Archive for April 2007

Who Says Science Isn’t Politicized?

April 28, 2007

Every so often, Erin O’Connor at Critical Mass makes a comment or quotes someone indicating that the humanities are bastions of left-wing thought and PC propaganda while ‘the sciences’ (defined vicariously as math, chemistry, physics, biology and related disciplines) have remained relatively free of such influences.

Fjordman of Gates of Vienna has written a long, reflective, and funny post on the politicization of higher education, using Ward Churchill and ACTA’s report, How Many Ward Churchills? as starting points. Fjordman begins by noting what many of the ACTA report critics have strenuously denied, that there is a logical connection between the fact of the Ward Churchill scandal and the question, “How many professors like Ward Churchill are there?”: “His notoriety focused attention, not just on his outlandish views and alleged fraudulent activities, but also on the entire “tenured radical” phenomenon in the modern academy. How many other Ward Churchills are there? Is it likely that he toils alone in his tower of radical pedagogy?” He then goes on to describe what reading the ACTA report was like for him: “Reading the ACTA report makes me glad that my son, the future Baron Bodissey, is a chemistry major. Mathematics and the sciences are largely exempt from the ugly cant that infests the humanities courses,” he writes; “One of the notable features of the classes listed by ACTA is how much alike they all are. … They all sound alike, and after a while the litany of transgressive gendered oppression whiteness colonial racism community activism imperialism social change blurs into a meaningless background drone. … After reading a few of these, you say to yourself, “You can’t make this s**t up!” These course listings are like lefty Mad-Libs, with a predictable script and blanks to be filled in.”

(Emphasis mine.) It’s tempting to believe it, but lately I’ve grown to wonder. Ok, I lie. It’s not just lately.

From Sean at Cosmic Variance:

You know what’s a really big problem? The Farm Bill. The quintennial piece of legislation that steers billions of dollars into subsidies for farmers who mass-produce the raw materials of which junk food is made. Yeah, I know, not exactly a hot topic, nor our normal fare. But Michael Pollan in the Times lays out a devastating indictment of the current system, which encourages our economy to overproduce food that is incredibly bad for us, while busting the federal budget, ruining the environment, and hurting small farmers and developing countries to boot. (Via Marginal Revolution.)

Well, ok then. He’s allowed to write on any damn topic he likes, and in fact, I think he writes pretty well. It’s just that the man’s a Ph.D. astronomer (Harvard, no less) and a bit, shall we say, out of his league with economics, not to mention nutrition? Lest you think that this is an aberation for my friend Sean, perhaps you should know that he’s looking forward to his engagement with the Yearly Kos event, and that he is indeed a proud Kosack.

Here he’s helped along this path by Mark, of the same blog. The topic? Religion. You’d think that if this is not exactly the author’s field of study, that he should be at least a little respectful, wouldn’t you?

But I don’t mean to pick on just Cosmic Variance, which is truly a fine resource when it sticks to Astronomy and Physics. There are many other scientists on-line who like to wear their liberalism on their sleeve. When compared with a real religion writer, someone who in fact knows something about the topic, the writings of the um… scientist rather pales in comparison.

And in fact, this cuts both ways, politically speaking. At least Rand Simberg is smart enough to let the experts speak.

There are entire magazines that devote themselves, editorially speaking, to what can only be called left-wing science. Even the venerable Scientific American seemingly cannot refrain from PC rhetoric with this article, entitled Bush’s Mistake and Kennedy’s Error, or this one, entitled The Road to Clean Energy Starts Here, which seems to confuse science with technology (I cannot confirm that SciAm’s range of topics is no longer limited to science, but includes technology as a matter of course. I ended my subscription to SciAm about thirty years ago when I noticed them pontificating about the dangers of Global Cooling and overpopulation). Both appear in the May 2007 print edition.

Erin O’Connor’s protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, the Sciences are most definitely not immune from the same influences that have destroyed the humanities in academia and the credibility of the press outside of it.

It’s Spring

April 22, 2007

…so it must be time for a Linux update. Oddly enough, with the introduction of their 2007.1 (Spring) version, Mandriva shows that they agree with me.

Usually I download their 3 (or 4, with extras) CD “free” version. This time I tried the Live “One” version, a single CD that executes without installation (very nice for verifying hardware compatibility), and installs optionally. It took a total of thirty minutes to install and confirm that it had the necessary drivers to run my sound card, my wireless network connection, the networked printer, the graphics card, and of course, my standard keyboard, mouse and monitor. By the forty-five minute mark, I had installed to hard drive, restored my saved files and re-installed some available software (like the kstars planetarium software) that I like and use, and restored some plug-ins (like the java jre). I was done in time for dinner.

