Sunday, April 29, 2007

Good South Park article

Here's an article discussing the different roles of Matt Stone and Trey Parker in producing South Park. I really didn't know it worked the way it is described in the article. South Park's a great show, and I think the movie is the greatest comedy of all time, and it's interesting to see how they've kept it together for so long.

(Found through Digg.)

The Moral Basis of an Athiest

I thought I'd flash us back to an old column at Volokh. It asks how irreligious people justify believing that certain things are morally right or wrong. There are some good comments, and I think you can make quite a convincing argument. One comment summed it up nicely, I believe:

It would be logically inconsistent, essentially crazy, for someone to say they really do want others to force them to do things that in fact they do not want to do.

In effect, I am challenging your premise. I believe that this is logically self-evident, practically a tautology... But it is the foundational fact that leads my fundamental beliefs about how to act and how to expect others to act.
Crazy Craig: I don't want to do it.

Sane Sam: OK. I won't force you to.

Crazy Craig: I want you to force me to do it.

Sane Sam: You mean you really do want to do it but can't bring yourself to do it without someone to providing additional motivation to get you to do it?

Crazy Craig: No. I really don't want to do it. This is not the sort of situation where I really do want to do it but can't bring myself to do it on my own.

Sane Sam: Well, if you really don't want to do it then I won't force you to.

Crazy Craig: No! I don't want to do it AND I want you to force me to do it.

Sane Sam: That's crazy.

Crazy Craig: Exactly.
There is no logical basis for any person to claim that she gets to be the only person out of six billion who gets to force other people do what she wants even while still being free from anybody else forcing her to do what they want.
Meglomanical Meg: I don't want you to force me to do things I don't want to do.

Sane Sarah: The same is true for me. I suggest that we agree that I won't try to force you to do things you don't want to do and you won't try to force me to do things I don't want to do.

Meglomanical Meg: No. I want to be able to force you to do things you don't want do, but I don't want you to be able to do the same to me.

Sane Sarah: So you'd be my master and I'd be your slave?

Meglomanical Meg: Yes. I believe that it is possible to live in a world where others can't force me to do things I don't want to do while I get to force them to do things I want to do.

Sane Sarah: Only a meglomaniac would expect a world where they are the master and everyone else is their slave.

Meglomanical Meg: Exactly.
The only sane conclusion to me seems to be that no one, not even me, should be allowed to initiate force against anyone else. (Of course, there's nothing wrong with defending yourself or others from being forced to do things we don't want to do.)

Call it "libertarianism" or "the golden rule", but to me it is just the way things are.

I happen to like the incidental consequences as well. Without the initiation of force there would be no murder, rape, kidnapping, mugging, etc.
12.1.2005 4:01pm

Well played.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Welcome to Durham-In-Wonderland readers!

Welcome to the readers of the popular (and excellent) blog Durham In Wonderland, about the Duke/Nifong case. (For our regulars, there is a link on DIW to Infodder so we figured we would officially welcome those who link over.)

The blurb on the top right of the page explains what this site is about: sharing information and ideas. Feel free to browse the archives and comment on the posts. Email if you'd like to be added as an author and write your own posts. Posts can be about anything you find interesting and would like to share, so have at it.

Whether you post, comment or just read, we hope you enjoy Infodder!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Clouds are big

According to Israeli scientists, clouds are much bigger than we can see with the naked eye. As anyone who has moved from New England to southern California can attest, clouds have a large impact on temperature. During the day clouds reflect some of the sun's light back into space, cooling the ground. At night, heat radiating from the ground is reflected back by clouds, keeping the ground warm. Because of this, clouds are important factors in predicting climate change, and some scientists (though not a "consensus") claim that the impact of cosmic rays on cloud cover is a driving force in climate.

Flat Tax

Since we were starting a bit of a discussion on the flat tax in my previous post, I'll expound some here.

First, my shorthand in the original post left things confusing, but the phrase "flat tax" usually refers to a single rate with one single deduction. It is possible to eliminate deductions without having a single rate, and to have a single rate with a bunch of deductions, but the ideas generally go hand in hand, and it's this combination that I'm supporting.

It is true that the system of deductions is probably a bigger problem than the graduated scale. It encourages rent-seeking behavior, since it may be cheaper to lobby congress for a tax loophole than to pay the tax you would otherwise owe. Furthermore, it's a playground for the government to attempt to manipulate the market in ways that I think it is ill-suited for. (For instance, you may get a tax deduction for buying a Toyota Prius. Think that's a worthy thing for the government to encourage? Well how about a Ford Expedition? Once the gov't uses tax policy to engineer social change, everything is fair game.)

So if you get rid of the deductions, isn't that good enough? Well I'd be pretty happy, assuming we lowered tax rates across the board so that the effective tax rate didn't go up. Of course we wouldn't, though - because lowering the upper rates benefits "the rich". The graduated tax system provides ample means to engage in counter-productive class warfare. Politically, it's easy to increase taxes on the upper fraction of wage-earners, to the point where the top 10% pay 50% of taxes. If you try to scale those taxes back, you'll be accused of only helping the rich. Politically we're not interested in achieving the most economically efficient state (for whatever our goals are) but simply in what a given law does to change the status quo. This also makes it harder to reduce the size of government, since a program directed at low income people can be presented as paid for by, again, "the rich". The nasty little catch to all of this is that the tax brackets (and deductions) aren't generally indexed to inflation, so what starts out as a tax on the rich ends up punishing more and more of us as time goes on, such as with the alternative minimum tax.

