Saturday, December 10, 2005

It's Amazing What You Can Do with Two Pieces of Foam

I went to the grocery store today, a trip made considerably more pleasant by the use of ear plugs.

Seriously, what is wrong with people? Just because a song has the word "Christmas" in its lyrics over and over, that doesn't make the song good.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

This Just In...

Right now, I'm watching Todd Lynn on Comedy Central. He's my new hero.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Proud to be a Cornellian

I hold two Bachelor of Science degrees from Cornell University, and have spent ten years of my life affiliated with the institution in one way or another. I was thus delighted to read in What's New (by Prof. Bob Park at my current employer the University of Maryland) that Cornell President Hunter Rawlings has not merely come out against the creeping influence of "Intelligent Design," but has committed the university to a campaign of public outreach designed to educate more Americans about the basic fallacies underlying ID. I can only hope that this effort will not only be successful, but that it will be extended to other realms of public abandonment of science. I won't get on my soapbox here; I just wanted to say how happy I am about President Rawlings' declaration.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

What the Wiki?

It seems to be pick-on-Wikipedia-day, so I figured I'd add my inconsequential voice into the fray. After all, the very fact that I have a blog means I'm a trendster. Before I trash Wikipedia, or at least the theoretical underpinning behind it, I'd like to note that I've found its articles on mathematics and statistics extremely useful.

The Register is running an article about Wikipedia, and ostensibly how it's a different kind of "open" than Linux. The article, however, really only touches briefly on this, preferring rather to focus on how Wikipedia differs from a traditional encyclopedia and why these differences are bad.

What disappoints me is that Mr. Orlowski (the author) misses the opportunity to highlight what I believe is the major fallacy behind Wikipedia. I refer, of course, to the idea of "Collective Intelligence," the theory that if you get enough regular schlubs together, you end up with a virtual Leonardo Da Vinci. To this I say: Hogwash!

I've seen very little rigorous discussion of Collective Intelligence (or the more soundbite-friendly "Hive Mind"). What I've seen, however, is very different than the purported effect behind Wikipedia's brilliance. The basis for the theory of Collective Intelligence seems to be that if you ask people who have a basic familiarity with, but no concrete data on, some thing, their estimates about that thing will tend to be distributed around the true value.

Note how different this is than, "if you have enough people reading and correcting an article, its quality and accuracy will gradually improve." Mr. Orlowski gives the lie to this with his quote of Carlo Graziani with which many will sympathise:

I'm relieved to see other people are also wary of information that they get from a source whose organizing principle appears to be that twenty jackasses make an expert. Although after reading your take on Wikipedia, it appears that the actual situation is worse - the output produced by twenty jackasses plus one expert is indistinguishable from what would be produced by twenty-one jackasses.

Unfortunately, I can't track down the original article, so I don't know to whom Mr. Graziani is responding.

The important point is that collective intelligence merely implies that as you ask more people to estimate some quantity, there's a good chance that the average will more closely approach the true value. That's all. You get no guarantees. You get nothing qualitative, nothing descriptive.

That's not to say that Wikipedia is an evil that must be wiped from the face of the Earth. As I wrote at the outset, I've found some of their articles very useful. The idea of a collaborative encyclopedia is fascinating. Supporting the idea with the misapplication of a set of empirical observations is just foolish.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

This Week in God

With the devastation along the Gulf Coast, people are praying for their god's help in getting through the human tragedy, either on their own or others' behalf. What relief people are receiving comes from emergency response groups such as FEMA, and much of this relief seems to be directed towards New Orleans, leaving many smaller towns neglected. There is, so far as I've heard, no word on why their god decided to destroy a large stretch of coastal towns and many lives. Presumably, the reason is somewhat similar to that for the December tsunami.

Will these prayers make a difference? I wouldn't have thought so, as an avowed atheist, but then apparently Pat Robertson's prayer for his god to off a Supreme Court justice was answered. That might, of course, be a coincidence. After all Chief Justice Rehnquist has been very ill for awhile.

Still, we might forgive Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez if he's feeling a little anxious.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

What the Hell's Wrong with Congress?

I don't mean the speed with which they're reacting to the hurricane. I don't even mean the way they seem to prefer political speeches and mutual congratulation to actual action.

Just how technically incompetent are their staffs? The military has had portable two-way radios for decades. As in, since WWII. And the radios are even better now.

If you're the Representative for one of the storm-hit areas, get a damned portable radio, and take it (either personally or send it with a high-level staffer) home to find out how your constituents are doing and what they need. This isn't rocket science.

Donate through or Amazon also has 1-click donation set up for the Red Cross, which puts less of a strain on the official Red Cross site.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Pot, Meet Kettle

I don't want to risk an aneurysm, so rather than another polemic, I'll keep this short.

James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family (there are a number of web sites with that general theme and that would like your credit card information, but I'm not sure that's what it means in this context), said the following at Justice Sunday II (mandatory subtitle: Electric Boogaloo):

There is a majority on the Supreme Court that is— and you'll have to pardon me, but this is the way I see it— they're unelected and unaccountable and arrogant and imperious and determined to redesign the culture according to their own biases and values and they're out of control. And I think they need to be reigned in.

We can say the exact same thing about the leaders of the fundamentalist Christian movement.

I Just Had to Share

French bread, cut into thin (~1/4 inch) rounds. Scoop up a dollop of hummus (such as roasted garlic). Top with a little sharp bleu cheese.

