Entries for July 2011

July 31, 2011

Murderous people serving 'peace-loving' religions

Some of you may have heard about the 'World Trade Center cross'. Extracted from the wreckage of the WTC buildings were two steel girders in the form of a cross. Girders are usually welded at right angles to each other so discovering wreckage in this shape was not surprising but for a nation that is remarkably good at seeing Jesus even in pieces of toast, this was taken as some sort of miraculous sign from god, though it beats me what possible positive message could be extracted from the carnage. Maybe it is supposed to be like the rainbow after Noah's flood which symbolized god saying, "Hey, my bad" after he killed almost every living thing of the planet.

Some religious people have elevated this piece of wreckage into a religious icon, blessing it, praying around it, worshipping it, doing the usual things that religious people do, and they now want to make it part of the official 9/11 memorial. Since the memorial is a public institution funded by the government, American Atheists have sued to stop it, arguing that inserting something that has been made into a religious symbol violates the separation of church and state.

Fox News had a segment about this in which a spokesperson for American Atheists and a first responder at 9/11 debated the merits of the case.

Notice the program host badgering the atheist spokesperson but that is not unusual for a network that has an overt Christian ideology. What was interesting was that the news program's bulletin board was flooded with over 8,000 messages, many urging that the atheist spokesperson, and indeed all atheists, should be killed! Although the moderators are trying to remove these posts as fast as they come in, screen shots give a fascinating glimpse into the minds of religious people.

So let's take stock. A bunch of Muslims decided that killing nearly 3,000 people is what their god would approve of while a bunch of Christians call for the killing of all atheists as something they think their god would approve of. They see no contradiction between their religion and what they advocate.

And we are repeatedly told that religions advocate peace.

The Wrongulator

I never unquestioningly accept the results produced by machines and as much as possible try to find independent ways to check if they make sense. The following story may explain why.

When I was in graduate school, my doctoral thesis involved a lot of detailed calculations that required using a computer. This was in the days prior to the personal computer and we used massive mainframes, entering the programs and data using punch cards and later advancing to remote terminals. Because the computer programs I had written were so complicated and there were so many opportunities for making errors, as much as possible I would check its output in special, simplified cases where I could also do the calculations using just a pocket calculator.

There was one occasion where I simply could not get the two results to agree. After days and days of work trying to find the source of disagreement, going to the extent of doing elaborate calculations without even the calculator, I found the source of the problem. It turned out that my hand calculator had this bug that if you had a number in the display that had the digit 8 in the fourth decimal place, and stored this number in the memory, when you recalled this number, the 8 would have been replaced with a zero. It was a very specialized error, occurring only with the digit 8 and only in the fourth decimal place. Everything else was fine. When I told my thesis advisor what had caused the problem he was shocked and said, "If you can't trust your own calculator, what can you trust?"

It was the kind of bug that could escape detection for a long time because the chances of it making a noticeable difference in a calculation was extremely small but it shook me up so much that after more than three decades I still remember the details of that story.

I was reminded of this when I came across this item about a 'Wrongulator', a gag calculator that always gives you the wrong answer.

I am not sure how it works. I would think that a calculator that is invariably wrong would be easy to detect unless you are totally innumerate. It also depends on how wrong it is. To fool someone, the error would have to be subtle, like my own experience. If the wrongulator said that 4x6=543, that would be easily detectable, whereas one that returned the answer of 26 may fool some.

I actually don't like gag gifts like this. They could have very serious negative consequences in the hands of innumerate people who accept unquestioningly whatever machines tell them.

July 30, 2011

Why I am an atheist

This nice graphic puts it quite succinctly, and is consistent with my series of posts on the logic of science.


(Via Pharyngula).

Keeping track of the government's checking account

For those who like to know the details of how much money the US government takes in (and from where) and how much it spends (and on what), the US Treasury publishes a wealth of figures.

In particular you can see the activity in its 'checking account' on a daily basis. Thursday, July 28th is the last day for which the figures are available and we are told that the government started the day with about $74 billion, took in $112 billion and spent $132 billion, leaving it at the end of the day with $54 billion.

You can see what is causing concern if you look at the last column that gives the fiscal-year-to-date figures. (Note that in the US, the fiscal year starts on October 1 and ends on September 30 of the following year.) It shows that the government started the fiscal year with $310 billion, and for the year so far had receipts of $9,108 billion and expenditures of $9,364 billion. So we have had a drop of $256 billion in just ten months, an average burn rate of $26 billion per month, which is why we are so close to emptying the account.

But the monthly figures can fluctuate wildly so the average rate is not a good predictor of what will happen in the short term. (Caution: When reading the monthly table, note that for some reason monthly deficits are entered as positive numbers and surpluses as negative.)

July 29, 2011

The Norwegian government's reaction to the mass murder

Following the mass killings in Norway that, on a per capita basis, inflicted a death toll that was greater than that of 9/11, the government is treating it as a criminal matter and prime minister Jens Stoltenberg said that "I hope and also believe that the Norway we will see after will be more open, a more tolerant society than what we had before."

Yes, his response is to want to make the country more open and tolerant.

Oh, those silly Norwegians. Don't they know that that the proper response to a mass murder is to declare it to be a terrorist act, proclaim a war on terror that involves bombing and invading countries whose populations have the same religion as the killer, harass your own population by subjecting them to all manner of intrusive surveillance to make sure they are not up to no good, suspend constitutional rights by detaining people indefinitely without trial on the flimsiest of suspicions, create kangaroo courts to guarantee convictions and secret prisons overseas, and torture and kill those in custody?

US IKEA plant to unionize

I wrote earlier about how IKEA's sole US factory was treating its workers really badly (see here, here, and here).

Thanks to reader Fu Dayi, I learn that the factory is going to unionize. What helped in the unionization efforts was the public shaming that IKEA received which was damaging its reputation as a good employer.

This should lead to better working conditions.

Religious killers

It is interesting how mainstream religions react when one of their followers goes on a murderous rampage because of their religious beliefs. The religions immediately disavow such people because they claim, despite the historical record and the very words in their religious texts, that their religion is one of peace and anyone who commits such atrocities cannot be a true believer.

We have seen this absurd argument advanced repeatedly with members of all religions and the Christian killer in Norway is now being subject to the same shunning by his co-religionists, as The Daily Show illustrates.

It is part of the general pattern of whining as a response to criticisms of your views.

The logic of science-9: Can scientific theories be proven true?

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In mathematics, the standard method of proving something is to start with the axioms and then apply the rules of logic to arrive at a theorem. In science, the parallel exercise is to start with a basic theory that consists of a set of fundamental entities and the laws or principles that are assumed to apply to them (all of which serve as the scientific analogues of axioms) and then apply the rules of logic and the techniques of mathematics to arrive at conclusions. For example, in physics one might start with the Schrodinger equation and the laws of electrodynamics and a system consisting of a proton and electron having specific properties (mass, electric charge, and so on) and use mathematics to arrive at properties of the hydrogen atom, such as its energy levels, emission and absorption spectra, chemical properties, etc. In biology, one might start with the theory of evolution by natural selection and see how it applies to a given set of entities such as genes, cells, or larger organisms.

The kinds of results obtained in science using these methods are not referred to as theorems but as predictions. In addition to the mathematical ideas of axioms, logic, and proof, in science we are also dealing with the empirical world and this gives us another tool for determining the validity of our conclusions, and that is data. This data usually comes either in the form of observations for those situations where conditions cannot be repeated (as is sometimes the case in astronomy, evolution, and geology) but more commonly is in the form of experimental data that is repeatable under controlled conditions. The comparison of these predictions with experimental data or observations is what enables us to draw conclusions in science.

It is here that we run into problems with the idea of truth in science. While we can compare a specific prediction with experimental data and see if the prediction holds up or not, what we are usually more interested in is the more basic question of whether the underlying theory that was used to arrive at the prediction is true. The real power of science comes from its theories because it is those that determine the framework in which science is practiced. So determining whether a theory is true is of prime importance in science, much more so than the question of whether any specific prediction is borne out. While we may be able to directly measure the properties of the entities that enter into our theory (like the mass and charge of particles), we cannot directly test the laws and theories under which those particles operate and show them to be true. Since we cannot treat the basic theory as an axiom whose truth can be established independently, this means that the predictions we make do not have the status of theorems and so cannot be considered a priori true. All we have are the consequences of applying the theory to a given set of entities, i.e., its predictions, and the comparisons of those predictions with data. The results of these comparisons are the things that constitute evidence in science.

So what can we infer about the truth or falsity of a theory using such evidence? For example, if we find evidence that supports a proposition, does that mean that the proposition is necessarily true? Conversely, if we find evidence that contradicts a proposition, does that mean that the proposition is necessarily false?

To take the first case, if a prediction agrees with the results of an experiment, does that mean that the underlying theory is true? It is not that simple. The logic of science does not permit us to make that kind of strong inference. After all, any reasonably sophisticated theory allows for a large (and usually infinite) number of predictions. Only a few of those may be amenable to direct comparison with experiment. The fact that those few agree does not give us the luxury of inferring that any future experiments will also agree, a well known difficulty known as the problem of induction. So at best, those successful predictions will serve as evidence in support of our theory and suggest that it is not obviously wrong, but that is about it. The greater the preponderance of evidence in support of a theory, the more confident we are about its validity, but we never reach a stage where we can unequivocally assert that a theory has been proven true.

So we arrive at a situation in science that is analogous to that in mathematics with Godel's theorem, in that the goal of being able to create a system such that we can find the true theories of science turns out to be illusory.

Next: Can we prove a scientific theory to be false?

July 28, 2011

The Adventures of Dr. Orly Taitz Esquire, Queen of the Nutters

I know everyone has been curious about what Orly Taitz, our favorite lawyer/dentist/performance artist, whose obsession with Obama's birth certificate has provided many hours of hilarity, has been up to recently.

First up, for some bizarre reason, she now refers to herself as "Dr. Orly Taitz Esquire" everywhere. Maybe she is unaware of the origins and meanings of the word 'esquire' and thinks it gives her a certain cachet.

You would have thought that the release of Obama's long form birth certificate would have ended her quest. You would be wrong. She is nothing if not dogged. She is now demanding the right to personally examine the certificate, no doubt to use her sharp forensic skills to figure out how it was forged.

She also now claims that Obama is using a fake social security number and she is suing the Social Security Administration for, well, something, that will help her prove it.

The problem is that her court filings are so incompetent that she received a thorough dressing down from the judge because she does not seem to understand the simplest of rules. Apparently in cases involving social security numbers, you are required to redact all but the last four digits. Simple enough, no? But even after being repeatedly told this, she keeps filing after redacting only the last four digits. The exasperated judge in his ruling dismissing her claim said that she was "either toying with the court or displaying her own stupidity."

Her response? To accuse court staff of intentionally sabotaging her case, no doubt as a result of orders from Obama's Muslim/Kenyan/Socialist/Fascist cabal that is running the country and has managed to get their sleeper agents not only into the White House but also as employees in the US District Court for the District of Columbia.

But there's more! She is writing a book that she has tentatively titled "from the queen of the birthers. Secrets and intrigue behind the crime of the century".

I can hardly wait. But I think my post title would make a better title for her book.

Flowchart with rules for debating religious people

In a comment to a previous post, G provided a link to an excellent flowchart that creates ground rules for debating Christians (though indeed it applies to all topics, not just Christianity or even religions in general) that should prevent fruitless discussions.


How the US government's finances work

I have been on a crash course to try and understand the arcane details of what options are available if the current debt ceiling is reached with no action taken to raise it and the balance in the government's account actually becomes zero. I thought I would share what I have learned so far.

We tend to think of the US government as having a checking account, just like many of us, and of the debt ceiling like a loan given to us by a bank. This is mostly true, except in one significant way that I will get to below. This informative article by John Carney says that the government does have something that looks like a checking account in which all the money it receives continuously (tax receipts, air transport security fees, the postal service, Medicare premiums, etc.) is deposited and from which all its payments (federal employee salaries, income tax refunds, NASA, interest on our debt, unemployment insurance benefits and paying defense contracts) goes out. To get an idea of the scale of transactions in that account, at the beginning of last Friday, the account had $83 billion and during the day it received $7 billion in deposits and paid out $13 billion in withdrawals, leaving it at the end of the day with $77 billion. When the debt ceiling is raised, the balance of money available for use in that account is effectively increased by that amount.

Will not raising the debt ceiling actually result in the US government not being able to meet its obligations? If the US government's finances are really like our own checking accounts, it would seem that once the balance in the account reaches zero, we run out of money to spend and cannot write any more checks. If we do, they will bounce. That means that the government will have to make hard decisions about what obligations to meet and what to ignore, limiting its outlays only to the amount of money that comes in. And if it cannot meet all its obligations this way, it goes into bankruptcy.

But this is where the government differs from you and me, because the government has a really, really special relationship with its bank. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York is the place where the government's checking account resides. It appears that the government is not forced to stop paying any of its obligations even if the amount in that account becomes zero because when the government (i.e., the US Treasury Department) writes a check payable to someone who then deposits it in their own bank, the check works its way through the system and ultimately goes back to the Federal Reserve (the government's bank) for cashing and it is next to impossible that they will not honor a US government check and thus cause it to bounce. As Carney says:

It’s not clear that the Federal Reserve would be required to clear a check that exceeded the amount on deposit. It may be within its authority to reject the check.

But rejecting a check written by the government of the United States would probably violate the dual mandate of the Fed to pursue maximum employment and price stability. A U.S. government that bounced checks would just introduce so much chaos the Fed would likely be obligated by its core mandates to credit the check.

To restate it in personal finance terms, by honoring the check even if the balance in the account is zero, the Federal Reserve would be giving the US Treasury the equivalent of free overdraft privileges. This is similar to the way that some regular banks treat their best customers, confident that the money will be paid back in the future. Of course, banks can sometimes get nervous about the financial state of even the most seemingly sterling customers and shut down this overdraft privilege but it seems unlikely that the Federal Reserve would do that to the US Treasury except under the most catastrophic circumstances, such as the US government running completely amuck.

Notice that this would do something very odd. It would give the U.S. Treasury Department control of the money supply—something usually credited to the Fed. But by writing checks on an empty bank account, the Treasury would be inflating the money supply. It would be printing money to pay its bills, more or less.

So the Treasury cannot actually run out of money. It can only run out if it decides—that is, if Secretary Geithner and President Barack Obama choose—to stop writing checks sufficient to pay all of our obligations.

By a curious coincidence, the person who would write the checks (current US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner) was, before he took his current job, the head of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which is the US government's banker and would be the body that decides whether to honor the checks or not.

So how will the Federal Reserve honor the checks of the US Treasury if there is no money in that account? Ordinary banks, faced with such a situation where a valued customer writes a check that exceeds the money on deposit, can honor the check using the money it holds of other depositors or borrow money from other banks or the Federal Reserve. The Federal Reserve system also has deposits of other banks that it can use to honor the US Treasury checks but has an additional way of producing money that ordinary banks do no have. It can order the printing of money.

So default seems to not be the inevitable consequence of not raising the debt ceiling, which may explain why governments around the globe are not (as yet) panicking and stock markets are not (as yet) tumbling at the prospect of a US default. Maybe they understand these things better than we do or they don't understand but think that Congress will ultimately raise the ceiling before the deadline.

The legislation governing the US debt is called the Public Debt Act and was passed in 1941. As I understand it (and I may well be wrong), it forbids the US Treasury from going into debt higher than a limit set by Congress. i.e., the US Treasury is forbidden from selling (through the Federal Reserve) Treasury bills, notes, and bonds that would bring money into its checking account but increase its indebtedness above the debt limit, and from writing checks that would cause it to exceed the amount available to it in its account.

But what happens if the administration ignores the law and writes the checks anyway? It is not clear to me what recourse anyone would have to stop the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from granting the overdraft. Congress could go to court to try and stop it but the judiciary is generally reluctant to intervene in such disputes between the other two branches of government, seeing them as political matters to be resolved in the political arena. After all, Congress always has the power to impeach an administration that defies the laws it passes. But successive administrations have ignored Congressional laws in the past with no repercussions. Right now, the war being waged against Libya seems to be a clear violation of the War Powers Act and yet Congress is mute. It is not clear that violating the Public Debt Act law will cause Congress to do anything other than make a big noise.

Of course, what happens to the US's credit rating, interest rates, and the value of the dollar if this happens is something else altogether.

July 27, 2011

The pathetic cosmological argument for god

It has become increasingly clear that cosmology has become the last refuge of those religious people eager to find some place where god can still have done something while remaining undetectable. But those arguments are clearly pretty desperate.

Jason Rosenhouse provides an excellent summary of the debate over cosmological arguments and concludes:

If the cosmological argument is the best theology has to offer then we atheists do not need to worry that we have overlooked a good argument for God's existence.

As for the cosmological argument itself, I make no apology for being dismissive. Depending on what version you are considering, you can expect to find concepts like causality or probability being used in domains where they do not clearly apply, or dubious arguments for why an actual infinity cannot exist, or highly questionable premises about the beginnings of the universe or about how everything that began to exist must have had a cause, or groundless invocations of the principle of sufficient reason. You inevitably come so perilously close to assuming what you are trying to prove that you may as well just assume God exists and be done with it.

