Archive for July, 2012

Climate denialist catches up. One down, n to go

July 29, 2012 1 comment

Well good for you, Richard Muller 

Richard Muller, a cantankerous but creative physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, who once derided climate change research, then dove in with his own reconstruction of terrestrial temperature changes and confirmed substantial warming, has now concluded that recent warming is “almost entirely” human caused.”

Slow clap…

Sorry, but what we learn from Muller’s op-ed is that he’s finally caught up with the rest of the class. Yes, he’s a physicist, and he didn’t believe in anthropogenic global warming, but you would never have heard of him if it weren’t for the Koch brothers’ money.

Denialist think tanks are always looking for guys like Muller

It’s a fact that even if the scientific community has pretty much figured something out, you can always find a few scientists to say the opposite. The tobacco companies did just that, hiring the Marshall Institute to spread uncertainty about the evidence for tobacco harm.

The oil companies have done the same, finding science spokesmen – and even pouring money into the Heartland institute and other con think tanks. Their mission is to spread doubt about the very solid body of cross-disciplinary evidence that humans are warming the planet by releasing gigatonnes of long-buried carbon.

He did a meta-study to find out what most scientists have been saying all along is correct

Now one of their scientists has gone rogue, and caught up with what climate scientists were saying back in, oh, about the mid 1990’s. Maybe he’ll catch up the rest of the way. I guess we should be excited.

Bully for him. Thanks to oil-money driven denialists like him, we’re only about, oh, 20 years late getting started doing something about an approaching global catastrophe. Before it’s all done with, there will be flooded cities, collapsed agriculture, refugees, a crashed global economy, probably a few wars, and a lot of dead people.

And Muller’s just one denialist of many. I wonder how they’re going to spin this?


Categories: Uncategorized

The uplifting broken knee of inspiration

July 23, 2012 2 comments

If you have not read anything by Greta Christina, you are in for a treat. She’s one of those wonderfully genuine people who brings the humanity to her life and her writing. So make her acquaintance, at least on the Interwebs; you will be glad you did.

Anyway, Greta busted up her knee, and if she were like most of us she would have posted something on her blog along the lines of “Oh, damn it, I busted my knee, and it sucks, and FML and everything sucks…”

But she is not like most of us. Instead, she found more reasons to be thankful, and to say something that elevated my day, than most of us do even on a good day. I don’t know about you but I can use an uplifting message. It’s about progress we’ve made in medical science, and about progress in how society values lives and loves that are different from the privileged set of people who think of themselves as “approved”.  In some corners, at least, we’re making room for people to love one another, and to care for one another in painful times.

History, my bum knee, and some people I want to thank

Thank YOU, Greta.

Go read! I dunno about you, but this is what I’m going to think about today. It’s high time for something that will help you feel a bit optimistic for a change.


  • In an update, Greta says her knee will probably recover, though it will be a while before she gets back to dancing with Ingrid.
  • Crikey, just when I read an uplifting, wonderful story about progress, Sally Ride dies, and in the same story we find out that she had a same-sex partner of 27 years… who will not be able to collect her federal benefits. And then Mitt Goddamn Romney goes and gushes about what a great hero Ride was. Romney the Mormon, whose church spent $22m to help pass Prop 8 denying marriage equality to Ride among others. Mitt, you’re a despicable piece of human garbage; you aren’t allowed to say her name until you apologize and call for the repeal of Prop 8 and DOMA.
Categories: Uncategorized

Other proposed solutions

July 22, 2012 8 comments

There’s no shortage of solutions out there for the theater-shooter guy. Just ask anyone, and stand well back.

No costumes

Some theaters will be banning costumes. The sheer stupidity, the amazing obtuseness of this “solution” just staggers me. First of all, define “costume”. Then kick out everyone with an overcoat, a shoulder bag, or a purse. Or any theme-related makeup. Wait – that kid has green hair and The Hulk has green hair – kick him out! That woman looks is wearing black and Catwoman wears black… it’s a costume!

Also, are people who wear costumes a danger? How much ordinary-fun behavior are we willing to restrict because of whatever monster is hiding in our maybe-closet?

Security guards!