You're welcome.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Just a Thought

If people stop going to Rob Schneider movies, they'll stop making Rob Schneider movies.

Science is Science, Dammit!

Who the fuck cares what religious leaders think about evolution?

Seriously, are we allowing artists or literary theorists dictate our science curricula? These atavistic, knuckle-dragging morons are the last people who should be determining what gets taught in a science class. If they need to control some aspect of the curriculum, give them phys. ed.—that's about the right level for their intellects.

For some bizarre reason, neo-Creationists (and that's what the "Intelligent Design" advocates are, whatever they say) just love to use the second law of thermodynamics as an argument against random mutations leading to greater complexity. Hey, you might not have noticed, but there's this big, yellow, glowing thing in the sky an average of twelve hours every day, and it makes things hot. The second law applies to closed systems. That means no outside source (or sink) of energy. It also applies to entropy on the whole. There's absolutely no inconsistency between the second law of thermodynamics and a piece of a closed system becoming more ordered, as long as the order of the system taken as a whole decreases.

Oh, and the "scientific debate" over evolution? Yeah, just when the blue and red monkey-birds speciated is the lynch-pin of evolution. If biologists can't agree on that, the whole thing must be wrong. Or whether new features evolve only when there's an open niche due to extinctions or whether they evolve constantly and rarely provide sufficient advantage to oust the current niche-holder (or other members of their own species). That's another major debate by which evolution must stand or fall.

People who claim that evolution (random mutations, competition for resources) can't explain the variety or complexity of life are lacking in imagination. Just because they can't see how it could happen doesn't mean it couldn't happen. So their intellectual laziness should trump the work of people who have spent years studying and understanding evolution? Does anything else in life work this way?

Do evolutionary biologists understand every aspect of how every current species (or really any current species) came to be? No, of course not. The fossil record is necessarily incomplete, since fossilization is so rare. Is this a problem? If you're trying to trace a complete lineage (whatever that might mean, given evolutionary changes are extremely slow), then sure, it's a problem, or rather an obstacle. If you're trying to explain the origin of species more generally, then no, it's no problem at all. Any particular lineage might be spotty, but there are so many examples of gradual changes within large groups of species, and so many observable examples of micro-evolution in the lab today, that the general framework of the theory holds up very well.

Let's put this in perspective. Darwin's theory of evolution has held up better than Newton's theory of classical mechanics. You know, that whole "F=ma" thing? What they use to plot the trajectories of inter-planetary spacecraft? Evolution has perhaps required a few tweaks over the years, as we learn more (and isn't that what science is all about?) (unless, apparently, if you live in Kansas) (OK, the 60% of Kansas that voted to appoint blithering idiots to the school board). Mechanics required a substantial re-writing in 1905 when Einstein realized that there was a fundamental limit to how fast things can go. Oh yeah, and then there was the 1920's, when another group of physicists discovered that when things get really small, you have to throw a whole bunch of the theory away and replace it with something really weird (and I say this as someone who holds a PhD in physics).

Intelligent Design is fundamentally intellectually dishonest. It's authors and supporters shouldn't be telling others what to teach in science class, they should take the class themselves. Who knows? They might even learn something.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Who'd've Thought JR?

It's been almost a month since my last post, so the recent nomination of John Roberts for the Supreme Court seems like a good reason to write something. To start with, I'd like to point out the following: John, Jane, Josie, Jack. Judge Roberts loses points right away for that whole alliterative theme.

That aside, it's hard to know what kind of a Supreme Court justice he'll make. By all accounts, he's very knowledgeable, very reasonable, and very nice. He's argued conservative positions, but he's also argued liberal positions. He's a lawyer, and apparently a good one, so the fact that he's argued one way or another says very little about his personal views.

A lot of people have commented on the fact that he's a white male. Perhaps it's because I'm not a minority individual (though seriously, isn't it about time that we had an atheist justice on the Supreme Court?), but I don't really see his race or gender as an issue. I'd much rather think that the President selected a candidate based on competence and (yes) compatible ideology than to fit a particular racial, ethnic, or gender profile. President Bush has already made enough token appointments—Condoleeza Rice might be brilliant, but she doesn't appear to be good at the positions she's held in the administration—I think we can cut him a break on this one. Better a somewhat moderate white male than an ultra-conservative woman.

Again, we don't know what kind of Supreme Court justice he'll be, and that's part of the problem. He might be great, but we have no way to assess that. He's been a judge for about two years, which isn't a lot of time to rate his performance and approach to the law. He's been nominated for the highest court in the nation; the only promotion he can contemplate is to Chief Justice.

This is actually a longer post that I'd expected to write, so I'll close with the following brief comment: If Karl Rove leaked Valerie Plame's identity to the press, he should be nailed to the wall. I find it disappointing that intentionally exposing an undercover intelligence agent isn't considered treason.

Saturday, June 25, 2005


I'm listening to "Weekend America" on NPR or PRI or whatever organization produces it. They're talking about forgiveness, and in particular the recently convicted Edgar Ray Killen. They interviewed a pastor from the church which was burned in part to lure the activists to Philadelphia, Mississippi. The pastor, Rev. William Young, talked about the importance of forgiveness, and the fact that Killen's crime was not unforgiveable.

