Beauty of Gray

Saturday, January 26, 2002

When did cable start to suck?

I recently got DirecTV, after going for 4 or 5 years without having cable. One of the things I was looking forward to was the various "educational" cable channels like Discovery, the History Channel, TLC, A&E, etc. In my memory, these channels were full of neat nature documentaries, interesting features on the military like Wings and Weapons of War, overviews of important historical developments, coverage of fascinating scientific discoveries, and so on. In fact, these channels were providing such good programming a few years ago that their existence was one of the best arguments for the abolition of funding for public TV: private industry was doing it better without any money from taxpayers.

Fast-forward to today, when my hopes were cruelly dashed. Now, there's almost nothing worth watching on any of these channels. They no longer offer much of anything of interest. Biography on A&E, with 2500 years of recorded history to choose from, has become nothing more than a televised version of People Magazine. Who wants to learn about Napolean when you can find out about Tom and Nicole? The Discovery Channel, meanwhile, is full of true crime and natural disaster sensationalism. TLC is the same, with some pseudo-scince junk on the Bermuda triangle and UFO's thrown in. The History Channel is marginally better, but rarely actually has any programs about history from before 1950. When they do, it's for things like "Sodom and Gomorrah" and "Sex in the Bible." I wonder how they picked those tpoics? They also feel the need to tie in their programs to Hollywood to get viewers. The other day they had a expose revealing that life during the Korean War wasn't much like MASH after all. Stop the presses! Next they're going to be telling me that Young Guns wasn't an accurate depiction of the Old West. Please, leave me some illusions.

Meanwhile, over on public TV they have the continuing excellence of Nova, along with other top notch programming. Last night they had a great documentary about neanderthals, which discussed the evidence about them and exactly how they were related to humans. It was both a fascinating look at the current state of the art in paleontology, as well as a good look at how personal prejudices enter into scientific interpretations in areas where evidence is inconclusive. So watching it would teach you both about current knowledge and also give important insight into how the scientific method actually works. Alternatively, you could have gone to one of the cable channels and been titilated by the story of some folks who got trapped in an avalanche. My guess is that this generally trashiness came in with Titanic, when the networks saw how many viewers they could draw in with Hollywood connections and sensationalistic stories. I've had DirecTV for 4 months now, and I don't think I've watched a single program on any of these channels, despite regularly checking them in the evenings.

On the other hand, to give credit where it's due, the National Geographic Channel has remained very high quality, at least for now. Here's hoping they can keep it up, because none of the other documentary oriented channels have managed.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 10:52 AM

Cloning, Abortion, and Personhood

There's an excellent, thought provoking commentary on these subjects by Byan Preston over at the JunkYard Blog. I can't refute the arguments there, for reasons which I'll discuss in a moment, but I can at least answer some of his objections or clarify my position on them. I'll discuss abortion first, because it is a more familiar topic and the arguments about cloning are contained in the abortion debate.

Bryan goes through a typical exchange between pro-choice and pro-life supporters, attempting to refute each of the successive pro-choice positions. There are three of these arguments that I want to address. First, Bryan correctly points out that the occurrence of miscarriages and frequent failures of fertilizied eggs to lodge in the uterus and begin development are largely irrelevant to a debate about the morality of abortion. In the same way, the fact that people are occassionally killed by natural disasters is irrelevant to a discussion of the morality of murder. However, I think the miscarriage argument is intended to be a bit more roundabout and is really a religious one. It's similar to the existence of evil argument: if life begins at conception, and a soul is created/takes up residence in the fertilized egg, then why do so many eggs not reach maturity or even really begin development? Why would God put a soul into an egg that was doomed to die in a matter of days? It's an argument which I don't buy (although I'm not it's audience since I don't believe in the existence of souls in the first place), but I think that might be the underlying reason why some find it compelling.

The next position addressed is the argument from viability. Bryan argues that this is a false argument because what it means changes depending on the state of medicine. However, this isn't necesarilly the case. Instead of claiming viability in the abstract, you could pin it down to viability with a specified level of outside support. And I think the gut-level feeling of most people who adopt this argument puts that level of support about where medical technology is today, which is why it's usually generally stated rather than pinned to a certain level of support. We can give IV nutrients, a comfortable and germ-free environment, and some respiration. If the baby is well enough to developed to survive with this level of support, then it should be considered a person. Again, I don't buy this argument, but I don't think it's necessarily an arbitrary standard. (Another counter to this arugment is to consider the hypothetical case of a "brain in a vat." It doesn't satisfy the viability condition, no matter how constructed, but most would still consider the brain to be a person.)

Then, Bryan gets to the heart of the argument, which is trying to define where personhood begins. He says that the pro-choice side founders on this point, because they can't come up with a clear definition, while the pro-life position is better because it has clarity and simplicity. Here's where I disagree. I agree that I can't come up with a specific point, a line where I can say "On this side, nothing, on the other side, a person." But that doesn't mean my position is incoherent or a slippery slope. For me, when I look at a fertilized egg, it is obvious that it is not a person. This is the fundamental disconnect in the argument, and why neither of us will be able to convince the other person of our position, although we could argue about it all day. (As some do: "And they argued through the night/Black is black; white is white/Walk away both knowing they are right." Phil Ochs.)

