September 16, 2005

Big Blue For Schools

CNN is reporting that IBM is starting a program to support its employees who want to become math & science teachers. IBM, along with the rest of the technology industry, is concerned about the shortfall in math & science education in the US. So, they're going to give financial support to some employeees (up to 100 in their trial phase of the program) to get teaching credentials and then move over to schools.

Bravo to IBM for putting money into a program that could help the nation's long-term educational goals, even if nothing is guaranteed to come directly back to IBM.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 12:41 PM | Comments (0)

Clarification on Military Thoughts

While playing with the new BlogSearch tool at Google yesterday, I found out that Elizabeth D. has a blog, and she'd linked to some of my posts. Unfortunately, it turns out that she and some of her readers either misunderstood me, or couldn't understand me at all. :-) So, maybe I can clarify things a bit.

The post was about the military and citizenship. I'd tried to make a few points in the article:

  • America has a standing army which is large enough and well-funded enough to allow politicians to send troops around the world without causing undue distress at home. As the article I was quoting put it, "Modern warfare lays no significant burdens on the larger body of citizens in whose name war is being waged."

  • This disconnect between military and the broader population raises the scary possibility (based on the history of other nations) of the USA at some point becoming a military empire, a fear the nation's founders felt: "a danger made manifest in their day by the career of Napoleon Bonaparte, whom Jefferson described as having "transferred the destinies of the republic from the civil to the military arm.""

  • Compulsory service to the government, which could be both in service to the military or to other functions (such as land beautification), is distasteful in many ways. But it does tie some large fraction of the citizenry to the nation's politics, especially its military activities.

In the comments on my post, Elizabeth D. wrote, "Draftees tend to make poor soldiers." I think it depends on the situation. Surely the Israeli military (which requires everyone to serve for some time, I believe) is not seen as a poor quality army? I don't know enough about other countries to compare other volunteer versus draft armies. Options to keep both a volunteer component and a draft component in the military could also probably help with some of the problems.

The other comments about mandatory work are valid. I'm not saying that forcing all (or a randomly selected fraction) of the population of a certain age to work for the government (either in the military or in infrastructure improvement) is a great solution. I do think, however, that variations of the idea should be explored, because the current system has its own problems.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 09:44 AM | Comments (2)

Hey, Math

Thomas Friedman writes in today's New York Times ("Still Eating Our Lunch") about a program called HeyMath (note that the URL is, NOT as it says in Friedman's column), which serves to collect the best way of teaching individual math concepts from teachers in multiple countries. Abstract concepts are combined with illustrations and animations to help explain the concepts, and now teachers from around the world can use the website to help their own math instruction. It sounds like an interesting idea.

And of course, the reason for Friedman to devote his editorial segment to the topic is clear:

Why am I writing about this? Because math and science are the keys to innovation and power in today's world, and American parents had better understand that the people who are eating their kids' lunch in math are not resting on their laurels.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 08:48 AM | Comments (0)

September 13, 2005

More On Tribes

It appears that Elizabeth and I took away very different messages from the post about Tribes. I agree that the author might have come across as smug, and I disagree with many of his comments on modern-era politicians (e.g., George Bush et al). I believe that the message shouldn't be confused with the way it is said, but Elizabeth and I seem to take away different core messages. Here's what I took from the article.

  1. Race is not a primary determining factor in people's behavior. The best and worst of human behavior can be found in people of all races.
  2. Classification of people should not be done by race, gender, socioeconomic class, etc. It should be based on the actions of the people.
  3. The author calls these groupings of people "Tribes."
  4. Different tribes have different characteristics. Some solve their problems, some choose to blame others for their own problems. Some are independent and self-sufficient, and some are totally dependent on outside forces for their support.
  5. Membership in a Tribe is decided by the individual. You choose your own behavior, and thereby what "tribe" you belong to.
  6. Some people just go and help in the best way they can. Others (he accuses celebrities) present the image of helping, without doing a serious amount of work.
  7. The overwhelmin majority of people are not violent (at least as reflected in the assault and murder rates). A small minority are violent, even sociopathic. Some of the non-violent people choose their life paths as protectors, which is a noble calling. Many others act as protectors, even if it's not their vocation.
  8. Comparing the response of the so-called protector class in the cases of 9/11 and Katrina shows widely different behaviors, especially at the ruling level (i.e., mayors).
  9. It is important for society to have some number of protectors to keep society safe from both natural disasters and the sociopathic tribe.
All the other stuff he posted involved gross generalities (Pink vs. Grey) and self-aggrandizing examples. But the core messages I list above were ones I saw value in.

In addition to everything the author stated, I also inferred that people can generally identify who is in their tribe, although they can sometimes be wrong. People are occasionally surprised by someone they thought they knew well.

If the author was smug or self-centered, that's his problem - it doesn't detract from the message that tries to see the inner value of people instead of their surface characteristics.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 09:49 AM | Comments (0)

September 11, 2005


I think it's appropriate, on this anniversary of 9/11, to post a link to an excellent post about humanity. Warning: There's some profanity from the article quoted here.

The post is long, but well worth reading. Here is a selection from the beginning, only a part of the entire post:

I believe that the human animal – the raw material of our physical bodies – is essentially interchangeable. By this I mean that I could take the children of Fallujah and turn them all into Astronauts, convert Jewish babies into fanatical, mass-murdering SS guards, and shake a generation of the poorest Voodoo-worshippers in Haiti into a cadre of top-flight nuclear physicists, chemical engineers and computer scientists.

Race has nothing to do with this – precisely nothing. The mobs of murdering Hutus and swarms of slaughtering Serbs are as different racially as it is possible to be, and they are cut from precisely the same cloth.

I know this is so because there have been murdering scumbags of every stripe and color in the long history of the human race – which is depressing – and that these animals, at any given time, represent only a small percentage of the majority of people, also of every stripe and color – which is not. There is no corner on virtue, and no outpost of depravity. Human hearts are indistinguishable and interchangeable. Anyone who claims otherwise is, without further argument or statements necessary, a complete God-damned idiot.

Now, with that said – have we all heard that loud and clear? – there are light-years of difference in how various Tribes will behave.

Only a few minutes ago, I had the delightful opportunity to read the comment of a fellow who said he wished that white, middle-class, racist, conservative cocksuckers like myself could have been herded into the Superdome Concentration Camp to see how much we like it. Absent, of course, was the fundamental truth of what he plainly does not have the eyes or the imagination to see, namely, that if the Superdome had been filled with white, middle-class, racist, conservative cocksuckers like myself, it would not have been a refinery of horror, but rather a citadel of hope and order and restraint and compassion.

That has nothing to do with me being white. If the blacks and Hispanics and Jews and gays that I work with and associate with were there with me, it would have been that much better. That’s because the people I associate with – my Tribe – consists not of blacks and whites and gays and Hispanics and Asians, but of individuals who do not rape, murder, or steal. My Tribe consists of people who know that sometimes bad things happen, and that these are an opportunity to show ourselves what we are made of. My people go into burning buildings. My Tribe consists of organizers and self-starters, proud and self-reliant people who do not need to be told what to do in a crisis. My Tribe is not fearless; they are something better. They are courageous. My Tribe is honorable, and decent, and kind, and inventive. My Tribe knows how to give orders, and how to follow them. My Tribe knows enough about how the world works to figure out ways to boil water, ration food, repair structures, build and maintain makeshift latrines, and care for the wounded and the dead with respect and compassion.

Go read the entire article for yourself.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 09:46 PM | Comments (1)

Katrina Craziness

There are so many stories coming out of New Orleans, it's hard to know what is true and what is not. Although the story from the EMS workers about getting shot at by police and repeatedly bullied by law enforcement seemed plausible, numerous comments are debunking the story (e.g., in this blog and this Free Republic blog), pointing out the authors' political history and inconsistencies in their story. The sad thing, of course, is that the story was so believable.

Another story from Thursday's New York Times ("New Orleans Begins Confiscating Firearms as Water Recedes") does, in a way, highlight at least one (perhaps more) political axe people might grind: gun control.

No civilians in New Orleans will be allowed to carry pistols, shotguns or other firearms, said P. Edwin Compass III, the superintendent of police. "Only law enforcement are allowed to have weapons," he said.
I understand that looters stole guns and have been shooting rescuers etc. But taking guns away from legally registered owners serves no point. Worse, the well-connected get to keep their bodyguards' weapons:
But that order apparently does not apply to hundreds of security guards hired by businesses and some wealthy individuals to protect property. The guards, employees of private security companies like Blackwater, openly carry M-16's and other assault rifles. Mr. Compass said that he was aware of the private guards, but that the police had no plans to make them give up their weapons.
What is the difference between a law-abiding, legally registered owner of a gun who might help fight off looters, and a security guard with a gun (besides the rented uniform)?

There are a number of "question the government" items. Another one is the story about the buses that were ordered by a hotel to evacuate its guests which were then confiscated by police before the buses could get to those who ordered them.

And what about FEMA commandeering a hospital's generator fuel? To what better use could that fuel possibly have been put?

The craziness and the state of decay was summed up well by a couple of incidents related in another NYT article from Thursday("Macabre Reminder: The Corpse on Union Street"):

In the downtown business district here, on a dry stretch of Union Street, past the Omni Bank automated teller machine, across from a parking garage offering "early bird" rates: a corpse. Its feet jut from a damp blue tarp. Its knees rise in rigor mortis.

Six National Guardsmen walked up to it on Tuesday afternoon and two blessed themselves with the sign of the cross. One soldier took a parting snapshot like some visiting conventioneer, and they walked away. New Orleans, September 2005.

Hours passed, the dusk of curfew crept, the body remained.
Night came, then this morning, then noon, and another sun beat down on a dead son of the Crescent City.

That a corpse lies on Union Street may not shock; in the wake of last week's hurricane, there are surely hundreds, probably thousands. What is remarkable is that on a downtown street in a major American city, a corpse can decompose for days, like carrion, and that is acceptable.
The incomprehensible has become so routine here that it tends to lull you into acceptance. On Sunday, for example, several soldiers on Jefferson Highway had guns aimed at the heads of several prostrate men suspected of breaking into an electronics store.

A car pulled right up to this tense scene and the driver leaned out his window to ask a soldier a question: "Hey, how do you get to the interstate?"

The forced evacuation of the city is another item that confuses me. Does martial law really give the mayor the power to force everyone to leave the city?
Many of the residents still in the city said they did not understand why the city remained intent on forcing them out.

"I know the risks," said Renee de Pontchieux, as she sat on a stool outside Kajun's Pub in the working-class Bywater neighborhood east of downtown. "We used to think we lived in America - now we're not so sure. Why should we allow this government to chase us out and allow people from outside to rebuild our homes? We want to rebuild our homes."

What about the rebuilding, and what about taking care of those who are in hospitals?
When police officers came to Billie Moore's 3,000 square foot Victorian to warn her of the health risks of remaining in the city, she pushed her identification tag from the hospital where she works as a nurse through slats in the door.

