Monday, December 31, 2007

You're Kidding

The dueling between social advocates and businesses over the minimum wage continues. Washington's is set to increase to $8.07 an hour tomorrow.

According to Camille St. Onge, spokeswoman for the Washington Restaurant Association, the average employee being paid minimum wage plus tips makes $20.71 per hour. (Washington doesn't allow businesses to count tips as part of the minimum wage.) Which means that the average tipped employee makes in the area of $40,000.00 a year. Am I the only person to whom that sounds fishy?

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Power Plays

John McGuinness penned an interesting column for Quiblit Magazine that leaves me in something of a quandary. I share his dislike for Paul Krugman's stance in his recent Slate column, not caring for the assertion that Democrats "have to be ready to forcefully make the case that progressive goals are right and conservatives are wrong," in the same way that I disliked the Republican assertion that conservative goals were always right, and liberals were always (and often intentionally) wrong.

John points out that groups that have used political power to "unfairly" benefit themselves (the forces of "organized money," as FDR termed them) are unlikely to accept policies in which they are the losers, and that they are powerful enough to "sabotage a plan they were shut out of creating." And he could very well be right.

But look at where that leaves us: We seem to then have three primary options -
1) The forces of organized money benefit at the expense of others.
2) The forces of organized money break even, holding on to what they already have.
3) The forces of organized money, refusing to accept any scenario that casts them as losers, sabotage the process.

If we therefore admit that they must always have a seat at the table, we are forced to admit that they have all of the power, and that no-one else really has any. After all, the forces of organized money didn't fear being sabotaged by the people who their preferred policies cast as losers up until this point. And if they effectively have the ability to kill any proposals they don't like, one wonders why they would even settle for simply breaking even.

"I spent a lot of time covering politics before I got into science, and one thing I learned is that anybody who starts pleading for consensus is losing." William Saletan ("Technical Knockout" Slate Magazine, 17 November, 2005)
Anyone who starts out from a position of seeking consensus with organizations that are understood to have gamed the system for their own benefit at the expense of others is, I think, going to be seen as weak, begging for crumbs at the feet of the powerful. A candidate that projects himself as being unable to stand up for their core constituency only appeals to a) a constituency that already sees themselves as defeated or b) the opposition. I don't see how either platform carries much hope for success in today's political climate.

I'd like to think that there is way to implement democracy without always succumbing to the tyranny of the majority. But that requires a level of enlightenment on ALL sides, not just one. But at this point, is anyone really going to believe that a Republican repentance of a policy of using a 51% majority to impose their ideas on the rest of the nation as being anything other than empty political expediency? Especially when the standard conservative position is still one of belligerence and self-righteousness? (John's a great guy - but he's not the sort of conservative that we've become accustomed to.) Everyone can be trusted to see the light when faced with the shoe being on the other foot - in light of that, it's going to be hard to make the case that anyone who takes them at their word on that is anything but a naïf.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Bad Laws, Ridiculous Outcomes

This situation is completely messed up. While I don't think of myself as a hardcore Law and Order type, I do understand that societies make rules for a reason, and that a society with the wherewithal is allowed to enforce sanctions on people who break the rules. But this crosses the line into the outright ludicrous, and seems to serve nothing other than the spiteful vengefulness that is a common hallmark of the insecure and fearful.

"I feel that I helped create a solution," [Miami-Dade County Commissioner Rebecca Sosa] insists. Asked if she knows how many men are living under the bridge, she answers, "Yes, many. I guess that at some point, the system will have to address that issue," she concedes with vague cheerfulness. "But I am not ready to address that issue. Maybe another commissioner should address that issue.... Your question is: Am I going to do something? The answer is no."
Tax dollars at work, folks. But perhaps the scary thing is that Commissioner Sosa clearly realizes that anyone who attempts to alter her idiotic law to create a better solution is, in effect, painting a massive bullseye on their forehead. You get the government you pay for.

If someone can explain to me how ANYONE - survivors, families, society, offenders, anybody - benefits from forcing sex offenders to live literally under bridges, I'll be all for it. I'm not holding my breath, however.
There is abundant evidence that residency restrictions do nothing to reduce sex crimes against children. For one thing, the vast majority of sex offenses are not committed by strangers: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, nine of 10 victims under the age of 18 know their abusers, and 34 percent were family members. And while residency restrictions target those who have already offended, most sex offenses — 87 percent — are committed by individuals with no prior records.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Supreme Court of Public Opinion

The flap over the destruction of a set of recordings of a CIA interrogation of two al-Qaida members drones on.

There's an interesting twist to this tale that's come up recently - the idea that it was in the best interests of the United States that the tapes were destroyed, because the reaction from the Arab Street to whatever was on them would be worse than the uproar over rendition and Abu Ghraib. I've heard this a few times by now, and it's starting to get old, mainly because it seems like an attempt to make something that doesn't make any sense appear logical through repetition.

The idea that now that the recordings can never come to light will shield the reputation of the United States from further harm is spurious because that horse is already FAR away from the barn. People already know that the recordings were made. And people understand that the tapes were destroyed. Given what we saw from the goings-on at Abu Ghraib, I suspect that people feel that the new tapes must really show some bad stuff, otherwise, there would have been no need to dispose of them. I suspect that the reputation of the United States has become autocatalytic at this point - people who think the worst of the United States ascribe nightmare scenarios to American actions, and in preaching those scenarios into an anti-American echo chamber, bolster their negative view of the United States.

If there's one thing that we should have learned by now, it's that lack of hard evidence doesn't tend to mean much to the Court of Public Opinion. After all, O. J. Simpson was acquitted of murder - and you can see how many minds that's changed. With the recordings gone, people can read into them whatever they want to. If people decide that what's on the tapes are orders of magnitude worse than anything that's come out so far, now there's no way to refute that. The idea that something that if you can't prove it, it didn't happen, is an example of the sort of legalistic thinking that doesn't really fly in the real world. (Technically, it doesn't work in a court of law, either, buts that's the way that people tend to think of things.) Not that people always believe the proof that you might put in front of them - let a member of the September 11th Truth Movement vent at you for a while, and they'll happily lay out for you mounds of evidence that they feel people have ignored. But in the absence of evidence to really bolster a position, the other side can have a field day, presenting conjectures as facts and challenging you to refute them.

From the point of view of the reputation of the United States, the damage, if any, is already done. It seems unlikely that one more video would have really made a difference.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Miscellaneous Objections to the Theory of Natural Selection

In this chapter, Mr. Darwin selects and tackles a number of objections to the Theory of Natural Selection raised by others. It's interesting to note that right off the bat he declines to be bothered with people whom he feels haven't bothered to actually acquaint themselves with the theory before embarking on criticisms. (I, for my part, am reading this book from the opposite perspective - since once cannot very well defend, or otherwise intelligently speak to, a work that one hasn't actually read.) It's also a safe bet that had Darwin attempted to answer every possible critic of his, he would have needed another 670 pages, devoted just to that alone.

In structure, this chapter is somewhat dull. Darwin rattles off some critique raised by some or another noted scientist of his time (one Mr. St. George Mivart seeming to be his chief critic), and then proceeds to explain why he feels that the particular objection is off the mark. Hardly a rousing read, unless one is really into this sort of thing, which I am not. But again, there are some really wonderful insights into the period to be gleaned, and it's an interesting look into how people of the time thought of things. The evolution of organisms over time is clearly seen as a progressive force, with later editions of a species moving towards some standard of perfection. This is a notion that doesn't seem to be so prevalent today. It's also worth noting that Darwin doesn't see Natural Selection as being an agent of change - but merely the mechanism by which certain changes become fixed. Other changes may occur on their own, and as long as there is no particular reason why Natural Selection would act against them, they could very well stick around.

Darwin also deals with one of the most tiresome questions of any discussion of evolution - "Why hasn't such-and-such an animal evolved into some other sort of animal?" (In the modern world, ninety-seven times out of one hundred, it's because the person asking the question is an idiot, wanting to know something stupid like "Why haven't humans evolved wings?" or something else equally inane.) In the end, it's about competition. Someone once asked me why monkeys hadn't evolved to displace us yet. The answer is simple - with humans already on the scene, monkeys aren't going to be able to get to a place where they can beat us at our own game. The way I see it, primates would have about one generation to go from wild animals to "Planet of the Apes," because if it took any longer, we'd see the threat, and deal with it. Most primates are better off where they are, as masters of the ecological niches they inhabit, where humans (while they might be a threat to the ecosystem) are not direct competition.

Whether Darwin manages to answer all of the criticisms raised convincingly is not for me to answer. I would say yes, but I'm biased, and I also understand that I have insights into the goings-on of life that the scientific community of a century and a half ago didn't have access to. Hence it is perhaps easier for me to quit the realm of miracle for that of science than it was for some of Darwin's forgotten contemporaries.