To me, a fertilized egg is simply a cell, with no more claim to personhood than an amoeba. Yes, it's a special kind of cell, but to me, as a materialist, it's just a collection of chemical reactions going on inside a semi-permeable membrane. On the other hand, I look at a baby about to be born and it's clear to me that this is a person, with all the attendant rights. But I'm not sure exactly when the transition occurs, because the transition is continuous. I would say it has something to do with the development of higher brain functions and self consciousness and awareness, but there's no bright line when those start. It's like looking at a rainbow. You can point to a part that is definitely red, and you can point to a part that is definitely orange, but it's impossible to draw a sharp line such that everything on one side is red and everything on the other is orange. The issue for me with abortion is to draw a line, admittedly arbitrary, such that everything on one side of it is definitely not a person, because the evil which you're rtying to avoid is killing a person. This can be done, just as you can specify an area in a rainbow which only contains red.

For me, a reasonable boundary is the first trimester. Anything before that is OK, anything after should be outlawed. That's my position. I also think Roe v. Wade should be overturned--while I support abortion rights I don't think they are protected by the Constitution. And like on the gun debate, while I support the fundamental right involved, I also see no problem with the various restrictions and conditions that have been proposed to govern the exercise of that right. (Waiting periods and background checks for guns, parental notification for abortions by minors, etc.)

I think it's clear from the previous discussion where the lines are drawn on cloning. Bryan accuses the proponents of cloning with not seriously engaging the argument of anti-cloning advocates. The problem is there are two camps opposed to cloning, and neither has any arguments which can really be answered. On the one hand, if you believe that personhood begins at conception, then obviously fertilizing an egg in order to harvest some early cells from it is wrong. But the pro-cloning folks disagree with this basic assumption, so there's really no common ground to argue from. And the other, more influential group opposed to cloning (led by Leon Kass) has, despite much bloviating, no real arguments against cloning other than "Eeeew, it's ooky and creeps me out" and the old saw "there are some things man was not meant to know" from Frankenstein and other Sci-Fi movies. These aren't really arguments but emotional reactions, so again there's no way to argue with them.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 10:12 AM

Thursday, January 24, 2002
More trouble in Afghanistan

So, after the Taliban were ousted, it looks like Afghanistan may be headed back into internal discord or civil war. This is more or less what I posted about last week. So what should the US do? As I see it, they have three options.

The first is to stay neutral. Our main goal in the Afghanistan is to hunt down Al Qaeda and the Taliban and kill them. We can still do this, even if the country as a whole is in poor shape. I don't know, but I'd guess that the display of US air power during the attacks on the Taliban have probably cowed the various warlords, at least to the point that they wouldn't directly attack US troops, especially if we made it clear that doing so would be very bad for your health and the health of you 10,000 closest friends.

The second option, which is what we'll probqbly do and which is the best option, at least in the short term, is to try and use indirect pressure, mainly economic, to bear on regional warlords who start acting up. the problem with this is that they might not care, or might get a better offer from the Iranians (or whoever.) they also might be more interested in wielding local power than in any money the US can offer.

The third option is to throw our weight behind the interim government, and help them to crush any resistance, such as these groups in the west. This is dangerous, since the warlords probably have stronger local support than the Taliban did and this course is more likely to get us involved in a civil war/quagmire type conflict. On the plus side, this could be used as an excuse to take out the despots in Iran, which is a move that would be widely hailed inside Iran, although probably attacked in Europe.

What we don't want to do is to take sides but do it halfheartedly, and let the people we oppose act relatively freely and gain strength and confidence. This is what we did in Somalia and it ended up a disaster. if we try to inch into conflict, we're likely to end up with a similar debacle and a similar death toll.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 6:19 PM

How much does it pay?

Always remember, your job could be worse. Or better. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 6:11 PM

New Indiana Jones movie!

So, reports are out that a new Indiana Jones movie is in the works, although Harrison Ford will be upwards of 60 when it comes out. Suggestions for the title (with thanks to the Illiniboard):

Indiana Jones and the Golden Dialysis Machine
Indiana Jones and the Wheelchair of Montezuma
Indiana Jones and Seriously the Last Crusade...honest
Indiana Jones and the Lost City of Viagra
Indiana Jones and the Lost Colostomy Bag
Indiana Jones and the...... I, I, I don't remember

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 6:06 PM

Equal Pay?

Here's a report from the Washington Post on a provocative new study that shows, well, it shows nothing. The study is supposedly about male-female pay discrepencies, but from what's reported here, everything is so lumped together and averaged that no real conclusions can be drawn. It's to the reporter's credit that she did the leg work to get the quotes which proved the total irrelevance of the study. And if you ever see it quoted by women's groups purporting that it's evidence of sexism, then remember the caveats in the article.

What's distressing, and what annoys me, is that there's no reason for this study to be so shoddy. Whatever analyst was in charge of the work should have known, had to know, that data solely broken down by sex is meaningless because there are so many other variables which affect pay levels. And there's no reason not to break things down in more detail. If you collect your data correctly, then enter it Access or some other database management program and you can break it down any way you like to do analyses. So either there is some reason why the data was so limited (which is possible), or the study manager was just mailing it in, or the legislators requesting the study purposefully didn't want them to break it down in more detail since that might weaken their case. (I don't beleive the last, since I don't think the average congressman knows enough about statistics to think of that.)