"I guess you know the health risks then," the officer said as he walked away.

Ms. Moore and her husband, Richard Robinson, who do not drive and use bicycles for the 5-mile ride to their jobs at the still-functioning Ochsner Hospital in suburban Jefferson Parish, have no plans to leave. Their circa-1895 home, on the city's southwest flank, suffered virtually no damage in the hurricane or its aftermath.
Ms. Moore said she had not worked since the hurricane because there are few babies left at the hospital, but that she remains on standby; her husband has been on duty the past five days.

"I don't want to go, I don't want to lose my job," she said. "Who's going to take care of the patients if all the nurses go away?"

While kicking everyone out so you can just raze entire neighborhoods may make it easier to rebuild, what if that's not what people want? And for those few who stay behind, why not give them the option, as long as they don't demand free medical care if/when they get cholera?

The entire situation is, of course, confusing and complex, so there's no clear answers to most of the questions (except that it's a bad idea to build a city below sea level in a hurricane zone). It does seem clear, though, that the "system," which encompasses agencies, the law, etc. at city, state, and federal levels, is broke. Feds were hemming and hawing about trodding on the state, state leaders didn't know to call FEMA, and a zillion things went wrong that shouldn't have. There is no one individual or any single action that can be blamed - the chaos is a result of numerous causes. I do not have high hopes that the system will be dramatically improved any time in the next few years.

UPDATE: No forced evacuations:

A police spokesman said Sunday that authorities will not forcibly remove the holdouts.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 08:32 PM | Comments (1)

September 09, 2005

Which Card Was It?

An article in yesterday's New York Times ("A Legal System in Shambles") about the loss of legal records and offices of lawyers was interesting. But then there's this quote:

"I talked to one guy who was arrested for reading a tarot card without a permit," [Phyllis Mann, a local lawyer] said.

There's just so many things wrong with that statement. I leave the enumeration of them all as an exercise to the reader. :-)

Posted by Tom Nugent at 10:43 AM | Comments (1)

September 05, 2005

Katrina and Institutions

Two recent editorials in the New York Times ("Ben Franklin Had the Right Idea for New Orleans" by John Tierney and "The Bursting Point" by David Brooks) highlight important points about the hurricane Katrina disaster, but also highlight differences in attitudes towards the government by their different perspectives.

Tierney argues that New Orleans is in so much worse shape now than New York was after 9/11 because of the different histories our nation has in regards to fighting their types of disasters (water vs. fire). Specifically, fire (which used to burn down cities frequently) has been seen as a local problem, and Ben Franklin invented two ideas which helped to combat fires - the fire department, and fire insurance. As a result, building codes for buildings have improved so much and fire departments have become so powerful that fires usually do not threaten widespread areas - they are generally well-contained.

Floods, on the other hand, have become the federal government's responsibility since the 1960s. Worse, it subsidized flood insurance, thereby encouraging people to build in flood zones.

People don't bother to protect themselves because they figure - correctly - that if disaster strikes they'll be reimbursed anyway by FEMA. It gives out money so freely that it has grown into one of the great vote-buying tools of the modern presidency.

Tierney doesn't argue that the federal government should completely leave flood control to localities, but he points out the appropriate respective roles:
The federal government has a role in coordinating flood control among states and in organizing outside disaster relief, but the locals should fight floods much the same way they fight fires. Fifteenth-century Dutch burghers didn't have the financial or technological resources of today's Louisianians, but they managed to hold back the sea without the Army Corps of Engineers.

Tierney argues that a reduction in the federal government's role in flood relief (especially in subsidizing flood insurance, and spending gobs of money to rebuild every shack hit by a hurricane) combined with flood insurance would encourage development of city capabilities to handle floods:
Private flood insurance has come to seem quaint in America, but in Britain it's the norm. If Americans paid premiums for living in risky areas, they'd think twice about building oceanfront villas.

Brooks' article, on the other hand, focuses solely on the government's role. Given the current situation (as opposed to the preferred one, as outlined by Tierney), he makes good points. He notes that after 9/11, Rudy Giuliani "took control" and the response was seen as relatively well-organized and competent, and people came together regardless of class, race, etc. For New Orleans, however, things were different:

Last week in New Orleans, by contrast, nobody took control. Authority was diffuse and action was ineffective. The rich escaped while the poor were abandoned. Leaders spun while looters rampaged. Partisans squabbled while the nation was ashamed.

The first rule of the social fabric - that in times of crisis you protect the vulnerable - was trampled. Leaving the poor in New Orleans was the moral equivalent of leaving the injured on the battlefield. No wonder confidence in civic institutions is plummeting.

I wonder if the breakdown of coordinated response and cohesion amongst people is an indication of the beginning of a transition in our culture, similar to that seen in the 1930s as untrusted institutions were replaced with new ones to handle unforeseen problems (e.g., formation of the SEC to deal with stock scammers). Brooks feels the same way:
Katrina means that the political culture, already sour and bloody-minded in many quarters, will shift. There will be a reaction. There will be more impatience for something new. There is going to be some sort of big bang as people respond to the cumulative blows of bad events and try to fundamentally change the way things are.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 09:05 PM | Comments (2)

August 31, 2005

Catastrophe Rankings Over The Top

Today's NYT article on the hurricane disaster in New Orleans has a quote I also heard on NPR yesterday:

"It looks like Hiroshima is what it looks like," Gov. Haley Barbour said, describing parts of Harrison County, Miss.

With all due respect to the suffering of those affected by Katrina as well as the damage done, it just doesn't compare to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The bombing of Hiroshima killed 80,000 people immediately, and another 60,000 or more due to aftereffects. The death toll is not at all comparable to Katrina's damage. As far as property damage, you can see in this image of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb how total the devastation was. Louisiana and New Orleans are not nearly as damaged.

Of course, because the destruction is not complete, rebuilding may actually be more costly (since they're not starting with a 'clean slate'). And yes, the suffering and damage due to Katrina is horrible. The rescue and revival effort is going to be massive. But I think the governor of Mississippi should talk with more sense. He won't, of course, because he's a politician.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 09:15 AM | Comments (1)

August 28, 2005

Ahh, Clarity - More on "Intelligent" Design

Today's New York Times has an op-ed piece on the debate over evolution and more, as centered around the so-called "intelligent design" idea ("Show Me the Science" by Daniel C. Dennett). The author makes an excellent summary of why the arguments put forward by the intelligent design crowd are deceptive, misleading, and ultimately don't do anything useful.

It's late at night as I write this, so I don't have as much commentary as I did on previous pieces on this topic. But go read the editorial - he clarifies why there is no real controversy over the teaching of evolution, and how the intelligent design crowd has made it seem as if there is a controversy.

He summarizes the question of the eye (whether it was designed or evolved) simply:

Take the development of the eye, which has been one of the favorite challenges of creationists. How on earth, they ask, could that engineering marvel be produced by a series of small, unplanned steps? Only an intelligent designer could have created such a brilliant arrangement of a shape-shifting lens, an aperture-adjusting iris, a light-sensitive image surface of exquisite sensitivity, all housed in a sphere that can shift its aim in a hundredth of a second and send megabytes of information to the visual cortex every second for years on end.

But as we learn more and more about the history of the genes involved, and how they work - all the way back to their predecessor genes in the sightless bacteria from which multicelled animals evolved more than a half-billion years ago - we can begin to tell the story of how photosensitive spots gradually turned into light-sensitive craters that could detect the rough direction from which light came, and then gradually acquired their lenses, improving their information-gathering capacities all the while.

We can't yet say what all the details of this process were, but real eyes representative of all the intermediate stages can be found, dotted around the animal kingdom, and we have detailed computer models to demonstrate that the creative process works just as the theory says.

All it takes is a rare accident that gives one lucky animal a mutation that improves its vision over that of its siblings; if this helps it have more offspring than its rivals, this gives evolution an opportunity to raise the bar and ratchet up the design of the eye by one mindless step. And since these lucky improvements accumulate - this was Darwin's insight - eyes can automatically get better and better and better, without any intelligent designer.

Brilliant as the design of the eye is, it betrays its origin with a tell-tale flaw: the retina is inside out. The nerve fibers that carry the signals from the eye's rods and cones (which sense light and color) lie on top of them, and have to plunge through a large hole in the retina to get to the brain, creating the blind spot. No intelligent designer would put such a clumsy arrangement in a camcorder, and this is just one of hundreds of accidents frozen in evolutionary history that confirm the mindlessness of the historical process.

Intelligent design advocates have not actually put forward any theory at all, much less one that actually contradicts evolution:
The focus on intelligent design has, paradoxically, obscured something else: genuine scientific controversies about evolution that abound. In just about every field there are challenges to one established theory or another. The legitimate way to stir up such a storm is to come up with an alternative theory that makes a prediction that is crisply denied by the reigning theory - but that turns out to be true, or that explains something that has been baffling defenders of the status quo, or that unifies two distant theories at the cost of some element of the currently accepted view.

To date, the proponents of intelligent design have not produced anything like that. No experiments with results that challenge any mainstream biological understanding. No observations from the fossil record or genomics or biogeography or comparative anatomy that undermine standard evolutionary thinking.

Instead, the proponents of intelligent design use a ploy that works something like this. First you misuse or misdescribe some scientist's work. Then you get an angry rebuttal. Then, instead of dealing forthrightly with the charges leveled, you cite the rebuttal as evidence that there is a "controversy" to teach.

Note that the trick is content-free. You can use it on any topic. "Smith's work in geology supports my argument that the earth is flat," you say, misrepresenting Smith's work. When Smith responds with a denunciation of your misuse of her work, you respond, saying something like: "See what a controversy we have here? Professor Smith and I are locked in a titanic scientific debate. We should teach the controversy in the classrooms." And here is the delicious part: you can often exploit the very technicality of the issues to your own advantage, counting on most of us to miss the point in all the difficult details.

Very tricky. Dennett concludes:
For now, though, the theory they are promoting is exactly what George Gilder, a long-time affiliate of the Discovery Institute, has said it is: "Intelligent design itself does not have any content."

Since there is no content, there is no "controversy" to teach about in biology class. But here is a good topic for a high school course on current events and politics: Is intelligent design a hoax? And if so, how was it perpetrated?

Posted by Tom Nugent at 11:37 PM | Comments (2)

August 23, 2005

Scienctists & Religion

The New York Times continues their series on evolution, science, and religion today with an article discussing religious belief amongst scientists ("Scientists Speak Up on Mix of God and Science" by Cornelia Dean).

My beef with creationists and many in the intelligent design crowd is not that they believe in a supernatural being, it's that they're trying to force their religious (and therefore non-scientific) beliefs into science. Luckily, there are many scientists who understand the differences between science & religion:

Although they embrace religious faith, these scientists also embrace science as it has been defined for centuries. That is, they look to the natural world for explanations of what happens in the natural world and they recognize that scientific ideas must be provisional - capable of being overturned by evidence from experimentation and observation. This belief in science sets them apart from those who endorse creationism or its doctrinal cousin, intelligent design, both of which depend on the existence of a supernatural force.

