Saturday, January 29, 2005

Iraq was not an intelligence failure

President Bush blames the intelligence services for providing faulty information about Saddam Hussein's WMD programs. This is a distraction. The President's cabinet manufactered a false intelligence backdrop on which Bush painted his Iraq War.

Dick Cheney created an office at the Pentagon specifically for the purpose of building an intelligence case against Iraq. The Office of Special Plans (OSP) was headed Douglas Feith. Feith, by the way, is an advocate of Israel's hard-line Likud party, a party that opposed the Oslo peace accords. He is also currently under investigation for indirectly disclosing U.S. intelligence secrets to Israel.

The OSP cherry-picked intelligence and sent it directly to the Vice President so that the cooked intelligence reports would not be scrutinized by the CIA or the DIA. Bush can only be considered a victim of this fraud if we absolve him of responsibility for knowing less than I did about what was going on in the executive branch in 2002. Americans generously provided this absolution on November 2nd.

Feith has tendered his resignation for "personal" reasons. I hope to see this man given a new assignment by the Federal government, preferably manufacturing license plates.

Unforgivably, Bush, Cheney, Feith, Rumsfeld and Rice have treated our men and women in uniform with contempt befitting a child's broken toy. We all want to believe that our troops fought and died with honor to make America safer. That our soliers have not died for nothing. Now we learn that they fought and died with honor, but for less than nothing. Thanks to the Bush administration, our soldiers have lost lives and limbs to make America and the world a more dangerous place. No wonder Bush can't bring himself to attend a single military funeral.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Baby Gap

I recently read Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?. The book tells the story of how Kansas went from left-wing populism in the early part of the 20th Century to just plain, right-wing delusional today. Frank's thesis goes beyond the mere observation that the Kansas "Cons" elect Republicans who give lip service to religious issues, but who devastate the Cons economically. As Frank explains, the Cons are blind to corporatism and economic class warfare, but engage in a form of anti-intellectual class warfare.

In part, Frank's book inspired my last post. The books paints a vivid picture of the problem, but doesn't really outline any solutions. It does make clear that reasoning with the Cons in any logical manner is completely futile. It was depressing. I rarely read a book that doesn't lead my mind to obvious solutions.
I'm beginning to get a slightly better understanding of the red state/blue state divide after reading an article at The American Conservative entitled The Baby Gap. The author, Steve Sailer, observes the strong correlation between fertility rates and voting Republican:
Among the 50 states plus Washington, D.C., white total fertility correlates at a remarkably strong 0.86 level with Bush’s percentage of the 2004 vote. (In 2000, the correlation was 0.85.) In the social sciences, a correlation of 0.2 is considered “low,” 0.4 “medium,” and 0.6 “high.”

You could predict 74 percent of the variation in Bush’s shares just from knowing each state’s white fertility rate. When the average fertility goes up by a tenth of a child, Bush’s share normally goes up by 4.5 points.

This is what I would have expected, so there's no surprise here. It seems natural to me that religious people would be more likely to procreate. Stereotypically, city slickers would be more inclined to spend their time attending fine art films than building backyard swing sets.

However, Sailer points to the natural migration of single people to cities, married people to the suburbs, and parents to small town insularity. That is, this article goes beyond the observation of the city-rural voting pattern, and arrives at a partial explanation for the pattern. The political magnetic fields are created by currents of family fertility.

The article is far from perfect. Sailer seems obsessed by racial issues. He compares rates of incarceration among whites in different states not directly, but by comparing their ratios of white to black incarceration. Maybe Sailer thinks that the black crime rate is a universal physical constant.

However, there's a kernel of useful information here. People tend to arrange themselves geographically by stage of life and size of family. For example, I have always thought that inner cities are very difficult places in which to raise young children. Of course, many parents deal with the challenge very well, but it's expensive. There are few open spaces and few facilities dedicated for use by children, so these resources are at a premium. Basically, the higher the population density, the greater the competition for resources, and this raises the cost of insulating one's children from unwanted influences.

Out in rural areas, property is less expensive, and families can be raised in relative isolation. Though jobs are frequently scarce in rural areas, a low income by city standards goes a long way.

All of this leads us to a deeper understanding policy differences between red and blue states. Gun control laws in the city are a naturally strict. It's hard enough living on top of one another when we're not armed with deadly weapons. Meanwhile, out in the boondocks, firearms seem perfectly natural. Hey, you can even discharge them!

Out in the exurbs, your kids may be insulated from street corner crack dealers, but dangerous TV signals leak into your living room. The quest for isolation leads "family oriented" folk to demand the rolling of Hollywood heads. Yet, the sophisticated adult behavior depicted on TV seems as natural on Fifth Avenue as rifle marksmanship does in rural Utah.

Making these distinctions in a campaign seems to me to be a powerful idea. In essence, the message is "Live and Let Live" - legislative attention appropriate to each human ecosystem. Such a platform is not sufficient to win elections, but it may be necessary.

