Friday, December 31, 2004

Getting your Nerd on

From Tim Lambert, a scientific test of nerdiness. I scored as "somewhat nerdy", beating 52% of my fellow test takers. I need to improve...

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Idiot writes book

No, not me - Michael Crichton, writing State of Fear. He's thoroughly debunked by Real Climate, a blog authored by climate change scientists. I'll repeat just two of the blog's points. First, global warming involves average temperature, and is not contradicted by local cooling in some places. Second, sea level rise is very difficult to measure locally, so the relatively small sea level rise that has happened so far might not show up in the one place the Crichton points to, but it still exists and is still a huge future problem. For the rest, see Real Climate.

A pro-environmental rider legislative act

I had wondered if this ever happened - someone stuck in a piece of rider legislation on a budget bill that actually helped the environment, instead of hurting it. This one removes some non-native birds from the protections of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, so their populations can be controlled. Good job, and by a Republican congressman too.

BTW, I came across this from The Tangled Bank, which is a biweekly sampler of science blogs, and an interesting thing to take a look at.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

The 9/11 Commission Report

Exciting book report time!

Finally finished the audio version of The 9/11 Commission Report, over 20 hours long. The main thing I wanted to mention was that simply reforming the intelligence system was only part of its recommendations - tightening port security and providing actual support for democracy in Muslim countries (not just talk) were important recommendations that haven't seen much support from the current administration.

I part company from my fellow semi-libertarians in believing there would be nothing wrong with a national identity card, just like many other democracies have, rather than the 50 state identity cards (driver licenses) we use. My suggestion for civil liberties is that noone is required to carry any I.D. (exceptions as appropriate like when driving, hunting etc.), BUT if you're convicted of a crime and not carrying I.D. when arrested, then you get extra punishment. So we won't become a "papers, please" society, while still having some security safeguards.

Going way further out on a limb, I'm half-convinced there's nothing wrong in requiring biometric information like a retinal scan or identifying genetic information as part of the card. The DNA would only be enough to identify someone, not the complete genetic code that would allow the government to learn scary secrets about ourselves. If it's required of everyone, not just those unfortunate enough to be arrested without being convicted of a crime, then it's a much fairer system. I'm not totally on the bandwagon for this, but it's intriguing.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

How the left can make the Social Security situation worse

1. They can suggest a worse alternative - the left realizes just being against Republican proposals and for the status quo will not seem very forward thinking. One proposal is to suggest an incentive system for "private retirement accounts outside of the Social Security system so that the debate is not between 'doing nothing' and 'the Bush plan to fix Social Security' but between the Democratic plan to give you new ways to save for retirement and the Bush plan to dismantle a savings instrument you already have."

The problem is what kind of incentive would be created. An expansion of the IRA tax deduction is regressive, because increased income tax deductions provide proportionally more money to people who pay higher income taxes, i.e. the wealthy. A tax credit, which is a dollar-for-dollar reduction in taxes for retirement savings, is not regressive if it includes an Earned Income Tax Credit for those too poor to pay income taxes, but it's expensive and will add to the budget deficit in the same way the Bush plan would add to the budget deficit. A tax credit accompanied by a tax increase on the wealthy to pay for it would be a good idea. Just as proposing a worse alternative could make things worse, proposing a better alternative could make things better. Of course, it doesn't fix the moderate-sized, long-term problem Social Security probably has.

2. They could end up fighting a good idea proposed by the Bush administration. This is a very low likelihood, but we can't completely eliminate the possiblity that Bush will come up with something that isn't completely awful. Two of my favorite blogs, Washington Monthly and Talkingpointsmemo (and many others), are trying to make opposition to privatization a litmus test for Democrats, but I think that should only be done for privatization that fails certain criteria, rather than a blanket opposition. Hard to believe I'm coming out to the right of them on this issue.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

The sex offender down the street

According to California's new website registry of sex offenders, one of them lives four doors down the street from me. In my four years here, I've never seen anyone who looks like the man in the picture, making me wonder about the value of the website.

I had a discussion with a friend about the whole idea of the website registry. On the one hand it seems like an extra punishment for a crime someone has already paid for, but on the other hand the information was already public, in theory. It's a good example of information that used to be semi-private because it was hard to get now becoming available to everyone. A less-than-wonderful trend.

Mainly, the idea is a lost opportunity. They could have exempted people who were long-ago offenders or who have completed rigorous therapy programs. The whole idea could have facilitated rehabilitation by giving people a way to avoid being on the registry. But in America we don't believe in rehabilitation.

