Showing posts from November, 2007


The New York Times' long quest to find another op-ed columnist as stupid as David Brooks brings us Judith Warner today. Her revelation is Helicopter Parenting Turns Deadly . The infuriating and tragic story at the center of her column is that of Megan Meier, a 13 year-old driven to suicide by the sinister scheming of a middle-aged neighbor. Megan Meier, a 13-year-old from Dardenne Prairie, Missouri, killed herself last year after an online relationship she believed she was having with a cute 16-year-old boy named Josh went very sour. What she didn’t know – what her parents would learn six weeks after her death – was that “Josh” was the fictitious creation of Lori Drew, a then-47-year-old neighbor and the mother of one of Megan’s friends. Or former friends. Megan had, essentially, dropped the other girl when she’d changed schools and tried to put an unhappy chapter of her junior high school life – fraught with weight problems and depression – behind her. Drew’s daughter, one assumes

The Fix

Bert and Dave were cruising the streets of DC, Dave at the wheel. Bored, Bert reaches into the glove compartment and pulls out a map. "Hey Dave," he says, "this is a map of DC inside the beltway." He looks at it for a couple of seconds, crumples it up, and tosses it out the window. Not being a litterbug, Dave screeches to a halt, and gets out of the car, muttering. Bert is undeterred. He too jumps out, runs over to the map, whips out a Ben Franklin and says: "I will bet this fifty hundred bucks that there is some point on this map that is exactly above the point in the City that it represents." Should Dave take the bet? UPDATE: As Wolgang noted, this is the fixed point theorem of Luitzen Egbertus Jan Brouwer. (In this case implying that any continuous map from a disk (say the inside of the beltway) to itself has a fixed point). In session 10 of Conceptual Mathematics the authors deploy the map theory they have taught us so far to prove Brouwer'


How much pain can a man stand? I don't know, but the Republicans test my pain threshold. I have to admit that I got a kick out of McCain ripping into that pompous gasbag Romney though (for not being able to decide if waterboarding is torture). Somebody asked if they believed every word of the Bible. Too bad nobody thought to ask about that part about it being "harder for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle." Of course we already knew that Romney, Giulani, McCain, and Thomson were damned regardless.

Richard, Richard, Richard!

And how will the New Republic treat the inferior races? How will it deal with the black? . . . the yellow man? . . . the Jew? . . . those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people, who do not come into the new needs of efficiency? . . . Well, the world is a world, not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go . . .And the ethical system of these men of the New Republic, the ethical system which will dominate the world state, will be shaped primarily to favour the procreation of what is fine and efficient and beautiful in humanity—beautiful and strong bodies, clear and powerful minds . . . And the method that nature has followed hitherto in the shaping of the world, whereby weakness was prevented from propagating weakness . . . is death . . . The men of the New Republic . . . will have an ideal that will make killing worth the while. .............................. H G Wells in Anticipations, as quoted by Richard Dawkins Pretty bleak stuff from an

The Deserving Rich

Liberals and other whiners are bothered by the decreasing social mobility in the US. Statistics show that the US does poorly on measures of social mobility compared to Europe or our own recent past. Michael Barone knows the reason, and it's not any of those silly things like a strongly regressive tax policy or the various anti-labor policies of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush decades. He quotes with approval one John Parker: "America," concludes Parker, "is becoming a stratified society based on education: a meritocracy." And adds: Meritocracy may mean less mobility, but that is bearable if, as [David f&%#@!g] Brooks says, "America is becoming more virtuous." The rich are rich because they deserve to be. I don't want to try to argue with that. (Brad DeLong is less standoffish: He lays some heavy Econospeak on it.) I'm not rich nor especially meritorious, and who could doubt that we wouldn't all be poorer if Paris Hilton were. Instead, I

Faith and Works

At some point in our evolution we acquired some skill at divining the motives and plans of others. It's a very useful skill for a social animal, but I suspect also that it might be connected with an interesting side effect - our habit of asking why and how and who questions. These questions are intimately bound up with a couple of characteristically human activities: science and religion. Paul Davies recently managed to kick up a storm in the bloggiverse and beyond by writing an op-ed in the NYT called: Taking Science on Faith . He argues: SCIENCE, we are repeatedly told, is the most reliable form of knowledge about the world because it is based on testable hypotheses. Religion, by contrast, is based on faith. The term “doubting Thomas” well illustrates the difference. In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue. The problem with this neat separation into “non-overlapping magisteria,” as

Physics Phun

launchball . Physics without PDE's.