Still No Unicorns

It turns out that the British are capable of finding the current presidential campaign pretty much as funny as we do. Here , the Times of London has a little fun at Mike Huckabee's expense by asking how the Governor thinks that kangaroos came about.

Line of the hour: "According to the origins theory model used by young earth creation scientists, modern kangaroos are the descendants of the two founding members of the modern kangaroo baramin that were taken aboard Noah's Ark prior to the Great Flood."

"Young earth creation scientists?" Is it even legal to use those four words together in the same sentence?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Ancient History

So I was reading Matthew Yglesias' post on "Secularism and Establishment" on The In it, he offers his opinion on why European nations tend to be so overwhelmingly secular.

Of course, not all of his readers agree with his analysis. One remarks: "When you listen to young people talk, they point out that religion has, you know, led to, gee golly, a LOT OF FREAKING WAR." A few posts later, someone else remarks: "Actually, if you look at the bloodiest century of them all -- that would be the 20th -- you'll find that religion plays a very minor role in all the carnage." There are a lot of posts back and forth after this, on the role of warfare in European Secularism, but the conversation never manages to deal with anything prior to 1914. One particularly telling comment "Pretty sure that war has little to do with the decline of religion in Europe as: [...] b)The only people [...] who go to church in Europe are the elderly who actually experienced the war first hand."

I'm impressed at the number of people who don't seem to understand that history goes back farther than World War One. It strikes me (more than likely erroneously) as the reason why Young Earth Creationism can still thrive here. If anything that happened more than 100 years ago is such ancient history that it's no longer actually of importance to anyone, it seems that it would be easy to believe that the entire earth is only six thousand or so years old. Despite the fact that such things are commonly reported in the American media, I expect that many Americans would be surprised to find that there are Greeks that are still upset with the Crusader sacking of Constantinople, and that there are families in North Africa that hold as heirlooms keys to homes in Spain that their families were driven out of hundreds of years ago.

Weekend Winters

The first two weekends of this December were marked by an interesting phenomenon - snow in the lowlands around Puget Sound. This, in my experience is somewhat rare, although I've only been here a little more than a decade. Long-timers and natives tell me that there was more snow back in the day.

Being from Chicago, "snow" and "winter" are somewhat synonymous, to the degree that I tend to refer to snowy days as "winter" (as opposed to the Rainy Season, which is a more apt name for Winter in the Seattle area). Hence, snowy Saturdays and Sundays have become "Weekend Winters."

Our first December Weekend Winter was the prelude to the rampant flooding that seemed to submerge half of Western Washington, which made everyone quickly forget what a nice little snowfall it had been. So, a little silliness in memoriam of a rather pleasant Weekend Winter.

Oh... the little Weekend Winter came down to Puget Sound.
Down came the Rain, and washed the Winter out.
Out came the Sun, but couldn't dry the Rain.
And the little Weekend Winter was never seen again.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Paging Bill O'Reilly...

It seems that "The War On Christmas" had gone on sabbatical this year, so someone went out to recall it. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports: "Ho-ho-no: McDermott votes against Christmas," calling out the Representative for voting against House Resolution 847, noting the fact that he voted for House Resolutions 635 and 747 which acknowledge the onset of Ramadan and Diwali, respectively, and make bland expressions of "respect" to Muslims, Indian Americans and the Indian Diaspora. H RES 635 does seem to have something of a point, being mainly an exhortation to Americans to remember that not all Muslims are anti-American.

Although the article is written as if the three resolutions were the same, differing only in the religion named in each one, the details offered show some clear differences. But the long and short of it is that H RES 847 seems to have been designed mainly to pander to Evangelicals who may have felt slighted by the other two resolutions, and determined to answer one slight with one of their own. Tom Tancredo seems to think that the "liberal elite" is going to take exception to the resolution (but he also sees the line between church and state as "non-existent") - I'm curious to see if he's right, or if the only teapot tempest that this is going to generate will be from Evangelopatriot commentators who will see McDermott's refusal to pander to someone else's constituency as heralding the annual onslaught of the forces of Evil.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Security Show

You know, I could pontificate on aviation "security theater," or, I could let someone much better at it do it for me.

"DHS is another example of that old political standby: Don't just stand there; do something that will keep people from noticing that you're just standing there." Bruce Reed ("The Has Been - My Kingdom for a Department" Slate Magazine, 13 July, 2005)
But I suppose that part of the issue is that there's really nothing wrong with just standing there, if someone else is effectively handling the problem elsewhere. But we, as the general public, want to SEE action being taken. So the guy on the scene, even if there's nothing he can do, has to go through the motions of trying to make a difference. We see this public performance, and decide that things are being handled. So... where's the incentive to have someone working their tail off to do the heavy lifting, if no one is going to know, or care? Hence the public perception of something being done becomes more useful than something actually being done - so nothing is actually done.

Confused yet?

Thursday, December 6, 2007


Mark Morford, a columnist for SFGate (which I think is part of the San Francisco Chronicle), penned an interesting column about the way the media reports religion.

"And finally, I think of the eternal chicken-and-egg debate, modified thusly: Which came first, the radical fundamentalists who can't walk and chew warm theology at the same time, or the overeager commercial media, ever in need of tales of shock and titillation and blood to get you to pay attention?"
Mark Morford. "Let us kill all the teddy bears"
During his piece, he takes aim at Pope Benedict XVI, on the strength of a piece from ABC News, in which it is purported that a "Papal Letter Blames Atheism for World's Worst Woes." I popped over the Vatican's website, and read Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi, and realized that this time out, the overeager commercial media got the last laugh. While you can understand how the Associated Press writer came to her conclusions, it's pretty clear that this particular tale of shock has been modified a wee bit, to make it a little more, well, shocking.

The interpretation of papal language isn't exactly my chosen career, so I'm not going to attempt to give you a full picture of Benedict's statements here. But the alleged papal "blame game" goes a little something like this: People see the injustice in the world, cannot understand how a just and loving God allows such things, and turn to atheism. Believing that there is no God to create justice, such people have no hope for the future. If they are in positions of power, and attempt to enforce a just society on people, you can wind up with horrendous atrocities. In other words, lack of faith in God can lead well-meaning people to do nasty things while trying to bring about a just end, not realizing that only God can manage the goal they're striving for. Hardly a scathing criticism, especially when one considers the fact that Benedict feels that this has come about because Christianity itself "has been individualized and primarily oriented towards the salvation of the believer's own soul [...]" Perhaps more importantly, this criticism of atheism is only a very small part of a rather long encyclical - you've got to do a LOT of reading about other topics before you get there.

Lesson for today - if one is going to slam the media for constantly looking to shock and titillate, it's not a good idea to uncritically take their shocking and titillating stories at face value...

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

You Forgot One

There is a stereotype that the "mainstream media" is selective in which candidates they talk about - and this perception is strongest among the supporters of the second-tier candidates. Ron Paul supporters, for instance, made a lot of the fact that the "MSM" seemed to avoid talking about their candidate in the early stages of the election. In this Associated Press story about todays' NPR radio-only debate in Iowa, the AP completely glosses over the fact that former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel, as a candidate for the democratic presidential nomination, was at the debate. The article doesn't include a simple list of the participants - if you didn't know who was there, you'd need to pick their names out the overall text of the article, and Gravel's name doesn't appear anywhere in it. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, even though he wasn't at the debate, gets a mention in the story, explaining his absence.

As for the debate itself, I listened to it, and felt that there should have been more effort made to have each candidate speak to every question. The hosts did seem to direct more of the questions to the presumed front-runners.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Blame It On The Rain

Today, we were served with a reminder that it only rarely ever really rains in Seattle. Typically, what the locals normally describe as rain is, to an out-of-towner, simply a lingering drizzle. Which is why people in Seattle are dying for bit of sunshine in place that gets less annual rainfall than, say, New York City.

But today, it rained. For real. And half the Puget Sound region is flooded out. Entire apartment complexes in low-lying areas are dealing with feet of standing water. And because of the haphazard (at best) planning that went into the region's explosive growth, two or three flooded intersections can result in detours 10 miles, and a couple hours, long.

I always find it odd how little water it really takes to bring this place to a standstill. Despite the fact that we allegedly live in a temperate rain forest, this area is very water intolerant, and when more than an inch or two falls in a short span of time, everything goes crazy. And there seems to be little, if any, real official response to the changing conditions. Despite the fact that roads were closed all over the place, you couldn't find a police officer, or anyone else who could tell you what was going on, or which roads were still open. Traffic reports on the radio weren't much help, either. This general lack of preparation seems to be common in these sorts of situations, and consistently makes matters worse, as you wind up with people wandering around, not knowing where they should be attempting to go. This situation needs to change, so that people can make better judgments as to what they should be doing, and avoid making themselves into part of the problem.

Friday, November 30, 2007

An Easy Way Out?