So, instead of a good study which might expose a serious inequity, the GAO has produced something that isn't worth the paper it's printed on. I'll try and find the full text, since I suppose it's possible that it actually does contain the full details which aren't in the press release. I checked on the GAO's website, but couldn't find it. A search for "women" and "salary" did, however, come up with some interesting hits, like:

Kosovo Air Operations: Combat Aircraft Basing Plans Are Needed in Advance of Future Conflicts
(a little late for this one)

Farm Service Agency: Updated Status of the Multibillion-Dollar Farm Loan Portfolio

Land Management Agencies: Restoring Fish Passage Through Culverts on Forest Service and BLM Lands in Oregon and Washington Could Take Decades

I have no idea what any of these have to do with women or salaries; I wonder what the logic of their search engine is? But check out their website for yourself. It looks like they produce lots of potentially interesting reports, even if they aren't well catalogued.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 5:51 PM

Why did Europe become pre-eminent? Part II

Below I discussed the cases of India and China and reasons why Europe was able to progress faster than they were. But what about Byzantium and Islam? At the beginning of the Middle Ages, both these civilizations were stronger economically, culturally, and politically than the West. So how did Europe end up with the advantage? The short answer is the Crusades. Most histories of the Crusades focus on the military and political aspects, the clash of armies and the founding and brief life of the Crusader states in the Holy Land. But in the grand scheme of things, these effects were relatively minor. The great impact of the Crusades, one most often ignored, was cultural and economic.

The Crusades and the reconquest of Spain around the same time exposed the west to the Islamic culutre and, more importantly, to the Greek thinkers whose work the Muslims had saved. The translations of Aristotle in particular revolutionized western thnking and laid the groundwork in philosophy for the rationalism and logic which eventually flowered into the scientific revolution. This is fairly well known, as it was covered in James Burke's fantastic TV documetary "The Day the Universe Changed," and should be covered in any good history of the Middle Ages. However, the economic impact of the Crusades was more indirect, and hence less well known.

First, while the Crusader states had a relatively short life and did not have a lasting impact on the politics of the region, they did , at a crucial time, take away the Mediterranian coast and seaports from the Caliphate. By pushing the Islamic state(s) back inland, they interrupted their trade. The Italian city states and the Normans were already contesting with the Islamic navies for possession of the sea, and the loss of these major seaports and natural trading centers tipped the balance in favor of the West at this critical point. It's worthwhile noting in passing that the opposition of Byzantium also played a crucial role in holding back the Islamic tide, and providing a bulwark for the development of Western Europe.

Then, in the fourth Crusade, the Crusaders repaid Constantinople for this service by sacking the city, which resulted in the dominance of Venice over the trade through the Golden Horn and removed Byzantium as a serious rival to the West. (To be fair, the Byzantines brought the attack upon themselves with their treachery and double dealing. The claims of religion had less hold on them than realpolitik, and they gladly betrayed the Crusaders to the Muslims in order to get rid of these new, rival armies and states.)

Finally, in addition to dealing blows to their rivals in Byzantium and the Middle east, the Crusades also provided a substantial influx of money into Venice, which provided transport and supply for the Crusading armies, but at a steep rate.

So, as a result of all of these forces released by the Crusades, Venice ended up as the dominant commercial (and hence military and political) force in the Mediterranian, and Europe never looked back.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 5:30 PM

The war goes on...

The achievements in Afghanistan are only the beginning of a long struggle. In fact, the current problem is not to find the next target, but to choose from amongst the bewildering array of enemies. Iran? Iraq? The Phillipines? Indonesia? Saudi Arabia? Yemen? Somalia? If anyone doubts the amount of work needing to be done, here's a chilling reminder, in an article in the Christian Science Monitor. These were well educated, professional, careful men, who nurtured their plots over a decade inside a stern police state. It's an important corrective to the unfortunate idea that the evildoers are clowns, an idea nurtured by our easy victory in Afghanistan, the incompetance of the Shoebomber, and the patheticness of Western recruits like Johnnie Walker. And there are certainly hundreds or thousands more terrorists still at large, awaiting their chance.

There's also a telling bit:

The men who were arrested were middle-managers, electrical engineers, and entrepreneurs and most owned their own flats in government-constructed apartment buildings - the Singapore version of the American dream.

The common denominator was neither poverty, nor lack of education. Instead, the arrested men shared a religious ideology that calls the United States an enemy of Islam and a belief that God would reward them for waging a global Jihad.

There it is, in it's bare essence. The battle these people are waging has nothing to do with poverty or globalization or US hegemony, and everything to do with religious fanaticism.

There's been a lot of worry about choosing our targets carefully, to avoid giving the impression that the battle is the US against Islam. And that's a valid concern, but it runs against the underlying truth the battle is the US against Islam. Sure, a particular fanatic branch of it, but a branch that is fairly widespread and enjoys substantial support and popularity amongst many other Muslims. This is an unpleasant truth, but one that needs to be faced.

It may be inevitable that, to certain Muslims so inclined, we may give the impression that we are battling against Islam, because our enemies are all Muslims. But the first priority must be to wage the war effectively. Part of that is PR and spin, but the desire for delicacy and good PR can't let us turn aside from the ugly truth that internation terrorism is an Islamic phenomenon.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 9:46 AM

Wednesday, January 23, 2002
Why did Europe become pre-eminent? Part I

That's the really big question for those trying to understand the history of the past 1000 years. The answer is elusive because like all such large scale processes, many factors came into play. And it doesn't help that political history, which remains the dominant method for organizing long timescales, has relatively little to say about the question, since the progress was made in industry and commerce, not on the battlefield.

