Friday, December 30, 2005

Federal agents' visit was a hoax: 12/ 24/ 2005

I had reported on this earlier, but apparently the student lied.
The UMass Dartmouth student who claimed to have been visited by Homeland Security agents over his request for 'The Little Red Book' by Mao Zedong has admitted to making up the entire story.

The 22-year-old student tearfully admitted he made the story up to his history professor, Dr. Brian Glyn Williams, and his parents, after being confronted with the inconsistencies in his account.

Had the student stuck to his original story, it might never have been proved false.

But on Thursday, when the student told his tale in the office of UMass Dartmouth professor Dr. Robert Pontbriand to Dr. Williams, Dr. Pontbriand, university spokesman John Hoey and The Standard-Times, the student added new details.

The agents had returned, the student said, just last night. The two agents, the student, his parents and the student's uncle all signed confidentiality agreements, he claimed, to put an end to the matter.

But when Dr. Williams went to the student's home yesterday and relayed that part of the story to his parents, it was the first time they had heard it. The story began to unravel, and the student, faced with the truth, broke down and cried.

Nature encourages its readers to help with WIkipedia

From Wiki's wild world: Researchers should read Wikipedia cautiously and amend it enthusiastically:
Nature would like to encourage its readers to help. The idea is not to seek a replacement for established sources such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but to push forward the grand experiment that is Wikipedia, and to see how much it can improve. Select a topic close to your work and look it up on Wikipedia. If the entry contains errors or important omissions, dive in and help fix them. It need not take too long. And imagine the pay-off: you could be one of the people who helped turn an apparently stupid idea into a free, high-quality global resource.
Nature is one of the top Scientific publications. I think it is significant that it is encouraging its readers to pay attention to Wikipedia.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Politics: the ultimate multi-level system

The point of this posting is to illustrate how multi-level phenomena occur everywhere. In this case, the construction of a big-science project is subject to political and economic pressures having nothing to do with science.

From Science Magazine.
After 18 months of often bitter wrangling, the $12 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) has a home at last. …

The basic concept behind ITER--using superconducting electromagnets to hold a plasma of hydrogen isotopes at a temperature and pressure high enough to achieve nuclear fusion--was born in the 1980s. But the design effort, split among centers in Europe, Japan, and the United States, didn't always go smoothly. In the late 1990s, after the engineering design was complete, governments balked at the price and asked the designers to cut the construction cost by half. The United States withdrew from the project in 1999, only to rejoin in 2003. By late 2003, only one hurdle remained: choosing the site. Government ministers from the by-then six members--China, the European Union (E.U.), Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the United States--gathered in Washington, D.C., for a gala signing ceremony. But when the time came to vote, they split down the middle.

Europeans suspected that the United States refused to support the French site to punish France for opposing the war in Iraq, while other whispers suggested that the United States had backed the Japanese site in exchange for Japan's support for the war. In the end, Japan and the E.U. hammered out a deal between themselves. In June this year, after months of delicate diplomacy, Japan withdrew Rokkasho in exchange for a bigger share of construction contracts and a hefty European contribution to a fusion research facility in Japan. [Emphasis added.]

Quantum Trickery

The NY Times has an article on quantum theory, entanglement, etc. Read it now before the Times starts charging for it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Legislation currently pending before the House
would make significant cuts in a number of programs serving low- and moderate-income families and individuals, including Medicaid, child support enforcement, and student loans.

Supporters of the legislation defend the cuts as “tough choices” that need to be made because of large and growing budget deficits. These claims are undercut by the fact that, in the last six weeks, the House has passed four tax-cut bills that together cost more than twice what the budget reconciliation bill saves. The claims are further undermined by Congress’s unwillingness to rethink any previously enacted tax cuts as part of its supposed reevaluation of priorities in light of deficits.

In particular, Congress has chosen to allow two tax cuts that exclusively benefit high-income households — primarily millionaires — to begin taking effect on January 1, 2006. By 2010, these tax cuts will eliminate two current provisions of the tax code that limit the value of the personal exemptions and itemized deductions that people at high income levels can take (see box below for more detail).

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Infrastructure and taxes

While driving into work, I was listening to an interview with Kevin McCarthy, top Republican in the California Assembly. He was asked if he favored the rumored $50 billion bond issue to repair California's infrastructure. He said that (a) he was in favor of the state taking some responsibility for the infrastructure and (b) perhaps a better way than a bond measure was to set aside a certain portion of the budget each year for that work.

It's an interesting position for two reasons.
  1. A bond issue does exactly what he wants: commits the state to spend a certain portion of its income on a certain project. Bonds must be paid, so if the state takes out a bond issue for a given purpose, it is committing itself to pay for that purpose until the bond is paid off.

    I'm sure that's not what McCarthy had in mind, but in fact, that's the way it works. By the way, I'm not necessarily in favor of a bond issue. $50 billion seems like a lot of money. But mechanically, a bond issue will do exactly what McCarthy said he wanted to do. McCarthy suggested spending 6% of state revenue on infrastructure each year. I'm sure a bond issue could be structured to do exactly that!

  2. McCarthy, like most Republicans, said he was not in favor of raising taxes—so that, for example, the revenue out of which a certain portion would be set aside for infrastructure work was adequate. But this is the big hole in that position. McCarthy is not willing to say what he thinks the right tax level should be. He and his anti-tax friends, have nothing good to say about taxes. But I doubt that he would vote to eliminate all taxes. He is not one of those who think the state should dry up and go away. He is in favor of the state having a responsibility for infrastructure. So the question is what is the right level of taxes? Does "No new taxes" mean that we are currently at the right level? Does voting for every tax cut, e.g., elimination of the "car tax," mean that we are at too high a level? If so what is the right level? As far as I can tell, McCarthy and others have no good answer to that.

    It's not even clear that the right answer is that taxes should be high enough to pay for whatever we decide the state should do. That doesn't take into account the possibility that we may not be able to afford everything we want the state to do. It's not clear to me if there is a good economic process for determining the "right level" of taxes.

    We do need taxes. After all, as the Republicans like to say, freedom isn't free. But how much should we be paying for it?

Monday, December 26, 2005

Politics in the Catholic Churct

Another NY Times report describes politics in the Catholic Church.
At least 1,500 people attended Christmas Eve Mass with an excommunicated Roman Catholic priest presiding, despite warnings from the archbishop that participating would be a mortal sin.

The Rev. Marek Bozek left his previous parish without his bishop's permission and was hired by St. Stanislaus Kostka Church this month. As a result, Father Bozek and the parish's six-member lay board were excommunicated last week by Archbishop Raymond Burke for committing an act of schism.

Archbishop Burke said it would be a mortal sin for anyone to participate in a Mass celebrated by a priest who was excommunicated.

The archbishop, who could not stop the Mass, said it would be 'valid' but 'illicit.'
Like politics in Iraq, this fight too is about power and money.
The penalty of excommunication was the latest wrinkle in a long dispute over control of the parish's $9.5 million in assets.

The parish's property and finances have been managed by a lay board of directors for more than a century. Archbishop Burke has sought to make the parish conform to the same legal structure as other parishes in the diocese.
In Iraq the weapon of choice is the bomb; in the archdiocese in St. Louis, it's excommunication. One uses whatever weapons one has at hand.

Political negotiating in Iraq

The New York Times reports:
Sunni Arab political leaders asked the main Shiite political bloc on Sunday to give them 10 Shiite seats in the new Parliament in an early attempt to defuse tensions over the results of the Dec. 15 election.

The Shiites refused. …

It was not clear whether Iraqi election rules would permit such a seat donation, even if the Shiites had agreed. …

The maneuvering on Sunday was focused on the final election tally, which will not be ready until next month, in part because of the numerous Sunni complaints. Iraqi investigators have begun to look into about 50 complaints that might change the results of the election.

"The real negotiation will start after the final results of the election," said Nadeen al-Jabari, head of the Fadhila Party, which is part of the Shiite alliance.
Political hardball in Iraq is a lot harder than here. In 2000 Gore just gave up. Can you imagine what would have happened if this had been Iraq?

