Vestigial Thoughts

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Southern, White, Male, Non-Democrat == Racist

So Paul Krugman blesses us with the following analysis:

So, people ask why, in The Conscience of a Liberal, I downplay the role of issues other than race in swinging the political balance in favor of the GOP. The answer, basically, is the math: once you take the great southern switch into account, there isn’t much left to explain.

In some correspondence with Larry Bartels, whose “What’s the matter with “What’s the matter with Kansas?”" is must reading for anyone trying to understand modern American political, economy, the issue of how the Democrats lost white males came up. Larry points out that you really need to separate out the South. Here’s what he had to say:

Unless you have a peculiar nostalgia for the racially coercive Democratic monopoly of the Jim Crow era, it makes sense to focus on the rest of the country. There, the Democratic share of the two-party presidential vote among white men was 40% in 1952 and 39% in 2004.

White men didn’t turn against the Democrats; Southern white men turned against the Democrats. End of story

You know, as a white male from the south who doesn't make his political decisions based on race, this is pretty darn offensive. He's basically discounting every non-democrat-voting white male in the south by saying that the only way to get through to them is to appeal to their racist tendencies. There are quite a few, I know a lot of them, who don't like the Democratic Party for a host of other reasons. Ad hominems such as saying we're all racists allows the Democrats to easily ignore any of the substansive problems with their own party.

Forget the southern white male vote. If they vote against Democrats, it's because they are all racists. News flash: you're going to have a heck of a time getting a democratic president elected without the support of at least a few "racist" assholes such as myself from the south.

These are the same racists who just elected an Indian American to the governship in LA. Many people say this, but the presidential election is there for the Democrats to loose. The Conscience of a Liberal Indeed.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Keeping your Dirty Hippies on a Leash

This is kind of interesting

The D.C. government has agreed to pay $1 million to a group of people who claimed they were illegally arrested during a protest in the city five years ago.

I'm glad to see something is coming from this. I wasn't a member of this group. I was at a place called Pershing Park when I was arrested

A larger class-action lawsuit is pending, covering more than 400 people who say they were illegally arrested at Pershing Park.

I suppose I'm part of the large suit that is still pending. I was arrested at Pershing Park, and I had contact with lawyers about this immediately after the fact. Though I haven't heard from them in years. I do however still have the following memento:

The following is a little odd though:
Sofiya Goldshteyn, then a George Washington University student from Ukraine, never made it to her work-study job that day. Instead, she said, she endured plastic handcuffs that were too tight, hunger, filthy water, cold concrete floors, strip-searches and fear that she would be deported.

We all had to endure plastic hand cuffs -- 16 hours on bus. I'm a little on the flexible side, so I was able to slip out of them behind my back and put them back on in front of me. We were given bottled water, little juice boxes, and bag lunches of bologna sandwiches and granola bars. Of course with this crowd there were a disproportionate number of vegetarians, but food was provided and only runway models are going to starve by not eating for a day. I kept at the police training facility, specifically on a gymnasium floor. They were nice enough to put mats down for everyone though. As frisky as they were, no one strip-searched me. This isn't to say it didn't happen to some folks, but I don't think it was the norm. Most of the police were polite -- of course I was polite to them. The situation was uncomfortable -- having my hand zip tied to my ankle for 11 hours on the gym floor was a pain in the ass. This isn't to say the woman mentioned in the article is lying or exaggerating, I just had a different experience.

I was fairly secure in my belief that we were arrested illegally. There's no reason to be rude to the police though. The civil rights violation came from the person who gave the order to arrest everyone and not the individual carrying it out. How they chose to carry it out may be questionable, but most of my experiences were benign.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Legislative Priorities

So, I get an email from factcheck.org discussing the spin put on the budget proposed by the democrats who currently control our legislative branch. I've never really been a big fan of Democrats, but the Republicans here just seem asinine.

When the Republicans were in control of congress they passed a series of tax cuts. They designed these tax cuts to expire so they could make the pill a little easier to swallow: 'look were only going to have an impact of n dollars on the federal budget, it's no big deal'. Of course, if these tax cuts were made permanent and the estimates were made with this extended time horizon, the impact on the federal budget would be substantial. So the Republicans passed their tax cuts set to expire in 2012.

I should say that I'm not particularly opposed to tax cuts. I think they should be made with spending cuts as well. However, the out of touch bureaucrats in Washington want to have their cake _and_ eat it too. It's so comforting to know that my country is living off of credit cards.