A pet peeve of mine is the way historians (and others) set up oppositions and debates in questions of causality like this, as if there really was a single explanations. Then they debate over who has picked the right cause, when in fact they're both right, and the effect was produced by a combination of causes. With that in mind, a few thoughts provoked by my reading tonight. (Braudel's The Perspective of the World.)

The real contenders going into the Middle Ages were Europe, Byzantium, the Arabs, India, and China. China, as mentioned below, turned inward, away from the international trade necessary to build economic strength. This, in turn, probably hurt India, since China was their most natural international trading partner. As China became more closed off and engaged less in international trade, that moved India from the center of a natural trading route--from the Middle East to China--instead to the periphery. Now the Arabs and Byzantium had the dominant geographic position, between the East and the West.

Paradoxically, it also probably didn't help India that they were so rich. India was a source of much of the luxury material, in particular spices but also silk, that the West coveted. (It's strange to think that items which we take for granted, like salt and pepper, were considered great luxuries until relatively recently, and were often worth their weight in gold.) Because of this, India ran a huge trade surplus with the West almost all throughout its history, In fact, it was a giant money sink for the entire world up until the industrial revolution. All the gold and silver mined in Europe and the New World would eventually find its way to India, which hoarded the gold rather than using it as a source of capital to fund its own industry and commerce.

Here is one key. Whether the psychology of easy wealth or for other social or political reasons, India never put its capital to work for it. In contrast, Europe was relatively poor, and so to make money it required the development of industry and commerce, and hence there was great pressure to put capital to use.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 8:20 PM

A light goes out

Harvard philospher Robert Nozick died today. He was best known for his book _Anarchy, State, and Utopia_ which argued for a libertarian political system, and no doubt he will be celebrated for this achievement amongst the many blogs, given their libertarian bent. But although he brought his typical engaging style and readibility to that book, it was in the end a fairly conventional political discourse, and I found his other books to be more stimulating and rewarding.

He had a wide ranging mind, engaging in core philosophical issues like freedom of will and epistomology, to the nature of rationality, along with more everyday issues. To each of these issues he brought an original, insightful, and unconventional mind, and his books are both eminently readable and wonderfully stimulating. I'd highly recommend them all to anyone interested in philosophy.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 1:59 PM

A Texas-Terrorism connection?

You be the judge.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 10:52 AM

Find your home town

A beautiful nighttime picture of the earth from space, clearly showing population centers. Be sure to zoom in on it to get a better view.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 10:08 AM

Crying Wolf

There's been a lot of deserved piling on of the European press's wailing about the terrible conditions facing the al Quaeda prisoners being held in Cuba. So far, there's absolutely no evidence at all that the prison camp conditions are anything unusual. But am I the only one that's happy that the Red Cross is going down to monitor the situation? I'd say there's certainly room for concern about the treatment of prisoners and am glad there will be third party on hand. After all, the CIA certainly has a track record of at the least training torturers and looking the other way, and possibly more direct involvement in Central America. They wouldn't publish a training manual if they never used it. So I don't see how anyone can assume a moral high ground, appalled that anyone would suggest the good old USA would ever do such a thing. Heck, even in prisons in the US you can get beaten to death by guards. I won't lose any sleep if the prisoners are a little uncomfortable--that's part of being in prison--but I also don't think the US should be in the business of torture to extract information.

Of course, these fears don't justify the ridiculous and unfounded accusations flying in the European press. They are guilty in this case of crying wolf, which simply has the effect of alienating even more Americans from Europe and destroying any credibility the papers will have in the future if they do have any serious criticisms to make.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 9:42 AM

Tuesday, January 22, 2002
What do you think?

Are you normal? Find out here.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 4:19 PM

Truth is stranger than fiction

OJ's back. And what's the deal with this:

Simpson's attorney, Yale Galanter, through a spokeswoman, discounted the notion Prody might be missing.

So Simpson has an attorney, who in turn has a spokeswoman? Isn't this getting a little ridiculous?

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 4:14 PM

Unmanned vehicles

The LA Times also had a good peice about the use of unmanned aerial vehicels (UAVs) by the military in Afghanistan. They also report that many defense planners are excited about the possibility of using UAVs for combat roles (making them UCAVs) in the future.

The common vision of something like this is of a human pilot sitting in a VR cockpit, with his controls piloting the drone which is flying the mission hundreds of miles away. This is very unlikely to happen, for several reasons. First, and most important, is communications bandwidth. To effectively remote-control an aircraft would require a dedicated communications channel between the VR cockpit and the plane, open at all times. Otherwise the delay between the control movement and the plane reaction would make flying it nearly impossible, as well as compromising effectiveness if the UCAV ever had to react to enemy fire. But such channels are precious and they are in very limited supply. It doesn't make sense to take many of them to use just for the UCAVs. Comm channels are also vulnerable to jamming, which would be fatal if the UCAV was too dependant on the human pilot. A second problem with such an interface is the tunnel vision that remote cameras impose on a viewer. In a high threat environment, it's important to have good 360 vision--early warning and cues can be provided by peripheral vision that isn't there when watching a TV monitor.