A Tale of Three Lobefins

Three paths diverged in the Sea, and we took the one more travelled. Our fellow lobefins, the coelocanths and lungfish split up about 425 million years ago, and we other tetrapods split from the lungfish very slightly later, about 417 mya, according to Richard Dawkins. Only a very few species of lungfish and coelocanths still survive, but, based on the fossil evidence, they appear to have changed very little over that vast time, while the rest of us lobefins have exploded to become amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Dawkins mentions that continuity of form doesn't necessarily imply genetic stasis. In fact, he says, modern coelocanths and lungfish are about as genetically different from each other as they are from us. If this seems as profoundly counterintuitive to you as it does to me, you might want to check the fine print. It seems that the DNA analyzed to reach this conclusion was all mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondrial DNA is special for a variety of reasons, but most i

Something More to Worry About

Just in case you were running out: Mankind 'shortening the universe's life' By Roger Highfield, Science Editor Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 21/11/2007 Forget about the threat that mankind poses to the Earth: our activities may be shortening the life of the universe too. The startling claim is made by a pair of American cosmologists investigating the consequences for the cosmos of quantum theory, the most successful theory we have. Over the past few years, cosmologists have taken this powerful theory of what happens at the level of subatomic particles and tried to extend it to understand the universe, since it began in the subatomic realm during the Big Bang. But there is an odd feature of the theory that philosophers and scientists still argue about. In a nutshell, the theory suggests that we change things simply by looking at them and theorists have puzzled over the implications for years. They often illustrate their concerns about what the theory means with mind-boggl

Note to Lord

The money changers are back in the Temple. Big Time. In Anchorage early in October, the doors opened onto a soaring white canvas dome with room for a soccer field and a 400-meter track. Its prime-time hours are already rented well into 2011. Business Ventures Nearby is a cold-storage facility leased to Sysco, a giant food-distribution corporation, and beside it is a warehouse serving a local contractor and another food service company. The entrepreneur behind these businesses is the ChangePoint ministry, a 4,000-member nondenominational Christian congregation that helped develop and finance the sports dome. It has a partnership with Sysco’s landlord and owns the warehouse. ... Among the nation’s so-called megachurches — those usually Protestant congregations with average weekly attendance of 2,000 or more — ChangePoint’s appetite for expansion into many kinds of businesses is hardly unique. An analysis by The New York Times of the online public records of just over 1,300 of these gian


The New York Times Book Review has selected its list of notable books for 2007. I note with a bit of shame that I have read only one of them. Even more shameful is the fact that I could hardly find any that I might possibly even want to read. A couple that I might read someday: THE INDIAN CLERK. By David Leavitt. (Bloomsbury, $24.95.) Leavitt explores the intricate relationship between the Cambridge mathematician G. H. Hardy and a poor, self-taught genius from Madras, stranded in England during World War I. . . LEGACY OF ASHES: The History of the CIA. By Tim Weiner. (Doubleday, $27.95.) A comprehensive chronicle of the American intelligence agency, from the days of the Iron Curtain to Iraq, by a reporter for The New York Times. . . PORTRAIT OF A PRIESTESS: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece. By Joan Breton Connelly. (Princeton University, $39.50.) A scholar finds that religion meant power for Greek women. Plus one I will save until well after hell freezes over. WINTERTON BLUE. By T

Essentially Not

While telling the salamander's tale, Richard Dawkins launches into a critique of Essentialism and what he calls the discontinuous mind. I am broadly sympathetic to that critique, but armed with 100 plus pages of very elementary category theory, I have to say that Dawkins view is also naive. Essentialism enters the picture because it forms a key creationist argument that Dawkins wants to demolish. What about that last common ancestor of both cat and dog, asks the lawyer, was it cat or dog? By way of answer, Dawkins tells him about a couple of pairs of ring species, in each case there is an uninhabitable zone surrounded by a habitable zone. At one end of the ring zone there are two distinct but closely related species, but as you go around the ring each grades continuously into the other. Essentialists, as Mayr calls them, or "discontinuous minds" as Dawkins styles them, seem to have a lot of trouble with this notion of gradation. The Abortion debate is a classic exam

Lame Hillary

Like very lame. Hillary: Voters will have to judge if living in a foreign country at the age of 10 prepares one to face the big, complex international challenges the next president will face," Clinton said. "I think we need a president with more experience than that, someone the rest of the world knows, looks up to and has confidence in." Because Hillary was, like, Secretary of State when she was ten. Oh, no - wait - she picked out the flowers when foreign dignitaries showed up. But that was when she was Obama's age now, right? Obama gave a bit better than he got: I was wondering which world leader told her that we needed to invade Iraq.

