Time to Go Nuclear

“This is a leap in thinking that distinguished scientists are already taking – from Sir David King, chief scientific adviser to the government, to James Lovelock, guru of Gaia and arch-environmentalist. Both started out from an anti-nuclear bias but, on the basis of empirical scientific evidence, arrived at the same conclusion. In the age of global warming, opposition to nuclear power is a cop-out rather than a rational or responsible position.”

From this week’s Observer. Outraged comments can be posted in the comments section.

Booker longlist announced today

“The judging panel of the Man Booker prize for fiction, one of the literary world’s most prestigious and lucrative awards, today announced its longlist for 2004. The 22 books that made it onto the longlist were chosen from a pool of 132 entries. The most distinguishing feature of this year’s lengthy longlist, which otherwise contained few great shocks, was the number of first-time novelists featuring in it – six out of 22.”

Sarah Crown writes more here in The Guardian.

Dualists from Birth

“We naturally see the world as containing both material objects, which are governed by physical laws, and mental entities, whose behavior is intentional and goal–directed. Some things in the world, such as people, can be seen either way, as physical bodies or as intentional agents. However, as Bloom describes, we tend toward the latter interpretation whenever possible, even attributing intentions to animated shapes on a computer screen if they move in certain ways. According to Bloom, dualism is the product not of nurture but of nature—specifically, evolution by natural selection. It was adaptive for our ancestors to be able to predict the behavior of physical objects and social creatures…”

Ethan Remmel reviews Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human by Paul Bloom, here in American Scientist Online.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Help this AI

20Q.net is an experiment in artificial intelligence. The program is very simple but its behavior is complex. Everything that it knows and all questions that it asks were entered by people playing this game. 20Q.net is a learning system; the more it is played, the smarter it gets.”

The game: “Think of an object and the A.I. will try to figure-out what you are thinking by asking simple questions. The object you think of should be something that most people would know about, but, never a specific person, place or thing.”

It’s pretty good. I thought about the color blue, and it managed to guess the answer in about 20 questions.

Physicans vs. “naturopaths”

Following up on Sughra’s post, a debate-discussion between physicians and “naturopaths” on the PBS show Closer to Truth addresses how to evaluate alternative medicine.

The “two sides argue fiercely about the efficacy and dangers of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Three of the guests can see both sides of the issue to various degrees. Only retired physician Wallace Sampson, Editor in Chief, Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine sees the field in black and white ‘…what we’re dealing with in most of alternative medicine is self-delusion.’ His points are cogent: how can standardization occur when naturopathic remedies are effected by such things as growing conditions, time of harvest, and length of storage? Dan Labriola, a naturopathic physician who specializes in cancer and heart diseases actually concurs: what PR company has ever publicized that the use of tests show that certain antioxidants prevent the effects of chemotherapy from killing tumor cells? But scientific testing also corroborates the effectiveness of the natural substances glucosamine and chondroitin for joint and cartilage-related pain. And mold from the common canteloupe provided the first effective immunizations for Polio.”

Watch it here (click on the video images).

Homosexuality in the Land of the Pure

“LAHORE – The first time Aziz, a lean, dark-haired 20-year-old in this bustling cultural capital, had sex with a man, he was a pretty, illiterate boy of 16. A family friend took him to his house, put on a Pakistani-made soft-porn video, and raped him. Now, says Aziz (who gives only his first name), he is ‘addicted’ to sex with men, so he hangs around Lahore’s red-light districts, getting paid a few rupees for sex. At night, he goes home to his parents and prays to Allah to forgive him.”

This is from Miranda Kennedy’s piece entitled “Open Secrets” at The Old Town Review.

Chemical and biological weapons–weapons of minimum destruction

In the post-9/11, Gulf War world, we have just taken at face value the idea that a terrorist armed with chemical or biological weapons is much more dangerous than those who just have ‘conventional’ ones.

“David C Rapoport, professor of political science at University of California, Los Angeles and editor of the Journal of Terrorism and Political Violence, has examined what he calls ‘easily available evidence’ relating to the historic use of chemical and biological weapons.