The flap over the "Created Equal" series of columns on Slate (which ended with something of an apology from the author), for some reason, reminded me of an earlier stand alone Human Nature column. Back in March, William Saletan wrote "Mind Makes Right," about a study published in the journal Nature. I found this study interesting enough to mention it on Nobody In Particular, and I suppose that it's lingered in the back of my mind ever since. But thinking about the challenges of egalitarianism in the face of arguments over inequality, it came back to the forefront.

Scenario 12: Lifeboat 2
Mean emotion rating: 5.1
You are on a cruise ship when there is a fire on board, and the ship has to be abandoned. The lifeboats are carrying many more people than they were designed to carry. The lifeboat you’re in is sitting dangerously low in the water—a few inches lower and it will sink.
The seas start to get rough, and the boat begins to fill with water. If nothing is done it will sink before the rescue boats arrive and everyone on board will die. However, there is an injured person who will not survive in any case. If you throw that person overboard the boat will stay afloat and the remaining passengers will be saved.
Would you throw this person overboard in order to save the lives of the remaining passengers?
"Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgements" - Nature
What makes this scenario interesting is that fact that the injured passenger is going to die, no matter what you do. If you push them overboard, they drown. If you leave them in the boat, it sinks, and everyone, including the injured passenger, drowns. And depending on how you read the scenario, even if the rescue boats were to show up right at that moment, the injured passenger is going to die from their injuries.

According to the Nature study, certain damage to the prefrontal cortex increases the chance that a person would state a preference for pushing the injured passenger overboard, saving themselves certainly, but also saving each and every other person in the lifeboat with them. Nature's researchers concluded that absent this damage, people are more likely to chose a "moral" solution (in this case, everyone drowns) to a "utilitarian" solution (the fatally injured passenger drowns, but everyone else survives). Put another way, "normal" people are commonly unwilling to make a determination that the fatally injured passenger's life is worth little enough that it is appropriate to sacrifice them to save everyone else, even if the alternative is effectively mass suicide.
"What really interests me [... are] the things at which we as a society will grasp in order to justify pushing people off the boat."
Dawn Coyote
Whatever the reason, Malthusian scenarios and people's sense of justice do not mix, and conflicts between the two often conspire to make people cowards of a sort. People either flee difficult decisions or look for ways to make them easier. The injured passenger on Nature's sinking lifeboat is guilty of nothing outside of bad luck, and it feels unfair to push them overboard, even when everyone else's life depends on it. And so people have difficulty in persuading themselves to do so.

Perhaps this is the root of the recurring attempts by this tribe or that nation to establish an "objective" hierarchy of relative human worth, sometimes based on laughably shallow and/or imprecise criteria. It may be a dirty business, but if it's based on "facts," then it can be argued that there is no self-serving bias involved. The results may violate one's sense of propriety, the argument goes, but they represent the "truth," and perhaps even reflect the order of the universe, or, at an extreme, the will of the divine. People may not put themselves in the very first spot, to avoid the appearance of outright bias, but you can be sure that hardcore hierarchicists are going to ensure that they make the cutoff when the hard choices have to be made. In this degree, bigotry allows for scarcity and justice to go hand-in-hand, by placing the difficult decisions in the hands of facts.

Maybe the reason why we grasp at reasons as a society, is that it frees us from having to make these judgment calls as individuals.
"No, we are not created equal. But we are endowed by our Creator with the ideal of equality, and the intelligence to finish the job."
William Saletan "human nature: Created Equal - All God's Children"

It's understood that the ideal of equality doesn't mean that we all die together. We would hope that it aspires to a state where people don't make decisions based on narrow parochial and emotional interests; acting to advance preserve themselves, people they identify with, and people they like at the expense of others (whom they conveniently label as undesirables). That level of enlightenment is a laudable goal, but given history up to this point, it's clear that we need at least one backup plan.

I would postulate that short of universal enlightenment, the greatest tool that equality has at its disposal is plenty. While there are assholes who just can't stand to see other people happy, most of us, when our own bellies are full, have no issues with other people also eating their fill. Debates over whether it's the gifted students or the developmentally disabled who should get the lion's share of resources fade when neither group has to go begging. True, there are people for whom everything just isn't enough. There's always another multi-millionaire who feels that they need to steal what others have to feel complete. Quietly lock them away, and make sure they get their medications, while the rest of us go on with taking care of things. So rather than be allow ourselves to be locked into a hyper-competitive Malthusian disaster scenario, perhaps we're better off working to see if we can make the pie large enough to go around.

Just as useful, if a somewhat more difficult tool to cultivate, is a simple acceptance that sometimes, life isn't fair. Justice may be the bread and butter of legal scholars and activists, but its not something taught in physics and biology classes. Inequity aversion may be hardwired into our brains, but inequity avoidance isn't always possible. Sometimes, there really is no choice except for someone to go overboard, and there's no just way to decide who it is. Not dealing with it doesn't change that, so the best thing to do is to be as prepared as possible, so that such dire straits are few and far between.

Monday, November 26, 2007


Ted Koppel is upset with himself over not walking away from a dinner with a Chinese official who said that it was a pity that the attacks of September 11th, 2001 didn't target the White House. He decided that this was an unpardonable breach of good manners, and shouldn't have been tolerated. But when you listen to his entire piece, you have to wonder about the manners of Americans, when they talk to, or about, foreigners. China-bashing and high-handed preaching seem to be the new sport of the American press, punditry and political classes, even when it's not quite accurate. The idea that Chinese should always respond to this with bland pleasantries seems to be too much to ask for.

As an aside; when I was first listening to this piece, and Mr. Koppel was relating that he had asked his Chinese host about possible cooperation around counter-terrorism, I was reminded of an old joke:

Lone Ranger: Tonto, there are hostile Indians everywhere! We'll have to fight our way out!
Tonto: What's this "we" business, white man?

Again? But That Trick Never Works

The Bush Administration has invited a number of parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict (while making a point to not invite Iran) to Annapolis, Maryland, to discuss Middle East Peace.

This seems like a complete waste of time. Neither side seems to really trust the other, and both sides seem to have staked out positions that the other finds completely unacceptable. In addition, the United States is not seen as a neutral party by the Arab "street." But the biggest issue seems to be that these are going to be "talks about talks." Rather than really getting down to negotiations over a settlement, this is about creating statement that will serve as a "work plan" for more serious talks. It strikes me that if the parties were serious, they could do that sort of thing on their own.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Difficulties of the Theory

For starters - yes, I know I'm behind, as it's been a while since the last installment. There are always, it seems, more engaging things to write about. But I did like this chapter, and I'm glad that I finally got around to it.

Natural Selection is a very useful theory for explaining how many sorts of plants and animals came about, but it is not ironclad, and in Chapter VI, Mr. Darwin takes it upon himself to bring up some of the difficulties with the theory, and answer them, at least to his own satisfaction. It should be said that Darwin does not appear to be attempting to change the minds of potential critics, so much as he is making the point that he understands that there are possible rebuttals, and that he has thought about them, and reached some conclusions that prevent the objections raised from being fatal ones. Of course, in modern times we have the science of genetics to show us the potential links between different species. I, for my part, find the idea that genetic similarities between creatures to be tests of our faith, or the result of divine hoaxing, to be unconvincing. But the Creationist (and by extension, pseudo-creationist segment of the Intelligent Design crowd) are always going to have one big thing in their favor - the lack of an absolutely complete fossil record that shows each and every transitional and intermediate form that a given animal may have evolved through. But for those who say that such is needed for Natural Selection to be the least bit credible, I have a simple response - show me the clay. And I leave things at that.

Darwin does point out a number of items, that, if considered true, would put an end to the Theory of Natural Selection. One such idea is that certain plants and animals are beautiful for the enjoyment of either their Creator, or mankind. This was advanced as an explanation of why certain plants and animals have features that cannot be directly seen as contributing to the organism's survival. Darwin cheerfully admits that if you assume that plants and animals were deliberately designed to an exterior standard of beauty, then you can pretty much forget Natural Selection. But Darwin's willingness to predicate Natural Selection on certain assumptions has become somewhat twisted in the intervening century and a half; to the degree that people now claim that Darwin sowed the seeds for the destruction of Natural Selection by making assumptions that modern science has clearly disproved, such as a complete absence of non-cellular life (like bacteria and viruses). This I find particularly interesting - if antibiotic resistance in bacteria isn't a clear and convincing example of Natural Selection in action, I don't know what is.

One of the things that struck me as interesting is that Darwin attempts to answer the question of eyes, which stars in one of the common modern arguments against Natural Selection. How could any series of uncontrolled mutations, over any amount of time, the question goes, produce an eye? For Darwin, the idea that the eye evolved through several stages on its way to the modern forms we see today is perfectly plausible. Obviously, to the other side, it is less believable. And I'm not going to go into all of the details here. But I'm struck by the fact that both Darwin and his modern detractors settled upon the same example. And it does explain one problem of Natural Selection - even a complete fossil record wouldn't show us the exact construction of a dinosaur's eye, any more than it illuminates the structure of the brain.