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Bush lies again

From an article in the Washintgon Post.
President Bush asserted this week that the news media published a U.S. government leak in 1998 about Osama bin Laden's use of a satellite phone, alerting the al Qaeda leader to government monitoring and prompting him to abandon the device. …

"The fact that we were following Osama bin Laden because he was using a certain type of telephone made it into the press as the result of a leak." He berated the media for "revealing sources, methods and what we use the information for" and thus helping "the enemy" change its operations.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Monday that the president was referring to an article that appeared in the Washington Times on Aug. 21, 1998, the day after the cruise missile attack, which was launched in retaliation for the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa two weeks earlier.

The article, a profile of bin Laden, buried the information about his satellite phone in the 21st paragraph. It never said that the United States was listening in on bin Laden, as the president alleged. The writer, Martin Sieff, said yesterday that the information about the phone was "already in the public domain" when he wrote the story.

A search of media databases shows that Time magazine had first reported on Dec. 16, 1996, that bin Laden "uses satellite phones to contact fellow Islamic militants in Europe, the Middle East and Africa." Taliban officials provided the information, with one official -- security chief Mulla Abdul Mannan Niazi -- telling Time, "He's in high spirits." …

Causal effects are hard to prove, but other factors could have persuaded bin Laden to turn off his satellite phone in August 1998. A day earlier, the United States had fired dozens of cruise missiles at his training camps, missing him by hours.

Alito: the ultimate deontologist?

According to the New York Times, Alito Hews to Rules . For example,
In a 2001 case, the judge … sided with a man challenging a murder conviction, this time after finding that the lower court judge had improperly rejected one of the man's arguments. The lower court had correctly dismissed claims that were not properly made, the judge wrote, but incorrectly lumped with them additional claims that the defendant, Robert E. Wenger Jr., should have been allowed to make.
Other cases seem to follow the same patterns. Alito appears to be a strict deonotologist, i.e., someone who judges according to whether the rules were followed, not whether justice was done.

Of course, the problem with this distinction is that it's too easy to make a deontological case for most complex issues. Judges may lean toward arguments that favor their ideological inclinations independent of the strength of the deontological arguments. I'm concerned that Alito will buy a weak deontological argument when he favors its consequentialist outcome but not otherwise.

For example, in tbe case with which the article leads off,
If Samuel A. Alito Jr. had been on the Supreme Court back in January, Ronald Rompilla might well be a dead man.

That month the Supreme Court heard an appeal of a decision, written by Judge Alito for a panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, that upheld Mr. Rompilla's sentence for a murder committed in 1988. The Supreme Court, finding that Mr. Rompilla's lawyers had been ineffective representatives at trial, later reversed the ruling in a 5-to-4 vote.
Apparently, Rompilla's lawyers did a reasonable job. But had they done a somewhat (but not heroically) better job, they would have discovered information that was mitigating for the defendant.

How does one decide a case like that? Alito went with the minimalist argument: the lawyers did a reasonable job. The Supreme Court (in a 5-4 decision) said that justice was not served—and it could have been served without requiring an extraordinary effort on the part of the lawyers. So Rompilla deserves a new trial, at least with respect to whether or not he should have been sentenced to death. (Apparently there is no argument about whether Rompilla actually committed the crime.)

Has Alito been as strictly minimalist in cases in which the results do not match his apparent ideological inclinations? I don't know. The case cited at the beginning of this entry suggests that he is able to side with defendants when they have a good case according to the rules. But in that case, the argument was apparently clear. In Rompilla's case it was a lot murkier. Should a person be condemned to death in a situation in which a bit more work on the part of his lawyers might have saved his life?

I suppose that a strictly deontological perspective is what makes a good judge in the eyes of advocates for a "strict constructionist" judiciary. I'm surprised and disappointed that the public discussion of this issue hasn't clarified this point. It's not such a difficult point. And once the distinction is made—when there is a conflict, should following the rules or an equitable outcome take precedence?—at least the issues become a lot clearer.

I have recently been reading about this distinction. In Ill Gotten Gains, Leo Katz, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, claims that the deontological approach is the right one. My previous posting on theologian Lorenzo Albacete suggests that not only is there a distinction between deontological and consequentialist thinking, there is a third option: it's what's in your heart that really counts. Can one make a legal principle out of that? Isn't something like criminal intent required for a criminal conviction? I'm too ignorant of the law to know what that means.

Of course if the deontological perspective is the conservative one, Bush's argument that spying in violation of the law in order to fight terrorism, makes no conservative sense. But then Bush never makes sense. The three arguments in this issue are as follows.
  • Deontological. Bush did or did not break the law. It seems to me (and most liberals) that he did. But Cass Sunstein, a liberal law professor at the University of Chicago Law School, makes the deontological case for Bush.

  • Consequentialist. Are we safer because Bush authorized the wire taps. We are not likely to hear evidence about that. Bush will claim that all the evidence is classified.

  • Intent. What was Bush's intent? Bush's defenders say that his motivation was to protect the country. He didn't want another 9/11. Most people who don't trust him do not believe that this was his primary motivation. They see this and similar actions primarily as exercises in power and arrogance.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Bill's coming over. He's a physicist. He ought to be able to help!

From the opening of Lawrence Krauss's Hiding in the Mirror.

Lorenzo Albacete

Lorenzo Albacete is a Catholic theologian that even an athiest can love—and who will love him in return. In a Slate video interview (no transcript is available), Albacete discusses what it takes (according to Catholic teaching) to get into heaven. It's not (he says) faith or belief. It's what's in one's heart. It's not good acts or right behavior that gets one into heaven. It's one's stand with respect to otherness—one's ability to respond to other people.

From the Slate profile
According to the New Testament, Jesus was born as a sign of God's love for humanity--sent to Earth so that "whoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life," as the gospel of John puts it. Over the years, this prerequisite for admission to heaven--believing that Christ died for your sins--has been a strong incentive to become or remain a Christian. But if God really loves humankind, shouldn't He let, say, a good Buddhist or Jew through the pearly gates? God goes further than that, says Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete in this clip from his interview: even atheists are eligible for salvation. This radical reinterpretation of scripture, Albacete notes later in the interview, has now become official Catholic doctrine (unbeknownst even to many Catholics). And it raises a question: Can the world's major religions coexist harmoniously without amending core beliefs--such as the belief that they've been blessed with a uniquely enlightening revelation?
All of which reminds me of an extract from the Dalai Lama's recent book that I've been so taken with that I've added it to this blog's sidebar.
A religious act is performed out of good motivation with sincere thought for the benefit of others. Religion is here and now in our daily lives. If we lead that life for the benefit of the world, this is the hallmark of a religious life.

This is my simple religion. No need for temples. No need for complicated philosophy. Your own mind, your own heart, is the temple; your philosophy is simple kindness.

Panexa (Acidachrome Promanganate)

From the MERD | Panexa web site.
Ask your doctor for a reason to take it.

PANEXA is a prescription drug that should only be taken by patients experiencing one of the following disorders: metabolism, binocular vision, digestion (solid and liquid), circulation, menstruation, cognition, osculation, extremes of emotion. For patients with coronary heart condition (CHC) or two separate feet (2SF), the dosage of PANEXA should be doubled to ensure that twice the number of pills are being consumed. PANEXA can also be utilized to decrease the risk of death caused by not taking PANEXA, being beaten to death by oscelots [sic; emphasis added], or death relating from complications arising from seeing too much of the color lavender. Epileptic patients should take care to ensure tight, careful grips on containers of PANEXA, in order to secure their contents in the event of a seizure, caused by PANEXA or otherwise.
I'm quite late with this. Also, for some reason a Google search for Promanganate gets more hits than a Google search for Panaxa.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Arianna's lists

of things she would like to forget from 2005. List 1 and list 2.

Civilization has left its mark on our genes

And speaking of intelligent design, here's an article from New Scientist about recent human evolution.
[According to Robert Moyzis and his colleagues at the University of California, Irvine] around 1800 genes, or roughly 7% of the total in the human genome, have changed under the influence of natural selection within the past 50,000 years. … That is roughly the same proportion of genes that were altered in maize when humans domesticated it from its wild ancestors.

"Domesticated" humans
Moyzis speculates that we may have similarly "domesticated" ourselves with the emergence of modern civilisation.

"One of the major things that has happened in the last 50,000 years is the development of culture," he says. "By so radically and rapidly changing our environment through our culture, we've put new kinds of selection [pressures] on ourselves."