Beyond the rent-seeking and the manipulation, I still don't think a graduated tax makes sense. We can argue about which tax is more "fair", but I think a flat tax results in a better use of resources. As Alan pointed out, the marginal value of a dollar earned decreases. If you increase the tax on that dollar, then you increase the difference between the value to society of the work done to earn that dollar, and the value of the compensation to the worker. People at the upper end won't want to produce as much income, which means they also won't produce that good to society. The contribution of the 200,000th dollar earned is no less than the 50,000th; there's no reason as a society for us to want someone to earn 50,000 but stop before 200,000.

To put it more clearly, a flat tax (at least the ones commonly proposed), even on income, is a "consumption tax". That is, it equally taxes all money spent on goods and services, but not that spent on capital investment. This is a good thing, since capital investment increases productivity, allowing more to be made for less, and making us all richer.

To me, the ideal tax would have a generous standard deduction - perhaps $20k for a head of household, with $5-10k for each other member, indexed to inflation. This deduction makes the tax somewhat progressive - if all your income goes to the necessities of life, you pay no tax - but you pay a flat rate on all your disposable income.

Another intriguing option is to replace the income tax with a national sales tax. In some ways I think this is a spectacular idea. It's clearly a consumption tax; it can be quite fair if, as many states do, you exempt necessities; it would even tax the underground economy, since drug dealers don't pay income tax but would pay sales tax if they wanted to buy anything (except drugs I suppose). I'd be worried that we'd end up with an income tax and a sales tax though. And that would be even worse than the system we have now.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Some Radical Ideas

Let's add one for law enforcement:
Get rid of the exclusionary rule as well as qualified immunity.

Until some real news picks up, here's a list of some ideas that will probably never pass but I think would go a long way to solving what are perceived to be the most pressing problems. This was just a quick list so if I think of more I'll add them.

Mandatory health insurance to cover catastrophic emergencies
Eliminate employer deductions for health insurance
Flat income tax with a large per-person deduction
- Alternatively, replace the income tax with a sales tax, with exemptions for necessities
Term limits for congressmen
Balanced budget amendment
Phase out social security and the associated taxes
Allow parents to use the tax money spent on their child to send them to a private school
Legalization of drugs, prostitution, gambling
Line-item veto
Replace all government recognized marriage with civil unions
Extremely large increases in allowed legal immigration
High penalties for employers of illegal immigrants
Elimination of all corporate subsidies
Removal of all federal highway funding mandates

If anyone wants more details on what I mean, or why I think a particular idea would be good, let me know and perhaps I'll expand it into a full post. Otherwise you can be thankful that with this list I'd never get elected for anything.


Well, I haven't been posting much lately, so how else have I managed to waste my time? A game or two of kakuro each day helps. If you got caught up in the sudoku craze you'll probably play this until you see the numbers when you close your eyes, and eventually wish the game never existed. The two sites I've played on are, which has a great interface, and, which has a horrible interface but more difficult puzzles.

Hopefully something interesting (in a good way) will happen soon and I'll post on it.

Monday, April 23, 2007


XKCD is by far the nerdiest web comic that I've run across. So really, I shouldn't be surprised when I identify with it so strongly, like I did today. Fortunately, the comic is still usually nerdier than me. (Although I might have to try that sometime...)

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Something Every Baseball Fan Should Know (About Statistics)

Update from Dave: An article in Baseball Prospectus (subscription) talked about the wisdom of Erick Aybar trying to steal 2nd in two games so far this season, and being thrown out to end both. Based on win expectancy, Dan Fox calculated the break-even point for trying to steal at 65%. Give Mike Scioscia (the Angels manager) some credit:

"With that combination--the time we had for the pitcher [coming to the plate] and throwing time [for the catcher]--I thought we had a better than 75 percent chance of making it. Erick got a decent jump. It took a perfect throw to get him, and they got it. If it was a 50-50 proposition, obviously we're not going to do it."

(Original Post 4/13/07 at 10:39 PM)

In route to losing their game against the Houston Astros tonight, the Phillies made a characteristically bone-headed base running mistake which drastically reduced their chances of winning. How can I say with confidence that it was "bone-headed"? Because the Run Expectation Matrix told me so!

The situation: It is the bottom of the 8th inning and the Phillies are losing 8-6. The Phillies have runners on 1st and 2nd, with 0 outs. Ryan Howard is up and hits a single into right field. Shane Victorino is rounding third base. A decision needs to be made: send the runner or hold him at 3rd base.

Likely Outcomes:
A: Victorino is held at 3rd base, resulting in bases loaded, with 0 outs.
B: Victorino tries to score and is thrown out, resulting in runners at 1st and 3rd with 1 out, the score still 8-6. (Since Ryan Howard is the runner at 1st and is slow as molasses so we will assume that he does not make it to 2nd as a result of the throw to the plate)
C: Victorino tries to score and is safe, resulting in runners at 1st and 3rd, with 0 outs, Phillies down 8-7. (Again, assume slow-poke Ryan Howard does not make it to 2nd)

Run Expectation Table: The table below, called the Run Expectation Table, shows the average number of runs scored in the league for any combination of runners and outs.

