Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Creationism Rejected in Pennsylvania Case

Hurrah! A victory for rationalism and freedom of religion! A Pennsylvania federal judge ruled that mandating Intelligent Design be presented in high school biology classes is unconstitutional. More importantly, the judge saw through the mischaracterizations of science so often hawked by ID supporters and instead recognized that science is fundamentally a method of finding natural explanations to describe the world around us.

The New York Times article quotes the opinion:
"To be sure, Darwin's theory of evolution is imperfect," Judge Jones wrote. "However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions."
While I'm sure most fundamentalists will conclude that this opinion is just another instance of their oppression, one ID supporter quoted in the article explained what they truly need to do if they want ID to gain more acceptance.
"I think the big lesson is, let's go to work and really develop this theory and not try to win this in the court of public opinion," Dr. Dembski said. "The burden is on us to produce."
Exactly. We should not go about banning research into creationism because it conflicts with current theory. The Church tried that a while back with Galileo. But if they want to move beyond the supernatural speculation that is currently ID, then they need to formulate some hypotheses and demonstrate them conclusively. Otherwise, ID will remain creationism pretending to be science and the debate will remain a frustratingly meaningless sideshow.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Is a little uncertainty sometimes a good thing?

I was reading today that Ben Bernake, the nominee for Chairman of the Federal Reserve, will be speaking at MIT's commencement this year. Mr. Bernake has a strong reputation for intelligence and for challenging conventional wisdom. In describing his economic philosophy, they quote him saying, "You want to release information that helps the market and the public achieve more accurate expectations of future policy and the future state of the economy."

If we're going to challenge conventional wisdom, how about we look at the idea that more information is better? Does maintaining a transparent monetary policy really help? In most policymaking cases, knowing more information is better because you can better discern the potential outcomes of the policy and, more importantly, judge the hidden agendas of stakeholders.

However, during his tenure as Fed Chair, Alan Greenspan was notorious for opacity. His speeches and congressional testimony were analyzed like Kremlinologists used to analyze the Soviet Union. While Mr. Greenspan kept people guessing, Mr. Bernake instead believes that clearer statements will allow people to make better predictions and have more confidence in the future.

But what happens when people get too confident in their predictions for the future? After all, a good prediction is still a prediction, and thus prone to be wrong on occasion. If people have too much confidence in their prediction, they can put themselves at risk of drastic loss if those predictions fail. Perhaps a little opacity keeps people on their toes and makes sure that they hedge their bets just to be safe?

Should there be exceptions to a ban on torture?

Charles Krauthammer wrote a controversial article in last week's The Weekly Standard arguing the case that torture should be permitted when a suspect possesses information on an imminent attack or is a high-level terrorist. Because he wants to make these exceptions, he opposes John McCain's proposed absolute ban on torture that passed the Senate by a wide margin but has been stubbornly opposed by President Bush.

Mr. Krauthammer, having no experience with torture like Senator McCain (nor, of course, do I) suffers from the same delusions that many Americans do: they've seen too many episodes of "24". Such scenarios can actually happen, and Mr. Krauthammer cites Israeli experience here, but on the whole are extraordinarily rare. What is much more common is a bunch of men get rounded up from a village in Iraq or Afghanistan, some of whom may be terrorists while others may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those that are terrorists may know some sensitive information, but likely nothing on an imminent nuclear attack. The uncertainty of such common situations is the flaw in Mr. Krauthammer's scenario. It rests on the assurance that the person being tortured is absolutely known to be a terrorist and absolutely knows critical information. In a vague situation, it is better to have very clear ethical boundaries.

Mr. Krauthammer criticizes Senator McCain's stance that if a true ticking bomb situation ever actually occurs, then the President and intelligence officers should break the law to do what they have to do. If that's the rationale, he asks, why not codify it? The answer is that by codifying it, you institutionalize it, and once things are institutionalized, they tend to grow and spread. Instead of having it codified in law, the President should have to undergo an excruciating decision of whether to break the law and save innocent people or not. Making is such a tough decision will help guarantee that it is not done except in extreme situations. We do not need to go building the bureaucracy for torture in order to make it easier to make a difficult decision in the future.


