Monday, January 31, 2005

Project Googlefox

Technology review reports on the possiblity that Google may be developing its own browser to compete with Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE).
[A] Google browser would be a major shot across the bow of Microsoft.

Right now, Microsoft doesn't make money on its Internet Explorer, although the product is lumped in with the company's lucrative Operating Systems division. The IE browser, though, plays an important defensive position for the company, a position that's expected to become more offensive when Microsoft's next operating system, Longhorn, is released in 2006. …

For now, Microsoft isn't yet in trouble. It still controls over 90 percent of the browser market, and with the Longhorn on the way in less that two years, Google needs to act quickly if it is in fact planning on launching a browser product. A new Internet Explorer with built-in search capabilities could have a devastating effect on Google.
Let's hope that Google does develop a browser and that it is successful in capturing a major part of the market. It would seem almost a necessity for Google to devlop some platform upon which to build its future. Without that, it is extremely vulnerable to the development of products that tend to push people toward other search engines.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

More digitizing and indexing

The New York Times reports on competition among search services.
Perhaps the fiercest competition on the Internet these days is among sites offering new ways to search through more information. Yahoo and Microsoft each have hundreds of engineers trying to challenge Google's leadership, and dozens of minor players are trying to find ways of getting their services noticed. A9,'s search service, recently sent vans with digital cameras onto the streets of some cities to take pictures of businesses. The photos were later displayed alongside telephone numbers in A9's phone directory.
The Times also featured an essay by Steven Johnson, who elaborated on it in his Tool For Thought blog posting. I have also been commenting on this trend. See Giardia Bares All: Parasite genes reveal long sexual history. Research done by surveying genome data. and Continuing to digitize and index the world.

Where will this take us. It's hard to imagine. Johnson is quite enthusiastic about a Mac tool that he uses, Even now, I find myself feeling handicapped when I don't have access to the web and I want to find something. These new tools not only help you find things, they offer (useful) associations you may not have thought about. Our coming ability to have so much more of the world (and human knowledge) at our fingertips (and within immediate reach of our minds) will change things in ways that we don't yet understand. As Johnson put it,
But 2005 may be the year when tools for thought become a reality for people who manipulate words for a living, thanks to the release of nearly a dozen new programs all aiming to do for your personal information what Google has done for the Internet. These programs all work in slightly different ways, but they share two remarkable properties: the ability to interpret the meaning of text documents; and the ability to filter through thousands of documents in the time it takes to have a sip of coffee. Put those two elements together and you have a tool that will have as significant an impact on the way writers work as the original word processors did.
I recently wondered how much it would cost to cover the current commitments of social security for people currently enrolled. I couldn't find out. (I found a couple of web sites that offered simulators, but I couldn't figure out how to get the answer I wanted.) Will answers to questions of this sort be more immediately available in the near future. Will we develop the habit of just reaching out and grabbing answers to questions that we currently don't even ask ourselves because we have no idea how to answer them? I suspect something like that will happen.

Another example. Last night we were discussing the 1992 election. We couldn't remember Ross Perot's name — although I thought the first name was one syllable beginning with 'R' and the second was two syllables. We also wanted to know the name of his running mate.

I was absolutely sure that I would be able to find the answer quickly. I wasn't disappointed. I asked Google for "1992" and "Presidential Election." It referred me to the U.S. presidential election, 1992 - Wikipedia page that listed all the 1992 candidates. (To try that search now, just highlight everything from '1992' through 'Election' in the preceding sentence. Release the mouse for a Google search.) (Perot's running mate was James Stockdale.)

I could think of no way of asking the question in terms of syllables or starting letters, though. In fact, a weakness in Google is that it has no way to ask for names. If you want to find me, you might look for "R. Abbott," or "Russ Abbott," or "Russell Abbott," or "Russell J. Abbott," or "Russell Joseph Abbott." There should be a special way to say you want to look for a person whose last name is "Abbott" and whose first name is "Russ" or "Russell." It should retrieve the results of all the preceding searches, knowing that names may be abbreviated to initials and that names may have additional intermedate names — but not too many of them.

Not only will information be more readily available, we will expect it to be available (which will put greater pressure on institutions to be more transparent), and we will develop the habit of just reaching out and grabbing it whenever a stray thought crosses our minds.

More current work
There was recently an article in Wired News: Information Wants to be Liquid about the Liquid Information project, which is working on related technololgies.

I'll be presenting a paper at the 4th IASTED International Conference on Web-Based Education in Switzerland next month on a system I call a Collaborative Knowledge Base (CKB), a web-based wiki-blog web system for the collaborative development of some domain area that has some of these features.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Giardia Bares All: Parasite genes reveal long sexual history. Research done by surveying genome data.

Science News Online, Jan. 29, 2005 reports:
A new research finding provides evidence that sexual reproduction started as soon as life forms that have nuclei and organelles within their cells branched off from their structurally simpler ancestors.

The parasite Giardia intestinalis is well known for causing a diarrheal disease that animals and people contract after drinking contaminated water. Many researchers consider this species to be one of the most ancient living members of the eukaryote, or true nucleus, lineage. However, unlike most eukaryotes, G. intestinalis and its relatives have been long considered to reproduce only asexually — by division into two identical cells.

To determine when reproduction via sperm and eggs originated, John Logsdon of the University of Iowa in Iowa City and his colleagues took a close look at G. intestinalis' mysterious reproductive life. …

[Logsdon found that] G. intestinalis possesses genes similar to those used for meiosis by other eukaryotes. At least 5 of those genes function only in meiosis, and 10 others have roles both in meiosis and other functions, Logsdon's team noted in the Jan. 26 Current Biology.
Presumably this is significant biologically since it seems to establish a very early date for sexual reproduction. It also raises some questions. From the same article.
All living eukaryotes, including G. intestinalis, share numerous cellular features and processes that aren't seen in prokaryotes. According to Andrew Roger of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, establishing that all eukaryotes are capable of meiosis could "make the evolutionary transition from prokaryote to eukaryote even more difficult to sort out.

"A lot had to happen when eukaryotes evolved. Why aren't there any intermediate stages of this process alive today? Did all the intermediate forms go extinct, and why?" Roger asks.

Logsdon says that he and his team plan to continue their research by looking for meiosis genes in other eukaryotes thought to be asexual.
Besides the biology, what I find interesting is the method of research. Here is an extract from the abstract of the original article: ScienceDirect - Current Biology : A Phylogenomic Inventory of Meiotic Genes: Evidence for Sex in Giardia and an Early Eukaryotic Origin of Meiosis.
We surveyed the ongoing G. intestinalis genome project data [7] and have identified, verified, and analyzed a core set of putative meiotic genes — including five meiosis-specific genes — that are widely present among sexual eukaryotes. The presence of these genes indicates that: (1) Giardia is capable of meiosis and, thus, sexual reproduction, (2) the evolution of meiosis occurred early in eukaryotic evolution, and (3) the conserved meiotic machinery comprises a large set of genes that encode a variety of component proteins, including those involved in meiotic recombination.
In other words, the reseach was done by looking at data archived as part of various genome projects. Presumably this is on-line information available to anyone. You just have to know what you are looking for.

This is a nice example of one of the benefits of digitizing and indexing the world as I mentioned in an earlier post.

Friday, January 28, 2005

What's New

Bob Park, a Physicist at the University of Maryland and author of the book Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud, has been writing a weekly commentary on science-related news for longer than I can remember. It is available on the American Physical Society's web site at What's New. Here is his lead piece for this week.
On Feb 7, when the President's FY06 Budget Request is released, Sean O'Keefe will announce that no money is allotted for repair of the Hubble Space Telescope. However, money will be provided to drop the greatest telescope ever built into the ocean. Fixing Hubble with astronauts is too dangerous, O'Keefe said. Repairing Hubble with robots is too uncertain, an NRC panel said. It's too expensive anyway, the White House said. On the same day, the White House estimated the budget deficit at $427B. Besides, it wasn't too dangerous for the ISS crew to spend five hours outside yesterday repairing a Russian robot arm. So what's the arm for? It's so astronauts can make repairs without going outside. Hmmm. But why would anyone bother to repair the ISS? It doesn't do anything. Drop the ISS in the ocean, and save Hubble.

