions or billions or more. We believe that we will follow in God's footsteps by becoming perfect and we too will become Gods and Goddesses creating spirit children and peopling other worlds. The Mormon TV commercials showing family togetherness is the foundation for life in the next world - as a family - as gods.
    Reference: Journal of Discourses Vol. 6 Page 4, 1844. Joseph Smith speaking:
    " have to learn to be Gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done before you, - namely, by going from one small degree to another..."

    Reference: Journal of Discourses Vol. 6 Page 275, 1852. Brighan Young speaking:
    "After men have got their exaltations and their crowns - have become Gods..."


    2 - We are co-eternal with God
    We believe we have all existed for all eternity. First we existed as "intelligences", which has never been defined, then we were given spirit bodies in a heaven by our eternal parents. Our "intelligences" have existed forever just like the our God's has and we have been around him in one form or another forever. He has just simply progressed ahead of us.
    Reference: Journal of Discourses Vol. 6 Page 7, 1844. Joseph Smith speaking:
    "God himself, finding he was in the midst of spirits and glory, because he was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a priviledge to advance like himself"


    3 - The origin of Jesus Christ
    Jesus was begotten by physical union of God and Mary . . .

    A clearly disgruntled ex, but with references for those with energy to pursue.

    All in all, I find myself vaguely attracted to the theology. It dispenses with some really crappy elements of traditional Christianity, like original sin and savation through faith alone, and adds in a Silmarillion like theological backstory. If I were inventing a religion, I would want something like that.

    UPDATE: Now here's a shock - Christopher Hitchens apparently didn't like the speech.