Saturday, August 17, 2002

YOU KNOW, ONCE YOU sue for a hundred trillion dollars, you might as well sue for a gazillion dollars and get it over with. Journalists are always impressed by the sums of damages demanded, but don't realize that in federal cases where punitive damages are sought, there is no requirement that the complaint's demand for damages have any bearing on reality.
AUDIO OF THE Lileks radio interview in Minnesota.
SPEAKING OF MATT WELCH, I was browsing "The Cult of Kibu" in the local Borders Friday, and see that it quotes liberally from his OJR report on his dot-com days at DEN. The book is shockingly tone-deaf, with such howlers as calling an "e-zine" and claiming that "TANSTAAFL," an acronym I heard from Barney Schwalberg in my first economics class fifteen years ago, was part of the new indecipherable jargon of the Internet era. There's absolutely no perspective of the place of the Internet bubble in history, and the interviews are too haphazard to be any sort of comprehensive record of the moment. So what we're left with is a bunch of themed and repetitious anecdotes corresponding with the author's own failed three-month experience generally proclaiming "Here's a bunch of wacky stuff that happened." And even some of the wacky stuff wasn't so wacky, such as the eight-digit Ebay bid for a uncommercial domain name, where the bid turned out to be phony. (There's also another anecdote of faux naivete where the author pretends she didn't know what "VC" stood for.) Entertaining magazine piece, but too thin a gruel for a full book. (On the other hand, Wired liked it.)
KATE SULLIVAN HANGS out with The Donnas. (via Welch)
I LAUGHED OUT loud when I read this New Yorker piece in print, and Howard Bashman links to it.
A COUPLE OF DAYS AGO, I was driving home on the 395, and the highway sign indicated an Amber Alert for a missing girl. No details, though. (I still have no idea what it was all about.) Was I supposed to call 911 whenever I saw a female under the age of 18? The Times reports, sensibly, that there is a real risk of overuse of the system.
IT SEEMS TO ME to be a uniquely Jewish trait to create complicated and burdensome interpretations of religious law, and then to devise contortionistic loopholes to evade the original interpretation. The Sabbath, for the observant Shomer Shabbas, creates many of these issues. It's deemed improper "work" to push a button on an elevator, but there's nothing wrong with pre-programming the elevator to stop at every floor and happening to go along for the ride. Similarly, it is deemed that the laws of the Shabbos prohibit the carrying of keys or money or the use of wheelchairs in a public area. This creates problems. Solution: build a wall around the public area, and call it a private area within which these activites are permitted. Problem: it's infeasible to build such walls. Solution: string wires along poles, and hold that the poles and wire serve as giant door-frames. Thus, the "eruv", and, accordingly, public controversies over proposed eruvs. It's easy enough to characterize the opposition to eruvs as irrational (there was a similar controversy when I lived in Los Angeles), but it's equally hard to rationalize the tsuris, or agonizing, over the details.

It would be Lamarckian to extrapolate from this why so many of my people end up becoming lawyers. But.

(As an aside, the word "Lamarckian" is perhaps unfair to Lamarck. As another aside even further off-topic, see this essay on Stalin and Lysenko. Or consider that the "Intelligent Design" "equal time" principle of science education would, if fairly applied, mean that another chunk of biology class would have to devoted to Lamarck.)

Friday, August 16, 2002

AIRLINES HAVE SOMETHING LIKE $87 billion worth of air miles outstanding. United Airlines sent me an e-mail assuring me that my miles would be honored in the event of a bankruptcy, though I'm not sure how they can bind themselves legally to that promise. (It would, however, be a disastrous pr ploy to cancel the miles.) I'm not as much of a mileage junkie as others. The following behavior is frankly inexplicable:
"You want to try to maximize your mileage accumulation while minimizing your cost outlay," said Kevin Vukson, a labor union organizer from California who uses the Internet to manage his miles, and often compares notes with other dedicated mileage accumulators online.

In June, Mr. Vukson said he went online and booked the following round-trip flight itinerary from his home near San Francisco: "Oakland to Los Angeles, to San Diego, and then on the red-eye to Chicago," he said. "Chicago to St. Louis, and back to Chicago. Down to New Orleans, up to Denver, and home to Oakland." Booking the red-eye overnight flight was to meet the United Airlines promotional fare's restriction of a one-night stay over.

At $125 for the total round-trip fare, and with a harvest of more than 8,000 frequent-flier miles, including bonus miles, on all of the legs flown, "it was the mother of all mileage runs," Mr. Vukson said.
Collecting pudding I can understand. But paying good money to blow a weekend taking eight flights to nowhere?
THE OFFICIAL "Freaks and Geeks" web site will be shutting down soon, so read about the casting of Stephen Lea Sheppard ("Dudley" in "The Royal Tenenbaums") while you can.