You can Subscribe to What's New and get it delivered by email every Friday. Too bad Bob doesn't also do it in blog form. Great stuff.

The business world: it wants stability while it creates chaos

The New York Times reports that

Procter & Gamble, the consumer products company, reached an agreement yesterday to acquire the Gillette Company, the shaving-products and battery maker, for about $57 billion in stock.
Many people don't find business very interesting — just people trying to squeeze whatever profits they can out of whatever it is they are doing. But I don't agree. Business is a living laboratory for evolutionary (and agent-based) theories.

[Gillette has a better web site. Click the two images for the two company's web sites. I hope the combined company keeps the Gillette web team.]

Businesses more than anyone else live in real world of unpredictability — a world to which they are constantly required to adapt. No one can predict what's going to happen to the price of oil. But if your business depends on the price of oil, your are vulnerable to forces you cannot control. There are of course ways to hedge these risks. Futures markets, insurance, etc. can help spread risks if used properly. But these techniques cost money. So there is a trade-off between accepting risk and reducing profits (or not making any profits). (There is also the temptation to speculate in markets that were intended to reduce risk, thereby increasing risk.)

Similarly with technology. Who knows when technology is going to produce a new product or enable a new service that will cut into whatever it is that you are doing. Companies are often faced with the choice of cannibalizing their own market by selling a newer technology at a lower price to their own customers or seeing some other company take those customers away from them entirely. Companies that are unable or unwilling to adapt, are overtaken by those that do adapt. The article cited above also said that SBC Communications, one of the "baby bells," is negotiating to buy AT&T, what is left of the original parent of all the babies. SBC has apparently been much more successful in navigating the flow of communication technology change than has AT&T. Here is an extract from an article on this second merger.
Cellphones, high-speed Internet connections and video - not plain old phone lines - now determine the winners and losers in today's market. Cable providers and a host of new businesses that barely existed a few years ago can easily provide those services just as well as old-line phone companies.
Business people are famous for wanting stability. They are traditional conservatives (not neo-cons) because the more things stay the same, the less they have to worry about adapting to change. From the perspective of someone who has to learn to live in the world as it is (however it is), that makes perfect sense. That's why business often resists any change at all, even change that would seem to be good for business. One never knows what change will bring; there are often unintended consequences. If one is successful as things now stand, why change it? But of course the world isn't static. It changes all the time.

According to the article, there are many good reasons for the P&G-Gillette merger. Not least among them is the increased leverage the combined company will have with Wal-Mart — a company that didn't play much of a role in retailing not that long ago but that now can force price concessions from the largest companies.

So this merger does two things. First of all, it seems likely that it will produce a stronger combined company than the two pieces were individually — even though the two pieces were quite successful on their own. The merger apparently makes business sense and is not just an attempt by a CEO to aggrandize himself.

More interestingly, from an evolutionary perspective the merger will change the world in which everyone else must live. So even though companies tend to be conservative and generally hope that things will remain more or less the same, in some cases, they themselves create major changes.

This is a nice example of Gould's notion of evolutionary punctuated equilibrium — that the world remains relatively stable for relatively long periods but must then accommodate, through evolution, to some major change, such as a climate shift. The big difference is that in the modern, technology-driven business world the periods of stability are growing increasingly short, and the stability-punctuating events are increasingly more frequent.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Dishonesty the Best Policy

Scientific American reports on work by Isabelle M. Cote and Karen L. Cheney who
found that the bluestriped fangblenny fish (Plagiotremus rhinorhynchos)

[can pretend] to be a bluestreak cleaner fish (Labroides dimidiatus--an animal that helps other species by removing parasites).

[T]he fangblenny then ambushes its prey.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Continuing to digitize and index the world

The New York Times reports that
Google and Yahoo are introducing services that will let users search through television programs based on words spoken on the air. The services will look for keywords in the closed captioning information that is encoded in many programs, mainly as an aid to deaf viewers.

Google's service, scheduled to be introduced today, does not actually permit people to watch the video on their computers. Instead, it presents them with short excerpts of program transcripts with text matching their search queries and a single image from the program. Google records TV programs for use in the service.

Google's vice president for product management, Jonathan Rosenberg, said offering still images was somewhat limited but was a first step toward a broader service.
Not everything you could want, but a start.

What's significant is that we are continuing to digitize and index the world. What about indexing all the sensors and all the live cameras that are out there these days. The problem with indexing images is that we aren't yet good enough at image recognition to know what to index. But we'll get there — slowly.

CBO Data Show Tax Cuts Have Played Much Larger Role Than Domestic Spending Increases In Fueling The Deficit

The new Congressional Budget Office budget projections released today show that the nation faces a fourth consecutive year of substantial budget deficits. Some seek to portray "runaway domestic spending" or growth in the costs of entitlement programs as the primary cause of the shift in recent years from sizeable surpluses to large deficits. Such a characterization is incorrect. In 2005, the cost of tax cuts enacted over the past four years will be nearly four times the cost of all domestic program increases enacted over this period. …

The Administration has repeatedly defended its tax cuts as a needed stimulus during the recent economic downturn. But the downturn is behind us, and the cost of the tax cuts is scheduled to increase in the years ahead. Indeed, some of the tax cuts enacted in 2001 that benefit only high-income households have not even started to take effect yet. The repeal of the “personal exemption phase-out” for high-income taxpayers, as well as repeal of the limitation on itemized deductions for high-income taxpayers, do not start to phase in until 2006 and do not take full effect until 2010. Estate tax repeal also does not take effect until 2010. …

In 2000, federal revenues equaled 20.9 percent of the Gross Domestic Product, the basic measure of the size of the economy. CBO projects that in 2005, revenues will amount to just 16.8 percent of GDP.
At 16.8% this would be the lowest percentage of GDP received as revenues by federal government since prior to 1962, when the CBO table begins. See Historical Budget Data from CBO office, table 2.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Hooray for the New Zealand government

Technology Review reports that
New Zealand has recently become one of the world's most inviting places to create, exploit, and market genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It did so by enacting responsible and effective regulations.

Epilepsy drug may delay ageing

UPDATE: As Blas excerpted below, here is the full abstract [Science 307: 258-262 (2005)].

news @ reports that
A group of drugs already approved for humans can prolong the lifespan of worms [Caenorhabditis elegans]. …

[The drugs] lengthened the animals' lives by as much as 50%. Normal signs of ageing were also delayed in the animals.

There is no proof that these drugs will extend lifespan in people. But [Kerry Kornfeld of Washington University in St Louis, Missouri] says it is possible, because the genes and molecules that control the ageing process in worms generally exist in mammals too.

"It has the potential to be a real breakthrough," agrees David Sinclair who studies ageing at Harvard Medical School in Boston. "Fifty years from now people could look back and think that this was a turning point." …

Nobody knows exactly how the anticonvulsants work. The drugs are known to act on the nervous system, but they were developed in the 1950s and their exact mode of action has never been worked out.

But Kornfeld believes that the anti-ageing effects come from altering the nervous system …

In theory, doctors could start prescribing the anticonvulsants tomorrow because they are already approved for human use. But experts say that this would be premature because there could be unknown long-term risks.

Testing the drugs in humans remains difficult. Because the drugs are prescribed mainly to children, there is no suitable human group already taking them that could be studied. If their anti-ageing effects were to be tested in people, doctors would probably have to examine their effect on diseases associated with ageing such as diabetes or Alzheimer's, as it would take many decades for any effects on lifespan to show up.

