Friday, March 31, 2006

Dregs

The Age of Melbourne has posted an opinion that Australia should offer, as a service to the rest of the world, to maintain a nuclear dump site. Reasons given or implied are that 1) the Australian Outback is extremely geologically inactive, 2) Australia is politically very stable, 3) there are suitable areas with low population density, 4) the rest of the world would appreciate it, 5) there would be an associated revenue stream.

Nuclear waste disposal is actually a non-problem problem invented by hysterical nimbys. While it would be nice for Australia to take the political issue off our hands, there would still be complaints, mainly associated with transportation issues. We should be storing it on our own soil to avoid ocean transport, and because of reason 5. Nevada is a nice place. Why don't we cut the nonsense and start shipping it there. The one place that we really don't need to keep nuclear waste is in exposed swimming pools near major population centers. Nevada could use the business, and they're probably more politically stable than Australia. I would prefer the Appalachians. These mountains have been geologically inactive for quite some time, 250 mega-years or thereabouts. There are some nice deep coal mines that could hold the material safely until such time in the future as we need it. That's right. Is there any reason to imagine that future technologies will never find a profitable application for nuclear waste? There's also some nice places in Canada than haven't done much since the Pre-Cambrian. If you really want to get rid of it, drop it in the Marianas Trench. Just do it. Aren't there some pretty nice subduction zones off of the West Coast?

3/31/2006 4:12 PM

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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Flying Pork

Gregg Easterbrook has leveled his rant blaster at NASA once again. NASA's spending priorities, he suggests, are determined by the outlines of congressional districts rather than the pursuit of helpful knowledge. He says we are wasting millions so that astronauts can take each others blood pressure on pointless missions to useless places. The Moon Mission is, in his estimation, a waste of time on a boring rock; the Mars Mission is beyond our grasp; the Space Station is silly and the Shuttle is a white elephant. Here's what he would do:

The agency's first emphasis should be research about Earth and the sun. That's the sole area in which NASA spending is odds-on to produce immediate returns for taxpayers. Second, NASA should fund more automated probes and satellites to study this solar system and close-by star systems—the parts of space that might have some effect on us. Almost all NASA findings since the moon program have come from automated probes such as Cassini, which a few weeks ago discovered what appears to be a water vent on a moon of Saturn. Most probe projects cost less than a single launch of the space shuttle. Third, the agency should cancel the shuttle program and use the funds to research new propulsion systems that might fundamentally reduce the price of access to space.

In my mind, Mars is the attraction. The moon is a distraction. Access is the action.

3/29/2006 5:35 PM

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Monday, March 27, 2006

Battlefield Economics

Yahoo News is saying that soldiers in Iraq are rejecting new body armor. Too heavy, they say. The words of one soldier: "I understand the more armor, the safer you are. But it makes you slower. People don't understand that this is combat and people are going to die."

Well, they embarrassed Mr. Rumsfeld over this, but the fact is that there are diminishing returns associated with every resource invested in winning a war. Tradeoffs. People think that the protection of our soldiers is an obvious first priority. It certainly is, at least until 1) you have protected them enough, or 2) you jeopardize the mission, or 3) no significant additional benefit is being contributed.

Everything you do costs money and effort. Everything that is invested in one deliverable must come from, be subtracted from, some other potential deliverable. Yes, you can increase the overall level of spending, but once you do that, guess what! You now must allocate your larger resources among potential deliverables and something will have to be neglected. Another annoying fact of life is that each additional dollar allocated for the overall effort will have less impact than the previous dollar. It is true that resource allocations are often faulty, not as effective as they might be. Can you tell me what it takes to allocate resources more effectively?

Tanstaafl is more than a Danish pastry.