The Republicans controlled both the executive and legislative branches of our fine government for six years. In the three years following the passage of the last set of tax cuts in 2003, there was ample opportunity to pass legislation making those tax cuts passed in 2001 and 2003 permanent. Instead our congress had other legislative priorities. For example, in 2005 our fine government passed a law to 'save' woman who was in a persistently vegetative state from her husband. A husband who decided that after a decade in this state it was time to end his wife's life [1].

How nice of our 'Republican' government to intervene in what is a deeply personal decision that had already worked its way through our justice system. This wasn't a random course of action, it was taken because there was reliable evidence to suggest that this woman wasn't actually in a persistently vegetative state. Bill Frist, a 'renowned heart surgeon' and the Senate majority leader, had identified this misdiagnosis _by_ _watching_ _a_ _video_ _tape_.

If permanent tax cuts were really a priority to the Republicans, then they would have passed them. Instead they were busy pandering to the religious part of their base and flipping the bird to their constituents concerned civil liberties and fiscal responsibility. They have lost all credibility in this debate for the foreseeable future.

[1] http://news.findlaw.com/hdocs/docs/schiavo/bill31905.html
[2] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A48119-2005Mar18.html

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Learning from Books

Many moons ago I sat in my 10th grade geometery class taught by Mrs. Matlock. I was a long haired punk kid living Arkansas, and I was angry at everone and everything: the world, my teachers, all the kids who told me I was going to hell for not believing the same thing they did, small town America... many I was sweating contempt. One day, Mrs Matlock -- to whom I was quite a pain in the ass -- was sick and we had a substitute teacher, Mrs Hefflin. I was a smartass, and I wasn't selective about it. At one point, Mrs Hefflin looked at me and asked me if I had taken Algebra II. When I told her no, she said something to the effect of: "Good, so I wont see you in calculus when you're a senior". To me, this was some kind of a challenge. I filed it away in my head and thought about it.

The following year I started dating a girl named Brooke while I was in the 11th grade and taking Algebra II, and it seemed that I was destined to finish highschool taking advanced math and trigonometry. I was talking to Brooke's dad Mike, and he told me how useful Calculus was. He basically said that I should take it. I explained to him that I needed trigonometry to take it, and I couldn't take that until my senior year. Somewhere along the way, perhaps I was talking to my guidance conselor who would eventually have an affair with the married secretary in the office, the option of taking trig over the summer at the local college, Arkansas Tech University (ATU), came up. Alas, ATU wasn't offering trig that summer; though I did take the freshman chemistry class.

However, all hope was not lost. I still had a chance to throw this in Mrs Hefflins face. It turns out that Mike was willing to teach Heather (Brooke's sister) and myself Trigonometry over the summer. I spoke with Mrs. Hefflin and she said we could each take an equivalency exam at the end of the summer. If we passed them, then we could take calculus. Mrs. Hefflin gave me three copies of an old trig book and classes started a couple weeks into the summer. Mike worked at a the control room used for training at the Nuclear plant, and we would meet in his office. It was largely a self study type of class where I would read throught the book, try to understand the examples, and work on homework problems. Every couple weeks Heather, Mike, and I would meet in his office. There he'd introduce new concepts and answer questions we may have had.

Eventually, the summer ended. Calculus started and we were never asked to take an exam over trigonometry. I didn't feel the need to push the point. I was a little nervous about starting a class where I didn't "feel" I had the prerequisite, but I still did well in calculus. Mike was right also, that's probably one of the most useful math classes I took. I was talking to Mrs Hefflin towards the end of the year. I reminded her about the conversation we had during my Geometery classes two years prior. Her response was something along the lines of: "I said that?". It's ironic because I was driven partially by spite, but I failed to spite her. It worked out well because she really was a nice lady, and I have a lot of respect for her.

That whole experience taught me a couple things, though I didn't realize them until much later. The first realization that I came too almost a decade later was that I was a major asshole when I was younger. I'm not sure much has changed, but there is something to be said for being selfaware in this reguard. The second thing I learned is that with a little patience and persistance, I can learn almost anything from a book. It's difficult for me to put into words how much this has helped me both in and out of school. This is something I realized in graduate school when I was trying to take information from across diciplines and combine it all together into something coherent -- at least I like to think it is coherent ;). It's also really helped me in the Peace Corps where I taught classes pretty far from my area of expertise.

Note: I still have a lot of respect for structured education: It is important because it is how many people prefer to learn. Good guidelines for what to learn and the order in which things should be learned for any given field or subject are also products of this methodology. Lastly, exposure to topics indirectly related to the primary subject of interest is a good biproduct.