That's my reaction to proponents of the cosmological arguments as well. They work so hard at finding implausible reasoning to support their pre-ordained conclusion that they might as well just say that believe in god because they want to or need to, even if it is unsupported by evidence.

How yogis 'levitate'

Hindu mystics have long been claiming that they can, by sheer will and/or the intervention of god, levitate off the ground. Here is one way it is done.

A good rule of thumb is that if something violates the laws of science, it is not a miracle, it is not by 'harnessing the energy field' or some such Deepak Chopraesque mumbo-jumbo, and it is not due to a god. It is merely a trick. The only question to be explored is how the trick is carried out.

The logic of science-8: The power of universal claims in science

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous post in this series, I argued that in the case of an existence claim, the burden of proof is upon the person making the assertion. In the absence of a preponderance of evidence in its favor, the claim can be dismissed. As has often been said, "What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof". The basis for this stance is the practical one that proving the non-existence of an entity (except in very limited circumstances) is impossible. Hence if we do NOT have a preponderance of evidence in favor of the existence of an entity, we conclude that it is not there.

In the case of a universal claim, however, the situation is reversed and the default position is that the claim is assumed to be true unless evidence is provided that refutes it. So in this case, the burden of proof is on the person disputing the assertion, again for eminently practical reasons.

As an example, the universal claim that all electrons have identical masses and charges can never be proven to be true with just supporting evidence because we cannot measure the properties of every electron in the universe. But once a few of them have been shown to have the same mass and charge, the universal claim that all of them do is presumed to be true unless someone comes up with evidence that disputes it. This is why the proposition "All electrons have the same mass and charge and behave identically in interactions with other particles" is believed to be a true proposition. In this case, absence of evidence (against the universal proposition) can be taken as evidence of absence that such evidence exists at all.

In science, negative evidence can be powerful in the same way that it can be in the legal setting, as in the famous Sherlock Holmes story of the inferences that can be drawn from the dog that did not bark in the night. Since there is a belief that dogs always bark when unexpected events occur in the night, we can infer from a silent dog that nothing untoward happened. In science, we believe that natural laws are invariably followed without exception. For example, the strongly held scientific belief that there exist only two kinds of electric charge is based entirely on this argument, because there has been no evidence produced that we need a third kind of electric charge. Similarly, any universal claim about the properties of an entity whose existence has already been established are taken to be true unless evidence is provided that contradicts the claim.

The laws of science are (as far as I am aware) always phrased as universal claims. There are a number of such laws such as energy, momentum, and angular momentum conservation, baryon number conservation, and CPT conservation (where C stands for 'charge conjugation', P stands for 'parity', and T for 'time reversal) all of which are believed to be true purely because no violations have been observed. Anyone who challenges the validity of those laws has the burden of proof to provide evidence of such violation. This approach is so routine in science that no one even bothers to state it explicitly

The contradiction of a universal claim is done by means of an existence claim. For example, it used to be considered that something called CP was also conserved in every reaction. Why did we believe this universal claim? Because no reaction violating it had ever been seen. But some scientists suspected that it might be violated under certain conditions. Postulating such a reaction constituted a new existence claim. This was not initially accepted since no one had seen a violation of CP. But then one rare reaction was detected that did violate CP and this was confirmed in subsequent experiments. It was only then that the universal claim that CP was never violated was accepted as not being true, because some researchers produced evidence in support of their existence claim of such violations. Now, without further evidence, we are justified in believing the universal claim that this same reaction will violate CP every time it happens, until someone finds evidence for the claim that on occasion it does not.

So in science this interplay of existence and universal claims, and the different ways they are established, goes on all the time and forms an integral part of the way that scientific knowledge is constructed.

'God exists' is an existence claim and the burden of proof lies with those who assert it. In the absence of such evidence, the scientific conclusion is that god does not exist. Similarly, 'god does not exist' is a universal claim and the burden of proof lies with those who deny it and they must again provide evidence that god exists. Since they have not produced any such evidence, the scientific conclusion is that 'god does not exist' is a true statement.

It necessarily follows from the above discussion that in science the word 'true' is used provisionally and not absolutely. In the case of an existence claim, 'true' is taken to mean that it is supported by a preponderance of evidence. In the case of universal claims, 'true' is used as an abbreviation for 'not yet shown to be contradicted by evidence'. It is always within the realm of possibility that someone might come along with data that suggests that there exists a particle that seems to behave identically as the electron but has (say) a different mass. In fact, that has actually happened. The scientific community responded with further experimentation that confirmed the existence of this new particle, now called the muon, and it is now considered a true proposition that muons exist and all have the same mass and charge and behave just like electrons except that their mass differs from that of electrons.

Maybe one day there will be a preponderance of evidence for the existence of god. But until such time, a perfectly valid scientific conclusion is that god does not exist.

Next: Proofs as used in science

July 26, 2011

Collateral damage caused by government shut down

While many of us wonder what might be the long-term ramifications of a government default and shutdown if the debt ceiling is not raised by August 2, for many people this is not merely an academic exercise but a real and immediate danger.

Recall that about half of American households are 'economically fragile' in the sense that in an emergency they could not lay their hands on $2,000 within 30 days. They live from paycheck to paycheck. What will happen to such households if government employees get furloughed and don't get paid or to similarly situated seniors if the social security checks don't go out? How will they pay their rent and mortgages?

This should be a sobering reminder that politics is not a game. Ordinary people get hurt.

Religious nuts' greatest hits

Rachel Maddow has compiled the great thoughts of the religious people invited to Texas governor Rick Perry's day of prayer on August 6 to which he has invited all his fellow state governors. (Via Pharyngula.)

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

There is an outfit called 'The International House of Prayer'? Who knew? Why isn't IHOP suing for trademark infringement?

How the oligarchy speaks

Oligarchies are most effective when they work in the background, out of the public eye, getting their way by having political leaders carry out their bidding. The oligarchy usually prefers to use establishment academics and the media and the bond rating agencies to speak on their behalf but they seem to have become worried that those subtle, behind-the-scenes ways seem to have failed when it comes to raising the debt ceiling, forcing them to come out more in the open.

Wall Street has pretty much openly told the Republican party leadership that the kabuki theater had gone on long enough and to raise the debt ceiling. In a highly unusual move, a broad segment of the oligarchy sent an open letter to Obama and every member of Congress (though I suspect that the real targets were the debt-ceiling holdouts) that the ceiling must be raised.

Warren Buffet played his usual role of speaking for the 'soft' face of the oligarchy (i.e., the down-home, aw shucks, 'good' rich guy) when he publicly predicted that the ceiling would be raised. A 'prediction' of this sort is usually just a hint as to what the speaker wants others to do. Ben Bernanke has also warned of the dire danger of not raising the ceiling.

The major bond ratings agencies like Moody, Fitch, and Standard and Poor have warned that the US government's credit rating would be lowered if it defaulted. The opinions of the ratings agencies should be highly discredited since these were the same agencies that gave the highest ratings to the worthless mortgage-backed securities that fueled the madness that led to the collapse of the housing market that has harmed so many people. But while their assessments of credit worthiness are worthless, they are a major voice by which the oligarchy makes its views known.

Although the debt-ceiling negotiation drama has continued, what made me think that there would be no default is that the ultimate voice of the oligarchy, the stock market, has remained seemingly unperturbed. If there were real fears of a default, it should have tanked. While that may still happen, so far the oligarchy seems convinced that the ceiling will be raised. Commentator karoli sees things slightly differently, suggesting that the reason for the stock market's stability is that the oligarchy does not want a budget deal because they care more about keeping their taxes low than about higher interest rates. They would prefer no deal, even if it results in a US government default, if the alternative is a deal in which their taxes are raised.

Economist Paul Craig Roberts, former Assistant Secretary of the US Treasury and Associate Editor of the Wall Street Journal, is another formerly solid establishment economist, a conservative counterpart to Jeffrey Sachs, who like him has become shrill. In a must-read analysis, Craig says that:

The downgrade threat [by the credit ratings agencies] is not credible, and neither is the default threat. Both are make-believe crises that are being hyped in order to force cutbacks in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

Washington’s priorities and those of its presstitutes could not be clearer. President Obama, like George W. Bush before him, both parties in Congress, the print and TV media, and National Public Radio have made it clear that war is a far more important priority than health care and old age pensions for Americans.

The American people and their wants and needs are not represented in Washington. Washington serves powerful interest groups, such as the military/security complex, Wall Street and the banksters, agribusiness, the oil companies, the insurance companies, pharmaceuticals, and the mining and timber industries.

Craig argues that even if no debt-ceiling deal is reached between Obama and Congress, there will still be no default because the US is in the unique position (unlike Greece and the other European countries also struggling with debt) that it pays its debt with its own currency.

The US government will never default on its bonds, because the bonds, unlike those of Greece, Spain, and Ireland, are payable in its own currency. Regardless of whether the debt ceiling is raised, the Federal Reserve will continue to purchase the Treasury’s debt. If Goldman Sachs is too big to fail, then so is the US government.

I must admit that I don't understand in detail how US deficits are financed. The relationship between the US Treasury and the Federal Reserve, the way that US Treasury bonds are bought and sold, the way that new dollars are printed to finance the debt, are all things that are somewhat opaque to me but Craig is the kind of person who would know.

Paul Krugman is an establishment economist who has so far has remained within the approved range of 'respectable opinion', viewing the Democrats as liberal and the Republicans as conservative and the failure of Democrats to exploit their winning hands and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory as being largely due to their poor negotiating skills. But the debt ceiling debate has exasperated even him and he has started saying some shrill things. I don't know how far he can go before he too gets booted out of the Village.

How many more establishment economist types need to become shrill before the message gets through to the general public that it is the domination of the US economy by the oligarchy that is the real problem here, not the debt ceiling or the budget or Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid? These people and their enablers in government and the media are driving the US into a very deep ditch.

July 25, 2011

Palin film continues to bomb

The second weekend of the Sarah Palin fan biopic The Undefeated saw the film being expanded to 14 cities from the original 10 but reporting gross box office receipts of just $24,000, a decline of 63% from the first weekend.

To the calculators! With apologies to Tbogg, who has been mocking chronicling the film's performance so far (see here and here and here), but the above results mean a weekend average of $1,714 per city or $571 per day or $143 per show (assuming four shows per day) or 18 people per showing (at $8 per ticket).

I think it is safe to say that if you want to see the film, you need not bother about buying tickets in advance, unless they are showing it in people's living rooms.

This must really hurt, you betcha. After all, the distributors carefully chose cities that are supposed to be friendly to her, such as Grapevine, Texas.

Which raises the question: Where are all the real Merkins who see Palin as the nation's savior? Surely she has more fans than this? Why aren't they showing her some love in return for the joy she brings to their lives?

The Internet: Where religions come to die

Even evangelical Christians agree with this assessment that the internet poses a real threat to religion's survival. Listen to Josh McDowell of Cru, the organization formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ.

Atheists and skeptics now have equal access to our children as we have, which is why the number of Christian youth who believe in the fundamentals of Christianity is decreasing and sexual immorality is growing, apologist Josh McDowell said.

"The Internet has given atheists, agnostics, skeptics, the people who like to destroy everything that you and I believe, the almost equal access to your kids as your youth pastor and you have... whether you like it or not," said McDowell, who is author of two books on Christian apologetics, More than a Carpenter and New Evidence that Demands Verdict.

"Now here is the problem," said McDowell, "going all the way back, when Al Gore invented the Internet [he said jokingly], I made the statement off and on for 10-11 years that the abundance of knowledge, the abundance of information, will not lead to certainty; it will lead to pervasive skepticism. And, folks, that's exactly what has happened. It's like this. How do you really know, there is so much out there… This abundance [of information] has led to skepticism. And then the Internet has leveled the playing field [giving equal access to skeptics]."

McDowell, who lives in southern California with his wife Dottie and four children, said atheists, agnostics and skeptics didn't have access to kids earlier. "If they wrote books, not many people read it. If they gave a talk, not many people went. They would normally get to kids maybe in the last couple of years of the university." But that has changed now.

Jesus and Mo pick up on McDowell's comments.

J&M-level field.png

Daniel Dennett once said that arguing with religious people is like playing tennis with someone who raises the net when you make your shot and lowers it for theirs. The internet is like a more impartial person who has taken over umpiring duties.

The oligarchy forced into the open

I do not tend to follow micro-politics (who's up, whose down, what the latest rumor is about this or that, how the polls vary from day to day) carefully because doing so not only consumes all your time but it prevents you from seeing the more important big picture. I prefer to focus on macro-politics, politics on the large scale and longer time frames. However, there are times when macro-political theories impact micro-political events and the debt-ceiling debate is one such case.

I have been writing about how the US is run by an oligarchy that is fronted by the Democratic and Republican parties. The issues that the oligarchy is united on (ones that financially benefit themselves) are agreed upon by the two parties and usually take place so quietly and behind the scenes that we are not even aware of it (much of the legislation passed by Congress and the regulations implementing them by the committees is of this form) or when it cannot be avoided becoming public (as was the case of the massive bailouts of the financial sector in 2008) is done with a grand show of bipartisanship and rushed through as matters of supposedly extreme urgency that gives the rest of us no time to participate in the process at all, let alone mount a protest.

The debt ceiling debate is another case where the oligarchy has been forced to emerge from the shadows and try to more overtly influence events.

So who makes up the oligarchy and how does it make its wishes known? The oligarchy is not a hierarchy or secretive cabal that issues orders. Such a crude system cannot be effective for long. It is a loose alliance of the top people in the business, financial, and media sectors, all of whom all share the same goal of enriching themselves at the expense of the general public. This tends to create a uniformity in general thinking, though it can differ in details. These people tend to move around in the same circles as top government officials so a lot of the oligarchy's wishes are communicated informally. The rapidly revolving door by which top government and business officials switch roles is another mechanism to ensure uniformity in thinking. The oligarchy's lobbyists, who pretty much have taken up residence in the halls of government and contribute heavily to congressional and presidential campaigns, also exert constant pressure to ensure that politicians know what they should do.

The major media (which is also owned by the oligarchy) also contributes when it interviews business leaders and selected intellectuals and reports their opinions which can then reach a wider audience. A lot of so-called 'think tanks' (The Heritage Foundation, The American Enterprise Institute, etc.) are also created and funded by the oligarchy, along with prominent university academics who are sympathetic to oligarchic interests (see the great documentary Inside Job for examples of the latter). The chair of the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Secretary can always be relied upon to be reliable spokespersons for the oligarchy since they almost always have close ties with them and often emerge from their ranks and go back to them when their terms of office are over.

This is how an informal consensus becomes created about what the 'best' course of action (i.e., what benefits the oligarchy) is for any given situation and those who are outside this consensus can then be dismissed as radicals and extremists and 'shrill'.

When it comes to the debt ceiling, I wrote the following back in November of last year:

Despite Republican rhetoric about opposing the rising national debt, the oligarchy needs the government spigots to be kept open and so I predict the Republican Party will agree to raise the debt ceiling, all the while hypocritically wailing and gnashing their teeth at what a bad thing it is. It will be interesting to see how well their supporters respond to such a blatant betrayal of what they were promised.

It has indeed been interesting to see how this is being played out in the current debt ceiling debate. I did not pay too much attention to the day-to-day drama of the talks between Obama and the Republicans or worry about the US defaulting on its debt because I felt that the oligarchy was united in wanting the debt ceiling raised and thus it would happen. This is because a default would trigger a lowering of the US's debt rating which would require it to pay higher interest rates on the money the government borrows which in turn would raise interest rates all round. Since it is a fairly good rule of thumb that interest rates are inversely correlated with stock prices, and the oligarchy is devoted to keeping stock prices high, I felt it was a no brainer that they would push for passage of a debt ceiling increase to prevent a steep stock market decline.

It looks like that is what is mostly happening. The stock market has not panicked yet (in fact, it rose somewhat the last week) and the yield on US Treasury bonds (a key predictor of interest rates) has remained pretty much stable for the month of July.

However, it has also become clear that some vocal elements of the Republican party (such as the Tea Party caucus) are not as yet quite adept at picking up the subtle cues that tell them what they must do and who the real bosses of the country are, and are balking even when those cues are translated for them by their party leaders in more direct terms. They seem to be true believers of the idea that raising the debt ceiling is a horrendous evil and not merely a fairly routine procedure that was made into a marquee issue simply to win votes in the 2010 elections.

Given this high level of obtuseness on the part of the Tea Party, the oligarchy has to be more direct in conveying its message and it is interesting to observe it coming out in the open and start cracking the whip.

Next: How the oligarchy speaks

July 24, 2011

Jeffrey Sachs has become 'shrill'

I read the book The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time (2006) by Jeffrey Sachs, a professor of economics and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia, some time ago and much of it consisted of him jetting around the globe meeting with heads of state and helping them solve their economic problems. He put out the hopeful message that global poverty could be eradicated and as an establishment liberal working within the system, he was high profile and you would find articles by him and about him all over the place. Then a couple of years ago, he seemed to suddenly disappear from the op-ed pages of the major newspapers.