3/27/2006 12:57 AM

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Saturday, March 25, 2006

Switch Jobs

Here's a FrontPage post about a Minnesota teacher who has been trying to bring up the subject of the Cartoon Jihad. Her bulletin board posting of the cartoons has been repeatedly sabotaged by unknown individuals. Is it the Muslims who are doing it? Or, more likely I think, is it her own superiors who are trying to prevent the controversy? Management is often the home for cowards. It's part of the job description. Surely there is a better way to enroll people into leadership positions.

3/25/2006 6:17 PM

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Dhimmis Awaken

A lot of interesting stuff is going on in Denmark lately. It seems that one of the more fascistic imams has threatened to kill a government official who happens to be a moderate, secular Muslim. First he denied it. Then he said he didn't remember. Now he says it must have been a joke. Don't you know we fascists have a great sense of humor? The neat thing is that a French reporter got the threats on videotape. Danish reporters are now asking the imam whether he says one thing to the public and another thing to his fascist buddies. They also asked him whether he was joking when he got so "angry" about the Jyllands-Posten cartoons.

This must be pretty scary to the Danes.

3/25/2006 3:39 PM

Here's a picture of the imam and one of his other "jokes".


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Friday, March 24, 2006

Slope of the Meme Ramp

Here's a little tidbit for those who think that all cultures are equal. Now, the Russians are a secular, Christian-based culture, just like the US in many ways. Do you still think you can swallow a passel of Wahabi radicals without major stomach upset?

3/24/2006 1:31 AM

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Thursday, March 23, 2006

George Bush's Stupid Boss

George Bush's Stupid Boss

This morning twelve American tourists were killed when a bus left the road in Chile. I guess tourism is a dangerous business. I don't know whether seat belts would have saved them, but in my experience, many vehicles in other countries do not have seat belts. Years ago, a girl I knew died in the Pyrannees when her 12-seater crashed into a mountain. About ten times that many, 120 or so, were killed yesterday in automobile accidents in the United States, drivers, passengers, pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists. Our highways are definitely dangerous for people of all ages. Killed or injured last year in the US in highway related events were 2.8 million people. Damn! The estimated economic cost of these crashes is about 230 billion dollars.

Highway deaths and injuries constitute a major policy issue. The government, at various levels including local, spends a lot of money and consideration on this issue. There are also a number of non-profits, such as MADD and Consumer Reports, and corporate lobbyists, mostly from insurance companies, who get involved, pushing particular safety issues. We're talking about even more money and discussion and politics. When are we going to get out of this business of driving on highways?

Personally, I am a public transportation advocate. Bicycles are cool too. If we could get the cars off the roads, bicycles would be pretty safe. I also don't think we can keep using fossil fuel for much longer. To me, bicycles, small electric cars and railroads reprepresent the sustainable future. It would be so much more pleasant as well. I don't think it has to happen tomorrow. I'm not expecting that, but we should ask ourselves where do we want to be going, and why are we not going there.

Now, some people are willing to burn down ski resorts or risk lumberjack lives by spiking trees. I am not among those. Other people are willing to murder abortion providers, or spit on soldiers returning from war, or burn down embassies to protest cartoons, or chop down acres of woodland to protest EPA decisions, or resort to character assassination to get their candidates elected. Everybody thinks they're right, and many are willing to get extreme in order to impose their wishes.

We have a democracy here. This is the most liberal construction every fashioned by humans. It's a system that functions pretty poorly, at least from the perspective of individuals with their own opinions. But it outshines the dubious glories of all past civilizations by a considerable margin. As required by any functioning system of government, it has mechanisms for arriving at decisions and enforcing those decisions. This is a good thing. The President, for example, is constrained by laws, public opinion and the facts. His staff and the agencies of the federal government provide him with all manner of information related to those three constraints and he makes summary assessments as best as he can. Republicans and Democrats tend to evaluate these things a little differently, but from a reasonable perspective, the differences are not great. The facts, or rather intelligence information, is something he has that we don't. There is a lot of sharing going on, but his sources are better than your sources. He also knows how to get elected, which makes him smarter than you. He knows how to balance information coming from ABC and NYC and PRC. He's good at making decisions or he wouldn't be there. His decisions can be vetoed by his wife, advisors, staff members, cabinet officers, congressional leaders, Congress or the People. In short, he doesn't always get his way, but when he does he has the full force of the state behind him.