Bases with a RunnerNo OutsOne OutTwo Outs

2nd, 3rd1.971.450.59
1st, 3rd1.811.170.49
1st, 2nd1.580.960.45
1st, 2nd, 3rd2.371.650.82

(Side note #1: This table gives an amazing amount of information and is good for hours of entertainment. Stealing 3rd with 2 outs? Stealing 2nd with no outs? Walking the leadoff man? Sacrifice bunt? Side note #2: These are average numbers and specific circumstances can alter the actual run expectations, so be careful while using them to make generalized condemnations about specific in-game decisions.)

The Statistics: From the table, we would score 2.37 additional runs in the inning given case A, 1.17 runs for case B and 1.81 runs from case C. For case C, a run also scores on the play, so for the avereage total runs scored for each of the cases, we have A = 2.37, B = 1.17, C = 2.81. (MATH CENSORED) The result is that he must have a 73% chance of scoring or higher in order for it to result in more runs, on average. The announcer's intuition wasn't far off when he said "in this situation, you want to make sure that runner can score almost standing up".

That isn't really the whole story though because, although it's pretty counter-intuitive, we don't necessarily want to maximize the number of runs we will score. In the end, we want to maximize the chances of us winning the game. We are down by 2 runs, so we might want favor outcomes which score 2 or 3 runs over those that score 1 or 5+. We can accomplish this with something called the Win Expectation Matrix, which gives the probability of winning the game based on the game situation. Here "game situation" means the number of outs, bases occupied and inning. For our three cases, the probability of winning the game for each of the three cases above is A = 0.54, B = 0.31, and C = 0.63. (MATH CENSORED) We find that the runner needs a 72% chance of scoring safely in order for sending him to cause a rise in the chances or winning the game.

So what was the outcome? The Phillies sent Victorino, who was thrown out at the plate. The next batter grounded into a inning-ending double play, the Phillies lost the game and I'm home at 11pm on Friday writing about it. Such is life in Philadelphia.

You reap what you sow

I'm not a big fan of lawyers. Of course they serve a legitimate purpose, but they also fit Richard Dawkin's definition of a meme - that is that they create a world in which their propagation is favored. Put simply, lawyers create situations that can only be solved by other lawyers.

A lawyer can take a part of the constitution that has a very plain meaning, and not only twist it around so it says something different, but make it written in a language that only other lawyers can interpret. Thus the 2nd amendment does not protect the right to bear arms, the 5th amendment allows for private property to be taken for something other than public use, and the 10th amendment doesn't limit the federal government to its enumerated powers.

One reason the federal government's power is virtually unlimited is the supreme court's interpretation of the commerce clause. "Congress shall have the power... To regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes." What exactly qualifies as interstate commerce? Running a hotel in Atlanta? Of course. Firing unionized employees at a Pennsylvania steel corporation. Sure! Growing wheat on your farm, to feed your own family? Ummm, this is getting weird, but ok.

A short time ago the 9th circuit tossed a nice one back to the supreme court - does the federal government have a right to criminalize growing marijuana for your own medical use? (Some people speculated this idealogically difficult case was a big fuck you to the supreme court, which often overturned the 9th circuit.) The conservatives had a choice - continue to limit the scope of federal power, and in so doing allow for some drugs to be legalized. The liberals faced one of their own - allow terminally ill patients access to a drug that eases their pain, and in so doing threaten environmental law, labor law, and a host of other laws near and dear to their hearts. Score another one for unlimited federal power.

Now the supreme court has handed down a decision validating the federal law outlawing partial birth abortion. Plaintiffs sought (and failed) to overturn the law based on abortion rights, not on the commerce clause. However, Justice Thomas hinted that from a federalist viewpoint this law was an overbroad application of commerce clause power. If the court had, at some point in the last 65 years, limited the power of the federal government claimed through the commerce clause, states could be free to experiment with medical marijuana, partial birth abortion, and many other things as they saw fit.

This is also further demonstration that, contrary to many people's (uninformed) opinion, Justice Thomas has emerged as the most principled member of the court. He wrote a scathing dissent in Kelo v New London, allowing an eminent domain taking for private use. ("I do not believe that this Court can eliminate liberties expressly enumerated in the Constitution and therefore join her dissenting opinion. Regrettably, however, the Court’s error runs deeper than this. Today’s decision is simply the latest in a string of our cases construing the Public Use Clause to be a virtual nullity, without the slightest nod to its original meaning.") I doubt Thomas is a pot-head, and we know he's not in favor of abortion, but he voted to uphold California's medical marijuana law ("Respondents Diane Monson and Angel Raich use marijuana that has never been bought or sold, that has never crossed state lines, and that has had no demonstrable effect on the national market for marijuana. If Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause, then it can regulate virtually anything–and the Federal Government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers.") and he indicated he would overturn the partial birth abortion ban if anyone had bothered to make the commerce clause argument.

I think we could stand to have a scientist or two on the supreme court, but lacking that, we could use more lawyers like Clarence Thomas.

(Thanks to for thoughts on the PBA case, including the title of this post.)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Gmail widget

I've been using gmail exclusively for a couple years ago, and like many of you I love it. I do miss a few features from plain ol' pine, however - mostly the ability to use the keyboard for every function. It appears that the tools to do that with gmail already exist though, and now someone has compiled them into a nice firefox extension. It also does a few other things I'm going to try out over the next couple days, but for the extended keyboard shortcuts alone it's worth it for me. Who wants to deal with a pulldown menu to add a label, anyway?