For now, Kornfeld and his team plan to test the drugs in flies and mice, and to widen their search to other types of chemical. "There may be other goodies in the pharmacy," Kornfeld says.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Social Security, negative income taxes, and forced savings accounts

If we were to rethink social security from scratch, what would we get?

First of all, what are the objectives of social security? I think that the primary objective is to provide a minimal income for seniors. Social security is not a retirement savings plan. It is not an investment program. It is simply a way to ensure that no senior is without some minimal income.

In that way it resembles Medicare, a program that attempts to ensure that seniors have basic medical care. As the official Medicare web site says,
Medicare is a Health Insurance Program for:
  • People 65 years of age and older.
  • Some people with disabilities under age 65.
  • People with End-Stage Renal Disease (permanent kidney failure requiring dialysis or a transplant).
Similarly social security is intended to provide a basic income for seniors.

How can we do that? The easiest way is with a negative income tax . It would apply solely to seniors. It would provide supplemental income to seniors who do not have enough money for their basic needs. It would phase out slowly so that it would not be a complete disincentive to work. But unlike today's system, it would phase out. Seniors with large incomes would not receive any additional cash. (Perhaps it could morph from a tax credit to a tax deduction as one's income increased. That way, everyone would get some benefit.)

If we wanted to retain the feature of the current social security system that benefits are related to prior income, the negative income tax could be structured so that the amount that one is eligible to receive is based on the amount of income taxes one has paid over one's lifetime.

Because the program would be means tested, it would be significantly cheaper than the current social security program. I would therefore eliminate the current payroll tax (on both employees and employers) and fund the plan with less regressive and less job-destroying sources of revenue. This would encourage job creation and would result in a lower and more intelligent net tax burden on the economy.

Forced savings
One could make a negative income tax plan such as this even less costly by implementing a Bush-style forced savings plan.

If Bush really wants the government to force people to save for retirement, he could push for a law that required people to save some percentage of their income in special government accounts. He could also force employers to contribute matching amounts. The result would not be good for the economy. But it would result in some savings, and it would reduce the payout required by a senior-oriented negative income tax.

This would not be a very libertarian approach. Putting the government into the business of forcing people to save — and forcing their employers to contribute to those savings — doesn't seem like the sort of thing conservatives normally support.

But then Bush is not a normal conservative. Quite the opposite. Instead of a force for stability and conservatism, Bush thinks of himself as a history actor, someone who changes reality by his actions. Since contrary to his words Bush seems to like using the power of the state to push people around (see, for example, President Calls for Constitutional Amendment Protecting Marriage), he might continue to argue for a forced savings plan.

Getting from here to there
Additional advantages of this approach are: it is easy to implement; it would relieve the government of a massive debt; and it would be a stimulus to the economy.
  • It is easy to implement because we already have an income tax system in place.
  • It would relieve the government of a massive debt in that the so-called social security trust fund now consists of government bonds owed to the trust fund by the federal government. That debt would simply be declared void.
  • Finally, moving from the current system to the new system would be a stimulus to the economy. Payroll taxes would be eliminated — for both employers and employees. Other taxes would have to be raised, but these would be less in total than the payroll taxes, and they could be more intelligently focused.
All-in-all this would be a win-win-win plan.

Can MoveOn turn things around?

MoveOn PAC wants to take back the government through local organizing efforts — the kind that the Republicans have used so successfully.
[I]f we can convert the passion and energy of the progressive movement into power on the ground, we can take back Congress and create a watershed moment for America in 2006. Today, we're launching our big plan to do just that. Together, MoveOn members will build an organized grassroots campaign on the ground in every Congressional district to stop the Bush agenda and win back the House. Changing the political direction of the country will not be cheap. In order to begin hiring staff, developing materials and advertisements, and choosing districts for extra effort, we need to raise $500,000 this week. Can you help?
Why does it cost money? Most people don't like asking other people to do things. I don't like going door-to-door and talking about politics. One thing that makes it easier is to be part of a larger group, a group that helps organize things and a group that walks with you. Often that means paid staff members, people whose job it is to help others overcome the discomfort of asking their neighbors to vote in a particular way. Having people like that help with an effort like this can make all the difference. I think it's worth trying. I'm sending some money.

Do You Want to Live Forever?

I haven't read this article yet, but it looks interesting
Aubrey David Nicholas Jasper de Grey is convinced that he has formulated the theoretical means by which human beings might live thousands of years—indefinitely, in fact.
And in this article, Aubrey de Grey Responds.

"You Can't Be A Sweet Cucumber in a Vinegar Barrel"

Philip Zimbardo did the Stanford prison experiments in the 70's during which normal college students became abusive guards. Here is a interview with him in which he talks about Abu Ghraib.
The Pentagon and the military say that the Abu Ghraib scandal is the result of a few bad apples in an otherwise good barrel. That's the dispositional analysis. The social psychologist in me, and the consensus among many of my colleagues in experimental social psychology, says that's the wrong analysis. It's not the bad apples, it's the bad barrels that corrupt good people.
Here is a video of the interview.

Sprint PCS has terrible customer service

I have a Sprint PCS cellphone. A recent bill overcharged me by $15. I called customer service (888-211-4727) and after a number of menu choices, I finally said operator and got a live person to talk to. The live person (he said his name was Andrew and that his ID number was 235146) told me that his computer was broken but that he would take a record of my complaint and that someone would contact me within 24 hours.

It is now a week later, and I haven't heard from anyone. I tried customer service again but after the same series of menu selections and the operator voice command a recorded message said that their offices were close and that I should try again some other day. I don't recall whether the recorded message wished me a good day.

Here are a few of the sites I found while looking for Sprint PCS.

UPDATE: I called back today, and after the same irritating series of menu items and voice command, I got a customer service representative who took care of the problem. I now feel better about Sprint customer service.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005


In a very strange op-ed piece, Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard writes
Research suggests that human beings have a remarkable ability to manufacture happiness. … [We have a] natural tendency to seek, notice, remember, generate and uncritically accept information that makes us happy.
Gilbert focused on the election and on why Democrats, who said the would be unhappy if Bush won, did not run off to Canada en mass
Democrats will realize that winning isn't always such a good thing - and besides, they almost won. … Of course, not everyone … has this talent for reasoning his way to happiness. [emphasis added]
It's this latter notion that has me confused. Does Gilbert really believe that we reason our way to happiness?

He acknowledges that
Throughout history, there have always been a few unfortunates who found it impossible to reframe negative events in positive ways, and these poor souls were predictably less happy than the rest of us. Lincoln, for example, was perpetually melancholic. Martin Luther King Jr. had more bad than good days. "Suffering and evil often overwhelm me," said Gandhi from the midst of a depression, "and I stew in my own juice."
More than a few people are subject to depression. Gilbert must know that. Happiness and unhappiness are emotional states, not mental states. People cannot change how they feel by deciding to feel a particular way. I can't understand how a psychologist can suggest such a thing.

There has been some very interesting work on happiness. I reported on some of it here. But it's much more complex than just talking oneself into being happy. Here is an excerpt.
Princeton Psychologist and Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman has studied happiness. Here is a report of a talk in which he explains happiness.

His paper Experienced Utility and Objective Happiness discusses, among other things, an experiment in which subjects who had colonoscopies were asked how painful they were. The result is that the memory of pain depended not on the integral of the pain over the period of the procedure but more on the peak and the end of the procedure. If patient A has a 10 minute colonoscopy that ends painfully, and patient B has a 20 minute colonoscopy whose pain profile is identical to that of patient A's for the first 10 minutes but becomes less painful for the second 10 minutes, patient B will remember the overall procedure as less painful than patient A — even though patient B had more overall pain than patient A!
I attended a talk by Kahneman about a year ago. He said that in all of his research, the person who scored the highest on all his happiness scales was a meditator. Meditation strives to decouple one's emotional responses from one's intellectual responses. An expert meditator has freed himself from having his feelings driven by his thoughts. He is present and spontaneous in his feelings. This is just the opposite of what Gilbert would have us believe.

