Sunday, August 31, 2003

The Revolution draws nigh

Marshall Brain has some interesting speculations about what will happen as robots start to replace people in the workforce. The ensuing discussion on Slashdot is also interesting. In a nutshell, the end of the Cold War was not the end of Communism, just the end of what Marx knew all along was just a false start. The real Worker's Revolution is still coming. You have been warned.

Prevention non-paradox

The LA Times says: "Paradoxically, it seems that the more we spend on cancer research, the more cancer we get."

Paradoxically? Hardly. It makes perfect sense, for two reasons: first, there is a negative incentive for cancer researchers to find ways to prevent cancer. If they were to ever succeed in preventing cancer their careers would all be over. Second, Americans love heros. The people who get the big accolades are not the ones who keep things running smoothly, but rather the ones who pull a situation back from the very brink of disaster. Curing cancer is much sexier than preventing it.

You can see this mentality at work in many aspects of American life. Take the space program. The most celebrated moment of NASA's history, its "finest hour", was not any of its many successes, but it closest brush with failure, Apollo 13. The most celebrated moment of the Iraq war was the rescue of Jessica Lynch. If Apollo 13 hadn't had an oxygen tank explode, or if Jessica Lynch's convoy hadn't taken a wrong turn, no one would remember them today.

So to me it's no surprise at all that cancer rates are going up, or that blackouts are happening, or that computer viruses are spreading, or that space shuttles are exploding. There's just no percentage in preventing these things from happening. Americans barely notice quiet competence, let alone reward it. It's too boring. Americans love heros, and they love drama. There's nothing heroic or dramatic about telling someone that they should stop smoking and excercise more.

And the beast rolls on

If you think Microsoft is playing fair since it lost the anti-trust lawsuit bright by the U.S. government, think again. Dirty dealing is alive and well in Redmond.

The First Amendment takes another hit

If you search Google for kazaa lite you may notice that the site "" is not in the results. If you scroll down to the bottom of the first page you will find the reason. The URL "" and 14 others are copyrighted under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), one of the many Orwellian laws that have been passed by Congress in recent years.

I wonder if I can copyright the phrase, "Congress is a bunch of big fat weenies."

Saturday, August 30, 2003

It's hot out there

The death toll from France's recent heat wave has reached 11,435. Four times the number who died in the 9/11 attacks, and the vast majority of them preventable with nothing more than air conditioning and a bottle of water. Appalling.

A Dispassionate Look at The Passion

Larry Leupp writes some dispassionate notes on the controversy surrounding the new Mel Gibson movie, "The Passion." Worthwhile, if lengthy, reading.

I take issue with Leupp on only one minor detail:

"We know very little about this man, Yehoshua or Yeshua (Jesus). The Roman historian Tacitus (ca. 55-115) and the Roman-born Jewish historian Josephus Flavius (37-ca. 101), mention him, telling us little except that he was crucified by order of the Roman procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate."

It is pretty clear that at least some of Josephus's references to Jesus are forgeries. For example, take this passage:

"3. Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day."

The immediately following text is:

"4. About the same time also another sad calamity put the Jews into disorder..."

which seems exceedingly odd, implying as it does that Jesus was "a sad calamity". But it makes perfect sense when you look at the passage immedaitely preceding:

"2. But Pilate undertook to bring a current of water to Jerusalem, and did it with the sacred money, and derived the origin of the stream from the distance of two hundred furlongs. However, the Jews were not pleased with what had been done about this water; and many ten thousands of the people got together, and made a clamor against him, and insisted that he should leave off that design. Some of them also used reproaches, and abused the man, as crowds of such people usually do. So he habited a great number of his soldiers in their habit, who carried daggers under their garments, and sent them to a place where they might surround them. So he bid the Jews himself go away; but they boldly casting reproaches upon him, he gave the soldiers that signal which had been beforehand agreed on; who laid upon them much greater blows than Pilate had commanded them, and equally punished those that were tumultuous, and those that were not; nor did they spare them in the least: and since the people were unarmed, and were caught by men prepared for what they were about, there were a great number of them slain by this means, and others of them ran away wounded. And thus an end was put to this sedition."

So paragraph 3 was obviously inserted after paragraphs 2 and 4 were written, and it was done by someone who didn't have a very good copy editor.

Follow up

As a followup to my last post it should be noted that

"levels of gun violence in the U.S. have declined substantially over the past decade, while the level of civilian gun ownership has increased."

according to The Hill Times.

That's the good news. The bad news is:

"the U.S. gun homicide rate is [still] seven times higher than Canada's"

Friday, August 29, 2003

Could it be?

I finally saw Michael Moore's movie "Bowling for Columbine." Highly recommended, especially the DVD version which has lots of worthwile extra goodies. It is an amazing movie. It slaughters many sacred cows on both the left and the right with respect to gun violence.

There are three scenes that made a particular impact on me. The first was when he went door to door to see whether Canadians really don't lock their doors (they really don't). And despite the fact that they have more guns per capita than the United States their gun murder rate is two orders of magnitude lower. That ought to lay to rest once and for all the idea that gun control is the answer to gun violence in the U.S.

The second was a South Park cartoon "A Brief History of the United States" which puts forth the (plausible IMO) thesis that gun violence in the U.S. has its roots in slavery and segregation.

The third was the interview with Charlton Heston, which was amazing on so many levels, not least of which was the fact that Moore got an interview with Heston simply by walking up to his house and asking for one. But the most amazing (and painful) part of the movie was watching Heston, the president of the NRA (and probably showing the early symptoms of Alzheimer's) squiriming after he said that he thought that the root cause of gun violence in the United States was the "racial diversity" we have, which of course makes it look like code for: it's all the niggers' fault.

