Monday, December 31, 2007

Varieties of subjective experience

In this posting about why men get turned on by seeing female flesh, I hypothesized that it was because our mirror neurons are triggered and reverberate in sympathy with how (we imagine) the woman feels. I said that we aren't interested in what she's thinking, and we're not interested in any deep emotions she may be feeling. We're just interested in the subjective experience of the sensations that are transmitted through her skin. (Isn't that sentence itself a bit of a turn-on?)
[In talking this over with a female friend, I was told that many women (who wonder whether it's normal or whether it shows signs of latent lesbian tendencies) are more turned on by watching women in sex scenes than by watching men. Apparently that's fairly universal and doesn't signify lesbian leanings. Perhaps we as human beings are wired to see women as sensation carriers — perhaps the mirror neurons of all human beings respond to seeing women's skin.]
This suggests that there are at least three domains of subjective experience: thought, emotion, and sensation. There are probably more. Is there a separate domain of subjective experience for each sense: i.e., vision, hearing, taste, and smell, besides skin sensation? Some people feel ravished by music or visual beauty. Great chiefs (and wine connoisseurs) undoubtedly have great senses of taste and small. Can we isolate these subjective experiences? Is there a subjective experience for proprioception? What about the unifying subjective experience of pure awareness? Has anyone done any work on this? What do the Buddhists, the masters of subjective experience, have to say about this?

If there are these different domains of subjective experience, then it's likely that animals have similar subjective experience to ours in a number of domains, even if not in others. So our intuition that animals are like us is probably more right than wrong.

In the Fight Over Piracy, a Rare Stand for Privacy

From The New York Times
The record industry got a surprise when it subpoenaed the University of Oregon in September, asking it to identify 17 students who had made available songs from Journey, the Cars, Dire Straits, Sting and Madonna on a file-sharing network. …

Represented by the state’s attorney general, Hardy Myers, the university filed a blistering motion to quash the subpoena, accusing the industry of misleading the judge, violating student privacy laws and engaging in questionable investigative practices. …

“People get pushed into settlements,” said Fred von Lohmann, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group. “The Oregon attorney general is showing what a real fight among equals would look like.” …

Mr. Myers questioned the tactics of MediaSentry, an investigative company hired by the recording industry. He said the company seemed to use data mining techniques to obtain “private, confidential information unrelated to copyright infringement.” He added that it may have violated an Oregon criminal law requiring investigators to be licensed.

A spokeswoman for MediaSentry said it collected only information that users of peer-to-peer networks make available to anyone who cared to look. She had no comment on the licensing law. …

James Gibson, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said Mr. Myers’s arguments had been raised in other cases and had met with little success. Still, Professor Gibson said, “it’s significant that a public university and its state apparatus is standing up to the R.I.A.A.”
Good for the University of Oregon.

Too close to home

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From The Homicide Report
West L.A.: Sean Parmley, a 38-year-old white man, was stabbed in the 2900 block of Sepulveda Boulevard in West Los Angeles Sunday, Dec. 30, at about 8:40 p.m., and was taken to UCLA hospital where he died a short time later, at about 9:30 p.m. Two men came to the door of his apartment. There was an argument, then a fistfight. One of the suspects pulled out a knife and stabbed Parmley, then both fled on foot. Parmley was single and had moved south from Santa Rosa in recent months, police said."

"Allah" is ok in Maylasia

From Al Jazeera English - News
The Malaysian government has reversed a decision to ban the Malay-language section of a Catholic newspaper amid a row over the use of the word 'Allah' as a synonym for God.

In a surprise about-turn, officials approved the publication permit for The Herald which reports on Catholic community news in English, Malay, Tamil and Chinese.

The internal security ministry gave no reasons for the earlier ban but the unusual delay in getting the permit renewed had followed a warning over the publication's use of the word 'Allah', which officials had said could only be used to refer to the Muslim God.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Reverend Lawrence Andrew, editor of The Herald, said he was happy the government had renewed the weekly's 2008 permit without any conditions.
See this posting for the original story.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Paul Krugman

on The Great Divide
So what does the conversion of Mr. McCain into an avowed believer in voodoo economics — and the comparable conversions of Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani — tell us? That bitter partisanship and political polarization aren’t going away anytime soon.

There’s a fantasy, widely held inside the Beltway, that men and women of good will from both parties can be brought together to hammer out bipartisan solutions to the nation’s problems.

If such a thing were possible, Mr. McCain, Mr. Romney and Mr. Giuliani — a self-proclaimed maverick, the former governor of a liberal state and the former mayor of an equally liberal city — would seem like the kind of men Democrats could deal with. (O.K., maybe not Mr. Giuliani.) In fact, however, it’s not possible, not given the nature of today’s Republican Party, which has turned men like Mr. McCain and Mr. Romney into hard-line ideologues. On economics, and on much else, there is no common ground between the parties.

Krugman on the economy

Dec 18, 2007.

Regarding the end of the housing bubble, he quotes Stein's law: if something can't go on forever, it won't.

Why the New York Times hired William Kristol

Many of the best bloggers can't seem to understand why the New York Times recently hired William Kristol as one of its columnists. Brad DeLong called it the start of the "death spiral of the New York Times."

Josh Marshall wrote "Kristol to Ravish Grey Lady."
Sulzberger and Co. have failed to grasp the taxonomy of the neoconservative literary cartel. David Brooks is the house-broken William Kristol, the cadre tasked with operating just behind enemy lines, or at least in the no-man's-land where only a kinder gentler version of the faith can be propounded. And they already have him.

So why you'd want both Kristol and Brooks on staff is a question that simply has no logical answer unless they got some sort of two for one deal or other kind of group discount.
Andrew Sullivan agrees, sort of.
[H]aving both David Brooks and Bill Kristol as the sole representatives of the right-of-center is to focus on a very small neocon niche in a conservative world that is currently exploding with intellectual diversity and new currents of thought.
But Sullivan also noted in passing that Kristol is
obviously an extremely talented writer and editor.
I think that what we are seeing is the New York Times acknowledging that the web is the future. Not too long ago, it stopped charging for access to its special web content — especially its most-popular columnists. It has built (and is probably still building) an impressive line-up of columnists and bloggers (including Paul Krugman as a blogger). Its Op-Ed Contributor page is one of the most sought-after platforms on the web. The Times has made its web presence very friendly and attractive (it has a very useful most popular list; articles have lots of cross-links; double click a word and get an immediate lookup; it publishes some very attractive Flash slide shows and videos) — while at the same time retaining its dignity. The owners of the Times have realized that they can't fight the web and that one of the things that draws people to websites is lively expression of opinion. Kristol gives them that — whether or not they have others who write from a similar ideological perspective.

It's obviously too early to tell how much money the Times website will contribute. But I'm pleased to see that the Times will be focusing on surviving in a web-based world and not attempting to survive without it. The Times is in the process of mastering the web as a medium of expression for what were once known as newspapers.