I never did see the television show. I knew if I did, I'd just get annoyed when it got cancelled.

This strategy doesn't always work out well, because I'm now six years behind on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and have pretty much given up catching up.

To tie this altogether, "Freaks and Geeks" writer Rebecca Rand Kirshner now writes for "Buffy," generating fan sites and everything.
THIS BLOGGING THING is getting out of hand when Julius Caesar gets a blog.
MCKINNEYSUCKS.BLOGSPOT.COM is devoted to debunking 9/11 conspiracy theories. It's no surprise that the 9/11 conspiracy theory he focuses on is based on bald lies.
HERE'S a web-site that allows you to access other sites without activating the pop-up ads.
I DON'T HAVE CABLE, so I miss things like this hilarious MSNBC exchange with Jesse Jackson noted by Indepundit. I've owed Scott a reciprocal link for some time now.
I MAKE NO REPRESENTATIONS regarding the maxpower.blogspot neighborhood. Details.
I KNEW A JOURNALIST I sporadically e-mail-pen-pal with was getting married, so I looked up her name as I was looking up someone else on a bridal registry, and found her wedding, which was coincidentally last Sunday. I ordered something small through Williams-Sonoma's on-line site, and was embarrassed to see that my confirming e-mail gave me her address and apartment number.
(For privacy reasons, the city, state and zip code have been omitted.)
Well, I'm sure that's comforting. Okay, I could've gotten the same information out of Google. (Typing in my father's name and city or state there generates his unlisted phone number, for instance. Here's the form you're looking for, Dad.) Still, it seems creepy.
BOB POWERS (no relation) on office birthday parties (naughty language V-chip warning).
I AM HONORED TO NOW BE one of twenty weblogs that Walter Olson's marvelous Overlawyered site links to. Almost makes me wish I was using my real name. (Stuart Buck uses his real name...) The question of pseudonymous blogging has popped up again. I'm marginally pseudonymous (I gave my name to the freaking New York Times, for instance, plus to every blogger I donate money to through paypal); Googlers can't find me, but I've left enough clues on this page that someone could deduce my identity in the other direction if they really cared.

The Olson endorsement is a nice boost. (So is being one of Tony Pierce's top 29 bloggers on his link page.) I also get links from Volokh and Instapundit and Welch and Johnson. So how come I only get 200 readers a day? (Because you go on unannounced week-long job-related absences without updating your blog. Also, sometimes you're writing about politics, sometimes law, sometimes baseball, sometimes evolutionary theory, sometimes just weird stuff. It's schizophrenic and exhausting. -- ed.) There are days I feel like pitching the whole blog concept. Being pseudonymous limits the upside of blogging considerably, and I could be using this writing time to be doing more published work--and if I want to write about baseball, I have a standing offer from a web site to do so. For a month I've been on the borderline of deciding whether to shut down the "Max Power" persona and start a new Howard-Bashman-style blog under my real name and focus on a single subject. But then I'd miss babbling and ranting opinionating about evolution and obscure restaurants and mundane observations and politics.
UPDATE ON THIS POST. A reliable reader who knows more about this stuff than I do tells me
1) It's Stephen Stich, not "Steven Stich";

2) Stich is "known for having once embraced the sort of eliminative materialism associated with the Churchlands (according to which it seems unlikely that science will ever validate our folk psychological ways of talking about beliefs, etc.; hence those ways are illicit). Stich would, I think, recoil in horror at the thought that his work demonstrates the existence of a Creator." (This view is fairly attributable, says he, to Plantinga, who Stuart Buck also cited.)
He also points me to another wonderful Simon Blackburn essay, "I Rather Think I Am A Darwinian".
People who do not know better will think that there must be something right in [David Stove's] criticisms [of Darwinism]. People who do know better may think that philosophy richly deserves its exile to the margins of serious intellectual pursuit. So I hope a very brief comment by a philosopher may do something to restore our tattered dignity.

MORE ON THE FOXP2 gene study from the New York Times.

Thursday, August 15, 2002

NEW YORK TIMES ON In-N-Out Burger. The restaurant denies there's a secret menu, but I've seen the attendants push the buttons on the register for the off-menu styles, as has this web site with a printed receipt for an "Animal style" double-double.
The county, which borders the Mississippi in southwest Illinois, is, according to a study published in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, the nation's leader in class-action filings on a per capita basis.
"There is mounting evidence that what happens in these cases is that the class does not get anything," said John H. Beisner, a lawyer at O'Melveny & Myers in Washington who represents corporate defendants in class actions and is an author of the Harvard study, which was commissioned by the Manhattan Institute. "It's a capital transfer from defendants to plaintiffs' lawyers."
BIONIC EYE technology.
JOSH MARSHALL is on a roll and has lots of good pieces on various Bush administration incompetencies, including evidence that the administration either is not serious about Iraq or is utterly blundering about it. Plus more on Grover Norquist and his efforts to whitewash radical Islamists to gain Republican votes.
THE DETROIT TIGERS try to solve their bottom-of-the-lineup hitting woes by skipping a batter in the second inning. It would be more impressive that their lead-off hitter got two more plate appearances than their .202 hitting catcher in the eight-spot if their lead-off hitter was hitting better than .219.

