Tuesday, December 30, 2003

The American Disease (or just another reason why I don't read NRO that often) -  

Victor Davis Hanson's latest piece in National Review Online argues that, loosely, leftist elitists are out of touch with the situation on the ground in both Afghanistan and Iraq. That they (and by extension I suppose all of us) should be highly approving of this administrations military effort and quit their ceasless carping. Unpacking the multiple reasons why this piece is just bizarre would take most of the evening (and the world of iron oxide surface chemistry awaits me) but I just want to concentrate on one section I found particularly bizarre...

...We don’t need Osama bin Laden’s preschool jabbering about “the weak horse” to be worried about the causes of this Western disease: thousands of the richest, most leisured people in the history of civilization have become self-absorbed, ungracious, and completely divorced from the natural world — the age-old horrific realities of dearth, plague, hunger, rapine, or conquest....Neither (Paul Krugman nor a French lawyer Hanson saw on TV) knows what it is like to be in a village gassed by Saddam Hussein or how hard it is to go across the world to Tikrit and chain such a monster.

This section (representative of the article as a whole) is just wrong in two ways.

1. The juevenile way. I'm guessing (at least according to the various biographies available online) that Hanson has absolutely no experience with death, plague, hunger, rapine, conquest or what it is like to be in a village gassed by Saddam Hussein. Any issue taken with Paul Krugman for not having experienced these things is an issue Hanson should have with himself. To imply otherwise just isn't true.

2. The adult way. The truth is that even if we haven't actually experienced all of these things we should be able to speak meaningfully about them (e.g. I speak meaningfully about atoms all the time in my professional life (as do millions of scientists) but none of us have ever experienced them). Even if Hanson thinks removing Hussein and the Taliban from power was a good thing this does not absolve Hanson from the reponsibility of addressing process critiques (e.g. we're doing it the wrong way, we're doing it in a way that will ultimately lead to undesirable outcomes). To allow partisan invective as a substitute for argument, to allow hysteria to overcome rationality, is reprehensible. If this is what Hanson teaches his students I'm glad I was educated elsewhere.

Trade and Outsourcing 

Judging by holiday conversation with the family, and various print media articles, there is now a growing unease over the outsourcing not only of nearly all manufacturing jobs, but now an increasing number of service jobs. Some, in what is surely an example of poor coinage, are taking to calling the phenomenon Wal-Martization. The key is a willingness to decrease costs across the entire supply chain, including seeking lower labor costs in developing economies.

Never have we had so much reason to rue the British empire, I suspect, as Indian programers and customer service call centers steal rightful American work.

Although I'm less concerned about this, it is not because I secretly burn for laissez-faire. Rather, I believe that there is a price to international development in the short- to medium-term. We should be open and strategic about this cost, how it ought to be borne, where the benefits will arise, and how they ought to be ultimately distributed.

I have two thoughts.

First, organizing labor in developing countries is an important task. At the Seattle WTO developing countries banded together to reject core labor standards proposed by the US and others, claiming that this was protectionism in disguise. I'm not sure, but this may have been shortsighted on the part of developing countries in the sense that it will be that much harder for these nations to regulate big business on their own in the face of the explicit threat that increasing the cost of production in their own country will lead the business to move the production elsewhere. They would rather have low-paying jobs than nothing, naturally. But at the same time, these countries are not seeing very much more of the profits than the meager wages paid out. Shareholders are the ones who are profiting. Development will only happen if countries (and ideally the workers themselves) are able to retain a greater share of the profits. Organizing labor in the global world is not just a struggle against management, it's a redistributive struggle against shareholders (like me) who have fattened up on the benefits of globalization. It may be true that organizing or labor standards will lead to further shifts in production; but if middle-class mobility can be salvaged from working class industrial jobs, there is the chance to level the field without participating in a race to the bottom.