That is why I was surprised yesterday when I was watching a retrospective of the 1963 civil rights march on Washington and saw that Heston had been there supporting it.

Then in the middle of the night I suddenly made a connection. My parents are from Israel, and so I was raised with certain elements of Israeli culture (which is distinct from Jewish culture, by the way). One of the most striking differences between Israeli and American culture is that Israelis love to argue. It's a spectator sport, and a normal part of family life. Most Americans, on the other hand, seem to bend over backwards to avoid getting into arguments. Being confrontational is anathema to most Americans. An American family that argues too much is considered dysfunctional.

(There is one exception: there are polarizing issues, like abortion, where Americans love to argue, but they do it in a peculiar way: they frame the debate as two extremes, they choose sides, and then the sides shout at each other. The goal on both sides is not resolution but victory.)

So here's my theory: I think Americans are deathly afraid of resolution. The reason they are afraid of resolution is that to resolve something both parties must take the risk of having to admit that they were wrong about something, and the American psyche is unwilling to take that risk. And the reason for that is that Whites are paralyzed with fear that they might have to face up to the horrible reality of how blacks have been treated in this country. Our culture of violence, our 10,000-plus gun deaths a year, perhaps even the war on Iraq, is nothing more than a psychological defense mechanism writ large.

We like to think that the evil of slavery is a thing of the past, but the slaves weren't really freed in 1861, they were just sold into a more subtle form of slavery (sharecropping), where they remained for 100 years, when they were sold into an even more subtle form of slavery (being the stock villains on the evening news). At every stage there were (and are) both whites and blacks willing to stand up to defend the status quo. But I think that deep in her heart America knows that she has not truly repented for her racial sins, which continue to this day. I don't know this for sure, of course, but it could explain a lot.

What to do? I don't know, but here's a shot in the dark: I ask the blogosphere to hear my confession. I am a first-generation immigrant to the United States. Neither I nor any of my ancestors ever owned a slave. Nonetheless, I have benefited from having white skin at the expense of those who have black skin. I had no direct hand in creating the system that provided me with these benefits, but I accepted them without complaint, and that makes me culpable. I have looked at black men in the night and felt more fear than I would have if it had been a white man. I am ashamed of this. I am sorry. I ask for forgiveness -- and understanding. I, and I think many white people, do what we do out of ignorance and weakness and not out of malicious intent (though to be sure there are those who would oppress blacks - and Mexicans and Jews and gays and Muslims... - out of pure evil) and we haven't got a freakin' clue what to actually do to start making things right (though repealing the Draconian penalities for crack cocaine posession would probably be a good start).

I think it's important that we figure this out, that we start to seek resolution rather than victory, because if we don't I think there's a good chance our children are going to keep shooting each other. As I said, I don't have an answer, but the first necessary step towards recovery is simply to admit you have a problem.

Thursday, August 28, 2003

Ya think?

The Los Angeles Times reports that the U.S. Suspects It Received False Iraq Arms Tips .

"Intelligence officials are reexamining data used in justifying the war. They say Hussein's regime may have sent bogus defectors."

Gee. Who'd have thought?

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Christopher Hitchens on the Commandments

Christopher Hutchens offers a devastatingly sardonic critique of the Ten Commandments.

The Price of Freedom

I'm having another existential liberal crisis today.

I have been commuting to work along the same route for about five years. Part of that route takes me along a sparsely travelled four-lane divided highway that runs for about a mile and half. Along this route there is a single T intersection. Two days ago the Powers that Be put up a stop sign at that intersection. So now I have to make two extra stops when I drive to and from work.

Now, this may seem like a trivial gripe, but two extra stops a day start to add up over the years, not just in time, but in wear and tear on my car, extra fuel used, etc. But that doesn't bother me nearly as much as the sheer unnecessariness of it. In five years of driving this road ten times a week I have not once seen more than one car waiting to turn onto the highway. I wouldn't mind stopping if there were a reason for it (like traffic backing up onto the arm of the T), but there isn't. The only reason I have to stop is that someone in the government decided to put a stop sign up. (Actually, I don't really know that it was someone in the government. It's possible that someone put this stop sign up as an elaborate practical joke. But that seems unlikely.)

Now, I believe a certain amount of government regulation is needed. If you removed all the stop signs and all the traffic lights it would be a disaster. But I think we've gone too far, and not just because we have put up one too many stop signs. I think we have gone too far in a much more fundamental way. We seem to have forgotten the concept that freedom has a price, and part of that price is the assumption of risk.

We have become perversely risk-averse. Our attitude towards risk is that safety and security trump all other considerations. After 9/11 we practically trampled ourselves to give up our right to privacy in the name of rooting out terrorists by passing the Patriot act. After the Columbia shuttle accident we wrung our hands over the loss of the crew and wondered what we did wrong, as if the mere fact of their deaths was prima facie evidence that we had in fact done something wrong. People count the dead in Iraq as if at some point we will cross a threshold that will indicate that we did something wrong there too.

Now, I am one of the people who has been counting the dead in Iraq, and I also believe that we did something (actually many things) wrong there too. But the two things have nothing to do with each other. The mistake we made was that we attacked on a false pretense. That was a mistake whether the casualty count was one or one million (or indeed zero). Likewise, whether or not we did something wrong on Columbia has nothing to do with the fact that seven people died. Going into space is risky.

Just like driving a car.

Isn't it odd that when seven people die on the space shuttle we rush to "fix the problem" but when over 100 people die every single day in automobile accidents we barely bat an eye?

This is not to say that people don't care about car safety; obviously they do, and this concern has led over the years to significantly safer cars. But there are ways to make driving even safer. At the extreme, we could completely eliminate deaths in car crashes by eliminating cars, but no one wants that. The cost would be too high. The market weighs all the factors and we have collectively decided that about 50,000 lives a year is an acceptable price to pay for mobility.