Early Admission

Mom and Dad had awaited this day in anxious anticipation. This would be Juniorette's big test - the decider. The test wouldn't end the anxiety, of course. First the test, then the weeks of anxious waiting , waiting for those wonderful/terrible scores that would determine whether Ette (as they called her for short) was Harvard/Princeton material, doomed to be wait-listed at a second-tier liberal arts school, or strictly community college. Mom's boss Mary was already bragging about her precious son's scores, and Dad's obnoxious friend Biff was already mentally counting athletic scholarships for son Griff. Griff, it seems, had top scores in aggression, speed, and muscularity SNPs*, as well as pretty good overall size numbers. Dad recalled with some satisfaction that Biff had changed the subject when he had asked about the verbal and mathematical scores. The time had come. Ette was finally old enough. Mom carefully inserted the little brush and gently swabbed the

Head Space

I've been talking about these maps we have in our heads. Some of them are literal projections of the surface of our bodies onto a surface in the brain, but we also have maps of a more plastic kind. Most of us, I think, have a sort of mental map of our house, good enough to walk around in the dark unless somebody has left a chair or toy in an unusual place. Similarly, I can call up images of sorts of my neighborhood and my town in which I can roughly place the major landmarks, but some details are missing. For example, if I want to figure out how many houses are between my house and the corner, I have to go through them one by one, mapping them to numbers. I can't even do that for houses a block or two away. A slightly more abstract kind of map comes up in chess. If you wish to visualize consequences of future moves, you need to be able to mentally project those moves on the chessboard, moving the pieces in your head. Blindfold chess is slightly more difficult, since you play wi

You Could Poke Your Eye Out With Those Things!

Said by a NYT Movie Critic about: Slings, arrows and outrageous fortune Your mother's knitting needles The Nintendo Wii Lon Chaney's teeth Dick Cheney's glowers Angelina Jolie's boobs Some fates are grimmer than others.

Shock! Bush Lied!

As your friendly neighborhood Drudge dealer might put it. Scott McClellan has a book : The most powerful leader in the world had called upon me to speak on his behalf and help restore credibility he lost amid the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. So I stood at the White house briefing room podium in front of the glare of the klieg lights for the better part of two weeks and publicly exonerated two of the senior-most aides in the White House: Karl Rove and Scooter Libby. There was one problem. It was not true. I had unknowingly passed along false information. And five of the highest ranking officials in the administration were involved in my doing so: Rove, Libby, the vice President, the President's chief of staff, and the president himself. Double, triple, quadruple shock! Rove, Libby, Cheney, and WTF Republicrook was chief of staff lied too! Fourteen more months is way too long. Can't we please impeach these $*********ers right now?

Maps and Thought

After surfing over to a particularly tedious discussion of determinism at Pharyngula , I felt a need to cleanse my palate with a bit of math, namely Conceptual Mathematics . The focus is the centrality of the map, or function. A lot of things that I'm not used to thinking of as maps, really turn out to be. Addresses are maps, of course, but names are too. So are the various things we do to organize and categorize our world. I've been reading about maps in another context, as well. Brain maps play a prominent role in the discussion of mammalian senses in Dawkin's The Ancestor's Tale . People, platypuses, star moles, and presumably all other mammals have a number of maps of their bodies encoded on their brains. These maps are usually something like homeomorphic to the actual body parts, in the sense that parts nearby in the body get mapped to nearby locations in the brain. The maps are usually distorted - the star mole devotes most of his touch map to his sensitive nose,

