Archive for June 2008

News Flash — Dog Bites Man dept: John McCain does not care about global warming

June 18, 2008

This just in:  John McCain, who claims that “he has been a leader on the issue of global warming with the courage to call the nation to action on an issue we can no longer afford to ignore,” said on Monday that he believes “that lifting the moratoria from offshore drilling or oil and natural gas exploration is something that we place as a very high priority.”

This, on top of his recently renewed call for the twofer environmental and economic foolishness of a gas tax holiday, makes it clear, to me at least, where Senator McCain actually stands on the issue of global warming.

Not to beat a horse I long sinced blogged to near-death here, but if you are even remotely serious about the issue of global warming (not to mention, being a “leader”) you don’t look for ways to encourage people to burn more oil.  You can’t have it both ways (or rather, if you are anything but a straight talking, honest kind of guy, you can try, but annoying folks like me will point out the contradiction).

So — for anyone tempted to back McCain because of his environmental commitments — remember the last time we trusted a plausible sounding, straight shooting kind of fella on this issue, look at the other promises McCain is making, and think long and hard when you find yourself all alone in the voting booth.

Image:   Ivan Constantinovich Aivazovsky, “Moonlit Seascape with Shipwreck,” nineteenth century.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

John McCain’s reality problem: Guantanamo, State Power, and Theoretical Physics

June 17, 2008

You have to be quick to be good. Today, via Atrios, George Will (George Will!) is actually saying the right thing about John McCain’s latest, almost tragic, self negation.

The back story: The Supreme Court rules 5-4 that prisoners held by the US, on territory the US wholly controls, actually have some baseline of essential rights, in particular the right to make a habeas corpus claim, requesting a hearing (requesting! not automatically receiving) in which the government must demonstrate that it has due cause to hold the complainant, or else release him or her.

So what happened next? Joy amongst those who think the Constitution has some life in it yet, visions of the apocalypse for those who feel the rule of law is for other people.

John McCain, sadly — and I mean that — lined up with the latter, declaring the ruling “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.”

It is sad: I’m no John McCain fan (dog-bites-man…ed.), but he is someone who once seemed to have a sense of who he was, and now he doesn’t. On everything from torture (agin it, except when the proper Americans do it) to energy polict, (even Cheney thinks he’s gone wacky) he now seems willing to say whatever he thinks at that moment might help him out. It’s never a pretty sight to see someone turning themselves into a caricature in public.

But here McCain is worse than sad: he’s dangerous on two levels. The first is obvious, and it is the one Will nailed — with exactly the same serious of examples I was planning to provide. As he writes,

Does it rank with Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), which concocted a constitutional right, unmentioned in the document, to own slaves and held that black people have no rights that white people are bound to respect? With Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which affirmed the constitutionality of legally enforced racial segregation? With Korematsu v. United States (1944), which affirmed the wartime right to sweep American citizens of Japanese ancestry into concentration camps?

No; of course not. As Will points out, there are in fact some issues to argue here — but there is no way to say that this decision defies reason or legal basis.

Will goes on to have some fun with McCain — there’s a tone of real contempt in lines like “Did McCain’s extravagant condemnation of the court’s habeas ruling result from his reading the 126 pages of opinions and dissents?”

While I can enjoy such snark (and from such a source!) the real point of Will’s column, and the one that moves the whole incident into the realm of a blog concerned with what science can offer public life is the real risk of a McCain presidency exposed here. And it is not just that he’s revealed (once again) as a shoot from the hip reactive kind of guy (contrast his approach to this legal decision with former law professor Obama’s preparation here). Rather, it is that there is a real problem in electing Humpty Dumpty to any responsible office.