I'm not a trained philosopher or ethicist, so I guess my opinion doesn't count for much in this regard. However, I believe that the only injuries a person has the right or ability to forgive are injuries against himself. Nobody has the right to forgive on someone else's behalf.

In the case of a killing, whether intentional or not, the family and friends of the deceased have suffered injury as well as the deceased. Their pain can be forgiven. The injury to the deceased cannot, however, be forgiven, because the deceased has lost the facility to forgive. Just as he has been deprived of his right to live, he has also been deprived of his right to forgive that deprivation.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Crass Commercialism

There's a Heineken commercial, you might have seen it, where the newest member of some sort of superhero team displays his superpower of turning a shoe into a bottle of beer. This is evidently more impressive than flying.

A six pack of a really good import might be about ten dollars.

A cheap pair of shoes is maybe twenty dollars.

Are our nation's superheroes (work with me here) rolling bums for their shoes because they don't have beer money?

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Thought for the Day

Anybody here seen the fuzzy-wuzzy loving cup explosion?

I think we missed it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Check, Please!

Our Constitution establishes a set of checks and balances between the three branches of government. This prevents any one branch from dominating and rendering one or both of the others irrelevant. The relative balance tends to shift over time, typically between the executive and the legislative branches, but overall one is ineffective without at least some support from the others.

While factionalism was already present during the drafting of the Constitution (most notably the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists), these factions were not included in the design of government. This stands in contrast to parliamentary systems, where political parties are made an explicit part of the government.

Here, the parties form what might be called extra-Constitutional branches of government. The checks and balances on the parties that are absent from the Constitution are instead embodied in the procedural rules of the House of Representatives and the Senate. In general, the impact of these rules is not felt so long as different branches of the government are controlled by different parties. The tensions between parties and the tensions between branches tend to combine, restraining imbalance through partisanship.

At this point, it is appropriate to take a closer look at partisan politics. Taking a charitable view, we will assume that all of our elected officials have the best interests of the citizenry at heart, and are not motivated by personal ambition or power. Entry into politics is typically through one of the major parties, so by the time a politician reaches national office, he or she has had many years working within the party structure. While individuals often have personal views of what is good or bad for the country that would be difficult to fit into the ideals of one particular party, they often identify more closely with one party than another.

Identifying with a party is fine, of course. The tendency of a partisan, however, is to come to view the positions of his or her party as the best positions for the country as a whole. Working for the common good thus becomes working to ensure that the party acquires or maintains control of the government, since this puts it in the best position to implement the policies that are "right."

In politics, there is rarely a unique definition of "right," however. If one party is "right," the other must be "wrong," albeit misguided rather than malicious. When the opportunity presents itself, it is therefore advantageous for a party to exert its influence as completely as possible. The opposition will, of course, eventually see the error of its ways and concede that the policies implemented truly were the ones the country needed.

In this way, parties tend to arrogate to their positions an almost divine right. This same arrogance afflicts the different branches of government as well, but there the Constitution mitigates its effects. When one party controls all or substantially all of the government, its arrogance is checked only by its respect for the established rules of engagement with the other party.

Of course, we now find ourselves in the circumstance where one party controls the executive, the legislature, and a respectable fraction of the judiciary. With the presence of judicial vacancies, it is natural that this party wants to fill those vacancies with judges sympathetic to the party's ideals.

Federal judges are a unique group within the government. Unelected, they serve terms considerably longer than any elected officials. This makes their selection a matter of great significance, as they wield considerable influence.

Approving a judicial nomination requires only a simple majority in the Senate. Clearly, if put to a vote an nominee favorable to the controlling party will easily win confirmation. Committees tend to be stacked in favor of the controlling party as well, so committee hearings give the opposition little leverage to object to nominees.

The opposition is left with one option with which to object to judicial nominees: prevent the nominee from coming up for a vote. This is more than a courtesy to the opposition; it is the only voice the opposition has in the process. While much of the Senate's business can be conducted with only a simple majority, important decisions such as filling the Federal Bench deserve a check by the minority.

A common argument for preserving the minority's right to filibuster judicial nominees is that eventually the tables will turn, and the party currently in the majority will find itself in the minority and faced with a similarly distasteful situtation. While this is a perfectly reasonable argument, I would like to present another. The purpose of checks and balances is to rein in political arrogance, and to acknowlege our inherent fallibility. The longer the results of our decisions last, the greater the humility we should exhibit when making them. For this reason, if for no other, we must preserve the partisan checks and balances established not by Constitution, but by civility, by collegiality, and by decency.

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Is Bush Making Sense?

Well, no, not really. That much should be obvious. I have to say, though, that I was impressed to hear him broach the topic of actual benefits reductions in Social Security.

What he's now advocating isn't actually a reduction in benefits, but a reduction in the growth of benefits for some retirees. I liked that he's distinguishing between the poorer Americans and the wealthier Americans, though I'm not sure that 30% is the appropriate line. I still don't think his revised plan is good, in large part because Bush is still adamant about private accounts, or whatever the current euphamism is for letting the wealthiest individuals shelter some of their FICA payments from the general fund.

Another thing I don't like about the President's new plan is that benefit increases would be based on earnings, as the benefits already are based on earnings. The point of Social Security isn't to be a comprehensive retirement plan for all Americans; the point is to be a safety net so that retirees aren't left homeless and starving, and ideally so that they can live fairly comfortable.