The second thought is that this outsourcing is maybe not so terrible. There are good reasons to feel happy that the poorer places on earth may be able to do more to feed, clothe, provide employment, and educate their citizens. Further, I would argue, we have no right in this or any country to a lifestyle beyond a certain standard of living (at least, that's what our social safety net including welfare, unemployment compensation, social security, health care, etc. would argue). We have been conditioned, perhaps, to believe that each generation must do better than the previous, but in theory there are plenty of people who could do a fair bit worse and still not be suffering, no? The theory is not entirely persuasive, I realize, because at least some of those people are not the ones who stand to lose anything if more jobs leave the US, because their standard of living may be more secure. But the theory is still instructive in a kind of fundamental way.

The pragmatic argument is that any loss of jobs or transfer of income through outsourcing in the short-term is an investment in development that will eventually lead to the creation of middle-classes and social mobility in other countries. The expectation would be that as emerging markets grow, so does their ability to provide employment. US businesses have long dreamed of China's opening in order to access 1 billion more potential customers, but without money, with what will the Chinese buy all of our great stuff? Increasing standards of living likely will mean that everyone, globally, will benefit from the rise in commerce as more people queu up to buy goods and services, but it will also lead to greater social expectations in developing countries around the type of employment and the kinds of opportunities open to individuals of those societies. Trans-national migration patterns will change as well.

The point is that this income transfer is happening. We can treat it as money lost, but in that case it will likely be lost even if we revert to protectionism which would shrink our economy without protecting the folks who need the protection. Or we can treat it like an investment, and strategically plan to develop value in order to augment the return. We have an interest in avoiding the race to the bottom because it's morally bankrupt, but also because sweatshops and the like are not a terribly efficient way to create value (middle classes in developing countries are a better bet than hoping American demand and cheap labor can keep Gap shares going up 8%, or whatever it does). It's kind of like drilling for oil in the ANWR to alleviate dependence on foreign oil.

Monday, December 29, 2003

Movie Awards 

I like movies. This appreciation has dimmed only somewhat in the last several years by watching a few too many in a theatre from which it is possible to hear thumping dance beats from a next door bar. I have, however, never really understood movie awards. Who gives them out? Should we care about any of them? There's an answer to, at least, the first of these questions in Slate's Explainer here.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

Why you should be careful about investing in Italian companies -  

I'm going to go out on a limb here (I have no particular expertise in finance but I want to emphasize that this is a limb on which I feel particularly comfortable standing). Is it possible that when Parmalat can falsely claim the existence of a bank account containing 4 billion dollars in assets that there are regulatory problems?

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

To the mothership - 

We're returning to the mothership for a few days - back on the 27th.

Sunday, December 21, 2003

One way to stop the spread of disease - 

Reuven Cohen and others (see the news story here and the article here - although the article will probably require a subscription to Physical Review Letters) have recently published a novel take on the best way for public health officials to combat the spread of disease.

Human social networks (as anyone who has read Malcom Gladwells The Tipping Point knows) tend to be organized in a sort of hub and spoke network (described technically as 'scale free' since there is no characteristic number of times any one person is connected to others). Clearly if you could vaccinate just the hubs you would be able to stop the spread of disease efficiently. The problem, until now, has always been trying to figure out who were the hubs.

Cohen and friends suggest doing so by asking individuals for a list of their friends and then randomly innoculating the individuals on the list. The idea is that the hubs (those highly connected indivudals we wish to innoculate) will have many more friendships and will thus stand a reasonably large chance of getting innoculated.

Friday, December 19, 2003

On Conflict of Interest in Medical Research -  

Antony Barnett makes the case that some significant portion of the papers that appear in medical journals espousing the benefits of a particular drug treatment are not, in fact, written by the doctors whose name appear as authors on the paper. Instead they are written by medical writers in the employ of pharmaceutical companies whose drugs appear in the paper and the titular authors of the paper are then somehow compensated. Typically no acknowledgement is made of this gargantuan conflict of interest and the readers of the medical journal, and by extension us (their patients), are no wiser.