"It is admitted that the rattlesnake has a poison-fang for its own defence, and for the destruction of its prey; but some authors suppose that at the same time it is furnished with a rattle for its own injury, namely, to warn its prey. I would almost as soon believe that the cat curls the end of its tail when preparing to spring, in order to warn the doomed mouse. It is a much more probable view that the rattlesnake uses its rattle, the cobra expands its frill, and the puff-adder swells whilst hissing so loudly and harshly, in order to alarm the many birds and beasts which are known to attack even the most venomous species."
Charles Darwin
Mr. Darwin caught me off-guard with his prescience in this respect. One can only presume that he would be intensely gratified to learn that modern rattlesnakes are becoming less and less likely to rattle. Birds and beasts, it turns out are less dangerous to rattlers than humans, who are likely to kill snakes that give themselves away by making noise. One wonders if there will come a time when the term "rattlesnake" is a quaint misnomer, wondered about by people who have never heard an actual rattle?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Ya Think?

The latest entry in the "You needed a study to tell you THAT?" category: "Study: Sense of moral superiority might lead to rationalizing bad behavior."

I felt cheated myself when I realized that I'd just spent several minutes reading about a study in which researchers found that people who feel that they can cheat without compromising their overall ethical framework will do so. I understand the idea of using the scientific method to test conventional wisdom, but it's getting to the point where I'm waiting for a study to tell me that water is wet.

A more interesting study might be into the nature of ethical exceptions, and how we determine them. Understanding where and when our concepts of morality and ethics transcend the "rules" of morality and ethics seems to be a more useful scientific endeavor than simply telling us that this is the case. We all understand that the people who hid the Frank family from the Nazis most likely lied to the Germans on several occasions. We don't feel a need to rationalize this behavior, even though we normally understand lying to be unethical.

On the other hand, when a number of American airmen were shot down in Borneo during the Second World War, they needed to hide among the non-Christian Dayak tribesmen. The Christian tribesmen had been converted by Evangelicals, and had been taught that lying, even to save the lives of others from a common enemy, was a mortal sin. Despite our normal disdain for lying, I expect that most everyday people would consider this to be an unreasonably rigid interpretation of Christianity, rather than laudable ethical stance.

The degree to which we understand an outcome to be either ethically acceptable, or tainted by the actions that are taken to arrive at it differs from person to person (duh). And is governed by a wide array of factors, including who benefits most from the outcome, the acceptability of the status quo, the level of risk undertaken, the subjective feeling that a loophole is being exploited, et cetera. An understanding of the personal and social factors that influence the way we weight those factors strikes me as a very valuable tool, much more useful than a reinforcement of simple truisms.


It's a commonly understood stereotype that the average white American can't tell one black person from another to save their lives. Sometimes, that's funny. Other times, it's almost tragic.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Shoot First

There's an Associated Press article in the Seattle Times that deals with some of the many police shootings over the past decade or so, when officers thought that someone had a weapon, and it turned out they were unarmed. A recent incident "[... H]as revived debate over the use of force, perceptions of threats and police training."

I recall reading an interesting analysis of the Amadou Diallo shooting that came to a very interesting conclusion - when the officers opened fire on Diallo, they were acting in accordance with their training, because if he'd drawn a gun on them, they'd have been screwed. But, it went on to say, if the police had followed their training from the outset of the encounter, they wouldn't have been in so vulnerable a position in the first place, and therefore would have had the time to verify whether or not he had a weapon before needing to decide whether or not to fire.

According to the article: "NYPD instructors say recruits are repeatedly cautioned to be aware of their surroundings and to try to take cover and assess a situation before opening fire." The officers in the Diallo incident didn't follow this rule - even though cover was available, they confronted Diallo in the open. Inquests seem to have a very narrow focus - limited to the exact moment when the officer needs to make the snap decision. One wonders if more questions about why so many snap decisions have to be made would lead to changes.


Great. Now, on top of everything else, it appears that the Bush Administration is contagious, and have infected the Japanese. That's all we need.

But I found this to be interesting - Wallace starts out with this sentence - "The kind of greeting a foreigner receives at immigration upon arrival at an international airport can be a good, if imperfect, indication of the country that waits on the other side of the barrier." He then goes on to make critical remarks about Heathrow, Indira Gandhi International, and "Some Middle Eastern airports" before starting telling us that "critics" are saying that Japan's new rules say bad things about that nation. Conspicuously absent is any mention of the United States.

So here's a question. A foreign national has landed at Reagan International for their first visit to the United States. What sort of indication of the character of the United States are they going to get while passing through Immigration? Have we done anything to leave them with the impression that they've arrived in a friendly, welcoming place? Personally, when I last went to London, there were no long lines - and I had no complaints with the service, either. Returning to Seatac - now that was another story entirely.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


Every four years (those preceding American presidential elections), the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has adopts a statement on "faithful citizenship." This year's is "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship." These appear to be something of a theological voter's guide, designed to inform the faithful of which issues that church feels are important. This is not, it seems, a trivial thing. Backing candidates that are at odds with the Vatican on such issues as abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research and torture is construed as "formal cooperation in grave evil." The choices people make, both as the electorate and the elected "also may affect individual salvation." This is serious stuff.

One of the points raised that I found to be interesting was the rejection of what is called "autonomy of conscience," which is referred to as a "mistaken notion." As I understand it, autonomy of conscience is the concept that we are each capable of forming a workable understanding of right and wrong as individuals, relying on our individual consciences to construct a moral framework. As each of us has our own conscience, two people could then follow their consciences to vastly different conclusions from the same starting point. And while each might disagree with the other's final decision, each should accept the validity of the other's conscientiousness. Church doctrine rejects this understanding of things, in effect saying that there is a single, objective standard of right and wrong, and if one's conscience differs from the accepted standard (in this case, as defined by church teaching) then it is malformed, and following it will lead them into error (a.k.a. sin). In the face of this, one wonders what use anyone has for a conscience - a comprehensive guide to church doctrine would be more useful - if less portable. In all, this strikes me as the official Roman Catholic version of the Socratic idea that while people do not intentionally do evil, ignorance of the true nature of good and evil may lead them to do the wrong thing, even while thinking that they're on the right path. This simply takes that a step further, in offering an authority (their own, natch) to turn to.

But it seems that's going to be hard row for the bishops to hoe these days. The church has admitted to a few errors of its own over the past several years, not the least of which being the never-ending clergy sexual abuse scandal. Convincing the notoriously willful American Catholic laity that it should always surrender its judgment of moral issues to a priesthood that seems to have gone out of its way to damage people's faith in it will be something that really qualifies as a miracle.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

On The Road Again

Okay. This poor sod needs a way to come in from the cold.

I understand that people don't want someone who openly expresses a sexual attraction to young girls to be hanging around in their neighborhoods. But at this point, the only other option is for him to somehow dodge the notoriety that he's generated for himself, and go back into the closet. This is unlikely to happen. But more importantly, this is pretty much a guarantee that other people in McClellan's situation aren't going to come forward - there's no profit in it. It doesn't do a thing to increase their access to services and/or therapy, while at the same time making them targets for skittish parents who chose to ignore the fact that most child sexual exploitation is perpetrated by acquaintances and relatives and focus on "stranger danger."

I don't claim to be able to see the future or anything, but if I had to bet, I'd say that eventually, the stress of being run out of one town and state after another is going to take its toll, and McClellan is going to hurt someone. If he doesn't wind up committing suicide, he's going to end up seeking out sex with a child.

"[... T]he child molester is the recipient of the strongest societal anger and disapproval, which ironically only confirms his perception of adults as hostile and punitive and reinforces his attraction to children."
The Child Molesters: Clinical Observations - Part I
Either way, at this rate, this is going to end badly. And that's a shame, because it doesn't have to. Understanding that we have someone who is willing to be open about his sexual desires, he provides a window onto what goes on, and perhaps what can be done to redirect those who feel that they're losing control. Putting him into a therapeutic situation, which would allow for the mental-health and law-enforcement communities to add to their knowledge base. Right now, many people have been studied are sex offenders, people who have been caught and convicted. Learning more about people who have yet to offend offers an opportunity to develop programs to prevent them from offending.

The Predatory Lending Association

This is one of the great things about the modern World Wide Web. You can create satire that is easily accessible to anyone with a computer connection. The PLA website might not teach you anything that you don't already know, but it's still an amusing read.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Scary Stories

While checking the few weblogs that I read on a regular basis, I came across this on Bruce Schneier's security weblog. Bruce links back to here; it appears that the original piece resides here.