However, this doesn't mean that there's no future for UCAVs, but that they will need to be capable of at least semi-autonomous action. In fact, I think you're likely to see a convergence between the UCAVs and the smart weapons referenced below, with both using AI algorithms, sophisticated sensor suites, and pattern recognition to carry out missions and destroy enemy troops more or less autonomously. You throw out a few dozen (or hundred) of such things over areas where enemy troops are present, and they fly around hunting for and killing any enemies they find. Then, of course, they will develop sentience, build hunter-killer cyborgs, and destroy the human race except for a small band of resistance fighters.

More seriously, this is another area where a significant "revolution in military affairs" could take place. However, UCAVs have some disadvantages that conventional surveillance UAVs don't have. Regular UAVs are more or less expendable, since they are cheap and have no pilot aboard. They are also relatively vulnerable and tend to fly in hot areas, so they do tend to get shot down a lot. However, a big part of why they're cheap is because they are not high-performance planes--the Predator, at least, is slow and not very stealthy. When you start building stealthy drones that are designed to fly at higher speeds for combat missions, then it's less clear whether they are cheap enough to be expendable. And if they aren't, then the disadvantages of not having a pilot in the plane might outweigh the advantages.

There's also a strong and healthy distrust of completely autonomous hunter killer drones flying around. Even planes with human pilots occassionally make errors which result in friendly fire casualties; the situation is likely to be worse with UCAVs. And human pilots can be called on the radio to provide support and the relay information. The digital communication to "talk" wopuld be much less flexible and hence UCAVs would be, by their nature, less responsive to troops on the ground.

Finally, don't underestimate the importance of lobbying by pilots in the DoD. The Air Force is largely run by ex-pilots, and many Naval Aviators are also in high positions in the Department of the Navy. These pilots will, for the most part, have strong prejudices against UCAVs, especially if they begin to invade turf that is currently handled by manned planes. Vested interests like this one are part of the reason the Pentagon adapts and changes very slowly. So UCAVs will find niches in which to operate, but in my opinion the lion's share of air combat is likely to be borne by manned aircraft, at least for the forseeable future.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 10:32 AM

Waging war: Present and Future

A nice article about the war in Afghansitan and US present and future military capabilities from the LA Times about the effective use of air power in the Afghanistan conflict. There are a number of interesting points to make from this article. First is the importance in targeting of having forces on the ground. One of the big problems in the war in Kosovo was getting a quick enough response time to hit mobile targets. In large part, the slow response time was necessitated by the need to accurately identify the targets and then to generate coordinates for attack (if GPS bombs were used.) Things were further delayed by the way that information flows are structured, with target sightings from UAVs needing to go through several stages before an aircraft was vectored in.

In contrast, with troops on the ground as they were in Afghanistan, you have direct "eyes on target" for positive ID. And the armed forces are also much more used to providing direct air support to ground troops (although ground pounders grumble that the Air Force isn't any good at it) and practice it, so that they can acheive relatively quick response times.

Second, the report emphasizes once again how widespread the use of newer precision-guided munitions is, and how important it was for the success of the war in Afghanistan. The article doesn't quite spell it out, but there are 3 main improvements the air force has made. First, and cheapest, they have simply added better tail fins to stabilize bombs that deliver cluster munitions. This isn't tremendously accurate, but one of the advantages of cluster munitions is that you don't need to be very accurate, since they disperse their submunitions over a large area. Second, they have developed a cheap adaptation kit (the JDAM) which gives GPS guidance to regular old dumb bombs. Some variant on this is likely to be the standard for USAF munitions in the future, since it is such a cheap way to get precision.

Thirdly, they have improved laser designators to assist in the delivery of laser-guided bombs. This is the most expensive option, but is also the most precise. GPS guided bombs are only as good as their aimpoint, and entering the aimpoint can lead to errors and also decreases flexibility. Laser-guided bombs, on the other hand, go to where you aim them, so you won't get targetting errors and can adjust the targetting in-flight. Finally, while it wasn't mentioned in the article and wasn't an important point in Afghanistan, laser homing is immune to jamming, while GPS signals are not.

Finally, the article points the way to the next generation of precision munitions, in which there is some sort of sensor or self-guidance suite integrated into the weapon. This is more expensive, but I think that this type of weapon is likely to be the next big advance in warfare. If the warhead itself is able to recognize a target, you can just fire it and it will home in on it's own. Similarly, you can make small submunitions, each of which can detect vehicels, and drop a bunch on top of a convoy. Then, each submunition seeks out a target on its own and kills it. This is much more effective than dropping a big bomb that might only take out 1 or two vehicles. This is exactly the idea behind the first such weapon being fielded, the SADARM, which was mentioned in the article. As pattern recognition and sensor suites are improved and become cheaper, these super-smart weapons will become more and more important.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 9:28 AM

I wonder how the chickens feel about being eaten?

I'm not sure, but apparently a TV ad by a fast food restaurant is demeaning to them. That's right--the ad is bad because the chickens' feelings were hurt. Oh wait, I'm sorry, I meant the poultry-Americans.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 8:45 AM

A final note on Lomberg

First, I want to backtrack a bit. I was perhaps being too harsh in attributing deliberate dishonesty to Lomberg. This is certainly possible, and the pattern of errors in his book is suggestive, but it is equally possible that he was just very sloppy in his research, finding what he wanted to find. Regardless, his conclusions need to be treated with extreme skepticism, but absent more proof, I think it's wrong to assume that he was intentionally distorting the facts.