I think I now know why. Yesterday an opinion piece written by him appeared in the Huffington Post and reveals that he has come to the conclusion that the political system is inherently corrupt, with both parties serving the oligarchy (though he does not use that term) and guilty of swindling the public.

Here's a sample:

The Democrats of the White House and much of Congress have been less crude, but no less insidious, in their duplicity. Obama's campaign promise to "change Washington" looks like pure bait and switch. There has been no change, but rather more of the same: the Wall-Street-owned Democratic Party as we have come to know it. The idea that the Republicans are for the billionaires and the Democrats are for the common man is quaint but outdated. It's more accurate to say that the Republicans are for Big Oil while the Democrats are for Big Banks. That has been the case since the modern Democratic Party was re-created by Bill Clinton and Robert Rubin.

Thus, at every crucial opportunity, Obama has failed to stand up for the poor and middle class. He refused to tax the banks and hedge funds properly on their outlandish profits; he refused to limit in a serious way the bankers' mega-bonuses even when the bonuses were financed by taxpayer bailouts; and he even refused to stand up against extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich last December, though 60 percent of the electorate repeatedly and consistently demanded that the Bush tax cuts at the top should be ended. It's not hard to understand why. Obama and Democratic Party politicians rely on Wall Street and the super-rich for campaign contributions the same way that the Republicans rely on oil and coal. In America today, only the rich have political power.

Who runs America today? The rich and the multinational corporations. Who runs the White House? David Plouffe, whose job it is to make sure that ever word, every action of the president is calculated for electoral gain rather than the country's needs. Who runs the Congress, on both sides of the aisle? The lobbyists, who win in every negotiation. And who loses? The American people, who have said repeatedly that they want a budget that sharply cuts the military, ends the wars, raises taxes on the rich, protects the poor and the middle class, and invests in America's future not just in Obama's speeches but in fact.

That kind of view quickly gets you booted out of the mainstream media and government circles. Sachs now joins a growing number of former establishment intellectuals who are increasingly being described as 'shrill' because they express views outside that narrow slice of so-called respectable opinion that requires you to pretend as if the two parties represent widely divergent interests. They have seen through the charade of politics in the US and talk about where power really lies and that is simply not allowed.

Trying to make sense of the insane

In reading about the horrific tragedy in Norway, I was trying to think of how, even to a diseased mind, it would make sense to mow down a large number of trapped unarmed young people. How could you possibly think it would bring credit to your cause (whatever it is)?

I know I may be engaged in the futile pursuit of trying to make sense of the actions of someone who has to be crazy, but such people do not seem to be crazy in the sense of having no idea what they are doing. This guy was clearly a coldly calculating person, planning the murders with great precision.

So what is it that causes their calculations to go so awry in the one particular area of gauging the likely reactions of ordinary people to their actions? Why can't they see that it will cause people to recoil in disgust?

How to talk like Deepak Chopra

It's easy!


A commenter named marius at the Calamities of Nature site where I saw this had a go at using the template and came up with the following:

The mind is like a quark. In both cases, when tunneling occurs, the physical reality of the void becomes apparent. It is only due to the field that surrounds us all that we can participate in consciousness. From this we know that the grand theory of unity exists. Amazingly, nature is the perfect analog to this phenomenon. The deep connection is the result of the earth. It is revealing that there is a fundamental link between us and the higher plane of existence and that consciousness is always found in the dark energy surrounding the stars.

Pretty good, no? Actually, a lot of so-called sophisticated theology that tries to meld science with god is like this so I suspect that many modern theologians are working off the same template.

July 23, 2011

Prison chase

What comedian Benny Hill taught us is that footage of almost any chase can be made funny by speeding it up and adding the tune Yakety Sax as the sound track. Here the theory is applied to a chase within a prison as captured by the closed circuit surveillance cameras. (Via Boing Boing.)

I just love the tune Yakety Sax. It never fails to cheer me up and put me in a good mood.

Rebranding Christ

Via Pharyngula, I learn that Campus Crusade for Christ, the evangelical organization, has decided to change its name. The new one? Cru. Yes, really. Apparently college affiliates had been referring to themselves this way for a while.

I don't know about this. Cru sounds more like the stage name a rapper would adopt, as in 'DJ Cru'. Furthermore, the university where I work at has the acronym CWRU that is spoken as 'crew' which sounds the same as 'cru'. So the members of the campus affiliate of this organization will become known as the 'CWRU Cru crew', which when vocalized will sound like you are doing bird imitations.

The reason for the change is that apparently the words 'Campus' and 'Crusade' had negative connotations. More interestingly, they found that even 'Christ' was off-putting because people "might initially be turned off by a more overtly Christian name". They seem to think that having a name that gave no hint of being Christian would enable their members to sneak their religious message into conversations with people who were unaware that they were targets of a proselytization effort.

This is of course the kind of sneaky tactics religious people use. But despite that, I took it to be a very encouraging sign that the brand 'Christ' is seen by even evangelical Christians as being tarnished.

July 22, 2011

Obama's negotiating skills

As the debt-ceiling talks drag on, Democratic party supporters keep getting alarmed at getting regular reports that he seems to be willing to give away the store to the Republican crazies who are clearly losing the public relations battle, and keep wondering why he seems to be such a lousy negotiator.

It is important to bear I mind what I have said repeatedly. Obama and the Democratic party leadership are not trying to get the best deal from the Republicans. They and the Republicans agree on what they want to do (cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits and provide more tax breaks for wealthy individuals and corporations) because that is what their bosses, the oligarchy, want.

What Obama is trying to negotiate is a way to get all these things without completely alienating his party's base. He will go as far as he can get away with. That is why all these trial balloons keep getting floated and then denied.

Religion and inequality

Jerry Coyne has a very interesting post discussing a new study by F. Solt, P. Habel, and J. T. Grant, J. T. titled Economic inequality, relative power, and religiosity that appeared in the journal Social Science Quarterly, 92: 447–465 (2011), that finds that economic inequality is positively correlated with religious belief, and looks at theories that might account for this.

The most common theory is called "deprivation theory" which says that in economically unequal societies, poorer folks turn to religion for reassurance and comfort. The authors of the paper introduce something called "relative power theory" that says that "many wealthy individuals, rather than simply allowing redistribution to be decided through the democratic process as such median-voter models assume, respond to higher levels of inequality by adopting religious beliefs and spreading them among their poorer fellow citizens. Religion then works to discourage interest in mere material well-being in favor of eternal spiritual rewards, preserving the privileges of the rich and allowing unequal conditions to continue."

Coyne summarizes the conclusions of the paper.

Their findings thus suggest that both the deprivation and relative power theories are needed to explain the data. In economically unequal societies, rich people promulgate religion to keep their own place in the hierarchy, and, rather than fighting for more equality, poor people accept religion as an easy form of solace.

The authors also note that the relative power theory explains why the U.S. is so religious despite the fact that its citizens are generally well off. It is, they say, because the U.S. shows considerably more economic inequality than other developed countries (and that is true).

The authors also did a time-study and found that “Increases in inequality in one year predict substantial gains in religiosity in the next,” while “past values of religiosity do not predict future values of inequality” clearly indicating that it is inequality that influences religiosity and not the other way around.

A heartening sign is the trend of declining religiosity in America over the last half century.


Of course, this predicts that the recent rise in inequality in the US will see an uptick in religiosity. But it seems that the overall tendency is for religion to decline.

Both the original paper and Coyne's summary make for fascinating reading.

What appealed to me is the inference that the fights for economic justice and the elimination of religion are related, since those are two of my personal goals.

Film review: The Company Men

The film looks at the effect of the loss of jobs in the current economy, but from the point of view of the upper middle classes. It centers around the character played by Ben Affleck, a well-paid executive who suddenly loses his job as a result of his division in a conglomerate being shut down. The reasons for the shut down and layoffs are the usual: the top management of a manufacturing company shifts production overseas to take advantage of cheaper labor and tries to goose up its stock price (thus increasing their personal wealth via their stock options) by eliminating jobs to increase profits, especially laying off older workers who are paid more, all the while paying its chief executives high salaries and providing them with fancy offices, corporate jets, and other perks.

Also in the film are the always watchable veteran actors Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper as much older senior executives who also lose their jobs, the former because he tries to protest the lay-offs, especially of long-time employees like Cooper. The film looks at how they try to adjust to suddenly feeling useless, the shame they feel at their friends and neighbors and relatives knowing about their sudden drop in status, and the sting of not having calls returned and being rejected for job after job.

This is not a great film but it is worth seeing. Initially it is hard to feel any sympathy for the Affleck character who plays the role of a shallow yuppie jerk, living in a large suburban house, driving a Porsche, regularly playing golf at his country club, thinking that he is so good that the recession will not touch him and that he will be snapped up for a similar high-paying job immediately, and refusing to accept the fact that his new reduced circumstances may last a long time and require him to adjust to a much more modest lifestyle. He also looks down on his brother-in-law (Kevin Costner) who is self-employed as a home-builder who does much of the work himself and hires one or two people to help him. But Affleck manages to humanize this character so that you do eventually start feeling sorry for him.

Since I do not move around in such corporate or social circles, it was hard for me to get a sense of how realistic the situations and portrayals were. The firings of even the very senior executives seemed too abrupt and secretive to me. It also seemed odd that people who had earned so much money over such a long period did not seem to have sufficient savings or other reserves to ride out not having an income for a few months, so much so that they cannot even pay their children's college tuition. Do such people actually blow almost their entire incomes living high on the hog, thinking that they will never face any setbacks in life?

The US is notorious for having a very low savings rate. I wrote in an earlier post about how 50% of the population are economically fragile, in that they would find it hard to lay their hands on $2,000 in 30 days if a sudden emergency should require it. I thought that this would apply to mostly the middle class and poorer who had less disposable income but this film suggests that this may extend to the more wealthy upper-middle class too. Maybe these people try too hard to emulate to the lifestyles of the people profiled in David Sirota's "Such it up and cope" article and feel that a fancy house, a Porsche, country club membership, and fancy vacations are essentials, not luxuries, and thus spend as much as they make, if not more.

One interesting side note in the film was seeing how the executive outplacement system, which is a benefit offered to executives to ease the sting of being fired, works. It seems to be much like working in an office in that you are given a desk, a computer, a phone in a shared cubicle (and maybe a private office if you are a fired senior executive), plus some coaching on how to find a job, except that it is for a limited time and your job is to find a job.

Here's the trailer.

July 21, 2011

Dramatic horse rescue

In October 2006, more than one hundred horses got trapped in a small patch of dry land as a result of a sudden flood in the Netherlands in which 18 horses drowned. All rescue attempts failed and the horses seemed to be getting desperate until four women decided to try a different approach.

The episode has been set to music. Watch.

The deficit reduction plan of the so-called 'Gang of Six'

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), issued a statement on the latest budget plan that Obama seems to be enthused about, although there is still some confusion about what the plan calls for since it is still in outline form. Baker's statement is worth reading in full but here is his conclusion:

The budget plan produced by the Senate's "Gang of Six" offers the promise of huge tax breaks for some of the wealthiest people in the country, while lowering Social Security benefits for retirees and the disabled.

It is striking that the Gang of Six chose to respond to the crisis created by the collapse of the housing bubble by developing a plan that will give even more money to top Wall Street executives and traders.

Obama seems to be actually proud that he is going along with the long-sought-after dream of the oligarchy to cut the safety net of older and poor people, saying that the plan is 'broadly consistent' with what he has been advocating, adding that "We have a Democratic President and administration that is prepared to sign a tough package that includes both spending cuts, modifications to Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare that would strengthen those systems and allow them to move forward, and would include a revenue component."

The wingnuts seem to be mobilizing against the plan too so it may not go anywhere.

The logic of science-7: The burden of proof in science

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The logic used in arriving at scientific conclusions closely tracks the legal maxim that 'the burden of proof rests on who asserts'. It should be noted that the word proof used here does not correspond the way it is used in mathematics, but more along the lines used in law. As commenter Eric pointed out in response to the previous post in this series, in the legal arena there are two standards for proof. In criminal cases, there is the higher bar of proving beyond a reasonable doubt, but in civil cases the standard is one based on the preponderance of evidence. So if the preponderance of evidence is in favor of one position, it is assumed to be true even if it has not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Scientific propositions are judged to be true not because they have been proven to be logically and incontrovertibly true (which is impossible to do) or because they have been established by knowledgeable judges to be beyond a reasonable doubt (which is not impossible but is too high a bar to result in productive science), but because the preponderance of evidence favors them. Evidence plays a crucial role here as it does in legal cases.

Scientific claims can be both existence claims and universal claims, and these two types of propositions are proved in different ways. In science the burden of proof in existence claims lies, as in legal claims, with those who make the claim. If they cannot meet the standard of proof, the claim is presumed to be false. With universal claims however (once at least some positive evidence has been provided in support of existence), the burden of proof lies with those trying to show that it is false. In the legal context, a witness who swears to tell the truth is assumed to be always telling the truth, a universal claim. A lawyer who wishes to make the point that a witness is not truthful is the one who is assumed to making an assertion and thus has the burden of proof to show that the witness has lied.

For an example of proof of an existence claim in science, the claim that an entity called an electron exists has to be supported by evidence that shows that an entity with the postulated properties of an electron (such as its mass and charge) has been, or at least can be, detected in experiments. The reason that I say 'can be' is that in some cases if there is strong circumstantial evidence in favor of the existence of an entity, a provisional verdict in favor of existence may be granted, pending more direct confirmation. The most famous case of this may the 'ether', which was postulated to exist on the basis of circumstantial evidence that it should exist, until it was shown that the theory of relativity undermined all that evidence in its favor and its existence was rejected. The neutrino is example of something that was granted provisional existence and was later directly detected.

The reason for these rules about how to judge the truth of existence and universal claims is simply because without them science would be unworkable. In most cases of scientific interest, it is impossible to prove that an existence claim is false and without these rules we would be swamped with existence claims for non-existent entities. The film Avatar, for example, postulated the existence of a valuable mineral called Unobtainium on another planet called Pandora somewhere in the universe. How could one possibly prove that such a mineral (or even the planet) does not exist? One cannot. Thus originates the scientific rule that to establish that a proposition of existence is true, one has to provide positive evidence in support of it. In the absence of such evidence, a perfectly justifiable scientific conclusion is that the proposition is false and that it does not exist.

This rule is hardly controversial. It is used in everyday life by everyone because would be impossible to live otherwise. To not have such a rule is to open oneself to an infinite number of mythical entities. To allow for the existence of something in the absence of a preponderance of evidence in support of its existence means believing in the existence of unicorns, leprechauns, pixies, dragons, centaurs, mermaids, fairies, demons, vampires, and werewolves.

This is why it is perfectly valid to conclude that there is no god. 'There is a god' is an existence claim and the burden of proof lies with those making the claim. Since no one has produced a preponderance of evidence in support of it, the claim is not to be taken seriously. Religious apologists who try to argue that god exists using logic alone without producing a preponderance of evidence in its favor are not being scientific and have entered the evidence-free realm of theology, in which one starts with whatever one wants to believe and then manufactures reasons for believing in it, even if that same reasoning is not applied to any other sphere of life.

Religious 'logic' is beautifully illustrated by this cartoon.


Next in the series: The power of universal claims in science

July 20, 2011

The American family budget model

During any budget debate, politicians who want to cut spending on salaries and benefits for the middle classes and on public services never fail to invoke the family budget as a model for how the government should deal with its own finances. We are repeatedly told that just as families have to make hard choices about what to spend their money on in order to stay within their income, so should the government. This comparison invokes the cozy image of thrifty families getting together around the kitchen table and making decisions about what they can afford based on their income, and making painful cuts when necessary.

This is a fantasy, especially in America, a country in which the general public has a notoriously low savings rate and exists on credit card debt and has nowhere near enough money saved to meet their retirement needs. In fact, living beyond their income seems to be the norm in families, not the exception.

Actually there are good reasons for not trying to balance the budget right now. High unemployment is a huge problem right now. The devastating effects it could be ameliorated by government spending a lot of money on projects that put people back to work. While increasing the debt is not good as a permanent policy, there are times when it makes the most sense in the short term and this is one of them. Even families realize that going into debt to purchase a home or paying for college can be a good thing.

So in reality, the federal government's budgeting process is already like that of the average family. Just not in the way the moralizing speakers intend.

Palin fan biopic maintains the pace

Tbogg does the math to contrast the pathetic ticket sales of the Palin fan biopic The Undefeated with the spin by Fox News that the "Palin Film Opens Strong, Theaters Packed." (One wag noted about the film's title, it is easy to be undefeated if you keep quitting halfway through everything.)

Meanwhile Stephen Colbert gives his take on the film.

Daniel Radcliffe appeared on The Daily Show. I realized that I had never seen him except in the Harry Potter films. Given his massive success at a young age, he could easily have turned into a brat, but he comes across as quite an unassuming, self-deprecating young man.

Is political involvement a luxury or a necessity?