There are a number of people who are skeptical of this tale, and I have to admit that I'm one of them. I doubt that Mr. Merchant's tale unfolded exactly as he relates it to us. But I also agree with a point made by a number of other posters - the story shouldn't BE believable. To anyone in the United States. On either side of the political spectrum. Everyday Diplomacy shouldn't even be remotely plausible. We shouldn't have to concern ourselves with Amtrak conductors who style themselves as tin-plated dictators, or police officers who have decided that innocent or not, someone is going to be detained. Back in the day, you would have needed to set such a tale, especially a story this one-sided and clear-cut, in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia or Communist China. And even then, perhaps you'd have been better off penning a science-fiction tale of some imaginary police state or some futuristic dystopia. The fact that you can set a story like this in the modern United States, and have American citizens nod their heads in agreement is symptomatic of a greater malady that desperately needs treatment. The idea that the United States has become a police state is clearly a minority position. But the fact that it's migrating out of the lunatic fringe means that we've let things go too far.

Party Brand

The position of King County prosecutor was voted on Tuesday - it had become open when the previous officeholder, Norm Maleng, died this past March. Both the major-party candidates for the office - Bill Sherman, Democrat, and Dan Satterburg, Republican, work in the King Country prosecutor's office. Sherman is a deputy prosecutor in the office's domestic-violence unit, and Satterburg had been Maleng's chief of staff, becoming interim prosecutor when Maleng died. But Satterburg has been in the prosecutor's office much longer than Sherman, and campaigned heavily on that experience. So Sherman took an interesting campaign tack, and challenged the public to consider each candidate's party affiliation. King County (which includes Seattle), like most urban centers, is highly Democratic, so the winner needs a pretty good number of Democratic voters to vote for him.

The last tally had Satterburg winning comfortably, with just under 54% of the vote. David Postman, the Seattle Times' political correspondent, asked the chairman of the Washington State Democratic party, Dwight Pelz, if there were any second thoughts about making party affiliation into a campaign issue. According to Pelz, "The 46 percent demonstrates that partisanship matters."

I, for my part, found that statement to be insulting towards those people who'd voted for Sherman. I'd certainly be ticked off if someone had chalked up my voting patterns to partisan loyalty, rather than trying to chose the best man for the job. But I guess that this is why I don't readily identify myself with either party - I don't see affiliation with one party or another as being, in and of itself, a significant qualification to hold office. Which, I suppose, puts me outside of the typical demographic that political types like to market themselves towards. The political parties are in the business of branding - and of trying to make their brands stand for something that people will vote for. But people aren't widgets, and they don't mass produce well. I can't tell you much about Senator John Kerry's approach to policy by describing Mayor Richard Daley or Representative Al O'Brien, despite the fact that they're all Democrats. So the Democratic brand doesn't really have much meaning, and I'm not at all certain that it should. I'm the same way about the Republican brand.

But like I said, in this, I think, I'm out of step. I might have trouble translating a certain party affiliation into an indication of how well someone is going to do the job, but for most people, that's the norm. I might feel that Dwight Pelz insulted Democratic voters, but it's doubtful that they feel insulted themselves.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Feel the Power of the Wind

It's rarely very windy here in Western Washington. You can't go kite flying very often, and if you go down for a sailboat ride on the Sound, you'll usually wind up tooling around with the motor. But, on occasion, it does get really windy around here. And that can make riding the ferry an adventure. I don't know who took this; my sister forwarded it to me in e-mail, along with some other shots.

The photographer's original e-mail ended as follows:

"Someone either PM'd me or posted that I should send these to the W[ashington] S[tate] Ferry System. I tried to sell them a much tamer, but similar shot and they told me these kind of shots don't promote rider ship. I couldn't argue that one."
I don't know. Seems to me like it would be a blast.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Women Are Shallow

Who knew? The fine people at Combe Incorporated, apparently. They're the makers of Just for Men. You may have seen the television commercials. Some of them have Walt Frazier and Keith Hernandez in them. Since basketball and baseball don't seem to be pulling in the dollars anymore, these two now make at least part of their daily bread telling men the nation over that women are so hung up looks that one won't date you if you have gray hair, and so stupid that if you get rid of the gray, the same women will suddenly be throwing themselves at you.

Don't get me wrong. I understand the pitch here - you'd need to be brain-damaged not to. This is a pretty clear example of a "show the need or problem" spot. But it's hard to see the problem as anything other than women are concerned primarily with looks, adamantly preferring men who don't show their years. (Maybe one should try Lynx {known as Axe in the US} body spray - any product that can, at least in their commercials, "beguile women to the point of dementia" {I love that description} should easily be able to get them to overlook a little gray hair.)

Maybe I'm alone in this, but commercials that claim their products are useful because they allow me to get around other people's negative traits don't work for me, and leave me with an unpleasant after taste. Perhaps I'm overly romantic in this regard, but who wants to be in a relationship with someone who you can't even let know your real hair color? But the shallowness really works both ways, and I guess that's where they lose me. I understand the idea of wanting an attractive partner, but in the land of commercials, that seems to be the only thing that matters. The men in these commercials color their hair so that they can get vapid, shallow women to notice them. While these aren't precisely "associated user imagery" spots, the idea IS for the target demographic to identify themselves with these men. But I can't bring myself to identify with insecure guys who go around chasing "hotties" in bars.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Laws of Variation

While it may not be accurate to say that an understanding of basic genetics is universal in modern America, most people can be expected to know the very basics, at least. This is more or less the exact opposite of Darwin's time, when DNA and chromosomes were pretty much unheard-of. One wonders what would have happened if the science of genetics had somehow managed to take root prior to mainstream naturalism coming to the understanding of the theory of natural evolution. I know that I've made this point before, but at the risk of belaboring it, I'll make it again: The realization that Darwin doesn't understand the concepts behind genetics is remarkable. But I suppose that many of us would be just as surprised by the apparent ignorance of a renowned physicist who died before Einstein revolutionized the discipline. So the idea that one could perform operations on guinea pigs, and have the effects of same passed on to the next generations of guinea pigs, while it seems bizarre to us today, couldn't be ruled out a century and a half ago.

One of the more interesting facts of Evolution, and one that always gave me a little trouble, was the idea of atrophy. It's pretty easy to understand why evolution giveth - it's somewhat less intuitive why evolution taketh away. But there is a section of the chapter named: "Compensation and Economy of Growth" that makes a simple point. Building structures takes energy. Organisms do not have an infinite supply of energy, and other materials, needed to develop an indefinite number of structures that don't actively contribute to a creature's chances of survival and/or procreation. Therefore, once something becomes superfluous, it is adaptive to take the energy and material that went into building it, and apply that to something more useful, instead. Even small shifts in resources can spell the difference between success and failure in the grand scheme of things, and so one can expect that nature will, to a degree, tend to favor alterations that make even modest reductions in "wasteful" expenditures.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Geekier Than Thou

The Independent Film Channel is running a film named Darkon, a documentary about a Baltimore-area LARP (Live-Action Role Playing {game}) next month. I'm dying to see this - basically to point and laugh, I'm somewhat sad to say. But check out the battle clip that follows the trailer on the IFC page - this is an impressively physical game, even if it doesn't seem that the participants approach it with much in the way of real skill. I expect that if more gamers did the LARP thing, the stereotype of the flabby Gandalf-wannabe would quickly fade.

What gets me about this, from what little I've seen so far (mainly the trailer and a commercial on IFC), is how seriously people take this. I was introduced to Role-Playing Games when I was in junior high school, and I've known a lot of gamers over the years, and I still can't wrap my brain around the level of emotional and psychological investment that people bring to the hobby. I guess that a lot of it has to do with a combination of escapism and wish-fulfillment - you may be Grondar the Terrible only in an (extremely) elaborate game of make-believe, but for the gamers, it still beats being a random choad who works in a big-box store for a living, lives in their parent's basement, and can't speak to what it's like to kiss someone. (Sorry. I guess I buy into the stereotype, too.)

Oh, yeah - check out the "Ye Olde Name Generator" link. It's good for a laugh - just a little at the gamers' expense...

Phear my 1337 geek-Name!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Monochrome Nation

Ya gotta love the politics of race. Senator (and presidential candidate) Barack Obama (D-IL) is calling for the dismissal of John Tanner, head of the Justice Department's voting rights division, for saying that election laws that impact the elderly don't have much impact on minorities. "[M]inorities don't become elderly the way white people do," Tanner said on October 5th. "They die first." According to Senator Obama, "Such comments are patently erroneous, offensive and dangerous, and they are especially troubling coming from the federal official charged with protecting voting rights in this country."

Justice Department spokesman Erik Ablin said, in defending Tanner, that Tanner had won a number of awards from African-American groups. Later on in the story, we are informed: "It is well documented that black Americans - particularly black males - have shorter life expectancies than whites. But blacks do live to become senior citizens." And the National Center for Health Statistics projected life expectancy of a Black person born in 2004 is given, and contrasted against that of Whites.

Maybe I slept in that day, but I don't recall just when the term "Minority" became the latest euphemism for "Black." Yet people, including the Associated Press, seem to treat it this way. Tanner's comments were erroneous - if for no other reason that there are minority groups that get to be just as elderly as Whites in this country. If offense is going to be taken at Tanner's statement, is should be because a high-ranking career official in the Justice Department appears to be too dim to realize that of all of the various minority groups that live in the United States, not all of them die significantly earlier than whites. But I guess that explains how one gets to be a spokesperson for the Justice Department, and not seem to understand that there's more than one minority group in the United States. When one considers that Tanner was speaking at the National Latino Congress - it's unlikely that he was referring specifically to African-Americans, even if he mentions the NAACP in his comments.