In my opinion, Social Security should provide a basic level of benefits to those who need it while weaning those who don't off of the benefits rolls. Benefits should be set based on local cost-of-living rates, and rather than paying more to those who earned more while they worked Social Security should pay less to those who have more income after retirement. This can be done very gradually, and in such a way that it doesn't really have a significant impact on those who legitimately need government retirement assistance.

The idea is fairly simple. For every, say, ten dollars of income received by someone eligible for Social Security, that person's benefits would be reduced by one dollar. This means that people are rewarded for saving or continuing to work, but that extra income reduces people's reliance on Social Security benefits.

A gentler reduction in benefits could be introduced by using a progressive scale, as with the current tax rates. Up to a certain amount of additional income could be exempt from benefits reduction, the next band reduced at a rate of as low as one-hundred-to-one, and so on. The point is that, eventually, the very wealthy should not receive Social Security benefits that they don't really need. Those who have earned and saved enough through their careers to ensure themselves a comfortable retirement should similarly leave what funds are available for those who didn't have the option of saving.

Will this encourage people to spend all of their money now and not save for retirement? I don't think so, for the simple reason that saving still guarantees you a higher total income during retirement, and hence a better quality of life. Nobody is punished for saving, their income from Social Security, wages, savings, investments, and so on is always strictly increasing.

Calculating benefits becomes considerably more complex, of course. Benefits would have to be calculated conservatively, so that nobody receives lower benefits than to what they're entitled. There's likely no fool-proof way of ensuring this, but a decent starting point is to begin with full benefits and calculate the appropriate reductions in the following year. That is, if I received $10,000 one year, but I should only have received $3,000, then the following year my benefits would be reduced either by $7,000 or by an amount that amortizes the excess over, say, five years. The baseline for benefits would not change, only the amount of the reduction based on prior-year overpayments.

I don't pretend that this is a solution to whatever problems Social Security might be facing. I don't even know if it's a sensible solution given current and expected demographics, or even a naive view of how Social Security operates. It does, however, present another way to look at how benefits are calculated. I'm currently saving for my retirement, because I can, and I don't expect that I'll need Social Security benefits when I retire. If I do need the benefits, I'd like them to be available; if not, I don't want them. My attitude towards FICA withholdings are that they're just another tax, and I'll never see the money again.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Would That be E-E-Mail?

President Bush recently revealed that he no longer uses email, because he doesn't want the press to know what he's writing to his daughters. This is understandable, but he's really denying himself a great convenience unnecessarily.

During the '90s, there was a substantial debate regarding publicly available cryptography. The government strongly backed a requirement that all encryption mechanisms have a back-door so that law enforcement could decrypt messages. This was called "key escrow," and it was wildly unpopular among most academics and online free-speech advocates (with a few notable exceptions).

One major problem with key escrow is that the government can ban certain forms of cryptography, but there's a limit to what it can do to enforce such a ban. If all software development were controlled, the government could in principle prevent the development and use of "illegal" cryptography. There is, however, a substantial free/open-source software development community, which has brought us a large amount of high quality software. (Just about everything that I run on my computers at work and at home is open source software.) If it can be done, and someone wants it, there's either an open source program to do it or one is under development. In terms of cryptography, the demand for non-escrowed crytographic mechanisms means these mechanisms will exist.

Fortunately, key escrow was eventually shot down, and even the export restrictions on cryptography have become progressively more relaxed. One advantage of this is that programs like GnuPG are not only widely available, but also perfectly legal to use. In fact, GnuPG has been integrated into a number of email clients, so encrypting or digitally signing your email is easy.

Mr. President, if you want the convenience of emailing your daughters but you don't want anyone but them reading it, give encrypted email a try.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

8 Glasses, 9 Lives?

In the spirit of my new-found Blogness, I suggest beer instead.


I noticed that my last three posts are very short. No well thought-out passages nor anything resembling argument or deep observation.

I guess this means that I'm now officially a Real Blogger.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

A Quick Question

How many Americans died so that we wouldn't have to care about the lives of royalty?

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Isn't News Supposed to be New?

OK, we get it. The Pope is dead.

I don't want to be snarky, but the coverage of John Paul II's death has gone way overboard. Retrospectives are one thing, endless stories about the people lining up to see his body are quite another. He was Pope for a good number of years, so naturally a lot of people have their own personal stories about how he touched their lives.

We just don't need to hear all of them.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Just What I Needed...

My fortune cookie today said that I "will walk on the soil of many countries."

Great, now I have to worry about foiling an international conspiracy of vampires.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

The Josephson Juncture

My good friend Stavros pointed out that my previous post requires more explanation in places. I'll begin with a brief discussion of Nobel Laureate Brian Josephson. The other topics I'll write about later or leave to Stavros.

Josephson is a major personality in solid state Physics, particularly semiconductors. His work was instrumental in developing silicon microchips and justifiably earned him the Nobel Prize in Physics. In the years since his ground-breaking research, however, he has fallen victim to some of the claims of pseudo-science.

As a brief digression that does not do the subject justice, there is a marked difference between what we commonly call science and what we commonly call pseudo-science. Science involves forming hypotheses (or theories or educated guesses—take your pick of terminology) about how an effect comes about, and then through experiments trying to determine if that hypothesis is supported. Ideas are never proven, they only withstand disproval. Scientific hypotheses are obligated to account for what we observe (that is, what we think we know). We refer to this characteristic of scientific hypotheses as falsifiability, and scientists generally frown upon hypotheses that are not falsifiable—hypotheses that cannot be shown to be false. Further, science places the burden of experiment on the proposer of a hypothesis, either to perform experiments himself or to suggest experiments to other scientists. In contrast, pseudo-science makes hypotheses that purport to explain effects which might be real or might be contested, but these hypotheses need not conform to current knowledge not lend themselves to experimental testing, and the pseudo-scientist typically neglects experimental confirmation entirely.