That is: the one constant across all the disciplines that call themselves science is a commitment to reality, to acknowledging the actual data that observation and experiment produce, however much they may conflict with worldview or desire. Here’s Albert Einstein, acknowledging in public, for as broad a lay audience as he could reach, explaining the significance of of the new discoveries of quantum mechanics:

There is no doubt that quantum physics explained a very rich variety of facts, achieving, for the most part, splendid agreement between theory and observation. The new quantum physics removes us still further from the old mechanical view, and a retreat to the former position seems, more than ever, unlikely….The qunatum theory again created new and essential features of our reality…”

Einstein never reconciled himself to critical aspects of the modern quantum theory; he spent three decades looking for a more general theory that would subsume it; and yet he nominated its first architects, Heisenberg and Schroedinger for the Nobel Prize, and he did not deny its obvious power or importance. He hated it, but he knew it meant something very, very significant.

Contrast that with McCain in action here. It is a fact that this decision falls within the mainstream of American jurisprudence — one may not like the outcome, and there are meaningful arguments to support that dislike, but this is a perfectly conventional bit of Constitutional reasoning. To say that this is “one of the worst” Supreme Court actions is simply to ignore example after example, fact after fact, that gives the lie to McCain’s pique.

This post is long enough. I’d just say that we’ve had enough of people asserting facts not in evidence for their own, temporary advantage. If there were a ever a single disqualifying attribute in a potential President, it is this truly anti-science willingness to ignore what they do, or should, know to be essential features of the reality we inhabit.

Image:  Jade Record, Chinese, 19th Century.  Depiction of sinners being tortured in the sixth court of hell.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Russert RIP; and yet…

June 13, 2008

I was opening my “write new post” window to say this, when I saw that John Cole got here first.

I wish to extend my condolences to Tim Russert’s family, friends and colleagues — especially his son Luke; I lost my father much too early, and I know something of how wretched that is.

But Cole caught my thought exactly: the reaction to Mr. Russert’s death illustrates the depth to which our broadcast journalism has sunk.

It’s been coming for a while. I remember, at the very start of my TV training meeting Fred Friendly, one of the great pioneers (one of the Murrow gang at CBS) and then Tom Bettag who has held just about every position worth having in the TV news business. They both talked in different ways about the tension between the way the camera creates and rewards stars and the need to do the kind of work rarely associated with stars.

What each man was trying to say to our tiny class of would – be tv producers and reporters is that the danger faced by all journalists comes when you take the part, and even the persona of your sources. The camera, the celebrity that a presence in the ether produces, turbocharges that danger — and back in the mid ’80s, the consequences were already apparent, with the habit, then just starting, for network anchors to pick up their massive baggage trains and go to host a broadcast at whatever location became significant. It cost a bomb, defeated the purpose of having a foreign correspondent out there doing the daily work, and was, if we had the wit to see it, a clear sign of the decline of American TV foreign coverage. (The newspapers held out longer, but a similar dynamic followed soon enough).

The price paid, or one of them, is that the news reader becomes the story. That’s death to clear thinking, to reporting, just to keeping hold of the screen real estate needed to convey a story more complicated than a gotcha.

Russert, I think, was better than many, maybe most. Certainly, he did a job that is much harder than the audience realizes and did it better than most — his colleagues’ memorialzing of his talent is right on.

But the bottom line for me, past my sympathy to those who knew him and feel the loss on a personal level, is that we need that talent without the face time than he received. It’s the stories that should lead, not the storytellers. (I know that this is an impossible goal. The whole structure of the medium is against it. But what that really says is that the medium is structurally unsuited for the job it claims to do).

All of which is to say that the wall-wall NBC and other network coverage of the death of a man who would always retained his claim on the blue-collar heritage he genuinely possessed is an instance of a deep and dangerous pathology Russert both resisted and embodied.

And with all that, 58 is way too young. Tim Russert, RIP.

Image:  licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.  Source;  Wikimedia Commons

We Love Math, Electoral College Department.

June 12, 2008

Andrew Sullivan says that this question-and-answer is why he doesn’t do math.

That Sullivan is quantitatively challenged is, of course, no surprise to anyone who reads his blog on a regular basis.  But his excuse here is pretty lame.

