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Archive for February, 2010

Book review: Mars Underground

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

Mars Underground by William_Hartmann. The book was a good read. It is set on Mars, at a time when thousands of people are on the planet, second stage exploration. People are beginning to think about colonization. The book is a mystery, with an administrator, Carter, his friend the resident artist, Philippe, and a newly arrived reporter, Annie Pohaku, investigating the disappearance of a Stafford, an exobiologist who’s one of the longest serving research scientists and explorers on Mars. Stafford had discovered traces indicating microbial life on Mars billions of years in the past.

The book starts very well, but then seems to stall out in the middle. The plot is uncomplicated and feels too bare. The characterization of the protagonist, Carter, is lacking. The description of Mars and the bases on the planet and Phobos are well done.


There’s nothing to intelligent design creationism

Friday, February 12th, 2010
flagellum electron micrograph
Composite electron micrograph of the flagellum basal body and hook, produced by rotational averaging (Francis et al., 1994).

Stephen M. Barr has an article in First Things, The End of Intelligent Design?. Unfortunately, Barr is looking to rescue something from intelligent design (ID) so his criticisms are muted. His main interest is whether ID has been useful in advancing religion and theology. In a faux even-handed approach he criticizes ID for not proving it’s claims but then tosses in criticism of scientists for unspecified excesses. He also tries to win favor with a religious audience by claiming that “the ID movement has been treated atrociously and that it has been lied about by many scientists”, a judgment he doesn’t substantiate.

The readership of First Things is a strange group, many of the comments go off in philosophical directions but no one is talks about the central issue–whether ID is true or false. Is there good evidence for it? Is it likely to be true? Could it be true? Or is it known to be false?

Barr’s article starts well, it is true that there’s “not a single phenomenon that we understand better today” through ID. To restate that, there is no evidence at all for ID and that is the reason ID has been dismissed by biologists.

When the idea that certain biological structures are “irreducibly complex” was proposed several examples were given: the bacterial flagellum, the immune system, the blood clotting cascade, the vertebrate eye, the Krebs cycle, etc. In fact, biologists have evolutionary models and physical evidence of how each of these things has evolved. No “irreducibly complex” structures were proposed and then proven to be so. In truth, none of the proposed examples are even open questions, things that puzzle biologists that could possibly be shown to be “irreducibly complex” in the future.

And the case for ID is really worse that what I’ve described. It’s not that ID theorists proposed structures that biologists didn’t have good evolutionary models for, structures that could have turned out to be “irreducibly complex”. When these examples were given, there was already published research explaining the evolutionary origins of each example. For example, biologists reviewing Behe’s book were able to look up and reference the research discounting his examples. No better “irreducibly complex” examples have come to light since then.

Converting .m4a sound files to .mp3

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

Converting a single file:

faad -o - file.m4a | lame - file.mp3

Bash script for converting multiple files:


for i in *.m4a; do
    echo "Converting: ${i%.m4a}.mp3"
    faad -o - "$i" | lame - "${i%.m4a}.mp3"

Mortgage Bankers Association makes terrible investment

Saturday, February 6th, 2010

Copied directly from the Calculated Risk blog, but too good to pass up!

The Mortgage Bankers Association … fell victim to the collapse of the market and sold its $90 million headquarters in downtown Washington on Friday for $41 million.

The Mortgage Bankers Association moved into the building in 2008 just as the real estate market was crashing …

Definition of irony…

Scientific consensus

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

In a meta discussion about AGW, Eric Raymond writes about how the term scientific consensus is used in public science debates. He seems to misunderstand it, and think it is an ‘appeal to authority’ type of argument and thus a sign that the party that raises it has no more convincing arguments.

It certainly can be that sort of poor argument, but typically when raised by scientists it is something different. The scientific consensus on a topic is mentioned as a shorthand way of communicating what’s understood by scientists working the field to the public. Scientists are trying to communicate that certain things are known, and that contrary arguments that pick one or two studies and argue that the contrary opinion is *really* true or at least that no consensus exists are misleading. Either the study is part of a technical debate in the field among researchers who all understand and believe the consensus that is being misconstrued or too much weight is being given to the opinion of a rare contrarian.

The contrarians can be further divided into 1) cranks of various sorts and 2) scientists working on a contrary idea who understand that the evidence still favors the consensus but hope to make discoveries that will eventually tip the balance of evidence in favor of their idea. The second scientist will happily talk up his idea if asked about it, but if asked about the consensus will acknowledge that it is currently overall the best explanation.