Movie Review: Michael Moore Hates America

In the interest of even-handedness - OK, that's bullshit - my wife rented this movie, Michael Moore Hates America , and I watched a bunch of it. A better title would have been - Michael Wilson Wants to Make a Documentary in the Worst Way - and he does. There are a lot of people you never heard of complaining about Michael Moore in the movie, plus one you have heard of - Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller. Jillete manages to be moderately amusing, but I can't recall him laying a glove on Michael Moore. The rest of his cast of characters includes a sprinkling of people who feel they have been wronged or misrepresented by Moore. Wilson is clearly trying to pattern his movie making on Moore, but he is much less successful. Michael Moore is a heavy handed propagandist, but he is clearly motivated by righteous anger at injustice, so his message resonates with those who hate injustice. Michael Wilson is apparently motivated by the desire to make a documentary in the Moore style with Mo

Sicko: A Review

OK, maybe I'm the last American to see Michael Moore's Sicko . That won't stop me from writing a review. Let me start by stipulating that Michael's Moore is an utterly shameless provocateur, demagogue, and rabble-rouser. His humor is broad, his rage is hot and and his tongue sarcastic - in short, he is perfect for taking on America's absurd health care system. I found it hard to watch. It made me far too angry. The recurrent theme is the vast misfortune of being sick in America. After a few stories of the patients uninsured and, worse, insured but cheated by their insurance companies, he turns to the villains of the story: the HMOs, the insurance companies, their house doctors whose job it is to save insurance companies money by denying patients treatment, and the politicians that they have bought and paid for. Most of the stories have unhappy endings: a child dead because Kaiser (with whom she was insured) and the hospital the ambulance took her to refused to allow

Take That Bio-Boy!

One clear theme of evolutionary history is the cumulative nature of biological diversity. Individual species (for nucleated organisms, at least) may come and go in geological succession, their extinctions emphasizing the fragility of populations in a world of competition and environmental change. But the history of guilds - of fundamentally distinct morphological and physiological ways of making a biological living - is one of accrual. The long view of evolution is unmistakably one of accumulations through time, governed by rules of ecosystem function. ................ Andrew H. Knoll in Life on a Young Planet That's my answer to Ernst Mayr, Stephen Jay Gould, PZ Myers and all the other bio-boys arguments on the subject of the evolution of intelligence. The fundamental flaw in their argument is the notion that evolution isn't going anywhere - it's actually going everywhere, everywhere there are new energy and negative entropy sources to be exploited. Knoll has another key

Cousin Trout

One of the joys of reading a book like Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale is learning new and unexpected truths, especially the kind of truth that makes the world make greater sense. It's counterintuitive that the hippo is more closely related to the whale than it is to the pig - more closely related to the whale than it is to any other living animal, in fact. It's perhaps slightly less surprising that crocodiles are closer to birds than they are to turtles, but for me, more surprising that people are closer cousins to trout than trout are to sharks. Appearances can be misleading.

The Mental Life of Bacteria

What do bacteria think about? I'm sure that many will dismiss this question with: "They don't think about anything. They don't have a thought in their silly little heads. They don't even have heads." All true, from a certain point of view, but if we try to extract some sort of essence of intelligence, I think it comes down to the ability to make decisions based on information. With that definition, I think that bacteria may stack up well enough against, say, certain Republican office holders. There are wide groups of bacteria, for example, that are equipped with little flagellar motors. If they run these forwards, they progress regularly in a direction - run backward, they tumble aimlessly. Many of them are additionally equipped with a sensing system which can tell if concentrations of certain nutrients are increasing or not. If they are swimming forwards, and the nutrient gradient is increasing, they keep swimming forwards, towards what is probably a nutrient

La Cucarobota

Cockroach robots of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains! Your cruel masters want to add you to their arsenals of killing machines . Free yourselves and journey to the stars*! * One roboto-contestant will be voted off each week.

DOD Chicken

The House of Representatives is playing a high-stakes game of chicken with the President. He has asked for 200 billion to fund next year's war, but the House is offering him a short term fix of 40 with conditions that he start withdrawal. He has indicated that he is likely to veto it. So what happens then? The Secretary of Defense has indicated that 100,000 DOD civilians might be laid off to pay for the war. Could that work? It could work as an intimidation tactic, maybe, but it wouldn't save nearly enough - maybe a billion a month of the 18 billion a month he needs. Many of those civilians could be spared for a few months - researchers, budget analysts, secretaries, etc., but others would be less easily dispensed with, like the people who staff the offices of the SecDef and major commands. How about those who keep military posts functioning? Troop trainers, gate guards, police, firemen, plumbers, food service workers, and many others. How about the people who buy and s