Their belief in God challenges scientists who regard religious belief as little more than magical thinking, as some do. Their faith also challenges believers who denounce science as a godless enterprise and scientists as secular elitists contemptuous of God-fearing people.

Some scientists say simply that science and religion are two separate realms, "nonoverlapping magisteria," as the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould put it in his book "Rocks of Ages" (Ballantine, 1999). In Dr. Gould's view, science speaks with authority in the realm of "what the universe is made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory)" and religion holds sway over "questions of ultimate meaning and moral value."

The other issue brought up by religion is that of morality. But many people believe that moral behavior is not dependent upon belief in a god.

Another crucial piece about the religious beliefs of many scientists is the extent to which they think any god interacts with the universe:

He rejects the idea that scientists who reject religion are arrogant. "We know how many mistakes we've made," Dr. Weinberg said. And he is angered by assertions that people without religious faith are without a moral compass.

In any event, he added, "the experience of being a scientist makes religion seem fairly irrelevant," he said. "Most scientists I know simply don't think about it very much. They don't think about religion enough to qualify as practicing atheists."

Most scientists he knows who do believe in God, he added, believe in "a God who is behind the laws of nature but who is not intervening."

Posted by Tom Nugent at 01:40 PM | Comments (3)

August 22, 2005

Another Day, Another NYT Piece on Evolution

It appears that the New York Times has decided to be the "all evolution 'debate' all the time" newspaper. Just one day after its last article about the so-called "debate" over evolution, they have another article today (looking deeper, it looks like they're having a special series on the topic. Yesterday's article was about the politicization of research. Today's article ("In Explaining Life's Complexity, Darwinists and Doubters Clash" by Kenneth Chang) discusses what I could you would call the philosophy behind the debate.

At the heart of the debate over intelligent design is this question: Can a scientific explanation of the history of life include the actions of an unseen higher being?
The heart of the argument is whether or not I.D. is scientific. It is not:
But mainstream scientists say that the claims of intelligent design run counter to a century of research supporting the explanatory and predictive power of Darwinian evolution, and that the design approach suffers from fundamental problems that place it outside the realm of science. For one thing, these scientists say, invoking a higher being as an explanation is unscientific.

"One of the rules of science is, no miracles allowed," said Douglas H. Erwin, a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian Institution. "That's a fundamental presumption of what we do."

That does not mean that scientists do not believe in God. Many do. But they see science as an effort to find out how the material world works, with nothing to say about why we are here or how we should live.

And in that quest, they say, there is no need to resort to otherworldly explanations. So much evidence has been provided by evolutionary studies that biologists are able to explain even the most complex natural phenomena and to fill in whatever blanks remain with solid theories.

While intelligent design advocates claim they're doing science, scientists disagree:
Nonetheless, many scientists regard intelligent design as little more than creationism dressed up in pseudoscientific clothing. Despite its use of scientific language and the fact that some design advocates are scientists, they say, the design approach has so far offered only philosophical objections to evolution, not any positive evidence for the intervention of a designer.

Some arguments put forth by I.D. advocates don't seem to understand the difference between an open and a closed system:
"Imagine you're an archaeologist and you're looking at an inscription, and you say, 'Well, sorry, that looks like it's intelligent but we can't invoke an intelligent cause because, as a matter of method, we have to limit ourselves to materialistic processes,' " Dr. Meyer said. "That would be nuts."

He added, "Call it miracle, call it some other pejorative term, but the fact remains that the materialistic view is a truncated view of reality."

William Paley, an Anglican priest, made a similar argument in the early 19th century. Someone who finds a rock can easily imagine how wind and rain shaped it, he reasoned. But someone who finds a pocket watch lying on the ground instantly knows that it was not formed by natural processes.

They're basically trying to say that "materialistic view" means "no intelligent actors," but they're wrong. "Materialism" refers to the idea that there are no supernatural causes to explain anything. Evolution (along with broader scientific models of the universe) posits that human intelligence arose from a long series of causal events (starting with the beginning of the universe). Human intelligence is contained within the scientific description of the universe (i.e., in my way of describing it, it is a "closed" system), and (as long as you understand that complexity can arise from simpler systems and simple rules) does not require anything external to explain it. Once you have human intelligence, then you can get watches. I.D., on the other hand, is not self-contained; it does nothing to explain the so-called designer. As stated in Wikipedia's article on the Teleological argument, the "intelligent designer" must have its own, higher-complexity, intelligent designer. And so on and so on.

I'm curious to see if the NYT has another article tomorrow. They seem to be staying about as impartial as it's possible to be when discussing the topic.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 09:26 AM | Comments (1)

August 21, 2005

Controversy of Their Own Making

There's another article in today's New York Times about the debate over the teaching of evolution ("Politicized Scholars Put Evolution on the Defensive" registration required to access NYT articles). The article focuses on the Discovery Institute, a (Seattle-based) foundation which is, depending on your point of view, either trying to undermine the notion of sicence (and evolution in particular), or to promote so-called "intelligent design." As usual, reading about what these people are doing got my blood pressure up.

The intelligent design (I.D.) crew claims that there is an honest debate (a controversy, even) over evolution and other ideas about mankind's origins. The "controversy" over evolution is a cultural (and religious) one, not a scientific one, yet the I.D. crowd tries to portray their concerns as science. Intelligent design is untestable, therefore it is not science. Evolution is about as widely accepted in the scientific community as any theory can be; there is no scientific debate over its verity.

One of the fundamental misunderstandings in this debate concerns what people mean by the word "theory," as evidenced in many religionists' pleas to teach or discuss both "theories." Wikipedia has an excellent description of the different ways people understand the word (from Science):

The word theory is misunderstood particularly often by laymen. The common usage of the word "theory" refers to ideas that have no firm proof or support; in contrast, scientists usually use this word to refer to bodies of ideas that make specific predictions.

In terms of science, intelligent design is not a theory because it does not make predictions and is not falsifiable.

The New York Times article continues:

As much philosophical worldview as scientific hypothesis, intelligent design challenges Darwin's theory of natural selection by arguing that some organisms are too complex to be explained by evolution alone, pointing to the possibility of supernatural influences. While mutual acceptance of evolution and the existence of God appeals instinctively to a faithful public, intelligent design is shunned as heresy in mainstream universities and science societies as untestable in laboratories.

Intelligent design basically says "gee, things like eyeballs are so complicated that there must be a supernatural entity (i.e., God) who made them." Luckily, just because these people's minds are too narrow to consider complicated paths of cause and effect does not mean that such complicated arguments don't exist. Go read the Wikipedia articles on intelligent design and the teleological argument ("intelligent design" is a part of it) for excellent summaries of the debates.

Here's another example of how the I.D. people over-extend:

"We are in the very initial stages of a scientific revolution," said the center's director, Stephen C. Meyer, 47, a historian and philosopher of science recruited by Discovery after he protested a professor's being punished for criticizing Darwin in class.

I.D. is not science. What they are trying to create is an end to rational thought. Hello, Dark Ages! "What?" you say, "these people aren't promoting we return to the Dark Ages!" Well, guess again:
These successes follow a path laid in a 1999 Discovery manifesto known as the Wedge Document, which sought "nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies" in favor of a "broadly theistic understanding of nature."

By definition, a "broadly theistic understanding of nature" is not a scientific one. It is the basis for theocracies such as exist in Iran. Or, for that matter, in much of medieval Europe. I believe that persecution by a dominant theocracy is what drove many people to leave Europe for the Americas hundreds of years ago. Ironic, isn't it, that people today are trying to recreate the conditions from which our nation's founders fled?

The money aspect of I.D. has some annoyances:

A closer look shows a multidimensional organization, financed by missionary and mainstream groups - the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provides $1 million a year, including $50,000 of Mr. Chapman's $141,000 annual salary - and asserting itself on questions on issues as varied as local transportation and foreign affairs.

I'm assuming that Bill Gates does not personally oversee every single donation made by his foundation. But he is still responsible for this type of donation, and therefore here is a new reason (totally unrelated to the Microsoft & Windows atrocities) to despise his actions. Later, the article says 'Greg Shaw, a grant maker at the Gates Foundation, said the money was "exclusive to the Cascadia project" on regional transportation.' But even if they donate money towards a transportation project, funding one-third of the director's salary takes a broader focus.

"We give for religious purposes," said Thomas H. McCallie III, its executive director. "This is not about science, and Darwin wasn't about science. Darwin was about a metaphysical view of the world."
Huh? Darwin was about describing a naturalistic (i.e., non-supernatural) explanation for complexity in nature.

Intelligent design is a sort of successor idea to the simple creationism that was propounded in earlier decades.

"They have packaged their message much more cleverly than the creation science people have," said Eugenie C. Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, the leading defender of evolution. "They present themselves as being more mainstream. I prefer to think of that as creationism light."

That's I.D. it in a nutshell - "creationism light." Trying to call it science, and trying to suggest that there is serious scientific doubt about evolution is the first step in their dishonest attempt to overthrow rational thought and form a new theocracy.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 08:53 PM | Comments (0)

August 15, 2005

Personal Injury Litigation in Japan

DaddyTypes is visiting Japan, and makes an observation about the safety of child play areas ("How Do You Say "Lawsuit" In Japanese?"). He ends:

It might not be until you have a kid running around, always one misstep away from disaster, that you realize how much personal injury litigation--both the threat and the reality of it--defines the culture and the landscape in America. And how its absence defines most of the rest of the world.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 10:28 PM | Comments (0)

July 31, 2005

More On Pension Failings

I've already written a bit about United Airline's pension and its bankruptcy. There's an interesting article in Sunday's NYT ("
How Wall Street Wrecked United's Pension") with details about how the company changed the way it funds its pension plan, and how the money managers earned what appears to be more money than was paid in insurance premiums to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. The article points out how aggressive companies have become in funding pension plans (and mentions in passing that local governments fund their plans even more aggressively), and how their taking on extra risk is now coming back to bite them in the ass. And, unfortunately, it's going to be the taxpayers who wind up paying.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 09:30 PM | Comments (0)

Ben Stein on China

Ben Stein is an interesting figure - actor, economist, law professor, author and more. In today's NYT, he writes an editorial about the current obsession with China ("Don't Worry About China. Learn From It.")

Here is the attitude he writes about:

there is a lot of talk in the news media about how powerful China has become and how weak and pitiful the United States has become. There is talk of Chinese dominance over the world economy, and, from what I can gather, a general fear that soon we will be in peonage to the Chinese.
On the issue of the relative "richness" of America and China:
Consider the most optimistic C.I.A. data about China in 2004. It says China has a purchasing power parity G.D.P. of (very) approximately $8 trillion, compared with roughly $12 trillion for the United States. Again, this is for a nation with nearly five times our population. Even when using this most astoundingly optimistic estimate - I would almost say a preposterous estimate - China has a per capita G.D.P. of about $6,000, or about 15 percent of America's and well below that of any nation in Western Europe, or of Japan, Israel, Taiwan and many other countries.