So scientists will mention the scientific consensus on an issue to the public to ground the discussion with the fundamentals of what is known. With the fundamentals set down, scientists can then explain the details of how things are known, what discussions within the field are about, or discuss contrarians.

Strange land

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

The typical Republican answers yes to four of the questions in this survey* (or four out ten answer yes to all these questions, or some mix of the two). And people in the US used to worry about Russians slipping LSD in the water supply.

Question Yes No Not Sure
Should Barack Obama be impeached? 39 32 29
Do you believe Barack Obama was born in the United States? 42 36 22
Do you think Barack Obama is a socialist? 63 21 16
Do you believe Barack Obama wants the terrorists to win? 24 43 33
Do you believe ACORN stole the2008 election? 21 24 55
Do you believe Sarah Palin is more qualified to be president than Barack Obama? 53 14 33
Do you believe Barack Obama is a racist who hates white people? 31 36 33
Do you believe your state should secede from the United States? 23 58 19
Should openly gay men and women be allowed to teach in public schools? 8 73 19
Should contraceptive use be outlawed? 31 56 13
Do you believe the birth control pill is abortion? 34 48 18

*Flipping yes/no for the gay teacher question.

Survey details here.

The GOP fiscal plan

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

Or rather the lack of one. One after another, GOP statements on what they want in a budget hit the same points again and again. Republicans have decided this year that the federal budget deficit is terrible and must be curbed immediately. Ignore for a moment the Hooverism–that cutting federal spending today will prolong the recession and increase unemployment.

Look at the Republican plan–balance the budget by cutting taxes, increasing defense spending, and leaving Social Security and Medicare intact, and cutting other unspecified programs. The remaining budget, discretionary spending excluding defense only totals $5-600 billion and includes everything from road construction to federal courts to food stamps. With the permanent budget deficit about $600 billion (the 2008-9 bank bailouts and stimulus are one time costs), balancing the budget under the Republican plan doesn’t add up. Adding tax cuts and increased defense spending just make it extra impossible.

Sometimes the impossible can be done in small steps. The Senate voted this week on PAYGO, the deficit reduction measure that allowed Clinton to balance the federal budget in the 90’s. But no, every Republican voted against it.

Stan Collender sums it up in a blog post collecting GOP statements on the federal budget . Here are the bits:

Item 2. All Senate Republicans voted against re-establishing the pay-as-you go rules, which would have required that, with certain exceptions, any new mandatory spending or revenue legislation not increase the deficit. The rules were adopted with only Democratic support.

Item 4. Republican Chairman Michael Steele is saying so often that Republicans are against cuts in Medicare that it’s starting to sound like a mantra. Add to that their stated opposition to revenue increases (see #1 above), military spending reductions, homeland security reductions, and the extremely low possibility that, if Medicare is too hot to handle, they’ll go anywhere near Social Security, and the deficit reduction math becomes totally impossible.

There have been recent fantasy GOP budget proposals along these lines. See Tim Pawlenty’s (Gov. of MN and 2012 Presidential candidate) editorial in Politico. Or the budget proposal by Rep. Paul Ryan, ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee.

Even conservative economist Bruce Bartlett is unimpressed:

Like all Republicans these days, Pawlenty wants to have it every possible way: complain about the deficit while ignoring everything his party did to create it (Medicare Part D, two unfunded wars, TARP, earmarks galore, tax cuts up the wazoo, irresponsible regulatory and monetary policies that created the recession that created the deficit, etc.), illogically insisting that tax cuts are a necessary part of deficit reduction, and never proposing any specific spending cuts.

It would hardly be fair for me to fail the Republican proposals without offering my own. So here it is:
1) The federal government should spend an additional $600 billion a year until unemployment is down under 6%. Send at least half of it directly to states where it can be spent quickly, spend the rest on unemployment, food stamps, long neglected infrastructure, and a massive New Deal class jobs program.

2) Raise taxes. First, let the Bush tax cuts on income over $200K, capital gains, and large inheritances expire. Second, make the banks pay for their bailout with a combination of financial transaction taxes, an end the hedge fund income tax special treatment, etc, to total $150 billion a year. Third, add progressive tax brackets at the high end, and extra 1% for income over $1 million, $5 million, and $10 million. End a few of the large corporation tax breaks that leave many of them paying essentially no taxes. These modest tax increases are enough to put the budget in the green.

3) Cut total war/security/defense spending back so it equals what the entire rest of the world spends, about $500 billion a year–that would be a cut of $150 billion a year. End the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, saving $150 billion a year.

4) Whoa, now the federal budget has a $200 billion surplus!