Friday, October 19, 2007

To Switch...

...Or not to Switch. That is the Question. According to the Associated Press, Comcast is controlling network traffic by hampering the sharing of large files online, and they are doing this by telling the computers involved that the other computer has requested that the transfer be stopped.

Each PC gets a message invisible to the user that looks like it comes from the other computer, telling it to stop communicating. But neither message originated from the other computer - it comes from Comcast. If it were a telephone conversation, it would be like the operator breaking into the conversation, telling each talker in the voice of the other: "Sorry, I have to hang up. Good bye."
The article makes it perfectly clear that Comcast is well within its rights to manage the traffic that flows over its network. But I, like other people interviewed for the article, don't like the way they go about it. I'm not comfortable with the idea that an ISP falsifies network traffic. More importantly, I don't like buying a service that comes with rules that I'm not told about, and aren't openly enforced.

I could call and complain to Comcast, or send them a protest e-mail. But I learned a really valuable lesson as a manager, earlier in my career - If there is a disconnect between what you're telling people to do, and what they understand they're being paid to do - they're going to ignore what you tell them to do. Does complaining to Comcast, while continuing to subscribe to their service create such a disconnect? And of course, if I do switch ISPs, does that also come with a commitment to switch BACK, if they clean up their act?

Switching ISPs is going to cost me more than it's going to cost Comcast - that much I'm sure of. I'm okay with that. Such is the way of things. I'm also certain that whomever I switch to likely has had the same idea, could very well be implementing it, and wouldn't tell me if they were. Again, c'est la vie. I could simply drop an internet connection entirely (good-bye work from home), and deal with the inconvenience, but would it do me any good? This becomes the big dilemma around such actions. They do very little in the way of driving change if undertaken alone, and are hard to organize and sustain in large groups. But I'll think about it anyway, and see if it can be a worthwhile action.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Natural Selection

This is a long and dense chapter - and if you are not inclined to be excited by long dissertations on the nitty-gritty of how species in the wild vary and change, I would recommend it as a strikingly effective sleep-aid. If this chapter isn't a form of Sominex applied to the printed page, I don't know what is. This isn't to say that the chapter contains nothing of interest - it does, and there are parts of it that are quite informative. But be prepared for a long slog, once Darwin gets some introductory material out of the way.

The capsule review: Variations arise within species (mutations, basically) - if a variation allows a population to become better adapted to the totality of the environment (note that this includes the other species present - and that changes in one species may make certain changes in another more advantageous) and thus survive to adulthood in greater numbers, that variation will spread - this is the process of Natural Selection. If a variation doesn't make a lifeform more robust, but increases its odd of successfully mating, or otherwise having more offspring than other forms, that variation will also spread - this is the process of Sexual Selection. Note that simply having an advantageous variation doesn't guarantee that a given specimen will survive, or out-compete its peers. A bird may have genes that make its feathers better insulators against the cold - this does it little good when a raccoon eats it in the egg. It gets a lot more complicated from there.

Now to back up to a very interesting point made early on. Semantics appears to be just as much an issue in Darwin's time as it is now, and we are told that people have many objections to the term "Natural Selection," one of them being that it implies that the altered species deliberately chose which new characteristics to adopt - and thus it cannot be applied to plants, since they have no volition. (Don't laugh too loudly - I've heard more idiotic things than that.) We are also told that some critics see Darwin's explanation of Natural Selection as describing Nature or evolution as an active force, with volition, and presumably a goal. Darwin says that personification of Nature in this way is unintentional, and to a certain degree, unavoidable. He mentions the way in which people commonly speak of gravity. Gravity is said to control the motions of objects in space, yet no one presumes that Gravity is an intelligent being, perched behind a drafting table with a protractor and a slide rule, calculating where it wants the Earth to be this time next month.

Darwin spends about a page comparing the human facility for shaping nature through various selective breeding techniques to the natural process of selection, and declares nature to be by far the better the better of the two. Given the understanding that Darwin much admired the skill and dedication that being a competent breeder requires, it's pretty clear that he stands in awe of the way that natural selection goes about its business - it's easy to see where people get the idea that he sees it as a deity from.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Who knew this was a worldwide preference, hardwired into the species?

In the new book "Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters: From Dating, Shopping, and Praying to Going to War and Becoming a Billionaire -- Two Evolutionary Psychologists Explain Why We Do What We Do," author Satoshi Kanazawa presents, as a "truth" that "Women with blond hair and large breasts are considered the most attractive, around the globe, because both are indicators of youth."

This brings up an interesting question, premised around the following: if (one) the reason why the blond mutation caught on in Europe is because blonde women stood out from everyone else, and thus were more often selected as mates, leaving their darker haired peers out in the cold, (two) naturally blond hair appears in all ethnicities from time to time (the blond mutation is not exclusive to Europeans), and (three) human males the world over find blonde women more attractive than other women - then why isn't blond[e] hair common in all ethnic groups, rather than just Europeans? It doesn't take a rocket scientist to look at pictures of people the world over and realize that outside of Europe, black and brown are far and away the most common hair colors, to the degree that blondness in some groups (like sub-saharan Africans, and their descendants worldwide) is considered either unusual (sometimes to the point of being freakish) or proof positive of mixed race. If there is a natural preference for light-haired women, why didn't those that carry the mutation become the basis for significant populations of blond[e]s everywhere?

It's interesting that Kanazawa has no truths that cover people who deliberately thwart what he understands as the universal desire for people to pass on their genes, either through remaining in exclusively homosexual relationships (and not having breeding trysts on the side) or simply intentionally not having children. "You have to remember that science is not personal. ... It's about generalizations; it's not about individuals or exceptions to the rule, although they exist," Kanazawa says. "Science cannot explain exceptions and anomalies." But until global media forms allowed the idea that blondes were more attractive than other women to spread worldwide, the European preference for them appears to have been an anomaly itself - yet Kanazawa has no qualms about elevating it to a truth.

Accurate or not, in the end, once the tempest in the political correctness teapot has spent itself, Kanazawa's book is likely, at best, to end up on the margins of scientific debate. Its basic premise, that many aspects of human behavior are biological instincts, centered around the drive to reproduce and pass on genes, tends to leave people feeling reduced to lust-addled automatons. It is this and similar feelings that fuel much of the emotional resistance to science that touches on human lives. This same premise also says that a certain amount of the in-group/out-group separation that creates so many winners and losers is biological, and impervious to social changes or human effort. Those who have been historically banished to the out-group fear that the in-group will either use such finding to justify unequal treatment, or worse, that it will be found that their out-group status is justified, and that they'll be willingly sacrificed for the "greater good." Kanazawa's assertion that "Laws are consistent with the desire to curb the human nature of other people," is of little comfort - no law has ever driven a behavior to extinction on its own, and there is always a nagging temptation to let nature take its course, rather than attempt to enforce unpopular statutes. Only authoritarian rulers seem to have the will to successfully drive wholesale changes in their societies overnight, using the rule of law as a bludgeon.

Kanazawa pleads with people to remember that it's nothing personal. And in doing so, he shows that while he might live up to opinions of him as brilliant scientist, he's certainly not a historian - where it's been shown time and again that everything is personal.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Propositions and Propaganda

Here in Washington, we practice a form of direct democracy in the form of binding citizen initiatives. It's tempting to say that we practice it, because we're nowhere close to getting it right, but I suppose that's true pretty much everywhere, and is really just the simple nature of the beast. One of the initiatives up for a vote in the next election is "Sound Transit (as in Puget Sound, meaning the greater Seattle area) and Regional Transportation Investment District Proposition Number 1 - Regional Roads and Transit System." The long and short of it is raising taxes to put in some new mass transit and roads infrastructure, with the aim of cutting back on congestion and the like.

Of course, there are people who support it, and people who are against it, and they're both planting signs like posies all over the place. One of the anti-"Prop 1" signs states that passage would double sales tax and car tab fees, but wouldn't actually help anything. You can argue all three points, but the first one is patently false - in the way that most people use language, anyway.

The sales and use tax will be raised by .1%. This small percentage isn't going to effectively double this tax. So I can only assume that as of this time, there is a sales and use tax of .1% earmarked for roads and transit projects. This would mean that the proposed tax increases would double the roads and transit taxes collected. This is, in fact exactly what critics of the plan say that it does. But that's too much to fit into a convenient and easy to remember sound bite. So what you wind up with is the somewhat misleading statement that it "Doubles the Sales Tax."

It's all semantic in the end, dealing with how you use the term Sales Tax. But I've always wondered about shortcuts like this. After all, it doesn't take more than a moment's thought to realize that there's no way on Earth that anyone would put to a vote a measure that doubles the entire sales and use tax. So why damage your credibility with such a statement?