On a similar note, I compared him to historical researcher Michael Bellesiles, without giving any more details. I was assuming anyone here would also be familiar with Instapundit, where he's been extensively discussed. In short, he's a historical researcher who appears to have made up fake sources to support his anti-gun conclusions. And as I just said, I've had second thoughts about the comparison of Lomberg to him, which may be unfair to Lomberg.

Their works are similar, however, in that both are sloppy pseudo-scholarship, each of which plays to a vested political interest. In each case, the work supports pre-existing positions--the anti-gun position in Bellesiles' case, the anti-environment position in Lomberg's case--whcih make it very welcome to a large segment of the population. The work is simply too convenient to worry about, and so skepticism is thrown out and the work is trumpeted as proof that they are right. But in both cases, this acceptance was premature. (One interesting thing about Lomberg--in my searches on him I found a lot of scientists attacking his book and his conclusions, but couldn't find any coming to his defense. Maybe I missed them, but this fact alone seems pretty damning to me.)

What's unfortunate about Lomberg's effort is that there is a need for such a book, IMO. There is a lot of alarmism and bad science being passed around to support or promote environmentalist positions. But the inaccuracies and shoddiness of Lomberg's effort obscures any valid points he makes. When you're wrong on so many things, it's impossible to be trusted on other things, even if you're right. I wonder if Lomberg didn't start from a core of valid criticism, and then get carried away, expanding the critique to all areas of environmentalism in order to make the book more trenchant and telling. It can be fun and addictive to be a contrarian, but sometimes, the majority opinion is actually correct.

Speaking of skepticism, I just came across a site which appears to be a pretty good site dedicated to examining various environmental claims with skepticism. It's main emphasis seems to be on health scares and on global warming, two areas where there is good cause to be skeptical. My only complaint is that they are very reliant on news outlets and secondary sources, but they do have a good page of links including many to regular scientific journals. It's worth checking out.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 8:05 AM

Monday, January 21, 2002
Why we aren't speaking Chinese

From the Perspective of the World, p. 32:

When in 1421 the Ming rulers of China changed their capital city--leaving Nanking, and moving to Peking, in order to face the dangers of the Manchu and Mongol frontier--the massive world-economy of China swung round for good, turning its back on a form of economic activity based on ease of access to seaborne trade. A new landlocked metropolis was now established deep in the interior and began to draw everything towards it. Whether conscious or unconscious, this choice was decisive. In the race for world dominion, this was the moment when China lost her position in a contest she had entered without fully realizing it, when she had launched the first maritime expeditions from Nanking in the early fifteenth century.

There have been many attempts to explain how and why Europe achieved the dominance it eventually did over the world. (The recent shallow and overpraised bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel is one recent example.) But the key moment was here in the tperiod from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Europe, India, China, and Islam all had potential, but it was during this time that Europe gained the lead which she never relinquished. A big part of the reason was international trade. It was the international trade which made the huge profit margins that built the capital necessary for economic expansion. It was only a tiny part of the economy, but it was the part that really jump-started capitalism in Europe. And the spearhead to the European conquests was not the military, but the merchants, who insinuated themselves in societies and brought them under the sway of european capitalist interests before the states came in and formalized their colonial status.

Because of domestic issues and the whim of the emperor, China turned inland, away from the sea, and guaranteed her future subservient position. No society could bootstrap itself to the modern world, without help from (gasp) globalization. For anyone who sees history solely as the action of grand, impersonal forces, with nothing conditional or left to chance, China is a glaring and embarassing counterexample.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 5:36 PM

Happy Martin Luther King Day

I enjoyed my holiday, relaxing as well as installing some track lighting in my kitchen. But just as with Veteran's Day, Memorial Day, and many other holidays, it's worth pausing at some point and remembering just what we are honoring. I'd encourage everyone to at least go back and read his "I Have a Dream" speech--it remains perhaps the most powerful and inspiring oratory in the history of the United States. And it's also very hopeful, since in reading it you can realize how far we have come and how, in so many ways, we have realized Dr. King's dream. There is still plenty of quiet racism around, but it has been forced underground. And every day I work with and eat with and play basketball with people of all races and think nothing of it. And this is a wonderful thing.

Dr. King was a hero, and a martyr, and also a man who did as much for the United States as anyone in the last 50 years. At a time when leadership was needed in the black community he provided it and turned their anger and energy to peaceful demonstration and away from physical violence. It is frightening to think what would have happened if the anti-segregation movement had adopted violent methods. We might now be very used to terrorism on our soil, rather than shocked and suprised at it. If only the Palestinians had found someone like King to lead them, the world today might be a very different place.

It is also worth noting the power of spirituality and Christianity which King exemplified. I wrote earlier on the prejudice and hostility that many liberals have towards Christianity--the example of King should tell them that the situation is more nuanced than they want to admit.

Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man but to win his friendship and understanding. We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its consceince. That will be a day not of the wite man, not of the black man. That will the day of man as man.
I know you are asking today, "How long will it take?" I come to say to you this afternoon however dificult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth pressed to earth will rise again.

How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.
How long? Not loong, because you still reap what you sow.
How long? Not long, because the arm of the moraluniverse is long but it bends towards justice.