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

STUART BUCK TROTS OUT the tired slogan that there's never been a homeschool shooting. (Another example of the cliche.) There are certainly arguments for homeschooling, but citing school shootings as one is appalling on multiple levels, not least because our society as a whole is already overwrought over similarly tiny risks.

In any event, next time someone trots out this "argument," here's a homeschool shooting of three teenagers you can throw back in their faces, as if it proves anything. With approximately 1.2 million homeschooled children in the US, a larger percentage of homeschooled children were the victim of "school shootings" than public school kids.
WHICH REMINDS ME to link to the marvelous and well-researched Useless Information site.
THE CITIBANK BUILDING is strengthening its distinctive nine-story support columns that cantilever the corners of the building over the plaza and St. Peter's, as a precaution against a truck bomb on 53rd Street. The New York Times story briefly recounts the massive secret retrofitting that occurred 24 years ago this summer when engineers realized that the building had not been built according to plan (inter alia, steel beams had been bolted instead of welded), leaving it potentially susceptible to toppling in a heavy windstorm. The forthrightness of the engineers and architects in admitting a problem is regularly cited as a shining example.
FASCINATING STORY ABOUT A fugitive caught 32 years after her escape from prison, much to the surprise of her new family, who have set up a legal defense fund, after earlier attempting to claim mistaken identity. That she looked like my ex-wife at the time of her crime spree is surely just a coincidence.
BENEFICIAL MUTATION. One of the standard bogus arguments against evolution is the claim that mutations cannot hope to beneficial. Claims like that are made solely out of ignorance, and should serve to discredit those that make them. There's even less excuse for that ignorance now that a new study demonstrates that a mutated gene is the source of human language skills.
The new paper demonstrates that the human version of the gene, in its critical segments, differs by only three molecules, out of 715, from the version carried by mice and by just two molecules from the version carried by chimpanzees.

Tuesday, August 13, 2002

DO YOU KNOW how hard it is to find a copy of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002?
AMTRAK CANCELS Acela. There had been problems before. It's not a huge deal in the Washington-NY corridor, where the train only saved 15 minutes. But with airlines going bankrupt (despite huge government subsidies), one wonders why it's so necessary for additional government subsidies of Amtrak.
FOILED MURDER PLOT against Czech investigative reporter.
STUART BUCK POINTS me to an interesting New Republic book review of John Polkinghorne. I found it a useful reminder that it's not only the left that's responsible for academic bosh and nonsense; there are still scholars rewarded for calculating the proverbial dancing-angel-to-pin ratio.
At Princeton, Polkinghorne earnestly assures us, he and an "interdisciplinary group of scholars" recently spent three fruitful years making scientific estimates of God's plans for the destiny of the world. According to Polkinghorne and the Princetonians, the last things, when the Day of Judgment comes and the tombs are opened, are a bit like what we have now, but also a bit different: they are an "interplay between continuity and discontinuity." They do not include real Hell. They include only people who have not asked for admission to heaven, and these get some kind of after-life Bible classes. Beyond that, Heaven itself is a bit vague, but it includes pilgrimage and progress and increasing fullness. Heaven does not provide endless harps and psalms; nor, I think, does it afford Aquinas's favored pleasure of watching the tortures of the damned, nor Islam's seventy-two virgins per male martyr. In fact, I could not discover whether it included sex at all, but in their three years of deliberations Polkinghorne's group determined--scientifically, remember--that it may include some animals, especially domestic pets, although perhaps not too many of them, since it is permissible for God to "cull individuals in order to preserve the herd."

In any case, we need not inquire too closely into these details of Polkinghorne and the Princetonians' eschatological calculations, since we are assured in advance that all manner of things shall be well. But why, then, did God not skip the first course, the current Vale of Tears, and go straight to the Fields of Elysium? We are confidently assured that the team's work "clearly establishes the value of the old creation, since it affords the raw material for eschatological transformation into the new creation." Even God, it seems, cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs.
(Tip o' the pin to Glenn Branch, who observed to me in college that anything with the name "science" in it to gild the lily--creation science, Christian science, social science--invariably isn't science.)