Thursday, October 11, 2007


I tried watching the network news this evening. When I'm home on time, I try to catch it, because it's a relatively easy way to be a little informed about what's going on the world. Today, I lasted about 30 seconds. The opening story is about the removal of infant cold remedies from the market. Sure enough, they stuck a microphone in some lady's face, and she dutifully intoned a litany of fear for her children's lives and uncertainty over what medications, if any were safe.

You know, there should just be a giant amusement park fully of randomly scary stuff. Like Bruce Schneier's "Four Horsemen of the Information Apocalypse," along with unsafe products and shady lawyers. That way when people want to be scared, they can just go there, so the rest of us can watch the news to be informed.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Struggle For Existence

I take exception to the label of Darwinism, or Darwinist (as opposed to Darwinian), when applied to the theory of evolution. There is some evidence that these commonly pejorative and somewhat loaded terms are not contemporaneous to Mr. Darwin, and have mainly come about as a result of people applying certain evolutionary principles to other aspects of life and society. Chief among these borrowed lines of reasoning is "Survival of the Fittest," which we are introduced to early in the chapter. Although now strongly linked to Darwin in the public imagination, Darwin himself tells us that he copped the phrase from one Herbert Spencer. Somehow I think that the theory of evolution would be better off, if Darwin had come upon the sense to give it back before he went to print. Although the two terms are not now commonly thought of as synonymous, Darwin adopted Survival of the Fittest as a "more accurate, and [...] sometimes equally convenient" replacement for "Natural Selection." As one might have guessed, Natural Selection can be contrasted with the concept of artificial or intentional selection, the means by which mankind deliberately picks and chooses traits that are to our liking, and enhances these through our ability to control breeding in captive and/or domesticated populations. In any event, Survival of the Fittest is the intersection of the facts that populations in the wild are not static - they are subject to variations in both individuals and groups, and that whenever there is competition between organisms or limitations in the environment, a "Struggle for Existence" as Darwin labels it, that competition favors those that show the best adaptations for the environmental niche that they inhabit.

While many people interpret the phrase Struggle for Existence to indicate a dog-eat-dog world where the alleged "Law of the Jungle" rules, and it's every man for himself, this is a such a gross oversimplification that it borders on the willfully obtuse. There are three distinct facets to the Struggle for Existence, as Darwin explains it - competition within a species, competition between species, and mitigating the hostile effects of one's environment. While murdering one's neighbors in their sleep and looting their stored resources may win you points in the first category, it can actively torpedo you (and your whole group or species) in the other two, when you find yourself in a situation where your neighbors' skills (or genetic diversity) are required. Thus I find the common anti-evolutionary argument that adopting the Darwinian view of Evolution requires one to be murderously pseudo-Machiavellian, always on the lookout for any advantage that might allow one's genes to dominate humanity to be not only unconvincing, but laughably moronic.

Thomas Malthus is sort of a "guest star" in this chapter, as Darwin postulates that completely unrestricted life and breeding of any lifeform would (reasonably) quickly result in whatever it was outstripping the resources that it required to survive, resulting in a Malthusian Catastrophe of starvation and/or overcrowding. Since it's not possible for everything to live a full and (reproductively) productive life, this sets up a competition. In an "ideal" world with unlimited resources and lacking untimely deaths, every living species can manage to reproduce far faster than is required to maintain the rate of replacement, no matter how slow their natural reproductive cycles are. This level of geometric increase (I term I understand is also borrowed from Malthus) is held in check by the three facets of the struggle, which Darwin deals with over the rest of the chapter. Darwin simply discusses what is, either from his own or others' observations, or from some simple and effective experiments. He doesn't seem to bother putting forth the idea that this is how it SHOULD be. There is no discussion of fairness or justice, or of one population being somehow better than another. As he moves from competition with the environment, to competition with other species, to competition within species, we arrive at the meat of how species evolve, in the next chapter: Natural Selection.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

You Can't Say "You Can't Say That"

In a 5 to 4 split, the Washington Supreme Court has ruled that legislation allowing for sanctions against candidates who deliberately lie about their opponents while campaigning is an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.

"The notion that the government, rather than the people, may be the final arbiter of truth in political debate is fundamentally at odds with the First Amendment."
Justice James Johnson
I've never been one for "slippery slope" arguments, so I'm not going to start claiming that as of tomorrow, all sorts of libel and fraud will be commonplace, but as explained the Supreme Court decision, the statute prohibits any person from sponsoring, with actual malice, a political advertisement containing a false statement of material fact about a candidate for public office. I have difficulty with the idea that political speech is so important that candidates should be freely allowed to intentionally make false statements about challengers. The remedies, as the supreme court would have it, are challenges to the information by the person lied about, or a defamation suit.

Leaving the public to sort out the truth of every claim made about an candidate by an opponent doesn't strike me as a recipe for truth in politics. It seems more like an invitation to a shouting match, with each side raising the volume. And seems that it only help with easily verifiable facts, and things that can be proven one way or the other in time for the election itself - I would be unsurprised to find that there is an increase in the number of dubious claims in the final days of an election, when their isn't time for an exhaustive investigation to be completed.

Not being a lawyer, I don't know how a defamation suit would work in such a case. But it seems to me that if the intent of a candidate for public office is to demonstrate that they are more fit for the office than other candidates, how does lying turn such a position into defamation? I might have to ask around about this...

Monday, October 1, 2007

Variation Under Nature

When confronted with two populations of plants that look similar to one another, I do not have the foggiest idea as to whether or not these are different species, different varieties of the same species, or merely two groups of the same plant that just happen to have some immediately visible differentiation. This, I always surmised, is because I'm a layperson, and I don't know anything about biology. It turns out that my guess is nearly as good as anybody else's.

Mr. Darwin takes great pains, and a good number of pages, to make the point that when dealing with closely related forms, the definitions of "species" and "variety" are more or less arbitrary, and very much dependent on who you're speaking to. Related plants and animals lie on a continuum of variation. At one end are individual differences, like those between plants grown from different seeds. At the other end are the differences that mark the dividing line between species, chimpanzees and bonobos, for instance. Between these two extremes are varieties, groups recognized as distinct populations, but close enough that they're still the same species.

(Included, briefly, in all of this, are "monstrosities." Interestingly, Darwin presumes that a monstrosity exhibits "some considerable deviation of structure, generally injurious, or not useful to the species;" one wonders if he would find the many breeds of modern dogs that have had pretty severe defects bred into them as falling under that definition.)

In the end, where individual differences stop and varieties begin, and how far varieties go before transitioning into distinct species was, in Darwin's time (and perhaps to the present) essentially arbitrary, driven more by convention and preference than anything tangible. Where one naturalist sees several different species, another sees only a few, and some number of varieties. Some went so far as to dispense with varieties altogether - any variation more important than individual differences marked a new species, including some that weren't related to physiology at all, such as location of habitat. If Darwin is to be believed, and if I understand him correctly, these sorts would consider the Canadian Geese one finds in Seattle to be a different species than those found in London. According to Darwin, at this level, the term species loses its meaning, and "comes to be a mere useless abstraction, implying and assuming a separate act of creation." I'm curious as to the reasoning behind that conclusion, as Darwin does not explain any further.

It is in this chapter where Darwin begins to draw distinctions between evolution by natural selection, and the existence of species due to special acts of creation through hypothesizing what sorts of results one might find if some agency had directly created life on earth. Whether any idea of the immutability of species is always connected with this is unclear, although we may surmise that there were adherents in the creationist camp that held so - Darwin himself admitted to once having believed so, earlier in the book. In any event, the second part of the chapter deals with some observations about the relationships between genera, and their subordinate species. Its dry and fairly obvious stuff - a genera that has a broader range will have species that show more variation than a genera with a narrower range. (Although genera is the plural of genus, Darwin seems to use it as both the singular and the plural - it seems logical to assume that such was the common usage at the time.) But I suspect that it will come in handy in the next chapter: Struggle For Existence.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Variation Under Domestication

From having gone back and read my entry on the beginning of The Origin of Species, I appear to be writing a high-school book report. I don't know if that's the flavor that I'm looking for, so this time, I'll see if I can't come up with something a little more engaging.

In reading the first Chapter of Origin of Species, Variation Under Domestication, I found myself stopping and re-reading sections of the text over and over. This was due to several factors acting in concert. Among them is the slightly archaic language that is being used. Shakespeare it isn't, but it's certainly not the way in which modern writers communicate, and this is the only text from this particular time period that I've actually read, and Darwin is English, rather than American.