Monday, April 16, 2007

Free Ben & Jerry's Day

Tomorrow (Tuesday) you can get a free cone at Ben & Jerry's from noon to 8 pm. I don't care if it's 40 degrees and raining, ice cream is always good. (Found through digg.)

Duke/Nifong Case

The case of three white Duke lacrosse players who were falsely accused of gang-raping a black exotic dancer has drawn national attention, but perhaps the most interesting coverage is from Harvard educated historian KC Johnson (not a lawyer or journalist). His blog, Durham-In-Wonderland, is widely accepted as one of the best sources of independent research and information about the case. For almost a year Johnson has been exposing the inept handling of the situation, both by the Durham County District Attorney (Nifong) and Duke University. In fact, his first post, on April 23, 2006, sites evidence which pretty much exonerates one of the three defendants, only 360 days before being officially declared innocent by the North Carolina State Attorney General. It's scary to think how cases like this play out for defendants of lesser means, who cant afford to combat rough district attorneys.

Libertarians and the Environment

I've considered posting on global warming, but thought better of it. Instead, I'm going to outline how I think environmental problems should be addressed in general. Hopefully this will demonstrate how a libertarian perspective can not only work smoothly, but bring about substantial environmental protection.

Most environmental problems - pollution, global warming, overfishing - fall into a category best represented as a tragedy of the commons. That is, when multiple parties use a public resource, it is to the benefit of each to use as much as possible, since they get reap all the profits but the costs are shared among the whole. Of course in the end, they are all worse off as the public resource is depleted or destroyed. The quote attributed to Aristotle sums it up nicely: "That which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it".

One solution proposed by most traditional environmentalists is for governments to regulate the resource. For instance, they may set a cap on how many fish a given person can catch in a year. There are two fundamental problems with this. First, it is difficult or even impossible for the government to know how to best allocate fish. Perhaps one person is better at keeping fish fresh from the sea to market. Under a free market, it would be beneficial for him to catch more fish, which would earn him more money and provide a better product for the consumer. A central planner allocating fishing licenses has a great deal of difficulty quantifying this, which is the fundamental problem with communism (not the oft-quoted "people need incentives to work").

The second problem is that it will often be more beneficial for one party to spend money trying to influence governmental decisions, rather than actually improving the social welfare by doing a better job than his competitors (referred to as rent-seeking behavior). We see this behavior in eminent domain takings, the Kyoto protocol, and even with interior decorators in Nevada.

The reason a complete free-for-all doesn't work is that an individual entity doesn't pay all of the costs of a particular decision (or necessarily collect all the benefits) - this is referred to as an externality. A particular action may have a positive marginal benefit for a single party, and therefore be pursued, while it has a a negative marginal benefit for society as a whole. In the case of common resources, the costs to the individual may be small while the externalities are large.

So how do we ensure that decisions truly do maximize social welfare? We eliminate the externalities - everyone pays the costs incurred by their actions. The first step to doing this is to strongly enforce private property rights. It's counterintuitive to many, but strong property rights lead to strong environmental protection. If you don't own the water downstream from your power plant, or the air downwind, you are infringing on the rights of the people who do when you pollute it.

It's actually a relaxation of property rights to allow some pollution so as to not completely cripple the ability to do anything. The second step is to ensure that this is not taken advantage of by making people pay for the damage they do to another's property. In the case of global warming, this could be done through any number of mechanisms that charge anyone for releasing greenhouse gases outside of their property. Of course, figuring out the cost associated with global warming is a difficult problem in its own right, but it's something that must be estimated for any mitigating process. The receipts collected from emitters should then be given to the people who are paying the actual costs.

Even though libertarians are generally hostile to government, they can still believe in a strong environmental policy - just not one where the government is in charge of picking winners and losers.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Abstinence Programs

A new study by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., suggests that abstinence education has no real positive or negative impact on the sexual behavior of young people. Participants were no more likely to abstain from sex than the control group. Conversely, they were also no more likely to have unprotected sex.

While I don't find the results of the study that surprising--telling 12 year olds not to have sex doesn't really seem that useful--I was surprised to learn that Mathematica has a policy research arm. After some research, I was disappointed when I learned that Mathematica, Inc. isn't the company that makes Mathematica (that's Wolfram, Inc.) but an older company that does policy research. I thought they were going to suggest that abstinence education should be replaced with more math and science education, which studies have shown promotes abstinence through high school.

The full study is available here if you're interested.

Wear Your Seat Belt, And Make Your Passengers Wear Theirs

New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine was critically injured on Thursday after his SUV was involved in an accident on the Garden Sate Parkway. He broke 12 ribs, his sternum, a vertebra and his femur, which was protruding out of his thigh when paramedics arrived. The revelation that the Governor was not wearing a seat belt at the time of the crash motivated me to look up some statistics about seat belt use:

Wear Your Seat Belt

  • Wearing a safety belt reduces your risk of serious injury by 50 percent (source)
  • Wearing a safety belt reduces your risk of death by 60-70 percent. (source)
Make Your Passengers Wear Their Seat Belts

  • One out of four serious injuries to passengers is caused by occupants being thrown into each other. (source)
  • The driver's risk of death in an accident increases by 20% if a passenger in his car is not wearing a seat belt. (source)