Let me say it this way. Bill Clinton was vetoed on the health care plan by Harry and Louise. George Bush was vetoed on Social Security reform by AARP. He has been stymied on many, many of his initiatives, but no one kept him out of Iraq. So can we at least credit that decision for having some legitimate support? Nobody liked it when Bill Clinton bombed the Serbs in Kosovo. Everybody complained when Reagan pushed the Soviets as hard as he did. War is not the easy choice for us, but we do it anyway because it is sometimes the correct choice. The occupant of the White House may not be the best choice for the position, but the system put him there and he's entitled to respect.

Now let's look at traffic deaths. There have been subtle adjustments in the budget allocated to auto safety, changes inpersonnel as well. Money is being spent on other priorities, but in my state, at least, the fatalities have dropped about 7 percent, or 111 per year, since the recent peak in 2002. The number of cars and miles traveled has gone up. President Bush has maintained a steady course in terms of traffic safety to keep the number of deaths down. He hasn't killed the safety programs. He hasn't screwed them up too bad. And nobody has noticed. They don't need to notice.

What people have noticed are the deaths of soldiers in Iraq. This is the emotional trump card of the anti-war folks. How can it be worthwhile to lose all these young lives? What benefit can possibly be obtained that will pay us back? Surely that stupid man, GW Bush, graduate of Yale and one time National Guard pilot, can't have any insight into this. He has erred! He has lied! He is bleeding us dry! We have no reserve capacity!

So I compare deaths of soldiers to traffic deaths in the US. People find this emotionally repugnant, but I'm doing it only to gain perspective on our true costs in Iraq. I have also compared our losses to those incurred in other wars, to D-Day and Gettysburg. Others have done so as well. By those standards this war has to be characterized as a small engagement. IMO, it is hugely important, but not expensive.

Now, Proud Kaffir at RedState has compared these losses to peacetime military losses under previous presidents. Surprise! We're actually doing better. Wretchard does an excellent job of looking at these numbers from all angles. Please take a look.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Hope is the Difference

Mohammed at Iraq the Model has eloquently expressed his thoughts on the third anniversary of the war. He is not disheartened and he would do it again.

... Life stopped and time stopped when Saddam ruled Iraq, actually that totalitarian regime was moving backwards and dragging us with it and nothing could stop the deterioration that began the moment Saddam came to power. We had to accept the change and live with all that would come along with it whether good or bad. The democracy we're practicing today in Iraq is the exact opposite of what we had for decades and until three years ago. This democracy carries the essence of life, the differences, the dynamics and yes, the failures but also the seed of a better future.

Before the liberation we were suffering and we had no hope, now we are also suffering but we have hope ...

3/21/2006 9:34 AM

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Monday, March 20, 2006

Cane Toad Counterattack

Australians are mounting an effort to halt the spread of the toxic cane toad, an invasive species in Queensland, which has been killing native predators, including such large species as crocodiles. I'm predicting two things. First, the effort will not succeed. (I hope I'm wrong.) Second, the toads will undergo changes as a result of the extermination campaign. That is, new regimes of natural selection will filter subsequent generations of cane toads, promoting whatever characteristics they might have that make them less susceptible to being killed by humans. An example might be improved camouflage.

I have written previously on this topic here.

3/20/2006 10:26 PM

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Monday, March 13, 2006

Poor Yorick

When I was growing up, my parents tried to protect us from the mere idea of death. They did not speak of it. I never went to a funeral before I was in my twenties. I never saw a dead human body until much later. Since I could read the newspaper, I certainly knew a lot about it. At a young age I found a book of combat photography hidden in the storage room. It was extremely well done with very high-resolution images of battlefields and towns littered with the dead of World War I – soldiers and civilians. I am familiar with similar photography pioneered by Matthew Brady during the Civil War. Vietnam was also a source for images of death and violence. However true to life, though, these are just photographs.