If indeed Barnett's case is true (as it seems to be in at least a few instances) this is a really disturbing development. Obviously these sorts of biased articles could have very real (and adverse) effects on patient care. Understanding the degree to which this practice is widespread is much more difficult. Barnett suggests that at least hundreds of articles have been so tainted. However he doesn't offer any source for this number, or, to be fair, any reason to think its not far more or less. While the number of such tainted papers has to be of critical concern to any potential medical patient (is the entire profession bought and paid for or just some small parts?), from a professional point of view even one such case makes clear the need to have strong institutional sanctions for such behviour: journals should refuse to publish papers from authors so tainted and professional bodies should revoke their licenses to practice medicine.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Is Power Point Making us Dumber? - 

Clive Thompson poses this question in a recent NY Times article and its a good one (I mean I'm as much of a fan of asserting Microsoft has a huge negative sociocultural influence as anyone). The thesis of the, admittedly brief, article seems to be that Power Point requires that its users ruthlessly cut their material and that, in so doing, requires users to present a massively over simplified view of reality. This may have particular consequences if the presentation at issue is about something important (e.g. whether we should invade Iraq).

Reading the piece though it seems clear that most of the criticisms Thompson levels towards Power Point aren't really about that software per se (for one thing any other presentation software would certainly suffer from the same limitations) but rather about how bad oral presentations are at conveying information in general and nuanced/subtle information in particular. It is a fact, as noted by the Microsoft rep that Thompson quotes but doesn't seem to really believe, that Power Point allows you to create slides of arbitrary complexity. People tend not to for the simple reason that it is difficult to absorb information through hearing a spoken presentation (this is why educational theorists tend to rally against the use of the lecture in higher education). So if you want your listeners to get anything out of your presentation, you have to keep it simple.

As much as it pains me to say it, the sort of cognitive problems that Thompson is alluding to don't seem to have much to do with Power Point. But they do seem to have a lot to do with people choosing to give lectures rather than, e.g., write books.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Strom Thurmond: Hypocrite and Liar -  

Stuart Benjamin has an interesting post over at the Volokh Conspiracy highlighting the fact that a 22 year old Strom Thurmond had a sexual relationship with a then 16 year old African-American woman who worked as a maid in his parents house. The relationship produced a child for whom Strom never cared but who's silence he bought by low grade financial support. The post 22 year old Strom built his political career, at least in part, on his belief in the unalloyed racial superiority of white folk and attempts to avoid the "mongrelization" of the races. The man shocks me even in death.

Friday, December 12, 2003

But would North Still be North (and what about life as we know it)? 

This recent piece in the NYTimes describes the decline the intensity of the Earth's magnetic field (actually what it describes is the content of talks several geophysicists gave to this effect at the ongoing biannual national meeting of the American Geophysical Union). The gist of the piece (and I imagine of the talks) is that we may be seeing the first stages in a flip of the Earth's magnetic field. If this were so we might expect that at some time in the next several thousand years the Earth might undergo a couple of thousand years with a minimal magnetic field before an inverted one (north would, in some sense, be south) started to gain intensity.

In these times of changing geomagnetic fields it is worth noting, I think, that there is absolutely no evidence in the geological record suggesting that this time of low magnetisim would result in an end of all life as we know it type scenario (as I'm sure you remember from this summer's THE CORE). In fact, the paleontological record seems to suggest no significant extinction events ever accompanying a reversal of the Earth magnetic field.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

How long has man been influencing the global climate? -  

The vast majority of scientists who study the issue (see the IPCC report for their views) contend that humans have been influencing the global climate since, roughly, the beginning of the industrial revolution.