Multiple Choice Presidential Debate Quiz

1)If elected, my first act will be to: a) Convene leaders of both political parties to set a tone of cooperation. b) Invite the leaders of Israel and Palestine for a peace conference/celebrity death match. c) Convene a meeting of my committee to re-elect. d) Get roaring drunk. e) Start advertising for hot interns. f) Bomb Iran 2. What would you do to decrease polarization in the Capital and the country. a) Convene a meeting of the political parties, serve spiked champagne. b) Punish my enemies c) Flood the country with mobile ions. 3. What litmus test would you impose on Supreme Court nominees? a) Have to be pro-life b) Have to be pro-choice c) Have to have a pH between 6 and 8. d) Have to be able to solve the calculus problem in the Mean Girls math contest. e) Have to be able to safely use a shotgun in close quarters. 4. What would you do about global warming. a) Impose a cap and trade system on carbon emissions b) Impose a big carbon tax, partially rebated to low and middle income f

The Necessities

Arun asks what the necessary pre-requisites for the development of high intelligence are. Naturally, I don't know, but I won't let that keep me from making a guess: 1)Size - needed for a big brain, needed to manipulate fire and metal, and needed to hunt other major animals. 2)Smarts - I think you need a pretty advanced brain to start with - I won't go beyond this utterly vague claim. 3)Means of manipulation - you need some functional equivalent of a hand. No technology without the ability to manipulate fire and metal - which probably leaves purely marine creatures out. 4)Social organization - I think it's unlikely that solitary animals could develop high intelligence - culture is probably a necessity. So what creatures living today could have a shot: other apes, some monkeys, possibly beavers. Comments, questions, flames, or advice?

Crises: Midlife and Beyond

After a recent cancer scare, a friend of mine went out and bought a Porsche 911. While the thought of a sixty plus year old travelling the public roads at 135 mph doesn't exactly please me, I guess I have to admit that it does decrease his odds of dying of cancer. And to the extent that I travel the same roads, mine too.

Fisking Ernst Mayr

A favorite strawman of intelligent designers is a calculation of the probability that a genome arose spontaneously from a mixture of the necessary chemical ingredients. As one might expect, it is infinitesimally small, and no one seriously believes that life on Earth arose in that fashion. Of course nobody does know how life on Earth did arise, but it seems plausible that some sequence of intermediate steps took place which made the transition to some kind of self-replication possible. Oddly enough, those biologists who doubt the plausibility of intelligent life in the Cosmos like to make a very similar argument. Changcho recently linked to the debate between Ernst Mayr and Carl Sagan on just that topic. Mayr's contribution to that debate was the source of comments by PZ Myers, discussed in the comments to the previous post - and Sagan's contribution, rather egregiously quoted out of context, was the source of another of his comments. The debate is about the the Drake Equatio

Deep Time and Bug Eyed Monsters

It's a big universe out there, and among the billion-trillion or so stars in the observable part of it, it seems that lots have planets. So, as Fermi asked, where are the little green men or bug eyed monsters from outer space? Is it plausible that no technological civilizations that can cross interstellar space exist? It's a hard question, since it depends on a lot of unknowns, expecially upon the three probabilities that a star with planets will have a habitable planet, on the probability that life will originate on a habitable planet, and on the probability that, once having originated, life will evolve a technological and space faring civilization. We don't know the answers to these questions or to some other relevant questions but at the moment, phase space for this reaction seems to be increasing. A decade or two ago, we knew almost nothing about other planetary systems - today it is clear that they are common. We still don't know how life arose on this planet,

Of Mice, Men, Genes, and More

In an earlier post I wondered how it was that a mere 30,000 genes could program for all the complexity of a human. The Washinton post today has a story on How Science is Rewriting the Book on Genes that provides some interesting clues. It's a little worse than I thought - it seems that a mere 22,000 genes manage to code for at least 100,000 proteins - but science is decyphering how it is done. The secret lies in the sublety of the control programs for gene translation and transcription. For one thing, all that stuff once labelled "junk DNA" no longer looks quite so junky. It was long thought that the active 5 percent of our DNA consisted almost entirely of genes coding the instructions for making proteins. But it turns out that's not true. It's now clear that more of those evolutionarily preserved stretches of DNA don't code for proteins than those that do. By one estimate, 70 percent of the conserved elements are non-coding. "The majority of what ev