Genes that aid protein metabolism — perhaps related to a change in diet with the dawn of agriculture — turn up unusually often in Moyzis's list of recently selected genes. So do genes involved in resisting infections, which would be important in a species settling into more densely populated villages where diseases would spread more easily. Other selected genes include those involved in brain function, which could be important in the development of culture.

Santorum is shoked

that members of the Dover school board were motived by religion. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer
Early this year, Sen. Rick Santorum commended the Dover Area School District for 'attempting to teach the controversy of evolution.'

But one day after a federal judge ruled that the district's policy on intelligent design was unconstitutional, Santorum said he was troubled by court testimony that showed some board members were motivated by religion in adopting the policy. …

In a 2002 Washington Times op-ed, Santorum wrote: "[I]ntelligent design is a legitimate scientific theory that should be taught in science classes." …

Santorum … continues to believe that intelligent design, like evolution, is a legitimate scientific theory, said his spokesman, Robert L. Traynham.
Even so, he has adopted the strategy of "teaching the controversy," not Intelligent Design itself. Apparently he doesn't have the courage to stand up for his beliefs.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Bush misleads again. Does anyone care?

In a story reporting the resignation if a FISA court judge, The Washington Post reports the following.
At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan was asked to explain why Bush last year said, 'Any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires -- a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so.' McClellan said the quote referred only to the USA Patriot Act.
On the other hand, it is true that the quote in question comes from a speech about the Patriot Act. The rest of the relevant paragraph is as follows.
It's important for our fellow citizens to understand, when you think Patriot Act, constitutional guarantees are in place when it comes to doing what is necessary to protect our homeland, because we value the Constitution.
It's not clear what Bush really had in mind.

He now seems to be claiming that the constitution—which he says he "values"—doesn't require a court order. If that's the case, why did he claim then that they did? Is the point that when he follows the law, a court order is required, but when he chooses not to follow the law it isn't?

In other words, Bush was saying that the Patriot Act requires a court order for a wire tap. Apparently what he didn't bother to say was that he does not believe he is limited by the Patriot Act when he orders wire taps.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Death of an online world

Jochen Fromm, who runs the CAS group, and keeps up with EVERYTHING, pointed to this article in Wired that discusses the end of an online game. (I wrote about online games recently.) Here's the end of the article.
Online worlds are, of course, more than just playlands for slaughtering ogres and collecting magic chain mail. They're social hangouts where players sit around shooting the breeze about their lives, their jobs, their favorite music. "That gives one an odd sense of home. And no one likes to see their homes be demolished," said Chris Thorn, a 26-year-old player in Arlington, Virginia.

The economy has also tanked. When the announcement first came down, players say, a majority of gamers immediately fled. Previously, you'd log on and find several hundred people online; now you'll get nine or 10. High-powered character accounts used to sell for as much as $500, but the online auctions have gone silent. That's partly because, as the end nears, Turbine is tossing out some freebies and giving away more "rare" items, making them less rare. Without a sense of a future, capitalism ends. There's no demand in a condemned world.
The article says that the game was cancelled because it was not economically self-sustaining. I'm surprised that several hundred players at most times of the day aren't enough!

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Global terrorism and victory in Iraq

I'm listening to Bush's speech on Iraq. He (and apparently Republicans in general) love to talk of global threats. He talks of global terrorists who are threats to the country. He identifies them with opposition in Iraq. He also likes to contrast the vision of global terrorism with an image of a free and democratic Iraq. The republican love ultimate enemies.

None of that is the point. Where will Iraq end up? My guess is that if it stays together (which it may not) it will end up as something like Iran. Iran has elections. But the people the Iranians elected aren't the ones we would have liked them to elect. It's not clear how close Iraq and Iran will become. They may become allies. They may be fearful of each other. The latter would be better for us than the former. A balance of power in the middle east is probably better than a unified force that doesn't like us. But however it works out, Iraq won't be a beacon of democracy. It is a Middle Eastern country, and no matter what happens in the near future, it will remain a Middle Eastern country with a tradition of conservative Islam as well as a tradition of cronyism and corruption. It will take decades to turn that around.

And that has nothing to do with "global terrorism." The message of terrorism is that one doesn't need a global force to do a lot of damage. It took only 19 people to bring off 9/11. It took fewer than that to bring off the Oklahoma City bombing. Because of the way our economy operates, we are vulnerable. And there is not a lot we can do about it. The fact is, safety cannot be guaranteed. As long as Bush and his supporters put the issue as safety vs. chaos, global terrorism vs. shining democracy, he will mislead the country. Neither will be the case. We must start recognizing that the world is not a simple place, and it will never be a totally safe place.

By the way, I think that we are obligated to find some way of leaving Iraq without inviting a civil war. Bush got himself into this position; he can find some way to get himself out. I don't have an easy solution. My primary consideration is that Bush should not paint a false picture of "ultimate victory." He has no idea what that might mean or how that might be accomplished. Talking about victory in Iraq is intellectually dishonest. But then that's the way Bush is. To ask for something different is also unrealistic.

Online and video games

The New York Times reviews two books on video games. In one Edward Castronova expects that
life in these alternative zones may eventually become so fulfilling, … 'that a fairly substantial exodus may loom in the distance.' He means this, really. Like the Irish and Italians who left their native lands in the late 19th century to come to America, gamers could create a genuine human migration, away from the real and into the virtual. What will be real then?
I don't play these games, but I have recently heard myself say that life as a monk wouldn't be at all bad if I had an internet connection and regular conjugal visits.

Have you ever known anyone who had all the games removed from their computer because they couldn't resist playing them? Have you ever known anyone who complained about all the time they spent on the internet, either playing solitaire or simply surfing? I have. I don't play solitaire, but look at the time I waste writing this blog—and looking at material that goes into blog entries.

It's not as far-fetched as it seems.

The second book includes a chapter on Will Wright, the creator of SimCity.
"I think one thing that's unique about video games is not only that they can respond to you but down the road they'll be able to adapt themselves to you. They'll learn your desires," he says. "It might just be that games become deeply personal artifacts - more like dreams."
If we could all live in our dream worlds, would we be unhappy if we didn't wake up?

Of course one thing about multi-player online games is that they involve multiple players. The games don't confine themselves to virtual worlds. People meet each other outside the game world. It's not just fantasy. Just as trade in game resources occurs on eBay—but for real money— connections that people make in online games become connections that persist in the real world.

I'm not worried about an ultimate emigration from the real world to virtual worlds. It may be that new lands are being created and settled, but the new inhabitants are real people.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Your tax dollars at work watching what you read

According to,

the website of the Standard Times, a small-town newpaper in Massachusetts
A senior at UMass Dartmouth was visited by federal agents two months ago, after he requested a copy of Mao Tse-Tung's tome on Communism called 'The Little Red Book.'

Two history professors at UMass Dartmouth, Brian Glyn Williams and Robert Pontbriand, said the student told them he requested the book through the UMass Dartmouth library's interlibrary loan program.

The student, who was completing a research paper on Communism for Professor Pontbriand's class on fascism and totalitarianism, filled out a form for the request, leaving his name, address, phone number and Social Security number. He was later visited at his parents' home in New Bedford by two agents of the Department of Homeland Security, the professors said.

The professors said the student was told by the agents that the book is on a 'watch list,' and that his background, which included significant time abroad, triggered them to investigate the student further.

'I tell my students to go to the direct source, and so he asked for the official Peking version of the book,' Professor Pontbriand said. 'Apparently, the Department of Homeland Security is monitoring inter-library loans, because that's what triggered the visit, as I understand it.' …

Dr. Williams said he had been planning to offer a course on terrorism next semester, but is reconsidering, because it might put his students at risk.

"I shudder to think of all the students I've had monitoring al-Qaeda Web sites, what the government must think of that," he said. "Mao Tse-Tung is completely harmless."

Friday, December 16, 2005

Anticipating an unintended consequence

From NPR.
On Oct. 31, 2004, on the eve of the presidential election, guest preacher George Regas took to the pulpit at All Saint's Church in Pasadena, Ca., and issued a sermon describing a hypothetical conversation between Jesus, President George Bush and Sen. John Kerry. That sermon sparked an IRS investigation of the church. …

The IRS has stepped up its investigations of churches accused of endorsing political candidates. The agency is examining about 60 churches over complaints about endorsements from the 2004 election alone.