But the calculus of the value of a life is much more complex than that. For example, we are only willing to put up with a few hundred deaths a year as the price of being able to fly in airplanes. Why the difference? It has a lot to do with the perception of being in control. When we are behind the wheel we feel as if we control the level of risk that we take on moment-by-moment. When we are in an airplane our lives are in the hands of the pilot, and God only knows what kind of a wacko he might be. (Never mind that the guy driving in the car next to you might be a wacko, or a drunk. As long as your hands are on the wheel you can handle any situation.)

(If you still don't believe the issue is control, imagine if a car company came up with a car that had no steering wheel. Instead it had a computer control system that was proven to reduce the risk of fatal accidents by half. How many people do you think would buy it?)

I think that's the main reason people are so afraid of terrorists. The actual numbers of people killed by terrorists is pretty small (so far) but the sheer randomness of it scares people. It is hard to imagine being less in control. (Of course, the potential for the numbers to get much larger is also a source of legitimate concern.)

Ironically, the principal casualty of our rush to avoid being out of control has been our freedom. We say we are a nation of freedom-loving people, but we seem to have forgotten what that actually means. And we seem to have forgotten that freedom has a price.

Freedom means that you can go where you want to when you want to, read what you want to, say what you want to, worship how you want to, vote for who you want to -- all without fear of the government knocking on your door late at night. But this kind of freedom has a price. For example, the price of freedom of speech is that sometimes you have to hear people say things that you find offensive. The price of freedom of religion is that you have to put up with people who don't believe what you believe. The price of freedom of movement is that you may have to deal with "the wrong kind of people" moving into your neighborhood. The price of freedom to read is that people could get ideas in their heads that you think are dangerous.

Or that are in fact dangerous.

The price of freedom is that individuals are free to be destructive. (And modern technology enables them to be destructive on very large scales.)

There are only two defenses against terrorism. One is to make it impossible to be a terrorist, but that can only be done by becoming a totalitarian society. The other is to become a society where everyone is free to be a terrorist, but no one chooses to be.

Personally I'd rather we worked towards the second option, but we seem to be rushing headlong towards the first by passing things like the Patriot Act, and putting up stop signs where they aren't needed.

If, God forbid, I should ever become a victim of terrorism or a car crash I hope that no one uses my death as a reason to drift closer towards totalitarianism (by, e.g., passing Patriot Act II or putting up more stop signs). I hope that people say that it's too bad I'm gone, but that's the price of freedom. It's a price I would gladly pay.

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Why Iraq is not like Vietnam

John Hughes at the Christian Science Monitor writes about Why Iraq is not like Vietnam. Worthwhile reading. Iraq is indeed not like Viet Nam in many important respects, though just how much comfort we should take from that fact alone is not clear.

As an aside, I have always been impressed by the journalistic integrity of the CSM. But for the phrase "Christian Science" (an oxymoron if ever there was one) in the title you'd never know that they were run by a religious organization, and one with some fairly extreme views at that. For being able to do that they have my respect.

Making the blind to see

There has never been a verified case of a prayer restoring a blind person's sight, but now it has been done using stem cells.

Thou shalt not... what?

Don Lattin asks Just which commandments are the 10 Commandments?

Nickel and dimed

CNN notes that "More American service members have now died in Iraq since the end of major combat than during the height of the war."

It is also worth noting that the Iraq war is now the deadlieast U.S. military operation since Viet Nam, recently surpassing the occupation of Beirut which resulted in the deaths of 254 marines in a single terrorist attack.

The total casualty count in Iraq is now 276, which seems like a pretty small number. However, the rate of deaths "per capita" is pretty high. There are about 125,000 U.S. service members in Iraq, which is also a small number in historical terms. The Viet Nam war lasted eleven years, and involved about three million American servicemen, of which 58,184 were killed (at last count). This is a death rate of roughly 0.17% per year. The death rate in Iraq is currently running at 0.44% per year, or roughly 2.5 times what it was in Viet Nam. (Even if you discount the 138 deaths during the initial hostilities and look only at the "steady state" death rate it's still substantially higher than it was in Viet Nam.)

Is Iraq another Viet Nam? Not yet. But neither was Viet Nam six months after it began.

Monday, August 25, 2003

Say it isn't so!

I may have to rethink my support of Howard Dean. I always knew he would eventually say something that I didn't agree with, but this is a Duesy:

"Dean would impose a 'hybrid' constitution, 'American with Iraqi, Arab characteristics. Iraqis have to play a major role in drafting this, but the Americans have to have the final say.' Women's rights must be guaranteed at all levels."

Americans have to have the final say? Oh, Governor Dean, please say you didn't really mean that!

Well ... no.

I was channel-hopping and came across Chris Matthews on CNN's "Hardball" asking a question that went roughly like, "We said we were going to attack Iraq because they were harboring terrorists. We now know that they weren't. We said we were going to attack Iraq because they had weapons of mass destruction. We now know that they didn't. Given all that, isn't it time to admit we made a mistake?"

The guest, a youngish looking fellow with a British accent, replied, "We deposed a brutal totalitarian regime. Surely that was the right thing to do."

To which I reply:

Well ... no.

Getting rid of Saddam was a good outcome. But the ends do not justify the means. One might judge the death of pedophile priest John Geoghan at the hands of fellow prison inmate Joseph Druce to be a good outcome. Or one might judge the death of a abortion doctor to be a good outcome (and a shocking number of people do). That does not make killing abortion doctors and pedophile priests the right thing to do.