Friday, February 23, 2007

inkscape

I was working on a lab manual, and I needed to make some diagrams. I remembered that I downloaded this program before I left the US called Inkscape. I'm pretty impressed with it. Here is something I put together from an SVG map of the US I found on Wikipedia.

Argument and Persuasion

A review of 'An Inconvenient Truth'

Living in Samoa means that many things people in the States have access to can be a little harder to get here. We get movies, but they sometimes take a while to trickle down to my level. A couple weeks ago a volunteer came by with some movies, and I copied them to watch later. One of these movies was "An Inconvenient Truth". I've had some discussion with my friends about this movie, and most of my statements were limited to what I'd read about it. Now that I've seen it I'd like to share some thoughts.

I think of the global warming debate as a continuum with two distinct ends. On one end we have complete denialists. An example of this would be large oil companies who fund ads saying that CO2 is what plants breath and it's nothing but wholesome goodness for the environment. On the other end of the spectrum lie end of worlders that a friend described colorfully as "Gaia worshiping communists". I think most people lie somewhere in the middle with groups tending to lean in one direction or the other.

I was under the assumption that this movie was supposed to sell global warming as a problem that needed to be dealt with. It's important now to establish what the debate is about. The debate isn't really about whether anthropogenic (fancy word for man-made) climate change is occurring or not. The debate is about the extent and the eventual effects of such climate change. Conflating these two questions is a good way to confuse and mislead an observer who is not completely familiar with the science -- of which I believe this movie does a good job. Note: I'm not claiming to be a climatologist, rather I'm more careful about parsing words for their meaning.

Returning to the movie as a sales pitch for the ill effects of global warming: when one tries to sell something, one looks at their target audience. It's easy to sell something to someone eager to buy it, so a movie targeted at the left in the US probably isn't that useful --- preaching to the choir and all that. So if a movie on this topic is likely to have utility as a sales pitch, it will need to be made such that it appeals to skeptics (those undecided in the center and those lying to the right on this issue).

The easiest way to loose an argument in my mind is to overstate ones case. Take Bush's position on leaving detainees in a legal limbo between prisoners of war and normal prisoner status -- which leads to denying them the ability to face their accusers, defend themselves in a court of law, etc. I personally find this appalling, and I'm sure I'd have many people on the left that agree with me. In this debate, the far left frequently identifies the President as the anti-Christ, and attempts to associate him with Hitler. This is not a good way to sway someone to who might be on the fence about an issue, and it only serves to motivate people who already agree them with the issue at an emotional level. The left doesn't have a monopoly on this inability to persuade. Consider the far rights response to the left on the same issue. Anyone who would give rights to detainees would attempt to "provide aid and comfort to the enemy" -- wording that translates into treason. Voting for the Democrats is a vote for Al Queda, etc. So either you're on Bush/Hitlers side, or you favor helping Al Queda. Who could ask for better options?

The previous digression applies to global warming -- an issue which I sometimes consider to be the left's version of 'Saddam has WMD and he wants to kill your babies'. 'An Inconvenient Truth' that I would pose is this: overstating your argument to appeal to people at the emotional level instead of appealing to their ability to reason is a good way to get people who already agree with you fired up while simultaneously turning off those who you probably need on your side. I'd like to share some thoughts on the movie in this regard.

First, Al Gore takes jabs at the President for the 2000 election, his weak record on what I would call using policy to guide science (an issue I tend to agree with Gore on). Those are the first two to come to my mind. Now, I must admit that I laughed out loud when Gore jokingly commented that a elementary school teacher of his who ridiculed a fellow classmate for making a strange yet correct observation was now Bush's science advisor. Of course, I agree with him on this issue, but how would someone who voted for Bush feel about this? One obvious thought coming from the Bush voter might be: "The guy you voted for is dumb, and by association you are dumb for voting for him". That's over 40 million Americans right there.

To me and honest debate provides both sides of an issue, or multiple sides if they are relevant. As an example of providing both sides to a debate, I'll look at Kyoto. As it stands right now the US is the leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. As a result we are the worlds whipping boy. Kyoto was created to address this, and the US catches a lot of heat for not agreeing to it. I agree with Bush on this decision. Why is that? Folks like China want their cake and wish to eat too. In one of the final rounds of negotiation, China basically said they are not going to agree to limit their emissions. Their argument is that they are a developing country and they deserve a period of pollution to get their economy going. Basically we have to change but the developing world, which is poised to overtake us on emissions within the next decade, doesn't have to. How does Gore present this:

<blockquote>
Are we going to be left behind as the rest of the world moves forward? All of these nations have ratified Kyoto. There are only two advanced nations in the world that have not ratified Kyoto and we are one of them. The other is Australia.
</blockquote>

So, Kudos to China for signing a treaty which requires little from them economically, and shame on the US for refusing to sign on to the same treaty which it can be argued would have significant economic demands. Remember that this is a treaty that's been watered down so much it will have almost no impact on global warming. Gore presents a neither fair nor balanced treatment of Kyoto, and anyone familiar with the details will understand this. However, if you are not familiar with these details, the movie paints a down right dastardly picture of the US in this regard.