In other words, the United States is vastly richer than China by any measure. This is not to boast, but it's also not to be afraid of imminent world-pauper status.

Will China be richer than the US in the foreseeable future?
In other words, it will be a long time before Chinese per capita G.D.P. matches ours. And for that to happen, it will take a previously unheard-of growth rate for an unheard-of length of time. This is a big series of ifs, especially for a country with a rapidly aging labor force and an inherent contradiction between dictatorship and free markets.

The rapidly aging work force is a critical point - China's one-child policy means that their population pyramid is very rapidly changing from a pyramid to a rectangle (i.e., there's a lot more old people compared to the number of young people than there used ot be).

Ben goes on to point out that there is nothing wrong, in and of itself, of another nation becoming prosperous:

But suppose that it does happen. Suppose that China becomes a larger economic power than the United States. Suppose, in our great-great-grandchildren's day, that the average Chinese citizen is about as rich as the average American. How would it hurt us? Why would we be worse off? If the Chinese were richer, they could buy more from us and employ more of our workers. They could buy more of our stocks. They could tour our beautiful nation more.

The fact that our neighbors are worse off does not make us richer, and the fact that they are better off does not make us poorer.

And finally, Ben makes the most important point: Rather than worry about others, we should focus on improving ourselves:

But another factor is even more important: personal responsibility. Americans who want to make sure they stay well off accomplish nothing by worrying about China. But we can certainly learn something from China. Individuals and nations become rich by investing in human capital - getting a good education, learning good work habits, saving and investing prudently and living healthy lives. Any young Americans who want to keep up with the Chinese can get a good education, work hard, save as much as possible, invest prudently - and they will be just fine now, in 25 years and in 50 years.

The moral here is simple: learning from our friends, the Chinese, means something. Fearing and envying them means nothing.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 01:54 PM | Comments (0)

July 26, 2005

Grading Scandal

Elizabeth pointed out an article in last Wednesday's NYT about a grading scandal at a high school in New York. One teacher (Philip Nobile) had written letters to the school principal about scoring problems on a state test. In particular, he accused an assistant principal (Theresa Capra) of changing scores of some failing students. In response, the administration suddenly changed their tune on his teaching ability from high praise to "unsatisfactory," presumably to give them a reason to fire him:

Well, things did not turn out quite that way. Late last month, the Education Department released a 30-page, single-spaced report by a special investigator chronicling the events and concluding that Ms. Capra tampered with the Regents exams in June 2002 and June 2003, and that Mr. George "engaged in a cover-up of Mr. Nobile's allegations." Those allegations, said the report by Louis N. Scarcella, an investigator for the city school system, "have been proven correct in every detail." ... Ms. Capra resigned last year, during the investigation. Mr. George was recently removed as principal. Mr. Nobile, meanwhile, received a satisfactory rating for his teaching this year, and has also earned tenure. Nobody should mistake this for a happy ending. The exposure of the Cobble Hill scandal qualifies more as a cautionary tale, because Mr. Nobile's experience offers disturbing proof of the pressures that administrators can use to isolate, marginalize and oust internal critics. Moreover, Mr. Nobile's personal crusade against cheating serves as a reminder that in the current system of Regents testing, there is little self-interest in rigorous grading, if rigor means revealing widespread failure.

"I call it 'affirmative cheating,' " Mr. Nobile said of the grading on test scores. "It turns teachers into liars and hypocrites. They feel a natural sympathy with students and want to help them. And there's a desire of administrators to pump up scores to look good. And most of the teachers - especially the young, untenured, easily intimidated - simply won't come forward to complain without protection."

One of my high school teacher-friends, after reading the article, said that it seemed very familiar, since that friend had seen similar behavior in a different state.

So yes, public education in this country is screwed up. State testing has a slew of problems, and the organization of schools themselves is not aimed at furthering the education of students, but rather on political manipulations of some teachers.

And people wonder why the US schools (esp. high schools) score behind so many other countries?

Posted by Tom Nugent at 09:07 AM | Comments (1)

July 25, 2005

Citizenship and the Military

David Kennedy wrote an editorial in today's New York Times titled "The Best Army We Can Buy." He argues that military service in the USA is divorced from citizenship, a situation which many figures through history have warned against.

Kennedy begins:

THE United States now has a mercenary army. To be sure, our soldiers are hired from within the citizenry, unlike the hated Hessians whom George III recruited to fight against the American Revolutionaries. But like those Hessians, today's volunteers sign up for some mighty dangerous work largely for wages and benefits - a compensation package that may not always be commensurate with the dangers in store, as current recruiting problems testify.

Kennedy then goes on to argue that the privilegese of citizenship have been linked to military service for many countries throughout history:
Since the time of the ancient Greeks through the American Revolutionary War and well into the 20th century, the obligation to bear arms and the privileges of citizenship have been intimately linked. It was for the sake of that link between service and a full place in society that the founders were so invested in militias and so worried about standing armies, which Samuel Adams warned were "always dangerous to the liberties of the people."

What about the size of the US military? Technological advances have made soldiers much more deadly these days. In comparison to the country's total involvement during World War 2 (when 25 times as many people, proportionate to population, were in the armed forces, and 10 times as much of the GDP was spent on war), he writes:
The implications are deeply unsettling: history's most potent military force can now be put into the field by a society that scarcely breaks a sweat when it does so. We can now wage war while putting at risk very few of our sons and daughters, none of whom is obliged to serve. Modern warfare lays no significant burdens on the larger body of citizens in whose name war is being waged.

This is not a healthy situation. It is, among other things, a standing invitation to the kind of military adventurism that the founders correctly feared was the greatest danger of standing armies - a danger made manifest in their day by the career of Napoleon Bonaparte, whom Jefferson described as having "transferred the destinies of the republic from the civil to the military arm."

America is certainly involved in many more foreign affairs, including wars, then we were before World War 1, for example. We do not (yet), though, have a leader like Napoleon who would lead the country into wars of border expansion. It could be argued that America has engaged in wars of aggrandizement.
Some will find it offensive to call today's armed forces a "mercenary army," but our troops are emphatically not the kind of citizen-soldiers that we fielded two generations ago - drawn from all ranks of society without respect to background or privilege or education, and mobilized on such a scale that civilian society's deep and durable consent to the resort to arms was absolutely necessary.

I am not a historian. I would be interested to see a comparison of the fortunes (and longevity) of nations which used citizen-soldiers versus those that turned to mercenaries (e.g., was the hiring of mercanaries a factor or symptom of the decline of the British Empire?).
Leaving questions of equity aside, it cannot be wise for a democracy to let such an important function grow so far removed from popular participation and accountability. It makes some supremely important things too easy - like dealing out death and destruction to others, and seeking military solutions on the assumption they will be swifter and more cheaply bought than what could be accomplished by the more vexatious business of diplomacy.

The life of a robust democratic society should be strenuous; it should make demands on its citizens when they are asked to engage with issues of life and death. The "revolution in military affairs" has made obsolete the kind of huge army that fought World War II, but a universal duty to service - perhaps in the form of a lottery, or of compulsory national service with military duty as one option among several - would at least ensure that the civilian and military sectors do not become dangerously separate spheres. War is too important to be left either to the generals or the politicians. It must be the people's business.

Before reading this last paragraph, I had already been wondering about forms of service other than in the military. To defend my family, I would bear arms against an aggressor. I could probably expand that concept to war, in terms of joining the military to fight off invaders. But I do not see any of the wars the US has fought in the last couple of decades as being clearly and directly linked to defense of the homeland, except perhaps for the invasion of Afghanistan (and I'm not yet 100% certain of that one). But it is because the military is being used for both homeland defense as well as non-critical wars that I would not want to be in the military.

I do, however, feel that requiring people to perform some form of service to the country would be healthy, and I would not object if I had been "drafted" into some form of social service, as long as it wasn't the military. Back during the Depression, projects such as the CCC helped improve national infrastructure. Rather than focusing on economic development (as was the case for the CCC), adding other branches of mandatory service such as a parks and highway cleaning team, and a facilities construction team, and a home visit support and care for the elderly team, could all serve to bring home the experience of citizenship to all adults.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 10:47 AM | Comments (2)

July 23, 2005

Stupid War on Drugs

Yes, the War on Drugs is stupid. It has cost lots and lots of money, and for what? To put hundreds of thousands (more?) of people, who mostly only hurt themselves, in jail. Where we have to pay more to keep them locked up. And you know what? Drugs are still out there, plentiful and cheaper than they were before the war started. Has there been any benefit to this war, besides law enforcement agencies getting to confiscate and sell property of the accused?

In today's New York Times, John Tierney highlights a new absurdity of the war on drugs: arresting doctors who prescribe OxyContin. Is OxyContin a scourge?

The D.E.A. announced that in two years, there had been 464 OxyContin-related deaths, but most of the victims had taken other drugs, too, so the cause of death was uncertain. Ronald Libby, a political scientist at the University of North Florida, notes that even that figure is a minuscule fraction (0.00008 percent) of the number of OxyContin prescriptions written, and that it's dwarfed by the more than 32,000 people who die in the same period from gastrointestinal bleeding from other painkillers, like aspirin and ibuprofen.

So aspirin and ibuprofen kill 60 times as many people as OxyContin (and the oxy deaths may be due to people having taken other drugs at the same time), yet the Oxy is the drug being pursued. And worse, this means they're taking doctors, already a resource that's becoming scarcer by the day, out of their offices and discouraging others from entering the field. Oh, and causing current doctors to not properly help patients suffering from physical pain:
But many doctors are now afraid to give painkillers to either kind of patient. The D.E.A. tried reassuring them by working with pain-management experts to produce a pamphlet setting out guidelines for doctors who want to avoid investigation. But last fall, the agency said it wasn't bound by the guidelines after all, and could investigate even when it had no reason to suspect a doctor.

At some point, will politicians and the public fix their rectal-cranial inversion problem and realize that the war on drugs is costing way too much money for no real benefit? Cancel it all, and try to do something more productive, like educate people about drugs.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 10:05 AM | Comments (0)

July 22, 2005

The Pension Burden

In his June 17 weekly letter, John Mauldin discusses the extreme trouble that public and private pension plans face. Despite the stock market advances of the last two years, the amount of underfunding of private pension plans has actually increased. What's going to happen to them when the stock market doesn't perform above average?

Mauldin provides a strong argument as to why the stock market can't possibly perform nearly as well as the pension plan managers are hoping/gambling on to save their hides. The amount of underfunding in 10 years will be hundreds of billions of dollars, maybe even a trillion dollars:

Second, let's just look at the roughly $800 billion in assets. Let's look at a typical 60% stock, 40% bond asset allocation mix. Let's generously assume you can make 5% annualized on your 40% bond portfolio allocation in the next ten years. That means to get your 8% (assuming a lower average target) you must get 10% on your stock portfolio. Now, about 2% of that can come from dividends. That means the rest must come from capital appreciation.