I don’t know whether my parents’ protectiveness was a function of personal idiosyncrasies, or of Protestant fastidiousness, or an antiseptic sense of modernity. My wife, raised as a Catholic, was not similarly protected. As a result of this background, I suppose, I have a shock response to death, human or animals. I’m not immune to dead and dying insects either. I inure myself to this shock. I believe, intellectually, that the dead retain no connection to the living. Whatever lived there is gone. I try to make myself accept this emotionally, as well, but I’m not completely successful. I believe insects and fish do not feel pain and anxiety the way mammals do, but I still pity them.

The function of funerals is to help the living deal with the loss. I don’t believe the dead derive any benefit from the procedure. My father thought the same. He felt that funerals were an extravagance. He attended dutifully when called upon, but did not care about his own. He directed that his body be cremated and that no stone be laid. I have told my wife that I don’t care what happens. My preference, which I can’t imagine will be honored, is to be run through a wood chipper and plowed under with the other nitrates. Then again, my body might be polluted with strange chemicals upon my demise, antibiotics and whatnot. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a good idea. Nevertheless, I find the idea of coffins and interments to be unnatural and tainted with superstition.

It’s really not an easy problem. Well, I’ve thought, maybe I could just be plasticized and put on display like Jeremy Bentham, for educational purposes.

-----

That’s exactly what has happened with a few dozen people, now on display at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. A man by the name ofGunther von Hagens invented, in 1977, a way to chemically stabilize bodies using a process called "plastination". The display he subsequently put together, the Body Worlds exhibition, has been on tour since 1995. It hasn’t been universally admired. He has been driven out of Germany and China by repeated legal challenges and accusations of ethically questionable behavior, but he has found a comfortable home for his exhibition in the US.

I took my daughter to see the show a month ago, knowing that I wouldn’t do too well. She wanted to go, and, right or wrong, I do not want to repeat the patterns of my parents.

It starts off pretty tamely. A couple of bones with labels. It becomes quickly and progressively more and more challenging, medically explicit and artistically outlandish. There are cunning displays of the inner workings of the body, informative explorations of diseases we are subject to (some of which I have suffered from), some rather explicit anti-smoking messages, a distressing display of the stages of pregnancy. But mostly, there are astonishing depictions of the body, using the bodies of real ex-people, engaged in the physical pursuits we take for granted.

I had to sit down a couple of times. My knees were acting up. My daughter was not ready to leave when I was. I spent a lot of time in the museum store, which is a little too commercial, oriented toward trinkets and jokes. I listened to the med students from Penn who were chattering with excitement. My daughter was positively exhilarated.

I dreamed a lot about it afterwards. I still do a little. I feel, despite my qualms about Mr. von Hagens, that I have been enriched. I’m not really sure how.

-----

This Sunday’s edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer has an opinion piece (not yet available online) by Anita L. Allen, a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in ethical issues. She is puzzled and somewhat miffed by the lack of reaction among Americans. She is concerned about disrespect for the Dead. She took offense at a man, skinless, as all the bodies are, wearing a hat, perhaps Gunther’s hat. She was upset about the sexually provocative position of a pregnant woman. (I did not find it so.) She felt that we were somehow failing these departed individuals by ogling their actual and perhaps sacred flesh.

I have to admit that I am puzzled myself. You are talking about a nation that will spend 65 years, thousands of man-hours and dollars, looking for a scrap of bone or a tooth or a smear of DNA to mark the passing of a soldier in a distant war. And yet, there are no protests, no angry litigation, no mobs with torches and pitchforks trying to dismantle the Body Worlds. How can these seemingly contradictory responses both be true? I don’t really understand it, and I guess I don’t really understand myself, because I find that I’m proud, as an American, of both responses.