BRIC and N-11

They are both Goldman Sach's coinages. They are already 2 years old, but I heard BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) for the first time a couple of months ago and N-11 (Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Korea, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Turkey, Vietnam) just today.

8 important consumer trends for 2008

OK. Perhaps I just couldn't resist the picture, but lists premiumization in its latest trend report. This one is about premium water. For example, the middle bottle is
Evian's limited-release Palace bottle, available only in high end bars and restaurants. [It] features a specially designed pouring top and is accompanied by a stainless steel coaster, selling for USD 15-20 per bottle.
To bring our attention back to the picture, one rarely hears anyone talk about what it is about pictures of women's bodies that turn men on. Is that too trivial a question? Of course men are turned on by women's bodies? Do we know why — from an experiential perspective. Certainly we know why from an evolutionary perspective. It helps us persevere as a species. But what's the mechanism of the turn on?

My sense is that the primary mechanism is an imagining of how the woman feels, that is her subjective experience, but subjective experience in mainly a physical sense — not what she's thinking about and not what she's feeling on any deeply emotional level. I think we men are turned on by imagining all the sensations that (we suppose) are being transmitted by the skin we see and what it feels like to the woman to have those sensations. Is that too obvious?

In saying this I haven't explained how imagining how a woman experiences her physical sensations turns men on. While writing this it struck me that mirror neurons must be involved. So I looked up mirror neurons and came across this NYT article by Sandra Blakeslee from about 2 years ago.
The ability to share the emotions of others appears to be intimately linked to the functioning of mirror neurons, said Dr. Christian Keysers, who studies the neural basis of empathy at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and who has published several recent articles on the topic in Neuron.

When you see someone touched in a painful way, your own pain areas are activated, he said. When you see a spider crawl up someone's leg, you feel a creepy sensation because your mirror neurons are firing.
The article's final paragraph is as follows.
In yet another realm, mirror neurons are powerfully activated by pornography, several scientists said. For example, when a man watches another man have sexual intercourse with a woman, the observer's mirror neurons spring into action. The vicarious thrill of watching sex, it turns out, is not so vicarious after all.
Unfortunately, that was the end of the story. I suspect that men's mirror neurons are triggered not only by watching another man having sex with a woman but simply by looking at a woman whose body is depicted in such a way that it's easy for the man to imagine the sensations she is feeling.

Now for the most important question: why is she wearing that string around her waist?

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Bird and Fortune

I'd never heard of this British comedy pair until my friend Bob Weber sent me these links. They're terrific.

Here are all the Bird and Fortune videos.

Why we havent had a recession (so far)

Paul Krugman makes a nice observation.

The housing bust has lived up fully to my expectations. So far, however, the economy has held up surprisingly well (ask me again in a few months). How come?

It’s the exports, stupid.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Evolution (and biology in general) defines an arrow of time

In a post earlier this year, I pointed out that evolution is not a reductionist explanation. By that I meant that the evolutionary mechanism isn't dependent on its implementation. Evolution is (a) the generation of variation and (b) the selection (or at least favoring) of some of the variants for reproduction in a manner that passes on aspects of the variation that led to the selection.

The second law of thermodynamics says in effect that entropy inevitably increases. This defines the arrow of time. But the second law is like dirt in the gears of physics because all other laws are blind to time. They work as well backwards as forward. There is no apparent reason in physics why time moves as we experience it.

So the point of this post is to notice that evolution is like the second law of thermodynamics in that it is not blind to time. It moves in a defined direction. It doesn't make sense to say that evolution could run just as well backwards as forwards.

This is a lot less creepy than the second law, however, because evolution is defined on a much higher level of abstraction. For one thing, it assumes the notions of survival, reproduction, and the passing on of properties. So just that assumption seems to require a direction of time. It doesn't make sense to think of reproduction working backwards. One can't get from an offspring to a state prior to the offspring. So perhaps it's not as significant as I first thought that evolution implies a direction in time. Both reproduction and survival until reproduction seem to have an assumption of a direction of time built into them.

But then doesn't all of biology — or at least all of biology that is understood functionally — also have a direction in time? I don't know if it was on one of these blog pieces, but I've defined functionality as the change a mechanism has on its environment. Biology is all mechanism and functionality. So almost by definition, biology in general defines a direction in time.

An unintentionally patronizing defense of tolerance?

Julianne Dalcanton, an Associate Professor of Astronomy at the University of Washington and a blogger at Cosmic Variance has this to say about why she is tolerant of others' religious beliefs.
I typically stay out of the God vs the Atheists discussions in the blogosphere. I am soft enough of heart to take no pleasure in trying to argue people out of something that makes them deeply happy. I find no evidence for what they believe, and I profoundly disapprove of any attempt to institutionalize those beliefs beyond an individual church/synagog/mosque, but I just cannot build up a big head of steam to fight against individuals’ believing in something that helps them cope with life’s frustrations, tediums, and cruelties. …

As adults, even the most rational of us sometimes make small concessions to that joy in letting ourselves believe in something wonderful, but not sensible. When I bowl, I firmly believe that absurd amounts of body english after the ball has left my hand are key to keeping the ball out of the gutter. I obviously “know” that this can’t possibly help, but it makes me really happy to indulge my belief that it does. I have friends who have chants that will make parking spaces open up, who carry umbrellas to prevent it from raining, or who have magical articles of clothing that are critical to the success of their favored sports team. All of these beliefs are obviously absurd, but satisfying nonetheless. …

I won’t defend my tolerance with well-reasoned arguments, since I have none. Other writers and readers of this blog have given this topic far more rigorous thought than I. Instead, the tolerance grows out of the same inkling that it would feel a bit small for me to take away my daughter’s belief in Santa before she was ready to stand without it.
Does this seem patronizing to someone with deeply held religious beliefs? I posted this comment on the original blog entry.
I would guess that someone who is deeply religious would either (a) find that this post fails to understand the basis of their religion or (b) see it as patronizing. As it happens, I agree with you about most of what people call religion. But I know people who take their religion much more seriously than any child takes Santa Clause and would find the comparison either uninformed or offensive.
Update: One of the other comments on Juliane's post included this link to Leo Buscaglia's sweet fable "The Fall Of Freddie The Leaf".

A Colony With a Conscience

From The New York Times
THREE hundred and fifty years ago today, religious freedom was born on this continent. Yes, 350 years. Religious tolerance did not begin with the Bill of Rights or with Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom in 1786. With due respect to Roger Williams and his early experiment with “liberty of conscience” in Rhode Island, this republic really owes its enduring strength to a fragile, scorched and little-known document that was signed by some 30 ordinary citizens on Dec. 27, 1657.

It is fitting that the Flushing Remonstrance should be associated with Dutch settlements, because they were the most tolerant in the New World. The Netherlands had enshrined freedom of conscience in 1579, when it clearly established that “no one shall be persecuted or investigated because of his religion.” And when the Dutch West India Company set up a trading post at the southern tip of Manhattan in 1625, the purpose was to make money, not to save souls. Because the founding idea was trade, the directors of the firm took pains to ensure that all were welcome.