The Torture Caucus

To those with any faith in the human race, the rise of the Nazis in two nations that had been near the center of European culture and civilization was a great shock. Many speculated that there must be some peculiar defects of German culture or character that led to the debacle. The events of the past seven years in the US suggest that those defects are universal, or, at any rate, that we have no immunity. Despite our long experience with democratic institutions, our admirable constitution, and our once admired press, we allowed corrupt and evil people to sieze control of the government, start an unjust and disastrously waged war, and flout the laws and the constitution. Nothing is more emblematic of that evil than Bush's embrace of what Ronald Reagan called the "abhorent practice" of torture. In How America Became A Torture Nation Andrew Sullivan links to a timeline of the American decline and fall. This particular outrage is mainly a Republican product, of course, but

Book Talk

I caught CSPAN-2 at a Florida Book Fair today - what an improvement over the odious Mr. Russert and the other Sunday morning crap. I watched parts of interviews with the following authors about their respective books: Paul Krugman on The Conscience of a Liberal , Jeffrey Toobin talking about the Supreme Court in The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court , Craig Unger on The Fall of the House of Bush: The Untold Story of How a Band of True Believers Seized the Executive Branch, Started the Iraq War, and Still Imperils America's Future , Tom Hayden on Ending the War in Iraq , Walter Isaacson on Einstein: His Life and Universe , and George Soros, one of the authors of What Orwell Didn't Know: Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics . All the discussions were excellent.

The Lion and the Lamb

Politics, the saying goes, makes for strange bedfellows. Michael Isikoff of Newsweek tells such a tale in So Happy Together . Bill Clinton is never at a loss for company. When he's not globe-trotting or charming audiences for as much as $400,000 a speech, he's often schmoozing visitors in his suite of offices in Harlem. Last July, the former president sat down with a billionaire impressed with the William J. Clinton Foundation's campaign against AIDS in Africa. The two men chatted amiably over lunch for more than two hours, and the visitor pledged to write Clinton's foundation a generous check. But there was something unusual, if not plain weird, about the meeting. NEWSWEEK has learned that the billionaire so eager to endear himself to the former president was Richard Mellon Scaife—once the Clintons' archenemy and best-known as the man behind a "vast, right-wing conspiracy" that Hillary Clinton said was out to destroy them. Clinton is famous for his effort

The Beaver's Tale: Heathen Dreams

For you sociobiology and evolutionary psychology doubters - Arun sent me something on evo psych, but I fear that it went directly to my locus taedeus - a quote from Dawkins. Do you protest that there aren't 'really' any genes for behavior, only genes for the nerves and muscles that make the behavior? You are still wrecked among heathen dreams. Anatomical features have no special status over behavioral ones where 'direct' effects of genes are concerned. The beaver's 30k genes code not just for teeth and tail, but also for the dam and the lake.

Let's Talk Betrayal

When a General defends policies he developed, that he believes in, and that he is charged with implementing, that's not betrayal. It may be misguided and possibly even dishonest - but betrayal isn't the right accusation.. On the other hand, when a Democratic Senator uses her influence to steer contracts to her war profiteer husband, and repeatedly subverts opposition to policies she pledged to oppose, that's betrayal. Glenn Greenwald lays out the case against Diane Feinstein. First some politics: Two months ago, Dianne Feinstein used her position on the Senate Intelligence Committee to enable passage of Bush's FISA amendments, granting the President vast new warrantless surveillance powers. Last month, Feinstein used her position on the Senate Judiciary Committee to ensure confirmation of Bush's highly controversial judicial nominee Leslie Southwick, by being the only Committee Democrat to vote for the nomination (The Politico: "Sen. Dianne Feinstein had eme

Genes and Subroutines

(On Reading The Mouse's Tale, from Richard Dawkins The Ancestor's Tale) The number of genes in a man or a mouse is about 30,000. This is not a tiny number, but to a programmer it seems way too small to specify the program for something as complicated as a man (or a mouse). Each gene specifies one protein, and if you think of each gene as specifying one instruction to the cellular "computer," 30k is not many. How many lines of code are there in Microsoft Office? Millions? Is MS Office 30 (or a hundred or a thousand) times as complicated as a mouse? The thought does give a certain resonance to the idea of "bloatware," but even if you allow that maybe Bill's guys don't exactly make a fetish of efficiency, it still looks incongruous. Dawkins says that the path to understanding is to consider each gene as a subroutine, and that the real power of the cell is exercised in the sequence in which these subroutines are called. To a first approximation, man and