From his speech "Our God is Marching on!" given in Montgomery on March 25, 1965.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 5:10 PM

Environmentalists' Problems

The widespread glee and uncritical acceptance of Lomberg's work among many illustrates a significant problem that environmentalists have brought on themselves. They have taken a position that the majority of the population has at least a weak support for, and turned large numbers of the public against them. There are a number of reasons for this shift.

First, they have been too acceptiong of extremist positions. Greenpeace, Earth First! and other eco-terrorist organizations have participated in and advocated violence, terrorism, and obstructionism. Much like the effect of Islamic terrorists, their actions have reflected back on the larger, more moderate movement, which has not been sufficiently active in denouncing these extremist groups.

Second, even the moderate environmental groups have been too ready to play hardball and adopt an all-or-nothing approach, regarding all development as bad and attempting to limit any new works, tying them up with numerous lawsuits. The Endangered Species Act has been a prime player in this move, which has provided much bulletin board and propaganda material for their opponents. While the ESA may have done ecological good, it is easy to get mileage against groups that seem to be putting the interests of single, obscure species above those of large human communities. (Of course, the ESA is simply a means, and the true end is larger ecosystem conservation rather than the specific saving of a particualr species of toad.) But in general, many groups have tended to go for the fences rather than trying to achieve compromise. Political capital is limited, and better spent on big issues as opposed to, say, the building of a local mall.

Thridly, many environmentalist groups get involved in protests which are simply silly, and do nothing but hurt their credibility. As an example, I was a part of a Marine Corps experiment in San Francisco, which involved landing some equipment on shore using the USMC's large hovercraft transoprts (LCACs.) There would only be a small number of trips, but still a group came out to protest this move, claiming it would somehow hurt the dolphins in the bay. They really had no argument and were really just anti-military protesters who grabbed onto the environmental mantle to provide ideological cover, but the net effect was to make environmentalists look like hippy radicals who had no clue and would protest anything. And this sort of credibility-demolishing event is repeated regularly.

Lastly, they do tend to be alarmist and to paint everything in the worst possible light, presenting doomsday scenarios. Of course, every interest group does this to a greater or larger extent, to motivate troops and raise money. (How many times has the NRA used the threat that "they" are trying to take away your guns to raise money? Yet somehow, here we are and everyone still has their guns. Similarly, if you believed some groups' press releases you'd be surprised to know that abortion rights are alive and well, rather than banned in 46 states.) However, environmental claims are more widely broadcast and tend to capture people's imaginations more, so they remember when they don't come to pass. (Like that favorite example from a generation ago, the coming Ice Age.)

Basically, environmental groups need to take a step back and re-evaluate their methods. They need to be more concerned with long-term public relations rather than scoring short term victories. The ESA may be more of a liability than a tool at this point. And the best approach might not be opposition but cooperation and compromise with developers and industries. And they need to be very careful about making sweeping claims, especially in areas of uncertainty like climate change, since they are under close scrutiny and will not be given the benefit of the doubt by many people if they try to stetch things. Basically, they need to become more moderate and practical in order to restore their credibility with the public, and to achieve real practical progress rather than empty and pyrrhic moral victories.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 4:53 PM

The Skeptical Environmentalist?

There’s been a lot of crowing among anti-environmentalists about a recent book by Bjorn Lomberg, the Skeptical Environmentalist. It confirms their suspicions and prejudices, so, contrary to the title of the book, they immediately accept its conclusions since it’s what they want to believe anyway. However, proponents of the book would be better served by exercising a little skepticism themselves.

First, let’s be clear about the implications of Lomberg’s position. He goes beyond debunking the claims of environmental interest groups, which often do exaggerate problems, and actually attacks the basic scientific work in several fields. For example, he claims that the estimates of extinction rates made by researchers in the field are off by orders of magnitude—that the real rate is 10 to 100 times lower than the best estimates that scientists have made.

So if you buy Lomberg’s argument, you’re saying that a statistician untrained in any of the fields of biology, climate change, ecology, energy, etc., is not only able in one year to gain a mastery of decades of work in each of these fields, but is also so much smarter and more insightful than hundreds of scientists working in these fields that he is able to show that their conclusions are deeply flawed or incorrect. Either that, or that significant branches of science are filled with workers who are corrupt and willing to advance opinions that they know are false, merely to guarantee their own funding. So that, in these cases, the scientific method of peer review and competition has failed, and this work is so hollow and flawed that an outsider can waltz in and disprove it with a couple of months of work.

Either of these would be a truly extraordinary claim, and such fantastic claims demand that one approach Lomberg’s work with a healthy skepticism. And it turns out, in fact, that it is Lomberg’s work and conclusions that are deeply flawed. In field after field, he selectively quotes data, deliberately skews opposing positions, and uses misleading statistics to make his view seem more plausible. For example, in the area of extinction, Lomberg looks only at numbers for birds and higher mammals, where extinction rates are lowered by human intervention to save species. He then ignores the fact that species-area analyses are long-term—they project which species are likely to go extinct in 100 years or so—and claims that because species haven’t gone extinct in 20 years that the entire model is wrong. (This also ignores the fact that many definitions of extinction require that a species not be observed for a long period of time, up to 50 years.) He also ignores the fact that many species that are not yet extinct are nearly so, with tiny numbers left, and are almost certain to go extinct soon.