Hello, Dow 22,000 in 2015. Care to make that bet with me? But pension plan managers are doing precisely that.

Earnings over long periods (and ten years is a longer period) grow about GDP plus inflation. Let's generously assume 6% earnings growth. A 22,000 Dow (or a 2500 S&P 500) means we will have to get back to bubble valuations, or P/E ratios into the high 20s for the largest cap stocks. Why? Because if earnings grow at only 6% and the market grows at 10%, P/E multiples have to get much larger. It is Back to the Future.

This all means that either corporate profits are going to go down as the companies pay more money into their pension plans (and reduced corporate profits will affect stock prices, thereby making the problem worse), or a whole bunch of pension plans are going to go under, with the taxpayers footing the bill. As we saw when United Airlines defauled on its pension plans, the taxpayers have to cough up $10 billion to take care of the United Airlines pension debt, and there are over a thousand more plans which are underfunded. And unfortunately, private pension plant managers don't seem to be trying to address these problems very strongly - they're pushing the hard decisions further into the future, where they can only grow worse.

But that's only for the private pensions. Public pension (city, county, state) promises are, if anything, worse, with even more underfunding. In ten years, these public plans may be underfunded by over 1.5 to 2 trillion dollars. Imageine what kind of effect that kind of debt obligation will have on local taxes - they will have to skyrocket in order to pay the debts.
Courts have consistently upheld the obligations of municipalities to fund the promised retirement programs. Unlike private pensions which can be cut or simply abandoned, public pensions will have to meet their commitments. Only four states allow for public pension funds to be cut retroactively. That means taxes will have to be raised or services cut to fund increased contributions.

There is a local tax and/or service crunch coming to a city near you in the next decade. If French entrepreneurs are voting with their feet to leave France (which is a beautiful place and one of my favorite countries to visit), you think US tax-payers won't move to cities and counties a little farther out with lower taxes and fewer commitments? The attraction of lower tax communities with fewer pension commitments is going to rise. This will drive down property values in high cost cities. Cities will need to raise taxes collected and this will start tax-payer revolts.

Since I'm on a doom and gloom roll, here, let's bring in housing. From today's MarketWatch weekly news highlights:

Debate all you want about the existence of a housing bubble and the possibility of its bursting, but there's no debate when it comes to this: A greater percentage of homeowners are now in riskier loans --that is, loans with terms likely to result in a steep rise in monthly payments at some point down the road.

Combine a steeper monthly payment with an unexpected financial crisis, and the picture gets pretty ugly, with the homeowner unable to make monthly payments -- and eventually forced into foreclosure.

The article goes on to talk about ways that many lenders are trying to help borrowers to get back on track to making their payments.

Both of these items - underfunded pensions and homeowners on the edge of missing monthly payments - are signs of an economic system with some terrible burdens (there are more than just these two). Any single issue might not in and of itself cause a massive crisis, but the combination of issues could well snowball, with small problems in one causing small problems in another, then another, then come back to worsen the original problem. Since the country as a whole doesn't seem to be doing much to avoid the problems, we'll just have to wait and see what happens.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 07:50 PM | Comments (0)

July 18, 2005

School Is Boring?

A piece in Saturday's New York Times titled "Students Say High Schools Let Them Down" reports that a majority of high school students believe their courses are not demanding enough:

A large majority of high school students say their class work is not very difficult, and almost two-thirds say they would work harder if courses were more demanding or interesting, according to an online nationwide survey of teenagers conducted by the National Governors Association.

The survey, being released on Saturday by the association, also found that fewer than two-thirds believe that their school had done a good job challenging them academically or preparing them for college. About the same number of students said their senior year would be more meaningful if they could take courses related to the jobs they wanted or if some of their courses could be counted toward college credit.

It's encouraging - students seem to want to be challenged, not let off easy.
"A lot of business people and politicians have been saying that the high schools are not meeting the needs of kids," said Barbara Kapinus, a senior policy analyst for the National Education Association. "It's interesting that kids are saying it, too."
So, that leaves parents and teachers as two major influential groups that aren't mentioned in the story. I wonder how they feel about what students are learning?

Posted by Tom Nugent at 05:14 PM | Comments (0)

July 13, 2005

Teach to the Test: Part 4,782

(I don't know why Elizabeth doesn't blog these items, since I often do after she emails them to me....)

There's a nicely depressing article in today's NYT about public school teachers (in this case, English teachers) teaching to the state test. It begins by talking about a wonderful graduate-level course on writing that a high school teacher took, and how much she liked it:

And so, when Ms. Karnes returns to Allendale High School to teach English this fall, she will use the new writing techniques she learned and abandon the standard five-paragraph essay formula. Right?

"Oh, no," said Ms. Karnes. "There's no time to do creative writing and develop authentic voice. That would take weeks and weeks. There are three essays on the state test and we start prepping right at the start of the year. We have to teach to the state test" (the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, known as MEAP).

Want to feel even better? Read this part:
"MEAP is not what writing is about, but it's what testing is about," Ms. Karnes said. "And we know if we teach them the five-paragraph essay formula, they'll pass that test. There's a lot of pressure to do well on MEAP. It makes the district seem good, helps real estate values."

In Michigan, there is added pressure. If students pass the state tests, they receive $2,500 college scholarships, and in Ms. Karnes's middle-class district, families need that money. "I can't see myself fighting against MEAP," she said. "It would hurt my students too much. It's a dilemma. It may not be the best writing, but it gets them the money."

That's right. Forget educating students - school is all about getting the kids some money.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 08:09 PM | Comments (1)

July 04, 2005

Happy Fourth

Brian, quoting another blogger,, talks about our armed forces and how lucky we are to have them, how proud of them we should be, and what we should be thinking about on this Fourth of July. A snippet:

I would be highly remiss to call any of the contrusions I’m facing – most of which I cannot describe in any detail, alas; patience – as “problems.” They are, at worst, situations, and at best opportunities. A “problem” is taking fire when you’re in a helicopter heading off to rescue comrades.
I never have to worry about who’s at the door, or why they’ve come. My heart never leaps when the doorknocker falls; my stomach never flips when the phone rings.

I am a modern happy American. I have no idea.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 08:40 PM | Comments (0)

July 03, 2005

Child Custody Laws in New Zealand

DadTalk discusses a new law in New Zealand that gets rid of child "custody" in divorce cases, and instead focuses on keeping both parents as involved as possible with the child. Interesting reading.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 08:28 PM | Comments (0)

July 01, 2005

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

An Illinois man, understandably upset at having to swerve to avoid a 14-year old girl who'd run in front of his car, got out and grabbed her arm, presumably to give her an earful, but she then ran away. Now he's been convicted as a sex offender (go read the story, then come back).

As the father of a little girl, I'm all about nailing sex offenders to the wall. But this case has gone way past any sense of rationality:

While acknowledging it might be "unfair for [Barnaby] to suffer the stigmatization of being labeled a sex offender when his crime was not sexually motivated," the court said his actions are the type that are "often a precursor" to a child being abducted or molested.
Buying a gun is a precursor to murder, but we don't arrest everyone who likes to hunt, do we? Buying a telescope or a security camera is a precursor to stalking/invasion of privacy, but we don't arrest astronomers and shop owners, do we?

The accused's lawyer asked a good question about the implications of this case:

"If you see a 15-year-old beating up your 8-year-old and you grab that kid's hand and are found guilty of unlawful restraint, do you now have to register as a sex offender?"

I wish child molestation didn't exist. And I think anyone who commits such a heinous act should suffer horribly. But I also know that people are not omniscient. This country's justice system originally believed that it was worse to put an innocent man in jail than it was to let a guilty man go free. Apparently that's all changed - now it's guilty until proven innocent. Except for this guy, there's no way to prove he's innocent. As far as I know, under the sex offenders law, you're registered until you die.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 02:29 PM | Comments (1)

June 15, 2005

Do You Live in a Golden Jail?

Thanks to DadTalk for bringing to our attention the phrase "Golden Jail" which refers to the problem of people who own a home and have lots of equity, but they can't afford to move up to a bigger/nicer house. Maybe America won't quite follow the path of Japan. Rather than having real estate prices collapse, maybe we'll just ossify in place, being stuck in whatever house we currently own, with no one able to buy up and no one willing to sell for lower prices. Only time will tell.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 10:38 AM | Comments (1)

June 13, 2005

Voucher-Supported Schools In Trouble?

A story on NPR this morning covered some voucher-supported schools in Milwaukee that have shut down. I'm not going to talk much about private versus public schools here. I just wanted to raise one simple point.

The article gives the impression that it's so horrible that some voucher-supported schools are failing! That must mean the voucher program is bad, right?

Not quite. Public schools are not allowed to fail. Perhaps a purely commercial market mechanism for determining which schools survive and which fail is not the best mechanism for schools, but it can easily be argued that it's better than the current mechanism (which is based primarily on city and state budgets and the total number of students available in a school system).

Posted by Tom Nugent at 01:02 PM | Comments (3)

June 10, 2005

Recognizing Teachers

Thomas Friedman describes a great program for recognizing and rewarding teachers. But it's not a state or federal program - it's done at a small college as part of their commencement:

Every year, in addition to granting honorary degrees, Williams also honors four high school teachers. But not just any high school teachers. Williams asks the 500 or so members of its senior class to nominate the high school teachers who had a profound impact on their lives. Then each year a committee goes through the roughly 50 student nominations, does its own research with the high schools involved and chooses the four most inspiring teachers.

Each of the four teachers is given $2,000, plus a $1,000 donation to his or her high school. The winners and their families are then flown to Williams, located in the lush Berkshires, and honored as part of the graduation weekend.

It sounds like a great idea. I wonder if any other colleges do anything similar?

Posted by Tom Nugent at 02:54 PM | Comments (2)

June 07, 2005

Buy a Lemon

If life hands you lemons, then make lemonade. But what if you willfully allow yourself to be sold a lemon? That's what I'm wondering after reading the Seattle PI story about homebuyers waiving their right to an inspection in order to have their offer accepted. This is yet another sign of the desperation some people feel towards buying a house, and I don't see how buying in this manner can benefit anyone, except those who are very lucky.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 12:13 PM | Comments (0)

June 06, 2005

Update on the Milk Terrorists

CNN has an update on the story about terrorists attacking the nation's milk supply.

The federal government has asked the National Academy of Sciences not to publish a research paper that feds describe as a "road map for terrorists" on how to contaminate the nation's milk supply.
I"m wondering how detailed the paper actually is, compared to the editorial in the NYT that was published last week.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 10:42 PM | Comments (0)

May 31, 2005

More on Competition and Women

John Tierney has a follow up editorial to his previous article about women and competition. He clarifies that of course there are some women who are extremely competitive:

As Danica Patrick showed in the Indianapolis 500, some women can successfully compete with men at the highest level. But why aren't there more of them?