The problem posed at FiveThirtyEight.com was “How many unique ways are there to acquire at least 270 electoral votes without any excess?”

The solution to that did indeed turn on a sophisticated application of combinatorial methods.  According to the analysis by Isabel Lugo (posted at 5:22 p.m. on June 10), there are 51,199,463,116,367 different possible  ways to accumulate 270, 271, 272 or 273 electoral votes.

Lugo’s solution does indeed demand both smarts and training, and she received her just due of praise from the comment thread.  Certainly, though I can follow, gasping, the reasoning as she explained it, I can’t claim any greater chance of cracking such a problem than Sullivan could — which is to say, none.

But Sullivan’s surrender — “it’s just too hard, and look at the cute, big number” makes me crazy, and illustrates one of the persistant reasons why our discourse is so bad, why, as Brad DeLong keeps asking, we can’t get a better press corps.

That is: there is a difference between ignorance of advanced math (in which I take second place to no one), and an inability or unwillingness to master the basics of quantitative reasoning.

What’s remarkable, is how far you can get with not that much, just a basic disciplined approach to simple concepts — estimation, use of ratios and so on.

And with such simple tools it is possible to get a handle, if not always a precise result, even for such subtle, complex problems as the electoral vote question that so flummoxed Sullivan.

As Lugo pointed out, introducing her analysis — her exact number was anticipated by a much simpler simulation by commenter Brian at 4:43.  Even if you don’t follow Brian all the way through the simulation, his exercise begins with a simple piece of arithmetic that gives the first hint of the scale of a likely solution, the fact that with 51 jurisdictions there are 2 to the fifty first power, or 2.25 quadrillion possible win/lose outcomes.

That’s enough to tell you from the start that you are dealing with a big number. The next steps take you further, and show how the simulation produces a plausible argument that the number of outcomes where the electoral vote totals hit the desired range (270-273) is going to come in at just a bit under three percent of that huge total number of outcomes, or right in the range of the 51.2 trillion outcomes that Lugo derived.

And my point is that whether or not you can imagine performing this bit of computer-mediated approximation, even the very first step, one that comes from high school math, is enough to get you into the right neighborhood, the right scale in which any answer will have to land.

It’s a necessary skill for any reporter today, I think, really any citizen.  I won’t go here into the same riff I’ve blogged many times before.  I’ll outsource instead to my new blog humor BFF xkcd:

Off-Label use of a DKos Post

June 12, 2008

Check out this — not so much for the snark about McCain, but for the delightful gallery of (period) appropriate tech.

Actually, while I enjoy a good, well prepared, someone-with-not-enough-to-do, professional grade snark as well as the next blogger, I fear that the author, DHinMI, is being a bit unfair here. [Of course s/he’s being unfair. It’s a blog, bozo! It’s a sarcastic bit of fun for the morning! Get a life. –ed.)

No, no — not unfair to McCain; he’s fair game, and if he didn’t want to be twitted for his age, he should have won in 2000.

No, what impressed me about this gallery is the degree to which the technology and experience at the end of the 19th century was so much more like our own than it was like that of the generation of the founders a century before.

Look at the photos on offer: Long distance communications; mass transport; medicine, (not really represented in this gallery) which, for all the easy humor, at least had the germ theory, a grasp of infection and the need for sterile conditions in hospital operating suites, new energy sources, organized, professional, government run emergency services, mass visual media, and, perhaps above all, electricity with which to make so much of the rest go.

Compare this, as I once heard the great physicist and teacher Philip Morrison do, to the situation in 1800. Whale oil as the primary source of light with which the reading and writing public could extend their work into the night. Slow transport, entirely powered by one’s own body, one’s horse, or by wind or water. Debridement and then amputation as the primary therapy for infected wounds. Communication beyond line of sight/hearing proceeding at the same rate as the transport of other goods: slow, slow, slow. And so on.