3/13/2006 1:14 PM

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Thursday, March 09, 2006

Still Evolving

Whenever species are subjected to changing, or differing, environmental influences, natural selection will take place. If there are a lot of storms, the bones of birds will grow measurably stronger. If there are few storms, they will grow thinner. Cancer and malnutrition take differential tolls depending on the influence of the Sun. If there is insufficient sunlight, human skin will grow lighter. If there is too much, skin will grow darker. It doesn't take a million years. The soldiers of World War II were descended from parents who survived the Spanish Influenza in 1918. There was no similar epidemic in 1945.

Every dimension of human habitat may well have some sort of effect, not excluding self-generated dimensions. The baby boomers were descended from men who survived World War II -- and those who remained at home. The aspects of young men that may have caused them to be classified as 4-F are probably represented today at a higher frequency than they were before the war. Such things can change in a single generation.

Nicolas Wade has a review of current genetic research in the NY Times claiming that 700 regions of the human genome show the effects of natural selection over the last 5,000 to 15,000 years. Considering that our environment has changed dramatically due to the creation of agriculture and cities, not to mention all the other concomitants of civilization, can this be surprising? The punch of the article comes from the assertion that some of these changes appear to differentiate racial subgroups. Human induced selection of domestic animals has certainly created much greater changes than any apparent or postulated racial differences. Let's not flinch from the truth, whatever it may tell us. The Truthsearch Meme, applied consistently, will engender satisfying expansions of Complexity.

(Link provided by Andrew Sullivan.)

3/9/2006 3:15 PM

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Other Sucking Sound

The Immigration Brain Drain

An aspect of immigration that is not discussed very much is the impact it has on the country of origin. The Guardian points out that the West is actually draining the most competent individuals away from the Third World, thus condemning these countries to continued poverty. I don't know whether this is as true for the US, but someone on NPR was saying this morning that Mexico actually has a strong economy these days. The "pull" effect of US opportunity is now more important than the "push" effect of poverty and calamity. The link is thanks to Tim Worstall.

3/8/2006 11:21 AM

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Hand Jive

The World keeps on changing. Everybody seems to be teaching their babies how to talk with baby sign language. One of the youngest grandnieces was teaching the still younger one how to say "more" and "eat" and "give me my bunny blanket" using hand signs. A young grandnephew, who doesn't seem interested in talking, is very good at signing "more food". When I expressed surprise, their parents assured me that it was perfectly normal and all the kids were doing it these days.

There are claims for signing as early as 6 weeks. That doesn't seem credible to me, but my little niblings were pretty young when I saw them doing it, just starting to walk pretty well.

I understand that the physical aspects of speaking are not easily learned when children are very young, but the mental equipment for communication is apparently already in place. With my kids, I remember the difficulty we had getting on their wavelength. Sometimes they were already hysterical before they could tell us what the problem was. My wife could tell the difference between a "hungry" cry and a "change me" cry, but I sure couldn't. I remember an older nephew, who is now a newly-minted lawyer, did not say a word until he was three. Fortunately, he was a contented child, but it could have been bad.

I believe this signing is a good thing. It gives children more control over their little universe and it improves their ability to interact. I suspect it makes them smarter (if that's possible). On the whole, it's such a delightful thing that it inspired me to think of a new angle.

My wife and I have always wanted to learn sign language as a family project. It seems like a lot of fun, and practical too. You could continue to converse with the kids after they got onto the bus in the morning. But learning sign language is not easy. It's a whole new vocabulary with no way to leverage your current language skills. Unless you have a deaf family member, there's not much incentive to practice either. We really never got beyond the alphabet and a few basic words.