There was an interesting article by Jim Holt in Sunday's New York Times Magazine about science and it's ability to explain the world around us. At the end of the article, Holt refers to "a minority view" called instrumentalism. In this view, "scientific theories do not yield a true picture of a mind-independent reality; they are merely useful tools that enable us to predict our experience and have a measure of control over it." He then questions this view, quoting the famous scientist and writer Richard Dawkins; "do we accord for science's 'spectacular ability to make matter and energy jump through hoops on command' if not by assuming that the world, deep down, is more or less the way science tells us?"

I think this misses the point completely. Scientific theories are, by definition, explanations that have been demonstrated to predict behavior of the world within the scope of the assumptions of the theory. In short, theories are approximations of reality. But that shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who's taken high school physics. Do you really think a point mass exists? No. But it is a useful approximation of some objects that can lead to simple theories about how they move.

In fact, all of engineering is based on the premise that you make assumptions about the operating environment and use the appropriate theory to reasonably predict how the system will behave. Examples abound: air is not incompressible, but at low speeds it's close enough so we can use linearized aerodynamic equations to build very real airplanes; there is no such thing as a true voltage source, but it models a battery pretty well if you don't try to draw too much current.

A theory provides a means to understand some behavior using a testable, predictable structure. Who cares if the world is deep down the way the theory says it is so long as the theory provides a sufficient explanation for what we can observe in the world. But what happens when we observe things in the world that contradict what the theory is? Do we abandon science and just chalk it up to some intelligent designer? No. We look for a better explanation. That's what Einstein did when people realized Newtonian physics couldn't explain the world completely. But, we don't abandon Newtonian theory because for those of us who live in the slow moving world, it explains thing simply and reliably. What is important to understand about scientific theories is the assumptions and limitations that they possess. Only then can we know when to correctly apply a theory or where to aim future research.

On an end note, I would also like to renew my objection to using the phrase "science teaches us." Science does not teach us anything, people do. Science is a method, a procedure, a framework from which we can explore the world. It is not some mystical oracle or font of knowledge.

Stop whining! It's fiction!

There was a segment on the BBC World Service last week about the new release of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The report talked some about C.S. Lewis, a Christian apologist, and his motivation for writing a Christian allegory in the Chronicles of Narnia series. While a lot of devout Christians are excited at the movie's release, there are some people who don't like the fact that a good story like this can have Christian meaning. One man interviewed on the segment said he had read the books as a child and loved them, but dismayed when he found out they had Christian undertones.

People who get so uptight at things like this need to listen to the tape of that BBC segment and realize how ridiculous they sound. Did a single word of the book change between when he loved the book and when he discovered its Christian meaning? No. And even then, religious and mythological themes are found across literature and for a good reason: they address fundamental issues to humanity.

In general, people need to stop taking things so literally. These offended atheists are of the same ilk as those who were up in arms over Harry Potter because wizardry is supposedly satanic. But do you think a lion leads an army or a witch can take over a land? It's called FICTION for God's sake! Stop wasting everyone's time with non-issues.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Reading Lists

I've kept a list of all the books I've read in the past couple years, and I got around to putting them on Amazon's Listmania.

Innovative Head Football Coach of Texas Tech

Great article in today's New York Times Magazine by Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball and Liar's Poker. In this article, Lewis follows the brilliant and somewhat eccentric head football coach at Texas Tech, Mike Leach. A law school graduate with no football experience, Leach worked his way up through the world of coaching and has brought great success to the Red Raider football program with players that other powerhouse schools ignored (one of whom is my old high school teammate Wes Welker, who was shunned by the big schools but went on to break several records while at Tech and now plays for the Miami Dolphins). Leach has achieved such success because he ignores conventional wisdom in favor of a fast-paced spread out passing game and a rigorous physical training program.

One humorous part of the article deals with Leach's recent fascination with pirates. While playing Texas A&M, he remarked on the "cadets", A&M students who have a quasi-military student organization that is famous for dressing in military uniforms at games.
"How come they get to pretend they are soldiers?" he asked. "The thing is, they aren't actually in the military. I ought to have Mike's Pirate School. The freshmen, all they get is the bandanna. When you're a senior, you get the sword and skull and crossbones. For homework, we'll work pirate maneuvers and stuff like that."

Saturday, December 03, 2005

CRISIS IN (Insert Issue of the Moment)

At the gym at work, the television receives one channel, CNN. I tend to avoid television news when I can because it is almost always sensationalized and the information delivery rate is extraordinarily low compared to written news and even radio. But, other people always turn the monitor on, so I have to live with it. Thank God for the iPod with music and NPR podcasts.