Besides Kahneman's work, there is other interesting work on happiness. See, for example Martin Seligman's work on Positive Psychology. It too recognizes the difference between mental (conceptual) states and happiness. Seligman tends to recommend doing things (like doing something nice for someone) that has the effect of making us feel happy. Again, this is different from talking oneself into feeling happy.

Support our Troops?

I just heard a very human story on NPR's All Things Considered.
Michele Norris talks with John Campbell, a first sergeant with the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division, and his wife Paula, about Campbell's imminent deployment to Iraq. This will be Campbell's second tour of duty in Iraq, but this time things are different, as Paula is pregnant with twins that are due in April.
The Campbells came across as very human — real people dealing with a difficult situation, and handling it as well as they could. The interviewer asked one political question. Sergeant Campbell's answer was that his solders generally didn't think about politics. They mainly did what they were told and worried about staying alive. Quite understandable.

As I was driving, I saw a car bearing one of those yellow support-our-troops ribbon stickers. I felt irritated at the driver. What was she doing to support the Campbells? Was she contributing money to buy them better equipment. (That shouldn't be necessary, but perhaps it is.) Was she contributing to a fund to provide insurance for troops who die? (Another story told of New Mexico instituting a plan to provide $250,000 in life insurance for all of its soldiers. The death benefit provided by the federal government is $12,000.) If not that, what was she doing? What was she asking people who saw her car ribbon to do? My guess is that most people who paste those support-our-troops ribbons on their cars do nothing to support our troops. If I'm wrong, let me know.

One thing she surely did was to buy that yellow sticker. As far as I can determine, those stickers are not promoted by any legitimate organization as part of a fund raising campaign with the proceeds used to support troops. To buy one just do a Google search on support our troops (drag the mouse over the phrase in bold and release) and click on any of the ads that come up. As far as I can tell, those car ribbon decals are pure political demagoguery.

Faith and responsibility

Yesterday I wrote
Under the faith-based approach to life, responsibility is sloughed off to the authority to which one has given one's faith.
That was a bit of an overstatement. It is impossible slough off one's responsibility for what one does or what one believes.

One can tell oneself that one has irrevocably given the power over certain belief decisions (or certain action decisions) to some authority. But that is not true. I was just following orders is never an ultimate justification for anything — no matter what one believes about the source of the order, e.g., that the order came from a deity, from an ultimate authority, from an infallible authority, or whatever. None of that matters.

As a human being, one can always change one's mind. As long as a person is alive, he or she is responsible for what he or she believes and what he or she does — whether he or she believes it or not.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Integrity and Condoleezza Rice

From Wired News
"'I personally believe ... that your loyalty to the mission you were given, to sell this war, overwhelmed your respect for the truth,' [Senator Barbara] Boxer told Rice, citing statements about how fast former dictator Saddam Hussein might acquire a nuclear weapon.

Rice responded: 'I have never, ever, lost respect for the truth in the service of anything.

Her voice appearing to quaver with emotion as she looked directly at Boxer, she repeatedly asked the senator not to question her integrity.
Boxer then missed her chance. Instead of telling the truth, that she was in fact questioning Rice's integrity, she said
"I'm not. I'm just quoting what you said. You contradicted the president and you contradicted yourself."
I have a lot of respect for Rice. She is intelligent and articulate. But I too think she has sold her soul to Bush. It would be good for her to know that she has lost the respect of people who value intellectual honesty.

Two great pictures from Tibet

From a photoset on Flickr. Click the thumbnails for larger versions.

Faith and reality

In my previous post I contrasted Bush's faith-based view of the world with a reality-based view. I said that if too much of the country cedes its right to determine the nature of reality to what is revealed through faith (faith in a Deity or faith in Bush), we are doomed to return to the Dark Ages. I want to elaborate a bit on this point.

Most of us look to experts when making decisions. The world is far too complex for any one of us to understand it in its full complexity. In fact, the world is far too complex for any combination of people to understand it in its full complexity. We have not unraveled the complexities and mysteries of the world. But to the extent that we do understand the world, there is too much to understand for any one person to be an expert in everything. We are forced to rely on others. To a great extent, for example, I put my faith in my doctor when he makes a recommendation: he knows much more about medicine than I do.

But putting one's faith in an expert is different from subscribing to a faith-based view of the world. The former is a strategy for getting by without having to know everything. Even when I take the word of an expert, I don't give up my right to challenge that word — or to consult another expert.

The faith-based approach to the world does not reserve the right to think for oneself. If one agrees in principle that the nature of the world is as revealed in the writings of a book or as described by a pre-selected individual or group of individuals, and if one agrees not to challenge the descriptions of the world found in that book or in the words of the selected individuals, one is essentially reducing oneself the status of an automaton — an automaton ruled by whatever authority to which one has given one's faith.

Too many of Bush's supporters adhere to such a faith-based view of the world. By adopting a faith-based approach to life, and thereby giving up their right to question what they are told, they become easy prey for people like Bush who fit right into the pattern of offering revealed wisdom. It no longer makes any difference whether what Bush says makes any sense. These people don't ask for sense from their sources of guidance. All they ask for is answers. And both their approach to faith and their approach to politics provides that for them. Too bad for this country if that approach continues to rule.

It is also worth noting that the faith-based approach to life reduces one's responsibility for oneself — which many people find a great relief. Under the reality-based approach to life, one is ultimately responsible for what one believes. Sometimes it is difficult to decide what to believe. It is very inviting to have someone provide the answers. But under the reality-based approach, that is not an out. If you adopt the position of some other person, that is still a decision for which you are responsible. You can't get away from being responsible for yourself.

Under the faith-based approach to life, responsibility is sloughed off to the authority to which one has given one's faith. It makes life so much simpler if one doesn't have to be responsible for what one believes. Something is true because the authority says it is true. No problem; no worries.

But no problem and no worries typically lead to disaster. Of course even that is not a problem for the believer. If that is the will of the authority, then so be it.

No problems, no worries, no responsibility: no life.

George Lakoff has said that one difference between conservatives and liberals is that conservatives want a strict disciplinarian government while liberals want a nurturing government. I would link this to the previous discussion as follows.

Conservatives, at least Bush-style conservatives, want a strict authoritarian system that provides answers for them. Liberals want a nurturing environment that helps people find their own answers.

Faith, social security again, and more about the reality-based community

Mark Weisbrot (among others. For an example of a less well-known but thoughtful analyst, see Boonton's posts on Social Security.) points out that
According to the Social Security Trustees' own numbers -- which President Bush is also using -- the program can pay all promised benefits for the next 38 years, without any changes at all. And even after that it would still pay a larger real (inflation-adjusted) benefit than people receive today -- indefinitely.
Why is that the case if the social security trust fund will run out in about 38 years? The answer is that at that time, payments will have to be reduced to income, which will be about 80% of what the payments would otherwise be. So why is 80% better than what people are getting now? I was confused about that for a while.

The answer I believe is that social security benefits are linked to incomes, not to prices. Most models of the economy project incomes to rise faster than prices. So by 2042 (and thereafter), 80% of the 2042 benefits will be a better deal with respect to projected 2042 prices than 100% of today's benefits are with respect to today's prices.

Faith-based policy
But none of this really matters. The Bush administration (and apparently much of the country) is not part of the reality-based community. I keep forgetting. Foolish me.

Do you recall that during the 2000 Presidential campaign, Bush was accused of fuzzy math? He was claiming that his then proposed tax cuts would not produce a deficit. Of course he was wrong — and even then, it was clear that his arithmetic was incorrect. But it didn't matter. Even before he became President, Bush was creating his own reality. Isn't that the essense of a good con: sell faith and then get people to do what you want?

Karl Rove learned a terrible lesson from that success: reality doesn't matter. If one has as a major part of one's base people who have a faith-based view of the world rather than a reality-based view, you can sell them anything as long as they have faith in you. Is that the key? Is Bush selling thinly (or not so thinly) disguised faith to enough people that he gets his way?