For example, while the Massachusetts Bay Colony was enforcing Puritan orthodoxy, there were no religious tests in the Dutch colony. So open was New Amsterdam that at least 16 languages were being spoken there by the 1640s; by 1654, the first Jews in what is now the United States had been able to settle there peaceably.

But religious tolerance had its limits in New Amsterdam, especially when it came to Quakers, who then had a reputation as obnoxious rabble-rousers. Peter Stuyvesant, the provincial director general and a Type A personality if ever there was one, was not going to tolerate a Quaker presence in his domain. To make his point, he ordered the public torturing of Robert Hodgson, a 23-year-old Quaker convert who had become an influential preacher. And then he issued a harsh ordinance, punishable by fine and imprisonment, against anyone found guilty of harboring Quakers.

Almost immediately after the edict was released, Edward Hart, the town clerk in what is now Flushing, Queens, gathered his fellow citizens on Dec. 27 and wrote a petition to Stuyvesant, citing the Flushing town charter of 1645, which promised liberty of conscience.

As Hart and his fellow petitioners so elegantly wrote, “We desire therefore in this case not to judge least we be judged, neither to condemn least we be condemned, but rather let every man stand and fall to his own master.” Their logic was impeccable: “the power of this world can neither attack us, neither excuse us, for if God justify, who can condemn, and if God condemn, there is none can justify.”

The Flushing Remonstrance was remarkable for four reasons.

First, it articulated a fundamental right that is as basic to American freedom as any we hold dear.

Second, the authors backed up their words with actions — they did not whisper their opposition among themselves or protest in silence. Rather, they signed the document and sent it to the most powerful official in the colony, a man not known for toleration or for an easygoing or gracious manner.

Third, they stood up for others; none of the signers was himself a Quaker. The Flushing citizens were articulating a principle that was of little discernible benefit to themselves.

And fourth, like all great documents, the language of the remonstrance is as beautiful as the sentiments they express. “If any of these said persons come in love unto us, we cannot in conscience lay violent hands upon them, but give them free egress and regress unto our town,” its authors wrote in the conclusion. “For we are bound by the law of God and man to do good unto all men and evil to no man.”

So what was the result? As expected, Stuyvesant arrested Hart and the other official who presented the document to him, and he jailed two other magistrates who had signed the petition. Stuyvesant also forced the other signatories to recant.

But the door had been opened and Quakers continued to meet in Flushing. When Stuyvesant arrested a farmer, John Bowne, in 1662 for holding illegal meetings in his home, Bowne was then banished from the colony. He immediately went to Amsterdam to plead for the Quakers. There he won his case. Though the Dutch West India Company called Quakerism an “abominable religion,” it nevertheless overruled Stuyvesant in 1663 and ordered him to “allow everyone to have his own belief.” Thus did religious toleration become the law of the colony.

The Bowne house is still standing. And within a few blocks of it a modern visitor to Flushing will encounter a Quaker meeting house, a Dutch Reformed church, an Episcopal church, a Catholic church, a synagogue, a Hindu temple and a mosque. All coexist in peace, appropriately in the most diverse neighborhood in the most diverse borough in the most diverse city on the planet.

Kenneth T. Jackson, a professor of history at Columbia, is the editor in chief of The Encyclopedia of New York City.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

More at peace than you

I've read some of Henepola Gunaratana and found his writings useful. But sometimes, some of the Buddhist writings I see seem to strike a more-at-peace-than-you attitude.
Go to a party. Listen to the laughter, that brittle-tongues voice that says fun on the surface and fear underneath. Feel the tension, feel the pressure. Nobody really relaxes. They are faking it. Go to a ball game. Watch the fans in the stands. Watch the irrational fit of anger. Watch the uncontrolled frustration bubbling forth that masquerades under the guise of enthusiasm or team spirit. Booing, catcalls and unbridled egotism in the name of team loyalty. Drunkenness, fights in the stands. These are people trying desperately to release tension from within. These are not people who are at peace with themselves. Watch the news on TV. Listen to the lyrics in popular songs. You find the same theme repeated over and over in variations. Jealousy, suffering, discontent, and stress.

"Enhanced interrogation"

Andrew Sullivan repeats some of his best blog posts. Here's one from May comparing enhanced interrogation now with that used by the Nazis. Here's how he ends it.
Critics will no doubt say I am accusing the Bush administration of being Hitler. I'm not. There is no comparison between the political system in Germany in 1937 and the U.S. in 2007. What I am reporting is a simple empirical fact: the interrogation methods approved and defended by this president are not new. Many have been used in the past. The very phrase used by the president to describe torture-that-isn't-somehow-torture - "enhanced interrogation techniques" - is a term originally coined by the Nazis. The techniques are indistinguishable. The methods were clearly understood in 1948 as war-crimes. The punishment for them was death.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Should the mortage bond meltdown be considered a "black swan" event?

I think there are a couple of ways to look at the question of whether the mortgage meltdown (see a nice discussion here) is a black swan in Taleb's sense.

For investors who bought these bonds because they were rated more highly than they should have been, it may be a black swan. These investors (mainly institutions) relied on rating agencies to tell then how risky the mortgage-backed bonds are. I don't think they can be criticized for that. After all the point of a rating agency is to provide risk ratings. Either one does it oneself or one relies on others. Since one can't do everything oneself (that's the benefit of specialization, etc.) one must rely on others. So for that group of people it was a black swan event in the same way as it would be a black swan event for the US army to stage a coup because it was fed up with how it was being destroyed by our policy in Iraq.

On the other hand, the mis-rating of the bonds was not a black swan event from the perspective of the rating agencies and the banks that sold them. It was an error on the part of the rating agencies and greed on the part of the banks (and also on the part of the rating agencies). That's not a black swan event.

One can claim that it was a complex systems event in that the incentives were wrong — and no one paid attention to the incentive structure. I have no problem with that analysis. That's an example of an unintended consequence of setting up a mechanism (that provides access to resources) that is then used in ways that were not intended. So one can pull in a complex systems analysis through that route.

In a complex systems course I'm developing I talk about this, namely that access to resources is fundamental to almost everything and that systems will often move in directions that are determined by agents finding ways to access resources rather than by other "intended" purposes.

So from this perspective the mortgage meltdown was not a black swan, it was an unintended consequence. I think there is an important distinction between black swans (which are not predictable except, perhaps, if one analyzes the entire universe) and unintended consequences which are in fact predictable (if unintended and undesirable) consequences of systems we design. (Bookstaber talks about this also. In fact, the liquidity problem of selling these bonds in a market that doesn't want them is just the sort of liquidity enhanced problem that Bookstaber talked about.)

In summary, for the institutions that bought the incorrectly but highly rated bonds, it was a black swan because (a) they were not in a position to question the rating agencies and (b) it is a black swan for the rating agencies to be so wrong. For the rating agencies and the banks that sold the bonds it was not a black swan but an unintended but predictable consequence of the structures within which they were operating.