Those of us who follow politics closely, and think that it is important to do so for the future of ourselves and the nation and the world, tend to be frustrated by people who do not seem to care or whose understanding of politics does not rise above the most naïve and simplistic sloganeering ("Cut government spending!" "Get rid of government regulations!", "All government is bad!", "Lower everyone's taxes!", "Cut social services!", "Eliminating foreign aid and waste will balance the budget!"). We wonder how these people, many of whom belong to the middle or lower-middle classes, cannot see that they are actually harming their own interests, by undermining the very things that make current their lives tolerable or even desirable.

Such ignorance about the reality of politics also makes them easy prey for those unscrupulous politicians who do know better but use these slogans to deflect attention from the things that affect almost everyone (such as health care, salaries and benefits, working conditions, and public and social services) to those highly emotionally-charged issues that directly affect only a small fraction of people in any tangible way (such as abortion and gay and gun rights) or are almost entirely symbolic (prayer in schools, ten commandments in public places, flag burning, etc.).

Why, we ask ourselves, don't these people invest at least a little of the time that is devoted to Casey Anthony or sports to learning more about how society really works? One answer may lie in a disturbing new survey shows that half of America's families are in a state known as 'financially fragile' in that they "would not be able to cope with an unexpected expense that required them to come up with $2,000 within 30 days" which is the amount of money and time that "reflects the cost of an unanticipated car repair, home repair, medical or legal expense."

This is worrisome. It is not hard to imagine a situation where one might suddenly need $2,000. To know that you could not lay your hands on it even in 30 days must be very stressful. Financial counselors advise people that they should have six months income saved to cope with emergencies. This study suggests that this is completely out of reach for most people since $2,000 would cover only two weeks for a family that earns the median income.

Perhaps as a result of this, people may be too busy trying to make ends meet or worried about their immediate state of affairs to seek deeper causes. And when they do have some free time, they would rather escape into a fantasy world where they can forget their worries. So we have people choosing to spend their discretionary time in pursuits other than politics, seeking escapism. It used to be the case that during difficult financial times in the past, attendance at films and sports events rose. This may not be true anymore since the prices of these forms of entertainments have risen considerably, to be replaced by TV watching.

It is interesting that poor people have disappeared from our TV landscape. It seems to me that there are very few comedy shows nowadays that have central characters who are poor or working class, perhaps reflecting the fact that people don't want to see their own lives reflected on the screen. Instead they want to see their lives as they hope it might become. For example, are there any contemporary equivalents of All in the Family, The Honeymooners, or Sanford and Son, all of which involved working class families living lives that were consistent with their incomes?

Even the shows that do not have rich characters show them having lifestyles that are absurdly extravagant. Some of the Friends, for example, did not have steady jobs or had jobs waiting tables and yet they lived in apartments in New York that would have been impossible on their income. In Married With Children, the father worked as a shoe salesman in a retail store and the mother stayed at home and yet they managed to live in a nice home. Is this why Americans are notorious for living beyond their means, living in housing that they cannot really afford and pursuing lifestyles that can only be supported by going into debt, because they think that this is how people who have jobs like they do should be able to live? Seinfeld may have been the exception in that era, with the title character living in a modest apartment, doing his laundry in a public facility, etc. (As should be obvious from the programs mentioned, I stopped watching regular TV about a decade or so ago so I may be wrong about the current state of affairs.)

In the US, it is possible that political activism is largely perceived as just another form of recreation that some people can afford to indulge in or choose to do so, while others need ways of entertaining themselves to take their minds off their worries. A case can be made that until the realities of politics whacks people upside the head, political involvement will not be seen as a necessity by enough people for them to want to get seriously involved.

July 19, 2011

How the mighty fall

The sudden fall of powerful people is an interesting phenomenon to observe, especially if they are old. Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak was seen as an invincible strongman, ruling his country with unquestioned authority. But when he couldn't quell the street protests, in a matter of days he began to look, even when he was still head of state, like a confused old man who seemed to have lost his grip. This new perception of decrepitude further emboldened the opposition and undoubtedly accelerated his departure.

We are observing the same phenomenon with Rupert Murdoch. This arrogant man was as recently as a week ago viewed as a powerful business genius to whom the political and business elites bowed obsequiously, treating his every utterance as if he were an oracle. Now suddenly, he looks like an old dodderer who has 'lost the plot' and does not seem to quite know what he is doing. Even the photographs that are now published of him smiling weakly give the image of clueless feebleness, and are causing the media to pile on.

Being photographed out with his personal trainer, with his jowly jaws, and spindly knees sticking out of his running shorts, the mighty mogul had very clearly aged. Then, those pictures of him alongside someone who could have been a matronly nurse in mufti in his silver-grey Range Rover showed him looking not just old but fragile, too. You could almost see the power seeping from him.

His performance at the parliamentary inquiry today further strengthened the impression of someone who seems to be losing his grip but it is not clear whether this was a charade, pleading ignorance of most things as a way of forestalling any attempt to place the blame on him.

Those who worked for people like Murdoch and stayed silent when they were still seen as invincible now feel freer to defect and spill the beans. People who would not have crossed him in the past, and would have sought to curry favor with him, are now showing some backbone. For example, the British political leadership of all parties had long been under Murdoch's thumb. But now the new Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, who had been seen as a lightweight whose tenure could well have been brief, has seized on this issue to make his name, aggressively attacking prime minister David Cameron for his close association with Murdoch's people, much to the delight of his party's backbenchers who had been disgusted at the sight of their previous leadership of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown toadying to Murdoch.

We should not underestimate Murdoch, though. Such arrogant people who are used to getting their way will, when faced with a real threat, stoop to anything to wriggle free. There are still enough people in Murdoch's media empire who will try and protect him because their jobs depend upon being in his good graces. It is going to be interesting to see how this plays out.


Reviews of the Bible

Amazon allows readers to post reviews of their books. Jerry Coyne has made a nice compilation of some of the reviews of the Bible by people who treat is as a work of fiction. It's pretty funny. Here's a sample:

There is little plot to this book, save for in the second half, much of which revolves around God's son, Jesus, an interesting fellow. Definitely, the story has finally hit a stride, so the New Testament reads like a novella. Everywhere this Jesus guy goes, he travels with his posse of "Apostles," who aren't your standard yes men. Although they all sing his praises when the going's good, one gives a great "I don't know about no Jesus" performance (Peter) worthy of a scruffy rat like Steve Buscemi. Another (Judas) sells out Jesus for a bunch of dead presidents, like Sean Penn did in "Carlito's Way." Unfortunately, Jesus gets rubbed out by an Italian gang, "The Romans," who torture him and nail him to a cross in revenge for representing on their turf. Lots of high drama here. "Revelations" was pretty weird, sort of like watching "Fantasia" while doing mushrooms, only a lot scarier. Altogether, an excellent read.

"Suck it up and cope"

David Sirota provides ten case studies of rich people who seem to be so completely oblivious to the raging and widening inequalities in the US and the resentment it breeds that the apocryphal story of a princess (wrongly attributed to Queen Marie Antoinette) who upon hearing that the poor had no bread helpfully suggested "Let them eat cake" immediately comes to mind.

One of Sirota's examples is billionaire Charles Munger who, in a 2010 speech to University of Michigan students, said that the unemployed, the homeless and the impoverished, whose lives are being torn apart by the recession, should stop whining and instead should "Suck it up and cope." Yes, those very words. Sirota also said that Munger "first lauded bankers as people who "saved your civilization" and then urged all Americans to bow down and "thank god" that the bailouts preserved the financial industry's profits."

I have to warn you that reading those ten case studies of out-of-touch elites (and their enabling journalistic sycophants like the New York Times financial correspondent Andrew Ross Sorkin) will cause your blood to boil. I couldn't get through it without wishing that the Dickensian tumbrils would once again roll up to take these people to their well-deserved fates.

The New York Times even had a piece on how hard it was for someone to live in that city on less than $500,000 per year, never mind that the median household income there in 1999 was about $38,000. As Sirota says, "when you see a newspaper article during the recession about how difficult it is to live on far more than the average American's income, you can be forgiven for thinking you are reading either (a) the Onion, (b) the in-house newsletter of 18th-century Versailles or (c) an old clip of NBA guard Latrell Sprewell infamously saying a $7-million-a-year contract was an insult because "I have a family to feed.""

So why aren't the masses right now readying their pitchforks? Instead why are so many of them, especially in the tea party, venting their anger at public school teachers, police, and firefighters, while saying that we should give the rich even more money? This has been a perplexing problem for which the media must take some share of the blame. But Matt Taibbi provides a valuable insight. He says that it may be because the paths of the very rich and the rest of us no longer cross.

All of this is a testament to the amazing (and rapidly expanding) cultural divide that exists in this country, where the poor and the rich seldom cross paths at all, and the rich, in particular, simply have no concept what being broke and poor really means. It is true that if you make $300,000 in America, you won't feel like you're so very rich once you get finished paying your taxes, your mortgage, your medical bills and so on.

For this reason, a lot of people who make that kind of money believe they are the modern middle class: house in the burbs, a car, a kid in college, a trip to Europe once a year, what's the big deal? They'd be right, were it not for the relative comparison -- for the fact that out there, in that thin little ithsmus between the Upper East Side and Beverly Hills, things are so f----- that public school teachers and garbagemen making $60k with benefits are being targeted with pitchfork-bearing mobs as paragons of greed and excess. Wealth, in places outside Manhattan, southern California, northern Virginia and a few other locales, is rapidly becoming defined as belonging to anyone who has any form of job security at all. Any kind of retirement plan, or better-than-minimum health coverage, is also increasingly looked at as an upper-class affectation.

It also works the other way -- the poor have no idea what real rich people are like. They apparently never see them, which is why the political champions of middle America are at this very minute campaigning in congress to extract more revenue from elderly retirees and broke-ass students while simultaneously fighting to preserve a slew of tax loopholes for the rich, including the carried-interest tax break that allows hedge fund billionaires to pay about half the tax rate of most Americans.

To most people, the undeserving rich guy is the ex-police lieutenant down the street who's been collecting a six-figure pension for years after spending two decades writing traffic tickets before retiring at 43. Seeing that guy lounging in the dugout pool you paid for with your constantly rising property taxes is enough to piss anyone off, which is why it's not hard to understand where a lot of that Tea Party anger is coming from.

But if you want to see a real a------, you have to somehow get invited to things like the $5 million birthday party of another guy on Sirota's list, private equity creep Steven Schwarzman. After throwing his elaborate fete for himself, Schwarzman -- who is said to make $400 million a year, and made $600 million when his company went public -- compared Barack Obama to Hitler for even considering rolling back his carried-interest exemption, which, again, allows him to pay 15% taxes while some of the rest of us pay twice that or more. "It's a war," he said. "It's like when Hitler invaded Poland."

If you think your local Andy Griffith is a greedy pig because he retired in his forties and built an addition to his garage with your tax money, try hanging out with a guy who eats $400 crabs, throws himself $5 million parties where he is serenaded by Rod Stewart and Patti Labelle (who sang "Happy Birthday"), and then compares the president to Hitler when word leaks out that he might have to pay taxes at the same rate as a firefighter or a kindergarten teacher.

So will this state of affairs continue forever?

What we do know is that often a single event can rapidly catalyze public opinion. In the Murdoch phone hacking scandal, the British public had tolerated for decades the stories of the hacking into phones of celebrities and politicians and the wining and dining and bribing of police to not pursue these charges. It took the revelation of the hacking of the voicemail of a murdered 13-year old school girl to cause the sudden eruption of outrage that threatens the once invincible Murdoch empire.

It is hard to predict what kind of single event might cause the US public to suddenly realize that the very rich view them with utter contempt and have been treating them as suckers for years.

I think that a hard rain's gonna fall. I just don't know when or what will trigger it. But when it comes, "Suck it up and cope" may well replace "Let them eat cake" as the symbol of arrogant cluelessness.

July 18, 2011

The hackers hacked

The group Lulzsec briefly hacked into website of the Murdoch tabloid The Sun and published a spoof front page.

Murdoch update

The people involved in the Murdoch phone hacking scandal keep falling faster and harder and, as is often the case in such situations, are turning on each other.

  • As I expected, the head of Scotland Yard Sir Paul Stephenson has resigned because of charges that he accepted gifts from Murdoch's cronies and did not aggressively pursue the hacking case. In his resignation letter he aimed a parting shot at prime minister David Cameron's close association with former News of the World editor Andy Coulson. Cameron has hit back.
  • The assistant commissioner of Scotland Yard David Yates, who had effectively shut down the original investigation into the hacking claims, has also resigned.
  • Stephenson and Yates and other senior Scotland Yard officers are to be the subjects of yet another inquiry.
  • One of the other senior police officers to be investigated is another former assistant commissioner Andy Hayman who led the original phone hacking investigation in 2006 and later became a columnist for Murdoch's The Times, another example of the incestuous relationship between the police and News Corp.
  • Sean Hoare, a former News of the World employee who first blew the whistle about rampant phone hacking at that paper and alleged that Andy Coulson, former editor of News of the World and later a close aide and confidante to David Cameron, knew about it all along, has been found dead at his home.
  • News International's former head Rebekah Brooks has been arrested and is out on bail but will apparently still appear with Rupert and James Murdoch before a parliamentary committee on Tuesday.
  • Prime minister David Cameron has cut short a trip to Africa to return home to help plan the judicial inquiry that he was forced to initiate into the phone hacking.
  • Cameron also said that parliament, which had been due to go on a six-week recess at the end of Tuesday, will likely now come back on Wednesday to debate the scandal.
  • Now in major damage control mode, News Corp has initiated its own internal inquiry into what happened at the News of the World. This is one inquiry we can probably safely ignore.
  • Murdoch is 'lawyering up' with some heavy hitters in the US, following reports that the FBI has opened an investigation. The hacking of actor Jude Law's phone in the US could be a key issue but merely the one that gets the ball rolling. As Felix Salmon points out, there are plenty of other odious News Corp practices in the US that will emerge once the spotlight is turned on them.
  • What is going to really hurt Murdoch is that the stock price of News Corp is sliding globally. Ultimately this is what he really cares about since a low price makes him vulnerable to shareholder anger and the possible ouster of him and his family members.

Things are moving really fast.

Obama's goals and strategy

One of the interesting features of the current discussions involving raising the debt ceiling is how Obama keeps offering cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits as part of the deal. This does not surprise me because I have repeatedly said that the best chance for the oligarchy to cut these programs that they do not care about is when a Democrat is in office because then the defenders of these programs drop their guard, thinking that the president will defend their interests, not realizing that his primary goal is to serve the oligarchy.

Obama's supporters seem to think that this is just a clever strategy on Obama's part, that by linking it to some tax raises for the very rich, it will cause the Republicans to reject the plan, thus making them appear unreasonable. I disagree. Offering something in negotiations that you actually oppose on the assumption that the other side will reject the entire deal is very dangerous because there is always the small chance that they might accept and also because in future negotiations you cannot refuse to consider those proposals if brought forward by the other side.

Matt Taibbi argues persuasively that Obama does not want a progressive deficit deal. He actually does want to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits.

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow also has Obama's number.

The logic of science-6: The burden of proof in law

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

For a long time, religion claimed to reveal eternal truths. No one except true believers seriously says that anymore because science has become the source of reliable knowledge while religion is increasingly seen as being based on evidence-free assertions. So some believers tend to try and devalue the insights science provides by elevating what we can call truth to only those statements that reach the level of mathematical proof, because such a high bar can rarely be attained and thus everything else becomes a matter of opinion. They can then claim that scientific statements and religious statements merely reflect the speaker's opinion, nothing more.

But science uses criteria other than proof for making judgments about truth. In making such judgments, scientists act more like judges in legal cases than mathematicians deriving proofs. For example, in legal proceedings, the usual practice is to follow the legal principle ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat, which I am told (not knowing Latin myself) translates as "the burden of proof rests on who asserts, not on who denies", where the assertion is of a positive nature and not a negative one. So if someone is accused of committing a crime, the burden of proof is on the accuser and not the defendant. This principle is more popularly stated in English as that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

This principle is considered such a fundamental aspect of a civilized society that it is enshrined in Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that: "Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which they have had all the guarantees necessary for their defence." Of course many countries (including the US) routinely violate this principle when it suits them, while still smugly claiming to uphold the basic principles of human rights.

A point to note is that technically the only outcomes in a legal proceeding are "guilty" (i.e., proved beyond a reasonable doubt) and "not guilty" (not proved beyond a reasonable doubt). The defendant is never proven to be innocent, and has no obligation to do so. Indeed the defendant is not even obliged to provide any kind of defense at all. This can of course lead to undesirable situations where the jury can suspect that a defendant is indeed guilty of the crime but feels obliged to bring in a verdict of not guilty if the case has not met the 'proved beyond the reasonable doubt' standard which is why the 'proven innocent' phrasing is not appropriate for not guilty verdicts. But this kind of undesirable outcome is the price we pay for trying to have the fairest possible system, even if it should lead to public outcries of the sort seen following the not guilty verdicts in the O. J Simpson and Casey Anthony murder trials which were mistakenly interpreted by the public as statements that innocence had been proven when all it meant was that the presumption of innocence had not been contradicted.