If liberating countries living under brutal totalitarian regimes were the right thing to do, then liberating North Korea would be the right thing to do. Liberating Liberia would have been the right thing to do. And one could make a case for Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the elephant in the living room, China.

Bringing down brutal totalitarian regimes is indeed the right thing to do, just as punishing pedophile priests is the right thing to do, and reducing the number of abortions is the right thing to do. But how you do it matters. Summary execution of priests and doctors and even political leaders is never morally justifiable except in cases of imminent danger. That is why the fact that there were no terrorists or WOMD found in Iraq matters. Those were what ostensibly provided the moral justification for attacking Iraq. Without proof that there was in fact an imminent danger our attack on Iraq cannot be morally justified no matter how good the outcome eventually turns out to be.

Still missing the point

The California Supreme Court, along with nearly everyone else, is still missing the point.

The Court has overturned an earllier Appeals Court ruling that publication of the DeCSS algorithm used to encrypt DVD's is protected by the First Amendment. The argument for restricting the distribution of DeCSS is to prevent the illegal copying of DVDs.

The point that everyone is missing is that it is not necessary to decrypt a DVD in order to make an illegal copy. The software to decrypt DVDs is built in to every DVD player. A decrypted copy of a DVD would not work in a standard DVD player. To make an illegal copy of a DVD all you have to do is make a raw copy of the bits on the DVD, encryption and all.

What the fuss is really all about is not restricting the copying of DVDs but restricting the viewing of DVDs. Not all DVDs are created equal. They are encrypted differently depending on where the DVD is intended to be sold. One kind of encryption is used in the U.S. A different kind of encryption is used in Europe. A third kind is used in Asia, and so on. A DVD encrpyted with one of these so-called "region codes" will not work with a DVD player from a different region. This is used by the movie undustry to control the timing of movie releases.

It has also been used by the undustry to suppress the development of DVD-viewing software for the Linux operating system.

If this ruling is allowed to stand it could have very serious consequences. For example, many jurisdictions, particularly in the United States, are seriously considering moving to the use of electronic voting machines based on secret proprietary software. This ruling by the California Supreme Court could be used by the manufacturers of such machines to suppress the dissemination of information about potential weakness in the security of these machines (and all indications are that current incarnations of these machines are very easily compromised).

This ruling is just one in a long string of setbacks for individual free-speech rights in favor of commercial interests. The First Amendment is being dismantled to line the pockets of corporations.

Sunday, August 24, 2003

Microsoft Windows: Insecure by Design

The headline of this Washington Post article says it all.

Ron's reviews...

Terry Gilliam's movie "Brazil" is, in my humble opinion, one of the best movies ever made. It was released in 1985, and it is eerily prophetic today nearly twenty years later. (It was originally scheduled to be released in 1984, but was delayed by the Hollywood studio. The story of the ensuing fight makes fascinating reading.)

Brazil takes place in a world where the government has been fighting shadowy terrorists for years. If you want to see what the world could be like ten years from now go watch this movie.

(I highly recommend the three-dvd set which includes the version of the movie that the studio edited. It is a fascinating glimpse into the amazing power of editing to shape a movie, and of studio executives to completely fuck one up.)

Old business

Catching up on some old business, commenting on things that happened before I started keeping this blog, but which are still important.

No Presidential adminstration in the history of the United States has shown such utter contempt for democracy and the truth as that of George W. Bush, and his attorney general John Ashcroft.

There is no principled defense of our attack on Iraq. This is not to say no good has come of it. The world is a better place with Saddam Hussein out of power. But there are lots of people in power that the world would be better off without (including at least one who wants to build up stockpiles of nuclear weapons and has the means to do so).

George Bush led us to war on a false pretext. We now know that Iraq was not an imminent threat to the United States, and was not a haven for terrorists. (Ironically, Iraq seems to harbor more terrorists now than it did before Saddam was deposed.) Whether this was due to deliberate deception or mere incompetence we will probably never know, but it doesn't matter. In a civilized society the ends do not justify the means.

Ironically, it was apparent before the war, and it is even more apparent now, that the real source of terrorism is not Afghanistan nor Iraq, but rather Saudi Arabia. Why are we not attacking them? Not being privy to the deliberations of the Joint Chiefs I obviously don't know the answer to that, but here's a theory: the Saudis are doing a better job of providing themselves with plausible deniability than Iraq or Afghanistan did, and they are relatively pliable with respect to the Bush Administration's desires regarding oil and Israel. I can't prove this, of course, but I submit that this theory is consistent with all the observed data.

(As an interesting side-note, 60 minutes did a story a while back about the fact that the political basis for the United States's suport of Israel comes mainly not from Jews, which make up only a miniscule voting block, but rather from born-again Christians, who want to protect Israel not because it is a democracy, but because its existence as an independent nation is one of the Biblical prerequisites for the Second Coming. (Never mind that the Second Coming is already long overdue.))

In two and a half years George Bush as turned record surpluses into record deficits, alienated our allies, shredded our record of never having been a military aggressor, dismantled personal freedoms in the name of "security", and widened the gulf between rich and poor. In my book he is well on his way to being the worst president this country ever had.

Hope for the world. Or not.

At first I thought there was hope for the world.

"The majority of American voters would not like to see President Bush re-elected to another term according to a poll by Newsweek magazine."

Then I read the next sentence:

"The survey released Saturday showed that 49 percent of registered voters would not back the president for a second term if the vote were held now."

Since when is 49% a majority?

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Bill Whittle on Responsibility

Bill Whittle writes an amazingly long-winded essay to make the simple point that the idea of personal responsibility has taken a beating lately. If you have the time it makes interesting reading. I agree with him to a certain extent. Certainly "political correctness" has been taken too far, and people need to learn to be less thin-skinned about things like "offensive speech."