It's illegal for a tax-exempt organization like a church to endorse or criticize candidates, but the boundaries aren't always clear. The new focus has raised serious questions for all nonprofit organizations: Can they even discuss politics at all in an election cycle?
I liked this report a lot. The primary issue was the difficulty of drawing a line between expressing a position about a policy—which is allowed for tax exempt organizations—and endorsing or criticising a candidate for political office—which isn't. How implicit must one's implicit endorsement be to be ok? If a minister preaches an anti-abortion (or pro-choice) sermon and then suggests that the congregation vote in a way that will support that position, is that endorsing the candidate who agrees with that position—even the the sermon didn't mention anyone by name?

I think it's a very difficult line to draw. Given my preference for minimum government interference with speech, my inclination would be to eliminate this restriction. Let religious organizations endorse whomever they want.

What will happen? Political organizations will set themselves up as religious organizations and claim tax-free status. Having eliminated the need to distinguish between expressing an opinion about policy vs. candidates, one will then be faced with having to distinguish between real religious organizations and ersatz ones set up by political interest groups to take advantage of the tax-free status.

What I think is interesting about this is the emergence (in a traditional, not complex systems sense) of a new mechanism as the the mechanism to be gamed and manipulated when some other mechanism, which had been the target of gaming and manipulation is eliminated as a target. It's as if any mechanism that makes a difference is vulnerable to gaming and manipulation. It's the ones that are must visible that get the most attention. But remove one, and another one, which had always been there looms more significant. Once one institutes a mechanism, one forever after subjects that mechanism to potential gaming and manipulation whenever gaming and manipulation it is worth the trouble.

Control over brain activation and pain learned by using real-time functional MRI

From The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
If an individual can learn to directly control activation of localized regions within the brain, this approach might provide control over the neurophysiological mechanisms that mediate behavior and cognition and could potentially provide a different route for treating disease. Control over the endogenous pain modulatory system is a particularly important target because it could enable a
unique mechanism for clinical control over pain. Here, we found that by using real-time functional MRI (rtfMRI) to guide training, subjects were able to learn to control activation in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC), a region putatively involved in pain perception and regulation. When subjects deliberately induced increases or decreases in rACC fMRI activation, there was a corresponding change in the perception of pain caused by an applied noxious thermal stimulus.
For the Science News version, see

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

What "informal" means to the State of California

I have received the following memo from the administration of California State University, Los Angeles.

Subject: Holiday Informal Time Off

In celebration of the holiday season, the Governor has authorized informal time off. Authorization for informal time off is subject to the following:

Monthly Rate Employees: Full-time exempt and non-exempt employees may be allowed a half day informal time off with pay on the last campus working day before the Christmas holiday or the last campus working day before the New Year's holiday, if the employee is scheduled to work. Less than full-time employees should be provided informal time off on a pro-rata basis.

Employees required to work these days, or who would be scheduled to work but are on vacation, sick leave or CTO, may be granted the equivalent informal time off prior to June 30, 2006. This time shall not be considered CTO and is not compensable in cash.

Hourly Employees: Hourly employees other than those in Class Codes 1150, 1151, 1868, 1870, 1871, 1872, 1874, 1875, 1876, 7171 and 7172, should be permitted informal time off based on the following table provided that the employee is scheduled to work on the campus' last work day prior to the holiday closure and is still on the active payroll on that date (has not or will not be separated with a prior effective date):



1 - 41 1

42 - 84 2

85 or more 4

Scheduling of informal time off should be managed in such a manner as to minimize disruption to campus operations.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Crips Gang Co-Founder Is Executed - New York Times

The New York Times reports.
Stanley Tookie Williams, a condemned gangster whose execution drew more national and international attention than any here in decades, was executed by lethal injection and pronounced dead at 12:35 this morning at San Quentin State Prison. …

Outside the gates of San Quentin, an estimated 1,000 people held a largely peaceful vigil, reading aloud from Mr. Williams's books, with some, shortly after midnight Monday, shouting, "Long live Tookie Williams!" At 12:38 a.m., three minutes after Mr. Williams was pronounced dead - after a process that took 36 minutes and 15 seconds from the time Mr. Williams was brought into the chamber - the crowd sang "We Shall Overcome."
Although I agree with the protesters' position, somehow it seems melodramatic.

I was once fervently opposed to the death penalty. I still think it's wrong. But as I become more accepting of (resigned to) the fact that everyone dies, the bite seems less stinging. Execution changes when someone dies, not whether.

Of course it's a lot easier for me to say this from my comfortable seat at my computer than for Williams on the gurney.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Secular Extremists Still Lying About Their War on Christmas

At least that's how The Conservative Voice sees it.
Secular extremists say that there is no War on Christmas and ridicule Fox News' John Gibson for writing The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. …


These companies have banned "Christmas" from their retail ads, in-store promotions or television commercials. …

Target, Nordstrom, Sears, Lowe's, Office Max, Kmart, Staples, Home Depot, Best Buy, Kohl's, SC Johnson, L.L. Bean, Zales, Outback Steakhouse, Lexus, Old Navy, Kroger, Wal-Mart, Cingular, Reckitt Benckiser, Pier 1, Red Lobster, Office Depot, Gillette, Applebee's, Burlington Coat, Dell, Milton-Bradley.
They've convinced me. It's definitely mainstream to say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."

The bigger question is when is it appropriate to say "Merry Christmas?" It makes sense for a Christian greeting a Christian to say "Merry Christmas." It also makes sense for a non-Christian greeting a Christian to say "Merry Christmas." But does it make sense for a Christian or a non-Christian greeting a non-Christian to say "Merry Christmas?" Probably not. So if one is speaking to the general public, it seems to me that it doesn't make sense to say "Merry Christmas."

One might get around this when speaking to the general public by saying "Merry Christmas to our Christian friends." I wonder how the religious right would react to that. My guess is: not very well. It seems to me that they want a world in which everyone is Christian. Since "Merry Christmas to our Christian friends" makes it even clearer that not everyone is Christian, I doubt that they would be very happy about that sort of greeting. But I'm willing to listen to someone who is fighting the war against The War on Christmas to tell me I'm wrong.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Is it self-contradictory

to write or say the following?
To believe ourselves to be custodians of truth is to become its opposite, … stale, self-righteous, or rigid.

Ideas and memories do not hold liberating or healing power. There is no such state as enlightened retirement, where we can live on the bounty of past attainments. …

A bulging portfolio of spiritual experiences matters little if it does not have the power to sustain us through the inevitable moments of grief, loss, and change.

Knowledge and achievements matter little if we do not … know how to touch the heart of another and be touched.
Extracted by Tricycle from Christina Feldman and Jack Kornfield, Stories of the Spirit, Stories of the Heart, which not to be behind the times is now offering Podcasts.

Friday, December 09, 2005


I like reading Tricycle. Last Fall's issue had an article by Andrew Olendzki.
[H]iri refers to that within the human psyche that knows the difference between right and wrong, between what is noble and ignoble, between what is worthy of respect and what is not. Each of us has within us an innate moral compass, and it is the view of Buddhist tradition that religion is not the source of this but rather a form by which it is given expression.
Although I agree with this, I also am concerned about all the damage that people have done because of what they strongly believed was right according to what they thought was their innate moral compass.

The primary focus of that issue was "The Happiness Craze"—with lots of articles about the Buddhist approach to happiness. It is true, trivial, and profound to say that happiness is a state of mind.

An article by Jeff Greenwald discussed the recent plastination exhibits. He writes
One of the floor guides—a sweet, stout woman in her early sixties— told me of discussions she'd had with visitors who felt that turning humans into sculptures, even for educational purposes, was sinful, or just plain wrong.

"They're sayin' all kinds of things." … askin' how a soul could get any peace like this, on display in some museum …

"You're right," I replied. "I would think these people would feel proud, seeing their bodies serving a higher purpose than fertilizer. They would feel they were being treated with enormous respect, even reverence."

The woman looked at me with quiet exasperation. I'd missed her entire point. "Honey," she said, "these people wound not be feelin' anything. They're dead."
Returning to Olendzki's point, the Dalai Lama is quoted as saying the following.
A religious act is performed out of good motivation and with sincere thought for the benefit of others. Religion is here and now in our daily lives. If we lead that life for the benefit of the world, this is the hallmark of a religious life.