He found something surprising – such weapons do not cause mass destruction. Indeed, whether used by states, terror groups or dispersed in industrial accidents, they tend to be far less destructive than conventional weapons. ‘If we stopped speculating about things that might happen in the future and looked instead at what has happened in the past, we’d see that our fears about WMD are misplaced’, he says.

. . .’We know that nukes are massively destructive, there is a lot of evidence for that’, says Rapoport. But when it comes to chemical and biological weapons, ‘the evidence suggests that we should call them ‘weapons of minimum destruction’, not mass destruction’.” (Read on.)

Darfur, one week until the UN deadline

With much of the international news focused on Darfur as the one month deadline given by the Security Council to the government of Sudan approaches next week, press coverage of Sudan has become more in-depth and insightful. Samantha Power, author of The Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, has a piece in the New Yorker.

“[A]s I talked with the policemen inside one tent, a forbidding trio of men on camelback carrying G3 rifles rode by outside. I pointed to the janjaweed and asked the policemen, who were African, if they would make arrests if they learned of attacks on the refugees. ‘We don’t have instructions to arrest them,’ one said. ‘If we captured them, we would be sacked.’ Another added, ‘There are six of us here and thousands of them. They have heavy weapons and modern weapons, and we have these old Kalashnikovs. If we arrest one of them, they’ll come after our families.’ The policemen said that the government had given each of them only one gun cartridge.”

It doesn’t look promising, but intervention is far from a forgone conclusion. And international opinion is far from unified on the Sudan. Read this depressing account in The Daily Star (Lebanon) of the reception of Amnesty International’s latest report on Darfur, which it released in Beirut. (By way of normblog.)

And for those in New York and so inclined to join, the American Anti-Slavery Group is holding a rally on Darfur in front of the United Nations (Dag Hammerskjold Park at 47th Street by the UN) on September 12th, just as the UN convenes. (Also by way of normblog.)

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

TerraServer USA

abbas_neighborhood“The TerraServer-USA Web site is one of the world’s largest online databases, providing free public access to a vast data store of maps and aerial photographs of the United States. TerraServer is designed to work with commonly available computer systems and Web browsers over slow speed communications links. The TerraServer name is a play on words, with ‘Terra’ referring to the ‘earth’ or ‘land’ and also to the terabytes of images stored on the site.

Exploring our planet by studying maps and images is a fascinating experience! Not surprisingly, the first place many people visit is their own neighborhood.” Or in my case, Abbas’ neighborhood, the “home” of 3QD.

Smart cell phones, really smart

From Eureka Alert comes this glimpse of the near-future.

“Carnegie Mellon University’s Institute For Complex Engineered Systems will sign a research agreement today with French Telecom that could revolutionize the future of mobile phone devices. The technology, developed by Carnegie Mellon professors Asim Smailagic and Dan Siewiorek, is a state-of-the-art, context-aware mobile phone that can track a multitude of everyday details in a person’s life–the email sent, the phone calls made and a user’s location. The phone also adapts to dynamically changing environmental and psychological conditions, including monitoring heart rates and helping to determine a user’s state.”

Deliberative Polling as a Means of Making Better Voters

Following Asad’s post on voting, it seems appropriate to mention experiments in deliberative polling. The experiments grow out of an old concern with the secret ballot. J.S. Mill worried that the secret ballot would lead people to vote on the basis of their narrow interests. When the vote is open, we have to justify to others our electoral preferences. Reason giving would lead to a deliberative discusssion, and people’s choices would be more reasonable as a result. Of course the flip side is that an open ballot could easily lead to coerced votes.

But there may be answers found in the experiments in deliberative polling. This article offers a brief overview.

“Bruce Ackerman [at Yale] and James Fishkin [at Stanford these days] propose ‘Deliberation Day’. Instead of standing alone, voting day would be preceded by a national holiday to be held one week before major national elections. Voters would be called together in neighborhood meetings to discuss the central issues of the campaigns. . . Their proposal draws on Fishkin’s work on the “deliberative poll,” in which respondents don’t simply answer questions out of the blue, but come together in small groups to discuss issues.