As science has progressed, the theories have become more and more complicated (as a rule), making it difficult for the lay individual to judge at first blush whether an idea is credible or not. In addition to falsifiability, credibility requires that the theory account for relevant well-established phenomena. Most people only hear the jargon of science, used to describe credible research, and consequently throwing terms like "quantum", "resonance", or "electromagnetic" into an explanation can make the purest hogwash sound scientific.

Scientists are supposed to know better, at least when a theory overlaps their areas of expertise. In the case of Dr. Josephson, the expertise lies in Physics, and the pseudo-science is homeopathy. He is not alone; a regrettable number of other scientists have lent their names and reputations to equally undeserving ideas when they should have known better.

Homeopathy begins with the idea that, in dilution, harmful substances can confer a healing or preventative benefit. On its face, this does not seem entirely unreasonable, since it resembles the practice of vaccination. While homeopaths are quick to point out this similarity, homeopathy actually derives from the "law of similars," one of the bases of Medieval magical theory. Homeopathy takes the idea of dilution even further, with the hypothesis that if a little of a substance is a good thing, then less is even better. Certainly, it's less likely to cause illness. The most "potent" homeopathic preparations are so dilute that there is not even one molecule of the active substance in any commercially available quantity.

If this sounds odd, it should. A useful analogy might be a flashlight that grows brighter as its batteries fail. Homeopaths recognize this absurdity, and attempt to explain it away by claiming that water has a "memory" of substances dissolved in it to the point of effective non-presence.

Someone with a high-school level of science education should be highly suspicious of this claim. A water molecule comprises two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. The manner in which these atoms bind to one another is well understood, and leaves little room to store information. In addition, the molecules in a fluid are in constant random motion. Again, there is little room for a "memory" of once-present substances.

This reasoning should make anyone skeptical of homeopathy. Still, homeopaths make claims, and these claims are falsifiable. The burden of demonstration lies with the claimant, so these homeopaths are obligated to perform properly controlled experiments testing their hypotheses if they expect anyone else to take them seriously.

James Randi has a long-standing challenge to the purveyors of pseudo-science and other delusions. If they can demonstrate their claims under rigorous experimental conditions, they will win one million dollars. Mr. Randi has had an ongoing conversation with prominent homeopaths in an attempt to have them submit their claims to such experiments. I'll let Mr. Randi have the last word on this topic: "That challenge, folks, is the one thorn the quacks cannot remove from their collective foot. It's always there, being dodged and belittled, devalued and denied. But it remains."

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Down Townes, or the Misguided Maser-Maker

This morning I was listening to the radio, and an interview came on with Charles Townes, recent recipient of the Templeton Prize for "work in the field of religion" and co-inventor of the laser. In this interview, he explained that he did not view science and religion as being in competition, nor are they incongruous, but rather they should come together and work in concert. His reasoning for this is that both science and religion are attempts to discover fundamental truths about the universe.

As his fellow Nobel Laureate Brian Josephson illustrates, the disclaimer that "past performance is no guarantee of future results" does not only apply to the stock market. Put simply, Doctor Townes is wrong. There is a great difference between science and religion.

There are superficial similarities between the two. Dr. Townes mentions moments of epiphany or revelation in science; these often precede major advancements. They might also lead nowhere, often with many years of work and several careers along the way. In either case, the revelation is not science, it is an idea for an avenue of inquiry. It comes from a mind tuned to a particular problem and possessing the requisite skills to understand both the problem and the solution. Once imagined, an idea is not dogma; it must be tested experimentally, and only once confirmed can it be accepted as accurate.

Science does not deal in absolute truths, but in abstractions and approximations. We develop models to describe how the universe behaves. The advancement of science comes from the discovery of where our current models fail, and what new models might account for the unexpected behavior. Always, reality is our guide.

Religion presents its tenets as absolute truths. The untestable is glorified with the mantle of "faith." Where dogma and reality collide, reality is frequently ignored or denied until its weight forces dogma to change. Galileo was absolved in 1992 of the "crime" of finding that the Earth revolves around the Sun. This demonstrates how conservative the Roman Catholic Church can be in its dogma, and how unwilling a religious institution can be to reconsider its positions in the light of new evidence.

No, science and religion are very different. Science is the pursuit of the truth through investigation, knowing that you will never reach it but only grow closer and closer to it. Religion is the dictating of the truth by those more interested in being authoritative than right. It is a shame that a Nobel Prize-winning Physicist is unable to see this.

Friday, March 04, 2005

A Command Performance

The U.S. Supreme Court is currently hearing arguments regarding the public display of the Ten Commandments outside of the Texas capitol. This has a number of people up in arms on both sides of the issue, as we might expect. On the part of the supporters of the monument, there's an only-too-familiar misuderstanding of the opposing viewpoint.

It would certainly be foolish to deny that Judeo-Christian theology has had a profound impact on our civilization. We have found, however, that society in general, and both faith and government in particular, are stronger when religion is separated from the official workings of the state. This is due to the mutually corrupting influence that church and state exert on one another.