One of the features that has set the Western world apart from, for example, the modern Muslim world, is our reality-based view in contrast to their faith-based view of the world. It appears that the leading country in the western world is moving backwards: away from a reality-based view of the world and back toward a faith-based view of the world. Perhaps Europe and the Far East won't succumb. But is the United States about to sink back into a dark ages ruled by faith over reality? If so, the terrorists will have won, and bin Laden can rejoice in his victory.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Ownership and Social Security

On NPR's Talk of the Nation today, a Bush supporter was asked: if investing in the stock market is such a good idea, why don't we do it with the current Social Security Trust Fund? (I too have made that point. See, for example, Social security and magic.)

His answer is that the difference is ownership. If individuals own the investments, magic occurs; if the government does, no magic. He didn't explain why there was a difference in magic if both were required to invest in index funds. (I guess the market just knows.)

On the other hand, if individuals are not required to invest in index funds, he didn't explain why the average investor would do better than index funds. Most mutual funds do worse than index funds. Certainly some individual investors would do better. But others would do worse — and based on our experience with mutual funds, more investors would probably do worse than better. So since this is not supposed to be a investment program but a retirement program, why let individuals select their own stocks? The claim is that the market in general provides better returns than government bonds, not that individual investors are good stock pickers. These are really separate issues.

Also, if individual investors pick their own stocks, what are we to do about retirement for people who lose money in the market? Let them starve? Perhaps that just the way of compassionate conservatism. Or perhaps, private charities will be recruited to rescue those people.

I'm glad that I heard the broadcast, though. I was wondering whether there was a real argument about why, if one buys the Bush claim that investing social security funds in the stock market is a good idea, investing the current trust fund in index funds isn't. Apparently there is no such good argument.

But as usual, the Bush people don't care about reality. After all, they are not part of the reality-based community. When they say something, it creates a new reality. I keep forgetting. Foolish me.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

More on Social Security, "ownership," and the cost of phase out

Like the rest of the blog world I have posted previously on Social security. But here are a few more thoughts.
  • Bush misuse of federal resources for propaganda purposes
    The New York Times reports that the Bush administration is at it again, using federal resources to promote its own political priorities.
    Over the objections of many of its own employees, the Social Security Administration is gearing up for a major effort to publicize the financial problems of Social Security and to convince the public that private accounts are needed as part of any solution.
    So many people have been talking about this, that I don't see the need to add anything.

  • Paul O'Neill
    The Times also published an op ed piece by Paul O'Neill, Bush's first Secretary of the Treasury. He too wants to privatize Social Security.
    Financial security begins with ownership of real assets; so the money saved each year in [a revised version of Social Security] would be the property of the person who saved it.…

    The money would then be invested in broad-based index funds with an objective of matching the overall rate of return for all investments in the United States.
    It's not clear how this would be different in effect from the current plan except that money would be invested in stocks rather than in government bonds. Under O'Neill's plan the federal government would manage the account, and O'Neill wouldn't allow the account "owners" to withdraw money or to do anything based on their ownership authority. So what's the difference?

    We could invest the current trust fund in index funds. The result would be the same — except that O'Neill wants the federal government to contribute one trillion dollars to get started. We could do that now also. Let the federal government contribute one trillion dollars to the current trust fund. As far as I can tell, the result would be the same.

  • Ownership?
    O'Neill and the Bush people would claim that the difference is ownership. That's false (but as usual, effective) framing. Everyone currently in the social security system is owed retirement benefits by that system. Or to put it in Bush-speak, those people own an obligation of the federal government to pay them money. They own that obligation in the same way that one owns an obligation of the federal government when one owns a federal bond. There is very little difference. In both cases, owning a bond and owning an entitlement, one is still the beneficiary of someone else's liability. For example, when a senior is applying for a loan, he or she presumably lists his or her social security income in the income section. That's just as real as any other source of income — and one has just as secure an interest in it as in any investment that generates income.

    The primary difference is that when I own a bond, I can presumably sell it, but I can't sell an entitlement. In this case, though, that difference is meaningless: no one would be allowed to sell their retirement account. After all, the point of a retirement account is to provide for one's retirement. If one were allowed to sell it, what would one live on when one retired? Presumably the federal government would then be obligated to provide some other retirement benefit. So selling one's retirement account would not be allowed, and the ownership privilege becomes meaningless.

  • The cost of phase out
    However, a question did occur to me. Suppose one wanted to replace social security with some other system. It's not clear to me what the new plan would do or how it would guarantee everyone an adequate retirement. After all, one problem with individual accounts is that some people would lose money on their investments. What would we do for those people when they are ready to retire. We can't just say "tough luck." The point of social security is that it is a social security plan; it guarantees (to the extent that the government can guarantee anything) that everyone will have a retirement income.

    But let's skip over that problem. If we did want to replace social security with some other system, how much would it cost to phase it out? For example, how much would it cost to close the current social security plan to everyone currently under 18 and keep it exactly as it is for everyone currently 18 or over. Younger workers as they enter the workforce will be put into whatever the new plan is. Workers currently in the social security system would stay in it. As the trust fund dwindles the government will make up the difference.

    Will that cost more than Bush's current plan? It certainly wouldn't require an immediate infusion of one trillion dollars to get it started. It will only require federal funds when the current trust fund is exhausted. Even with no new workers, that probably won't happen until 2030 or so — or perhaps later. (Someone will have to figure that out.) From that point on, the federal government will be on the hook to provide the difference. But that obligation is self-limiting and will end when all workers currently under social security die.

    Here are some questions* I would like to have answered about this approach.
    1. When would the trust fund run out.
    2. What would be the annual liabilities of the system to its current workers from that point on until the current workers were all dead?
    3. What would the present value of that liability be if the federal government were to borrow that amount now?
    4. If that liability were to be funded by a constant-rate tax from now until it ended, what would be required?
    It isn't that I'm proposing this system — since it would entail ending social security as we know it with no clear idea of how it's replacement system would work. But it would be interesting to find out how much it would cost to phase out the current plan by limiting it to workers currently covered by it.

*The Social Security Administration has a page that lists a number of Stochastic models that one can use to do one's own projections. I haven't figured out how to use any of them to answer my questions, though.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Javascript lookup code

Here is the JavaScript code that does the Google and OneLook lookups.

It's been tested on IE only. Modification will probably be required for other browsers.

<script type = "text/javascript">

function doClick() {

function doDblclick() {

function getSelection() {
if (navigator.appName == "Netscape") {
t = document.getSelection();
return t;
} else {
t = document.selection.createRange();
if (document.selection.type == 'Text' &&
t.text != '') {
return t.text;
return '';

function openNewLookupWin(call) {
var text = getSelection();
if (text == '') return; + '"' + escape(text) + '"');


Be sure to include the following in the <body> tag.
<body ondblclick = "doDblclick()" onclick = "doClick()">

Thursday, January 13, 2005

String Theory: gathering critics

In answer to Edge's question "What do you believe is true even though you can't prove it?" Philip Anderson says
Is string theory a futile exercise as physics, as I believe it to be? It is an interesting mathematical specialty and has produced and will produce mathematics useful in other contexts, but it seems no more vital as mathematics than other areas of very abstract or specialized math, and doesn't on that basis justify the incredible amount of effort expended on it.
I'm beginning to hear this more frequently about string theory. For example, Not Even Wrong: The Problem of Predictivity
In recent years, as it has become clear that string theory can never be used to predict anything about the real world, string theorists have reacted to this state of affairs in various often bizarre ways. Tonight there's a new review article by Steve Giddings about string theory which doesn't even pretend that the theory will ever make a real prediction about anything. … [T]he really hilarious thing is the way Giddings motivates string theory. In a section entitled 'The problem of predictivity' he argues that our inability to make quantum gravity predictions at high energy is a problem of supreme importance, then goes on to use this to motivate the introduction of string theory, which in the end gives a theoretical framework unable to predict anything about anything at any energy.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Blogger sacked for sounding off

The Guardian reports:
A bookseller has become the first blogger in Britain to be sacked from his job because he kept an online diary in which he occasionally mentioned bad days at work and satirised his 'sandal-wearing' boss. …

Mr Gordon, a senior bookseller who rarely mentioned work in his blog and did not directly identify his branch of Waterstone's, said he had offered to stop posting anything about his working life online when the company called a disciplinary meeting. According to his union, Waterstone's rejected his plea despite it not having any guidelines on whether its employees are allowed to keep weblogs.