And today I’m saying Wow! This was definitely the most painless install I’ve ever done (far easier than the Windows2000 install I’ll be facing shortly). The drivers for both wireless and graphic cards are vastly improved from, let’s say, two years ago. I can barely remember how difficult it was to get those things working in Mandrake 10.0! And you can tell by checking the users groups (try Mandriva Users), that the sound card problems plaguing nearly everyone in living memory are effectively gone.
I had had a problem with the Open Office Spreadsheet program, probably introduced by a botched update. The program ran perfectly, but loaded exceedingly slowly, wait time measured in minutes (plural), not seconds. That problem is gone.

The 2007.1 Spring version features the Linux 2.6.17-13 kernel, two new desktop managers for KDE, Matisse and “3-D desktop”, and Beryl is available. There are several bug-fixes, including the fix to an annoying, but minor, problem with the Mandriva Control Center, and a fix to something I discovered a month ago: it’s possible to screw-up the remote printer sensing in a way that requires the user to re-install the OS to fix. At least, I could find no other way to fix it. The installation correctly sensed my wireless networking card, offered a choice of two drivers (one being a true Linux driver, the other a “wrapper” that uses the windows driver provided with the card), and automatically installed wpa-supplicant to allow effective encryption. Excellent!

Last build, the Nvidia graphics card required a driver not provided with the installation. This time, the driver was immediately available. Also excellent. And as usual, those packages not available on the installation disk are available through Easy Urpmi for free-gratis. More than excellent.

As for aesthetics, the default scheme is the relatively new “La Ora” orange, which is perhaps a might harsh, but a welcome change to the remorseless blue to which many Linux distributions default. With KDE and Matisse, the change works pretty well, especially at boot-up. I’m still learning about Matisse, but I think I see one defect – it doesn’t seem to integrate well with the multi-desktop functions of KDE. Or I’m mis-understanding something. Maybe. Can’t tell yet.
Other than that, I like the new functionalities of these more advanced desktops, even after the fun of playing with flipping pages and rotating cubes is gone.

As I expected, I’ve seen absolutely no stability problems, and boot-up is improved over previous versions. Well, boot-up is never fast enough, but it’s not bad with 2007.1. Not bad at all. Old problems that plagued 2005 (the borked menu-updater and starry-eyed penguin) and 2006 (transparent cursor and CAT) are just gone.

Complaints? 1) Where’s the screen savers? Only 3 are provided, and one of those is “none”. 2) Usually I install nntp to and let the clock check the time against time-servers on boot. I’ve done that, but now I can’t tell from the clock that it’s actually using nntp to get the time. I’d sure like an indication that this is, indeed, what’s happening.

I’m a happy man.

Considering McCain

April 16, 2007

I’m an incorrigible optimist. It suddenly appears to me that we have unusually large number of candidates who are, if not perfect, fairly worthy for this stage of the political game.

And not just on the Republican side, either. Agree with her or not, Hillary Clinton is worth serious consideration. Obama, although his resume is short, is attracting money for a reason. He is an attractive candidate at this point. Edwards, despite a Jack Kemp-esque performance on the campaign trail in ’06, is a much more seasoned campaigner now, and will be a factor.
And despite some in-fighting, the Republicans have three strong contenders in Giuliani, McCain and Fred (not Tommy) Thompson, all of whom have good things to commend them, and some serious short comings (all three seem to see abortion as the new third rail of politics).

And this leaves out Al Gore, who is no Washington lightweight, and Dennis Kucinich, who is (at least as far as presidential contenders go). It’s a long list. And if history is any indicator, the eventual nominees are not in that list. (Fortunately, history is not an indicator).

So I’ve been working on a list of issues that I think are important, and trying to identify each candidate’s position on these issues. Usually, a given candidate’s position is indistinguishable from the party-line. That’s to be expected. So when a candidate deviates from the party line, it’s notable.

One of my issues is taxes, especially the burden they place on small business, not in money, but in time and effort (and hence, in money, too). For years I’ve been ranting about taxes along these lines: “Taxes work very efficiently, exactly as intended. Oh, they’re no longer intended to raise revenue for the country. The purpose of taxes, as far as Congress is concerned, is to reward Congress’s friends and punish it’s enemies. And they do that well.” My friends have heard me use this line (too) many times.