This is my simple religion. No need for temples. No need for complicated philosophy. Your own mind, your own heart is the temple; your philosophy is simple kindness.

Intelligent Design

The people who are pushing Intelligent Design claim that they don't have any theory about—and don't really care—what or who the designer may be. I doubt that this is true. Were there evidence, for example, that advanced beings from another planet planted pre-designed life on earth, including us—one the possibilities suggested by the intelligent design proponents—it's hard for me to imagine that they would accept it. Can you really believe an intelligent design proponent more readily accepting the notion that we are essentially manufactured devices than that we are evolved biological beings? I can't.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Striking NYU graduate students rally

Newsday reports:
Striking New York University graduate students and supporters rallied in Washington Square Park on Wednesday to demand that the university negotiate a union contract …

About 1,000 teaching and research assistants had been represented by Local 2110 of the United Automobile Workers from 2000 until August of this year, when NYU said it would no longer recognize a graduate student union based on a policy reversal by the National Labor Relations Board [i.e., the Bush administration].
In other words, NYU is getting away with this because the Bush administration told them that they no longer had to recognize the graduate student union.

See also Democracy Now.
The strike has gained the attention of the national labor movement. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Ron Gettelfinger, the president of the United Auto Workers, are both expected to attend a rally today outside the N.Y.U. library at noon.

For years, N.Y.U. has been at the forefront of a nationwide struggle to organize graduate student assistants. In 2000, the National Labor Relations Board gave the N.Y.U. students the right to unionize making N.Y.U. the first private university to have a graduate student employee union. The students are on strike because earlier this year the school stopped recognizing the union after the labor board reversed its policy on graduate student unions.
Please pass this information along and help support the strike.

Other references:
  • Online petition.

    I'm number 946. Perhaps I should have waited to be 1000. New names are being added at the rate of at least one per minute. Go to the page and hit the refresh button to watch.

    As a matter of technical interest, the petition is hosted by Petitions Online, a web site that describes itself as providing "free online hosting of public petitions for responsible public advocacy." The NYU graduate student petition is listed as their 7th most active.

  • Press archive.


Saturday, November 26, 2005

Writing tests that game the system

When tests are involved, one generally thinks that gaming the system means figuring out how to pass the test without having the quality that the test is designed to measure. This is an old and well-known strategy. Now, we have a second-level version of this effect. If one has control over the test, it isn't necessary to figure out how to beat it, just change it.

Who would set up a system in which the test taker is given the authority to re-write the test? Apparently Bush learned something from his early days in which all the tests he faced were re-written for his benefit.

According to a story in the New York Times
In Mississippi, 89 percent of fourth graders performed at or above proficiency on state reading tests, while only 18 percent of fourth graders demonstrated proficiency on the federal test. Oklahoma, North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Alaska, Texas and more than a dozen other states all showed students doing far better on their own reading and math tests than on the federal one.
How can that be? It's simple.

The No Child Left Behind law
requires states to participate in the National Assessment, [but] states are allowed to use their own tests in meeting the law's central mandate — that schools increase the percentage of students demonstrating proficiency each year. The law requires 100 percent of the nation's students to reach proficiency — as each state defines it — by 2014. … And because states that fail to raise scores over time face serious sanctions, there is little incentive to make the exams difficult, some educators say.
In other words, the law has the effect built into it. Like most other mechanical systems, it encourages those who must deal with the system to look at how the system works rather than what the system is intended to do. The system tells states to get your scores up or lose money. Since the system also allows states to write the tests that measure whether their scores are up, what else would one expect them to do except write tests that produce results that the system requires of them.

It's clear that this is a direct effect of the fact that the law is written in this way.
G. Gage Kingsbury, director of research at the Northwest Evaluation Association, a nonprofit group that administers tests in 1,500 districts nationwide, said states that set their proficiency standards before No Child Left Behind became law had tended to set them high.

"The idea back then was that we needed to be competitive with nations like Hong Kong and Singapore," he said. "But our research shows that since N.C.L.B. took effect, states have set lower standards."
I was glad to see that Inez Tenenbaum, state superindent of education in South Carolina, whom I supported in her failed race for the Senate last year, did not compromise.
South Carolina is a state that set world-class standards, Mr. Kingsbury said. … "Unfortunately it's put us at a great disadvantage," said Inez M. Tenenbaum. … "We thought other states would be high-minded too, but we were mistaken."

South Carolina's tough exams make it harder for schools there to show the annual testing gains demanded by the federal law.

This year less than half of the state's 1,109 schools met the federal law's benchmark for the percentage of students showing proficiency, a challenge that will get tougher each year. As a result, legislators are pushing to lower the state's proficiency standard, Ms. Tenenbaum said, an idea she opposes.
It's such an obvious and direct effect. If you can't meet the standard, but if you have control over the standard, change the standard.

Where do various factions line up on this issue?
Most corporate leaders favor national testing, said Susan Traiman, a director at the Business Roundtable, a group that represents corporate executives.

Opponents include liberal groups that dislike all standardized testing; the testing industry itself, which has found lucrative profits in writing new exams for all 50 states; and political conservatives who fiercely resist any intrusion on states' rights to control curricula and tests.
The positions of the liberal and conservative groups reflect political positions rather than positions based on this particular issue. That leaves the two business factions. Most businesses want strong testing because they want competent employees. The testing industry doesn't care about the consequences of the tests, they just want to maximize the amount of money they can make.

So here too, what's important is the effect, not the intent. In the case of the Business Roundtable, the effect for them is consistent with the intent, which allows them to take the more ethical position. But being businesses, what really matters is the bottom line — as the position of the testing industry illustrates.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Google Analytics

Google Analytics
Google Analytics tells you everything you want to know about how your visitors found you and how they interact with your site.
Google is selling this as a way to improve marketing. But think of all the data they will have if most of the websites in the world install this system. Google will know where people go and how they navigate through the web.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

A true "urban legend:" How to Recognize a Stroke

From Urban Legends Reference Pages: Medical (Strokelore)
A stroke victim may suffer permanent brain damage when people fail to recognize what's happening. Now, doctors say any bystander can recognize a stroke, simply by asking three questions:

  • ask the individual to smile.
  • ask him or her to raise both arms.
  • ask the person to speak a simple sentence.

If he or she has trouble with any of these tasks, call 911 immediately, and describe the symptoms to the dispatcher. Researchers are urging the general public to learn to ask these three questions quickly, to someone they suspect of having a stroke. Widespread use of this test could result in prompt diagnosis and treatment of a stroke, and prevent permanent brain damage.

You may want to pass this along.

Waxman on the new Medicare Drug Plans

From Committee on Government Reform Minority Office
Tuesday, November 22, 2005 -- When the new Medicare drug benefit was enacted, Republican leaders and the Bush Administration claimed that its complicated design would benefit seniors and protect federal taxpayers because private insurers could negotiate lower prices than the federal government. A new report by Rep. Waxman shows that these promises have not been met: the drug prices offered by ten leading Medicare drug plans are over 80% higher than federally negotiated prices and over 60% higher than Canadian prices. The Medicare drug plan prices are even higher than the prices available from and Costco stores.
See the report.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Secret to weight loss: exercise

United Press International reports that a
study in … the New England Journal of Medicine reported that patients on Meridia who exercised lost far more weight than those who only took the pill.

Hawkish Democrat Joins Call For Pullout While Bush continues to defend lying

The top House Democrat on military spending matters stunned colleagues yesterday by calling for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq …

Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a decorated Vietnam War veteran, said many of those troops are demoralized and poorly equipped and, after more than two years of war, are impeding Iraq's progress toward stability and self-governance.
Does that change anything for the Bush administration? Of course not,
Republican leaders accused Democrats of siding with terrorists …

Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) declared: "Murtha and Democratic leaders have adopted a policy of cut and run. They would prefer that the United States surrender to the terrorists who would harm innocent Americans. To add insult to injury, this is done while the president is on foreign soil." [as if that makes any difference] …

Bush, traveling in South Korea, told reporters he agrees with Vice President Cheney's view that politicians who criticize the administration's handling of prewar intelligence are engaging in "dishonest and reprehensible" behavior. South Korea's Defense Ministry said today that it plans to bring home about one-third of its 3,200 troops from Iraq next year.