One could have an alternative system in which a person is presumed guilty until proven innocent, shifting the entire burden of proof onto the defendant. There is nothing logically wrong with such system but in practice it would be unworkable since there are many more people who are innocent of a crime than there are those who are guilty. Furthermore it is often difficult, if not impossible, to prove innocence. For example, if I am asleep alone at home, it would be very difficult for me to prove that I was not robbing a nearby convenient store at that time, which is why the 'presumed innocent until proven guilty' standard seems to be a better one. So there are good reasons for having the burden of proof be on the person who asserts a positive claim and not on the person who denies as the method of arriving at legal verdicts or 'truths'.

Unless one agrees on which of the two frameworks (presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt or presumed guilty until proven innocent) to use in making legal judgments, it may be impossible to agree on a verdict. But whatever system one chooses, the basic structure is that there is a default position that is assumed to be true unless shown otherwise, so that proof of only one position is required.

Similar considerations apply in arriving at scientific truths.

Next: The burden of proof in science

July 17, 2011

How do you evaluate 'expert' opinion?

None of us are in a position to figure out everything for ourselves. We are all dependent on experts in specific fields for knowledge. While an expert's reputation and record of reliability and honesty can and should be factored in, we don't want to unquestioningly accept the assertions of authorities since it is possible that they may be mistaken or not as expert or knowledgeable as they claim to be or may even be lying

So to what extent is it reasonable to depend on experts? Bertrand Russell in his 1941 book Let the People Think suggested that rather than depend on this or that expert, one should look at the views of the aggregate of experts and draw the following reasonable inferences:

  1. "that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain;
  2. that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and
  3. that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment."

That seems like a good rule of thumb.

But of course, you will rarely get unanimity among experts. There will almost always be dissenters. But at least when it comes to scientific matters, there often tends to be an overwhelming consensus and what I do is see what the dominant views are. So for example, in the case of global warming, since an overwhelming majority of climate scientists say that it is occurring and is man-made, Russell would say (according to rule (1)) that it would be foolish to insist that they are wrong. Similarly, since an overwhelming majority of biologists accept the theory of evolution as the means by which speciation occurred, Russell would say that it would be silly to confidently deny it. At most one should voice tentative dissent.

When it comes to economic or political questions where there is often not only no unanimity but not even a dominant consensus, rule (2) comes into play and it is wise to not place one's faith too strongly on one particular view.

July 16, 2011

The Murdoch dominos start falling

The loyalists surrounding Rupert Murdoch are getting picked off one by one. Rebekah Brooks, head of his British operations News International, has resigned. It was thought that she and Murdoch sacrificed 168-year old The News of the World, the paper at the center of the scandal, to save her own skin, shutting down the profitable paper and throwing all its employees out of work in the hope that it would quell the scandal. That did not work.

The biggest casualty so far is Les Hinton, Murdoch's long time right hand man who has worked for him for 52 years and who has also resigned as Chief Executive Officer of News Corp's Dow Jones, the parent company of the Wall Street Journal. Hinton and Brooks say they were ignorant of the illegal activities that were going on all around them but that is not credible and both of them are so close to the Murdoch father and son team that it is hard to believe that the latter two did not know too. Murdoch can probably buy the silence of these loyalists until such time as they are staring serious prison time in the face.

Hinton, seen as Murdoch's consiglieri, seems the most vulnerable since he seems to have lied to a British parliamentary inquiry, claiming that a thorough internal investigation into the hacking scandal that he ran while head of News International showed that the phone hacking was done by a single reporter gone rogue, an assertion now seen as laughably false. The departure of Hinton and Brooks now puts son James Murdoch in the crosshairs. Brooks and the two Murdochs are due to testify on Tuesday where I expect them to make groveling apologies along with stout denials that they were aware of what was going on. This is of course highly implausible, given that they all seem to be control freaks working closely.

Jonathan Freedland describes in detail the power that Murdoch exercised over the British political structure. Its extent shocked even someone as cynical as me who has long been aware of the collusion of government, media, and business. It seemed like Murdoch has almost all of the big players (David Cameron, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown) in his pocket, obsequiously toadying to him even as his papers occasionally revealed unpleasant things about them.

What may be the final straw is that the corruption extended well into the police, which tends to bother people more than political corruption. As Freedland writes:

What has shocked more deeply is the extent to which the police force and News International had become intertwined: the wining and dining, the top brass of both organisations apparently separated by a revolving door: ex-cop Andy Hayman moving to NI, ex-editor Neil Wallis moving to Scotland Yard. No wonder the Met was so lethargic in investigating hacking: why look too deeply into the affairs of people who represent either a meal ticket or a future paycheck?

The bribing of police to get information seems to be well established but now The Guardian newspaper (and its reporter Nick Davies), which has been terrier-like in its dogged coverage of the story and breaking scoop after scoop, has revealed that the Metropolitan police commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson tried to get the paper to back off on the Murdoch story by saying that it had information that its coverage was "exaggerated and incorrect", while at the same time not informing them that they had hired a senior The News of the World executive Neil Wallis as an advisor. Wallis has also now been arrested. My hope is that the Stephenson also gets fired (and investigated and even arrested) and a new untainted person brought in who will try and repair the image of the police by doing a full investigation.

Now that Murdoch seems weakened, those who formerly were cowed by him are now speaking out more openly, especially in parliament, and The Independent gives a preview of what to expect at the inquiry on Tuesday.

Murdoch has gone into full damage control mode, apologizing to everyone he can get to, including the family of Milly Dowler, and inserting a big apology advertisement in all the British newspapers today, blaming it all on a single newspaper when the corruption seems to have spread to others within the Murdoch empire with actor Jude Law suing The Sun for hacking his phone. But people who condone the tapping of the phone mails of dead schoolchildren are not the kind of people who feel shame and remorse, and this merely seems like the latest attempt to stem the furor.

The pernicious influence of Murdoch on the media and political landscape is captured by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in a parody of It's a Wonderful Life. (Thanks to reader Norm.)

It should be noted that the Fry and Laurie comedy show ran around 1990. Things have got much worse since then.

July 15, 2011

The few, the proud, The Undefeated. Actually, just the few. In fact, just one

Whose bright idea was it to release the new Sarah Palin fan-biopic on the same day as the final Harry Potter film? Is it any surprise that there was only one person in the theater who was there just to interview audience members? Two other people came in not knowing anything about the film but guessing from the title that it was an action flick. They left after 20 minutes.

That gave me an idea. Maybe Palin and her husband should have ditched their idiotic bus tour and instead made a real action movie, a remake of Easy Rider, with them playing the roles of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in the original, roaming the country on their Harley Davidsons looking for the real America and living off the land by killing and eating moose. And Michele Bachmann could take the Jack Nicholson role, a kindred soul they meet and pick up while riding through Minnesota.

And instead of getting shot, in the remake they could be the ones packing heavy heat and killing off America's enemies (gays, non-Christians, city dwellers, people who live along the two coasts, minorities, immigrants, non-Tea Partiers, etc.) with powerful automatic weapons.

I bet that would beat Harry Potter at the box office.

The ridiculous debt ceiling negotiations

Stephen Colbert provides the best summary I have seen to date of the absurd discussions involving raising the debt ceiling.

It was always obvious that the debt ceiling would be raised because the oligarchy demanded it and the Republican party leadership, like that of the Democrats, are their faithful servants. The Republican leadership had assured the financial and business world that the ceiling would be raised and everyone, including Obama, knew this. So the Republican idea of holding the ceiling 'hostage' to demand other concessions was laughable on its face. How can you use hostages as a negotiating tool if both sides agree that the hostage would be released unharmed? All Obama had to do was insist that the ceiling be raised with no conditions and it would have happened.

The only reason for this spectacle was for both party leaderships to create a made-for-media drama that would allow them to arrive at 'compromise' policies that would further benefit the oligarchy while hurting everyone else, all the while claiming that they were forced to take this drastic action to 'save the hostage'.

It is still possible that there will be such a deal but where things seem to have gone awry is that the Republican party base does not understand how this game is played and took at face value all their leadership's rhetoric about how raising the debt ceiling was a horrendous evil that should never be agreed to unless a steep price were paid. Now that time is running out, they have to find a way to wriggle out of the situation.

Colbert further discusses the issue with Naftali Bendavid, the congressional correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.

The logic of science-5: The problem of incompleteness

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

As I discussed in the previous post in this series, our inability to show that an axiomatic system is consistent (i.e., free of contradictions as would be evidenced by the ability to prove two theorems each of which contradicted the other) is not the only problem. Godel also showed that such systems are also necessarily incomplete. In other words, for all systems of interest, there will always be some truths of that system that cannot be proven as theorems using only the axioms and rules of that system. So the tantalizing goal that one day we might be able to develop a system in which every true statement can be proven to be true also turns out to be a mirage. Neither completeness nor consistency is attainable.

Belief in god depends upon ignorance for its very existence and some religious people have seized on Godel's theorem to try and argue that 'god exists' is one of these true statements that cannot be proved. This is a misunderstanding of what Godel proved but is typical of attempts by religious people who seize upon and use important results in science and mathematics (especially those that impose some limits to knowledge, such as the uncertainty principle) to justify the unjustifiable.

The fact is that you cannot simply assert that any proposition you choose belongs in that niche that Godel discovered. The true yet unprovable statements have to be constructed within that particular system to meet certain criteria and are thus dependent on the axioms used, and a statement that is true but unprovable in one system need not be so in another one. Simply by adding a single new axiom to a system, statements that were formerly unprovable cease to be so while new true but unprovable statements emerge. Whenever religious people invoke Godel's theorem (or the uncertainty principle or information theory) in support of their beliefs, you should be on your guard and investigate if what they say is actually what the science says.

So what can we do in the face of Godel's implacable conclusion that we cannot construct an axiomatic system in which the theorems are both complete and consistent? At this point, pure mathematicians and scientists part company. The former have basically decided that they are not concerned with the truth or falsity of their theorems (and hence of the axioms) but only with whether the conclusions they arrive at (the theorems) are the necessary logical conclusions of their chosen axioms and rules of logic. Even a statement such as '2+2=4', which most people might regard as a universal truth that cannot be denied, is seen by them as merely the consequence of certain starting assumptions, and one cannot assign any absolute truth value to it. So pure mathematicians concern themselves with the rigor of proofs, not with whether the theorems resulting from them have any meaning that could be related to truth in the empirical world. Mathematical proofs have become disconnected from absolute truth claims.

For the scientist dealing with the empirical world, however, questions of truth remain paramount. It matters greatly to them whether some result or conclusion is true or not. While the methods of proofs that have been developed in mathematics are used extensively in science, scientists have had to look elsewhere other than proofs to try and establish the truth or falsity of propositions. And that 'elsewhere' lies with empirical data or the 'real world' as some like to call it. This is where the notion of evidence plays an essential role in science. So in mathematics while the statement '2+2=4' is simply a theorem based on a particular set of axioms, in science its empirical truth or falsity of it has to be judged by how well real objects (apples, chairs, etc.) conform to it.

This dependence on data raises a problem similar to that of the consistency problem in mathematics that Godel highlighted. We can see if '2+2=4' is true for many sets of objects by bringing the actual objects in and counting them but we obviously cannot do so for everything in the universe. So how can we know that this result holds all the time, that it is a universal truth? Such a concern may well seem manifestly overblown for a simple and transparent assertion like '2+2=4' but many (if not most) results in science are not obviously and universally true and so they can be challenged. For example, for a long time the tobacco industry challenged the conclusion that smoking causes cancer by pointing out that there exist some smokers who do not get cancer.

So however much the data we obtain supports some proposition, how can we be sure that there does not exist some undiscovered data that will refute it? This does not mean that we cannot be definitive in science. But the justification of scientific conclusions depends upon a line of reasoning that is different from those involving direct proofs, as will be seen in subsequent posts.

Next: The logic of science and the logic of law

July 14, 2011

Murdoch scandal update

Rupert Murdoch and his son James have agreed to appear before a British parliamentary committee next Tuesday to answer questions about the phone hacking and bribery scandal, after initially saying they were unavailable. Also appearing will be Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News International, the parent company of Murdoch's operations in England and former editor of the News of the World. Everyone seems to think she is the key to these practices and are calling for her head but Murdoch seems to be willing to protect her at great cost. It will be interesting to see what price he is willing to pay to save her or buy her silence.

Meanwhile Neil Wallis, another former editor of the News of the World, has been arrested, making nine arrests in all so far in this case.

Interestingly the smarmy Pier Morgan, the replacement for Larry King on CNN, was also a former editor of the News of the World. What is it about that paper that such odious people get to be the head of it?

Something that puzzles me

I saw a news item that said that the plane that managed an emergency landing in the Hudson river without any casualties is being shipped to a museum in Charlotte, NC for display.

My question is: Why? I am as pleased as the next person that no lives were lost in that accident but why would anyone care to see that particular plane, which is just like any other plane? Do they think it has some special significance?

I feel the same way about the things in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum is Cleveland that I have not as yet visited. Why would I want to see (say) the clothes worn by Elvis or a guitar played by Jimi Hendrix? It would be different if there were something unique about the item itself that was distinguishable from the person it is associated with that made it interesting. If, for example, Jimi Hendrix had a special guitar made that enabled him to play in ways that other guitars would not allow, then I can see its value in a museum.

I can also understand wanting to preserve and see (say) the marked up copies of drafts of music or book manuscripts to see how the creator's ideas evolved. But the mere fact that something was owned by someone famous or is a relic of a famous event does not (for me at least) count for much.

The Daily Show vs. Fox News

Although a comedy show, The Daily Show is very effective in pushing news items into mainstream discourse. The latest Nielsen report for May shows that its ratings, along with that of The Colbert Report, are soaring while that of Fox News is slumping. What is worse for Fox is that Stewart is beating them handily in the much coveted 18-49 year old demographic, while the average age of a Fox viewer is 65, which is even older than that of the Golf Channel. This is a double whammy for Fox in that not only is its present audience dying off faster than its rivals, but the younger generation is being tutored in how Fox News manipulates the news and are unlikely to become its future audience even when they become old.

Fox News's hysterical propaganda shtick makes it an easy target for a comedian and so it should be no surprise that it is a frequent (but not exclusive) target of The Daily Show's barbs against the media. While Stewart does not disguise his contempt for the Fox's third-raters that use up most of Fox's air time (Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Greta Van Susteren, and their incredibly ignorant and vapid morning trio), there used to be a kind of respectful teasing relationship between Bill O'Reilly, Chris Wallace, and Bret Baier of Fox News and Stewart.

Now that the latest rating are out, that is likely to change. Be prepared for Fox to mount an even greater full-court attack on Stewart in an effort to counter his show's growing influence. What they did recently gives a taste of what to expect, except that I expect it to become even more hysterical, since that is Fox's standard operating procedure.

I have said repeatedly that you should be very wary of picking a fight with a stand-up comedian (a breed of people of whom the good ones know how to think on their feet and respond effectively and ruthlessly with hecklers), especially one who has a large staff of writers at his back and his own highly rated TV show. Below is the kind of thing that Fox News can expect if they up the ante.

If Fox does decide to pursue this, it will be a stupid strategy and they will lose because satirical political humor of The Daily Show variety is always more fun to watch than the bluster of a Fox. Even those media commentators moderately sympathetic to Fox News's ideology will find themselves laughing along The Daily Show's audience.

There is a way for Fox to recover and that is to become a real news network and stop being a propaganda outlet that is almost cartoonish in its style of message delivery that only appeals to the true believers. But that is unlikely to happen unless the Murdoch scandal really blows up in the US and results in the network being sold to a new owner who brings in new management with a new outlook.

July 13, 2011

Call to prosecute high level US torturers

In a press release accompanying a new 107-page report, Human Rights Watch says:

Overwhelming evidence of torture by the Bush administration obliges President Barack Obama to order a criminal investigation into allegations of detainee abuse authorized by former President George W. Bush and other senior officials, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Obama administration has failed to meet US obligations under the Convention against Torture to investigate acts of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees, Human Rights Watch said.

The 107-page report, "Getting Away with Torture: The Bush Administration and Mistreatment of Detainees," presents substantial information warranting criminal investigations of Bush and senior administration officials, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and CIA Director George Tenet, for ordering practices such as "waterboarding," the use of secret CIA prisons, and the transfer of detainees to countries where they were tortured.

"There are solid grounds to investigate Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Tenet for authorizing torture and war crimes," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "President Obama has treated torture as an unfortunate policy choice rather than a crime. His decision to end abusive interrogation practices will remain easily reversible unless the legal prohibition against torture is clearly reestablished."

If the US government does not pursue credible criminal investigations, other countries should prosecute US officials involved in crimes against detainees in accordance with international law, Human Rights Watch said.

"The US has a legal obligation to investigate these crimes," Roth said. "If the US doesn't act on them, other countries should."