Thursday, April 12, 2007

T. Rex... tastes like chicken

A few years ago, I got to write about the fascinating discovery of what appeared to be blood vessels and red blood cells preserved within a T. Rex fossil. Just out today (and appearing Friday in Science) - the analysis of the bone contents. (NYTimes) (LATimes)

Why Readers Don't Leave Comments

An insightful blog post here about why readers don't leave comments. Clearly our writing is complete, we've taught you something you don't know, and you're all tired. I'm sure we're not argumentative geeks with boring content.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Google Map of My Favorite Restuarants

Google's new My Maps feature allows you to customize the standard Google map with your own locations, adding comments, photos and even video. I took the opportunity to compile a map of my favorite restaurants around the country. See it here. I'm sure you all have favorite restaurants too, so if you'd like, share in the comments. I'll be in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and New York this summer, and I LOVE a good meal :-) For those of you who are allergic to Google, here are my favorite restaurants in table form.

Dalessandro's Steaks - 600 Wendover St
Penang Malaysian Cuisine - 117 N 10th St

Jamaican Jerk Hut - 1436 South St
Salumeria - 45 N 12th St

Rangoon Burmese Restaurant -112 N 9th St
La Viola - 253 S 16th St
Cafe Lutecia -2301 Lombard St

La Locanda Del Ghiottone - 130 N 3rd St
New Delhi Indian Restaurant - 4004 Chestnut St
Pattaya Grill - 4006 Chestnut St
El Azteca - 714 Chestnut St
Sabrina's Cafe -910 Christian St
Tuscany Cafe -222 W Rittenhouse Sq # 222
Pho 75 -1122 Washington Ave # F
Pho Cali Vietnamese Restaurant Inc - 1000 Arch St
Vietnam Restaurant - 221 N 11th St

Other Cities
Mattapoisett Chowder House - Mattapoisett, MA
Friedhelm's Bavarian Restaurant & Bar -Fredericksburg, TX
Border Cafe - Cambridge, MA
Claim Jumper Restaurant - Monrovia, CA

Top Restaurant - Pasadena, CA
Harpoon Hannah's - Fenwick Island, DE

How do you get on the terrorist watch list?

One professor claims you do it by criticizing the Bush administration. This story has been going around for a few days, and I thought I'd collect a few more details. (I originally found this through volokh, which has a number of posts on the topic.)

The story is that a Princeton professor tried to fly somewhere, and was flagged for screening. When he asked why, the person at the counter asked if he had been in any peace marches, and he said no but he had given a speech critical of Bush. The employee said, "That'll do it." On the way back he didn't have any extra screening but his luggage didn't arrive until the middle of the night.

The professor claims that he was put on the watch list to punish him for his speech, and he's received a good deal of support from various blogs (as well as some skepticism). I think when it comes down to it, if someone said "Bush ate my kittens with his bare hands" some people will believe it no-questions-asked, because you know, Bush is the kitten-eating type. But let's think about this in detail, and let's even assume that the administration is willing to pursue this sort of retribution. They decide to punish dissidents, and they pick out a professor that no one outside his field has really heard of, because Cindy Sheehan, Jon Stewart, and Howard Dean would be too obvious. Then they let word pass down to random ticket agents at American Airlines that they put people on the list for peace marches and speeches. They don't harass him on the way back though - because they have something better planned for him. They're going to instruct the baggage handlers to lose his luggage! Muwahahahaha. Well, for a few hours anyway; they'll deliver it to his house overnight.

Seriously? We're supposed to believe this, because of what this guy says a ticket agent told him when he was selected for extra screening? Occam's razor, anyone? The moral of the story: the terrorist watch list is really annoying. It should be handled much better, if it all. However, you lose all your credibility to address the actual problems if you complain about situations like these that are very likely exaggerations. Show a little skepticism, people!

(An article in Slate a while back did a good job explaining the watch list. He came to what I think is a wacky conclusion - "Let's suppose—just suppose—that the No-Fly List has caused only one terrorist not to board an airplane with a sharp tool or explosive shoes. Wouldn't that still be worth these mild inconveniences? Of course it would." To which many people have replied with something to the effect, "What else should we be willing to do to prevent just one terrorist from boarding a plane? Fly naked? Every time we are asked to remove our shoes at the airport, we should be thankful that Richard Reid wasn't known as the underwear bomber.")

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Liberal Media Bias?

According to UCLA political science professor Tim Groseclose, there is a systematic leftward bias among major US media outlets. Groseclose came to this conclusion by basically counting how many times a particular paper refers to work by conservative think tanks and policy groups vs liberal ones, ending up with something called an ADA score, where 100 is very liberal and 0 is very conservative. His results show that of all the major US media outlets, only Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume was right-of-center.

Media OutletADA Score

ABC Good Morning America56
ABC World News Tonight61
CBS Early Show67
CBS Evening News74
CNN NewsNight with Aaron Brown56
Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume40
LA Times70
NBC Nightly News62
NBC Today Show64
New York Times74
Newshour with Jim Lehrer56
NPR Morning Edition66
Time Magazine65
U.S. News and World Report66
USA Today63
Wall Street Journal85
Washington Post67
Washington Times35

There are a lot of interesting details, so if you're interested I suggest reading the full text. Thanks to Matt for a heads up on the article, years ago.