Morrison, in the lecture I heard, went into detail about the operations of a major wheat growing operation in the upper midwest in 1900. The web existed — or rather a web, a network; telegraph communications enabled the farm’s owners to follow grain prices around the world on a daily basis. Rail transport meant that the threshed wheat from that farm could enter that global market in a timely way.

Chicago, the nearest major city, was home to 1.6 million people. All those people consumed with a vengeance: in the landmark Marshall Field complex on and around State St. in the first decade of the twentienth century, the famous department store employed 12,000 people, doing 25 million dollars in retail and twice that, 50 million in wholesale business around the world. The technology needed to permit such enormous agglomerations of people advanced too — Chicago’s supply of indoor plumbing required continuous tending, culminating in the opening of its new, model sewage system in 1900, centered on a canal that could carry 600,000 cubic feet of water per minute.

All of which means that Morrison’s wheat farmer, some miles out of town, was, all of a century ago, completely innocent of HTML and the joys of a 3G iPhone — but was nonetheless enmeshed in a global system of information exchange and commerce, mass produced consumer goods and entertainment (even recorded music, via the mass market business in player pianos that boomed with new technology in the 1890s and 1900s).

To put it another way: I can imagine myself adapting pretty readily to life in my current home of Boston in 1900. 1800? Not so easy, I think.

So, channeling a little bit of that remarkably clear thinker, the late and missed Professor Morrison, it’s always tempting to think that what’s happening right now is so new, so wonderful, that it is without precedent in human experience. But there has been a whole lot of such experience over time, and sometimes at least, the newness of technology is in the ease of what it enables, and not in its pure, raw, novelty. That is: a question one should ask of the past is not just “how far?” but “how near?”

(Not that any of this, of course, makes me want a president more comfortable with a Hollerith calculating machine than the device on which I compose this.)

Image: Camille Pissarro, “Place du Havre, Paris,” 1893. Location: Art Institute of Chicago. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Thinking Like a Scientist: Surge/John McCain edition

June 11, 2008

How do scientists think?  Lots of ways, of course, as any human being does, drawing on intuition, visual reasoning, leaps of analogy, hard, slogging calculation, day dreaming…anything that works.

But what distinguishes scientific habits of mind from the everyday interpretation of experience is that there are certain rules scientists learn to follow to transform initial ideas into reliable conclusions.  Among them is the notion of a metric, a standard of measurement that you can use to compare one state of a system with another.  Absent some reliable set of measuring sticks it is impossible to draw more than impression, a feeling out of any observation.  Instead of data, you have anecdotes, and the dangerous license to draw any lesson you want from that absence of solid information.

All of which leads to today’s back-and-forth on the campaign trail.

Much has been made around both the campaigns and the blogosphere about John McCain’s Today interview in which he said that the timing of US troops homecoming from Iraq was “not too important.

The furor has mostly raged around the question of what exactly McCain meant by that eye-popping remark.  But I think that the more important claim McCain made has been missed, and it is, IMHO, the key both to his campaign and to one of the most significant problems with the idea of a McCain presidency.

Just before the “not too important” line, McCain repeated what’s becoming common “wisdom,” that the surge is working.  In his words, he said “anyone who knows the facts on the ground says that” [the surge is working].

In order for McCain to have any hope of winning the presidency, that has to be true — there have to be “facts” throughout the hard ground of Iraq that tell us the surge has been and continues to be effective.

But the phrase “the surge is working” is meaningless without a metric.  Working how?  By what standard?  What does it mean to “work” in the context not just of the facts on the ground, but intended goals of the policy, the baseline metrics established before the surge took place?

In fact, McCain is or ought to be aware that the surge has not worked by those original metrics.

There were two established at the beginning of the policy:  to create a security environment in which normal life could resume;  and with that cessation of violence, to create a  window of opportunity during which the incumbent Maliki government could achieve the political reconciliation that would ensure that improvements in security would outlive the surge.

Of those two, the first, the military goal of quelling violence, was instrumental; the second, more fundamental one of establishing a stable polity, was the essential, ultimate purpose of the surge.