He presents the argument that part of the reason is the evolutionary drive for more reproductive rights, which is exemplified by what it takes to win at Scrabble tournaments:

For a quarter-century, women have outnumbered men at Scrabble clubs and tournaments in America, but a woman has won the national championship only once, and all the world champions have been men. Among the top-ranked 50 players, typically about 45 are men.

The top players, both male and female, point to a simple explanation for the disparity: more men are willing to do whatever it takes to reach the top. You need more than intelligence and a good vocabulary to become champion. You have to spend hours a day learning words like "khat," doing computerized drills and memorizing long lists of letter combinations, called alphagrams, that can form high-scoring seven-letter words.
But the evolutionary roots of [the drive] seem clear to anthropologists like Helen Fisher of Rutgers University.

"Evolution has selected for men with a taste for risking everything to get to the top of the hierarchy," she said, "because those males get more reproductive opportunities, not only among primates but also among human beings. Women don't get as big a reproductive payoff by reaching the top. They're just as competitive with themselves - they want to do a good job just as much as men do - but men want to be more competitive with others."

Tierney reiterates that our evolution-driven psychology may not always make sense in today's world:
Of course, just because men evolved with an impulse for competition doesn't mean that it still always makes sense, either for society or for the men themselves. Perhaps winning a Scrabble tournament with a $25,000 prize makes you a better marriage prospect. But I'm not sure how many women want to marry someone who spends his weekends memorizing alphagrams.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 08:55 AM | Comments (0)

May 28, 2005

War on the Decline?

John Tierney has an interesting editorial in the New York Times titled "Give Peace a Chance."

The new edition of "Peace and Conflict," a biennial global survey being published next week by the University of Maryland, shows that the number and intensity of wars and armed conflicts have fallen once again, continuing a steady 15-year decline that has halved the amount of organized violence around the world.

Who knows if the trend will continue (there are reasons to believe it may reverse sometime in the next 10-20 years), but if it does, that would speak volumes for how the growth of wealth, the spread of education and democracy can help reduce armed conflict between nations.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 01:22 PM | Comments (1)

May 24, 2005

Women and Competition

Back in grad school, I had a brief debate (partly in the paper's opinion page, and partly in email) with an ultra-far-left radical female student about some serious political issues, most prominently women's issues (she, for example, believed that the Salem witch hunts were partly to blame for the lack of women in science today). I simply had to stop talking to her after she insulted Elizabeth's intelligence (the woman implied that my wife, one of the smartest women I know, must be dumb because she didn't agree with the wacko's views).

In any case, I am very interested to hear about the research mentioned in John Tierney's NYT editorial, "What Women Want." Some researchers studied competition in men and women, and found a difference in choices they made:

the gender gap wasn't due mainly to women's insecurities about their abilities. It was due to different appetites for competition.

Tierney then goes on to argue that the corporate ladder is set up as a winner-take-all competition and thus is the main reason there are fewer women than men at the top of large companies. He also says that such a system is, in today's world, harmful to the corporate bottom line.
"The companies run by women are much more likely to survive," he said. "The typical guy who starts a company is a competitive, charismatic leader - he's always the firm's top salesman - but if he leaves he takes his loyal followers with him and the company goes downhill. Women C.E.O.'s know how to hire good salespeople and create a healthy culture within the company. Plus they don't spend 20 percent of their time in strip clubs."

So perhaps the differences in the workplace aren't due so much (anymore) to discrimination as it is due to different lifestyle preferences:
For two decades, academics crusading for equality in the workplace have been puzzled by surveys showing that women are at least as satisfied with their jobs and their pay as men are. This is known as "the paradox of the contented female worker."

But maybe it's not such a paradox after all. Maybe women, like the ones who shunned the experimental tournament, know they could make more money in some jobs but also know they wouldn't enjoy competing for it as much as their male rivals. They realize, better than men, that in life there's a lot more at stake than money.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 09:18 AM | Comments (5)

May 17, 2005

Fossil Fallacy

In his March 2005 Scientific American article "The Fossil Fallacy," Michael Shermer makes yet another cogent argument about evolution, summarized by this quote from Herbent Spencer:

Those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution, as not adequately supported by facts, seem quite to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all.

Shermer argues that there is no single fact that "proves" evolution. Instead it is the overwhelming amount of evidence from diverse fields which points inexorably to evolution.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 01:06 PM | Comments (1)

May 11, 2005

Human Progress

First seen in a post by Brian Dunbar, I enjoyed this article titled "The Productive vs. The Unproductive." It ends with this line:

The next time we hear a talker attacking a doer, we just might ask: What have you done to further human progress?

Posted by Tom Nugent at 08:59 PM | Comments (0)

United Defaults

And so it begins: United is defaulting on its pension. Only the strongest optimists can believe that this action won't be followed by many other corporations (starting with other airlines) seeking bankruptcy to get out from under their crushing pension obligations. And once all those retirees get significantly reduced incomes and medical benefits, guess what the impact will be? Not pretty.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 09:25 AM | Comments (1)

May 01, 2005

The Greediest Generation

Nicholas Kristof begins his editorial in today's New York Times thus:

As a baby boomer myself, I can be blunt: We boomers won't be remembered as the "Greatest Generation." Rather, we'll be scorned as the "Greediest Generation."
And he goes on from there.

Here are a few quotes from his article:

I fear that we'll be remembered mostly for grabbing resources for ourselves, in such a way that the big losers will be America's children.
One measure of how children have tumbled as a priority in America is that in 1960 we ranked 12th in infant mortality among nations in the world, while now 40 nations have infant mortality rates better than ours or equal to it. We've also lost ground in child vaccinations: the United States now ranks 84th in the world for measles immunizations and 89th for polio.
With boomers about to retire, I'm afraid that national priorities will be focused even more powerfully on the elderly rather than the young - because it's the elderly who wield political clout.
We boomers are also preying on children in a more insidious way: We're running up their debts, both by creating new entitlement programs and by running budget deficits today. Laurence Kotlikoff, an economist and fiscal expert who with Scott Burns wrote the excellent and scary book "The Coming Generational Storm," calls this "fiscal child abuse."
The solution is not to force the elderly to get by on cat food again. But we boomers need to resist the narcissistic impulse to ladle out more resources for ourselves. Our top domestic priorities should be to ensure that all children get health care and to get our fiscal house in order.

To be fair, it isn't just the Boomer generation that has gotten us into the current situation. But they're the ones in power now, and it will primarily be up to them to decide if we continue on the current ruinous path or if we start trying to fix things up, especially the finances of this country. The debt burden that is being left to future generations is criminal.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 10:41 PM | Comments (0)

April 26, 2005

3% Follow Health Guidelines

According to a Reuters story on CNN, only 3% of Americans follow health guidelines to keep their weight down, eat healthy foods (lots of fruits & veggies), exercise, and not smoke. Larger percentages of people do some of the things, but only 3% do all four.

I'm wondering what fraction of the population follow none of the guidelines. How many cigarette-smoking, overweight, junk-food-eating couch potatoes are there?

Posted by Tom Nugent at 02:28 PM | Comments (0)

April 22, 2005

Who's More Emotional?

In a story on MarketWatch titled "Women make fewer investing mistakes" (registration may be required to read the article), the author cites new research that says that men are more emotional about investing than women, which leads the men to make more mistakes. I have no qualms about the fact that women, on average, do better than men when it comes to investing. But this article made me think more about the entire "women are more emotional than men" thing.

Maybe men and women are equally "emotional," but they just experience different emotions to different extents. On average, men are not as focused on relationships as women are. And on average, women are not as focused on competition as men are. (You can substitute in whatever areas you think are more appropriate than "relationships" and "competition" - I'm just pulling the first stereotype off the top of my head.) But I would bet that each gender feels, on average, equally strongly about those areas they're most focused on.

Just because one group communicates about their feelings more than another group does not mean that they actually have more feelings. So stop saying that women are more emotional than men, OK? Maybe women talk about their feelings more than men do, because those types of discussions are more relevant to their focus on relationships. Didja ever think of that?

Posted by Tom Nugent at 06:01 PM | Comments (0)

Krugman's Points on Health Care Costs

Although Paul Krugman's politics seem to inform his economics (rather than the other way around, as you would expect; that's why I don't usually pay much attention to him), he does raise some interesting points about the cost of health care:

According to the World Health Organization, in the United States administrative expenses eat up about 15 percent of the money paid in premiums to private health insurance companies, but only 4 percent of the budgets of public insurance programs
He goes on to argue that the lower administrative cost is a reason why we should have universal, government-sponsored health care. I don't think his conclusion follows from the facts he brings up, and there are certainly enough problems with government provided health care in other countries to argue against such a system. But he makes a point about competition:
Isn't competition supposed to make the private sector more efficient than the public sector? Well, as the World Health Organization put it in a discussion of Western Europe, private insurers generally don't compete by delivering care at lower cost. Instead, they "compete on the basis of risk selection" - that is, by turning away people who are likely to have high medical bills and by refusing or delaying any payment they can.
Is there some way to change the system dynamics so that private companies compete on quality of care at lower cost, rather than on gaming the system by choosing the lowest risk people? There are rules to the game, and the companies are just playing to those rules (i.e., they're "gaming" the system). Change the rules, and you can change the behavior. I'll need to think for a while on ways that might work.
Posted by Tom Nugent at 10:44 AM | Comments (0)

April 20, 2005

What Privacy?

The Zero Boss pointed out a new website that lets you easily find out all sorts of info about people with just their name and state.

We've all known for years now that too much of our "private" information is, in fact, not so private. But to have it so easily found is, of course, disturbing. It does highlight the need for some regulation of the credit reporting industries, for example (since they'll sell your info to almost anyone).

Posted by Tom Nugent at 04:06 PM | Comments (0)

April 19, 2005

Housing Riots?!

DadTalk quoted an article today from the Los Angeles Times that brings home how bad the housing market (bubble?) is in some places:

Last February, the sirens howled in Hollywood as the LAPD rushed reinforcements to the 5600 block of La Mirada Avenue. While a police captain barked orders through a bullhorn, an angry crowd of 3,000 people shouted back expletives. A passerby might have mistaken the confrontation for a movie shoot, or perhaps the beginning of the next L.A. riot.

In fact, as LAPD Capt. Michael Downing later told the media: “You had some very desperate people who had a mob mentality. It was as if people were trying to get the last piece of bread.”

The bread-riot allusion was apt, although the crowd was in fact clamoring for the last crumbs of affordable housing in a city where rents and mortgages have been soaring. At stake were 56 unfinished apartments being built by a nonprofit agency. The developers had expected a turnout of, at most, several hundred. When thousands of desperate applicants showed up instead, the scene quickly turned ugly, and the police intervened.

That's right - people were rioting in Los Angeles over housing. Maybe we are in a bubble after all...