"I expect there to be criticism," Bush said. "But when Democrats say that I deliberately misled the Congress and the people, that's irresponsible.
Typical Bush. It's irresponsible to criticise someone for lying. Lying itself, however, is apparently just fine. When you can't defend your actions attack people who criticize you for taking them. It's worked so far. How long will we let him get away with it?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Cheney lies again

I haven't had much time for blogging lately, but the current uproar about the Bush administration lies preceding the war seem worth noting. Cheney is the latest Bush administration official to attack the people who have been pointing out Bush administration lies. Here's a response from American Progress Action Fund.
President Bush and many members of his administration misled the American people on pre-war intelligence. It was either purposeful or the result of gross negligence. Blaming the people who point it out is Dick Cheney's way of distracting people from the truth. White House officials accuse their critics of not having the facts on their side, when in reality there are mountains of facts to support the critics' claims.
For the complete column click here. It includes a list of documented Cheney lies.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Good for the US Catholic Bishops.

In "A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death" the US Conference of Catholic Bishops have issued a statement calling for the end to the death penalty. The introduction includes the following.
We reaffirm our common judgment that the use of the death penalty is unnecessary and unjustified in our time and circumstances.

Our nation should forego the use of the death penalty because

• The sanction of death violates respect for human life and dignity.

• State-sanctioned killing in our names diminishes all of us.

• Its application is deeply flawed and can be irreversibly wrong, is prone to errors, and is biased by factors such as race, the quality of legal representation, and where the crime was committed.

• We have other ways to punish criminals and protect society. The sanction of death when it is not necessary to protect society undermines respect for human life and dignity.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Alito, a conservative, but not an ideologue

According to a story in the New York Times, which confirms other accounts I've seen, Alito is smart, conservative, and intellectually honest.
At Princeton, classmates recall, Samuel Alito welcomed the arrival of women on campus shortly after starting his studies there. 'We were quite pleased to see the change,' said Clyde E. Rankin, a lawyer in Manhattan who was a classmate. Later, Mr. Alito helped several classmates write a report supporting a right to privacy that extended to one's bedroom.

But one fellow student recalled that Mr. Alito advised against canceling campus activities to protest the Vietnam War, arguing it would limit people's right to go on with their lives. 'People are understating how deeply conservative he is - deeply in his bones,' said the classmate, Samuel L. Lipsman.
That's probably the best we can hope for from Bush. If he and Roberts are both smart, personally conservative, and intellectually honest, perhaps they will help ground the court. Let's hope so.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

If she can't come to me, I just want to keep her safe

If passed, Proposition 73 would amend the California constitution by adding an additional section to Article 1. It would require that a physician provider (or his or her representative) notify, with some exceptions, one parent or legal guardian of a pregnant unemancipated minor at least 48 hours before performing an abortion on that minor. It would also add to the California Constitution language to the effect that abortions "cause the death of the unborn child, a child conceived but not yet born."

It seems to me that there are a couple of issues.
  • Is it reasonable for parents to want to be involved in their children's lives? Of course. Can government-mandated notification solve the problem of dysfunctional families? Clearly the answer is "No."

    So what will this constitutional amendment do? Apparently the idea is that in some cases it will allow parents to forcibly prevent their teen-age daughters from getting abortions. It's not clear why people believe that this will work. But that seems to be the hope.

    It amazes me that people how tend to think of the government as a negative force in the world—taxes are bad; government programs are bad; etc.—believe that government can solve the problem of faulty family communication by passing a law. But then a lot of people can't seem to think very clearly about certain issues.

  • Is this really a stealth attempt to enshrine in the constitution the notion that abortion is murder? Clearly it is. This is not just an initiative. It is a constitutional amendment. Furthermore, it does not just mandate parental notification, it puts into the constitution wording to the effect that abortion terminates the life of "an unborn child." I am not entirely unsympathetic with the notion that a fetus may at some stage deserve to be treated as a human being. But that is a much more complicated issue than asking people to make that decision as a by-product of an unsound constitutional amendment.
For more information on No-on-73, see Campaign for Teen Safety.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Bush does something subtle (for Bush)

Normally one doesn't associate subtlety with President Bush. But his nomination of Samuel Alito is quite different from how he usually approaches issues. The standard Bush approach to nearly anything is iron-fisted forcefulness. Of course he lies whenever he finds it in his interest to do so. But that's just a tactic. One always knows what he wants. And when he succeeds, which has been most of the time, it is usually as a result of force, discipline, and power. Nominating Alito is completely different. As the San Francisco Chronicle points out
Samuel Alito Jr. has the most judicial experience of any U.S. Supreme Court candidate since Benjamin Cardozo in 1932, and the most conservative judicial record of any candidate since Robert Bork in 1987.
This is no stealth nominee. Alito is radical right red meat with a record a mile long. Alito wasn't nominated to get confirmed. He wasn't even nominated to assuage the Bush base. Bush nominated Alito as a clever political move. By nominating Alito, Bush accomplishes two things. Not only is the radical right appeased, but Bush puts the Democrats on the spot. He forces them to stand up for what they claim to defend.

It may be that some moderate Republicans will be uncomfortable enough with Alito to refuse to back him. But I doubt it. The Republican Mafia is strong enough to enforce discipline within the party's ranks. It will be up to the Democrats to stand up against Alito. And that means filibuster, even in the face of the so-called nuclear option. Do the Democrats has the guts to do that? I sure hope so. But judging from what I've heard so far and from how they've caved in previously (all of Bush's radical right nominees have been confirmed), I have my doubts.

Bush wins either way. If the Democrats block Alito, Bush can turn to his right wing and say that someone with such an open reactionary record can't be confirmed. He can then justify his nomination of Meyers and pick a Harriet Meyers clone. On the other hand, if the Democrats cave in, Bush and his reactionary supporters get control over the Supreme Court.

So this nomination is different. It isn't the standard Bush tactic of forcefully going out and taking what he wants. It doesn't appear subtle at all. Alito is a reactionary with a long reactionary record. But just because that's who Alito is, this is quite subtle. Savor the moment, this is as subtle as Bush gets.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

EFF is asking for your support

Did you know that Xerox color laser printers print a series
of secret dots on every page that identify the time and
date you printed a document plus the serial number of the
printer you used? EFF technologists helped break the code,
and EFF then broke the story of this new privacy-invasive
use of technology. Dozens of other manufactures hide similar
tracking dots in their documents, and we're working to break
those codes, too. And as always, we'll be there to make sure
that law enforcement officers and others do not misuse this

When technology collides with your rights--your rights to
speak freely, to guard your privacy, to innovate, or to make
fair use--the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is there.
This year, we've fought to protect the confidentiality of
bloggers' sources. We've fought new search and wiretap powers
for the government through expansion of the PATRIOT Act and
the federal wiretap law. We've fought the resurgent broadcast
flag, which seeks to downgrade what you can do with television
shows at the same time it makes your TV obsolete. We've fought
to keep elections/voting machines honest and auditable. We've
fought to protect innovation. We've fought to save orphan works,
to promote anonymity, and to hold back the tide of punishing
Internet regulation.

You've been a strong supporter of freedom in the past. As we
approach the holiday season, please support EFF with a financial
donation so we can break more secret codes in color laser printers
and continue the fight to protect your rights.

Please paste the following URL into your browser and donate to EFF today:

Thanks in advance for your help.
The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that this and other important issues are best understood as protecting the common.

Wal-Mart Memo Suggests Ways to Cut Employee Benefit Costs

The New York Times reports
The memo acknowledged that Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, had to walk a fine line in restraining benefit costs because critics had attacked it for being stingy on wages and health coverage. Ms. Chambers acknowledged that 46 percent of the children of Wal-Mart's 1.33 million United States employees were uninsured or on Medicaid.

Wal-Mart executives said the memo was part of an effort to rein in benefit costs, which to Wall Street's dismay have soared by 15 percent a year on average since 2002. Like much of corporate America, Wal-Mart has been squeezed by soaring health costs. The proposed plan, if approved, would save the company more than $1 billion a year by 2011.
Wal-Mart and General Motors are the two most public cases, but most large companies have a problem with health care. Someone on the conservative side will eventually break and decide that our current approach to health care is broken. Perhaps then we'll start thinking serious ly about a real health-care system in this country. I'm surprised that it is taking this long.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Thursday, October 20, 2005

More about prayer

In a previous posting I tried to imagine what people who pray think of themselves as doing. The best I could come up with was that it may be an invocation and re-awakening of a sense of awe and inspiration in themselves. It occurred to me that another option is that people who pray may think of themselves as having a conversation with God. From my own perspective it's hard to know what that might mean. But I can imagine thinking through (fantasizing, although I don't want to be deprecatory) a conversation with a trusted counselor and mentor. That might constitute another aspect of prayer.