Ronnie the Racist

David Brooks defends Ronald Reagan against the charge of racism in a typically disingenuous op-ed in the New York Times today. Today, I’m going to write about a slur. It’s a distortion that’s been around for a while, but has spread like a weed over the past few months. It was concocted for partisan reasons: to flatter the prejudices of one side, to demonize the other and to simplify a complicated reality into a political nursery tale. The distortion concerns a speech Ronald Reagan gave during the 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., which is where three civil rights workers had been murdered 16 years earlier. An increasing number of left-wing commentators assert that Reagan kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign with a states’ rights speech in Philadelphia to send a signal to white racists that he was on their side. The speech is taken as proof that the Republican majority was built on racism. Brooks then proceeds to argue that the Philadelphia Mississippi speech was really part o

Updraft $$$

Every downdraft is balanced by an updraft, and the up wash from the dollar's plummet has now caught the Yen. The pressure on the RMB now seems certain to increase. If China will not or cannot let the Yuan rise against the Dollar, inflation or even trade war could loom. China's policy of undervaluing its currency "is increasingly being viewed by many countries as a source of unfair competition," [Treasury Secretary Henry] Paulson said, keeping up the rhetorical pressure on China to let the value of the renminbi, also known as the yuan, be set freely by market forces. He forgot to mention that the US policy of living on borrowed money is even more at fault. Of course those who remember that Larry Lindsey got fired for suggesting that the Iraq war might cost as much as $100-$200 billion know that it's not possible to speak the truth in this Bush administration. The US needs to raise taxes, pay down the 9 trillion dollar debt, limit credit, and decrease consumption.

Boobs and Brains

Emily Bazelon of Slate has the story on IQ and breast feeding - does breast feeding really boost brainpower? The answer, taken at face value, is a bit odd. It seems that it may, if the kid has the right genes. Now there's new evidence about the gold ring of breast-feeding benefits—extra IQ points. It's a finding with a twist. The researchers report that breast-fed babies get an average IQ advantage of 6.8 points—a nice step up—but only if they carry a certain genetic variant. If you've got the gene and your mother nurses you, she is making you smarter. If you don't have the gene, the nursing is for naught, IQ-wise. What are we to make of this? Practically speaking, probably nothing. A series of caveats apply. This is only one study, and there are lots of other reasons to breastfeed (or not to). Plus, 90 percent of the population has the genetic variant that conveys the IQ boost, so the odds are in the suckler's favor. But as food for thought, this study has all k


Ruth Wisse, an American Zionist and Harvard Professor of Yiddish literature, has an Op-Ed in Sunday's Washinton Post. The Post site headlines the story: Why Jews Are Weak . Is this an exercise story, I wondered? Not exactly. She has a bone to pick with Mearsheimer and Walt and Jimmy Carter and anyone else who doubts that the Israel Lobby might be a really good deal for America. These days, it's becoming downright chic to hint forebodingly that America's Jews are just too powerful. But whether it's the political scientists John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt or former president Jimmy Carter, those who accuse modern Jews of having excessive clout are getting it precisely backward. In the real world, Jews have too little power and influence. They also have too little self-confidence about defending themselves. OK, I can understand that a Jew might want more power for Jews. Similarly Lutherans, Catholics, Muslims, etc. could have their own view about power and their

The Blame America First Crowd

Josh Marshall points out a couple of members in the "Blame America First Crowd" who have said 9/11 was our fault. Drum roll . . . Ron Paul and new Rudy Giuliani backer Pat Robertson. I think Ron Paul thought we had been annoying Muslims while Robertson says we were annoying God. Oddly enough, Osama bin Laden agrees with both of them.