In any event, Stuart is distressed at the New Republic view, and suggests that the work of one Steven Stich demonstrates the existence of a Creator. As Buck characterizes it in his comments section:
Stich, for example, argues that natural selection would not, probably could not, select for beings that had the capacity to perceive truth about the universe. There simply is no reason to think that rationality and objectivity would increase survival or reproduction. This is true for many reasons: First, desires play a much more important role in determining behavior than beliefs. A being which believed (falsely) that sex didn't lead to reproduction but which had the desire to engage in sex would survive far better than a being which believe (truly) that sex was important but had no desire to do it. Second, false beliefs might actually improve survival and reproduction in many ways -- if you have the false belief that all snakes are lethal and should be avoided at all costs, you might survive better than someone who believed (truly) that some snakes are harmless but due to erroneous identification ended up approaching a poisonous snake.
I'll admit: I haven't read Stich. But Buck's characterization doesn't make me want to. Either there's some mistaken oversimplification going on, or Stich wrote a whole book premised on a lapse of logic.

It's a fallacy (and, to be fair, one often committed by evolutionary psychologists) to think that everything that exists developed for a reason, when it may just have developed as a side effect. It's thus a non sequitur to argue that because feature X did not convey an evolutionary advantage, evolution could not have produced feature X. If feature X is a function of feature Y, and feature Y conveyed an evolutionary advantage, then there's no reason that evolution could not have produced feature X, just because X by itself conveys no advantage. Even if X is disadvantageous (as Stich apparently hypothesizes), so long as the marginal increase in Y is more advantageous than the disadvantage incurred by the concurrent increase in X, natural selection can develop X.

Here, the "Y" is brain size. There's no question that there was natural selection for intelligence in hominids simply because of the overwhelming and unprecedented development in brain size in the last three million years, with the bulk of that in the last half-million. Concepts of rationality and the search for truth are recent developments made possible only by that increase in reasoning capacity. And, as Pavlov famously showed, it doesn't take a lot of reasoning capacity to unconsciously perform inductive reasoning, even where unnatural stimuli are involved. (There are also fascinating experiments that demonstrate that rats are economically rational actors in a two-good world with varying "prices" -- if a rat learns that the price of one type of food has gone up relative to the other, it will substitute.) Mankind had tens of thousands of years of trial and error to develop epistemology. The fraction of human history (and even recorded human history) where scientific reasoning comes into play is miniscule.

In any event, the overwhelming evidence is that humans are subject to irrational whims, even if there is rational behavior at the margin giving effect to incentives. So, while a capacity for perceiving rationality exists, it is a mistake to claim that humanity has achieved rationality. I can self-identify numerous irrational behaviors and beliefs on my part, and you could make the same self-identification if you tried. (There are perhaps three bloggers for whom blogging is rational behavior. And Andrew Sullivan isn't one of them.) This Sunday's New York Times had a good piece on mankind's false perception of pattern divination: there's an evolutionary advantage to discerning patterns, and little disadvantage to generating false positives in those patterns, and, as a result, most people simply can't grasp the concept of coincidence.

Indeed, there are so many different views of "truth" in human society that no matter which one you pick as the objective truth, be it Christian doctrine or secular humanism or Islam or Buddhism, the majority of humans subscribe to something other than that truth--and that's before you consider the fact that there are schools of Christian thought that take pride in the fact that their faith is irrational. In the words of William McGonagall, the worst poet in history,
When faith and reason clash,
Let reason go to smash.

Monday, August 12, 2002

I FORGOT TO MENTION the new Smarter Harper's Index. Shame on me.
UNFORTUNATELY, IT'S only for one week, but I'll take what I can get. (Hey, Moxie! You mipsled "misspelled.")
ARAB SCAMS fund terrorism. One error in the story:
Arab gangs in Canada truck millions of tablets of pseudoephedrine -- an over-the-counter cold medicine ingredient that is legal in that country -- into the United States, where it is sold to Mexican gangs that use it to manufacture methamphetamine, officials said. Authorities have tracked $10 million in the gang's profits to the Middle East. The government has traced a portion of that money to accounts that are used by Hezbollah, officials said.
Pseudoephedrine is, of course, legal in this country, too. It's just difficult to buy mass quantities of it: check the amusing signs near the cold medicines in any warehouse store like Costco.

The unspoken fact is that things like this imply that those goofy anti-drug commercials that ran during the Super Bowl are true. Except:
But authorities again lost interest in the terror connection after the raid.

"A lot of the money from that large and sophisticated ring was going to the blind sheik," said an informed official, citing telephone records and intelligence information. "But in the end, the FBI and others lost interest [in pursuing similar cases] because there were other things like drugs that were much hotter at the time."
So the focus on the drug war probably did more to damage the country's fight against terrorism than the country's predilection for illegal drugs did.