"This wasn't a sustained attack," Mr Gordon told the Guardian. "I was not deliberately trying to harm the company. I was venting my spleen.

"This was moaning about not getting your birthday off or not getting on with your boss. I wasn't libelling anyone or giving away trade secrets." …

In the US, Ellen Simonetti was sacked from her job as a flight attendant for Delta Air Lines after her bosses saw pictures of her posing in her uniform on her website, which recounted the adventures of an anonymous flight attendant who worked for "Anonymous Airline".
I had mentioned the story about Ellen Simonetti when I first heard about it and established a Google Alert. Now whenever a related news story appears, I get a message from Google. I've been getting messages about this latest firing for the past few days. In fact, here are all the recent news reports. It's interesting to watch this ripple through the worldwide news sources.

Red meat is strongly linked to cancer reports:

A diet packed with burgers, sausage and steak boosts the risk of developing colon or rectal cancer, a study confirms, lending weight to nutritionists' call for a switch to healthier alternatives.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005


This is what FACEANALYZER: said about me when I sent it the picture in the upper right corner.
You especially enjoy the traditional way of life. Having drinks with your friends, attending parties and relaxing while watching TV are some of your simple pleasures. You may also enjoy physical exercise. Your driving force is to retire as early as possible, so that you can do the things you enjoy more often. Your main source of ambition comes from this desire.

You don't particularly like your job but you do it without complaining. You realize that the income that it provides is essential to your lifestyle. You are friendly yet competitive with your co-workers. This competitiveness may lead you to squander your earnings to match other peoples' possessions.

You operate most effectively when there is a set power structure, and the lines of authority are clear. You know your place in the ranks, you play by the rules, and will deliver what is expected of you. You do not care for responsibility; you would rather be care free.
It's randomly wrong, but I couldn't resist. Can you? It also came up with this strange morphed version of me. I'm not sure what it's supposed to represent.

Pointer from Marginal Revolution, who said it was wrong about him also.

Voracious Black Hole Generates Most Powerful Explosion Known

I don't know what to make of this, but it sounds neat. Scientific American reports that
Astronomers have discovered the largest explosion in the universe — one that has endured for more than 100 million years and generated as much energy as hundreds of millions of gamma-ray bursts. The source of this mayhem? An apparently insatiable supermassive black hole. …

NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory … images show two cavities, each some 650,000 light-years across, that were scoured out by jets of energy emanating from the black hole, which itself may be a billion times the mass of our sun.

The End of Oil?

Mark Williams in Technology Review discusses oil.
Crude oil prices have doubled since 2001, but oil companies have increased their budgets for exploring new oil fields by only a small fraction. Likewise, U.S. refineries are working close to capacity, yet no new refinery has been constructed since 1976. And oil tankers are fully booked, but outdated ships are being decommissioned faster than new ones are being built.
What does this mean? He says that it means that the people who know believe that there is no point in investing in oil because "according to some geologists’ estimates, we have discovered 94 percent of all available oil."

The article discusses Kenneth Deffeyes book in Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert’s Peak in which reviews predictions of
geologist M. King Hubbert … that world oil production [would hit] a peak around the year 2000. Thereafter, he argued, production would drop—slowly at first, then ever faster. …

Deffeyes has no doubt that by 2019, the year in which Hubbert’s theories indicate global oil production will drop to 90 percent of current rates, human ingenuity will have found replacement energy sources (see “What Energy Crisis?”, p. 19). But Deffeyes is optimistic about the long term only because he believes that by 2010, pressures will grow so intense that they’ll create the resolve necessary to develop a new energy ­economy. In the short term, he foresees continually rising oil prices that force industry after industry closer to the wall. He fears not just escalating resource wars around the world but also mass starvation in some countries, since the 6.4 billion people living on the earth today are fed thanks largely to the successes of the 20th century’s “green revolution,” which, among other innovations, brought petrochemical-based fertilizers into wide use. …

Abundant energy from fossil fuels was a one-time gift, Deffeyes concludes, that lifted humanity up from subsistence agriculture and has led to a future based on renewable resources.
The question now is, when it's gone, what will we have done with that gift?

Monday, January 10, 2005


A Flash animation of depression by David Firth.

If you can create reality, you can also create news

This has been in the news lately, so I haven't bothered to talk about it. But it just struck me how well it relates to the Bush notion that if you are an empire you can create reality. Here are segments from the American Progress Action Fund's commentary. (The American Progress Action Fund web page includes embedded links to documentation of its claims.)
The White House paid conservative commentator Armstrong Williams more than $240,000 of taxpayers' money to 'promote President Bush's No Child Left Behind law' on his syndicated television program 'and to other African-Americans in the news media.' His public commentary on the law likely violated Section 317 of the Communications Act, which stipulates broadcasters must disclose when they are paid to include program matter in a broadcast. Over the weekend, Chicago-based Tribune Media Services dropped Williams's column, 'saying he violated his contract,' and CNN spokesman Matthew Furman said Williams failed to disclose his government contract before he praised the law during a segment in October. The Williams Contract is just the latest of the administration's repeated efforts to pass off government propaganda as news. …

MORE FAKE NEWS: NCLB is not the only domestic policy the Bush administration has promoted covertly to the public. Last January, local news stations across the country aired a story by "reporter" Mike Morris, "describing plans for a new White House ad campaign on the dangers of drug abuse." Viewers were not informed that Morris was not a journalist, nor that his "report" was produced by the government. On Friday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, "scolded the Bush administration for distributing phony prepackaged news reports," which included a "'suggested live intro' for anchors to read, interviews with Washington officials and a closing that mimics a typical broadcast news sign off."

ACTING LIKE JOURNALISTS: The GAO's rebuke is the second of its kind. The Office chided the White House last year for distributing fake news segments promoting its Medicare legislation. One segment featured paid actress Karen Ryan posing as a "reporter." Another video, intended for Hispanic viewers, showed a government official being interviewed in Spanish by an actor posing as a reporter named "Alberto Garcia." The GAO said the segments "violated federal law" and were a form of "covert propaganda" because "the government was not identified as the source of the materials, broadcast by at least 40 television stations in 33 markets."
This notion of a reality-based community as the counterpart to the Bush's notion that he can create reality as he sees fit seems like a very fertile idea.

Where Was God?

William Safire takes the Book of Job as his text when asking Where was God? during the tsunami. His conclusions?
Job's lessons for today:
  1. Victims of this cataclysm in no way 'deserved' a fate inflicted by the Leviathanic force of nature.
  2. Questioning God's inscrutable ways has its exemplar in the Bible and need not undermine faith.
  3. Humanity's obligation to ameliorate injustice on earth is being expressed in a surge of generosity that refutes Voltaire's cynicism.
I think he's right, but this has nothing to do with religious faith. Safire wants to buttress the faith of his readers. But reality and tsunamis have nothing to do with faith.

In an essay entitled Non-overlapping Magisteria Stephen Jay Gould wrote
[T]he principled resolution of [the] supposed 'conflict' or 'warfare' between science and religion [does not exist] because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority — and these magisteria do not overlap.
With this statement Gould was attempting to retain a place for religious belief in the world. He went on to elaborate as follows.
[The Non-Overlapping Magesterium (NOMA) principle] represents a principled position on moral and intellectual grounds, not a mere diplomatic stance.