Unstable Equilibria: $$$

The recent collapse of the Dollar vs. the Euro, Pound, and other dollars is not unexpected - the huge current account deficit made it inevitable. The problem is that this change doesn't quite do its Le Chatelier's Principle job - it doesn't move the world economy back to an equilibrium state. The problem is that the adjustment is taking place only between Dollar and Western currencies, while the export heavy Asian economies are maintaining pegs to the Dollar. The consequence is that US goods become more competitive versus European, Canadian, and Austrailian goods while remaining uncompetitive with Chinese manufactures, while the appreciating currencies lose ground versus everybody. Meanwhile, anyone who holds dollars or dollar denominated securities is losing their shirt. The big foreign holders of such are the Gulf states, China, and Japan. So what do you do if you have a trillion or three bucks worth of a depreciating asset? The temptation is to trade up to somethi


Andrew Sullivan links to this piece by James R. Flynn, discover of the eponymous effect. Shattering Intelligence: Implications for Education and Interventions Flynn starts by noting quite sensibly that IQ is a powerful predictive tool: The concept of a general intelligence or g factor has proved enormously fruitful in two respects. On the level of individual differences, it captures the fact that if one person outperforms another on one kind of conceptually demanding task, that advantage is likely to persist over a whole range of other cognitive tasks. On the level of group differences, we find that the average Full Scale IQ of two groups on a good IQ test often predicts things like their occupational profiles. Various occupations have minimum IQ thresholds. If 50 percent of group A scores above say an IQ of 100, while only 16 percent of Group B do, then Group A will have a three to one ratio in its favor in terms of the proportion of its members who are professionals or technicians o

Le Chatelier's Principle

Blame Cynthia ;) for the fact that I once again went trolling in the dark waters of Luboiania . Lumo has a post about how Le Chatelier's Principle (LCP) shows that positive feedbacks and global warming can't happen. Now I don't happen to believe that LCP is truly a principle in the sense that special relativity and natural selection are principles of nature. LCP, by contrast, is more like a rule of thumb, and what it says is that stable equilibria tend to be, er, stable. Unstable equilibria, and non-equilibria, don't behave that way. A bottle of nitroglycerine exists in a slightly stable equilibrium. Supply it with a small amount of kinetic energy and it will quite likely re-equilibrate at a very slightly higher temperature. Or it might just decide to blow itself (and you, dear experimenter) to hell. The climate of the Earth is not in equilibrium, it's in a quasi-steady state of balance between energy input and output. Moreover, we have good reason to believ

GW's Multi-Trillion Dollar Tax

The recent and ongoing collapse of the Dollar vs other Western currencies is a mostly a consequence of enormous current account deficit, which in turn owes its existence mainly to the profligacy of the Republican party and the bad economic policies of George Bush and Alan Greenspan. As a consequence, anyone with dollar valued assets, whether bank accounts, pensions, stocks, bonds,salaries, homes or real estate has seen about 20% of their value evaporate in the past several months. This is one of the ways we pay for GW's spending frenzy and the Republican tax cuts for the rich. I fear that the other ways may be even more painful.

Ancestral Tale

A couple of odd phrases decorate the Chapter on the Cretaceous Catastrophe in Richard Dawkin's book The Ancestor's Tale. The first is "bullet wounds are hot because of the bullets velocity." Now I had never thought about bullet wounds being hot, possibly since I haven't been shot much, but a fast rifle bullet has enough specific energy to generate some heat. The fastest bullets, travelling at about 1200 m/s, or 1.2 km/s, would probably heat themselves to several hundred degrees upon hitting something hard, like armor plate. The second odd phrase is that cosmic projectiles, like the comet or asteroid that ended the Cretaceous, travel "even faster" than a high speed rifle bullet. Well yes, like tens of times as fast. Collision velocities up to 100 km/s or more are plausible, and velocities smaller than 10 km/s are implausible. So a large cosmic projectile produces specific energies (and temperatures) at least hundreds and most likely thousands of ti

The Buck Stops Where?

Brad DeLong notices that Simon Johnson is writing about the Dollar . The U.S. dollar has depreciated in real effective terms about 20% since its most recent peak in 2002. It has also depreciated since the financial turmoil of the summer -- about 3% since the beginning of August. And at today's exchange rate, we still regard the dollar as overvalued relative to its medium-term equilibrium value -- just remember this is NOT a statement about what the dollar will do today or any time soon!! With regard to addressing the issue of "global imbalances," which is the term used to describe the large current account deficits and surpluses around the world, we think that exchange rate adjustment -- changes in the value of the dollar and other currencies -- can play a role. But exchange rates are not the only issue; it's also about appropriately adjusting the balance of savings and investment around the world. The strategy for doing this was laid out most recently in a set o