Birth Control: A Condom Isn't Enough

If you have regular intercourse for 3 years using only a condom for protection, you have a 36% chance of getting pregnant.

( . . . pause for reflection . . . )

Using the pill instead of the condom is a bit better with a 14.3% chance of pregnancy over three years. Using them both brings the chances down to 5% over three years, which is why my mom once told me to "always use two forms of birth control". Even a 5% chance isn't something to take lightly considering the consequences.

There are two main things which can lower the risk of pregnancy:

1) Make sure you use the condom or pill as directed. For those using a condom alone, perfect use lowers the 3-year risk from 36% to 9%. Of course, nobody's perfect.

2) Use a method that doesn't require user intervention: the hormone shot or implant. Those have a 3-year risk of less than 1% on their own and even less when used in addition to a condom.

Here are some details:

Chances of getting pregnant during one year of sexual activity

MethodRate of Pregnancy
(Typical Use)
Rate of Pregnancy
(Perfect Use)

Implant (Norplant)0.09%0.09%
Hormone Shot (Depo-Provera)0.3%0.3%
Combined Pill (Estrogen/Progestin)5% 0.1%
Male Latex Condom14%3%
No Method:85%85%

Chances of getting pregnant during three years of sexual activity

MethodRate of Pregnancy
(Typical Use)
Rate of Pregnancy
(Perfect Use)

Implant (Norplant)0.27%0.27%
Hormone Shot (Depo-Provera)0.9%0.9%
Combined Pill (Estrogen/Progestin)14.3% 3%
Male Latex Condom36.4%9%
No Method:99.7%99.7%

(click here for the full table of all birth control methods)

Monday, April 9, 2007

Biking and your boy bits

Biking boys should be wary of their saddles lest their love life suffer. (I know this story has been circulating for a while, but I thought this LA Times article was a good update with lots of exciting details.)

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Exercise Builds Brain Cells

As if the plethora of aliments already known to be prevented or mitigated by exercise weren't good enough (hearth disease, stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure, colon cancer, depression, anxiety and osteoporosis to name a few), now there is another: Exercise actually builds brain cells! MRI scans indicate that cell growth occurs in the region of the hippocampus associated with memory and memory loss. So if you are worry about losing your memory, or just have a bad one to begin with like me, try getting on the treadmill :-)

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Supercooled, Superheated and Supersaturated Liquids

Anyone who's heated a glass of water in the microwave only to have it explode when a spoon is put in it knows how scary it can be. That bottle of beer you left in the freezer can instantly freeze when you put it on the counter too. Don't believe me? Check out these videos:

Spontaneous Boiling

Spontaneous Freezing

In the case of the spontaneous boiling, the water has been superheated, which means that the water has been heated above its normal boiling point. How is that possible? Well, normally there are impuities in the water (like minerals or salt) and scratches on the surface of the cup which make it easier for bubbles to form. They do this by providing a phsical edge where bubbles can esailty br created, called nucleation sites. If there are neucleation sites, that as soon as a small portion of the water gets above the boiling poit, the water begins to boil in that region. On the other hand, if the water is very pure and the surface of the cup is very smooth, then there are no easy places for the bubbles to form, thus allowing the water to get to higher temperatures without boiling. When a spoon (or sugar) is put into this superheated water, the spoon provides the needed nucleation sites and the water, already above the boiling point, all boils away very very quickly. The exact same phenomenon occurs with supercooled liquids, except there the nucleation sites make it easier for ice crystals to form rather than bubbles.

The same phenomena is responsible for the popular Mentos and Diet Coke experiment. In this case, the soda is a supersaturated solution of carbon dioxide in water. The porous surface of the Mentos provide a huge number of nucleation sites for the release of carbon dioxide dissolved in the soda, causing it to spew out the top of the bottle.

E-books: the future or a flop?

Update from Dave: An interesting article about electronic paper in Reuters. Also, there are a number of e-books that are no longer under copyright freely available here.

Original Post 3/27/07 7:40 PM

So Dave's been really excited about the Sony Reader, but do e-books and portable reader systems have a future? I've only seen the Sony Reader briefly, but it wasn't love at first sight. In my quick perusal, the interface wasn't as intuitive and seamless as I'd hoped, and I'm not captivated by the idea of reading a novel from a tiny screen. Plus, according to some anyway, there are plenty of other reasons why they won't take off. Of course, Dave has suggested that portable readers could be the saving grace of the newspaper industry, which would be good for me...

Friday, April 6, 2007

Safety of Artificial Sweeteners

The safety of artificial sweeteners (wikipedia) is an eteremly politisized topic, and you can find someone arguing everything from "it's 100% safe" to "it's poison" but most scientists seem to agree that they are safe for human consumption, especially in the relatively low doses we ingest them. Hey, even water will kill you if you drink enough of it.

Equal/Nutra Sweet (Aspartame): Aspartame is common in diet sodas and other low-calorie foods as well as a tabletop sweetener. Administration of large amounts of Aspartame has been shown to cause increased rates of cancer in lab rats; however, studies have not found evidence that Aspartame causes cancer in humans. There has also been suspicion that Aspartame can cause headaches and other unwanted effects in humans, but multiple studies have debunked this anecdotal evidence.