Then there are people who want to put security guards at every entrance to every theater. By my count that would be about a bazillion security guards, and if the TSA has taught us anything, it’s that effective security guards are not so easy to find.

What should they watch for? “Suspicious people?” Anyone with a cane? Should we start frisking people?

One way to kill a lot of people in theaters is to raise the portion sizes at the snack bar. Sell enormous candy bars, sodas, and popcorns, with lots of salt and hydrogenated imitation butter. Results guaranteed, though the actual drama takes place in hospital rooms much later.

Metal detectors

Really? maybe we should just reproduce the whole airport experience in theaters. And while we’re at it, schools and stores and shopping malls. And churches – there have been more church shootings by far than theater shootings.

More mental health funding

OK, I kinda like this one. Not to say that it would have any effect on the frequency of shootings. But it might reduce suicides. Actually anti-bullying measures in schools would probably do more good in the long run.

Gun Control

There may be some merit to this one. The problem is that while there are people who propose a wide range of sensible limitations on gun traffic and ownership, there are also people who won’t even discuss it. All they can talk about is their Dirty-Harry fantasies. I covered them in the previous post.

Rare events

This theater shooting, well it’s happened one time in the whole history of theaters. There’s nothing you can do to prevent something that happens that rarely. Which means, first of all, don’t worry when you go to the theater. But it also means, despite the part of our brains that insist there must be a solution, there probably isn’t. You can regularize solutions for regular events – not for extreme outliers. The somewhat (but not unusually) unpleasant grad student who turns out to be a total psycho and shoots up a theater? You can’t prevent what you can’t predict. Mourn the dead, comfort the living, and spend your energy on solving problems that kill people wholesale, like texting and driving (about six thousand people per year).

Categories: Uncategorized

Our gun fantasies

July 22, 2012 6 comments

On Facebook:

If just one armed citizen had been there to deliver a well-placed shot, fatalities and injuries would have been reduced. Nevertheless you will be hearing calls to restrict Americans’ gun rights. SUPPORT THE SECOND AMENDMENT

I can’t do it. I just can’t argue with these people. Somewhere in their heads they really think if they’d been there with a gun, they could have stopped that guy. In a dark theater full of tear gas and screaming people, while terrified, and (let’s face it) with skillz honed by threatening paper targets and video games.


The armed hero

It isn’t enough to go to a gun range and put holes in paper targets. Maybe paintball twice a week would help. Certainly combat experience would help. But the average person simply has not built the mental foundation for a discriminating kill during a crisis situation.

On the TV series Person Of Interest, there’s a guy who’s like this super-deadly ex-spy, and when someone’s holding someone else hostage, he whips out his gun and puts a bullet right through their forehead. And the bad guy falls to the ground and the hostage (though traumatized) is safe. You are not that person. I imagine there are people like that, but not you. If you think you are that person, you are delusional. Even if you are a nice person and you mean well.

The term “Fog Of War” comes to mind, and it was coined by actual soldiers. Anybody with combat experience want to weigh in on this?  How do you think the average “armed citizen” would fare in that theater?

Next post: Proposed Solutions

Categories: Uncategorized

Intelligent Design My Ass, part 10^4

July 17, 2012 3 comments

Two-thirty AM for the past I don’t know how many nights, I lie awake. My normally sensitive skin turns up to 11, alerting my brain; “Emergency! Microscopic fibre touching left cheek!” A 20-year-old hernia repair decides to hurt. My hip reminds me of that time I landed on it; my shoulder joins the chorus. I am alerted to the presence of varicose veins in my legs and in places I shan’t mention. A muscle tremor in my leg keeps time. My hands decide this would be a good time to remind me I have a touch of arthritis.

I have not listened to the radio for days, but a song fragment loops endlessly in my head.

It is now four-thirty AM; my alarm clock will go off soon. A long work day looms ahead and I am desperate for sleep. I am still feeling everything that touches me; in a nonsensical way much of it translates as pain.

Creationists find evolution difficult to “believe” but it makes perfect sense to me that what passes for my nervous system is a haphazardly evolved result of tetrapod population dynamics. Parts of the brain that suited some survival purpose once upon a time are now used to speculate about the universe. The neurochemistry of an advanced ape that wouldn’t have lived past forty now must be kept running much longer.