NOMA also cuts both ways. If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world's empirical constitution. This mutual humility has important practical consequences in a world of such diverse passions.

Religion is too important to too many people for any dismissal or denigration of the comfort still sought by many folks from theology. I may, for example, privately suspect that papal insistence on divine infusion of the soul represents a sop to our fears [the essay was written during a trip to the Vatican], a device for maintaining a belief in human superiority within an evolutionary world offering no privileged position to any creature. But I also know that souls represent a subject outside the magisterium of science. My world cannot prove or disprove such a notion, and the concept of souls cannot threaten or impact my domain. Moreover, while I cannot personally accept the Catholic view of souls, I surely honor the metaphorical value of such a concept both for grounding moral discussion and for expressing what we most value about human potentiality: our decency, care, and all the ethical and intellectual struggles that the evolution of consciousness imposed upon us.

As a moral position (and therefore not as a deduction from my knowledge of nature's factuality), I prefer the "cold bath" theory that nature can be truly "cruel" and "indifferent"—in the utterly inappropriate terms of our ethical discourse—because nature was not constructed as our eventual abode, didn't know we were coming (we are, after all, interlopers of the latest geological microsecond), and doesn't give a damn about us (speaking metaphorically). I regard such a position as liberating, not depressing, because we then become free to conduct moral discourse—and nothing could be more important—in our own terms, spared from the delusion that we might read moral truth passively from nature's factuality.
In other words, tsunamis and God have nothing to do with each other, and for William Safire to attempt to make a connection — even by denying a direct connection — is intellectually dishonest and violates what I believe is a foundation stone of the reality-based community, namely that religion is a subjective experience and has nothing to do with the physical reality outside one's head.

Although I don't consider myself religious, the preceding statement is not a denigration of religion from my perspective. Everything that we consider important is a subjective experience.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Reality-based community re: Social Security

This chart from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities compares the deficits produced over the next 75 years (how accurate can that be?) by
  1. Social Security,
  2. Medicare,
  3. Bush's tax cuts if made permanent, and
  4. Bush's tax cuts if made permanent for just the top 1%.
This is reality.

But as Bush's aide made clear, reality doesn't matter.
We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.
If Bush says that it's Social Security that's in crisis, that's the reality. The rest of us are doomed to just stand and watch.

Terrorism in Iraq

What do you think of this report from MSNBC?
[Maj. Gen.Muhammad Abdallah al-Shahwani, director of Iraq’s National Intelligence Service said that] U.S. occupation has failed to crack the problem of broad support for the insurgency. The insurgents, he said, 'are mostly in the Sunni areas where the population there, almost 200,000, is sympathetic to them.' He said most Iraqi people do not actively support the insurgents or provide them with material or logistical help, but at the same time they won't turn them in. One military source involved in the Pentagon debate agrees that this is the crux of the problem, and he suggests that new offensive operations are needed that would create a fear of aiding the insurgency. 'The Sunni population is paying no price for the support it is giving to the terrorists,' he said. 'From their point of view, it is cost-free. We have to change that equation.'
Good idea? Make sure that if the Sunni population continues to support the insurgents against our troops, that at least they pay a price for it?

Mark A. R. Kleiman's Moral clarity dep't post makes things clear.
Eventually, an administration willing to embrace torture to fight terror was going to embrace terror as well. image server? claims not to provide a picture storage service for its bloggers. Yet says
This server speaks in pictures.
as does

The preceding picture is stored on that site.

Does anone know more about this?

(Extra points if you know where I found this picture.)

The reality-based community

Have you noticed the growing ranks of the reality-based Community? Two of my favorite bloggers, Mark Kleiman and Matthew Yglesias are members. I wondered where the term came from.

A bit of Googling revealed that last October Ron Suskind wrote an article in the The New York Times Magazine about Bush. Suskind wrote about a discussion he had with a Bush aide. Suskind wrote that the aide dismissively defined
"the reality-based community [as people who] believe that solutions emerge from [the] judicious study of discernible reality."

I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism.

He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
A comment to Matthew Yglesias post on The Widening Reality-Based Community listed a number of blogs that have joined.

Of course, none of it worked. Bush was re-elected — or if you believe what some people say about Ohio, he stole the election again. Bush created his own reality in spite of the efforts of the reality-based community.

Nonetheless, I like the sound of it. Matthew Yglesias and Mark Kleiman have kept their affiliation in their blog heading. I think I'll join too.

More on merit pay for teachers?

In an earlier post, I commented on merit pay for teachers. A couple of additional thoughts occurred to me. In particular, I thought of some additional organizations that provide services: the government (including the various departments such as Defense, which itself includes the armed forces), accounting firms, engineering firms, etc. Any company that does not produce a physical product, or whose physical product is intellectual property provides a service.

What can we learn from these examples? They are so diverse it's difficult to generalize. The military, for example, expects every member to do a competent job at whatever assignment he or she is given. In the military people are considered essentially interchangeable as long as they are of the same rank and have equivalent training. At any rank and skill level, there are no superstars — and I don't know if there is any sort of merit pay within a rank and skill level classification. If there is, I doubt that it amounts to much — but I may be wrong. If someone knows, please leave a comment.

The same is probably the case in accounting and engineering firms. At a particular rank and skill level, the pay is probably pretty much the same for everyone — and everyone at a particular rank and skill level is expected to produce results commesurate with their rank and skill level.

One clear difference between these organizations and teaching in most public schools is that there is little room for advancement. There are no higher, more expert, or more experienced ranks — other than going into administration, which is really quite different. Most classroom teachers have no clear career path to advancement.

This differs from other service occupations such as entertainment. One starts out in entertainment doing shows at private parties and small clubs. As one improves or develops a following, one moves up to larger (and more profitable) venues. So even if one does not advance in technical skill-level, one develops a larger (or more affluent) audience. Neither of these options seems to be available to education. Education, when it involves a teacher and individual students is necessarily limited to a maximum teacher-student ratio. Anything else is not traditional education. It may be mass-market education, or web-based education, but that isn't what we're talking about when discussing merit pay for teachers.

In addition, we don't want teachers to move from one audience to another based on the affluence of the audience. We want all students, no matter what their economic situation, to have access to good teachers. So it really isn't clear to how proceed.

I'm coming back to the analogy to HMO's. In both education and health care, we want everyone to have access to quality service. For the most part our health care system does provide competent doctors — although it certainly has other problems. Why can't our educational system do the same?

Do we really know that it doesn't? Are there more stories of incompetent teachers than there are of incompetent doctors? I'm not sure there are.

Perhaps the problem is not that we don't have good teachers. Perhaps the problem is that we haven't yet figured out what the problem is.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

President Discusses Medical Liability Reform

In his discussion of the US health care system President Discusses Medical Liability Reform, Bush said
First, it is important for Americans to understand we have the best health care system in the world.
I decided to see what that statement meant with respect to the actual health of Americans. The Core Health Indicators from the WHR web page provides a form that lets you query WHO health data base. I asked about Healthy Life expectancy at Birth and got the results in the following table.

Australia 72.6
New Zealand70.8
San Marino73.4
United Kingdom70.6
United States of America 69.3

At 69.3 we do a bit better than Portugal (69.2) and worse than Slovenia (69.5) and definitely worse than most of the modern European countries.

How can Bush possibly improve our health care system when he doesn't even know the facts?

But this is a constant refrain. It doesn't matter that Bush has no idea what he's talking about. He seems to have two kinds of people who support him.
  • People who don't care what he says. They just like the fact that he says he things like Jesus is his favorite philosopher — and then acts as if Ghengis Khan were his favorite philosopher. They seem to like both of those features of his personality.

  • People who benefit personally from his policies. They know that what he says is stupid, but they also know that his policies enrich them personally at the expense of the rest of society — and they seem to like that arrangement.
Between these two groups, Bush has created a functioning majority. Too bad for the country as a whole.