Posted by Tom Nugent at 03:25 PM | Comments (0)

April 15, 2005

Bankruptcy Law and the Heart of America

I saw a talk years ago by Lester Thurow at MIT about innovation, the global economy, and differences between Europe, Japan, and the US. Thurow's predictions have often been wrong, but one of his arguments about history makes complete sense.

Thurow argued that one thing America does right compared to Europe and Japan is that we allow people to clean the slate and start fresh with their lives. This allows us to bury dead companies and start new ones, ones that will create new jobs and help grow GDP.

Allowing individuals to declare bankruptcy may have allowed some miscreants to simply get away with their own poor planning. But it also allowed entrepreneurs to try and start a business with their own money, and if they failed it let them clear the books and start over. Japan has both cultural and legal differences that greatly restrain the same behavior. And as a result, there are what Thurow called "undead companies" that go around sucking the capital, and hence life, out of viable companies. These undead companies simply won't go away, and are causing a net harm to their economy.

By going along with the predatory credit card industry and passing the new, more restrictive bankruptcy law, Congress has put another heavy weight on the American economy. Along with overspending, reducing funding for basic research, and trying to shred the Constitution, they really are doing quite the job of ruining this country.

UPDATE: I just saw a more cogent article than mine, by Dadtalk, on the new bankruptcy laws.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 09:02 AM | Comments (0)

Amen to Tax Pain

An Op-Ed in today's New York Times titled "Hurts So Good" makes the argument that paid tax preparers and computer software is reducing scrutiny of government spending and allowing the increase of society's tax burden.

Once upon a time, Americans realized that something beneficial came from the pain of paying taxes. In the 1920's, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon made this case repeatedly. "Nothing," he told Congress, "brings home to a man the feeling that he personally has an interest in seeing that government revenues are not squandered, but intelligently expended, as the fact that he contributes individually a direct tax, no matter how small, to his government."
In 1955, the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, T. Coleman Andrews, went so far as to decree that the agency should stop helping people fill out their tax forms. His reasoning? Americans should be educated, not coddled. It did a citizen good to come face to face with his tax bill.
When it comes to taxes, pain can be a good thing. It keeps people vigilant, encouraging them to keep a wary eye on government. That, in turn, exposes problems and encourages reform. Making taxes easy removes an impetus for Americans to force the government to do something about the tax code.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 08:38 AM | Comments (0)

April 11, 2005

Retirement Age Changes

I am, as usual, behind in my reading. I just finished two of John Mauldin's weekly newsletters from February where he discusses demographic shifts and the problem with social security.

The first article points out that Social Security was designed in the middle of the Great Depression, providing full benefits at the age of 65 during a time when average life expectancy was only 59! And yet the system hasn't been updated. It's only been expanded, from an emergency safety net, to what many people consider to be their entire retirement plan.

The second article makes a strong argument for the retirement age going up from around 65 now to 69 by 2015 and to 73 by 2050. Otherwise there simply won't be enough people in the work force to do all the jobs that need to be done.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 05:33 PM | Comments (0)

April 10, 2005

Army of the Not Quite Dead

Fred Hapgood sends out topic suggestions for the weekly meetings of the Nanotech Study Group to that group's mailing list. Recently, Fred's suggested topic was "Is there a nanotech perspective on the Schiavo case?." With Fred's kind permission, I'm quoting his topic here in its entirety, since it pertains to my interest in demographic shifts and their impact on society.

The pro-feeding tube commentators often sounded as if the issue was avoiding a 'slippery slope' with the insidious property of erasing the difference between life and death. Specifically, slip down it too far and the ethics of life and death would disappear into those of plugging and unplugging machines. The strategy for avoiding this outcome is, as the President himself has said often, "to err on the side of life".

For many of us, a determination to err in that direction hits a reciprocal slippery slope, in which the ethics of plugging and plugging machines disappear into the logic of life and death. In that light, the Schiavo affair looks like the first of many cases that will be thrown up by the culture over the next few decades, cases that might embrace the rights of NPCs (non-player characters) in computer games, through AI and brain simulations, to domestic robots, machines engineered specifically to provoke feelings of individuality and personhood in their owners.

But all these pale beneath the prospect that the desire to 'err on the side of life' will end by warehousing millions and millions of people, Matrix-style, in life-extension cubicles. Today we can more or less define the end of life as that point at which you need machines to keep you going. That helpful character is surely going to go away: a decade or two from now most of us will have lots of machines running in our body from the age of 65 on, or possibly from much younger than that. This new infrastructure might keep the core physiological systems ticking over for years and years.

That will raise questions. For instance, the incidence of dementia goes up by an order of magnitude with each successive ten years of life. Current lifespans are such that one person in four dies in a demented state. If the long list of drugs and devices now in prospect deliver us just five more years of life expectancy, almost everyone kept alive thereby will be in a condition of radically reduced cognitive function. (Of course eventually some way will be found for fixing dementia, too, but it is probably a lot harder to reverse or prevent age-related pruning of the dendritic bush than muscular deterioration.)

Yet a demented person is still be alive by almost anyone's measure, let alone the measure of those who want to 'err on the side of life'. They won't be able to recognize their children but they'll be able to enjoy the sun and bob along to Jumping Jack Flash. They wouldn't be quite alive or quite dead. All we can say for sure is that there will be quite a few of them.

So, beyond the question of what society will need to do to handle an aging society, we may also figure out what to do when lifespans increase faster than our ability to maintain mental faculties. What if medical support requirements grow to be even more substantial than they are today, due to the need to support an army of people suffering from dementia?

Posted by Tom Nugent at 10:18 PM | Comments (0)

April 06, 2005

What Religion Should Be

The Zero Boss had a very well-written article the other day about religion. He quotes from another blogger, who was writing about an author:

He challenges us to allow religion to be more than a mirror that reflects back our own smug certainties.
Read the article to see his thoughts on how any and all religions can easily to distorted into such a mirror.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 11:15 AM | Comments (0)

March 28, 2005

Science & Evolution Quotes

I came across these two quotes the other day, and thought I would share them, given my recent posts (1, 2) about evolution.
Stephen Jay Gould:

In science, 'fact' can only mean 'confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.' I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.

Ashley Montague:

Science has proof without any certainty. Creationists have certainty without any proof.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 03:29 PM | Comments (1)

March 23, 2005

Demographic Shifts and You

Demographics. You can't beat it, and you've already joined it. Demographic changes are promising to bring major changes to practically every country in the world over the next 10, 25, 50+ years, and those changes don't all look good.

Yes, part of the change is brought about by an increased life expectancy around the world, due both to a decrease in infant mortality as well as a genuine extension of the average age of death (the life expectancy calculation includes death at all ages, so kids who die at 1 year old affect the average the same as people who live to 105 do). But part of the demographic change is brought about by a decrease in the birth rate.

Stanley Kurtz has written an excellent overview of the demographics issue during his review of four books on the topic. These books look at population decline, not growth, because the population growth rate has been falling, and is now expected to go below replacement level worldwide in less than a century. The last set of U.N. numbers I saw (admittedly a couple of years ago) project population to peak in the 8-10 billion range.

I think I'm going to have a lot to say over time about demographic changes and their implications for politics, global power balance, the economy & finance, culture, and more. But to start things off, here are a few quotes from the article:

Taken together, these four books suggest that we are moving toward a period of substantial social change whose tantalizing ideological implications run the gamut from heightened cultural radicalism to the emergence of a new, more conservative cultural era.
Not a single industrialized nation today has a fertility rate of 2.1, and most are well below replacement level.
Remarkably, the sharp rise in American fertility rates at the height of the baby boom - 3.8 children per woman - was substantially above Third World fertility rates today. From East Asia to the Middle East to Mexico, countries once fabled for their high fertility rates are now falling swiftly toward or below replacement levels.
On the contrary, America's massive unfunded entitlement programs have the potential to spark a serious social and economic crisis in the not too distant future. And the welfare state in the rest of the developed world is on even shakier economic ground.
By 2050, the combined cost of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the national debt will rise to 47 percent of gross domestic product - more than double the level of expected federal revenues at the time. Without reform, all federal spending would eventually go to seniors. Obviously, the system will correct before we reach that point. But how?
Even without a "meltdown," long-term prospects for the economy and the welfare state in rapidly aging societies seem uncertain at best.... Hard landing or not, and the political power of the elderly notwithstanding, there seems a very real chance that America's entitlement programs will someday be substantially scaled back. But what sort of struggle between the old and the young will emerge in the meantime, and how will a massive and relatively impoverished older generation cope with the change?
Then, when talking about a potential economic meltdown caused by the demographic changes, he says:
What might such a "meltdown" look like? Peterson, Kotlikoff, and Burns spin out essentially the same scenario. The danger is that investors might at some point decide that the United States will never rein in its deficit. Once investors see America's deficits as out of control, they will assume their dollar-based securities will be eroded by inflation, higher interest rates, and a serious decline in the stock market. Should a loss of confidence cause leading investors to pull their money out of U.S. securities, it could set off a run on the dollar. That would create the very inflation, interest rate increases, and market decline that investors feared in the first place. Such has already happened in Argentina, which Kotlikoff and Burns use as a paradigm in which loss of investor confidence brought down the economy in a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy. The danger is that the United States and the rest of the industrialized world may already have entered the sort of debt trap common among Third World nations. A rapidly aging Japan is even more vulnerable than America, say Kotlikoff and Burns. They add that, should investors looking at teetering modern welfare states and the long-term demographic crisis bring down any of the advanced economies, the contagion could spread to others.

Here's a brief summary of some of the issues we face:
  • Services for the elderly: The amount of money saved doesn't matter, there simply won't be enough people to do the work, so people will have to retire later (see below for a link with more details on this issue). One potential way around this issue is the development of smarter, smaller and more capable robots. In 20 or 50 years, it will probably be common for many people, especially the elderly, to have a robot "nurse" to help out around the house.

  • Taxes: We're already in deep, deep debt both on an individual as well as federal level. Federal promises for the future can not be met. Entitlements are going to grow, while the fraction of the population working will shrink, so taxes are going to have to go up, and that still won't help. Benefits will be cut at some point.

  • Immigration is one way for any individual nation to deal with part of the problem, but anti-immigration sentiment is on the rise in the US.

  • People are not replacing themselves. Why the disincentive to pro-create? Tax incentives and government programs don't seem to help encourage baby production in other countries, but making it financially easier to have kids can't hurt. It may soon be in senior citizens' best interests to contribute more of their time to child-rearing, so that people of child-bearing age will be willing to have kids. It sounds cold, but without children, there won't be anyone to take care of people as they age.

  • Probably more issues I'm forgetting for now.

John Mauldin has written a number of his investing newsletters focusing on demographic changes. Take a look at his November 15, 2002 letter where he argues that people will have to work longer (he predicts that Boomers will, on average, work until they're 72 or 73) - it's not a matter of how much money they've saved. There simply won't be enough people of the current working age to handle all the work that needs to be done (increasingly, that work will involve taking care of the elderly). He provides a great, simple model for understanding why this is.