Whether or not reds and blues are willing to live and let live remains an open question. Can city slickers tolerate liberal gun ownership laws for rural types, and can Kansas Cons tolerate aggressive sex education in inner cities? Can liberals live with abortion restrictions for small towns? Can the fundamentalist Christians sleep at night if there's abortion on demand in the cities?

George Lakoff's framing is requirement of a modern political campaign, but reaching consensus on the issues can only help.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Sapere aude!

My parents instilled in me a respect for higher learning and academics. I remember my mother telling me about famous works of art, and the discoveries of Louis Pasteur and Marie Curie. Over dinner, if we were lucky, my father would quiz us on geography and current affairs. Before I was ten, I had learned to recognize famous steam trains, and fancied myself as an ornithologist (and proud member of the Young Ornithologists Club). Naturally, I was an insufferable smartypants. Nonetheless, my parents invariably praised me for my "expertise," and never belittled me for it. I was no wunderkind, I just had an insatiable curiosity for all things scientific. I regularly shushed my family so they wouldn't disturb my viewing of David Attenborough's Life On Earth or Carl Sagan's Cosmos, and I read encyclopedias for fun, preferring them to novels.

I may have been a nerd in high school, but I wasn't the only one. In my high school, it seemed that you could always find students who were genuinely interested in something, whether it was English, Mathematics, or Chemistry. It was almost collegiate. By my senior year though, most of the enthusiastic kids had already graduated. Three nerds and a sea of apathy were all that remained.

Today, I get the sense that we have to bribe our kids to get them to appreciate academics. The 1990's saw the appearance of Bill Nye the Science Guy. Bill's TV show tried to make science look cool with assorted sight gags and flashy screen transitions. His show was critically acclaimed, and I, too, praise his good intentions. However, I never understood how kids were actually going to get any lasting appreciation for the sciences from watching his show. Wouldn't science be chucked out next year along with the kids' disused skate boards and hula hoops?

Don't get me wrong. Science is cool, but it's cool because of what it does for enlightenment, not because of its gimmicks. Throughout history, the forces of evil and ignorance have stubbornly refused to use reason. Tyrants prefer their truth dictated by executive order, or by executive order posing as divine fiat. Persecution of infidels invariably ensues. Idiots and political power-seekers through the ages burned libraries, then spent billions of dollars (and thousands of human lives) building useless cathedrals so that the survivors of their construction projects could worship their dictator's imaginary friends.

Who are the heroes who put a stop to this sort of rubbish? Scientists. Scientists are the people who care enough about the truth to subject their own theories to tests of reason. Not in back rooms or in closed committees, but on the world's stage and in the light of day. Scientists have the courage to agree to let reason and empirical tests determine the merits of our ideas. That's what's cool about science.

The Enlightenment philosopher Immanual Kant wrote this in 1784:

"Enlightenment is man's leaving his self-caused immaturity. Immaturity is the incapacity to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another. Such immaturity is self-caused if its cause is not lack of intelligence, but by lack of determination and courage to use one's intelligence without being guided by another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own intelligence!"

I think this throws into stark relief the difference in values between the enlightened, and the hodge-podge of consumerism and religion that dominates contemporary America.

Americans are becoming shallow, plastic people who have time for nothing but corporate servitude and consumption. We live in a comfortable illusion conjured up by the marketing departments of cartels and multi-nationals. It's a swell deal: they tell us we need DVD players and Hummer H2's, and, in exchange, they sell them to us.* We go to university, not to learn, but to get a piece of paper so we can work for corporate blackguards like Exxon and Wal-Mart.

In this context, Republicans find it easy to prey on anesthetized consumers. Just tell the consumer to be proud of his lack of sophistication, and tell him he's a martyr of plain folk, oppressed by the liberal elites and their fancy book learnin'. Not just a consumer who refuses to learn anything about evolution or environmental protection, but a patriot who resists the subversion of new ideas. At the same time these compassionate conservatives are demonizing the arts and sciences, they're making the elite of Wall Street very happy at the expense of the consumer masses. Apart from lost jobs, underfunded education and poor healthcare, what's in it for the conservative common folk? A foolish pride in their ignorance of art and science, and a false sense of persecution for their superstitions.

Yet, America's story doesn't have to end this way. Enlightenment values are not foreign to Americans. They are the values of our founding fathers. Every one of us is ignorant about something non-trivial. Whether we wallow in the blissful pride of that ignorance or renew our scholarship is surely a sign of our character.

Embrace the values of the Enlightenment, lest we follow the Republicans to the source of their perverse values: the Dark Ages.

It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry.
- Thomas Paine


*In all fairness, we probably need the DVD players.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Eat my shorts!

Missionaries can eat my shorts:

Jubilant at seeing the relief trucks loaded with food, clothes and the much-needed medicines the villagers, many of who have not had a square meal in days, were shocked when the nuns asked them to convert before distributing biscuits and water.

Heated arguments broke out as the locals forcibly tried to stop the relief trucks from leaving. The missionaries, who rushed into their cars on seeing television reporters and the cameras refusing to comment on the incident and managed to leave the village.