The fact that Goldman Sachs recognized and profited by the possibility of the meltdown is evidence for this analysis. One typically can't bet on a black swan. The odds are too remote. All one can do is attempt to protect oneself from them and position oneself to take advantage of them should they occur. In contrast, one can (as Goldman did) analyze a situation and see in it a structure that others are ignoring and bet on that. That I'd say is a nice way to distinguish between a black swan and an unintended consequence.

This discussion illustrates how something can be a black swan event from one perspective but not from another. Taleb likes giving the example of a farm-raised turkey and the view of life he would develop. Day after day he is fed and taken care of. The more days that go by, the more comfortable he feels that life is good. His confidence grows and grows — until the day before Thanksgiving when a black swan event occurs.

In this case, of course, one could say that the event of being the Thanksgiving dinner was a black swan event because the turkey simply didn't have enough knowledge. But then we never have enough knowledge. There will always be items of information that if they had been considered might have warned us about something that otherwise surprises us.

Copied pictures

The Huffington Post has an article about a column by Frank Rich. The article includes this composite image consisting of pictures of both Rich and Bill Clinton. At the bottom of the article the following credits appear.
Photo of Frank Rich from the NYT; photo of Bill Clinton via
The credits include the link to the original source of the Clinton picture.

Yet the composite image was stored on The Huffington Post website. It was not (as are the images in my blog entries—like this one) references to the original image sources. My question is whether The Huffington Post asked for permission to copy the images. It seems unlikely because an exchange of emails requesting and granting permission would have taken too long. So The Huffington Post probably just copied the original images and created a derived combined (mashup) image without permission. What are the copyright implications of that?

There is a sense in which it is preferable to copy images than to refer readers to the original source. Copied images are retrieved from one's own web server. When the original source is used, one is forcing that web server to supply the images. So by copying the images, The Huffington Post did the original source a favor — of sorts. But they also violated copyright, didn't they?

Corporations operating in the public interest

Kevin Hassett writes
Over the years, we have grown accustomed to government bailouts of financial companies. The odd thing about the current credit crunch, however, is that it isn't the U.S. government that is doing the bailing.

Rather, government-owned sovereign wealth funds keep popping up in the news. The flurry of activity has aroused concerns in Washington policy circles, where the hottest question has become: ``Are foreign government purchases of U.S. assets a good or a bad thing''?

The answer to that, of course, is unclear, which suggests that congressional meddling is on the way.
Our deficits are finally coming home to roost. Congress may pass laws that prevent sovereign wealth funds from voting their shares in established corporations. But all that will do is make dollars less valuable. (Which would you rather own, a unit of currency that gives you some control over what you buy or one that doesn't?) Furthermore, what about new businesses? What if a sovereign wealth fund started a completely new business in this country? How would it be controlled?

If congress wants to ensure that corporations operate in the public interest, it will have to legislate to that effect--independent of who the owners of the corporation are. Of course we already do that. There are mountains of regulations regarding what corporations are and are not allowed to do. So this would not be a new precedent. Of course it's also a dangerous precedent when Congress tell private organizations how to behave. But that's already an issue we must struggle with. The increasing visibility of sovereign wealth funds will give the issue more urgency.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Homicide Blog

Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution points out that the LA Times has a Homicide Blog. Here's an entry from yesterday.
Susan Kim, 52

Susan Kim, a 52-year-old woman from Korea, was stabbed multiple times in the kitchen of 1348 Raymond Ave. in Glendale. Her daughter found her at about 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 16.

Her boyfriend, Soo Duk 'Brandon' Kim, a 45-year-old man also of Korean descent, was arrested shortly afterward. Acquaintances described her as a quiet woman and the neighborhood as largely crime-free. She was in the process of leaving him.
Why is this fascinating?

David Brin is angry

Look at his "ostrich" a and "ostrich" b challenges comparing Bill Clinton to George W. Bush.

Saturday, December 22, 2007


I'm trying out an online prediction market. I entered a question. If you want to "buy" an answer, go to

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Annals of monotheism

From the International Herald Tribune
A Catholic weekly newspaper in Malaysia has been told to drop the use of the word 'Allah' in its Malay language section if it wants to renew its publishing permit, a senior government official said Friday.

The Herald, the organ of Malaysia's Catholic Church, has translated the word God as 'Allah' but it is erroneous because Allah refers to the Muslim God, said Che Din Yusoff, a senior official at the Internal Security Ministry's publications control unit.

'Christians cannot use the word Allah. It is only applicable to Muslims. Allah is only for the Muslim god. This is a design to confuse the Muslim people,' Che Din told The Associated Press.

The weekly should instead, use the word 'Tuhan' which is the general term for God, he said.
The image is 99 Names of Allah.

Matthew Yglesias mourns the Mitt Romney that might have been

From The Atlantic
Michael Luo runs down [Mitt's Little Lies] with admirable thoroughness for The New York Times. Obviously, this accumulation of fibs isn't the biggest deal in the world. One suspects, however, that one reason the pile grows so large is that Mitt Romney's fundamental approach to political self-presentation is so deeply dishonest -- it's in part a 'what a tangled web we weave' phenomenon.

It's also a bit sad that while George Romney didn't march with MLK, he really was a pillar of moderate Republicanism and a staunch civil rights man. Romney, for a while, seemed like he was very much his father's son. And one could imagine an alternate reality in which he took a tough stand and tried to use his influence to return the GOP to something more like George Romney's political party. Instead, though, he decided to sell it all out and sign up for the party of gay-bashing and immigrant-hating and 'no atheists allowed' and dim-witted idol worship like the Reagan zone of economic freedom.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Cap and Dividend

Here's a proposal for limiting carbon emissions from James K. Boyce & Matthew Riddle of the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
A “cap-and-dividend” policy offers a simple and practical way to do this. The policy would auction carbon permits – rather than giving them free-of-charge to historic polluters – and then return all or most of the revenue to American families on an equal per person basis. Families who consume lower-than-average amounts of fossil fuels come out ahead, receiving more in dividends than they pay in higher prices. Those who consume more-than-average amounts pay more.

The policy has three basic steps:
  • First, U.S. carbon emissions are capped at a level that gradually declines over time. One widely discussed target is to reduce emissions 80% below their current level by the year 2050.
  • Second, based on the cap in a given year, permits are auctioned to firms that bring fossil carbon into the economy (whether through domestic extraction or imports). The supply of permits in a given year is fixed by the cap; their price depends on the demand for them.
  • Third, revenue from the sale of permits is deposited into a trust fund and paid out equally to every woman, man, and child in the country. In addition, some fraction of the revenue initially may be earmarked for other uses, such as transitional adjustment assistance. …
The revenue from the sale of carbon permits would amount to roughly $200 billion per year. If this revenue is recycled to the public equally, the majority of households receive more in dividends than they pay as a result of higher fossil fuel prices. The net impact ranges from a 14.8% income gain for the poorest 20% of families (and a 24% gain for the poorest 10%) to a 2.4% loss for richest 20% …

Initially earmarking a modest fraction of the carbon revenues for other uses, such as transitional adjustment assistance, could further enhance the appeal of the cap-and-dividend policy. Up to 10% of the carbon revenues can be dedicated to other uses while maintaining positive net benefits for roughly 50% of households. Withholding carbon revenues beyond this threshold would push the net beneficiary share of the population below half.