In a recent paper William Ruddiman has argued that, actually, man has been substantially influencing the global climate since the advent of widespread agriculture in Asia (i.e. something like 10,000 years ago) and that this influence was just increased (a lot) with industrialization. His suggestion isn't dumb (clear cutting for agriculture and subsequent farming tends to move carbon out of soils and into the atmosphere) but assessing this hypothesis quantitatively will require much more work using a variety of approaches.

UPDATE - Andrew Sullivan links (follow this link and scroll down to the entry Fisking the Guardian's Graphics to an NYTimes article on the Ruddiman paper I mention above). He suggests that the paper somehow gives 'a little more perspective' to the modern human influence on the atmosphere. This is a grossly inadaquite description: misleading at best and malicous at worst. Its a bit like saying that context is lent to the observation that DC is the most dangerous city in the US (at least, according to Matt Yglesias) now, by noting that in the past it was much less but still pretty dangerous.

What Sullivan should have said was "...follow this link for evidence that man may have been influencing the climate in relatively minor way for thousands of years before he really started screwing it up in the last 150".

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

One Perspective on the Ivory Coast -  

Damned if you do and damned if you don't seems to be the message this of Jeremy Kahn piece describing the French intervention in the Ivory Coast. The gist, that somehow the whole situation would have been improved if the French would have let the two sides kill each other a little longer (so that they would both be convinced they were out of miltary options), seems at best sketchy and at worst deeply offensive. To me it seems reasonable that the French would assume that the inhabitants of the Ivory Coast might be able to find a way to live in peace without first killing off a generation.

That said, I think the rest of the report is informative about the situation on the ground and well worth reading.

Also see the diary Jeremy is keeping this week in Slate on his travels in the Cote d'Ivoire.

Monday, December 08, 2003

Peer Review in Setting Regulatory limits for things like Air/Water pollution -  

Chris Mooney highlights some of the (I'd imagine unintended) consequences of the Clinton era Information Quality Act on implementing scientific/regulatory policy. His post is lengthy and worth reading but the gist of the problem is as follows...

The act requires that independent scientists review all data used to make regulatory decisions. So far so good, I mean who wouldn't want independent scientists involved in the process. The trick here is that independent is taken to mean a scientist who has recieved no government funding. A Boston Globe editorial Mooney quotes highlights why this is a bad thing...

To grasp the implications of this radical departure, one must recognize that in the United States there are effectively two pots of money that support science: one from government and one from industry. (A much smaller contribution comes from charitable foundations.) If one excludes scientists supported by the government, including most scientists based at universities, the remaining pool of reviewers will be largely from industry...

Effectively then, the only independent reviewers of regulatory decisions will be scientists employed by industry (with no government funding). A sane reading of independent might suggest that these folks are the least indpendent of all (I mean, after all, an industrial scientists pay check is directly tied to the profitability of his employer. A status that is greatly influenced by regulatory details). Unfortunately the law, as written, seems a sort of Congressional departure from rationality.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

The Dean Team (Howard Dean) -  

There's an interesting article in this weeks NYTimes Magazine on the supporters of Howard Dean. What's particularly neat about how the organization (really perhaps more of a movement) is described is that somehow Dean has managed to convince people who mostly feel disenfranchised that they have a voice in the political process. The result is a groups of supporters which somehow differs from the usual campaign structure...

At the headquarters of most political campaigns, there's a familiar organizational structure: a group of junior employees carrying out a plan devised by a bunch of senior advisers. The Dean headquarters feels different: a thin veneer of Official Adults barely hovers above a 24-hour hive of intense, mostly youthful devotion. When the adults leave, usually around 10 p.m., the aisles between cubicles are still cluttered with scooters and dogs; when they return in the morning, balancing just-microwaved cinnamon buns and coffee, they climb over pale legs poking out from beneath their desks and shoo sleeping volunteers off their office couches.