Obama has clearly demonstrated that he is not going to do anything about this because he too may face similar charges in the future. What we have to hope is that independent-minded prosecutors in other countries will take up the cause. The fear of arrest is likely to continue to prevent Bush, Cheney, and their fellow torture cronies from visiting many countries. It serves them right to be treated like criminals.

Murdoch scandal takes hold in the US

The Guardian, which has been relentless in covering the Murdoch story, reports on the first call by a senior US political figure to investigate if Murdoch's minions have been engaging in similar practices over here.

Senate commerce committee chairman Jay Rockefeller has asked the authorities to investigate if any journalists working for Rupert Murdoch had targeted US citizens, and warned of "serious consequences" for the media group if that were the case.

In a written statement, Rockefeller expressed concern that victims of 9/11 and their families could have been targeted by News Corporation journalists, although he did not offer any evidence to suggest that may be the case.

Meanwhile, on The Daily Show, John Oliver comforts Jon Stewart that however messed up the US political system is, it is even worse in England, and he points to all the appalling features of the Murdoch scandal as evidence.

Once the The Daily Show takes on an issue, as it is likely to do with this story, it tends to get into the mainstream.

It looks like the Murdoch scandal is well and truly here.

The logic of science-4: Truth and proof in mathematics

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Within mathematics, Euclidean geometry is the prototypical system that demonstrates the power of proof and serves as a model for all axiomatic systems of logic. In such systems, we start with a set of axioms (i.e., basic assumptions) and a set of logical rules, both of which seem to be self-evidently true. By applying the rules of logic to the axioms, we arrive at certain conclusions. i.e., we prove what are called theorems. Using those theorems we can prove yet more theorems, creating a hierarchy of theorems, all ultimately resting on the underlying axioms and the rules of logic. Do these theorems correspond to true statements? Yes, but only if the axioms with which we started out are true and the rules of logic that we used are valid. Those two necessary conditions have to be established independently.

So how does one do that? While we may all be able to agree on the validity of the rules of logic if they are transparent, simple, and straightforward (though there are subtle pitfalls even there) establishing the truth of the axioms is not always easy because things that seem to be obviously true may turn out to be not so.

Furthermore, even assuming for the moment that one knows that the axioms are true and the rules of logic are valid, there are still problems. For example, how can we know that all the theorems that we can prove correspond exactly to all the true statements that exist? Is it possible that there could be true statements that can never be reached however much we may grow the tree of theorems? This is known as the problem of completeness.

There is also another problem known as the problem of consistency. Since the process of proving theorems is open-ended in that there is no limit to how many we can potentially prove, how can we be sure that if keep going and prove more and more theorems we won't eventually prove a new theorem that directly contradicts one that we proved earlier, thus resulting in the absurdity that a statement and its negation have both been proven?

To address this, we rely upon a fundamental principle of logic that 'truth cannot contradict truth', and thus we believe that it can never happen that two true statements contradict each other. Thus establishing the truth of the axioms and using valid rules of logic guarantees that the system is consistent, since any theorem that is based on them must be true and thus no two theorems can contradict each other. Conversely, if we ever find that we can prove as theorems both a statement and its negation, then the entire system is inconsistent and this implies that at least one of the axioms must be false or a rule of logic is invalid.

There is usually little doubt about the validity of the rules of logic that are applicable in a mathematical system (if they are simple and transparent enough) and thus a true set of axioms implies a consistent system of theorems and vice versa. Hence we can at least solve the problem of consistency if we can establish the truth of the axioms, though the completeness problem remains open.

(Those who are familiar with these issues will recognize that we are approaching the terrain known as Godel's theorem. While I will discuss its main results, for those seeking to understand it in more depth I can strongly recommend an excellent little monograph Godel's Proof by Ernest Nagel and James R. Newman, and the clever and entertaining (but much longer) Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter.)

So how do we establish the truth of the axioms? If the system we are dealing with consists of a finite number of objects, we may be able to prove the axioms to be true by seeing if every one of the objects in the system satisfy the axioms by exhaustively applying all the axioms to all the objects and seeing if they hold true in every case. Even if the axioms do not relate to a set of objects, we may be able to construct a model system of objects in which the elements of the model correspond to the elements in the axioms and thus repeat the above process. So, for example, we can take the axioms involving points and lines and so forth in Euclidean geometry (which are abstractions that have purely mathematical relationships with each other) and build a model system of real objects (such as points and lines in space that can be drawn on paper) and see if the axioms apply to the properties of such real objects in real space. Similarly, we can see if the abstract rules for adding numbers correspond to what we get if we add up real objects together.

The catch is that for most systems of interest (such as points and lines in geometry and the integers in number theory), the number of elements in the system is infinite and it is not possible to exhaustively check if (for example) every point and every line that can be drawn in space satisfy the axioms. So then how can we know if the axioms are true? It is not enough that the axioms may look so simple and intuitive that they can be declared to be 'obviously' true. It has been shown that even the most seemingly simple and straightforward mathematical concept, such as that of a 'set', can produce contradictions that destroy the idea that a system is consistent, so we have to be wary of using simplicity and transparency as our sole guide in determining the truth of axioms.

One might wonder why we are so dependent on such a pedestrian method as applying each axiom to every element of the system to establish the truth of axioms and the consistency of systems. Surely we can apply more powerful methods of reasoning to show whether a set of axioms is true even if they involve an infinite number of elements? One would think so except that Godel proved that this could not be done except for very simple systems that do not cover the areas of most interest to mathematicians. Godel "proved that it is impossible to establish the internal logical consistency of a very large class of deductive systems - number theory, for example - unless one adopts principles of reasoning so complex that their internal consistency is as open to doubt as that of the systems themselves." (Nagel and Newman, p. 5, my italics.)

In other words, the price we pay for using more powerful reasoning methods to prove the consistency of some axiomatic system is that we lose transparency and simplicity in the rules of logic used in constructing those very methods and now they cannot be assumed or shown to be valid. As the old saying goes, what we gain on the swings, we lose on the roundabouts. As a result, we arrive at Godel's melancholy conclusion that Nagel and Newman state as "no absolutely impeccable guarantee can be given that many significant branches of mathematical thought are entirely free of internal contradiction." In other words, Godel proved that the goal of proving consistency cannot be achieved even in principle.

This is quite a blow to the idea of determining absolute truth because if we cannot show that a system is consistent, how can we depend upon its results?

Next in the series: The problem of incompleteness

July 12, 2011

Looking behind the budget debate curtain

As usual, we are being treated to the kabuki theater of debt ceiling/budget negotiations as being a high stakes conflict between the Democrats and Republicans, when all the while what is happening backstage is that both parties are acting as the agents of the oligarchy.

Here are some articles that need to be widely read, by Ralph Nader, Matt Taibbi, Paul Krugman, Glenn Greenwald, and Frank Rich, on why those who look to Obama and the Democrats to fight for economic justice are doomed to be disappointed.

Murdoch's blaggers

The Murdoch story now seems to have arrived in the US with NPR giving regular updates and even my local newspaper the Plain Dealer running a long article today.

The Murdoch scandal has taught me a new, and somewhat ugly, word 'blagging'. It apparently refers to the act of getting information by trickery or deception. In the case of former British prime minister Gordon Brown, people employed by Murdoch's News International apparently pretended to be him to obtain his financial records.

Les Hinton, one of the key executives of Murdoch's UK operations during the phone hacking and blagging periods, now heads the US outfit that runs the Wall Street Journal. Hinton may be charged with lying to the British parliament and it will be interesting to see if any investigations get started here, especially since the UK scandal has spread beyond the tabloids News of the World and The Sun and implicated the so-called 'respectable' broadsheets The Times and the Sunday Times, indicating that the corruption had spread pretty far and was not due to some rogue operatives at a single low-brow scandal sheet.

Murdoch is so powerful that current UK prime minister David Cameron and former prime minister Tony Blair both toady to him (Tony Blair was an all-round toady so this is not surprising) and may still wriggle out of it. But until he does, I must say that I am enjoying the spectacle of a net tightening around him and his cronies.

In defense of 'flip-flopping'

One of the curious features of American politics is how the pejorative label of 'flip-flopper', if successfully pinned on a candidate, can seriously hurt that person's electoral chances. The term is used to describe someone who has made a 180-degree turn on some issue, taking a position now that is diametrically opposed to one he or she took before. This issue dogged John Kerry's candidacy in 2004. Some people pay a surprising amount of attention to this question, even to the extent of looking into what a politician said or did even as far back as in college or high school. Journalists sometimes pore over a candidate's past statements on some topic in order to confront them with some contradiction.

Behind this there seems to be this assumption that someone whose views have never changed during his or her entire adult life is more virtuous than someone who has changed. But is this a reasonable assumption? Why is holding steadfastly to one's views all through one's life seen as such a good thing? After all, as time goes by, we learn more things and acquire life experiences and these can cause us to re-evaluate our positions. Why is this a bad thing? The economist John Maynard Keynes, when he was confronted with an old statement that contradicted his current views reportedly riposted, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" Even if this story is apocryphal, it illustrates the fact that changing one's views is sometimes the most reasonable thing to do.

When I look back on my own life, I can see many areas where my views have changed dramatically. I used to think that US involvement in Vietnam was a noble thing. I now think is was an atrocity. I used to be a devout believer in god and now am an atheist. I used to disparage the feminist movement as making much ado about trivial things but now realize what an important role they played in the drive for women's equality. I used to be indifferent to gay issues but now strongly support their move towards full equality. If I think harder, I am sure that I can come up with more examples of my own flip-flopping on important issues. But I don't see myself as a rudderless person, drifting this way and that on the basis of whims or expediency.

Perhaps the crucial issue is motive, that it is acceptable to change one's mind because of new facts or because one has been persuaded by arguments, but that to do so for the sake of political expediency is to justly invite criticism This is the charge currently being laid against Mitt Romney, that he changed his views from his time as governor of Massachusetts merely because of his desire to appeal to the evangelical Christian tea party base of the Republican party, requiring him to make increasingly emphatic affirmations that what he says he believes now represent his core beliefs, that he always had these beliefs, and leading to contortions to show that his previous positions were consistent with them.

Leaving aside the specifics of Mitt Romney, changing one's public views to meet external needs without actually changing one's beliefs lays one open to the charge of hypocrisy or opportunism and that may seem to be obviously wrong. But is it that clear cut? Surely hypocrisy is also not always a bad thing? Suppose some elected official really thinks that women should not be in leadership positions or that gay people are sinners who will go to hell or that all Muslims are particularly susceptible to terrorist influence. But this person is also smart enough to know that to say any of those things publicly is to doom the chances for election. If such a person adopts a neutral stance or even asserts support for equality for those groups, surely that hypocrisy is better than his adamant opposition? In fact, don't we want politicians to be people we can influence to vote our way? Political demonstrations, marches, rallies, etc. are all designed to pressure public officials to take actions that they might not take otherwise. Why is it such a bad thing for elected officials to be swayed by public opinion to take actions that are contrary to their own beliefs?

To my mind, what is truly inexcusable in politics is lying, where a politician says one thing while campaigning for office and does the opposite after being elected, even though nothing else has changed. That is something that should be strongly censured and punished by the voters. But even here one has to be careful not to be too rigid and to carefully take into account the important caveat about nothing else changing. In real life, things can change and one should not hold people to account for taking those changes into consideration when forming policy. This is why I disapprove of these pledges that some candidates are forced to sign as a condition of support. Right now there seems to be an epidemic of such pledges on the Republican side, requiring pledges against raising taxes, gay marriage, and so on.

If the facts change, good governance may require a change in policy and there is nothing wrong with that, as long as a good case can be made as to why the change is necessary.

July 11, 2011

More on the Rupert Murdoch British implosion

The Guardian keeps coming with fresh revelations of the depths to which Rupert Murdoch's minions have sunk in their phone hacking scandal. It has now revealed that people in News International (that run Murdoch's UK newspaper operations) obtained the medical records of then Prime Minister Gordon Browns infant son (who has cystic fibrosis) and The Sun newspaper then published a story about it.

These people obviously have no sense of decency. I am just waiting for the reports to begin emerging that similar practices are occurring here.

World Cup soccer final for robots


The logic of science-3: The demise of infallibility

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The idea of scientific infallibility, that the knowledge generated by science should be true and unchanging, suffered a series of blows in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that saw the repeated overthrow of seemingly well-established scientific theories with new ones. Even the venerable Newtonian mechanics, long thought to be unchallengeable, was a casualty of this progress. Aristotle's idea that scientific truths were infallible, universal, and timeless, fell by the wayside, to be replaced with the idea that they were provisional truths, the best we had at the current time, and assumed to be true only until something better came along.

But despite that reduction in status, it is important to realize that for the practicing scientist, the question of 'truth' remains paramount. But what the word 'true' means depends on the context.

One form that this commitment to truth takes is that it requires scientists to be truthful when reporting the results of their work, because others depend upon it. The whole structure of scientific knowledge is created cumulatively, each person building on the work of others, and this requires trust in the work of other people because it is not always feasible to independently verify every claim of other scientists. Because scientific knowledge is so interdependent, falsehoods in one area can do serious damage to that structure.

This does not mean that scientists are more truthful as persons. But it does mean that being dishonest is not a good career strategy because you will likely be found out, especially if your work has important consequences. Scientists are not usually suspicious of the work of other scientists and do not reflexively check their work. But the interdependence of knowledge means that a falsehood or error in one area will eventually be detected because people will try to use that knowledge in new areas and will encounter inexplicable results. When the sources of the error are investigated, it will eventually be traced back to the original perpetrator. This is almost always how scientific errors and frauds are discovered.

As a minor example, in my own research experience I once uncovered an error published by others years before because I could not agreement with data when I used their results. Similarly a published error of my own was discovered by others after a lapse of time, for the same reason. It is because of this kind interdependence that science is largely, but not invariably, self-correcting. This is also why in academia, where the search for true knowledge is the prime mission, people who knowingly publish or otherwise propagate falsehoods or commit many errors, suffer serious harm to their reputations and are either marginalized or drummed out of the profession. Some recent spectacular cases of deliberate fraud are those of Jan Hendrik Schon and Woo Suk Hwang . So in the search for knowledge, accurately reporting honestly obtained data and making true statements about one's work is a prime requirement.

But there is another, more philosophically elusive, search for truth that is also important, and that is determining the truth of scientific theories. It matters greatly whether the theory of special relativity is true or not or whether some chemical is a carcinogen or not. To get those things wrong can have serious consequences extending far beyond any individual scientist. But it is important to realize that in such cases, truth is always a provisional inference made on the basis of evidence, similar to the verdict arrived at in a legal case. And just as a legal judgment can be overturned on the basis of new evidence, so can such scientific truths be overturned, thus eliminating the idea of infallibility.

So how does one arrive at provisional truths in science? In establishing the truth of a scientific proposition, scientists use reasoning and logical arguments that are closely similar to, but not identical with, mathematical and legal reasoning. Being aware of the similarities and distinctions is important to avoid claiming scientific justification for claims that are not valid, as often happens when religious people try to co-opt science in support of their beliefs in god and the afterlife.

The first issue that I would like to discuss is the relationship between truth and proof, because in everyday language truth and proof are considered to be almost synonymous. The idea of 'proof' plays an important role in establishing truth because most of us associate the word proof as being conclusive, and it is always more authoritative if we are able to say that we have proven something to be true or false.

The gold standard of proof comes from mathematics and much of our intuitive notions of proof come from that field so it is worthwhile to see how proof works there, what its limitations are when applied even within mathematics, and what further limitations arise when we attempt to transfer those ideas into science.

Next: Truth and proof in mathematics

July 10, 2011

The curious case of 'the American Taliban'

John Walker Lindh seems to have disappeared from the news. Now his father has a long article in the Guardian outlining in detail the events leading up to his capture and arguing that his son was an innocent and naïve person who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and thus became one of the first casualties in the 'war on terror' run amuck, in which anything goes as long as it is supposed to be 'fighting terror'.

The 44 chromosome man

Almost all human beings have 46 chromosomes (23 pairs) and being born with an extra or missing one usually signifies that the person will have serious medical problems such as Down syndrome.

On the other hand, our close relatives the chimpanzees have 48 chromosomes (24 pairs). The chimps and us shared a common ancestor about 6-8 million years ago. So how did we end up with fewer? This is because about a million years ago, two of the 24 chromosomes in a human fused together end-to-end to form a single longer chromosome. Since the crucial genetic information in each chromosome was preserved by this fusion process, the organism could survive. The evidence suggests that it was chromosomes #12 and #13 that fused to form the present chromosome #2.

The interesting question is how that mutation might have occurred and why it took hold in the human population so that 46 chromosomes is now the standard.

In this fascinating article (sent to me by reader Fu DaYi), Barry Starr of Stanford University describes a recent discovery in China of a man who seems to have undergone a similar reduction process with chromosomes #14 and #15 becoming fused, and now has just 44 chromosomes (22 pairs). His case sheds light on how the chromosome reduction process might have occurred in our own ancestors.