What I can’t fathom is the notion that a loving, all-knowing Intelligent Designer sketched out this mess on purpose.

Categories: Uncategorized

There’s small steps, and then phony steps

July 14, 2012 2 comments

Some products are their own mockery. Here’s a water bottle that makes fascinating reading.

Smaller Cap = Less Plastic

Did you notice this bottle has an Eco-Slim Cap? This is part of our ongoing effort to reduce our impact on the environment. This bottle and cap contain an average of 20% less plastic than our original 500ml Eco-Shape bottle and cap. Be Green.

“Be Green”?  If we were Being Green, we would stop buying this product. So yes, I encourage everyone to Be Green. Get a re-usable bottle and re-use it.

If they really want to “reduce their impact on the environment”, they should stop manufacturing these things and apologize to people who live in coastal cities and on Pacific islands, because the relative carbon-footprint of this product is fantastically out of proportion to the benefit relative to the nearest faucet. To say nothing of the plain old pollution of plastics production.

Once upon a time, if people in a modern country wanted to drink water, they poured it out of a faucet into a glass. Or into a pitcher and brought several glasses into a meeting. Or filled a re-usable water bottle and carried it with them. The quality was excellent and cost, minimal. Waste and environmental impact, also minimal. 20 years ago if you had told me that someday the practice of selling bottled water would be big industry, I’d have laughed at you.

Fact is, we’re in trouble and making tiny little adjustments for advertising’s sake, isn’t helping. We need big strides, not self-congratulation over slimmer caps.

Every time I mock bottled water, some wag says; “There are times bottled water makes sense” and that is a true statement. But the recycling bins that fill up in a single morning in our hallways, so that the trash cans also fill up?  Um… no. So I’m turning this one over to Willy Wonka.


  • “WARNING: Cap is a small part and poses a CHOKING HAZARD, particularly for children.” I have observed people in our lab, absent-mindedly chewing on bottle caps.
  • “WE CAN ALL MAKE A DIFFERENCE PLEASE RECYCLE” Yes indeed, if you use bottled water, please recycle the abominable thing.
  • A co-worker notes that the Eco-Slim cap is also harder to get off the damn bottle.
  • I’ve previously dissed Ethos Water for charity profiteering, and Green Planet Water for posing as an environmentally responsible product by virtue of the plant-based plastic used in its manufacture. And I’ve boggled at the environmental time bomb that derives from the sheer scale of our consumption, including the two million plastic beverage bottles the US uses every five minutes.
  • Our building will soon be getting hallway water-bottle refilling stations like they have in the athletic center. That will be great!
Categories: Uncategorized

Drug dogs and the 4th Amendment

July 9, 2012 1 comment

Federal Court: 25% Alert rate good enough for drug dogs.

Drug-sniffing dog Ginger and supercop Joe Friday from Dragnet

Drug-sniffing dog Ginger and supercop Joe Friday from Dragnet. Click picture to watch entire episode for free on HULU

A federal court ruled that a search was valid under the 4th Amendment, even though it was based on the “indication” of a drug dog with a 25% alert rate.

That’s 63 false positives out of 85 “Alerts”. And the judge said “Okie-Dokie!” There are many reasons why this is wrong.

Imagine you were one of those false positives; you are most likely poor, or politically unfavored, or a person of color, or just someone the constable does not like for whatever reason. Any number of bad results might come from you being under the police microscope for a couple of hours. This is why restrictions on searches were written into the constitution: it is dangerous for law enforcement to just go fishing around in the lives of people who cross their path.

Search and seizure have always been used as a political tool, for oppression of minorities, or just for harrassment. It’s no good for our political freedoms, it breeds official corruption, and it destroys lives. Our Founding Fathers knew this and created the Fourth Amendment to protect us. Like the Fifth Amendment, it is a “prophylactic rule”.

Fourth Amendment: Search And Seizure

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The Exclusionary Rule

In a long string of cases the Supreme Court ruled that evidence found in violation of the Fourth Amendment would be excluded from the prosecution. This is called The Exclusionary Rule. It carries a high social price tag, but it protects against an even higher social risk of a police state. It is a powerful sanction that keeps police honest.