Disappointed and shocked into disbelief the hapless villagers still await aid.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

News Highlights

Bush says election ratified Iraq policy
Wow! The President is actually right about something! His re-election is an endorsement by a majority of American voters of his Iraq policy and his network of secret torture camps.

In related news...

Conflict within the Pentagon
So who is responsible for the ongoing problems? The Bush administration has fired no one. Some former U.S. military leaders want heads to roll.

The important detail, of course, is that it’s not the Pentagon’s civilian leadership, or the neocons, who are getting killed in Iraq.

The blood is being shed by U.S. forces— and they are the ones who must face the grim realities that the policy wonks didn’t plan on.


FBI Whisleblower Vindicated
On the case of Sibel Edmonds:
The FBI never adequately investigated complaints by a fired contract linguist who alleged shoddy work and possible espionage inside the bureau's translator program, even though evidence and witnesses supported her, the Justice Department's senior oversight official said Friday.

Scooby Doo, where are you?
If ghosts don't exist, we'd see them anyway.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Simpler, not better

Janeane Garofalo once said that being a Republican today isn't an opinion, it's a character flaw.

Not that conservatives don't say much worse things about progressives. Still, Garofalo's comment is another data point consistent with what we're learning about the links between political opinion, genetics and personality.

The Republicans have been focusing on so-called "wedge" issues like gay rights, stem cell research, and government displays of Christianity. These are issues that aren't that important from a day-to-day, operational point of view, but can stir political passions. Without these issues, the Republicans know that they cannot win elections.

Wedge issues work because they activate deep emotional triggers in our basic character make-up. Reason and logic no longer apply, and each side in the political debate has an increasingly difficult time understanding the other. A mountain of facts tells us that Bush's presidency has been an unmitigated disaster, yet most conservatives love the man in spite of the facts. You can no more convince them that Bush's policies are wrong on technical grounds, than convince me to give up my crush on Fran Drescher.

Many political pundits say the 2004 election was about values. The term "values" wrongly suggests that the right's political passion has something to do with reason or enlightenment. Perhaps, "character traits" would be a better term.

It has only recently occurred to me (duh!) that Republicans don't actually want to make life better, they want to make life simpler. For those on the right, life is already good, but it's complicated. As they see it, all our problems showed up when a) we stopped living like survivalists, b) men stopped being men, c) and women left the kitchen. New-fangled things like political correctness and the social safety net made things better at the expense of simplicity. These are the "values" they fight for. Like a fool, I sit here arguing for policies that will result in the exact opposite of what they want: a better world in which animal instinct doesn't dictate our actions.

George Lakoff claims that,unless we can frame our policies in the values of our target audience, facts and reason will just bounce off.

Can we frame a better world as a simpler world?

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

A Technical Explanation

Eliezer Yudkowsky has once again written a most entertaining article about probability theory. It's titled A Technical Explanation of a Technical Explanation, and it's a lot less dry than it sounds. This essay is filled with all sorts of fun quotes like this one which made me chuckle:

If someone is wrong on yes-or-no questions 99% of the time, we can get 99% accuracy just by inverting the responses. Anyone that stupid would be smarter than I am.

To summarize the article in a shortened form would not only violate the spirit of the article, but would not do the article justice. I shall do so anyway.

Suppose you have two theories about a certain phenomenon. You are going to perform an experiment that will help you identify which one of the two theories is more likely to be correct. The first theory is bold and predicts a high probability of some specific outcomes, and a low probability of all other outcomes. The second theory is timid and vague and predicts only that the outcome of the experiment will probably be in some broad range, but is not much less probable even outside that range. Well, probability theory favors the bold. If the bold theory's predictions are met in the experiment, the bold theory should then be regarded as much more likely to be correct than the vague theory. This is true even when the experimental result is consistent with the predictions of both theories.

It's a gamble. If your theory makes a bold prediction, your theory can be discredited if the experiments don't go your way. On the other hand, if your specific predictions are borne out by experiment, your theory receives a lot of credit.

Life is a bit like the casino game Keno (it's like Bingo). In Keno, you get a bigger payoff if you make a more specific prediction. For example, you can bet that all the numbers to be drawn will appear on the right side of the board. However, the payoff is bigger if you bet on exactly which numbers they will be - a more specific prediction.

Now, imagine that there was actually some method to figure out what numbers would likely show up in the next round based on the numbers in the last round. In the Keno game of life, the method is called science, and it's how you ought to play the game.

If your theory of life is too vague and can't be disproven, you can't reliably win, you can only get lucky.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Genetically Conservative

I'm working on a couple of longer posts, but in the meantime, I had to reference this article in Forbes. Apparently, a University of Minnesota study found that our political values are mostly inherited. Interesting.

A while back, I wondered why the population should be so evenly split between the conservative and progressive worldviews. George Lakoff describes the worldviews as coming from either the "strict father" model or the "nurturing parent" model of family life. If these preferences for particular familial structures were hereditary, then my question about the closeness of the election would be one about the equality of genetic factors in the American electorate.

Are other countries less divided on their political values, and, if so, is it because the genetic predisposition to one value or the other is much more prevalent in their population?

More to the point, why would about 50% of Americans have blue genes?