Sweet and Low (Saccharin) Saccharin was the first sugar substitute, and caused an uproar when it was found to cause bladder cancer in rats. Further research by Dr. Samuel Cohen showed that the mechanism by which Saccharin causes cancer in rats is not applicable to humans because of a specific difference in urine composition. Saccharin has since been taken off the list of suspected carcinogens by the FDA and is, for the most part, considered safe, particularly in small doses.

note: In Canada, NutraSweet does not contain Aspartame, which is banned in Canada; It contains Cyclamate, which is banned in the US.

Sweet One (Acesulfame Potassium or Ace K) Ace K is relatively new, and thus there is limited information about it's safety. It was approved by the FDA but watchdog groups argue that Ace K has not been properly tested. Ace K is most often used to mitigate the unpleasant aftertaste of Aspartame by using the two together.

Splenda (Sucralose) Introduced in 1999, Splenda recently became the market leader in artificial sweeteners. Now common in some diet sodas and other low-calorie foods as well as a tabletop sweetener. Unlike the other available sweeteners, it can be heated without causing chemical decomposition and can thus be used for baking. Because Splenda is new to the market, research on it is limited; however, animal tests have shown that Splenda can cause an enlarged thymus glad in rats when administered in very large quantities. Although this effect has not been reported in humans, it remains a potential long-term health problem.

Check out The Spoon

I just wanted to take a quick moment to self promote (I hope that's okay). I am working on a few posts specificly for this site but in the meantime please check out:

I like to think of it as the love child of politics, personal insight, and humor (yes it was a three-way).



...another website... add to the humour websites, I present you with the following:

I think the name of the website says it all. It's updated daily, and it sometimes has some interesting things.Publish

Donnie's Favorite Humor Websites

Life is rough enough as it is. Here are some humor websites that I visit regularly to lighten up the day:
Finally, I often visit Worse Than Failure (previously named The Daily WTF), which usually gives me a laugh, and also gives me some great anecdotes to pass along to my students.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

What are your favorite sites?

Way back in the beginning, sometime last week, I told everyone the sites I visit every day. So, if anyone is reading this, I'd like to hear about the sites everyone else goes to. If it's interesting enough for you someone else will probably think it is too. You don't even have to put a fancy link to it, although if you want to and don't already know, the format is:
<a href="the url you want to link to">the text you want underlined</a>.

If it's not family-friendly, make sure to mark it NSFW.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Women In Science

Once in my new lab, when discussing Caltech, I said that to admit more women, they'd have to lower their standards. This is unquestionably true, just as if they wanted to admit more men, or baseball players, or saxophonists, they'd also have to lower their standards in every other category. Being unquestionably true is not sufficient to keep people from getting upset about it, I've found.

Correspondingly, if you talk about ideas that may or may not have merit, but still evoke the same kinds of emotion, you get in even bigger trouble. Such is the position that Larry Summers found himself in a couple years ago. He spoke about the reasons that women are underrepresented relative to the population-at-large in tenure-track faculty positions in the sciences. Famously, one reason he gave was the possibility that there are "innate differences" between men and women. He explicitly said what he meant by this: even if the mean aptitude of men and women were the same, if the variance in the male population is greater than the variance in the female population then there will be more men at the extremes (both high and low). Since faculty are drawn exclusively from one extreme, men would be overrepresented.

He mentioned two other explanations - that the different responsibilities in child-bearing could make women less likely to thrive in a career that requires long hours from ages 25-35, and the generally accepted social factors (discrimination - the bad kind). Though he guessed at which factors may be more important, at no point did he say that any of it was unquestionably true. He never said women were dumber than men, or that any individual women could not succeed in science. Still, he was essentially forced to resign.

Several articles were published about the talk; some supportive and some not. I'm going to address one particular criticism - that we should not even discuss the possibility that differences between the sexes account for some of the underrepresentation. To do so, it is claimed, propagates stereotypes which are harmful to women considering or already involved in science.

Which furthers stereotypes more? To discuss the ideas that Summers put forward, or to assume that young women are so fragile that they cannot even hear alternative viewpoints? To assume that they cannot differentiate between someone saying that women as a whole are less likely to be well-suited for scientific careers, and someone saying that they individually are not cut out for it?

The solution to this problem (and I agree that all things being equal, it would preferable to have many more women in science) is not to refuse to have the conversation. If women are less likely to be in science because of family (Summer's guess at the top reason) then institutions could adopt more family friendly policies, as some are already doing. And if social biases are found to be truly a contributing factor, than we can more adeptly and confidently address these biases.

Instead, we are left not with searches for truth, but for what people want to hear. I believe this is only part of a disturbing trend on college campuses towards the stifling of dissent. SFSU students faced disciplinary action for flag-burning. Check out the news at FIRE, a college free speech advocacy group, for many other instances.

A common theme in my posts is that while our intuition is in many cases useful, it is often not the truth, but what we wish were true. If we are not allowed to question it, we will never tell the difference.

I can't find the exact quote, but I remember reading an exchange a short while ago. One person, a politician or civic leader or such, told a scientist (an evolutionary psychologist, perhaps) that his research implied things that were uncomfortable and disheartening to people. His response was something to the effect, "It's what the experiment shows. What would you have me do, fiddle with the results?"

The Effect of Steriods in Baseball

I ran across this op-ed in the New York Times on Monday. The premise of the article is that the recent increase in home runs in baseball is due to expansion, not to steroids. In the 1990s, MLB added four expansion teams; the theory is that these expansion teams diluted the talent in baseball, allowing the very best players to excel and hit more home runs. Now I don't know much about baseball, so I don't feel that I can judge this theory very well, but my gut feeling is that this seems unlikely.