Tale a look around you, wherever you are, and I will wager that what you see are not fields of prairie grass with herds of buffalo raising clouds of dust in the distance, nor virgin forests traced with pristine streams of sweet water, nor even fields of corn or wheat rippling in a gentle breeze. Most likely if you are reading this you spend most of your life in an office or a cubicle, or a car or a train, or a house or an apartment. And most likely these things were not built by you, but by large numbers of other people assembled into organized teams.

Why does this matter? Because Whittle's Utopian vision of rugged individualism and the swift certainty of frontier justice works a lot better on the frontier than it does in the inner city. Out on the frontier there is (or was) a wealth of natural resources that the rugged individual could exploit without offending his fellow man. Need shelter? Cut down a few trees. Need food? Shoot a buffalo.

But in the inner city if you try to cut down the trees (if there are any) you will be arrested, and there are no buffalo. There are very few options for the rugged individual to survive without offending someone because, except for so-called "public spaces", every last bit of it belongs to someone. In fact, in a typical American city you risk arrest simply by attempting to sleep in a space that you haven't paid for.

So I am all for accepting responsibility for one's actions, but that train runs both ways. We as a society have made certain decisions. We have decided to build cities. We have decided to allow companies to control vast tracts of farmland. Don't get me wrong, I think that the world is, on the whole, a better place for having made these decisions. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that these have been collective decisions, that these decisions have consequences, and that by Bill Whittle's own logic we therefore bear collective responsibility for those consequences.

One of the consequences of the corporatization and citification of our world is that it is now barely possible to survive as a rugged individual, and to thrive you have no choice but to submit to "the system" to a certain extent. The self-sustaining hunter-gatherer lifestyle is simply not an option in an overcrowded world.

Bill Whittle asks: "Who controls a nation of free individuals?" and answers, "No one." He's wrong. That might have been true in 1884, but in an overcrowded, industrialized nation of "free" individuals, who controls it is the people with money. The moneyed class didn't control people in 1884 because they had an option: stake your claim to five acres and mule and start farming. Today people dream of saving enough to put a down payment on a quarter acre.

Bill twists history in other ways too. He paints Democrats like Bill and Hillary Clinton as devils lusting after power, and tempting people by offering to relieve them of their responsibilities (and thus their freedoms). But it was not the Democrats who passed the greatest threat to our individual freedoms ever, the so-called "Patriot Act", it was the Republicans. (And they are mostly unrepentant. Donald Rumsfeld is currently on tour to tell everyone how wonderful the Patriot Act is, and that we need to imperil freedom even further in the name of security! To accuse Democrats of wanting to curtail individual freedoms to further their own power is to follow Joseph Goebbel's advice: repeat a lie often enough and people will start to believe it.)

Bill Whittle is right about one thing: with power comes responsibility. But he is utterly mistaken when he implies that this bargain runs only one way.

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

1,2,3... or something like that

Question: how many people died in the September 11 World Trade Center attacks?

Answer: It depends on how you count.

If you do a Google search on "september 11 victims count" the first result is this page which gives the following figures:

New York: 2795
Washington: 189
Pennsylvania: 44
Total: 3028

Seems pretty definitive. But the "New York" figure of 2795 is broken down into the following:

World Trade Center: 2801
American Airways Flight #11: 92 (includes all passengers & crew)
United Airways Flight #175: 65 (includes all passengers & crew)

Note that 2801+92+65 = 2958, not 2795. In fact, the figure given for the World Trade Center alone is more than the total given for New York. Obviously, not all of these number can be correct.

The World Trade Center figure of 2801 is explained like this:

(includes 94 missing, body not recovered and no application filed for a death certificate; 1,430 death certificates issued with a body; 1,309 death certificates issued without a body; 56 persons are still listed as "missing")

Obviously, at least one of these numbers must be wrong. Trying to figure out which one (or if it is only one) makes an interesting little puzzle. For example, 1430+1309+56=2795, which is the New York total, but the site says that the WTC figure "includes 94 missing". In any event, it's probably safe to say that about 3,000 people died. (This is absolutely astonishing to me. The WTC towers normally have 40,000 people in them on a typical business day. I remember saying on 9/11 that I would be surprised if the death toll had only four digits, which is to say, if it was below 10,000. Not only was it below 10,000, it was way below 10,000.)

Counting things is not always so easy. How many people voted for George Bush in Florida in the 2000 presidential election? How many people were killed by cigarettes last month? How many by gunshot wounds?

The definitive data for mortality is collected by the CDC. According to the CDC, in 2001, 2,417,798 people died in the United States. That's an average of 6,624 deaths per day. The 9/11 attacks, as horrific as they were, increased the number of deaths on that day only by about 50%, and for the year only by 0.15%. I do not want to diminish the unspeakable horror and evil (real evil this time, not the ironic hyperbole I intended when I used the word to describe Microsoft) of those acts, but in terms of numbers, the casuality count of 9/11 was barely a blip.

19,727 people died of homicide in the United States in 2001. (This does not include the deaths from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which are listed separately. The CDC counts, by the way, are 3074 "total deaths" and "2957 death certificates issued", but this apparently includes a few people who died after 9/11 as a result of injuries sustained (at least that's my guess - the report is not entirely clear on this.) The CDC also includes the terrorists themselves in their count, and classifies their deaths as suicides.)

Every two months in the United States as many people die from homicide as were killed by terrorists on 9/11. More or less.

14,132 people died of "HIV disease" in the U.S. 2001, fewer than died of homicide. 921,819 people died of "major cardiovascular diseases". 553,251 people died of "malignant neoplasms" which is the fancy academic term for cancer. 41,967 people died in motor vehicle accidents. 51,796 people died in "non-transport accidents", which includes things like falls (14,543), accidental poisoning (12,030), and "accidental discharge of firearms" (924, which by now should look like an awfully small number).