Now consider the conflation I mentioned above. In the movie, Gore takes a sample of scientific papers in the field of climatology to determine the current consensus on anthropogenic climate change. His sample shows that all the papers surveyed showed the following: anthropogenic climate change is a fact, meaning that man is in fact having an effect on the climate. Heck, I believe even Bush agrees with this statement. The problem I have is that he trys to conflate this consensus with all of the horrible _possible_ effects. For example he goes on to talk about the western part of Antarctica or all the glaciers in Greenland melting into the oceans. He doesn't attempt to determine what the scientific consensus is on these events, and I would argue that he doesn't do anything to prevent conflation of scientific consensus about the probability of these events with the consensus on anthropogenic climate change.

Next consider some of the possible secondary effects of global warming. Gore speaks of animals going extinct as a result of climate change. To me this is a very possible reality depending on the degree of climate change. During this portion of presentation he shows pictures of extinct species. Just glancing at the screen I noticed that there was a picture of a dodo bird and one of the tasmanian tiger (a marsupial similar to a dog with tiger-like strips on it's back). The dilemma here is that these animals have gone extinct as a result of being hunted to extinction, and not, to the best of my knowledge, as a result of global warming.

Another secondary effect of climate change is the ability of species to move to different regions that cooler climates would have prevented them from moving. He cites as an example of this the west Nile virus being spread by mosquitos. I honestly have no idea about this, but he also shows pictures of other diseases. The first one I noticed was ebola. I have never heard about any study linking the spread of ebola to global warming. I'm not saying it doesn't exist, I've just never heard of it. But let me tell you this. If I thought that global warming would lead to me bleeding to death from every hole in my body, I'd certainly become concerned about global warming. Of course this doesn't cause me to think, it makes me react out of fear.

In order to explain complicated issues to the lay person, the issues sometimes have to be simplified to a degree. I understand this need, and I'm sure my understanding of climate change is no where that of a climatologist. However, just as I'm no climatologist, Al Gore is obviously no mathematician. At one point he makes the following statement:

<blockquote>
The earth climate is like a big engine for redistributing heat from the equator to the poles. It does that by means of ocean current and wind current. They tell us, the scientists do, that the earth climate is a non-linear system. It's a fancy way they have of saying that the changes are not all just gradual. Some of them come suddenly in big jumps.
</blockquote>

I may not understand atmospheric dynamics, but I do understand mathematical modeling. I can tell you, for example, that linear systems can respond quickly (in process control we say the system has a small time constant), and there are nonlinear systems that respond quite sluggishly. When someone says that a system is nonlinear, a more honest interpretation I believe, when applied to the global climate, is _complicated_. The system can be described mathematically over the range of data we currently have. However our ability to predict what will happen will get worse as we try to predict further into the future and it will get worse as we try to predict outside of our current dataset. In other words complicated leads to "we don't completely understand it", which will probably then lead us to "there is a debate about what can happen when the CO2 levels increase".

The following is speculation based on my understanding of mathematical modeling on which I feel somewhat qualified to comment. I speculate that the climate models are characterized by parameters. These parameters are probably derived from climate data. These data have a certain amount of variability associated with them which means that there is variability in the model parameters. This variability translates into variability in what these models predict. In English this means that these models can probably predict anything from the four horsemen of the apocalypse coming down and raining pestilence and all that biblical stuff (read: the melting of all the ice in Antarctica or Greenland). They can also predict a slight increase in temperature and much more benign effects. What will really happen will lie somewhere in between those to scenarios.

Why should I harp on these points? Am I just arguing semantics and presentation style? Well, this movie is trying to communicate a position on an issue to people who may not be familiar with the issue. It deals with concepts that many may find complicated or confusing. The people I think the movie targets, or should target, are the skeptics. As soon as a skeptic sees something they are familiar with and are capable of demonstrating that what was said misrepresented some fact, they will quite likely move on to the next logical thought: If this one thing I do understand was misrepresented, how can I trust the rest of this presentation? By overstating his case, Al Gore has produced a movie which does little to convince previously skeptical people of his position. By taking jabs at Bush, he is alienating a large group of people he really needs in order to move his agenda into the mainstream. Basically, An Inconvenient Truth to me is nothing more than a sermon to the choir of people who already agree with it's premises. I've provided a few examples, and these were the ones that jumped out at me. I wouldn't be surprised if there were more.