A cap-and-dividend policy will assert the principle of common ownership of nature’s wealth: the right to benefit from our share of the Earth’s capacity to absorb carbon emissions is allocated equally to all Americans. [Emphasis added] It will protect the real incomes of the majority of Americans while curbing global warming and hastening the U.S. economy’s transition towards the energy sources of the future. From the standpoints of both distributional equity and political feasibility, a cap-and-dividend policy is therefore an attractive way to curb carbon emissions.
One of the nice features conceptually of this proposal is that it converts a carbon tax (bad vibes) into a means whereby common resources are valued and sold for the benefit of the common owners (better vibes).

The Famous Gorilla Video

An article about this past summer's meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC) points to the famous Gorilla video. ASSC will have this year's meeting in Taipei.

How to lie with statistics

When I was a kid, I read and loved Darrell Huff's How to Lie with Statistics. Now the web site Stats seems to be keeping that spirit alive. Here's a recent posting.
Recently, Time Out New York sent a wave of panic through the city’s single women by reporting in its cover story that there are 185,000 more single women than men here. The article cited National Geographic, which had analyzed census figures. To make the numbers even scarier, the package cited excesses of women in college compared to men.

But this is a false comparison as college enrollment figures are not measures of population: there may be fewer men enrolled in college, but among the college-age group, there is no shortage of men compared to women. And the census figures actually do not include people living in dorms.

Basically, the excess of women is due to the fact that men tend to die at younger ages than women do. If you look at the male/female numbers in the younger age groups, in most, there are significantly more men. For example, there are 211,590 men aged 18 and 19 in the NY Metro area – but only 201,282 women.

The disparity may also reflect shorter lifespans and excessive incarceration among men of color: in the white non-institutionalized population, men actually outnumber women even in the 35-44 age group, but in the whole non-institutionalized population, the male/female ratio is skewing female by that age.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Why don't we hear Democrats talking about this?

From the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Earlier this month the House passed a bill to extend relief for one year from the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) for upper-middle-income taxpayers. The bill would have paid for this extension in substantial part by closing a tax loophole that enables wealthy hedge fund managers to defer compensation tax free in offshore tax havens.

The Administration and many congressional Republicans argued that AMT relief should be extended but not paid for. Senate Minority Leader McConnell termed the idea of offsetting AMT relief “offensive.”
Bush has recently been bashing Democrats with the usual tax and spend charge. Why don't the Democrats counter when they have the opportunity? This is the perfect example.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Dogs can categorize pictures into those that contain dogs and those that don't

From New Scientist
Four dogs were simultaneously shown photographs of a landscape and of a dog, and were rewarded if they selected the latter using a paw-operated computer touch-screen. When the computer-savvy dogs were shown unfamiliar landscape and dog photos they continued to identify those containing dogs. And when shown an unfamiliar dog superimposed on a landscape used in the training phase, they were still able to pick it out in preference to an image of just a landscape.
Is this surprising? It would be if one thinks of dogs as computers and marvels that they can do image recognition. It isn't if one thinks this asks whether dogs can recognize other dogs. It may be if one thinks this asks whether dogs can understand that they are being asked to select pictures that contain other dogs. Can dogs distinguish pictures of collies from pictures of Beagles? Can they distinguish pictures of other dogs from pictures of their masters? Can they distinguish pictures of squirrels from pictures of rabbits? The experiment, at least as described, didn't ask useful questions.

Brewing fuel?

The post below includes an extract from a story in the Washington Post. That same story discusses some of the potential products.
LS9 Inc., a company in San Carlos, Calif., is already using E. coli bacteria that have been reprogrammed with synthetic DNA to produce a fuel alternative from a diet of corn syrup and sugar cane. So efficient are the bugs' synthetic metabolisms that LS9 predicts it will be able to sell the fuel for just $1.25 a gallon.

At a DuPont plant in Tennessee, other semi-synthetic bacteria are living on cornstarch and making the chemical 1,3 propanediol, or PDO. Millions of pounds of the stuff are being spun and woven into high-tech fabrics (DuPont's chief executive wears a pinstripe suit made of it), putting the bug-begotten chemical on track to become the first $1 billion biotech product that is not a pharmaceutical.

Engineers at DuPont studied blueprints of E. coli's metabolism and used synthetic DNA to help the bacteria make PDO far more efficiently than could have been done with ordinary genetic engineering.

"If you want to sell it at a dollar a gallon … you need every bit of efficiency you can muster," said DuPont's Pierce. "So we're running these bugs to their limits."

Yet another application is in medicine, where synthetic DNA is allowing bacteria and yeast to produce the malaria drug artemisinin far more efficiently than it is made in plants, its natural source.

Bugs such as these will seem quaint, scientists say, once fully synthetic organisms are brought on line to work 24/7 on a range of tasks, from industrial production to chemical cleanups.
Production of drugs and other chemicals is fine. But I have a hard time understanding the thinking behind fuel generation. After all, energy is energy. It doesn't get created for free. If a "bug" can convert corn syrup and sugar cane to fuel, it must start off with the corn syrup, which must be produced somehow. Ultimately, the source of any bio-fuel energy is the sun. It's possible that the path from sun to plant to genetically produced fuel is more efficient than current routes, but the most efficient route is to use the sun as an energy source.

Synthetic DNA on the Brink of Yielding New Life Forms

Scientists in Maryland have already built the world's first entirely handcrafted chromosome -- a large looping strand of DNA made from scratch in a laboratory, containing all the instructions a microbe needs to live and reproduce.

In the coming year, they hope to transplant it into a cell, where it is expected to 'boot itself up,' like software downloaded from the Internet, and cajole the waiting cell to do its bidding. And while the first synthetic chromosome is a plagiarized version of a natural one, others that code for life forms that have never existed before are already under construction. …

Today a scientist can write a long genetic program on a computer just as a maestro might compose a musical score, then use a synthesizer to convert that digital code into actual DNA. Experiments with "natural" DNA indicate that when a faux chromosome gets plopped into a cell, it will be able to direct the destruction of the cell's old DNA and become its new "brain" -- telling the cell to start making a valuable chemical, for example, or a medicine or a toxin, or a bio-based gasoline substitute. …

"Most cells go about life like we do, with the intention to make more of themselves after eating," said John Pierce, a vice president at DuPont in Wilmington, Del., a leader in the field. "But what we want them to do is make stuff we want."