I’ve mentioned this case to quite a few people and almost all of them said; “Well they found drugs, didn’t they?” Many commenters online said the same thing. But for legal and human-rights reasons it simply is not relevant whether any drugs were found; an illegal search is still excluded. It ignores all the illegal searches where drugs were not found, and if finding drugs erased that legal sanction, police would have a powerful incentive to plant evidence.

Animal analysis results

In the current case the judge ruled that because the dog had passed its certification tests, its alerts constituted valid probable cause, even though it had a dismal record in the field. I’m inclined to think that if the police were lying about the dog’s record, they’d lie in its favor. Whatever the reasons for this disparity, it meant that police had at least a 75% chance of searching whoever the hell they wanted to search.

Animals can be trained to reflect the unconscious directions of their handlers. One famous case of this is Clever Hans, the horse that could supposedly do arithmetic. The owner himself was convinced the horse could do number problems, but it was proved conclusively that the horse was actually just picking up on cues. It is called the “Clever Hans Effect” and I have no difficulty imagining a similar dynamic with drug-sniffing dogs.

Man’s best friend

Drug-sniffing dogs enjoy a high degree of (undeserved) confidence among the public, which like the court is willing to overlook their mistakes. Some of this stems from early presentation of dogs as nearly infallible servants in the War Against Drugs.

Watch the Dragnet episode from 1969, as super-cops Joe Friday and Bill Gannon singlehandedly dream up the idea of using dogs, locate a trainer, find a very special dog, and convince a panel of judges that the dog never makes mistakes. It’s really quite entertaining.

In the episode, one judge says; “How do you know whether the dog is excited by marijuana or a box of dog biscuits? If your dog reverts to its natural state and switches to indicating other things, it blows ‘probable cause’ sky-high!” Moments later the dog finds some marijuana one of the judges had hidden as a second confirmation of the test. Then the dog (who was a real LA Police Department drug-sniffing dog named Ginger, guest-starring in the show) helped arrest a pair of insufferably arrogant dope peddlers (one of whom was played by Dick Van Patten).

As I said, entertaining. (You can imagine Joe Friday’s voice saying this next part if you like.) Unless you are one of the people who fall under that microscope. Then it isn’t funny at all.  You might simply have money in your wallet with drug residue on it (which is to say, almost any money at all).

The False Positive paradox

Then there’s the counterintuitive statistical oddity that even with a mostly-accurate test, a positive result can still mean you have a less-than-even chance of whatever condition (be it drug possession or prostate cancer) is being tested for. The unhappy result of ignoring conditional probability means that a positive result does not mean what we are inclined to think it means. It causes a great deal of misery in both medicine and law, and for the same reason: it sets in motion processes that may do more harm than good. The legal solution to this problem is the exclusionary rule, and it’s one we tamper with at great risk as a society.

I’ve “excluded” discussion of whether any drugs should be legalized; it could be literally any kind of contraband that is at stake. The temptation to prosecute on the basis of evidence found in unrelated searches is a constant danger, and it’s one we must not indulge. Even if it is satisfying to give a dog biscuit to man’s best friend.


  • HULU: Dragnet: Narcotics DR21
  • Dragnet, for those of you beneath a certain age, was a super-popular radio and TV show about Joe Friday, a fictional Los Angeles police detective. Created by actor and producer Jack Webb, it was based on real cases and was known for realistic detail about police life.
  • Florida case challenges use of drug dogs
  • Conditional probability traps include the False Positive Paradox and the Prosecutor’s Fallacy, among others.
  • Combine drug-sniffing dogs with unjust drug-forfeiture laws and you have a formula for corruption. Cops are incentivized to confiscate any cash they find; it is up to you to prove you are carrying it legitimately.
Categories: Uncategorized

How you got rich matters

July 2, 2012 1 comment

I noted a letter to the Chicago Tribune that complained “Barack Obama is worth $8m! I thought liberals hated rich people!” But you see, Obama got that money by actually creating something. He wrote books, he got paid for appearances – he added value. So how exactly did Mitt Romney become worth $250m? As Robert Reich explains, not by adding value; more like strip-mining value. But at the end of this video is a little clue to why Romney might be so reluctant to share his tax returns.

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