Issues like this should be debated openly and honestly. If Al Gore is really concerned with this issue he should present it in a way that appeals to reason and logic and not emotions. Sure, he can present that one of the possible outcomes of global warming is large scale melting of ice at the poles. He should not conflate the scientific consensus with respect to anthropogenic climate change with such worst case scenarios. Instead he should lay out the underlying assumptions which lead to these outcomes, the fraction of scientists which believe these to be realistic outcomes, any uncertainty associated with those outcomes, and reasonable opposing theories. The problem with this? Movies intended to make one think critically about a subject tend to be, just like this analysis, exceedingly BOORING.

Keep in mind that I'm neither agreeing nor disagreeing with his position. Rather I'm looking at his methodologies with respect to what I think he is trying to, or should be trying to, accomplish. An alternative would be to provide the even handed debate I stated above, and also look into what I consider to be harmful effects of the US dependence on foreign oil. I think energy independence would be very appealing to folks on both sides of the debate. Of course, in the short term (next 20-50 years) I think this means more reliance on nuclear power which many on the left think is just as bad as fossil fuels.

As an aside, am I the only one who thought this movie was a commercial for PowerBooks (now MacBooks) and Apple's presentation software Keynote? In this regard, I think they may have attracted the appropriate target audience.

All quotes taken from this unofficial transcript:

http://www.hokeg.dyndns.org/AITruth.htm


cross posted to http://27months.blogspot.com/
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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Mom and Pop Pharacists

So it appears that Wal-Mart has been testing a program out with it's employees to provide generic drugs inexpensively. How are they doing this? Well Wal-Mart is doing exactly what they've done in the past to drive prices down: A combination of hard negotiating and streamlining of the supply chain. Because of their buying power, Wal-Mart is capable of dictating, to some degree, the prices they are willing to pay. This is obviously still profitable to the drug companies, though I think few people would shed crocodile tears for big pharma. I get the impression that some people would vascillate between whether Novartis or Wal-Mart are the bigger evil. However, there is concern for the Mom and Pop Pharmacists as discussed in the linked article:
He [Scott Pace, associate executive vice president of the Arkansas Pharmacists Association] said the program could hurt pharmacies, especially in rural parts of the state where most of them are independently owned or are in small grocery stores.

“If the market falls to that level [$ 4 ], those pharmacies rely on generic medications, just like the brand-name medications, to sustain profitability. And I don’t believe the pharmacies in those areas can afford to make generic drugs loss leaders.”

Of course there are a couple solutions to this problem. There is the stateist option of passing legislation to enshrine the inefficiencies of the current distribution system to protect the little guys. This may be the first impulse of some, and I would hope they fight it. While Wal-Mart may put certain businesses out of business because of their purchasing power, I tend to side on the camp that suggests that by providing inexpensive products cheaply they are doing a service to people in the lower income. Many would call this a "race to the bottom" and say we are "selling our souls for cheap Chinese imports". That may be the case, but I think that pharmaceuticals are one instance where cheaper is better. Sure, if I cannot afford my egg beater and Wal-Mart doesn't make it possible for me to get one cheaper, I'm not going to die. However the drugs under consideration here "include standard drugs for treatment of diabetes, heart disease, asthma, glaucoma and thyroid conditions."

So what to do? Well, I do not think it is a good idea for a business to be built on enefficincies. These small town pharmacies provided a valuble service in the past, but in changing times, they must remain competative. So my suggestion? Individually, they have no buying power, and this is the delima. However, collectively I would imagine they have a significant amount of buying power --- probably not as much as walmart, but enough to significantly reduce their operating costs:

One option would be for the pharmacists trade groups, like the Arkansas Pharmacists Association mentioned in the article, to start working together to get bulk pricing deals for their constituents. They could also work out the logistics involved in shipping and storage to supply their members. Is this going to happen over night? Heck no, it took Wal-Mart years to dominate these aspects of business. On the positive side, Wal-Mart has spent a lot of money perfecting the issues of logistics, but I would imagine many of these secrets are obtainable from industrial engineers, MBAs, etc. My suggestion will of course involve large capital costs, but it costs money to run a business. If it's not worth money to stay in business, then it's time to find another business. It's the harsh reality of our economy.