July 09, 2011

The lies of war

It seems like every time the US wants to attack another country, we hear stories of appalling atrocities committed or about to be committed by that country that requires that "WE MUST ACT NOW! THERE IS IMMINENT DANGER OF SOME VAGUE CATASTROPHE! NO TIME TO WEIGH THE OPTIONS! NO TIME TO CONSULT CONGRESS! NO TIME TO SEEK PEACEFUL RESOLUTIONS! WE MUST START BOMBING IMMEDIATELY TO AVOID DISASTER! AND DON'T FORGET HITLER!"

And once the war is well under way, we are told, "Oops, sorry, things were not so bad after all but nobody could have known that then. We cannot change course now because it would only show weakness. So the war must go on"

Patrick Cockburn tells us that the Libyan war is no exception to this pattern.

Camp Wingnut

Say you are a Tea Party true believer. Where could you send your child to summer camp so that that they are not in danger of being brainwashed by camp counselors all of whom are well known as seeking to advance the Commie-gay-atheist agenda? You create your own camp, of course, based on those run by Christian groups like the one shown in the film Jesus Camp.

So what delights await the lucky children sent to such camps?

One example at Liberty: Children will win hard, wrapped candies to use as currency for a store, symbolizing the gold standard. On the second day, the "banker" will issue paper money instead. Over time, students will realize their paper money buys less and less, while the candies retain their value.

Still another example: Children will blow bubbles from a single container of soapy solution, and then pop each other's bubbles with squirt guns in an arrangement that mimics socialism. They are to count how many bubbles they pop. Then they will work with individual bottles of solution and pop their own bubbles.

"What they will find out is that you can do a lot more with individual freedom," [Jeff] Lukens said.

They certainly will, Jeff Lukens!

But I think that this does not go nearly far enough and the camp could be made even better. So here are a few of my suggestions for improvement.

  • Children should be told that if they get into trouble while swimming, not to expect other children to save them since each person must succeed or fail on their own and being rescued by others merely encourages dependence on the nanny state.
  • If a child gets a gift of food treats from his family, he should not share it with others but eat it on his own, all the while lecturing the others that he deserves it due to all the hard work he put in to be the child of rich parents.
  • No team sports or group activities will be allowed whatsoever. Each child must only do individual activities to inculcate the lesson that we all succeed and fail on our own.
  • Around the campfire at night, each child will read aloud a chapter of Atlas Shrugged with the naughty bits redacted.

I offer these suggestions gratis purely to advance the cause of wingnuttia. No need to thank me, Jeff Lukens.

July 08, 2011

Heart with no heartbeat

NPR had an interesting story on a new type of artificial heart. Older models had tried to replicate the human heart with its pumping mechanism but have been unable to create models that work without problems for a long time.

This new heart is radically different in that it foregoes the pumping action and has motors that continuously drive blood through the body. This makes for a much simpler design with less chance of breakdown. It seems as if the pumping action is not essential for the working of the body, though it is still early days and we do not have long-term data on the effects.

If the results hold up and a heart that beats is not really necessary, it means that the beating heart is a product of evolution that is functional but not optimal. This would illustrate once again that the processes of evolution do not necessarily produce the best design but merely a design that works. This will not be the first time that thinking that nature's design is the best and trying to copy it has sent us in the wrong direction. Early experiments with flight tried to emulate the flapping wing action of birds with little luck.

What is kind of weird is that with this new artificial heart, there will be no heartbeat, no pulse, and the EKG signal will be a flat line. So the most common markers we currently use to see if someone is dead or alive would indicate that the person is dead.

Hypocrisy about cyberwar

One of the crucial steps by which the US entered a state of permanent warfare was when acts of 'terror' (however one defines that politically malleable word) shifted from being criminal acts that could and should be treated as lying within the province of law enforcement agencies, to political acts that required a military response such as bombing and invading countries or extra-judicial ones such as setting up kangaroo courts where the normal processes did not apply but convictions could be easily obtained or even where people could be held without trial indefinitely.

In a previous post, I said that cyberwar is the latest device by which people are made to feel as if they and the nation are under a state of perpetual siege. It was only a matter of time before the other shoe dropped and computer hacking became a basis, not for criminal prosecutions, but to start a war. The US government has now said that "computer sabotage coming from another country can constitute an act of war, a finding that for the first time opens the door for the U.S. to respond using traditional military force." It looks like we are being prepared for yet another war to be started.

What is interesting (though not surprising) is the double standard the US government uses on this issue. When the group known as Anonymous launched a DDOS (distributed denial of service) attack on those companies like Amazon, PayPal, Visa, that stopped dealing with WikiLeaks as a result of government pressure, the US government strongly condemned the action, using noble language about how awful cyberwarfare was and the danger of limiting the free flow of information. Attorney General Eric Holder promised to do everything necessary to find the culprits and punish them harshly. However, there was no similar investigation of the much more highly sophisticated cyberattack on the WikiLeaks website that occurred two weeks before, which had all the indications of being sponsored by the US government.

As another example, Hillary Clinton has demanded internet freedom for those abroad while simultaneously pushing for restrictions and increased government snooping capabilities on people in the US, even demanding access to people's Twitter accounts. It also turns out that the US Chamber of Commerce is accused of involvement with a group of military contractors in a hacking plot aimed at progressive groups. What are the odds that Clinton will call for a full investigation by the Attorney General into this?

Similarly, while the US government said they deplored the Mubarak government's attempts to restrict the use of the internet during the height of the protests, al Jazeera reports that a US company based in California called Narus (which is owned by Boeing and does internet surveillance work for the US government) helped Egypt in that effort. This shadowy company would not talk to al Jazeera to answer their questions. Is the US government going to investigate the actions of Narus? Don't hold your breath.

But perhaps the most breathtaking example of hypocrisy is that both the US and Israel publicly bragged about being the creators of the worm called Stuxnet, "the most sophisticated cyberweapon ever deployed" that supposedly attacked the computers involved in running Iran's nuclear reactor and caused problems. So if the US and Israel use cyberwarfare to attack Iran, it is the occasion for public self-congratulatory high-fives, while if the people of another country hack into US computers, it is considered an act of war that could warrant even military retaliation.

NPR had a series of stories in May (part 1, part 2, and part 3) on the 'covert' war being waged against Iran which is in addition to the open economic warfare of sanctions. These reports discussed the 'covert' actions involve bombings in that country, cyber attacks, and assassinations of Iranian scientists, without once raising the issues of hypocrisy, let alone legality, of such actions. (I put the word 'covert' in ironic quotes because it is being openly discussed as if it were above-board, the only secret aspect being the actual details.)

As always, the test of whether someone is speaking in good faith is to see how we would react if the tables were turned. What would be the reaction if the Iranian media openly talked about Iran's covert actions against the US and Israel involving cyberwarfare and assassinations of scientists? I think the answer is obvious.

July 07, 2011

The facts about Social Security

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), exposes all the myths and lies about Social Security being in crisis and requiring a radical overhaul.

Fortunately, the program is fundamentally solid. While you can sound really smart in Washington by saying that Social Security is going bankrupt, the facts say the opposite. According to the Social Security trustees' report, if we did absolutely nothing the program could pay every penny of scheduled benefits through the year 2036.

Even if we never did anything, Social Security could always pay near 80 percent of scheduled benefits.

Social Security is a great program that does exactly what it was supposed to do. It provides a core retirement income as well as insurance against disability and support for survivors. It has extremely low administrative costs and little fraud. The only problem is the politicians who say they want to save it.

End of The World

The News of the World, one of England's largest circulation newspapers, will close down after this Sunday's edition, ending a 168-year run. It is the first major casualty of the phone-hacking scandal involving the Rupert Murdoch empire.

It is reported that Andy Coulson, a former editor of the paper who was British prime minister David Cameron's director of communications until January when he resigned over early hacking allegations, will be arrested tomorrow and that other arrests are expected.

News Corp scandal

There is a huge scandal blowing up in the UK involving News Corp, the media empire of Rupert Murdoch who owns Fox Entertainment, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post in the US and several of the biggest newspapers in Britain, including the Sun and News of the World. The Guardian has been providing exhaustive coverage of this story in the UK but it has not caught fire here. In the June issue of Vanity Fair, Sarah Ellison provides some background to the whole sordid affair.

Murdoch's media outlets have been implicated in the widespread hacking of the phones of people. It started with the phones of celebrities and they used the information thus gained to essentially blackmail them, not for money but in exchange for the kinds of exclusive celebrity gossip stories that are the trademark of their tabloids. But they also hacked into the voicemails of politicians, crimes victims' families, families of dead soldiers, and the victims of terror attacks and it is these revelations that have really sparked outrage. Furthermore, these sleazy people had a close symbiotic relationship with the highest levels of people in the government and the police, whereby they provided favorable coverage in exchange for protection for their illegal activities.

What pushed the story over the edge was that they had hacked into the voicemails on the cell phone of a 13-year old girl Milly Dowler who went missing in 2002 and was found murdered about six months later. But when her mailbox filled up, mostly with friends and family pleading with her to contact them, the snoopers deleted some messages to allow new messages, cruelly raising the hopes of the family and police that the girl was alive and monitoring her voice mail.

Readers of this blog know that I do not hold the traditional media in high esteem but even by those low standards, Murdoch's operations represent the absolute dregs. Unprincipled, sleazy, and corrupt are the words that jump to mind when Murdoch's name is associated with anything. So far there have been no allegations that Murdoch's American operations have engaged in similar actions but given the close ties between the UK and US operations I would not be in the least surprised if it had happened.

The logic of science-2: Determining what is true

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

An important question in any area of knowledge is being able to identify what is true and what is false. The search for what is true and the ability to know when we have discovered truth is, after all, the Holy Grail of epistemology, because we believe that those things that are true are of lasting value while false statements are ephemeral, usually a waste of time and at worst harmful and dangerous.

Aristotle tried to make a clear distinction between those things that we feel we know for certain and are thus unchanging, and those things that are subject to change. The two categories were variously distinguished as knowledge versus opinion, reality versus appearance, or truth versus error. Aristotle made the crucial identification that true knowledge consisted of scientific knowledge, and his close association of scientific knowledge with truth has persisted through the ages. It also made the ability to distinguish between scientific knowledge and other forms of knowledge, now known as the demarcation problem, into an important question since this presumably also demarcates truth from error. (This brief summary of this history is taken from the essay The Demise of the Demarcation Problem by Larry Laudan which should be referred to for a fuller treatment.)

Aristotle said that scientific knowledge was based on foundations that were certain and thus was infallible. Since he identified scientific knowledge with true knowledge, it followed that scientific knowledge had to be unchanging because how could truth ever become false?

The second characteristic of scientific (and hence true) knowledge was that it should consist of not just ‘know-how’ but also of ‘know-why’. 'Know-how’ knowledge was considered to be the domain of craftsmen and engineers. Such people can (and do) successfully build boats, bridges, houses, and all manner of valuable and important things without needing an understanding of the underlying theoretical principles on which they work. The electrician I call to identify and fix problems in my house has plenty of know-how and does his work quickly and efficiently without having to understand, or even know about, Maxwell's laws of electrodynamics (the know-why), whereas any scientist would claim that the latter was essential for really understanding the nature of electricity.

It is for this reason that Ptolemaic and early Copernican astronomy were not considered scientific during their time even though they made highly accurate predictions of planetary motions. Their work was not based on an understanding of the laws that governed the motion of objects but on purely empirical correlations, and thus lacked 'know-why'. If, for example, a new planet were to have been discovered, existing knowledge would not have been of much help to them in predicting its motion. Hence astronomy was considered to be merely know-how and astronomers to be a species of craftsmen.

The arrival of Isaac Newton and his laws of motion provided the underlying principles that governed the motion of planets. These laws not only explained the existing extensive body of data on planetary motions, they would also be able to predict the motion of any newly discovered planet and even led to the prediction of the existence of an actual new planet (Pluto Neptune) and where it would be located. Newton's theories provided the 'know-why' that shifted astronomy into the realm of science.

It was thought that it was this know-why element that made us confident that scientific knowledge was true and based on certain foundations. After all, even if a boat builder finds that all the wood he has encountered floats in water, this does not mean that the proposition that all wood will always float is necessarily true since it is conceivable that some new wood might turn up that sinks. But the scientific principle that all objects with a lower density than water will float while those with a higher density will sink seems to be on a much firmer footing since that knowledge penetrates to the core of the phenomenon of sinking and floating and gets at its root cause. It seems to have certain foundations.

As a consequence of the appreciation that 'know-why' knowledge has greater value, science now largely deals with abstract laws, principles, causes, and logical arguments. Empirical data is still essential, of course, but mainly as a means of testing and validating those ideas. Many of these basic ideas are somewhat removed from direct empirical test and thus determining if they are true requires considerably more effort. For example, I can easily determine if the pen lying on my desk will float or sink in water by just dropping it in a bucket. But establishing the truth of a scientific proposition, say about the role that relative densities play in sinking and floating, is not that easy.

So given the primacy of scientific principles and laws in epistemology, and since the discovery of eternal truths is to be always preferred over falsehood, an elaborate structure has grown around the whole exercise of how to establish the truth and falsity of scientific propositions, often requiring the construction of expensive and specialized equipment to determine the empirical facts relating to those propositions, and extensive long-term study of esoteric subjects to relate the propositions to the data.

Next in the series: The demise of infallibility

July 06, 2011

Casey Anthony and Anthony Sowell

Sometimes I am so clueless about current events that it amazes me. What triggered that thought is that I had been almost completely oblivious to the goings on in the murder trial of Casey Anthony. It was only yesterday when she was acquitted of her daughter's murder that I became aware that this case had apparently been gripping the cable news world over many years and that people around the nation had been so obsessed by it that some actually flew to Florida from all over the country and lined up early outside the courthouse in order to get a seat at the trial.

Apparently the cable news world and chattering classes had decided Anthony was guilty and the acquittal seems to have caused some kind of national freak-out. Why are people so quick to dismiss the jury's verdict? After all, they are the ones who followed the trial most closely.

I had not been totally unaware of the trial. I check Google News headlines regularly and had seen mention of the name Casey Anthony accompanied by a photo of her and knew that she was on trial for something but did not see any reason follow it up.

While the death of a two-year old child is undoubtedly tragic and sad, there are many such murder cases and it baffles me why some become the focus of so much attention. Is it due to the fact that the media pays more attention if there is a young, white, reasonably attractive (as far as one can tell from the thumbnail photos), middle class woman at the center of events?

Right now there is a trial going on in Cleveland of Anthony Sowell, a man accused of the serial rape and murder of eleven women and burying their bodies in various parts of his home. It is a macabre and truly sensational case that is a big story locally. But as far as I can tell, it is not receiving much attention nationally. I would not be surprised if even many Clevelanders were following the Casey Anthony story more closely than the Sowell case. Is it because the people involved are all black and the victims were mostly drug addicts, prostitutes, runaways, homeless, or otherwise social outcasts?

My article in The New Humanist is now online

You can read it here.

The article is titled No Doubt and suggests a short and simple new definition of the term atheist that more accurately and unambiguously captures what that label represents to those who choose to adopt it. This new definition leaves little room for agnosticism.

I'd be curious to hear from the readers of this blog what they think of my suggestion. If you think it is an improvement, maybe you could spread the word to the other atheist forums and groups that you patronize.

The logic of science-1: The basic ideas

In the course of writing these blog posts, especially those dealing with religion, atheism, science, and philosophy, I have often appealed to the way that principles of logic are used in science in making my points. But these are scattered over many posts and I thought that I should collect and archive the ideas into one set of posts (despite the risk of some repetition) for easy reference and clarity. Besides, I haven't had a multi-part series of posts in a long time, so I am due.

Learning about the principles of logic in science is important because you need a common framework in order to adjudicate disagreements. A big step towards in resolving arguments can be taken by either agreeing to a common framework or deciding that one cannot agree and that further discussion is pointless. Either outcome is more desirable than going around in circles endlessly, not realizing what the ultimate source of the disagreement is.

When people seek definite knowledge, they turn to science, not religion. For all its claims of revealing timeless truths, religion completely fails to deliver the goods. Nobody except religious fanatics seek answers to empirical questions in their religious texts, whereas the power and reliability of science is such that people accept completely counter-intuitive things as true, as long as a scientific consensus can be invoked in support of it. For example, the idea that stars are flaming hot gases is by no means self-evident, and yet everyone now accepts it. The idea that entire continents move is also accepted even though we cannot sense it directly. How does science get such persuasive authority? In this series of posts, I will examine how it can be so successful.

A good example of how the logic of science works is to see how the advance of science has made it quite obvious that there is no god. But it is important to be clear about how that conclusion is reached. Science has not proved that there is no god, can never prove that there is no god, and does not need to prove that there is no god. So why is it that so many scientists are so confident that god does not exist? It is really very simple. While the logic of science is such that it can never prove the non-existence of whatever entity that one might like to postulate, what it has shown is that god is an unnecessary explanatory concept for anything. It is just like the ether or caloric or phlogiston, scientific concepts that ceased to be necessary explanatory concepts, making them effectively non-existent. God has joined the ether, caloric, and phlogiston in the trash heap of discarded knowledge.