More on Curt Schilling going to the Red Sox -  

For those who aren't baseball fans (and shame on you if you're not) Curt Schilling, one of the top ten pitchers in baseball recently OKed (he had a no-trade clause in his contract) a trade from the Arizona Diamondbacks to the Boston Red Sox. This is not hugely interesting in and of itself. What is interesting is that one of the reasons he OKed the trade was the passion of the Red Sox fans. How did he know about that passion? He logged onto the Red Sox message board Sons of Sam Horn (whose rookie card I have), identified himself and spoke to the fans. It's hard to imagine any other professional athlete doing this. Bill Simmons captures how neat this is... (money paragraph)

Now here's where it gets crazy. The deadline comes ... and Schilling accepts the trade. Better yet, he specifically mentions the passion of the SOSH guys as one of the main reasons he decided to play in Boston. Unbelievable. Can you remember any other instance of fans directly influencing a player like this? Can you remember any other player seeking out the input of fans like this? I mean, unless you're a Yankees fan, how can you not root for Curt Schilling now? Shouldn't every player be like this? And if they were like this, wouldn't you like sports a little more than you already do?

Saturday, December 06, 2003

Sick and tired of cell phones ringing in public places while you're trying to ________? -  

The answer for you might just be cell phone jammers. For a mere $230 (US) you can purchase yourself a 30 foot security bubble. Of course there's the small matter of them being illegal in the US...

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Science v. Bush (guess who's losing) -  

Nicholas Thompson has a nice recent essay (link via Tapped) describing the extent to which science, and more broadly technical expertise is being ignored in the Bush administration.

Thompson's explanation for this phenomenon is, broadly, that scientists just don't matter politically. In of itself this is not a problem, obviously. What is a problem though is that many viewpoints supported almost uniformly by the scientific community turn out to be strongly opposed by communities that do matter poltically (e.g. religous convervatives strongly opposing therapeutic cloning and the teaching of evolution, the oil industry strongly opposing the recognition that humans have induced changes in the climate). In these cases the Bush administration regularly opts for political appeasement. A particularly damning incident...

...on Christmas Eve 2002, Bush appointed David Hager--a highly controversial doctor who has written that women should use prayer to reduce the symptoms of PMS--to the FDA's Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Commission

To me the solution to this problem seems obvious. I work in the climate science community and for a long time the popular wisdom has been that administrations peopled by skeptics are good for scientists: policy is avoided but research budgets are enlarged. But on issues on which there is near consensus scientists can no longer afford to be bought off. Too much, our ability to cure disease, our life on a planet with a climate suitable for human habitation, is at risk.

UPDATE: I haven't read Hager's work so I'm at a disadvantage here. It is worth noting that he has apparently never suggested that prayer alone can be used to deal with PMS. The extent to which he suggests/proscribes prayer as a part of an approach to holisitic medicine is unclear (link from reader AVV). It is equally important to note that this in no way invalidates the central point of Thompson's article.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

So you've always wanted a Picasso - 

Mr Picassohead (courtesy of Eugene Volokh) may be the answer.

On opening envelopes with your finger instead of a knife -  

Two physicists have recently worked out why it's harder to open an envelope with your finger than with a knife (see here for the ref but you will, probably need a subscription to Physical Review Letters). The basic idea is that if you use a relatively thin tool (where thin has to do with the qualities of the thing you're trying to cut) you create an even, regular crack.

If you use a thicker tool, however, its harder to push the tool through the recently created crack. In an attempt to accommodate the tool a stair step (or a sort of rounded stair step) pattern is created. This pattern means that the edge of the envelope is likely to be frayed and that the whole process will take more energy.

Why is this important if you're not particularly interested in envelopes? Good question. The authors also suggest that the same sort of physics may explain the patterns often visible at the edges of moving ice sheets/glaciers. Detailed knowledge of the forces stopping ice from flowing is critical if we're going to understand when, for example, the West Antarctic ice sheet might fail and the resulting sea level rise flood Florida (not necessarily a bad thing if my Grandmother has already been evacuated).

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