First of all, the expansion only increased the size of the league by 15%. Are the top players in the minors really that much worse than major-league players that they could cause such a significant increase in home runs? By comparison, 15% is approximately the population growth of the U.S. between the 1977 expansion and the 1993 expansion. I would think that the pool of major-league-quality baseball players would have grown similarly during that time period.

I can understand that there might be a short-term effect, especially if all the "bad" and inexperienced players were initially clustered in the four expansion teams. But I would think that it would have evened out by now with trades and attrition. (The Marlins won the World Series after only 5 years in the majors, so clearly the expansion teams weren't stuck at the bottom with inferior players.)

Now if you look at the home run statistics, there's a significant jump in home runs in the NL in 1993, when the NL gained two teams. Before 1993, the NL seemed to be averaging around 1300 or 1400 home runs per season. Since 1993, it has never had fewer than 1900 (excluding 1994 because of the strike). Of course, some of that increase is due to the fact that there's more teams in the NL now. If you look at home runs per team in the NL since 1977, this is what you get:

(Again, 1994 was special, although given that they were about 70% of the way through the season, they were on course for more home runs than in 1993 or 1995.)

Unfortunately, this graph is inconclusive to me. Sure, the number of home runs per team has gone up about 50% in the past 15 years, and the increase happened around the time of the expansion. There was even a suspicious jump in home runs in 1993. But 50% seems like quite a lot to me, and I still wonder whether the increase is better explained by other factors. It could be drugs. It could also be a rational shift in baseball strategies. (Maybe trying to hit home runs helps you win games? Or maybe home runs attract spectators?)

As I said, I don't follow baseball very closely, so I'm interested to hear what other people think.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Curt Schilling's Blog

Curt Schilling started a blog near the end of this offseason, and he's sticking with it during the season. In fact, he posted shortly after he pitched yesterday! Love him or hate him, Sox fan or not, it's pretty interesting to read a major league pitcher talk about the game that he pitched hours earlier.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Crime in Philadelphia

As even those of you not living in Philadelphia probably know, the city's violent crime rates have risen dramatically in the last few years. (There were over 2000 shootings and over 400 murders in Philadelphia in 2006) The factors driving the rise are complex, but many point to the combination of poverty and easy access to guns. Of the 10 largest us cities, Philly has the highest murder rate (27 per 100,000 people) and highest poverty rate (25%). Even more telling is the localization of the crime in the poorest neighborhoods.

There is obviously an extremely high correlation between the average income and crime rate in different regions of the city. Complicating the situation further, areas of high poverty in the city also tend to have a predominately African-America population.

Amung the growing list of porblems is that witnesses are unwilling to testify in court, for fear getting killed themselves. "Snitch or Die" tee-shirts have even become the new fashion trend. The situation is so dire that one Mayoral candidate has suggested declaring a state of emergency, although he doesn't include that in his official 14-point plan.

So what's the solution? Beats me. Jobs and gun control, I guess. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Breakthrough in Blood Transfusions

Danish researchers have discovered two enzymes that could convert type A, type B, and type AB blood all to type O, the universal donor.

Blood type is determined by the presence of antigens on the surface of red blood cells. People with antigen A are type A, people with antigen B are type B, and people with both are type AB. If a person with type O blood (which contains neither antigen) received type A blood, their immune system would interpret the blood cell as foreign and attack it. However if a person with type A blood received type O blood, there are no antigens to recognize and the blood would be accepted. This is the reason that anyone can receive type O blood (and conversely type AB people can receive any blood - they don't recognize any antigens as being foreign). There is also another important antibody, the presence or absence of which is denoted by a "positive" or "negative" designation.

The two enzymes reported essentially destroy the two antigens, converting the blood to type O. Interestingly, they were discovered by screening bacteria and fungi for enzymes capable of this activity. Many drugs we are accustomed to (for instance Tylenol, Viagra and Lipitor) work by inhibiting a particular protein that when left to function produces some undesirable effect. In this case the drugs are small molecules, and therefore can be rationally designed for that purpose. Enzymes are far more complicated however, and therefore are resistant to rational design. Instead, this screening technique is commonly used.

Small molecule drugs can also be found by this approach; in fact, this is where most antibiotics came from. My current boss, Scott Strobel, just got back from the jungles of Peru where he took undergrads to look for natural products. Maybe the next Tylenol is sitting in the dirty cardboard box in our fridge.

Opening Day

One of the best days of the year is here, baseball's opening day. I'd slot it below Patriot's Day but ahead of groundhog day. There are high hopes for the Sox after signing many of the best free agents this offseason. But there's hope for everyone; according to Baseball Prospectus's playoff odds report, every team has at least a 3% chance of making the playoffs. My personal goal is to go to games in 8 parks this year, including 4 new to me. I'm starting on Jim Bouton's Ball Four to get me in the baseball mood. I'd highly recommend Moneyball and This Ain't Brain Surgery also.

There's a lot of interesting research going on about the game; earlier I mentioned Baseball Prospectus and Baseballthinkfactory, but also check out Tangotiger's site for looks at how the value of scoring or preventing a run changes in different situations, the ability of a pitcher to prevent hits on balls in play, and accurate measures of fielding ability, among many other things.
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