This corruption arises principally from ambition and authority. When high religious position is equivalent to high political position, those whose ambition is for power will seek out religious offices. Doctrine is less important to them than their own agendas, and as they rise through the ranks of the church, they begin to bend its policies to their wills. Separation of church and state thus keeps religion more doctrinally pure.

High political position granting religious privilege also has a corrupting influence. Empirically, we have good cause to believe that a representative government best serves the interests not only of the people, but of the state as a whole. This form of government (or this family of forms of government) depends on the ability of the people to expel leaders found not to be serving the interests, needs, and will of those they represent. Mixing religion with politics doesn't necessarily prevent the voters from ousting a poor leader, but the weight of religious authority can make many people reluctant to oppose that leader.

This is, of course, a complex issue and not the main focus of my discussion, so let's return to the case at hand. We have at present a clear separation of church and state; or rather a proscription of government endorsement of religion. The question then becomes where the line is to be drawn in practice.

The U.S. Supreme Court has a display of what might be called the great lawgivers of Western Civilization. These include Hammurabi, Solon, and Moses. These figures provide a fitting historical backdrop for the nation's final arbiter of the law—Hammurabi gave us the first known written code of law, Solon introduced democracy to Athens, and Moses wrote down the laws that governed first Judaism and later Christianity. This is a just tribute to the legal/cultural traditions in which our civilization formed.

The Texas display, in contrast, focuses not on the tradition of the law, but on a specific set of laws. Were it a heavily religious set of laws under which Texas was first governed, this would be defensible as a historical commemoration. It is not, though. It is a patent endorsement of a specific set of religious laws. The additional displays hastily added around it to mollify or nullify critics do neither.

This is not about restricting people's free practice of religion. Nobody's worship will be negatively impacted by this monument's removal. Atheists (including myself) are not forced to accept a particular religion by its past and continued presence. It is, however, an insult.

When a government makes an exclusive declaration or display, it insults those excluded. It highlights those individuals as outsiders, and relegates them to a lesser status in the society. In a country where all are supposedly equal under the law, it introduces a fundamental inequality, and it is anathema to our principles of governance.

The fact is that the Ten Commandments are not a foundational document of our country. Many of the Founders were Deists, not Christians, including Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin. Thomas Paine, the Englishman whose Common Sense implored the colonial leaders to declare independence and made him an American by right of affinity, was also a Deist. This is not a Christian nation, but neither is it a Rationalist nation. It is an Inclusivist nation, where room is afforded to all viewpoints.

The Ten Commandments are also not revealed wisdom for creating a functioning and moral society. Four of the commandments pertain solely to religious practice. Of the remainder, one is a general prescription for personal character and another reinforces a particular societal norm. Four commandments remain, which define a fundamentally moral society, and which need no recourse to religion for their motivation.

We are social animals, and as such require certain standards for a well-functioning society. Perhaps most obviously, we cannot live in a society if we are constantly at war with one another, hence the ban against killing. A society is a cooperative endeavor, so impugning the character of those with whom you live and work cannot be tolerated, as it undermines mutual trust. Society moves in large part by its artifacts, so the distribution of property must be respected. Finally, those who instill in us the basic values, rules, and standards of society, our parents, must be paid heed.

As our civilization has evolved, we have continuously re-evaluated the role of religion and law in society. Some of what we have received through the conduit of religion we have kept, some we have not. By creating a haven of religious (and non-religious) tolerance, we have attracted some of the most intelligent, skilled, and hard-working people in the world to our country. Let's not jeopardize that by turning some Americans into second-class citizens.

Monday, February 28, 2005

A Fabulous Proposal

Somehow, one of the most critical issues facing our country right now is the possibility that people might marry someone of the same gender. Forget unemployment, health care, or education. The real problem is that there are guys who want to marry guys.

While a few people are willing to acknowlege that they're just being mean-spirited and don't like gays or lesbians, most try to cloak their position in more "rational" arguments. These tend to fall along two lines: homosexuality is religiously or morally wrong, or gay marriage will destroy the concept of the family.

The religious argument seems to get less play. Hopefully this is because people realize that legislation resting on strictly religious grounds doesn't stand a chance under a First Amedendment challenge. It is worth noting, however, that the state can't force any church to perform a religious ceremony against that church's doctrine. That is, after all, part of the motivation for the First Amendment.

Regardless of the arguments, the motivation seems to be the same: bigotry. Claims that gay marriages are more likely to end in divorce or that gay households are bad for children are not borne out by statistics. If any heterosexual couple can go to a drive-through chapel in Las Vegas to get married on the spur of the moment, this clearly signals a greater degradation of the institution of marriage than gay marriage could ever cause.

When we speak of "marriage," we are really speaking of three separate things. The first is of a religious rite and the (supposedly) life-long bond it creates. The second is as the basis for the family. The third, and typically least considered, is a legal status. As discussed above, the religious aspect of marriage is irrelevant when considering marriage from the perspective of the state. If religion held dominance, then interfaith marriages would not be legal.

There is, of course, a historical argument for the status of marriage. It has traditionally been a religious institution sanctioned by the state, conforming to the laws of the church. We must remember, however, that the state and the church were intimately tied through most of history, so we cannot determine with any certainty what original motivation there was for marriage. We might suppose, from some ancient descriptions as well as the way that marriage is still treated in some societies, that it was essentially a way of defining property.