But the most interesting part of the book thus far has been Darwin's tendency to speculate. In a day and age in which DNA and genetics are commonplace, it's sometimes jarring to realize that people in Darwin's time weren't aware of this, leaving him ignorant of things that any modern high-school biology student would be able to tell you. (I expect that Mr. Darwin would be a holy terror in the present time, running around gathering DNA samples from anything that would stand still long enough.) The science of biology has advanced a lot in the approximately 150 years since the Sixth Edition of The Origin of Species was published, and I find myself having to remind myself that while Darwin was clearly a very smart and observant man, he wasn't a stand-in for Nostradamus, and couldn't see into the future. Therefore, my unconscious expectation that Darwin will always prove more knowledgeable about this subject than I am is very much misplaced. In fact, it's easy to forget that I'm reading this to understand Darwin and his book (and the contexts around them), not the theory of Evolution itself, which has progressed far beyond Darwin's original ideas.

An entire section of the chapter is devoted to pigeons, as Mr. Darwin had spent some time keeping and breeding them. An interesting tidbit that can be gleaned from this section is that the world is still crawling with Englishmen - Darwin's countrymen in India and Persia favoring him with bird pelts from those lands. Again, it's only to be expected, but I suspect that at some point in the future, people would find it strange to recall the presence of large numbers of American soldiers in Japan and Germany, regardless of whether or not their history books informed them that these places were once occupied, and then home to military bases. Darwin goes into a good amount of detail about the differences between the various breeds of domesticated pigeons, with which I was completely unacquainted. I had heard of carrier pigeons, but that was about it. Short-faced tumblers were something completely beyond my knowledge.

There is an interesting point raised in the overall discussion of pigeons - namely that many pigeon breeders would not begin to credit the idea that all of the various breeds of birds could have had a single common ancestor species, sometime in the distant past. I suppose its the same thing with modern dogs. One doesn't look at a toy breed, like a Bichon Frisé, and a massive working dog, like a Great Dane, and immediately come to the conclusion that both of these animals share a common parent. Darwin takes on a chiding tone here - if naturalists are willing to credit disparate breeds of animals as having a common parent species, animal breeders shouldn't be so quick to dismiss the idea, he says.

This caution is especially interesting in light of the fact that the next section of the chapter deals with mankind's efforts to alter the characteristics of animals through selective breeding. Good breeders have an almost magical ability to effect changes in successive generations of animals, and Darwin holds their abilities in very high regard. Darwin concludes the first chapter by discussing the ways in which people both purposefully and accidentally enhance or degrade certain characteristics of animals, and the particular circumstances that make it easier to do so. The next chapter deals with Variation Under Nature.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Thanks For Playing!

So, a few days ago, I noted that the Barack Obama campaign had established a presence on LinkedIn, and was using the Answers feature of the site as means of reaching out to people. I read the question they posed, and submitted an answer. Well, lo and behold, they replied. It was basically a form letter with my name at the top - there was nothing in the response that indicated that they'd read my answer, and it was signed by a pair of campaign staffers, but it was more than I was expecting to see. But there's still no spark, no connection. Okay, so they sent out a nice little form letter - I suspect that everyone got one. (Makes sense, no?) I'd be interested to see if any of the material from the answers pops up in campaign speeches down the road (but that would require me to read all of the answers, and know which points weren't already on the campaign's radar), but I don't feel any closer to the campaign, or (perhaps more importantly) any more inclined to write a check or to vote for him, than I did the day before the question appeared.

America In Blue

Uncle Sam is a two-part graphic novel that I discovered back in the nineties, when I first became enamored of all things Alex Ross. His incredible artwork had burst onto the scene, out of nowhere, and many comics lovers couldn't get enough of him. With this book, he turned his incredible paintings away from superheroics and towards a politicized history of the United States of America. The artwork is really something else, and if you've never seen his work, you may want to look it up. After the artwork, its best feature is that its a remarkably digestible introduction to the American brand of Liberalism, the sort that styles itself as Progressive.

Like most things, it is not perfect. Depending on your point of view, the number and severity of flaws varies wildly, but never truly drops to zero on either axis. But its single greatest flaw is not actually with the work itself, but the context in which it resides. It is, quite simply, a single work, and suffers for want of companionship. Uncle Sam is not a neutral and unbiased view of American history and the place of the United States in the world. It paints a somewhat dystopian vision of the United States, showing a myopic and self-righteous nation, blindfolded to the lessons of history by arrogance, stupidity and a shadowy malignancy. There are no solutions, only a vague hope in a Liberal dawn that will somehow show Americans the way forward, to an ideal that has so far been paid lip service, but never realized.

As a lesson, of both history and morals, it falls short. While not strictly revisionist, it is very selective. (To a certain degree, this is to be expected. After all, you can't exhaustively cover two hundred years of history in a little more than one hundred pages. But the events selected were clearly chosen with a partisan agenda in mind.) Its one-sided and self-reinforcing message does little to enlighten the serious student, and the lack of context (quotes are not footnoted) makes follow-up research more difficult than it needs to be. The stereotypical Conservative reader may be expected to see a cherry-picking of American history, selected anecdotes designed to demonstrate the need for a Liberal takeover of Government for the Good of the Masses. The Jingoist can be predicted to see an unwarranted criticism of American institutions and the public that borders on the treasonous. But as a political lesson, it's excellent, and that's where the lack of a Rightist companion volume is the most glaring. If you knew nothing of American politics before reading this, you'd have, in a nutshell, the basics of American Liberal/Progressive thought, and their case for a protective, nurturing Statism - the main function of which would be to basically ensure the flowering of a Socially Just Republic, with Liberty and Justice for All, ensured by a benevolent government.

It's an assumption that's unlikely to ever be borne out by the reality of the situation, were it actually to come to pass, but that's what ideals are all about, no? Which is why a Conservative volume would be welcome. Not as an answer, but as a compliment. The flip side of the coin, that presents the opposite ideal, and the selective vision of history that supports it. I've asked around, in comic-book circles, if such a volume exists, but have yet to find one. I'm hoping that someone gets around to one.

Monday, September 24, 2007

In the Beginning...

This is the first installment of The Origin of Species weblog. I'm using the English sixth edition, originally published in 1859. Presumably, this is the final edition, but I don't know the publication history, so there may be later ones.

The book opens with an explanation of the various English and other language editions, and a listing of the changes that were made since the fifth edition.

But The Origin of Species really starts with a Historical Sketch. At the time Darwin is writing, scientific thought is changing, and the time when "[...] the great majority of naturalists believed that species were immutable productions, and had been separately created" is coming to an end. It's useful to remember that The Origin of Species is a refinement of ideas that already existed, and not an invention, and the Historical Sketch presents 34 different authors "[...] who believe in the modification of species, or at least disbelieve in separate acts of creation [...]." Here I came to an unanticipated problem. Mr. Darwin reads French, and clearly expects his audience to do so, as well. While German authors, such as one Dr. Schaaffhuasen, are quoted in English, French authors are quoted in their native tongue, which I do not read. (It's entirely possible to transcribe the passages into Babelfish or some other translator; and if there comes a point where a passage that is crucial to understanding the text is rendered in French, that is exactly what I will do.) In any event, Darwin spends a little over a dozen pages laying out for the reader about six decades of scholarly thought as concerns the descent and modification of species, leading right up to what was then the present time, and so there are authors on his list whose work is contemporaneous with earlier editions of The Origin of Species. By the end of this, it's pretty clear that naturalism and zoology are beginning to embrace the idea that animals and plants change over time, and that if if Darwin hadn't risen to prominence with his ideas, someone else would have.

Following the Historical Sketch is the Introduction, another short section of the volume, wherein Darwin explains some of the history behind his conclusions, and the decision to publish his work. He describes The Origin of Species as an Abstract, defined in Merriam-Webster Online as, in part: "something that summarizes or concentrates the essentials of a larger thing or several things." Darwin expresses a desire to publish all of his manuscripts, realizing that the facts that he puts forth can be used to support "[...] conclusions directly opposite to those at which I have arrived."

"A fair result," he goes on to say, "can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question; and this is here impossible." (It may be worth noting at this point that The Origin of Species is over six hundred and fifty pages long. I doubt that I have the endurance to read the sort of exhaustive treatment of the subject that Darwin might have had in mind.)

It is not enough, Darwin tells us, to understand that species have descended from other species, rather than being independently created. It is also important to understand HOW the many species of living things were modified. It is clear to him that not all such changes in species can be explained by external factors such as climate or diet, and that factors such as habit or the volition of the lifeform itself aren't even worth considering. Understanding that the variations in domesticated animals could be of great help in understanding the variation in wild animals, Darwin tells us that the first chapter of the book is devoted to the study of Variation under Domestication. From there, he proceeds to give short descriptions of the topics and subjects of the following chapters.

The Introduction ends with an admission that human knowledge of the details surrounding many plants and animals is likely to be incomplete for some time into the future, if not perpetuity. Darwin tells us that he now rejects what he, and many other naturalists once held to be fact - that species were both independently created and immutable. Instead, species descended from other species and varieties share a single parent species. Natural Selection is simply the most important of the various means of modification that ave brought this about. With Chapter One, he will start making this case.