In his discussion on Puerto Rico, he ignores things like the introduction of new species and recolonization from adjacent islands. A closer examination of the data shows that it supports scientists’ interpretations. He also simply gets wrong or intentionally misquotes much data, such as the number of known extinctions and the known deforestation or regions, to make his view look more plausible.

Lastly, he selectively quotes from early scientific work, such as using a 1979 paper as the basis for his “debunking”, ignoring more recent work that either answers his criticisms or prefigures it. This is a rhetorical trick—by “debunking” early work that scientists themselves have since modified, he is able to call into question other work and make it look as if the progress of science in these fields is flawed or inaccurate.

And his inaccuracies are not limited to just this one field. In chapter after chapter, Lomberg selectively quotes the primary literature, ignoring papers that contradict his claims, uses misleading statistics (like quoting a range of values for the cost of decreasing greenhouse gas emissions while only giving the lowest estimate for the cost of adapting to climate change), misquotes sources, and makes false comparisons and draws false conclusions using different data sets with different definitions.

It’s sad that his book has become such a cause celebre, since his work is so shoddy, inaccurate, and fundamentally dishonest. While his intentionally slanted use of sources, selective references, and intentional skewing of statistics (he is a professor of statistics so he can’t claim that his misleading use of them was due to innumeracy) might not rise to the same level of dishonesty as Bellisales’ manufacture of non-existent sources, they are on the same plane of dishonesty and deserve the same contempt, both for the works and for the authors.

See Grist magazine for a series of essays criticizing Lomberg’s arguments. The extinction and forest arguments are particularly good, some of the others pretty weak.

Here's another one ripping apart his claims about extinctions and biodiversity.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 11:05 AM

Sunday, January 20, 2002
Tolerance and Capitalism

My current reading is the third volume of Fernand Braudel's incredible history of Capitalism and Civilization in the 15th-18th centuries. I'm sure I'll have plenty to say regarding this volume and Braudel's work in general, as I think he is perhaps the greates historian of the last 50 years and among the all-time greats. I've never before seen someone so able to write history that combines the grand sweep of centuries with the details of daily life.

Anyway, in the third volume, The Perspective of the World, I ran across the following (p.30):
Under the pillars of the Amsterdam Bourse--which was a microcosm of the world of trade--one could hear every dialect of the world. In Venice, "if you are curious to see men from every part of the earth, each dressed in his own different way, go to St. Mark's Square or the Rialto and you will find all manner of persons." ... This colourful cosmopolitan population had to coexist and work in peace. The rule in Noah's Ark was live and let live...the miracle of toleration was to be found wherever the community of trade convened.

Now, in modern times, it is usual to make the argument that an appreciation for individual freedom necessitates a capitalist economic system. (See Milton Friedman for the classical treatment, or just lsiten to any libertarian for a short period of time.) However, while the cause-effect sequence can work this way, it also works in reverse, and at the beginning it is more likely that the rise of capitalism led to the development of tolerance and freedom rather than the reverse. Perhaps it was just an accident, and the necessity for tolerance in order to manage international trade meant that those cities which were tolerant naturally rose to eminence. But I'd bet that isn't the whole story, and that cities which became involved in capitalist ventures quickly realized that to maximize their profits they needed to allow freedom for merchants and citizens from all over the world.

If true, this would mean that capitalism is not only directly repsonsible for our material well-being, which is the usual and sufficient justification put forth for it, but that it is also indirectly responsible for many of the basic freedoms we enjoy in western society.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 7:01 PM

Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis

Well, I finished reading Founding Brothers this weekend. Overall, I found it to be a good but not great book. I'd give it 4 stars if I were reviewing for Amazon. There isn't much in the book that is really new analysis or anything that made me rethink things or make new connections. It's more a work of synthesis, bringing together a lot of other material into a solid, convincing whole.

But there are three related things the book did very well and which make it worth reading. First, it did a good job bringing the world of 1776-1790 back to life--in presenting the problems and issues which faced the thinkers of the age, and what the dominant modes of thought were in approaching them.

Second, in doing this, Ellis showed the deep ideological and political divides and conflicts that the Founding Fathers faced. While they came together to oppose the British, after they won there were deep and serious divisions among them about what the proper approach for the country should be. The genius of the generation is that they addressed these issues and managed to found a country and form of government that survived to this day, rather than being torn aport by internecine conflict. While it is popular now to bash them for not addressing the issue of slavery, it was in the minds of many and they consciously avoided it because they knwe that it had the potential to tear the country apart before it was really founded. After almost 100 years of national development and strengthening of national feeling and solidification of lines of authority, slavery still came close to shattering the Union. There's no way it could have been dealth with at the founding.

Lastly, in sketching out the conflicts and thoughts of the age, Ellis recreates the sense of contingency that is always present in history. Only in retrospect are certain lines of development seen (or at least believed) to be inevitable, and any narrative of history by its nature tends to exclude possibilities that didn't occur. If events were inevitable, or if they were recognized as such, there would be no conflict, since the outcome would be known in advance. The existence of conflict is evidence of the contingency of future developments. One obvious example from early US history is the drafting of the Constitution. There were many people in the US that didn't want a Federal government as strong as that developed in the Consitution, and it took intensive lobbying and politicking to get the Constitution ratified, even with the support of most of the Founding Fathers.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 6:38 PM

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