J. Craig Venter, chief executive of Synthetic Genomics in Rockville, knows what he wants his cells to make: ethanol, hydrogen and other exotic fuels for vehicles, to fill a market that has been estimated to be worth $1 trillion.

In a big step toward that goal, Venter has now built the first fully artificial chromosome, a strand of DNA many times longer than anything made by others and laden with all the genetic components a microbe needs to get by.

Details of the process are under wraps until the work is published, probably early next year. But Venter has already shown that he can insert a "natural" chromosome into a cell and bring it to life. If a synthetic chromosome works the same way, as expected, the first living cells with fully artificial genomes could be growing in dishes by the end of 2008.

The plan is to mass-produce a plain genetic platform able to direct the basic functions of life, then attach custom-designed DNA modules that can compel cells to make synthetic fuels or other products.
Just as a general purpose computer was central to the cyber revolution, the key will be a generic genetic platform, one that will be self-sustaining if given access to energy and to which additional functionality can be added.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Have traditional Muslims rejected bin Ladin

From Foreign Affairs: The Top 10 Stories You Missed in 2007
"How many innocents, old men, children are killed in the name of al Qaeda? … What have we gained from the destruction of a whole country such as Iraq and Afghanistan?"
According to Foreign Affairs, this was the statement of bin Ladin's former mentor Salman al-Awdah. Is al Qaeda really becoming an outcast in the Muslim world?

Monday, December 17, 2007


The New York Times has an article on multi-core processors. It's focus is primarily on the fact that Microsoft is taking the problem seriously and putting lots of money into it. The problem, if course, is that software developers don't know how to develop software for parallel computation. The article quotes David Patterson of Berkeley as saying
Industry has basically thrown a Hail Mary. The whole industry is betting on parallel computing. They’ve thrown it, but the big problem is catching it.
The "Hail Mary" reference is to the fact that the hardware industry has run into problems that makes it very difficult to make individual chips run faster. The alternative to faster chips is more chips. That also increases the raw computing power. The problem is that we don't know how to use it.

Parallelizing software is very difficult. We don't know how to do it. It's unlikely that we will solve that problem soon. So what's to do? Two things.
  • We can and should focus on more loosely coupled processes. Parallelization is the attempt to break a single process down into subprocesses that can perform the same overall computation but with some of them done in parallel. Loose coupling is an attempt to think about computation in terms of multiple computations that interact less often. It's coordinating the interactions that make parallelization so difficult. If there were fewer interactions or if the interactions were less tightly coupled, the result would be easier to produce. Of course that's easier said than done. But agent-based computing has been around for quite a while, and it has produced some useful results.

    On the discouraging side is the fact that process algebra has also been around for quite a time and has not produced much in the way of practical results. We just don't know how to coordinate even loosely coupled processes except through very generic mechanisms. The fact that most of what we experience in life consists of loosely coupled processes should be encouraging. But we have a long way to go before we understand how it works.

  • The second approach is to work on developing systems that work at many levels of processing simultaneously. Apparently our brains do that. At the same time as we are doing something we are aware of the fact that we are doing it, and we can regulate how we do it. Aspect-Oriented Programming (AOP) is a move in the right direction. It is an attempt to develop programming languages that allow the programmer to write software that both operates at the process level while at the same time operates at a meta-level that observes the operational level. AOP as currently structured attempts to map all of these processes onto a single process programming language. That, of course, is not only not necessary, it's the wrong way to proceed. In the future we will have many processors. We should be working on putting them all to work at different observational levels.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Ensure telecoms are held responsible for their actions

Send an email here. From the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
For more than five years, AT&T and other telephone companies broke the law and violated their customers' privacy rights by sending billions of private domestic internet and telephone communications and records to the National Security Agency.

Now, after months of pressure from the Bush Administration, the full Senate is poised to grant retroactive immunity to these companies, which would effectively ensure that the full extent of their complicty will never be known.

The critical make-or-break vote is being held Monday-- contact your Senator immediately and urge them to oppose telecom immunity!

Senate lawmakers must support Senator Chris Dodd and other heroes in allowing a full debate to proceed on Monday, and they must vote to strip telecom immunity from the bill.

The Senate should not let the telecoms off the hook. Granting immunity sets a dangerous precedent, sending the message that lawbreaking is acceptable and that the rights of Americans can be freely infringed by private companies in defiance of the law. And though the debate about the proper process of collecting foreign intelligence is complex, the issue of telecom immunity is not. The facts are simple enough: the telecoms broke the law, so the Senate should let Americans have their day in court.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Sciencedebate 2008

Sign up at Sciencedebate 2008 to support a call for a Science debate.
Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness, we call for a public debate in which the U.S. presidential candidates share their views on the issues of The Environment, Health and Medicine, and Science and Technology Policy.

Informal Holiday Time Off at Cal State, Los Angeles

My university just announced its "informal time off" program for the holiday season.
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. (Please note this informal time off cannot be used on a day the campus is closed.) 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, 2008. 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, 7172 and 7930 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.
It's reassuring to know that even bureaucracies can let their hair down.

Apparently I received a similar notice a couple of years ago.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Call your senator

The ACLU says
As soon as tomorrow, the Senate will begin to debate legislation that would give the president greatly expanded powers to spy on Americans and let telecom companies that broke the law off the hook. There isn't a moment to lose. Please call your senators and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
This web page will give you the telephone numbers to call.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Thomas Friedman on Iran and Bush

Another good column.
Iran is still enriching uranium in violation of U.N. proliferation rules to which Iran had agreed (and testing long-range delivery missiles). Yes, it is still enriching below weapons grade. Iran says this is to fuel nuclear reactors to generate electricity — but it has no such reactors. And to get that uranium enriched to weapons grade, all it has to do is keep running it through its centrifuges.

“That is the hardest part of building a nuclear weapon, and Iran is still doing it,” said [Gary Samore, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Clinton administration expert on proliferation]. “Our ability to get strong international sanctions to halt that was already weak,” but by declaring definitively that Iran’s weapons program had been halted, the N.I.E. “has given the Russians and Chinese a good excuse to make sanctions even weaker.”
What Friedman failed to discuss is why the NIE was released as it was. It seems to me that it was an attempt by people inside the CIA and elsewhere in the government to contain Bush. Their view is that Bush is more dangerous than Iran. It's too bad that a decision of that sort had to be made. But I place the blame for that on Bush and not on those who released the NIE.

Just as we recognize that some of the statements that originate from foreign capitals are intended primarily for internal consumption, others should recognize that the same sort of thing happens here. It's just too bad that we don't have a coherent and believable foreign policy that can stand on its own in the face of such internal disputes. But Bush destroyed it, and it won't be possible to rebuild it until after the next election.

As Friedman noted at the end of his piece,
Now we have to depend on — Oh, my God! — President Bush to persuade the world to read the whole N.I.E. and see it in a balanced perspective. … Some things are true even if George Bush believes them, but good luck getting anyone to buy that anymore.
That's another of the tragedies of the Bush administration.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Virtual property

A fuss is being made (and here) about the use of the word merchandise in this consent judgment. The claim is that by using the term merchandise the judge recognized virtual reality property as property. That makes it different from intellectual property.