One of the more dramatic uses of deliberative polling occurred in Australia just before the national referendum on whether it should become a republic . . .Several hundred randomly chosen Australian voters gathered for a weekend to confer with experts and politicians and among themselves. Initially most could not correctly answer basic questions about their constitution or the referendum. By the end of the weekend, they got 80 to 90 percent of the questions right. And support for the referendum shifted from 50 percent to 73 percent.”

This summary page of Fishkin’s Center for Deliberative Democracy has the results of a dozen such experiments, and plugs from people as diverse as Bill Archer and Al Gore. And the results are surprising.

And here’s a paper on the differences between conventional polling and deliberative polling. But of greater interest may be Fishkin’s paper, “Virtual Democratic Possibilities: Prospects for Internet Democracy“.

Of cinnamon and cloves

Years ago when I was suffering from a very painful sore throat, my oldest sister suggested that I drink a “tea” made by boiling a cinnamon stick and a bunch of cloves in some water until the color is rich mahogany. Optional additions include ginger root and cardamoms. It proved to be a most soothing concoction and has become my mainstay in fighting the oft recurring viral attacks we all suffer, especially in the northeastern winters. In a public radio discussion yesterday I heard of a recent study performed in Pakistan, looking at other amazing benefits of cinnamon. Truly exciting!

As for cloves, according to the American Cancer Society website, they “are said to have antiseptic (germ killing) and anesthetic (pain-relieving) properties. Undiluted clove oil is often applied topically to relieve pain from toothaches and insect bites. Some proponents also claim that, taken internally, cloves and clove oil combat fungal infections, relieve nausea and vomiting, improve digestion, fight intestinal parasites, stimulate uterine contractions, ease arthritis inflammation, stop migraine headaches, and ease symptoms of colds and allergies. ” Not to mention it’s use as a fish anesthetic, or claims that clove oil can repel snakes and mosquito, and cure ear aches. Apparently European doctors used to breath through leather “beaks” filled with cloves to ward of the plague (here)! Very impressive range, but there’s still little scientific evidence for most of these. Learn more here.

In the meantime, enjoy your cinnamon toast crunch or sprinkle cinnamon on your granola.

Always Shuck your Tamales: on the rationality of voting

Two recent essays treat the issue of the rationality of political affiliations from very different methodological angles. Both are short pieces intended for lay readers, so it’s probably unfair to take potshots at their simplicity… but I’m going to anyway.

Steven Johnson (author of Emergence) wonders here whether perhaps brain chemistry can explain the tendency of “liberals” to be more sensitive than others to human suffering and more averse to retributive justice: Democrats, a study suggests, “think more” with the amydala (part of the limbic system), the seat of the emotions. Right away, my balderdash-detector buzzes: I can think of many leftist positions (Whig progressivism, Marxism) that we associate with the denial of emotionalism in favor of analytical calculation, and many rightist tendencies that prefer strong, “gut feelings” to logic (nearly all forms of fundamentalism, for instance). Correlating amydala activity to political positions seems quixotic, at the least, to me. But what Johnson giveth, he quickly taketh away: “One thing is certain: evidence of a neurological difference between liberal and conservative brains would not be another instance of genetic determinism, since patterns of brain activity are shaped by experience as much as by genes.” This would seem to retract much of the explanatory power Johnson promised, and we are left with the somewhat tautological conclusion that emotional people’s brains are emotional, however they got that way. At this point Johnson retreats to this position: perhaps people choose their political party by sensing temperamental commonality between themselves and peers of their party, which is interesting but again strongly reductive. As with much neuropsychology, my sense is that the levels of complexity intervening between neurological and social phenomena need far more elaborate treatment.