Pledge a picket

Via BoingBoing, I found that Planned Parenthood has a pledge-a-thon, where you give money based on the number of protestors that are picketing them.

Pretty cool. I think this was adopted from the Howard Dean campaign blog, where people pledged money based on the number of trolls attacking the campaign in the blog. It apparently got rid of most trolls - we'll see if it has any effect on protestors.

Bush bordering on torture?

Kevin Drum reposts a news article confirming that:

the Bush order approved interrogation tactics that include "sleep deprivation and stress positions," as well as "loud music, interrogators yelling at subjects and prisoners with hoods on their heads."

That doesn't sound quite like torture to me, or at least not-so-bad torture. But the question I've had about these "stress position" requirements we keep hearing about, is how do they force prisoners to maintain those positions? The only way I can see that is if they will do something worse to prisoners if they move from the position. Stress positions seem to be synonymous with beatings, and that's torture.

P.S. I suppose people could be tied/chained into stress positions. I think the term encompasses more than that, positions that prisoners have maintain like a low crouch. Someone tied in a stress position long enough would experience excruciating pain, anyway, and that seems to me to be an authorization for torture, directly from our dear president.

UPDATE: From Laura Rozen: stress positions included "forced squatting for an extended period".

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Biology and free will

Chris Mooney has a post about the religious beliefs of evolutionary biologists. Apparently they're not very religious. I got in a discussion in the comments section to the post, about free will and the lack of religious beliefs. I argued that in the absence of something supernatural, free will is just an illusion. Don't know if I convinced the guy in the argument.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Good post on Social Security privatization

A post by Brad DeLong covers some of the for- and against- arguments on Social Security privatization. The part I'm most sympathetic to is this one:

"Kent Smetters and company might say that Kinsley's (3a) is wrong: that once the privatized parts of Social Security are off the books, the Republican High Politicians will have no option but to propose serious spending cuts or tax increases in order to bring the Federal Government's General Fund into long-term balance."

Social Security is a partially pre-funded retirement program, so if the federal government can no longer use the prefunded SS surplus to partially cover up the deficit, then there will be a better chance to fix the deficit, especially by letting part of awful Bush tax cuts sunset as currently planned. That's why the Bush accounting proposal of to simply declare the increased costs from privatization ans not part of the deficit is truly horrible.

Absent this Enron-style accounting suggested by the Bush administration, I still think partial privatization can have some benefits.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Shocker - Unocal settles human rights lawsuit over Burma

Unocal reached a confidential settlement in principle over a human rights lawsuit alleging it benefited from government repression while building a gas pipeline in Burma. The pipeline was built in an area where I used to do volunteer work, many years ago. The people I worked with are now refugees, driven out by government repression.

This is great news for the people there and for the principle that multinationals can't make use of repression by foreign governments in order to make money.

Details are completely missing (the settlement is not "certainly" worth millions as the website says), but still, it's great.

By the way, I used google news, and all the American reports on this story about an American company were 1 paragraph long, while the British website above was much more detailed. For what it's worth.

(Thanks Bob for letting us know!)

Monday, December 13, 2004

Applying biblical morality

I've been meaning to post this for some time, a letter that's been circulating through the internets.

(Thanks Mark and Melissa for the pointers!)

Dear President Bush,

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding
God's law. I have learned a great deal from you and try to share that
knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend
the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that
Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate.
I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other
of God's Laws and how to follow them:

1. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both
male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations.
A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not to
Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?

2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as
sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think
be a fair price for her?

3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while
she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev. 15:19-24). The
problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take

4. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know
it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord (Lev. 1:9). The problem is my
neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I

5. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the
Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states that he should be put to death.
Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police
do it?

6. A friend of mine feels that, even though eating
shellfish is an abomination (Lev. 11:10), it is a lesser abomination
than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this? Are there
"degrees" of abomination?

7. Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of
God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear
glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle-room

8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed,
including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly
forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?

9. I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a
dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear

10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev. 19:19 by
planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by
wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread
blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot.
Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the
whole town together to stone them (Lev. 24:10-16)? Couldn't we just
burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people
who sleep with their in-laws (Lev. 20:14)?

I know you have studied these things extensively and thus
enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I am confident you can

Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is
and unchanging.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Taking responsibility

The head of the International Atomic Energy Administration, Mohamed ElBaradei, was right to question whether Iraq had a nuclear weapons program, while the Bush Administration was disastrously wrong. In response, the Bush Administration is trying to get ElBaradei fired. Rumsfeld and anyone else who pushed the Iraq disaster, however, must stay. Very responsible.