David Brooks has something constructive to say about social security.

In his column today, David Brooks actually offered some creative ideas about social security — ideas that no Bush-style Republican would be caught dead thinking. In particular he suggested that
it would be useful to broaden the frame of discussion. All the talk so far revolves around Option 2 from the president's 2001 commission. Why limit ourselves? There are dozens of creative reform ideas out there. Many include getting rid of the regressive and job-crushing payroll tax and replacing it with something else. In this week's Weekly Standard, Irwin Stelzer recommends a tax on pollution and imported oil. Others suggest a consumption tax.
I can't imagine any "anti-tax" Republican favoring broader and less regressive taxes of any sort. But I'm willing to wait and see if Brooks can bring anyone else along with him.

For more on social security, follow this chain to my earlier posts.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Merit pay for teachers?

Louis V. Gerstner Jr., the former chairman of IBM (and organizer of The Teaching Commission website) argues for merit pay for teachers.
A merit pay system can be built fairly to give the most to teachers who produce the biggest annual academic improvement, and to factor in a wide variety of measurements of excellence, including peer and principal review.
Does anyone know of any effective evaluation system for people who provide services? There may be one, but I don't know of any.

When I was going through a divorce, I wanted an evaluation system for lawyers. Some lawyers are quite good; others not so good. But where is the table that rates them? I couldn't find one. The same is true for doctors. Where is the evaluation system for doctors?

In both of these cases, there are market mechanisms that reward doctors and lawyers who are good at marketing themselves. But that's not the same. Also, we are talking about an internal mechanism, and one that must be applied by school boards in a somewhat mechanical way.

Most organizations that hire people have evaluation procedures. I imagine that HMO's evaluate their doctors and that law firms evaluate their lawyers. But I don't know of any evaluation process that is as mechanical as the term merit pay suggests. And there are good reasons for that. Any mechanical evaluation becomes a driver rather than an evaluator. Once you set up a system to evaluate people, the people being evaluated will manipulate the data being fed into the system to make themselves look as good as possible. That's just the way the world works.

Besides, organizations that offer services should be required as their first priority to establish and maintain a level of competent service. That's what we expect from HMO's — that every doctor is competent, not that there are some superstar doctors and some incompetent doctors. The same should be the case for teachers: every teacher should be competent, and schools should be run in such a way that every student gets a good education from every teacher. This has little to do with superstars.

Of course there will be some extra good teachers, just as there are some extra good doctors. And they should be recognized and rewarded. Furthermore, since teaching and learning are so individual, different students are likely to find different teachers inspiring. But that is a second priority. The first priority of any service-providing organization is to provide the service they offer at a level of competency no matter which of their employees is involved in providing the particular instance of the service.

Welcome to Death - the last taboo

The Australian Museum Online has a web site devoted to Death
Throughout the world, death and the rituals that surround it are steeped in taboos. Death is celebrated, embraced and feared. Around death and the dead, cultures put in place diverse restrictions and practices associated with clothing, food and ritual. This website explores what happens to us when we die and the different ways we deal with death.
It includes a Flash Interactive Autopsy (137 kb)

Food Colorings

Science News Online says: eat your brightly colored vegetables.

ALL NATURAL. These heavily pigmented potatoes have more flavor and greater potential health benefits than white potatoes do.

WHEEL OF COLOR. Orange carrots are a relatively new food, dating only from the 16th century. Scientists are adapting older red, blue, and yellow types—most of them from Asia—to U.S. soils, climate, and tastes.
S. Ausmus/USDA

BLUE MEMORIES. In tests of lab animals with Alzheimer's disease symptoms, blueberries' flavonoids got into the brain and seemed to improve memory.

Social security and magic

Boonton made an important point in a comment to my post on social security. I made a similar point in a post entitled Paul Krugman and David Brooks agree on Here's most of it.
Paul Krugman characterized the Bush social security plan as follows.
borrow trillions, put the money into stocks and hope for the best
David Brooks put it this way.
The government would essentially borrow at 2 percent in real terms, invest that money through regulated private accounts in the market and get a return, based on conservative historical averages, of about 4.6 percent.
So they agree on what the plan entails. They disagree on whether this is a good idea.

Krugman says
everyone [who understood it] would denounce that plan as the height of irresponsibility.
Brooks says
People who instinctively trust the markets support the Bush reform ideas
So there you have it. At least the question is clear. Should the government borrow money and invest it in the stock market?

This really has nothing to do with social security. If this is a good idea, let's use it as a way to reduce the Federal debt, which is far worse than whatever problem the social security system will run into 40 years from now.

Has the President proposed to issue government bonds with the intent of using the money to invest in the market and then using the profits to repay the federal debt? If so, I must have missed it. I haven't even heard David Brooks make that suggestion.

But why not? After all, we issue bonds to cover the deficit and for capital investments. Why not bonds for pure investment purposes. We could call them capital appreciation bonds.

We could even set them up as zero coupon bonds so that the interest is all due at the end. That way it would be a completely free lunch. When the bonds are due, we sell the investments and pay off the bonds' principal and interest and have a little left over for the country.

In fact, why not finance the entire federal government that way? Forget about taxes. Borrow the money, invest the proceeds, and live off the excess profits. Eventually the government would be so rich, it wouldn't even have to borrow money to invest. It could invest accumulated profits. We would be financially independent.

No more worrying about taxes and deficits. Our biggest problem would be how to allocate the government's investment portfolio among index funds and more speculative investments. Should we invest in sector funds? hedge funds? individual stocks? Why didn't we think of this sooner? I'm calling my broker first thing Monday.

Ohio Election Problems

Mark Weisbrot thinks it's too soon to forget about the election in Ohio. In his current column he writes
… Many Americans don't know this, but according to the best information available, George W. Bush lost the vote in Florida and therefore should not have become president the first time.

A consortium of news organizations -- including the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, and Associated Press commissioned an independent recount. The study was done by the University of Chicago-based National Opinion Research Center.

The study, which examined 175,010 uncounted ballots in all of Florida's 67 counties, found that a complete recount would have given the state, and therefore the presidency, to Al Gore. This was true no matter what criteria were used for accepting or rejecting the uncounted ballots: i.e., what kinds of "chads" or markings were taken as clear indication of voter intent. …

Did it happen again last November, in Ohio? It is difficult to say without an investigation. The Democratic staff report of the House Judiciary Committee found "massive and unprecedented voter irregularities and anomalies in Ohio. In many cases these irregularities were caused by intentional misconduct and illegal behavior, much of it involving Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, the co-chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign in Ohio."

These included a misallocation of voting machines that resulted in long lines in Democratic areas. There was also a shortage of provisional ballots, delayed absentee ballots, and 93,000 spoiled ballots -- and most of the latter have yet to be examined. There were many other irregularities that cast a cloud of suspicion over the vote in Ohio: one of the most bizarre was the exclusion of public observers from the Warren County tally on the basis of an alleged FBI warning of a potential terrorist threat, which the FBI denies having issued.

The Judiciary Committee Democratic staff report also found that the recount was not conducted properly or even legally, with precincts not selected randomly, as required by law. Bush's official margin in Ohio was 118,599 votes, so it is unlikely that a full and complete recount would reverse the result. But if we were to estimate the Democratic votes lost from all the other shenanigans, including the misallocation of voting machines, it's not clear whether George W. Bush would have won a clean election in Ohio, and therefore the presidency in 2004.

Some of our electoral procedures -- such as electronic voting with no paper record -- would not pass the laugh test in other democracies. This includes having a Bush campaign official -- Ken Blackwell in Ohio -- oversee statewide elections. At a recent press conference in which Russian President Vladimir Putin came under fire for undemocratic practices in his country, he retorted: "Do you think that the electoral system in the US is without flaws? Need I remind you of how elections were held in the US?" …