Louis Menand, in this piece, comes at the issue from the perspective of an intellectual historian reviewing sociological analyses of voting behavior. Menand refers extensively to the work of political scientist Philip Converse, who concluded in a 1964 article “that ‘very substantial portions of the public’ hold opinions that are essentially meaningless.” Menand then provides more figures that bespeak the utter insufficiency of rational choice theory to account for voting behavior: “In 2000, eighteen per cent said that they decided which Presidential candidate to vote for only in the last two weeks of the campaign; five per cent, enough to swing most elections, decided the day they voted. …Seventy per cent of Americans cannot name their senators or their congressman.” Adducing various theories (election results are arbitrary, they are oligarchical struggles amidst the “elite”), Menand finds one with the potential to salvage some civic belief, namely, that voters may respond to irrationally chosen cues, but that these cues are nonetheless accurate heuristics ( a primary example being Mexican-Americans’ support for Carter in ’76 after Ford tried to eat the corn husk of a tamale – a different kind of gut response, I guess). Menand rightly is skeptical of the rather Panglossian heuristic theory, but follows with a pretty unsatisfactory conclusion: “For most people, voting may be more meaningful and more understandable as a social act than as a political act.” Surely the political is always a subset of the social, unless by social Menand means the restricted sense of immediate interpersonal relations. Oddly, in begging the question, he has arrived at a similar black box to Johnson, that of the social roots of behavior, only from the opposite epistemological starting point.

Let’s Go To Mars

After the last space shuttle blew up some people got conservative and some people got misty eyed. I think it is time to start feeling intrepid again. The chance that NASA will try and get a manned mission to Mars is probably slim. Still, recent successes in the private sector have been pretty inspiring and there are always the pictures from Mars and the surrounding neighborhood to keep the heart jumping. In the end, we may have to rely on some grad students from Texas to get the job done. Such would be the ironies of it all.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

There is a tide in the affairs of men…

Holidaying at the seaside last week I became obsessed with the local bay beach. At low tide we walked endlessly on the ocean floor, marvelling at the bounty of life teeming in the tidal pools; and then the entire scene would transform into a raging sea of crashing waves on a windy evening at high tide. As I described this to my brother later, he wondered why we have never channeled the immense energy of diurnal tides to generate power. Here are some explanations and more about tides.

And speaking of the bounty of tidal flats (we had some phenomenally delicious oysters) and the effects of the full moon on ocean tides, here’s a quote from Worldwide Gourmet about oysters: “In love, you know, shellfish are your allies,” said Brillat-Savarin. Full of iodine, phosphorus and trace elements, oysters are stimulants and have always been a symbol of femininity. It is said that at the time of the full moon, oysters secrete an aphrodisiac hormone – but do you dare ask your fishmonger if he knows when his oysters were collected?”

I wonder what the oysters are like in the Bay of Fundy where the highest tides occur in the world.

Mapping your ethics on a moral philosophy scale, sort of

In keeping with Battleground God, there’s this. This Ethical Philosophy Selector offers a set of questions. “These questions reflect the dilemmas that have captured the attention of history’s most significant ethical philosophers. Answer the questions as best you can. When you’re finished answering the questions, press ‘Select Philosophy’ to generate your customized match of ethical philosophers/philosophies. The list orders the philosophers/philosophies according to their compatibility with your expressed opinions on ethics.”

My results, which left me horrified at least by the position of Ayn Rand (too high), Bentham (too high), and the Epicureans (too low):

1. John Stuart Mill (100%)
2. Kant (99%)
3. Prescriptivism (78%)
4. Jean-Paul Sartre (71%)
5. Aquinas (68%)
6. Ayn Rand (66%)
7. Jeremy Bentham (63%)
8. Aristotle (61%)
9. Epicureans (60%)
10. Spinoza (45%)
11. Stoics (45%)
12. Ockham (40%)
13. St. Augustine (38%)
14. Nel Noddings (34%)
15. Plato (33%)
16. David Hume (26%)
17. Nietzsche (24%)
18. Thomas Hobbes (13%)
19. Cynics (3%)

Judging what’s most untranslatable

Today Translations’ site lists the most untranslatable words, as measured by a poll of a thousand professional translators and interpreters it conducted for the BBC. “Plenipotentiary” won as the most untranslatable English word. The winner among foreign language words is “ilunga [a Tshiluba word for a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time; to tolerate it a second time; but never a third time. Note: Tshiluba is a Bantu language spoken in south-eastern Congo, and Zaire].”

However, Lanuage Log is skeptical. “The thing that puzzles me, though, is where Zilinskiene [head of Today Translations] turned up 1,000 linguists who know Tshiluba vocabulary. I’m beginning to get the feeling that this survey might have been a class project in one of Zilinskiene’s Problematics courses…”

Monday, August 23, 2004