OpenOffice celebrates turning 2.0

OpenOffice celebrates turning 2.0
Nearly 50 million copies of OpenOffice have been downloaded, but only recently has the software become a more serious threat to long-dominant Microsoft Office. Version 2.0 brings some significant new features, and Google has pledged to help distribute OpenOffice through a high-profile pact with Sun. But perhaps more significant, uses the standardized OpenDocument format that stands in stark contrast to Microsoft's proprietary formats.

To support

the families in Dover Pennsylvania who are suing the school board not to teach intelligent design: American Civil Liberties Union.
'Intelligent design' is not a scientific concept. It's a religious concept. And because I don't subscribe to that particular brand of religion, I feel that I and my daughter, my family, are being ridiculed, and my daughter feels the pressure. I reserve the right to teach my child about religion... And I have faith in myself and in my husband and in my pastor to do that, not the school system."

-- Christy Rehm, a plaintiff in the ACLU's intelligent design case taking place in Dover, Pennsylvania

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Sign the pledge

Democracy For America
I pledge to only support candidates who:
  1. Acknowledge that the U.S. was misled into the war in Iraq
  2. Advocate for a responsible exit plan with a timeline
  3. Support our troops at home and abroad

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Marijuana-like drug multiplies neurons

From Science News Online, Oct. 15, 2005
animals injected with high daily doses of [HU210, a drug that stimulates cannabinoid 1 receptors with a strength 100 times greater than that of pot] over the course of 2 weeks had about 30 percent more newborn nerve cells than did rats given AM281 or a solution without either drug.

Animals given the 2-week course of HU210 also showed less anxiety and depressionlike behavior than did rats not given the drug.


In my previous posting I said
I haven't heard anyone explain … in a relatively straightforward way what they think of themselves as doing when they pray.
I've been thinking about it a bit more. My sense now (from what I imagine people are really doing when they pray and from what people tell me about it) is that prayer is not an attempt to do something in the sense of accomplishing an end. It's probably more like an attempt to invoke an internal state, similar to what one does when one listens to music or participates in some other activity that leads to an internal change.

In writing this I'm not attempting to be cynical or deprecatory. I suspect that people who pray have a sense of awe and inspiration about the way they look at the world that they enjoy when they experience it and that prayer is a way of helping themselves remember and return to that state. In many ways I am now imagine prayer as analogous to what people do when they listen to music that inspires or transports them or when they participate in an artistic experience that they find transforming. I also imagine that it's like reading a book that reminds one of a particular way of looking at the world that one finds inspiring and comforting. I also imagine that it's like taking a drug or doing some other ritual that brings one to a state of mind that one finds positive an agreeable.

So when Bob Park asks whether Harriet Miers believes that physical effects are caused by people putting their hands together, etc., I think he is asking the wrong question. Physical effects are caused—in the minds of the people who pray—in the same way that internal physical effects are caused when people engage in nearly any activity. But for Bob Parks to imply that everyone who prays believes that prayer overrides the laws of physics is to probably misunderstand the nature of prayer.

I didn't start writing this post as a defense of prayer. I don't pray, and I'm certainly no expert on or spokesman for prayer. Perhaps many who pray will disagree with what I've just written. But having thought about it, I can understand for myself why some people would pray and why it's no more foolish a thing to do than, for example, playing a musical instrument.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Bob Park on prayer and Harriet Miers

on Harriet Miers (The preceding link is to the current "What's New." If it's later than Oct 21, this comment will presumably be archived at Oct 14.)
After nominating Harriet Miers for a seat on the Supreme Court, President Bush sought to reassure religious conservatives by stressing Miers' evangelical Christian roots. Bush said it's part of who she is. He's right, but traditionally the personal religious views of nominees are not taken up in the confirmation process. If the First Amendment is upheld, it shouldn't matter. So forget religion. Far more important in the Twenty-First Century is the nominee's views on science. There are, after all, few cases that come before the courts today that do not have a scientific component. Scientists must construct a list of basic questions that would give some insight into the nominee's views on science. For example: do all physical events result from earlier physical events, or can they be caused by clasping your hands, bowing your head, and wishing? Send your suggestions to What's New. WN will print the best of them.
When I was a kid, I often wondered what it meant to pray. That is, besides saying the words, what did people think of themselves as doing when they prayed. I never got a good answer, but I thought that perhaps I would understand when I grew up. Now that I'm grown up, I still don't understand, and I haven't heard anyone explain to me in a relatively straightforward way what they think of themselves as doing when they pray.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Knowledge freed from its husks

[In this entry and in all entries in this blog, selecting some text and releasing the mouse button will perform a Google search on that text.]

If you enter
capital Bhutan
into the Google search box, you will get at the top of the page

Bhutan — Capital: Thimphu
According to - More sources »

You get the same thing if you enter: Bhutan capital.

My first question is: what sort of parsing does Google do? It certainly does some parsing of queries. If you enter an address, it recognizes it as an address. It apparently also recognizes UPS numbers, stock symbols, etc. For example, if you enter IBM, the first entry will be a stock quote and chart.

The point is not how clever Google is in parsing, or knowing where to go for stock quotes. It's the capital of Bhutan that I think is really significant.

I mentioned the talk recently by Pierre de Vries in which he talked about "digital technology sloughing off the husk of 'stuff' in which information has always been wrapped." Is this an initial example? Does Google recognize the question about Bhutan and know that the answer is somewhere on one of the pages it has scanned--but not necessarily which one? (With stock quotes, it knows in advance where to go.) If the page where it normally looks for "Capital Bhutan" is no longer available, will it look elsewhere? I tried the same search but restricted it not to use the original site. I didn't get an answer. But I'm not sure that's a good test.

If you look for
France president
the answer is retrieved from a different web page. The
Zimbabwe president
is retrieved from yet another site.

I think of this as a first sign of a new form of intelligence. Google (let's assume) can parse the query to mean "president of France." It can do enough parsing of the web sites it scans to know where that information is stored, and it can rank the reliability of those sites well enough to pick one as the place where the answer is given. In other words, the web is Google's database of knowledge. Google is not dependent on the precise structuring of that database. If that's the way it works, I find it pretty impressive. The knowlege has been freed from this husks that contain it. If one husk disappears, the knowledge will still be there in some other husk.

Whenever I'm talking with someone and a question comes up, my thought is "Ask Google; Google knows." What I normally mean is that with the appropriate queries, I can find out. But these examples are turning "Google knows" into something closer to the truth.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

failure - Google Search

The first entry in a Google search for failure is Bush's official biography. failure - Google Search. The second is There must be a war going on.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Little Things Mean a Lot

Peter Coffee tries to make an interesting point—but I don't think he succeeds. He wrote about the fact that this year a number of vehicles passed the DARPA Grand Challenge, whereas no vehicles got very far past the starting line last year.
The vehicles that finished the DARPA course this year weren't 20x faster or 20x more powerful or 20x more thoroughly instrumented than the ones that did so poorly last year. [And the sensors, actuators, and software weren't 20x better either.] Rather, this year's entries didn't make the same kinds of stupid mistakes, or have the same kinds of fatal weaknesses, that kept last year's entries from doing as well as their overall high levels of engineering and construction should have allowed.
So why did at least some of this year's vehicles perform 20x better than the best of last year's? Clearly this has something to do with an implementation of an abstraction that was (more or less) correct this year and not correct (or not correct enough) last year.

A program with a tiny error in it may not run at all. (If the error is a syntax error, it won't even compile.) Fix the tiny error and the revised program will run (in some sense) "infinitely" better. So for one thing, there is something wrong with the metric being used. This year's system were not 20x better. They were correct, whereas last year's were not. The corrected program is not infinitely better than the uncorrected one—although it might be infinitely more useful to users. So one must be very careful about metrics and the significance one gives them.