So, what are your thoughts on retirement? Do you expect to work until you're 60? 70? How much are you counting on Social Security?

Posted by Tom Nugent at 10:56 AM | Comments (4)

March 20, 2005

The Anti-Science Fundamentalists and IMAX

Huh. Barely have I made my first post about evolution when I have to do it again. Today, the New York Times has a story titled "A New Screen Test for Imax: It's the Bible vs. the Volcano." IMAX films that mention evolution, the Big Bang or "the geology of the earth" are being refused at some (not all, admittedly) IMAX theatres, mostly in the South (yeah, who knew geology could be so controversial?). Let's jump into some choice quotes:

"Volcanoes," released in 2003 and sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and Rutgers University, has been turned down at about a dozen science centers, mostly in the South, said Dr. Richard Lutz, the Rutgers oceanographer who was chief scientist for the film. He said theater officials rejected the film because of its brief references to evolution, in particular to the possibility that life on Earth originated at the undersea vents.
Oh no! They made a brief reference to evolution! Let's can entire movie! Or maybe they should go stick their heads deeper into the sand.
Carol Murray, director of marketing for the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, said the museum decided not to offer the movie after showing it to a sample audience, a practice often followed by managers of Imax theaters. Ms. Murray said 137 people participated in the survey, and while some thought it was well done, "some people said it was blasphemous."

In their written comments, she explained, they made statements like "I really hate it when the theory of evolution is presented as fact," or "I don't agree with their presentation of human existence."

To be fair, if your target market doesn't want to buy a product, it may not make sense to offer that product. But I wonder, have they done actual demographic studies to see what part of their community would actually reject seeing the movie altogether? Or do they take the strong opinions of a few people to decide on what's presented to the majority?

And to the person who hates it when the "theory" of evolution is presented as fact: Get over it! Evolution is about as close as a fact as it's possible to get in science. We also have a theory that virtual particles are constantly created and destroyed on a sub-atomic scale. These particles are not directly observable, but experiments confirm predictions from the theory (such as the pressure between two plates in a vacuum). There are still some questions (e.g., is it possible to extract energy from the sea of particles?), but that doesn't mean that virtual particles are not as close to fact as it's possible to get. Most importantly, there are no plausible counter-vailing theories. Wikipedia has a much more cogent and concise article on theory than what I just wrote. :-) In particular, read the section "Characteristics of a Theory."

One last quote:

"We have definitely a lot more creation public than evolution public," said Lisa Buzzelli, who directs the Charleston Imax Theater in South Carolina, a commercial theater next to the Charleston Aquarium. Her theater had not ruled out ever showing "Volcanoes," Ms. Buzzelli said, "but being in the Bible Belt, the movie does have a lot to do with evolution, and we weigh that carefully."

"More creation public than evolution public." I think that statement says it all. Religion seems to define most aspects of society in the Bible Belt. Non-Christians need not apply.

And if you only follow one link from this post, make it the Wikipedia article on theory one. It

Posted by Tom Nugent at 09:06 AM | Comments (1)

March 14, 2005

The Battle Over Evolution

The whole "evolution is a theory, not a fact" debate pisses me off, because it is a prime example of willful ignorance. The issue comes up again in an article in today's Washington Post. And it turns out that one of the big proponents of the so-called Intelligent Design "theory" (it's a belief system, not a true disprovable scientific theory) is based here in Seattle. Oh, joy.

As far as I can tell, the only opponents to evolutionary theory are the religious nuts. There's no one who doesn't have a political/religious axe to grind who doubts evolution. And Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory, so casting it as an "alternative" to evolution is misleading at best.

People are free to believe whatever they want in the context of religion. But to force those beliefs into a science context (in this case, in public school science classes) is not only a breakdown of church/state separation, but a disservice to the future of this country.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 08:57 AM | Comments (1)

March 13, 2005

"Earning" Retirement Benefits

In a story on savings in the US in the New York Times (free registration required), there's a quote about the Social Security system:

More likely, the government would have to borrow trillions of dollars over the next several decades to pay full benefits to retirees who earned them under today's system.
Except that the statement is wrong on at least one thing - retirees did not "earn" many of the benefits they're receiving.

The federal government has steadily increased the scope of Social Security over the past few decades so that it not only would be almost unrecognizable to those who created it in the first place, but also to the point where benefits keep growing and growing. Social Security is, at heart, only little removed from a Ponzi scheme (it is, given demographic trends, a form of pyramid scheme). Disability benefits? Not there originally. Survivor benefits? Same thing. Medicare itself is an expansion of Social Security. The prescription drug program that came into effect a couple of years ago is yet another expansion of the costs of the Social Security/Medicare system. So current retirees have not earned everything they're going to be paid, and the same is true for soon-to-be-retirees (unless you think your Social Security/Medicare taxes have suddenly increased with the passage of the prescription drug benefit program?).

I'm working on a post about demographics and the future of retirement that will go into more depth on the economics of the retirement system. Hopefully it will be up this week.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 06:13 PM | Comments (2)

February 10, 2005

Government Forcing Scientists to Lie?

Today DadTalk brought up the problem of government researchers being pressured to change their reports for political reasons. Here's his final point:

When it comes to research, we don’t pay taxes to be lied to; we rely on research to be pure and clean so we can make intelligent decisions. If politicians don’t create a level playing field for researchers to reveal honest results, this nation will sink into a mire of lies that will be difficult to escape.
I'll admit I'm way too distracted to research the topic more, but I agree that it's a disturbing trend (and it's been happening since before the Bush administration). And the "mire of lies" problem is real - trust of the government is already low, and large sections of the public already seem to have a distrust of science in general. Being lied to will only exacerbate these problems.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 09:26 PM | Comments (1)

February 07, 2005

Can We Kick The Scoundrels Out?

There is a problem when the turnover in the United States House of Representatives is lower than it was in the Soviet Politburo.
Said by NATHANIEL PERSILY, an election law expert at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. You can see the whole story, which discusses efforts at reforming the way districts are drawn, at
Posted by Tom Nugent at 09:27 AM | Comments (0)

November 18, 2004

Math Is Easy

According to this story on CNN:

The national test of student math skills is filled with easy questions, raising doubts about recent gains in achievement tests, a study contends.

On the eighth-grade version of the test, almost 40 percent of the questions address skills taught in first or second grade, according to the report by Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at The Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank...[more]

What more can I say? Kids are ill-prepared for adulthood. There are certainly decent schools out there, but if all of the tests and school goals are set by the state, then we're doomed.

Well, OK, not "doomed" as in "about to be struck by a giant meteor." But the sorry state of education (on average) in this country isn't getting any better, and hasn't been great to start with...

Posted by Tom Nugent at 07:27 PM | Comments (1)

November 07, 2004

A more accurate map of 2004 election results

I like these two blog entries (one and two) discussing the 2004 election results. They show that the country isn't as geographically divided as one is led to believe by the major media and their red/blue maps. These maps are colored by county, with the percentage of Republican/Democrat defining the color. The country turns out to be mostly purple, meaning we're pretty evenly divided across the entire nation.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 10:00 PM | Comments (0)

November 01, 2004

The Election

Thank all that's good that the US Presidential election is tomorrow, because I don't know how much more of the campaigning people can stand.

I have two points to make in this semi-rambling post. The first is that my vote does not really count. Why? Because I live in Massachusetts, John Kerry's home state. He'll probably carry Massachusetts with at least 65% of the vote, and perhaps much more. No matter who I want to vote for, the Massachusetts outcome is very predictable and hence my vote won't matter much. I'd like to vote Libertarian, to show some support for (at least parts of) that party's platform, but this year's candidate is a goof.

My second point is this: the thing that surprises me is the fervor that so many people are putting behind the presidential candidates. The candidates are politicians! Do you really think the world is going to be that much different (and presumably better) if your candidate wins?

I saw one person (on TV?) the other day claim that they were going to vote for Bush because they liked his platform of smaller government. Yet federal spending has grown more under Bush than any other president since Lyndon Johnson (see, for example, this 2003 Cato Institute article or just do a Google search), and he's gotten the hands of the federal government involved in regulating more parts of life (such as his education platform), not less. So the guy who's voting for Bush is misinformed at best.

But do any of John Kerry's supporters believe that he's going to change the world? I've seen pro-Kerry ads that talk about "equal pay" and making the Iraq situation all better, et cetera. Saying "I wouldn't have gotten us into Iraq in the first place" is not the same thing as presenting any sort of plan for improving the situation as it stands now. And there's still going to be an almost evenly-divided Congress, which means it'll be hard to pass any legislation. John Kerry's not going to be able to do much of anything, except maybe reduce the frustration abroad at America. Or maybe he won't even be able to do that.

So, I don't believe that either candidate will do much good or be able to make huge changes. What frustrates me is the vitriolic rhetoric and the general hype of people who think this election marks the potential end of the world. If you live in a swing state, then yes it's important for you to vote - maybe you'll affect the outcome. But will the winner of this election have a dramatic effect on the future, such as your living conditions when you retire, or whether we'll win against the terrorists? I believe the answer is "no."

OK, enough rambling. It's time for me to go see the real hope for change in our future - today's children. I need to go pick up Dorothy from daycare.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 05:09 PM | Comments (2)

October 02, 2004

Child-Free Extremists

Catawumpus posted a good rant about extremists in the "child-free" movement. I think she summarizes my feelings very well: If you don't want to have children, that's completely fine and acceptable. But to spew hatred and anger to those who have kids, and to the kids themselves? Not only is it ugly, but it's stupid: these kids will be the ones taking care of you when you're old and retired.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 02:49 PM | Comments (0)

July 30, 2004

Libertarian Problems

I'm not a member of any political party, but the party whose official views (which, admittedly, are often different from how politicians in those parties actually vote) come closest to my views is the Libertarian Party. I certainly don't agree with some of their positions, but I have more problems with the Democrats and Republicans. Unfortunately, it seems that the Libertarian Party can't nominate anyone respectable for president. Of course, our electoral system is not the optimal one for choosing the people's most preferred candidate (and no, I'm not suggesting a popular vote is best either), so that causes the candidates we get to be sub-optimal. But improving the voting system is extremely unlikely to happen, so we're stuck, it would seem.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 05:15 PM | Comments (1)

March 02, 2004

Designing a Democracy

There's an interesting article on elections from the MIT News Office. Go read it. The research highlighted compares elections to the baseball World Series, and notes that elections could be improved by taking a lesson from poker.

After the 2000 election fiasco, some elements of the popular press were complaining about the Electoral College, saying it should be eliminated. But democracy is a system, and the types of outcomes that are possible are governed by the rules of the system. The point made in the news-bit that "raw voting" republics (as opposed to those with a system like the Electoral College in the US) have not lasted for long highlights the fact that the design of the system is crucial to its stability and success.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 11:11 PM | Comments (1)