So imagine my surprise today, to read:

The tax code gets plenty of grief from conservatives and libertarians. Its extensive series of penalties and benefits comes from the efforts of Congress to mold the income tax into a weapon for politicians to use against opponents and on behalf of allies. Instead of a simple system where every taxpayer can pay the government a rational portion of one’s earnings, the current system is so complex that all but the most unburdened taxpayer has to pay for outside help, personal or technological, to comply with the law.

in The Captain’s Quarters, where he quotes The NY Sun:

In a major economic policy speech today, Senator McCain will pledge to fix what he calls an “incomprehensible” and “Byzantine” federal tax code, casting himself as the candidate who will fight for changes that others have failed to achieve.

If he’s serious, if he continues to press this issue though 2008, and if he speaks as clearly on the issues of the Global War on Terror, Illegal Immigration and abortion, Sen. McCain will distinguish himself from the crowd.

Update: In an odd coincidence, Sean at Cosmic Variance points out that John Edwards also has a tax simplification plan. He (Sean) also takes me (um… Republicans) to task for not wanting taxes to be painless. He then proceeds to praise the makers of anti-freeze for making their drink sweet “for the children”.

Son-of-a-gun, my sarcasm button is stuck, again.

Diet Science

April 16, 2007

I went on a diet at the start of Lent. But instead of just watching what I ate and just watching the scale, I decided to keep the daily record of my weight in a spreadsheet. It was amazing to watch the data unfold.

But not at first. In fact, for the first week, it seemed like my weight was a “random walk”. Give or take a pound and a half, I wasn’t sure I wasn’t doing anything except giving up donuts for Lent (which, in fact, I did. That was the start of the diet).

But by week two, it seemed that there was a difference, if slight. By week three I thought to use the spreadsheet’s graphing function, and plotted the data I had. It actually looked like there was a (slight) downward drift. By week four, I started to plot not only the data set, but also a “least squares” linear fit through the points. Sure enough, the line showed me an 82% correlation coefficient, and also told me that I had a real weight loss that was almost hidden at first by noise!

Noisy data. Go figure.

I used to teach university physics, many years ago, and sometimes I wish I could do that again, just to show the students the science behind this simple exercise. Really! Instead of those once-a-week labs, where students in the ’70s used 1940s equipment on a canned experiment that someone thought demonstrated something meaningful in the ’30s, there’s no reason that students couldn’t get more out of a simple bathroom scale.
Think of it.
Data gathering – the weigh in. Answer this – what is better science; weighing yourself daily, or weighing yourself just before breakfast when you can?
Data reduction – can you calibrate your instrument? Did you “zero-out” the scale? How do you know that the spring in the scale isn’t losing its spring slowly as you weigh something as heavy as you for a semester?
Data reduction – can better calibrations be done? How do you know that when the scale says 150, it really means 150, and that when it tells you you’ve lost 10 lbs, it isn’t really 9? Can you figure out a better way to view what the scale is tell you?
Data reduction – You carefully calibrate your scale, you make sure that the measurement is taken with as few varying factors as you can, and you find that there’s still noise in the data, because the human body is inconstant. We can easily fit a straight line though the data, and use that line to give us a better measure of our weight. What does that line tell us about our weight in a month? 6 months? 10 years? For me, the straight line currently says that sometime in September of 2009, I will weigh 0 lbs. What does this mean?
Data interpretation – Does an exponential curve fit the data set better? If it does, what does it mean? What assumptions are we making if we chose a particular curve, and especially what hidden assumptions are we making when we chose a curve to fit the data?
Data interpretation – How good is our curve when we extrapolate outside the range of the data?
Wisdom (and extra credit) – Apply these principles to the science behind global warming.

Tragedy and the Press

April 16, 2007

There is nothing I or anyone can say that properly expresses the dismay we’ve all felt at times of tragedy (that’s the realm of poets). And today’s tragedy at Virginia Tech is no exception.

But at 2:30 eastern, some 6 hours after the first reports of the shootings, noticed that there were no reports from either the MSM or from bloggers that came close to answering some real questions:
Was there more than one gun-man?
There were reports early that the school was not locked down after the first shootings. Is that true?
Was this a terrorist attack?
Why was the press not saying that it did not have the answers to these questions, but were looking for the answers?
Why was the press asking incredibly inane questions like “Would more gun control laws have helped?”

Bloggers seemed to be either ignoring the story (or politely waiting until they had real information) or providing forums for others to speculate, sometimes irrationally and stupidly.

Disappointment all around.

I pray for the victims, their families, friends, and for the survivors.

Mobile Phones Are a Disaster! Panic!!

April 15, 2007

Mobile phones wiping out honey bees!

Or not.

In Case You Were Wondering…

April 14, 2007

… if the world is still a dangerous place, there are people determined to prove to you that it is. It most certainly is.