I realize that the alphabet is a complete conversational tool, but it's also pretty slow. At any rate, my idea is that we should design a new sign language that is easy for hearing people to learn. Rather than using letter symbols as a digital conversion from the printed word, wouldn't it be better to use an analog system that corresponds to the various components of the speech system, i.e. tongue, palate, larynx. In other words, we should be able to transliterate the International Phonetic Alphabet into analogous handforms and motions where, for instance, the levels of openness for a certain vowel correspond to the degree of openness of the left hand. Maybe a consonant could be displayed by positioning the hand, analogous to the tongue, touching the other arm, analogous to the palate, in a particular place.

Once the basics were mastered, you could always refresh your memory of the details by reference to your actual speech mechanics. Presumably, you could eventually sign at a speed comparable to slow speech. You could sign easily while speaking since there would be no mental conflict between motions and thoughts. You could sign any word you knew how to say. You could sign any language you knew how to speak. You could represent accents, and you could instruct deaf people on the proper pronunciation of a given word. What do you think?

OK. There still remains the little detail of actually designing the language. I don't feel qualified to do it myself. Maybe it's already been done, but I haven't heard of any such thing. Maybe it can't be done. It seems like it should be possible, but human speech is a pretty complex system. I'm gonna be the CEO on this one. Somebody get of your duff and make it happen.

3/8/2006 12:00 AM

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Friday, March 03, 2006

Math Rant

Evolutionblog has a great rant about a recent column in the Washington Post by Richard Cohen, who thinks that Algebra is unnecessary.

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Snore Doctors

Ira Flatow had a couple of MDs on his show, Science Friday. They're supposed to be specialists on snoring and sleep apnea. I don't think I'm going out on a limb here to estimate that these guys were possibly the most sleep-inducing doctors on the planet -- possibly a useful trait in their particular specialty. Poor Ira.

Having dealt with doctors most of my life, I feel safe in making the generalization that they are not drawn to their profession because of the opportunity to exercise imagination. They are walking representatives of a Body of Knowledge -- members of the priestly class, strictly forbidden to speak an original thought or indicate approval of speculative discussion. I have known exceptions, but even they were reluctant to acknowledge that a patient might say something worth thinking about, rather than evaluating each utterance as a possible symptom.

In recent months I have heard that snoring can be treated by appropriate exercise. In particular, singing is thought by some to be effective. Learning to play the digeridoo, of all things, has also been cited recently. A caller on the show today suggested that his exaggerated yawning and stretching routine seems, according to his wife's reports, to make a difference. He sounded sane and alert. The docs acted as if he were a foreign gourmand, belching politely after a good meal. I thought that these options had some prima facie appeal, and certainly sounded a lot better than burning out one's soft palate.

One of the good doctors had done an admirable study of mass-market snoring "cures", using a scientific approach. He claimed, very primly, that he was unable to uncover a significant effect. He should have at least chuckled, sniggered or preferably guffawed. One of these devices is a special ring you wear on your finger to stimulate an acupuncture pressure point! The gall of these marketers is limitless. The limp reaction was distressing.

What poor representatives of Science they were. Is it just fear of being sued, or is it some sort of personality disorder?

3/3/2006 9:52 PM

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Corporate Collusion

The latest development in the Cartoon Jihad is corporate meddling, as reported by the EU Observer. I guess they want to distance themselves from their country of origin. They want it to be known that prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen is not speaking for anyone but himself on this crazy free speech issue. It reminds me of good old Henry Ford*. If corporations are willing to bend and mold themselves to please the most morally intransigent customers, threatening in defense of the indefensible to take their marbles and go elsewhere, it should make you wonder where corporate leaders come from. If a Danish corporation, no less, can bully Denmark into betraying its principles, how can we expect freedom to prevail? These guys only push around the people that behave according to rules of civilized conduct. Corporations have too much power. I guess we knew that anyway, didn't we.

*Ford Motor Company was active in Germany's military buildup prior to World War II. --Wikipedia

3/3/2006 11:44 AM

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