18,962 people died from "drug-induced deaths." 19,423 died from "alchohol-induced deaths."

29,423 people died of "Intentional self-harm (suicide)."

The report doesn't list it as a line item, but an average of 93 people die each year in the U.S. from lighning strikes.

Now, for extra credit, how many people have died in the United States military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq?

That is a very hard question to answer for several reasons. First, the count is still climbing even as I write this. Second, no one keeps track, although a few people are trying to keep tabs on the civilian casualties. Some sample data from their efforts: somwhere between 6096 and 7807 Iraqi civilian deaths and around 3500 Afghan civilian deaths.

So... should we be be worried about HIV and terrorism? It depends on how you count.

Monday, August 18, 2003

Requiem for free speech

Think the First Amendment ensures your right to free speech? Think again.

"Federal prosecutors in California ... put a man in prison for disclosing a website security hole to the people at risk from it."

The Talmud on second-guessing God

Someone named Steve took me to task over on Rand Simberg's blog for (among other things) not providing a reference in my inaugural post for my claim that the Talmud supports second-guessing God. Here is my support for that claim.

I also added this link to the original post.

I'm shocked! Shocked!

Well, no, not really. The east-coast blackout actually came as no surprise to me at all, nor to most scientists and engineers. The blackout was the inevitable consequence of society's general attitude of benign neglect towards its infrastructure until some crisis forces people to pull their heads out of the sand (and possibly other places). You can see this happening over and over in just about every aspect of our society: computing, the space shuttle, financial markets, roads and bridges, public health, education.... Everything nowadays seems to be driven by a push towards higher efficiency and short-term returns. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. The problem is that one can often achieve the appearance of short term gains in efficiency by increasing hidden costs, or taking on hidden risks. You can improve your bottom line for a while by scrimping on margin, or maintenance, or insurance (or by forcing your customers to wait idly on the phone line waiting for a service representative rather than vice versa) but the longer you do the more likely it will come back to bite you in a big way later on. That we are taking on all these additional risks doesn't bother me (I think that we've generally become far too risk-averse) as much as that we seem to be doing it with our eyes closed.

Saturday, August 16, 2003

Standards of proof

In my inaugural post I advocated that people do their own experiments. Unfortunately, designing a good experiment, and interpreting the results of experiments, are not always easy things to do.

For example, Dr. Larry Sparks fed cholesterol to rabbits and found that the rabbits had a higher incidence of Alzheimer-like symptoms than rabbits where were not fed cholesterol. Does this prove that cholesterol causes Alzheimer-like symptoms in rabbits? It would seem to be a reasonable conclusion to draw, until Sparks moved his lab from Kentucky to Arizona and found that he could no longer reproduce his results. Why should cholesterol cause Alzheimer symptoms in Kentucky but not in Arizona?

The answer turns out to be that it is not cholesterol by itself that causes the Alzheimer symptoms, but cholesterol in conjunction with copper found in tap water. In Arizona they used bottled water, which did not contain copper. When they added copper to the bottled water the Alzheimer symptoms returned.

This is why to get reliable scientific results you have to be very careful. In particular, it is important to do control experiments in order to be sure that the effects you see are the result of what you are focusing your attention on (cholesterol) and not the result of some random thing that isn't on your radar screen at all (tap water). It is also important to do proper statistical analysis of results in order to separate real effects from random coincidences. Even with all these precautions it is still possible to be mislead. The original Kentucky studies were properly controlled and produced statistically significant results, but they still did not paint a complete picture of the situation. In fact, it is entirely possible that we still don't have the complete picture, because there could be additional factors that both the Kentucky and Arizona labs have in common that all contribute to the production of Alzheimer symptoms in rabbits that just haven't been noticed yet.

Statistics can also be misleading. The usual standard for statistical significance in scientific publications is a 95% confidence level. This does not mean that there is a 95% chance that the result is "correct" or "proves your theory". It means that there is only a 5% chance (or less) that the results you see were caused purely by random chance. Conversely, it means that there is a 95% chance that the results you see were caused by something other than random chance, but by itself the 95% confidence figure does not tell you what that other thing was. Note by the way that 95% sounds like a pretty high number, but you have to compare it to the nunber of experiments being done. 95% confidence means that about 1 experiment in 20 will give you a false positive result, that is, a result that looks real but was in fact caused purely by random chance. Multiple that proportion by the tens of thousands of experiments that are being done and you see that it is a virtual certainty that some of the results floating around out there are in fact false positives. Most of these get corrected when other labs try to reproduce the results. Every time you reproduce a result the probability that this is due to random chance shrinks. It doesn't take many reproductions before this probability shrinks to insignificance.

However (and this is a big however) for this to work it is important not to cherry-pick your results. If you do an experiment 100 times and you get a positive result at a 95% significance level five times this is almost certainly due to random chance. (That's exactly what 95% signifiance means: you expect to get five false positives for every 100 experiments that you do).

All this is prelude to the $64,000 question, about which I expect to he writing quite a bit: does HIV cause AIDS? I am actually not so much interested in the answer to that question as I am in the process by which one arrives at an answer, and what one can accept as a standard of proof. I have been looking into this issue for nearly ten years now as a mostly disinterested observer in the following sense: I am not HIV positive, nor is anyone I know with the exception of Christine Maggiore, and I do not know her very well. (We have met once, and we've exchanged some emails, that's all.) So I do not have a personal stake in whether the answer to the question is yes or no. What I do care about is that the answer be correct, and from what I've been able to tell so far the consensus view on the causal relationship between HIV and AIDS is at best highly oversimplified, not unlike the simple conclusion that cholesterol causes Alzheimer's disease.