I tend to work out some time between 6 and 8 PM, so depending on what time I get there I see some combination of Wolf Blitzer's Situation Room and Lou Dobbs Tonight. Before getting to the main topic, let me express that Lou Dobbs is a sheer and utter asshole. I don't watch enough to really know which way he leans politically, but that is beside the point. Lou Dobbs is a rude and pompous jerk. After most stories he provides a little extra commentary, usually well indicated by his leaning to the side and wearing a jackass smirk on his face. He proceeds then to make fun of people covered in the preceding story. I'm sure he thinks he's being like Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, but he is neither funny nor does he expose hypocrisy like Stewart does. Instead he is simply mean.

Anyway, the point of this post is not to assail Lou Dobbs, but instead to express exhaustion at the use of the word "crisis." Or, I should say "CRISIS" as it's usually put on the screen. Every story on television news is a "CRISIS". There are crises in education, in immigration, with China, in Iraq, in the economy, in entertainment, in nursing. On both Thursday and Friday, nearly every story on Blitzer's Situation Room was a crisis. That's funny, when I read the newspaper that day, I didn't see any crises. When I look at, I don't see all these crises. It's only on television that they have to have some crises.

Let's look at the definition of the word crisis for a moment. From we see a couple definitions of the word crisis.

cri·sis Audio pronunciation of "crisis" ( P ) Pronunciation Key (krss)
n. pl. cri·ses (-sz)
    1. A crucial or decisive point or situation; a turning point.
    2. An unstable condition, as in political, social, or economic affairs, involving an impending abrupt or decisive change.
  1. A sudden change in the course of a disease or fever, toward either improvement or deterioration.
  2. An emotionally stressful event or traumatic change in a person's life.
  3. A point in a story or drama when a conflict reaches its highest tension and must be resolved.
Obviously, the medical and literary definitions (2-4) are not as important to us as the broader definitions of 1a and 1b. Given these definitions, let's examine the crises in education and nursing that were covered on CNN last week.

First, the education crisis story was actually about the state of Minnesota's instituting new accountability mechanisms for teachers based on student test performance. A certainly reasonable story to air, especially since it is a controversial concept. But does Minnesota's move constitute a "crucial or decisive point" or an "unstable condition"? Hardly. Likewise, the crisis in nursing story was about the drop in the number of nurses in America despite increasing demand for their services. Again, perfectly reasonable story about a topic that should concern the public. But like the educational accountability story, hardly a crisis.

I wonder why "crisis" is so overused in television news, as is the word "tragedy". Do television news producers think that unless something is a crisis or a tragedy, viewers will lose interest? Perhaps. It seems like it is a demonstration of the terrible information transfer rates of television news. Reading a newspaper with that many crises would get overwhelming and seem absurd. But to keep a viewer's attention from wandering because they get bored, they have to use exagerated words to bring them back. Maybe news producers should take a cue from drama producers, who realized that viewers are in fact capable of following fast-paced, multiple-thread shows such as The West Wing and 24. I'd take that over old-fashioned television news anyday.

Patenting Methods Instead of Outcomes?

Given the prevalence of patent issues in the world of technology these days, it's quite apparent that sooner or later the intellectual property system is in need of a major overhaul before innovation in this country grinds to a halt due to patent litigation. Here's a rough-draft proposal for a way to restructure patents and copyrights to make life easier for everyone.

First, the concept of patenting an outcome needs to be abandoned. I don't have any legal training about patent law, but from those patents I've read through work, it appears that a patent is generally structured to cover a device or method that produces a particular outcome. For the purposes of understanding the device or method in question, this makes sense, but from a patent coverage issue, it seems to have gotten out of hand. For example, if I were the Wright Brothers and I wanted to patent my idea for an airplane now, I would probably claim a patent on an "apparatus and method for achieving flight of a heavier-than-air device" or something to that effect. Not only is my design covered, but also any other design that achieves the same result. This does not seem reasonable. The purpose of patents in the first place was to encourage innovation. Most inventions solve pre-existing, well known problems through their outcome. Granting patents that covers any method of reaching that outcome serves to prevent someone else from creating an alternative method of solving the original problem and thus stifling innovation. Should I choose to issue no licenses on my patent of flying machines, the entire realm of aviation is held back to the rate at which I want it to develop. And if do want to license my patent, I can sit back and enjoy the royalties while others spend time and money investing in further development of my idea while I do nothing.