Additions to the blogroll

Several new additions to the links on the left that I recommend:

Deltoid is an Australian blog that attacks bad science, mostly regarding authors who make up studies to prove gun control is bad or that climate change doesn't exist. Most doggedly persistent analysis I've seen, and he beats the heck out of any of his subjects when they fight back. This site exposed a prominent gun control opponent, John Lott, as a liar.

Brad DeLong is a (liberal) UC Berkeley economist writing about current economic issues. I find him especially interesting to read because I don't think he's taken a position yet on Social Security privatization, but has many bad things to say about the Bush administration's approach so far.

Fafblog is a group blog authored by Fafnir, Giblets, and The Medium Lobster. Someone with the strange name of Chris is occasionally mentioned. Besides recounting their various adventures, they enthusiastically "advocate" conservative positions by taking those positions to their logical extremes.

All worth taking a look.

Friday, December 10, 2004

I hate the World Bank

Their stupid website crashed my computer twice tonight. The second time was after 90 minutes of writing my definitive post on Social Security privatization (I didn't realize it was the World Bank's fault the first time). The post is gone, all gone.

To summarize it, I have mixed feelings about Social Security privatization. And I'm feeling very sorry for myself (cue violins).

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Gorillas' human-like reaction to death

This is from a CNN news item:

"After Babs the gorilla died at age 30, keepers at Brookfield Zoo decided to allow surviving gorillas to mourn the most influential female in their social family....Babs' 9-year-old daughter, Bana, was the first to approach the body, followed by Babs' mother, Alpha, 43. Bana sat down, held Babs' hand and stroked her mother's stomach. Then she sat down and laid her head on Babs' arm."

There's apparently no question they understood she was dead, and were acknowledging her in some way, for whatever reason.

While I have very little in common with animal-rights people in general, my perspective changes dramatically when we're talking about intelligent animals. Considering gorillas to be the moral equivalent of cows or fish is a huge mistake. Maybe considering cows to be the moral equivalent of fish is also a mistake - I'm not sure. But wherever the line is drawn, the great apes and possibly a number of other animals should be on the side where we treat them more like people and less like chattel.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Zen and the art of Prius driving

So I finally got my hybrid Toyota Prius, 6 months after ordering it. (I put on the "Al Qaeda Hates This Car" bumper sticker soon afterwards.) The car has a video display that shows when it's using the electric motor running off the battery, when it's using the gas engine, or both, and shows the gas mileage you're getting at that particular instant. So if you drive it just right, accelerating and decelarating sloooowly, you can just use battery power and hit the 99.9 miles per gallon.

The result is a much more meditative, slowing of acceleration and decelaration - as long as there's noone following you that's going nuts. I kind of like it, and wish I could've tried it sooner.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Calibrating torture and the law

Talkingpointsmemo has a discussion of whether torture is ever justifiable and should be legalized here and here (my oh-so-slightly-less-famous blog hit the topic too here (scroll to June 8). Talkingpoints' discussion recognizes the justifiability and legalization are two different things. The point I would add is that society should calibrate its decision on what should be legal based on what will happen as a result. Liberal lawyer Alan Dershowitz says torture will happen regardless, so it might as well be legal and regulated. As we've seen with the Bush administration, though, even semi-legalized torture has been completely abused.

I can imagine the extremely rare circumstance where torture would be justified, and I agree with Dershowitz that torture will happen. Where I disagree with him is in concluding that it should therefore be legal, when legalizing will bring vast amounts of "bad" torture, both legal and illegal. I think making it legal messes up the calibration. If something should happen, but only very rarely, the best way to achieve that result is (in this case) to make it illegal.

Friday, December 03, 2004

By this date in 2006,

if the current American casualty rate over the last 5 months in Iraq stays the same, more American soldiers will have died in Iraq than all the civilians that died in the Twin Towers.

Details on casualty rates are at this site.

I first wrote about this on September 7th, when the cross-over date was March 2007. Average American casualty rates have become worse since then. Maybe they will get better in the next 2 years, but we've heard that song before (getting better at the end of major operations, when Saddam and his sons are captured/killed, when sovereignty is turned over to Iraqis).

P.S. Can't leave out the token mention of massive Iraqi civilian casualties, far above what the US suffered, although it has no political importance here in the US.