More on this (probably much more) later.

China will be the next Japan

On a related note to that last post, I predict that China will be the next Japan, that is, that China will do to the computer industry in the 00's what Japan did to the car industry in the 70's and 80's. The reason is very simple: China is innovating and the U.S. isn't. And the reason the U.S. isn't is that no one can make money in software without permission from Bill Gates. Seriously. The minute a new software innovation starts to make enough money to get on Microsoft's radar they are finished. First, Microsoft will offer to acquire them (which is the best outcome any innovator in the United States can hope for) but at a lowball price. If they refuse, then Microsoft simply destroys them, either by strongarming OEMs, by developing a similar product and bundling it with Windows, or by making changes to Windows that break the innovator's software, or a combination of the three. This is why the U.S. software industry is moribund, because most people smart enough to produce a software innovation are also smart enough to realize that it's a waste of time.

Why aren't Macs more popular?

Bob Cringely points out the obvious reason that Windows and Linux are more popular than Macinoshes: Macs are too easy to use, so IT departments will not recommend Macs because it will put them out of a job.

Microsoft is one of the most evil entities on the face of the planet, and not just because they are crooks. It's much, much worse than that. Because of Microsoft an entire generation of people has grown up believing that operating system crashes and computer viruses are just part of the Way the World Is. Even today, with Linux and Mac OS X as proof that reliable virus-free software is possible, most people I know seem to be incapable of conceiving a world where Microsoft, system crashes, and anti-virus software are not an integral part of daily life. To my mind, people who defend Microsoft are not unlike the slaves who fought on the side of the South during the civil war. They toil in the fields (or the cubicles as the case may be) while Massa Bill over in the Big House pockets the fruits of their labor.

I feel sorry for them. It's not their fault.

Thursday, August 14, 2003

Boojums All the Way through

For anyone interested in gaining a better understanding of relativity and quantim mechanics, David Mermin's Boojums All the Way through is an excellent and entertaining place to start.

Dave prognosticates

A fellow named Dave prognosticates thusly:

"It occurred to me during my travel that if you want to see America's future, you don't need to imagine Orwell's boot-stomping-on-a-human-face metaphor - you just have to visit an airport. The omnipresent surveillance, the variety of pass-cards and restricted areas, the overpriced bad food, the kindergarten safety-scissorsizing of anything that might savagely clip a pilot's toenails, the constant repetition of recorded voices over loudspeakers, the superstitious courtesy to security guards who can ruin your day on a whim - these are all features that are coming to a shopping mall near you, then to your school or business park, then to your downtown or your gated community."

I think he's right.

The rest of the blog also makes interesting reading. In a nutshell, he advocates living a low-income ascetic lifestyle in order to avoid paying income tax. Unlike most income tax avoidance schemes this one is actaully legal, though it takes some self-discipline to actually put it into practice (unless, of course, like millions of people you have no choice because you're poor).

The hosting site also seems to be full of interesting links, including this one.

Why be mad at the Jews?

The recent hubub over the new Mel Gibson movie, "Passion", brings to mind something that has always puzzled me. According to Christian doctrine, Jesus died on the cross to save us from sin and eternal damnation. That sounds to me like a good thing. Why then be angry with the Jews for killing Him? (I know, I know, it wasn't the Jews, it was the Romans, but that has never stopped people from being mad at the Jews.) I mean, if the Jews (or whoever it was) hadn't killed Jesus He might have grown old and died of cholera or some other unpoetic natural cause, and we might all be condemned to roast in hell forever. If any emotion at all is justified (and that is highly questionable 2000 years after the fact) it should be gratitude, not anger. But Christianity has never let logic get in the way of a good witch hunt.

The fundamentalist Christian outlook on life is full of this sort of hypocrisy. For example, if you really believe that your soul is saved and that when you die you go to spend eternity with God, then death ought to be something to be embraced, even rejoiced, not avoided and mourned. And yet it is fundamentalist Christians who are typically at the forefront of "right to life" movements. I don't get it. Why is life such a big deal when you have the afterlife to look forward to?

You actually find this more sanguine attitude towards death in Eastern philosophies, particularly Zen Buddhism. Also, Muslims have lately managed to convince a fair number of young and impressionable people of the foregoing logic to unfortunate (in my opinion) effect. One of the nice things about not believing in an afterlife is that you don't have to wrestle with these issues. This life has value because that's all there is.

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Some of my best friends are Black -- er, Gay

Since I'm a freeloader there are ads at the top of my blog. These are served up by Google, which apparently scans my blog to choose relevant ads. The choices that Google makes are fascinating. At the moment, there's an open letter to John Crossman defending the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, and a Lesbian and Gay blog list, which is interesting because I haven't said a thing about lesbian or gay issues. But since Google raised the topic, I'll say something now.

Watching the recent furor over the Anglican Church's approval of an openly gay bishop I feel like I've been transported back to 1947 watching the furor over Jackie Robinson becoming a Brooklyn Dodger. The arguments for discriminating against gays and lesbians are just as prevalent and just as bankrupt as the arguments for discriminating against blacks were in 1947.

The arguments for discriminating against gays seem to fall into three major categories:

1. Biblical prohibitions against homosexuality (e.g. Romans 1:26-27, I Corinthians 6:9, and many others). For me, of course, being non-Judeo-Christo-Islamic-theist, what the Bible has to say about this carries no more weight than what the Kama Sutra has to say about it, or the Q'uran, or the Baghwan Bible, or Beowulf. But as an interested observer of those who do put stock in these things I find it fascinating how deeply in denial people can be about the fact that they pick and choose those parts of Scripture that suits them, and rationalize away the rest. For example, I have yet to meet a person who professes to be a Christian who takes I Corinthians 14:34, or even the Second Commandment, seriously.