But if virtual property is property does that mean that any (virtual) profits one makes on Second Life will be taxable as income?

Markets and liqidity in nature

I recently finished Rick Bookstaber's A Demon of our Own Design. It's a very nice book about markets and liquidity—although it could have used a bit more editing. After reading it, I began to wonder why we don't see markets and liquidity in nature, i.e., biology. Certainly some natural (decompositional) processes break down larger units of energy (and other resources) to produce smaller units. And much of biology consists of aggregating smaller units of energy and other resources to serve larger units (like us). But there doesn't seem to be anything that corresponds to a naturally occurring (biological) market for energy or other resources.

Even more to the point, I can't think of any naturally occurring free-standing biological entities that make their living by providing liquidity to other biological entities. Perhaps fat cells do that within biological organisms. (Although is that really a liquidity function or just a savings function since fat cells are "owned" by the organism they serve?)

One problem is the lack of a medium of exchange, i.e., money. But it would seem that some form of unit of energy should work for that purpose. Yet none seems to have evolved.

Those of us who work in the field of complex systems find market mechanisms to be important in much of what we do. We also find naturally occurring mechanisms to be important. Yet markets and liquidity do not seem to be naturally occurring at the biological level, i.e., outside human interactions. That's strange because nature is usually so good at exploiting situations that are potentially profitable. I'm not sure what to make of that—other, perhaps than to say that like conceptualizing itself this may be one of the innovations that human beings have added to biological processes.

Perhaps one reason is that nature tends not to operate on a very capitalistic model. That is, there aren't good examples of savings being accumulated and then invested in new ventures. The only counter-example that I know of is giving birth. Every birth is a capital investment. Of course that's very widespread, but it's also very constrained and stereotyped. The investment that is made in giving birth generally can't be converted to something that might have been invested in some other way.

So if there is no free capital, then perhaps there is no need for liquidity.

Credit Card gouging

Senator Carl Levin wants support for a bill to reduce credit card gouging. Sign up here.
Right now, credit card companies can institute unfair interest rate hikes and even raise interest rates retroactively on existing credit card debt. Senator Levin has introduced legislation to end these abusive credit card practices.

Rapid acceleration in human evolution described

From Reuters
Human evolution has been moving at breakneck speed in the past several thousand years, far from plodding along as some scientists had thought, researchers said on Monday. In fact, people today are genetically more different from people living 5,000 years ago than those humans were different from the Neanderthals who vanished 30,000 years ago, according to anthropologist John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin.

Many of the recent genetic changes reflect differences in the human diet brought on by agriculture, as well as resistance to epidemic diseases that became mass killers following the growth of human civilizations, the researchers said.

For example, Africans have new genes providing resistance to malaria. In Europeans, there is a gene that makes them better able to digest milk as adults. In Asians, there is a gene that makes ear wax more dry.

The changes have been driven by the colossal growth in the human population — from a few million to 6.5 billion in the past 10,000 years — with people moving into new environments to which they needed to adapt, added Henry Harpending, a University of Utah anthropologist.

"The central finding is that human evolution is happening very fast — faster than any of us thought," Harpending said in a telephone interview.
Interestingly, Hawkes, the lead author, posted a notice about the result on Slashdot, News for Nerds!
I've been reading Slashdot for a long time, and let me just say that our study doesn't necessarily apply to trolls.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Dog Whistlers: The One Question the "Pro-life" Presidential Candidates Don't Want You to Ask

Cristina Page in the Huffington Post asks a great question about how "pro-life" the pro-life candidates are.
If their statements and actions are indicators, most of the GOP candidates oppose contraception. Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul, Tom Tancredo, Duncan Hunter, and Fred Thompson all define life as beginning at conception or fertilization, in other words when sperm meets egg. (It's worth noting that there's no medical way of knowing when sperm meets egg. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a fertilized egg isn't even considered a pregnancy.) This 'life at fertilization' assertion is what is called in the business 'dog whistle' politics: a political message only a specific constituency can hear. The reason, of course, to keep the message on one frequency, is that in most cases the issue is deeply unpopular with most of the American people. The candidate's whistle, in this case, is a pledge to support the anti-abortion movement's campaigns to roll back access to contraception.

If a candidate pledges to define life as beginning at fertilization, then anything that prevents implantation will end a life. And pro-lifers insist the pill does that. Birth control then becomes abortion, and as we know, abortion gets banned. Why hasn't the media sunk its teeth into this little curiosity? At the very least, it would make for some really great TV.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Absent from Annapolis

Tom Friedman notes:
One of the most telling but little-noted ironies of the U.S.-sponsored peace summit in Annapolis, Md., was who on the Arab side didn’t attend. Syria, a country we barely talk to, was there. Saudi Arabia, which never meets with Israelis, was there. No, the two no-shows were the two Arab countries liberated by U.S. troops from the grip of Saddam Hussein: Iraq and Kuwait.

That’s right — Iraq and Kuwait, the two Arab countries hosting the most U.S. troops, and the two Arab countries with probably the most active elected Parliaments, were both absent.
Friedman doesn't draw any profound conclusions from this — only that Arab countries have lots of internal divisions, which must be healed before any sort of lasting peace is likely in the Middle East.

What strikes me is that he noticed this at all. Noticing an absence or a non-event is much harder than noticing an event. I'm sure the administration didn't point it out. I wonder whether he noticed it himself or if someone else told him about it. Either way, good for Tom Friedman for making this observation public.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Great column from Tom Friedman

Here's Tom Friedman's Dec 5, 2007 column. It's too good not to copy.
There are two intelligence analyses that are relevant to the balance of power between the U.S. and Iran — one is the latest U.S. assessment of Iran, which certainly gave a much more complex view of what is happening there. The other is the Iranian National Intelligence Estimate of America, which — my guess — would read something like this:

To: President Ahmadinejad
From: The Iranian Ministry of Intelligence
Subject: America
As you’ll recall, in the wake of 9/11, we were extremely concerned that the U.S. would develop a covert program to end its addiction to oil, which would be the greatest threat to Iranian national security. In fact, after Bush’s 2006 State of the Union, in which he decried America’s oil addiction, we had “high confidence” that a comprehensive U.S. clean energy policy would emerge. We were wrong.

Our fears that the U.S. was engaged in a covert “Manhattan Project” to achieve energy independence have been “assuaged.” America’s Manhattan Project turns out to be largely confined to the production of corn ethanol in Iowa, which, our analysts have confirmed from cellphone intercepts between lobbyists and Congressmen, is nothing more than a multibillion-dollar payoff to big Iowa farmers and agro-businesses.

True, thanks to Nancy Pelosi, the U.S. Congress decided to increase the miles per gallon required of U.S. car fleets by the year 2020 — which took us by surprise — but we nevertheless “strongly believe” this will not lead to any definitive breaking of America’s oil addiction, since none of the leading presidential candidates has offered an energy policy that would include a tax on oil or carbon that could trigger a truly transformational shift in America away from fossil fuels.