Instead, it should be the method that is protected, not the outcome. Someone should be able to come up with an alternative design for a flying machine, so long as it does not copy my design. The mechanism is patented, and any software involved is copyrighted. This is how publishing is (at least text publishing, multimedia is an entirely different animal). It would be absurd if an author were given the exclusive right to publish on a particular topic. Yet this is how the patent system works. In publishing, it is the author's words themselves which are copyrighted, not the idea. Another author may express the exact same ideas without fear of prosecution, so long as the work is not plagiarized. Mechanical and software inventions should be treated the same way. Patent disputes should be more like plagiarism disputes.

Patents serve to protect the owner's investment in development from someone else copying their design. But if someone else also invests the time and money to develop an alternative invention addressing the same problem, they should be free to do so. While the patent holder would not have a monopoly on the market for his device, the advantage would certainly go to the person who creates and markets their device first and so the incentive for innovation would remain.

There are, of course, downsides to this concept. In particular, evaluating whether a device copies another is not as straightforward as evaluating whether an author copied another's writing. But then again, patent disputes under the current regime are not straightforward either. Under the proposed system, though, inventors would be encouraged to seek ideas from other inventions, and so long as they conduct their development themselves, they can reasonably expect not to be infringing on another patent. They would still have to conduct a patent search to make sure that they are not copying a design, but they can freely design their own independent system without fear of infringing on another.

So this is a first crack at patent law reform ideas. I have no idea how to address multimedia intellectual property issues. I would probably favor as loose of rules as possible while still maintaining some protection for the upfront investment of the creators. Otherwise it would not be worth the effort to produce the work in the first place. But at the same time, the whole purpose of publishing is to spread the work to others, so overly restrictive copyright rules only serve to make it more difficult for this to happen. I suppose if there were an easy answer to this problem, it would have been thought of, and probably quickly copyrighted.

PowerPoint Presidency

Finally, I'm getting around to writing an actual thought on the blog...

Two days ago, President Bush gave a "major" speech on the war in Iraq. Reaction to it seems to be mixed. In language, it seemed no different than any other speech on the war he has given. Others have said that it finally does hint at the fact that we are negotiating with the enemy (as we should be). But what is most striking is the National Strategy for Victory In Iraq document that accompanied the speech.

Paul Krugman assailed the document in his column in the New York Times yesterday. It's a pure PowerPoint document, filled with mindless buzzwords and little actual content. It's 38 pages of bullet points! No continuous line of thought lasts for more than about 5 or 6 sentences. Throughout the document are highlighted buzzwords like "increase", "political", "irresponsible", and "engage". Ultimately, the strategy comes down to "we will win because we have to." I also find it funny that the document has an "Executive Summary" at the beginning. Here's a smaller list of bullet points summarizing a slightly longer list of bullet points.

This "embarrassing" document, as Krugman called it, may have one of two origins, neither of which reflect well on the administration. First, it could be that this administration holds both the public and the media in such contempt that they feel that something as important as a national war strategy has to be dumbed down to this level. It isn't surprising, though, given the way they have treated the press and the rest of the "reality-based" community. This entire war effort, which did actually have reasonable strategic thinking around it, has from the beginning been dumbed down and packaged to appeal only to people's senses of fear. This administration has focused so much on the marketing and publicity that they have forgotten that you have to have a real and meaningful product that you are selling or else you are left with meaningless rhetoric.

An alternative explanation is that such information-less PowerPoint documents are actually what the President uses. This would not be surprising either. This is not unique to the president, rather it is ubiquitous across the business and military worlds. PowerPoint bullets have replaced clearly written narrative documents. In 2000, then-candidate Bush campaigned on a promise to bring a "C.E.O-style" presidency. Most people assumed that this would mean efficient and effective management that Harvard Business School graduates like Mr. Bush claim to provide to the companies that pay them enormous salaries. Instead, we've seen a classic example of managers who have no clue what happens under them, who ignore the advise of experienced professionals, and who reduce complicated subjects into color glossy handouts of a few bullet points.

If this kind of document is made with the public in mind, then I am insulted by this document. If it is written this way at the request of the president, then I am appalled that matters of war and peace are reduced to such mindless PowerPoint junk.

Need a new name for the blog

Turns out someone else already is using the name "Digital Moleskine" so I need a new blog name. It's eerie how similar to his my blog is. We used the same template and even our summary blurbs are remarkably similar. I can assure him that this is pure coincidence. I'll change my stuff as soon as I can think of something different that's good.