Marriage, as it relates to the family, has changed greatly through time. Where it was once considered the precursor to having children, it is becoming increasingly common for couples to have children without getting married or for couples to get married and not have children. Family is, after all, defined by relationships and not by ritual (the status of minors notwithstanding).

From the perspective of the state, marriage establishes a set of rights and obligations between two adults. These include tax benefits, hospital visitation rights, insurance coverage, inheritance rights, and more. These rights protect a dependant partner against the death of the primary earner; this protection is denied a same-sex partner, even when the couple would be considered common-law married if they were of the opposite sex.

The state is fundamentally incompetent to judge the quality of and commitment to a relationship between individuals. With opposite-sex couples, it takes for granted that if they are willing to testify that they're in a committed relationship, then they are. This respect is denied to same-sex couples, and is in essence an insult to same-sex couples.

The crux of the problem could be that "marriage" has too many common meanings in our society. If we used separate terms for the religious and state aspects, then perhaps gay marriage would become less controversial, at least in the realm of secular politics. This would require all states as well as the Federal Government to replace "marriage" with, say, "civil union" in all relevant laws. The acts of civil marriage and religious marriage are already distinct, and while the majority of people have both, neither requires the other.

By defining marriage and civil unions separately, more people might begin to see the injustice of denying common rights and privileges to a considerable segment of the population. At the very least, it would highlight the intolerance that underlies the opposition to gay marriage. For some people, that kind of spotlight is what is required to show them the questionable moral stances they have adopted.

Monday, February 21, 2005

As Roger Daltry said, "Who are you?"

Identity theft has been in the news today because of ChoicePoint's recent release of sensitive data to scammers. The biggest threat posed by identity theft seems to be that someone can obtain a credit card with your name and social security number. When the bills go unpaid, collection agencies come knocking on your door. Often that's the first you learn that your identity has been stolen.

The problem that gets addressed in public discussions is how to better protect your personal information, or how to improve automated identification procedures. This misses what seems to me an obvious solution. The problem is instant credit.

Instant credit allows you to call or write to a credit card company and immediately be approved for a new card. Is this really necessary? You still have to wait for the card to be mailed to you, so it's not really instant. For an extra day or two of waiting, we can virtually eliminate instant-credit related identity theft.

The solution is really very simple. In order to initiate any financial relationship, your identity has to be verified in person by a responsible party. Any notary public can serve this purpose, and banks might perform this function for existing clients. The procedure is straight-forward:

  1. Obtain an application form for the account you wish to create.
  2. Hand the (filled-out) application to your identity verifier, along with photo ID or other positive identification.
  3. The verifier fills out the remainder of the form, including an authorizing mark, and sends it to the institution holding the new account.

This establishes a chain of identity through a trusted verifier, so that the financial institution has good reason to believe the presented identity.

There's an obvious benefit to banks in this scheme: identity verification fees. There's a greater reason why this is unlikely to be adopted, in fact there are two. The first is that instant credit benefits financial institutions, since it encourages people to open new accounts, often incurring sizeable interest payments. The second is liability, in that affixing your institution's mark that an identity is valid can lead to civil or criminal penalties if that identity proves false.

If we credit financial institutions enough to believe that their desire for profits is tempered by their desire to protect their clients and society in general, the liability problem remains. This can be ameliorated by covering institutions as long as they have practiced due diligence. Because eliminating instant credit and establishing formal identity verification would require new legislation, this due-diligence protection could easily be included in the same bill.

Instant credit is, ultimately, a product of our society's desire for instant gratification in general. People need to become aware, however, that where their personal finances are concerned they should be more patient. With a minimal decrease in convenience, we can achieve a great increase in security, and identity theft can be made considerably more difficult.

Raoul Duke Checks Out

Today the Gonzo flag flies at half-mast. The greatest proponent of the art of Gonzo Journalism is dead, by his own hand. For one who lived as recklessly as he did, it is perhaps fitting that he was directly responsible for his demise. We've lost a great writer, if not a great man. His flagrant disregard for the standards of decent human behavior perhaps made his style of writing possible in the first place. When the journalist is at the center of the story, that story is all the more compelling when the journalist acts like a swine.

That's not to say that Dr. Thompson was a bad person at heart. He was a rebel, to be certain, but showed a concern for the state of humanity and the ideals of justice. What evils he might have perpetrated were done against individuals, usually small-minded money-grubbing individuals. This does not compare with the evils of those he reviled: the corrupt politicians, sleazy developers, and overzealous hypocrites of all descriptions.

My first introduction to the works of Dr. Thompson was the film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. After seeing that, I had to read the book. At that point, I was hooked. I've been working my way through his books since, half the time hearing Johnny Depp narrating in my head.

It saddens me to know that what exists now of his work is all that will ever exist. The only consolation is that what he's written holds up well to re-reading, so while the man might be gone, I'll still be able to read him for many more years.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Deadly Quackery in Brazil

On the off chance that there's someone reading this who doesn't follow James Randi's weekly commentaries (, you should read his current entry about a recent episode of "Primetime Live".

ABC-TV should be ashamed of themselves.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Courting Change, or Federal Courts get Classy

It's fairly rare that I agree with President Bush, but I feel it's appropriate to give credit where it's due. In this case, I mean the just-passed legislation on class-action lawsuits. It isn't necessarily the ideal solution, but it looks to be at least a step in the right direction.