(The Second Commandment, incidentally, makes an interesting case study. It says (Exodus 20:4), "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." Anyone who has ever taken a photograph has made a "likeness" of something that was "in the earth beneath." Muslims, by the way, really take the second Commandment seriously, and that is why you only see abstract art in Mosques, never portraits. One can quibble over whether the intent of the second Commandment was not to prohibit family photos but rather to prohibit idol worship. Still, I have to wonder at the capacity for rationalization of Catholics who bow down before statues of Mary and the Saints. But I digress.)

(Digression #2: I have never understood how those who advocate posting the Ten Commandments in government buildings in the U.S. can keep a straight face when they argue that it is a cultural and not a religious text. Have none of them ever bothered to read them? Commandment #1 says, "I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me." It's hard to imagine how you could get any more religious than that. But I digress again.)

In any case, regardless of your stand on what the Bible does and does not condemn, there is supposed to be separation of Church and State in the United States, and so the issue of what the Bible does or does not say is moot when it comes to decisions of public policy. This, of course, says nothing about whether it was correct for the Anglicans to induct Gene Robinson as a bishop. That is for them to decide. For what it's worth (which ought to be very little since I'm not an Anglican) I think they did the right thing.

2. Approval, whether tacit or overt, of the "homosexual lifestyle" (whatever that means) contributes to the unraveling of the fabric of society. I simply see no evidence that this is true, or at least, that the contribution of gays to the unraveling of society is miniscule compared to the rips and tears that have been made by non-homosexuals. It was by and large heterosexual priests who molested young children in the Catholic church, and heterosexual bishops and cardinals who covered it up. It is heterosexuals (exclusively, since gays are not allowed to marry) who produce the more than 50% divorce rate we have in this country. From my own personal experience, all of the gays I know are to a man (and a woman) fine and decent people. The idea that gays contribute disproportionately to societal ills is untenable.

3. Homosexuality is "unnatural." Rand Simberg has debunked this notion thoroughly in his blog though I don't have time to look up the exact reference at the moment. Suffice it to say this idea is also untenable. Many animals (notably chimps and dolphins) engage in homosexual behavior.

A related argument is that homosexual couples should not be given societal support because they do not produce children. This argument is also so untenable I'm amazed that anyone can advance it with a straight face. First off, it simply isn't true. Homosexuals are perfectly capable of reproducing, and many do. But even if it were true, if one were to take reproduction as the gold standard of what does and does not deserve societal sanction then infertile people, or people who do not wish to have children, should be prohibited from marrying on those grounds. The argument is just so ridiculous it feels like a waste of time to even bring it up.

There are no tenable grounds for denying equal rights to homosexuals, just as there are no (and never were any) tenable grounds for denying equal rights to blacks. This one is a complete no-brainer. Why does it have to take so long for society to figure these things out?

It verks!

The problem with blogspeak has been fixed. Thanks to Harry Wynn, the developer of blogspeak, for his lightning-quick turnaround. It took less then five minutes between when I sent him an email describing the problem and when he fixed it. Kudos!

Bummer :-(

Blogspeak doesn't seem to work.

Testing testing...

Trying to set up the BlogSpeak comment system...

The cat's out of the bag

Since my blog has now been linked from one that people actually read (thanks Rand!) I supposed I'd better get ready for visitors. Hi everyone, and thanks for reading my blog. You will notice a few indications that I'm new at this and don't really know what I'm doing yet. For example, the link in the earlier article entitled "You morons!" has a broken link, which makes it very confusing. For the record, that link went to a Los Angeles Times story about the Democrats in the California legislature plotting to delay the overdue budget for political gain -- while an active microphone was broadcasting their conversation all over the state Capital building. Strange, but true.

Another item that's missing is a feedback/comments mechanism, or any way to get in touch with me. I'm still trying to figure out how to add comments to this blog. In the meantime, you can get in touch with me at: ron at I'd be particularly interested in getting advice from experience bloggers on how best to add comments to my blog. Thanks in advance.

A final note: yes, I am being intentionally coy about my identity. This is because some of the things I plan to write here could be detrimental to my career if certain people learned of them. If you do learn my True Name I would appreciate it if you did not advertise it.

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Is science "objectively better"?

Rand Simberg writes:

"I'm perfectly content to say that science is objectively better, but only by its own standards, not in any absolute sense."

I find that an odd comment. "Objectively better" means "better by the standards of material reality." You can't be both "better by the standards of material reality" and at the same time only better by your own standards.

Science is in fact objectively better in some contexts. For example, we have had more success building computers using the methods of science than we have had building computers through prayer. So in a context where you want a computer, science is objectively better.

I do agree with Rand that science is not "better" in an "absolute" sense; nothing can possibly be "better in an absolute sense" since "better" is always a judgement call. Things can only be better or worse relative to some goal.

This is really, it seems to me, the crux of the disagreement between science and religion, or at least Judeo-Christo-Islamic religions. The JCI religions claim that there is an absolute Revealed standard for judging the merits of goals, whereas Science claims that there is no such standard, and we are free (or burdened depending on how you look at it) to choose goals that suit us. My position is that we humans have been wired by Evolution to choose more or less the same fundamental goals, namely, our survival and comfort, and the survival and comfort of our children and grandchildren. In service of these goals we often (but not always) choose as secondary goals the survival and comfort of our neighbors, other members of our own species, and other life forms. It is this common set of goals that allows theists and atheists to (mostly) get along with each other despite the fact that we have radically different beliefs about the world.