You would think that this simple point would be easy to understand. But as the cartoon below by Jesus and Mo shows, religious people somehow don't seem to get this simple point, perhaps because it throws their own arguments for a loop. They seem to willfully misunderstand it, perhaps so that they can continue to argue against straw men. So let me repeat it for emphasis: Science has not proved, and can never prove, that there is no god. Science is not in the business of proving and disproving things. What it has shown is that god is an unnecessary explanatory concept.


A big source of confusion about the logic of science comes from religious believers in their efforts to create some wiggle room for them to claim that believing in god is rational. What they try to argue is that even if there is no evidence for god, it is still reasonable to believe in he/she/it. Some religious people claim that since we cannot logically or empirically prove that god exists or does not exist, taking either point of view is an act of faith on an equal footing.

This is flat-out wrong because the logic of science is different from the logic of mathematics or the logic of philosophy because evidence is an essential ingredient in science. In science, logic does not remain in the abstract but is applied to data. When it comes to empirical questions such as whether any entity (including god) exists, the role of logic is to draw inferences from evidence. In the absence of evidence in favor of existence, the presumption is nonexistence.

We believe in the existence of horses because there is evidence for them. We do not believe in the existence of unicorns (or leprechauns, pixies, dragons, centaurs, mermaids, fairies, demons, vampires, werewolves) because there is no evidence for them even though we cannot logically prove they do not exist. It really is that simple. Anyone who argues that it is as reasonable to believe in god as it is to not believe in god is forced, by their own logic, to assert that it is as rational to believe in the existence of unicorns, etc. as it is to not believe in them.

The only time one encounters this type of 'logic' is from people who are defending god, the afterlife, and all the other forms of magical thinking that they cannot bear to give up and cannot defend in any other way.

So what follows in this series of posts is my attempt to clarify some of the underlying logical principles on which science functions and why one can confidently say that, applying the logic of science, the only reasonable conclusion has to be that god does not exist. I have few illusions that it will persuade religious people to give up belief. As the TV character House said, "Rational arguments don't usually work on religious people. Otherwise there would be no religious people."

My goals are more limited and that is to enable atheists to more effectively expose the fallacious arguments of religious believers and to facilitate more meaningful discussions about the role of science in arriving at firm conclusions about things. Over time, as religious believers find their assertions firmly challenged by others in every sphere of life, we will see an accelerating erosion of belief.

Next in the series: Determining truth

July 05, 2011

Mr. Deity and the Magician

Livening up the fourth

Over at National Review Online, Dennis Prager has come up with an exciting new ritual to liven up that dull holiday known as the fourth of July that he hopes will instill in young people a better understanding of the true meaning of the event. He says he based it on the Passover seder and we know that there is nothing that children like to do on a holiday more than engage in solemn quasi-religious rituals instead of running around outside eating hot dogs and watching parades and fireworks. Here's a sample of Prager's ritual (I am not making this up):

Host holds up each symbolic item as he explains its symbolic meaning.

  • We drink iced tea to remember the Boston Tea Party. "No taxation without representation" was the patriots' chant as they dumped British tea into the Boston Harbor.
  • We eat a salty pretzel to remember the tears shed by the families who lost loved ones in the struggle for freedom in the Revolutionary War and all the wars of freedom that followed.
  • We ring a bell to recall the Liberty Bell, which was rung to announce the surrender of the king's army. On the Bell are inscribed these words from the Book of Leviticus: "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof."
  • We eat strawberries and blueberries dipped in whipped cream to celebrate the red, white, and blue of our flag.

Once this gem hit the internet, there was much merriment in the land, courtesy of Tbogg and James Wolcott.

Letting torturers go free

The slide into lawlessness by successive US administrations has been aided by the courts which have been cowed by the 'war on terror' to essentially give carte blanche to the administration to do whatever it claims it needs to do to 'keep us safe'. For example, it was ruled that Jose Padilla could not even sue Donald Rumsfeld and others who were responsible for the brutal treatment he received. The Obama administration has continued the process, covering up its own crimes and those of its predecessors while making token gestures towards upholding the rule of law.

Glenn Greenwald gives the full sordid story:

In August, 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder -- under continuous, aggressive prodding by the Obama White House -- announced that three categories of individuals responsible for Bush-era torture crimes would be fully immunized from any form of criminal investigation and prosecution: (1) Bush officials who ordered the torture (Bush, Cheney, Rice, Powell, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld); (2) Bush lawyers who legally approved it (Yoo, Bybee, Levin), and (3) those in the CIA and the military who tortured within the confines of the permission slips they were given by those officials and lawyers (i.e., "good-faith" torturers). [My italics]

Got that? All the people who authorized torture are immunized from prosecution, as are those who followed those authorizations, creating an almost perfect closed loop of immunity.

Of course, Obama has to find some way of sanctimoniously claiming that we are still a nation of laws and not men. Hence the only people who are at risk of any prosecution are those low level people whose actions overstepped even those broad categories of authorized abuses. It has announced that it will investigate just two of the most egregious of the many prisoner abuses by low-level people that occurred in the so-called war on terror, meaning that everyone else goes free.

Over 100 detainees died during U.S. interrogations, dozens due directly to interrogation abuse. Gen. Barry McCaffrey said: "We tortured people unmercifully. We probably murdered dozens of them during the course of that, both the armed forces and the C.I.A." Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who oversaw the official investigation into detainee abuse, wrote: "there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account."

Thanks to the Obama DOJ, that is no longer in question. The answer is resoundingly clear: American war criminals, responsible for some of the most shameful and inexcusable crimes in the nation's history -- the systematic, deliberate legalization of a worldwide torture regime -- will be fully immunized for those crimes. And, of course, the Obama administration has spent years just as aggressively shielding those war criminals from all other forms of accountability beyond the criminal realm: invoking secrecy and immunity doctrines to prevent their victims from imposing civil liability, exploiting their party's control of Congress to suppress formal inquiries, and pressuring and coercing other nations not to investigate their own citizens' torture at American hands.

I predict that even this ‘investigation’ will turn out to be a sham with no finding of culpability. I suspect that the cases will be quietly dropped. Already noises are being made that because these cases are 'old' and because of the code of secrecy that surrounds the actions of the military, it might be hard to build a case against the culprits, suggesting that the ground is already being laid for nothing happening. As NPR reporter Carrie Johnson says:

Well, former prosecutors are telling me it's still going to be quite difficult to win an indictment by a grand jury, and eventually possibly any kind of conviction. And there are several reasons for that. One is that the evidence in these cases is very old - eight, nine and 10 years old. Or maybe it was never collected on or near the battlefield.

Finally, nobody in the government wants to squeal on his or her colleagues in the intelligence community.

So there we are. Imagine the outrage if a foreign government that tortured or murdered US citizens announced similar immunity for the perpetrators.

July 04, 2011

The Onion on how to fill news time (language advisory)

Breaking News: Some Bullshit Happening Somewhere

(Thanks to reader Fu DaYi)

On the pursuit of happiness

On this independence day holiday, I am repeating a post on what to me is one of the most intriguing phrases in the US Declaration of Independence. It is contained in the famous sentence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

I have always found the insertion of the phrase "the pursuit of happiness" as an inalienable right to be appealing. One does not expect to see such a quaint sentiment in a revolutionary political document, and its inclusion sheds an interesting and positive light on the minds and aspirations of the people who drafted it.

While happiness is a laudable goal, the suggestion that we should actively seek it may be misguided. Happiness is not something to be pursued. People who pursue happiness as a goal are unlikely to find it. Happiness is what happens when you are pursuing other worthwhile goals. The philosopher Robert Ingersoll also valued happiness but had a better sense about what it would take to achieve it, saying "Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so." [My italics]

Kurt Vonnegut in his last book A Man Without a Country suggests that the real problem is not that we are rarely happy but that we don't realize when we are happy, and that we should get in the habit of noticing those moments and stop and savor them. He wrote:

I apologize to all of you who are the same age as my grandchildren. And many of you reading this are probably the same age as my grandchildren. They, like you, are being royally shafted and lied to by our Baby Boomer corporations and government.

Yes, this planet is in a terrible mess. But it has always been a mess. There have never been any "Good Old Days," there have just been days. And as I say to my grandchildren, "Don't look at me, I just got here."

There are old poops who will say that you do not become a grown-up until you have somehow survived, as they have, some famous calamity -- the Great Depression, the Second World War, Vietnam, whatever. Storytellers are responsible for this destructive, not to say suicidal, myth. Again and again in stories, after some terrible mess, the character is able to say at last, "Today I am a woman. Today I am a man. The end."

When I got home from the Second World War, my Uncle Dan clapped me on the back, and he said, "You're a man now." So I killed him. Not really, but I certainly felt like doing it.

Dan, that was my bad uncle, who said a man can't be a man unless he'd gone to war.

But I had a good uncle, my late Uncle Alex. He was my father's kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life-insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

Good advice.

July 03, 2011

People don't realize how much they rely on government programs

It is now the fashion to claim that the government should stay completely out of people's lives and that we should manage on own own. What many of the people who make such claims do not seem to realize is that they are the direct beneficiaries of many government programs.

Steve Benen points out a chart shows the enormous number of people who say they have not used a government social program who have in fact benefited in some way or other.

This kind of cluelessness is only possible because, unlike the private sector, the government rarely broadcasts the fact that they are giving you a benefit. The public works signs that say "Your tax dollars at work" may be the only exceptions.

The most obtuse of such people may be the actor Craig T. Nelson who in a TV interview with Glenn Beck condemned government aid to the poor as coddling, giving himself as an example of someone who heroically struggled through difficult times entirely on his own. "They're not going to bail me out," Nelson said. "I've been on food stamps and welfare. Anybody help me out? No. No."

Dutch ban on the ritual slaughter of animals

The Dutch government has taken the first steps towards banning the slaughter of animals without stunning them first. This means that the way Jews and Muslims produce kosher and halal meat is no longer allowed since that requires the slitting of the animal's throat while it is still alive.

These two religious groups are upset and joining together to claim (surprise!) religious persecution. As one might have predicted, the specter of Hitler is being invoked, with the chief rabbi of the Netherlands comparing this action to the Nazi persecution of the Jews. On the Muslim side, one imam told Reuters, "This is a political decision. Who has the authority to determine whether the way of killing animals is good or not?"

Well, duh. When a country's parliament passes a law, it goes without saying that it is a political decision. And surely that same body has the authority to pass laws governing its food supply?

Religious people cannot seem to get it into their heads that just because some obscure and anonymous desert nomads wrote something a couple of thousand years ago, that is not a basis for deciding policies in the 21st century. You need to make the case based on contemporary knowledge and mores.

The selectivity of religions on such issues is glaringly obvious. They would not dare make the same arguments for their other religious rules such as the killing of people for various transgressions because that would show how barbaric their religious books are. But because the humane killing of animals is still not a universal value, they think they can get away with asking for religious exemptions for their practices.

July 02, 2011

Astute observation …

… from Paul Krugman:

[T]he surest way to get branded as not Serious is to figure things out too soon. To be considered credible on politics you have to have considered Bush a great leader, and not realized until Katrina that he was a disaster; to be considered credible on national security you have to have supported the Iraq War, and not realized until 2005 that it was a terrible mistake; to be credible on economics you have to have regarded Greenspan as a great mind, and not become disillusioned until 2007 or maybe 2008.

Why must we buy shoes in equal-size pairs?

Apparently 60% of the population have left and right feet that are of different sizes, and of those 80% have larger left feet, which apparently has something to do with right hand dominance. (I got this information after a quick search from this website but cannot vouch for its reliability.) So that means that 40% of the general population have feet of equal size, 48% have larger left feet, and 12% have larger right feet.

I belong to the larger left foot group. When I buy a new pair of shoes, if I forget to try it in the store with my left foot, I end up with a pair in which the left foot starts to feel pinched and uncomfortable later in the day when people's feet start to swell. For some, the inequality is so great that they buy two pairs of shoes in two different sizes and use only one of each, which seems like a colossal waste. As a partial and somewhat clumsy solution, this website offers people a way of exchanging unused mismatched shoes.

But why must shoes be sold in equal size pairs at all when this does not suit the needs of more than half the population? Why not allow people to pick the correct size for each foot? Doing so should lead to little or no waste, even if 100% of the population had the same side foot being larger. For example, if I needed a size 11 left shoe and a size 10 for the right, someone else with a larger left foot would need a size 10 left and a size 9 right, and so on. So all the mid-range sizes would be paired off and sold, except to different customers.

There may be a few left over of the largest right shoe sizes and the smallest left sizes but assuming the above distribution is right, a quarter of those would be bought by people with larger right feet, leaving only a few unsold. And over time, manufacturers would be able to estimate production more accurately and eliminate even this waste.

So shoe manufacturers and retailers, what about it?

July 01, 2011

The Daily Show on the IKEA story

Yesterday they did a piece on the story I wrote about a couple of months ago about the way that the IKEA company in the US abuses its workers here.

The corrupting influence of Washington

It should not be a surprise that those who need a job sometimes have to say and do things that they may not agree with. We can understand such behavior when it is done by people occupying lowly positions and who have few options. What is more surprising is when people who have perfectly good and secure careers are willing to betray the principles they stood for simply to be close to power.

Harold Koh, former Dean of the Yale law school and now adviser to the State Department, who used to be a strong voice for the rule of law and opposition to the imperial presidency, provides a sad but perfect case study of this phenomenon. He has become this administration's John Yoo, an academic who is willing to provide the rationale for whatever his boss wants to do. In Yoo's case the issue was torture. In Koh's it is the absurd claim by Obama that the US is not engaged in hostilities in Libya as envisaged by the War Powers Act. Like Yoo, Koh could have easily afforded to stand on principle and even enhanced his career and reputation by doing so. But instead he sold his soul.

As Gene Healy says, "It's the kind of story you hear again and again in D.C. -- on the right and the left -- of principles sold out for the dubious rewards of "access" and "relevance." This town is "Hollywood for the Ugly" in more ways than one."

Glenn Greenwald sums it up:

[I]t's easy to see how Koh has risen from token liberal placed in an inconsequential "advisory" position at State to the face of the Obama administration and prime Presidential spokesman. As Barack Obama himself has repeatedly shown, and as his underling Koh has dutifully learned, one does not advance in Washington power circles by adherence to any sort of principle or actual conviction. One accumulates power by saying anything and everything necessary to acquire and hold onto it: one key reason I now all but disregard what Obama says, and watch only what he does.

Who is a terrorist?

As far back as in 1946, George Orwell described in his classic essay Politics and the English Language how politicians deliberately corrupt language so that certain political terms no longer have any core meaning but become infinitely malleable, designed to fit whatever need the politician has in mind.

The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.

In their landmark book Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman showed how such distortions of language form an essential part of the process by which the populace is made to acquiesce in, and even approve of, actions that would seem horrific if they were called by their true names. They showed how the media plays a crucial role in this kind of propaganda system, in which crude forms of censorship become unnecessary because the government and the media represent the same interests and speak the same manipulative language.

Glenn Greenwald looks at the case of two Kentucky men accused of terrorism and how this word has become the latest victim of the process Orwell described and become infinitely malleable in the service of political ends.

I've often written that Terrorism is the most meaningless, and thus most manipulated, term in American political discourse. But while it lacks any objective meaning, it does have a functional one. It means: anyone -- especially of the Muslim religion and/or Arab nationality -- who fights against the United States and its allies or tries to impede their will. That's what "Terrorism" is; that's all it means. And it's just extraordinary how we've created what we call "law" that is intended to do nothing other than justify all acts of American violence while delegitimizing, criminalizing, and converting into Terrorism any acts of resistance to that violence.

Just consider: in American political discourse, it's not remotely criminal that the U.S. attacked Iraq, spent 7 years destroying the country, and left at least 100,000 people dead. To even suggest that American officials responsible for that attack should be held criminally liable is to marginalize oneself as a fringe and unSerious radical. It's not an idea that's even heard, let alone accepted. After all, all Good Patriotic Americans were horrified that an Iraqi citizen would so much as throw a shoe at George Bush; what did he do to deserve such treatment? The U.S. is endowed with the inalienable right to commit violence against anyone it wants without any consequences of any kind.

By contrast, any Iraqi who fights back in any way against the U.S. invasion -- even by fighting against exclusively military targets -- is not only a criminal, but a Terrorist: one who should be shipped to Guantanamo. And this notion is so engrained that no media account discussing this case would dare question the application of the "Terrorism" label to what they've done, even though it applies in no conceivable way.

The Obama administration has provided more examples of egregious political manipulation of language. Justin Raimondo looks at the risible claim that what Obama is waging in Libya is not a war but a 'kinetic military action' and that the sustained bombing of another country does not constitute 'hostilities' and thus he is not bound by the War Power Act.

Jonathan Shell says that Obama is simply continuing the practice of his predecessor in abusing language to serve his illegal and immoral purposes, that Obama's not-war is similar to Bush's not-torture.

For the Obama administration to go ahead with a war lacking any form of congressional authorization, it had to challenge either law or the common meaning of words. Either the law or language had to give.

It chose language.

If Orwell thought things were bad in 1946, imagine what his reaction would be today.