I'm not "anti-consumer" (I'll save my rant about the use of the word "consumer" for another time) or "pro-big-business," but there were certainly aspects of the previous system that did not make sense. In particular, when the plaintiffs come from different states with different consumer-protection laws, the only state laws that can be universally relevant are those of a state in which the defendant is located. Anything else is fundamentally unfair.

We cannot expect judges to be expert in the law of jurisdictions outside of their own. State courts have as their purview the laws of their states, which might differ substantially from the comparable laws in other states. An aggrieved plaintiff and a defendant whose interaction had nothing to do with a state cannot adjudicate their differences under the laws of that state, but must rely on the home-state courts of one of the parties to the suit.

When potential plaintiffs span multiple states, there are three sensible options. The first is to try the case in the defendant's home state. If this is not feasible for some reason, then the appropriate jurisdiction is in the Federal courts under Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution. The only other sensible option is to break the class up into smaller classes each of which has plaintiffs from a single state, and pursue separate cases for each class.

The current legislation is more restrictive than this, but it makes the default jurisdiction Federal, which is appropriate for "Controversies...between Citizens of different States," which is arguably the most relevant jurisdiction. If the Federal courts are unwilling to take these cases, or if their judgements are not equitable, that is a separate matter which should be addressed. Using the claim that Federal payouts to plaintiffs are too small as an argument for moving suits to inappropriate jurisdictions is spurious, at best.

Given that roughly a quarter of the House Democrats (50 of 201) voted for this legislation, along with over 40% of Senate Democrats (18 of 44), it seems likely that many in the Democratic party view this issue in a manner similar to that outlined above. Changing jurisdicitional rules is a significant step, and requires overcoming a fair amount of inertia. Hopefully, this will be but the first step towards a completely rational basis for determining the jurisdiction of class-action lawsuits.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Making 'Em Pay

With the trials that are the fallout of recent corporate scandals occupying the headlines, many people are gleefully watching to see long prison sentences handed out to the guilty. While this is understandable, given that the alleged crimes resulted in a lot of people losing a lot of money, there is also a sense of "getting back at the wealthy," and this tends to cloud a larger issue. Specifically, should these people be going to prison?

I don't mean to question whether corporate criminals should be punished. Clearly, a crime should be punished, especially when it harms a large number of people. However, as satisfying as it might be to lock corporate criminals away, does this serve the public interest?

Let's consider what purpose prison serves. There's obviously a punitive element to it, but there's also an element of self-defense. By putting someone in prison, society is protecting itself from the danger that person poses while at liberty. It is, in fact, somewhat expensive to incarcerate people; for violent criminals society deems this expense justified by the greater overall safety that results from these criminals' imprisonment.

Is this expense justified for corporate criminals? Who is going to be shot by them? What windows are going to be broken? How many houses are going to be buglarized? Why, in short, should society spend money to punish them?

If someone has gotten rich by defrauding others, it seems logical to punish him by removing his riches. Obviously, the ill-gotten gains should be returned to society (and, if possible, the victims), but there is no need to stop with simple restitution. Fines can be an effective punishment, especially to those for whom money is a primary motivation.

These fines would have to be sufficiently high to be punitive, and a set scale of fines for particular crimes clearly won't do. What might be severe punishment to one person, such as Martha Stewart, will be inconsequential to another, such as Bill Gates (not to imply that Mr. Gates is guilty of any crimes). There is some fine, however, that will make Bill Gates take notice, and cause a severe disruption in his life.

This principle of using fines more heavily where we currently use prison doesn't only apply to the wealthiest criminals. Crime at all levels is often motivated by economics. If a crime becomes unprofitable, then people will tend to stop committing it. Perhaps not completely, but we would expect the rates to decrease substantially. Certain minimum fines could be established for, say, selling drugs that account for not just the value of the sale that led to the arrest, but the estimated value of the likely sales that were not caught. Basing these fines on statistical data is in fact preferable to attempting to set a specific fine for a specific individual, since the latter lends itself to charges of bias, profiling, and presumed guilt.

While possibly not as satisfying as prison sentences, truly punitive fines can better serve the public interest. Instead of paying money to punish a criminal, society can receive money for that punishment. In addition to the direct savings (and increase in revenue), we might expect crowding to be less of a problem in our prisons. Minimum-security prisons might be essentially eliminated, as well, or converted to more secure facilities more easily than new ones could be built. In all, it seems more sensible to punish non-dangerous criminals in their pocketbooks than in prison cells.

Monday, February 14, 2005

You Mean You're Actually Reading This?

Don't expect frequent updates to this blog. That seems like as good an introduction as any, since I don't intend to keep a "normal" blog where I feel obligated to post something every day, however prosaic. This space serves two basic purposes: to gratify my ego by imagining that someone is actually interested in what I write (as, I suppose, are most blogs), and to encourage myself to actually write something every now and then.

What should you expect to see here? Mostly, when I write it will be relatively brief opinion pieces, though I might throw in the odd random thought that amuses me. I also intend to post the occasional essay (that is, something for which I've actually done some research), but then I'm sure you know what they say about good intentions. I won't be writing about my work, nor will I be writing about my private life. I'm not paid to do this, so when I post it'll likely be in the evenings or on the weekend. There's an atom feed, if you're the obsessive type, but it's probably simpler to check in once a week or when you're bored.