Therefore, it is “very likely” that Iran’s current level of high oil revenues will last for decades and insulate our regime from any decisive pressures from abroad or from our own people.

We have to note that obtaining open-source intelligence in America has become more difficult, because traditional news shows have become more comedic and more comedic news shows more authoritative.

For instance, CNN’s nightly business report is hosted by a man named “Dobbs.” Real journalists come on his show and present transparently propagandistic stories about immigration and trade and then he fulminates about them, much the way our ayatollahs used to do about “Satanic Americans” on late-night Iranian TV. So viewers have no real idea what’s happening in the U.S. economy.

Meanwhile, at 11 p.m., something called “The Daily Show,” which appears on Comedy Central, has fake journalists presenting what turns out to be the real news.

Yes, our last I.N.I.E. in 1990 concluded that after the collapse of communism, America was on track to become the world’s sole superpower and most compelling role model for Muslim youth — including our own. We were wrong. We now have “high confidence” that America is on a path of self-destruction, for three reasons:

First, 9/11 has made America afraid and therefore stupid. The “war on terrorism” is now so deeply imbedded in America’s psyche that we think it is “highly likely” that America will continue to export more fear than hope and will continue to defend things like torture and Guantánamo Bay prison and to favor politicians like Mr. Giuliani, who alienates the rest of the world.

Second, at a time when America’s bridges, roads, airports and Internet bandwidth have fallen behind other industrial powers, including China, we believe that the U.S. opposition to higher taxes — and the fact that the primary campaigns have focused largely on gay marriage, flag-burning and whether the Christian Bible is the literal truth — means it is “highly unlikely” that America will arrest its decline.

Third, all the U.S. presidential candidates are distancing themselves from the core values that made America such a great power and so different from us — in particular America’s long commitment to free trade, open immigration and a reverence for scientific enquiry wherever it leads. Our intel analysts are baffled that the leading Democrat, Mrs. Clinton, no longer believes in globalization and the leading Republican, Mr. Huckabee, never believed in evolution.

U.S. politicians seem determined to appeal either to the most nativist extremes in their respective parties — or to tell voters that something Americans call “the tooth fairy” will make their energy, budget, educational and Social Security deficits painlessly disappear.

Therefore, we conclude with “high confidence” that there is little likelihood that post-9/11 America will, as they say, “get its groove back” anytime soon.

Who needs nukes when you have this kind of America?

God is Great. Long Live the Iranian Revolution.

There was something about this picture

This is a New York Times picture with the caption
A marine had admirers in Falluja on Tuesday, thanks to Sunni allies. But the government has done little to keep them in the fold.
Something about it struck me. Perhaps the contrast between the armed marine and the children, or the high tech weapons he presumably has and the backwardness of the neighborhood he is patrolling, or the fact that he's so far from home, doing what he's been asked to do and having children watch while he works, but that his job is so deadly. It just seems strange and touching.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Sounds like a good idea

ACM TechNews reports:
Microsoft Research's Jeremy Elson and Jon Howell are re-examining a project that uses inkblots as visual aids to help computer users remember complicated and difficult to crack passwords. Using a public Web-based project at, the researchers let users create a password using a series of random inkblots and a formula that selects letters. A series of inkblots are shown to the user, who associates a word with each inkblot. For each inkblot, the user enters the first and last letter of the word the user associates with that inkblot. A series of 10 inkblots creates a password 20 characters long of seemingly random letters that is easily remembered by the user but difficult to steal. After a period of time, users were even able to remember the password without having to refer back to the inkblot, according to research first conducted in 2004. Typically, passwords as complex and secure as the inkblot passwords need to be written down or users will create weaker passwords that are easier to remember. The researchers found that different users almost always describe the same inkblot in different ways, making the system is even more secure and difficult to guess, as users create mental images they associate with the inkblots. Eventually, the users develop "muscle memory" and can log in without referring to the inkblot images.
Seems like a neat idea. But when I went to the website to try it out, I almost immediately found that I didn't want to have to think up associations.

But they did have another neat idea. Instead of asking users to recognized distorted letters and numbers, they asked users to distinguish between pictures of cats and dogs.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

"Not in our Name"

Good slogan, and we should have more people in this country saying that. (See story Briton In Teddy Bear Flap On Way Home.) But in this case it seems a bit too much like overly easy PC. What would have happened had the teacher been in this country and allowed her students to name the Teddy Bear God, or sh*t or f*ck, or even vagina or penis? Wouldn't there have been an outcry by those who claim to defend public morality. What would our local governments have done?

Besides that, the punishment wasn't stoning. She was to be jailed for 15 days and then deported. Two weeks in jail is not the most pleasant prospect, but it's not as if she had been threatened with being water-boarded until she repented. (And apparently she did repent. She apologized "for causing distress" before being sent home.)

We preach respect for other cultures. Why isn't this a case where we weren't sufficiently sensitive the another culture?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

"The Long and Short of It at Goldman Sachs"

From a column in the New York Times by Ben Stein. The column focussed on a paper by Jan Hatzius, a Goldman Sachs economist, which paints an extremely gloomy picture of the economy.
Goldman Sachs was one of the top 10 sellers of C.M.O.’s [collateralized mortgage obligation] for the last two and a half years. From the evidence I see, Goldman was doing this for years. It might have sold very roughly $100 billion of the stuff in that period …

As Goldman was peddling C.M.O.’s, it was also shorting the junk on a titanic scale through index sales — showing, at least to me, how horrible a product it believed it was selling. …

To my old eyes, the recent unhappiness about mortgages and Goldman’s connection with them are not examples of sterling conduct. It is bad enough to have been selling this stuff. It is far worse when the sellers were, in effect, simultaneously shorting the stuff they were selling, or making similar bets. Doesn’t this bear some slight resemblance to Merrill selling tech stocks during the bubble while its analyst Henry Blodget was reportedly telling his friends what garbage they were? How different would it be from selling short the junky stock that your firm is underwriting? And if a top economist at Goldman Sachs was saying housing was in trouble, why did Goldman continue to underwrite junk mortgage issues into the market? …

Is it possible that Dr. Hatzius’s paper was a device to help along the goal of success at bearish trades in this sector and in the market generally? His firm says his paper, like all of its economists’ work, was not written to support any larger short-trading strategy. But economists, like accountants, are artists. They have a tendency to paint what their patrons, who pay them, want to see. …

Should there not be some inquiry into what the invisible government of Goldman (and the rest of Wall Street) did to create this disaster, which has caught up with some Wall Street firms but not the nimble Goldman?

When the Depression got under way, the government created the Temporary National Economic Committee to study just what had happened on the Street to get the tragedy going. Maybe it’s time for an investigation of just what Wall Street and Goldman did to make money as they pumped this mortgage mess into the economic system, and sometimes were seemingly on both sides of the deal.