But besides the metric issue, I think that a bigger point is that (as Peter says) in complex systems, little things can mean a lot. Is there really much else one can say about that?

Does the first amendment protect federal (and state) whistle blowers?

A case to be heard by the Suprmem Court this week pits a Los Angeles deputy prosecutor against "the system." The details are here. [N]o law effectively protects federal workers who report malfeasance as part of their job duties. And coverage of state workers is patchy. As a result, those workers we depend on for our safety have often faced a terrible conundrum: either remain quiet and allow fraud and wrongdoing to occur, or speak out and risk retaliation. It seems to me that support for whistle-blowers is needed. But is whistle-blowing protected by the first amendment in such a way that the government cannot punish the whistle-blower by, for example, demotion? I'm not realy sure what the issue is here. I guess we'll here more as the case is presented.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Schwarzenegger the bully

The AP reports :
Firefighters who battled a 24,000-acre blaze last week accused their supervisors Thursday of forcing them to participate in a news conference with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has been at political odds with unions representing firefighters and other public employees.

Schwarzenegger's appearance at a command center in Thousand Oaks came as he pushes ballot initiatives opposed by firefighter unions, including Proposition 75, which would require unions to get members' permission before dues could be used for political purposes.
At the event Sept. 30, the governor shook hands and posed for pictures with a crowd of firefighters and other emergency workers.

Firefighters were 'ordered and forced' to participate, Los Angeles County firefighter Greg Alldredge said Thursday at a news conference. 'We were very displeased with this - having to shake hands with somebody who really doesn't support us.'

Ventura County Fire Capt. Jack Nosco said he was among the firefighters ordered to flank Schwarzenegger at the event, in which the Republican governor lavishly praised several departments that extinguished the blaze along the edge of Los Angeles.
'We declined to do it voluntarily,' Nosco said.
According the the LA Times story, when asked about it,
Schwarzenegger said everybody is ordered to do things at one point or another.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Catholic Church and homosexuality

As you have probably heard, according to a Vatican official, the Catholic Church will soon reaffirm its position that homosexuals shouldn't be ordained as priests.

What strikes me as most interesting about this is the implication in this position that homosexuality is part of the essential nature of a person rather than a choice. The Catholic Church bans women from the priesthood, not because of any choice the woman has made but because she is a woman. This doctrine seems to put gays into a similar category with respect to having a condition that they can do nothing about. It certainly doesn't suggest that homosexuality is a "lifestyle choice" as some anti-gay factions suggest.

In some ways, then, this decision by the Catholic Church is good news for gays. It puts the gay community and the Catholic Church on the same side with respect to whether or not homosexuality is a choice.

Monday, October 03, 2005

United States as a Debtor Nation

The Institute for International Economics has a new report on The United States as a Debtor Nation.
The United States has swung from being the world's largest creditor to the largest debtor nation. At the end of 2004, it had net external liabilities of $2.5 trillion, or 22 percent of GDP. The current account (goods and services, transfers, and capital income) is massively in deficit—about $670 billion in 2004, or about 6 percent of GDP. If corrective measures (US fiscal adjustment and a further decline of the dollar) are not taken, the current account deficit will reach about 7½ to 8 percent of GDP by 2010, and net international liabilities will reach about 50 percent of GDP.

The rising imbalance will increasingly put the US economy—and hence the world economy and especially developing countries—at risk of a major crisis, as foreign investors lose confidence and US protectionist pressures mount. The longer the needed adjustment is delayed, the more wrenching it will be, triggering high interest rates, US recession, a greater decline in US households' living standards, and more damage to the global economy.

In the late 1990s, the rising trade deficit and associated borrowing from abroad were benign, and the additional foreign resources were directed toward more investment. But now such resources largely finance US private and government consumption rather than productive investment. A favorable consideration is that the United States has a higher rate of return on direct investment abroad than the rate on foreigners' direct investment in the United States. This has kept net capital income positive, so the United States is not yet a net debtor nation when measured by economic burden of payments. Moreover, when the dollar depreciates, there is a windfall gain on equity assets abroad, which are denominated in foreign currency. But despite these two advantages, the author's projections show a sharp deterioration in the net foreign asset position going forward, as even net capital income swings into large deficit.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Friends of the Commons

From Friends of the Commons
The market has its advocates. They're called conservatives.

And the government has its backers. They're called liberals.

But who's looking after the commons — the vast realms of nature and society that we inherit together and must pass on, undiminished, to our children?

We are. And we hope you will, too.

Friends of the Commons is a new citizens' group that reports on the state of our commons and supports other citizens working to protect and expand our commons.
And from their future page
In the 20th century, the market triumphed over all. It defeated communism, leveled national boundaries to trade and brought material abundance never seen before.

But the market’s triumph was accompanied by huge unpaid costs — bills that are now coming due. Of these, the most momentous are those owed to nature and the poor.

The 21st century must not only pay these bills. It must, at the same time, solve two systemic problems: How can we share a crowded planet with billions of other humans, other species and ecosystems? And how can we improve the quality of life for rich and poor alike?

The unbridled market can’t solve these problems alone. It needs a counterpoise with a different calculus. The ideal counterpoise isn’t, as many thought in the 20th century, the state. It’s the commons.

Government’s job in the 21st century is to restore the balance between the commons and the market that grew so distorted in the 20th century. This can be done without raising taxes or expanding bureaucracy.

The Commons as a Movement

More from
The commons is something very new and quite ancient. Its newness can be seen in the huge variety of commons proliferating on the Internet: free software and open source software, open archives, Wikipedia, peer-to-peer file sharing, open science initiatives, the open access movement in scholarly publishing, social networking software, and on and on. These innovations constitute the new digital commons. Yet as novel as these developments are, the commons is as old as the human species, which has always been rooted in communities of social trust and cooperation — a fact now being confirmed by evolutionary biologists, neurologists and geneticists.

The real aberration in human history is the vision of humanity set forth by neoclassical economics. Homo economicus defines human beings solely as rational, ahistorical individuals who invariably seek to maximize their material utility through market exchange. It also asserts — astonishingly — that all of society should be organized around this vision. This is the fragile fiction that is beginning to be unmasked — by free software, by anti-globalization advocates, by environmentalists and others.

The Commons

Pierre de Vries in his Deep Freeze 9 blog has a nice piece about how the notion of a commons is at the center of many current political conflicts. He includes this quotation from David Bollier.
The re-election of George W. Bush makes it abundantly clear that a fierce new round of pillage and plunder is about to begin. Over the next four years, market enclosure will be taken to new extremes -- oil drilling in the Arctic wilderness, more privatization of government drug research, giveaways of the broadcast airwaves, the shrinking of the public domain, among many others.

Saturday, October 01, 2005


A number of high profile science and public policy intellectuals have formed DefCon.
DefCon will provide mainstream America with a countervailing voice rooted in original American principles, focusing on respect for:
  • Separation of church and state as a core value in law and public policy;
  • Independence of the judiciary — safeguarding the courts from archconservatives who wish to undermine the Bill of Rights;
  • Science, medical research and technology and their crucial role in economic prosperity;
  • Individual privacy including the right to decide for oneself whether to have a baby or how to die and equal rights for all couples regardless of gender.
Although I agree with the position DefCon takes with respect to abortion, right-to-die, gay marriage, etc. (the fourth bullet), I don't think that should be part of their agenda. These are social issues and cannot be blamed on a failure of church-state separation.

I would prefer to DefCon focus on more concrete issues in which religion attempts to limit freedom (including the freedom to do and to educate about science) by manipulating the power of the state.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The world's 10 biggest ideas - Features

New Scientist presents what it says are the world's biggest ideas.
Certain questions define the way we see the world. How did the universe begin? What is matter made of? What shaped our planet? How did the amazing diversity of life arise? We take many of the answers for granted, but maybe we shouldn't.

When we asked 10 of the biggest names in science to explain the significance of their discipline we were surprised by their response: who would have thought understanding quantum theory was relevant to the abortion debate? Or that a diamond ring can take you back to Pangaea? Set your mind spinning with our guide to the World's 10 Biggest Ideas...

1. The big bang

2. Evolution

3. Quantum mechanics

4. The theory of everything

5. Risk

6. Chaos

7. Relativity

8. Climate change

9. Tectonics

10. Science
Unfortunately, to read the complete articles you have to subscribe to New Scientist.