So far, only the military one has been partially achieved; the political one, the one that actually counts, remains a mess — perhaps growing yet worse as the Maliki government’s army has confronted the Sadrist’s political and armed power bases in what has at times verged on a full internecine civil war.

The only way to say that the surge is working as established fact is to ignore the more important of the two metrics and to give the best possible gloss on the ongoing violence in Iraq.

Now — none of this matters in the first order politics of McCain’s statement.  He’s trying to say that a policy he has championed is the right one, and at the same time to make the barely coded claim that his opponent who has yet to visit a Baghdad marketplace in the usual kind of street clothes one wears to go shopping, doesn’t know what’s going on.  All that is going to get lost anyway in the back and forth on the homecoming gaffe.  (I know — Josh Marshall argues that this wasn’t a gaffe, and he’s right.)

But one of the features of an endless campaign is that over time you get a sense of how the candidates competing for the job actually think — how their minds work.

Here McCain is losing the long war. One of the most basic tasks of a leader is to set goals and then recognize whether or not the actions taken to achieve such ends have done so.  You have to set your metrics and pay attention to the data as they are, not as you wish them to be.

If, however, you choose to shift the goalposts so that any outcome is a success — you may have a smile on your face, but you don’t become a president worth having.

PS:  Shame on the Today interviewer who uncritically put to Senator McCain the unqualified claim that the surge is working.

Image:  Ford Maddox Brown “The Proclamation Regarding Weights and Measures 1566 A. D.” Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Just in Case You Were Wondering…

June 11, 2008

…When a lab created black hole might next form and end life as we know it….

(Joke, folks, in case you weren’t sure.)

…Follow this countdown to the activation of the Large Hadron Collider. (h/t Peter Steinberg via Planet Musings.)

Given that by pretty much any standard I can think the LHC of is the most complex machine ever built, this seems like a milestone worth noting.

One thing that does strike me in this last month before lift-off (or perhaps better, dive-in ) is the seeming reversal of roles in the fact of how often, and how frequently breakthrough science turns on top-flight engineering.

That is: a ton of science turns on instrumentation. A leap in the power of key instruments produces not just better data, but qualitatively new information. Think of how much of modern astronomy — and really, modern cosmology – turns on the twin transformations in the size of the light buckets of modern telescopes, and the enormous increase in the resolution and throughput of spectrographs. Everything from exoplanets to the fundamental questions raised by the observation of dark energy emerges directly from the engineering advances that produced the observational astronomy renaiscance of the last two decades. (Many of which, to be sure, were led by scientist-engineers, among whom Jerry Nelson may be taken as the type specimen).

High energy physics is in the same boat, perhaps more so: when and as observation of the universe fails to supply sufficient data (see above) only large machines focused on very small spatial interactions can do the job. It’s a cliche to call accelerators as the telescopes of the microcosmos, but the analogy ain’t bad. It is precise in this way: each significant increase in the power of the two types of instruments yields new science. The making of the tool precedes the discoveries that we then, rightly, celebrate

Which is my point: engineers take their lumps for, in the phrase I remember from a now-mislaid Seth Lloyd interview, trading in science so well established that even engineers can understand it. See xkcd‘s take for the succinct version of the basic trope:*

Well, for the last ten years or so, it has been the engineers ascendancy. In a few weeks and over years to come, physicists will again dominate the life and meaning of the LHC. Consider this a tip of the hat to the extraordinary creative skill that will permit the glamorous side of high energy physics to strut the catwalk once more

*There is also J. Robert Oppenheimer’s “compliment” to the chemist George Kistiakowsky, whose leadership of the implosion group was essential to the completion of the Manhattan Project’s plutonium bomb. In an interview late in his life conducted by Carl Sagan, ultimately edited and broadcast on NOVA, Kistiakowsky said that Oppenheimer told him that as a chemist, he was a very good third rate physicist.